Better Bagpipe Blowing: Take It to the Limit

You should always be playing at the edge of your abilities if you are committed to improvement. That is a given in just about anything you do. There are many who will say that the outer limit is as far as you can go, that you will go no further, while the more rational and self-aware among us know that that limit can be moved with will and focus. It is treading that edge of your abilities that will force you to learn from the mistakes you are sure to make as you struggle to improve.

To do that though, you must be aware of where that edge lays. It is a matter of constant testing and personal “pushing” to find it.

Nowhere is this more evident than if you were to attempt to increase the general average strength of bagpipe chanter reed you play or if you were to improve your bagpipe blowing in general.

Several past posts here at have discussed the issues of better bagpipe blowing at length. “4 Simple Checks for Better Bagpipe Blowing” and “4 More Checks for Better Bagpipe Blowing” list some handy first checks to insure you are getting the most out of your efforts to blow a bagpipe. It starts with the instrument but once you’ve got an efficient instrument, comfortable stance, and the physical mechanics all set to go…then what? 

Hopefully, at this point, if you’ve also followed the advice at “Chanter Reeds: Finding the Sweet Spot” and found your ideal chanter reed playing strength, then things are just swell. But, as mentioned, to be a better piper means you must always be pushing your limits.

I’ve recently embarked on a mission and made it my goal to improve my bagpipe blowing and move up my strength tolerances. To do this means to be blowing at the edge of my comfort zone, where I can still make a consistent sound out of the instrument. If we were to map my, or anyone’s, blowing with a handy diagram, it would look like this

Bagpipe Blowing Map

The goal is to be playing and blowing at a point on the diagram outside your ideal effort where the outer part of your strength overlaps with the “hard” end of things—in the high-end blowing effort zone.

Point at which your blowing "workout" takes place.

The goal is to move that center area, the ideal blowing effort zone, to the left, thereby shifting that whole diagram amidst an encompassing abstract idea of “total bagpipe blowing potential” and moving my upper limit in the process.


Ultimate goal of the bagpipe blowing workout.

To do this, I’ve realized I must also be playing a chanter reed that is at that leftmost point of my ideal reed strength. So I’ve set up a “workout reed” to accomplish this. That is, a deliberately chosen reed that is at the edge of what I am able to play—and perhaps just a bit past it. (Translation: A reed that just might make me soil myself if I play it too long.) It is the equivalent of adding plates to your curl bar to the point where you can get only a single repetition. In weight training, you will keep pushing that limit to eventually achieve two, maybe three reps with that weight. You keep pushing until you can do a whole set of five or ten repetitions with relative ease. Then you do it again with more weight. To build increased muscle strength and bulk, there is no other way.

Blowing the bagpipe is no different and your strength tolerance is not fixed. It moves as you work, as long as you work deliberately with the focussed intent of taking your strength to the limit of where it can go. It can be a slow process, for sure. Believe me, it was some time before I was able to produce anything resembling “music” with this reed. But the effort is really about making small steps to produce a steady, consistent sound while playing more and more intricate material. I fully expect this “workout reed” to break in and settle at a point that is above what I would typically call my “ideal reed.” By that time, my hope is that my workout will have built up the necessary strength to then call this new reed, this new sweet spot, my comfortable ideal. At that point, who knows, I might select a new reed that will take me to the limit…one more time.

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