Tutor Review: The Highland Bagpipe Tutor Book – National Piping Centre

Published originally in 2001 and issued along with a v2.0 CD from 2012, this book is the flagship instructional book of the National Piping Centre in Glasgow.  The copy I used for this review was reprinted in 2016 and I assume is the most recent available.

At 116 pages spiral-bound, this is a physically big glossy-page book that breaks its material into thirty lessons ranging from intro to the practice chanter to the “Shakey [sic] Fingers” hornpipe Retailing at $US55 and GBP 27, it is also one of the more expensive tutor books available.

From a design and usability perspective the NPC Tutor is somewhat wanting from my adult perspective.  While I assume that its heavy glossy pages, colorful layout and the allocation of multiple pages to non-value added cartoon illustrations was meant to make it appealing to 10-year-olds, the compromise is that both the text and music are too small for many middle-aged eyes.  While it has a larger physical page format that any of the College of Piping tutor books, the font and music are much smaller.

The NPC Tutor assumes no previous knowledge and takes the student through a reasonably well-thought out progression of music theory, chanter technique and practice tunes. at least in the first part of the book.  By the end , the student should be playing at the advanced beginner level.  There are also random pages spread through talking about various transition to the bagpipes topics as well.

A couple of strengths of the book are worth noting.  New embellishments are only introduced when there is a new tune in which to apply them.  By Lesson 7, the student is playing two simple tunes, The Day Thou Gavest and Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly, albeit without gracenotes.  This is far preferable to learning all the embellishments before one gets to anything that sounds like a tune.  Additionally, the tutor makes good use of drills and etudes throughout the text and reproduces all of them together in an appendix.  Another appendix has a number of clapping rhythm drills that would useful for people learning to read music.

In writing any tutor book, there is an obvious tension between over-explaining every little thing and glossing over key ideas and concepts.  The NPC Tutor probably errs on the side of over-explanation giving a full page and half on how to do a strike and then explaining how one’s fingers move for every individual one.  By comparison, Seamus McNeil gives about four sentences and 2 1/2 inches to get the same point across.

In reviewing tutor books it is also interesting to find the things that should be in there but are not.  NPC Chapter 1 is a great example of forgetting to tell the new student several of the most important items.  NPC says nothing about holding the chanter but only suggests “…the sole of the chanter can be rested on a table”.  Nothing about relaxed hands and fingers, and avoiding the “chanter death grip”.  Seamus has it right in 1953 when he said “The chanter should be held firmly but not tightly.  Fingers should be moved with precision but should never be in a state of tension.  … the sole of the chanter should be rested on one knee so that the weight of the chanter is not born by the hands.”

Similarly the NPT Tutor admonishes the student “not to cause a popping or “crossing noise”: but neglects to explain what they are.  Two chapters are dedicated to gracenotes.  The typical beginner fault is to make little micro gracenotes but at no point does the NPT book say how to physically play them correctly with a big lift.

By 2001, I’m pretty sure that the metronome has also be invented but the NPT Tutor is silent (or rather clickless) on how to integrate that into one’s learning.

Up until Chapter 19, the NPT Tutor is fairly good by my estimation – quite detailed explanations and good tune progression.  As noted below the audio and video is quite lacking but at this stage, not necessarily mortal.

Unfortunately, that is where any accolades must cease.  The last third of the book is a trainwreck of items that are taught out of order or not given sufficient space for development.  It’s almost as if the project committee (since no one claims individual authorship or accountability) got tired and just winged the last part.

We go from Teribus in Chapter 18 straight to Corkhill in Chapter 19.  GDE gracenotes are probably one of the more difficult techniques for a beginning piper but that technique is stuck on the back of Chapter 10.  The regular birl is introduced in Chapter 21 and if that is not hard enough, it tackles the G gracenote birl for good measure and assigns Barren Rocks chockfull of G birls.  Grips are broken up into three lessons and taorluaths are taught before all of the grip lessons are over.

By Chapter 28, the NPT Tutor is on to strathspeys, and drills regular two-note tachums.  It then goes right into doubling tachums and darodos.  With virtually no explanation of the strathspey genre, the book assigns not one but three tunes.  The first strathspey, Lady MacKenzie of Gairloch notes that the 4-part version is often played in competition begging the question, why is the first strathspey assigned in a beginner’s book a competition tune?

Chapter 29 is two reels: Miss Girdle and Sandy Duff.  Chapter 30 teaches the shake and assigns Shakey Fingers, a tune by Roddy MacLeod who serendipitously was also Principal of the National Piping Centre at the time.

The CD is probably the weakest part of this tutor and seems to indicate a complete lack of thinking from the authors.  When the disk installs, it generates a 24-page e-book that reproduces Appendices A, B, and C of the Tutor as well as installing a copy of Piobmaster Pro Player.  Appendix A contains the rhythm drills that a beginning student would use to learn the durations of notes and so on.  Strangely, no video or audio is provided, so I assume the learner can just figure that out on their own.

Appendix B has all of the technique drills and there is a video of each the drill on the practice chanter aw well as a computer-generated audio files that plays a PiobMaster Pro file.  Probably OK, but why does all of the video effort go into this area?

Appendix C has the practice tunes, but no video is provided, only a Piobmaster Pro file.  One would think, it would be logical to make videos of the practice tunes, talk about the difficult movements and play them accurately and slowly on the practice chanter.  A great example is the lesson on strathspeys.  One would think that the Scotland premium piping institution would have at least provided a video or actual chanter audio for the strathspeys with some commentary about holding the dots, not overcutting the cuts, and playing the triplets with a hold, and so on.  What the student gets is a computer audio file that robotically plays the tune without any regard to musicality and no commentary.

My conclusion is the NPT Tutor is an expensive, slickly-presented but ultimately amateur effort. It is the least well-thought-out and most poorly executed of the common bagpipe tutor books available.  It cannot be used as a stand-alone book for those without an instructor. In my opinion any student of any age would be well advised to avoid it.  The videos and audios are poor and are not an integral part of the instruction.  NOT RECOMMENDED

Up Next: John Cairn’s Bagpipe Solutions, the most comprehensive of the tutors.

So Many Tutor Books!

A few years ago, when we did the North American Piping survey, one of the questions we asked was, “if you had to restart your learning process, what would you do differently?” Overwhelmingly, respondents said that they would have started when they were younger.  Unfortunately, we can’t put the water back under the bridge on that one.  The two next two most popular answers focused on either having better individual instruction or being more focused in approach and having used a good tutor book as a guide.  This blog post focuses on the second part of that answer.

As a beginning piper, or even as an intermediate looking to apply a bit of ordnung one’s learning, the number of tutor books available is a bit daunting.  While none of them promise a taller, slimmer you with crisper grips, it becomes fairly obvious that there are some significant differences between the offerings.

Over the next few months, I will review most of the major tutor books out there and try to provide some guidance on the pro’s and con’s of each.  I’ll be using the following criteria:

  • Basic music theory.  How extensive is the coverage of music theory?  Is the book oriented towards beginning musicians or does it tend to assume that the bagpipe is a second instrument and give theory a quick once-over?
  • Technique.  How is the teaching of the basic movements covered and are there a good set of drills and etudes to help cement good technique?
  • Explanations.  Are they clear and executable for the student without the help of an instructor?
  • Tune Progression.  Does the book get into playing simple tunes early or is technique heavily “front-loaded”?  Is the progression of the level of difficulty of tunes appropriate for the student?  (College of Piping Tutor 1, I am thinking about the you with 79th’s Farewell!)
  • Videos and Sound Files.  Are they an integral part of the instruction or a “tacked on” repetition of the book?  Is the presenter’s voice and accent understandable by non-Scots?
  • Format and Price.  Does the tutor represent good value for money?

If you have any other criteria you think are important, shoot me a message in the comments.

At this point, I plan to review the following offerings:

  • Tutor Book 1 from the National Piping Centre;
  • College of Piping Tutor 1 – the iconic Green Book;
  • John Cairns Piping Solutions series;
  • Rob Wallace Tutor 1 and Tutor 2;
  • Sandy Jones Tutor 1.

Second Batch of Christmas Tunes

It’s Thanksgiving week in the US and and a great time for some more Christmas tunes.  Here are six more for the repertoire:

  • Angels We Have Heard on High
  • Away in a Manger
  • Deck the Halls
  • Ding Dong Merrily on High
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; and
  • I Saw Three Ships.

Two new pdfs are posted along with the previous two pages of Christmas tunes at the link:  Links and Downloads

Happy practicing!

Take Charge of Your Own Learning

As an adult wanting to play the bagpipes, you have no time to waste.  For me starting at 52, it’s a race for musical achievement against increasing decrepitude!

The key is to take charge of your own bagpipe journey.  And like any journey, you need to have an ultimate destination and a plan for getting there.  It also helps to plan a number of short term-waypoints and have some sort of way of measuring your progress.   All of this is good fodder for future posts, but I want to emphasize that you own your journey.

For most of our formal education, we are content to go along with our teachers at the pace of the rest of class trusting that we will be delivered into some state of more advanced enlightenment by the end of term.

As an adult learner, you have to have your own plan and leverage the instructional and other resources to make a doable and efficient plan for you.

“Your mileage may vary” but here’s my story of how I got going and avoided languishing in the “chanter twilight zone”.

In a previous post, I described how I had bought the chanter and a book and then managed to track down George Balderose in Pittsburgh for lessons.  I was looking for a structured way of going from zero to relatively competent with the minimum of wasted time and effort.

Between us, we came up with the idea of using the Glasgow-based College of Piping Tutor 1 – the “green book” as the backbone of the program and threw in a few additional items to supplement. We set the objectives of getting to the end of the green book. learning a first piobaireach, and playing in the a Senior Novice solo piping contest by the time my consulting project was scheduled to end in late spring.

My first- year timeline went as follows:

  • 1 July – got the chanter and first instruction book
  • Mid-to-late August – first lessons with George working on basic embellishments
  • Labor Day – onto the Green Book and learning Scots Wha’ Hae and Brown Haired Maiden
  • September and October – some additional tunes like Corriechoilie and Teribus in addition to the first few in the Green Book
  • October 15 – got pipes from Hendersons
  • Mid-November – played Scots Wha’ Hae (complete with heavy D-throws) on the pipes at a recital of the Pittsburgh Folk Music Society.  Played slowly but accurately and did not die of fright.
  • Throughout the winter we worked through the Green Book and started on my first competition 2/4 march – Prince Charles Welcome to Lochaber.
  • Late winter – marching up and down George’s patio playing Prince Charles.  Started on first piobaireachd – Struan Robertson’s Salute.
  • March/April – entered and played in my first solo competition in the Novice class in Chicago judged by Bob Worrall.  Got through the tune, rivers of flop sweat running down my legs, and somewhat wobbly playing.  3rd of 3 and Bob was very kind and encouraging.
  • May – finished up the Green Book.  The consulting project ended and I went back to Chicago.

A lot of progress in nine or ten months and no wasted effort.  For me this was a great start in piping that I attribute it to:

  • first class teaching,
  • a structured program with set objectives, and
  • lots of time to practice in the Marriott Residence Inn in Monroeville PA (where the front desk ladies were incredibly encouraging and supportive).

Please comment how you got started.

Time to Get Cracking on Christmas Tunes!

To much of the non-piping public all bagpipe tunes sound the same.   But not if you work up some Christmas tunes!   You will be the hit of the office party and family get together, even if they make you play in the back yard!

Go to the Links page where I have posted two pages of easy Christmas tunes.  These are all simple arrangements and one does not need to be too fussy with exactly what embellishment goes where.  Good practicing!

It’s Never Too Late!

Back is 2013, I did a North American Bagpiping Survey through the College of Piping in order to get some basic insights into who was playing the bagpipes in North America..  We received 493 responses from about 2000 surveys sent out and it was possible to send the survey to a friend who was not on our original list.  I assume it is relatively representative sample of the overall piping community although it did skew a bit more male than I would have expected, 84.3% men to 15.0% women,  (I assume women pipers had better things to do than to answer silly online questionnaires!).

One of the interesting results came to the question, “at what age did you start to learn the pipes””

At What Aged Did You Learn Chart.90% of survey respondents had been born in North America. (so lets assume minimal data contamination from pre-pubescent Scottish learners).

I am told that the results we have in North America are very different from what is assumed to be the case in the UK.  Most people in North America learn the pipes as mature adults.  Looking at the chart above, there is a clearly a clearly a big spike for the 0- to 15 year olds, a dip in the 16-25 year bucket where the levels of schoolwork and kilt embarrassment would be high, but look at that “middle aged hump” with tail going all the way out to one brave 76+ year learner.

Thus the beer tent theory holds when we look at real data.  There are two distinct groups: the youth and the rest of us in the Middle Aged Onset bucket.

The next post will examine another survey question:  if you had the chance to start again to learn the pipes, would take a different approach?”

Until next time.

Bagpiping and the Learning Curve

My sense is that more than 50% of beginning chanter players never graduate to the pipes and that our instrument has a very big “fallout rate” in the first 12-18 months.   (As for many things in piping, this theory is advanced with no underlying data,  but I am going with it and will defend it in any Beer Tent at any time).

Having learned to play several instruments in the past, I think that most music learners experience the a process with very rapid learning at the beginning that slows down over time as shown in the curve below:


(Ignore the scale since I snagged two images off the internet)  My point is that in a fairly short period of time a relatively diligent piano or guitar student can be playing tunes competently, pleasing herself or himself, and gaining a real sense of progress and increasing mastery.  Within two or three years,  it is not hard to imagine that one could be a reasonable “journeyman” amateur musician.

Bagpipes are a different kettle of fish.

Our learning curve is much longer and “S” shaped with a very slow and elongated beginning and the plateau happening a five to ten years out.  I’ve been on pipes exactly seven years and have been pretty diligent and figure I am still in the steep progress part of the chart.   The first bit on the chanter is obviously hard, but the upward slope no real walk in the park either.


The nature of the instrument demands a period in the beginning that is almost exclusively focused on technique – gracenotes, embellishments, elimination of crossing noises, etc.   So a slow beginning is probably inevitable.

The downside is that this period is hard, boring,  and given the angry bee sound of most beginner’s chanters does not sound like music, let alone bagpipe music.

In a world of instant gratification, how does one stay motivated to keep working (and not listen to those little voices saying things like “you’ll never get it”, “this is too hard”, or “wow, that’s a great looking accordion”).

There are some interesting implications here:

  • What in our instructional approach to piping could provide greater motivation in the initial phase;
  • What could we do with students of all ages, particular those learning in a band setting to keep them pushing forward.

I’m very interested in what your thoughts are on the matter, so please like, comment and share.

A final thought.

One could reasonably argue that the bagpipes actually have two simultaneous learning curves that are offset from each other.  There is a chanter curve and a bagpipe curve.  It would stand to reason that one has to be further along the chanter curve than the bagpipe curve and that improved performance on the bagpipe curve is dependent on the chanter curve.

Until next time.






Kids, Don’t Try This at Home!

When is something called a tutor book not really a book you could conceivably learn from.  When it’s Logan’s Tutor of course!

When I was about 12 years of age, my Scots grannie gave me the chanter above.  It was made by Boosey and Hawkes, the well known British instrument maker and music publisher.  Somewhere along the way I also acquired a Logan’s Tutor and set about trying to teach myself the chanter.

At the time I was playing the clarinet and I can remember working out the chanter fingerings and trying to play them with straight fingers.

I picked up a new Logan’s Tutor a couple of years ago as sentimental souvenir of my first failed attempt to learn the pipes.

In most programs of musical instruction, a student’s first tunes are simple ones like, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star progressing towards Ode to Joy.  But in piping ….


How in earth is Lord Lovat’s Lament appropriate as tune #1?  What on earth was Captain John MacLellan MBE thinking?  Weirdly enough, Bruce’s Address (or Scots Wha Hae), a good beginner tune is listed at the 28th tune in the book.   Most folks would have abandoned the mission by about page IX in the preface.  I know I did.

In fairness, one could use Logan but only if you had a teacher.  Logan gives me some appreciation what an earth-shattering pedagogical breakthrough Seumas MacNeil’s 1952 College of Piping Tutor 1 (the green book) must have been.






Practicing Outdoors in Public

Playing in the park


I live in a coop apartment in Chicago on the North side.  While my wife is very supportive of my bizarre middle-aged hobbies, she does insist on an “in-the-house piping” moratorium.

While the weather is still above 40F, I try to get outside to give the pipes a blow as much as I can.  Luckily, I live across the street from Lincoln Park and can easily combine a bit of practice with a dog walk.

In seven years of practicing, I’ve only had one person ask me to stop.  I’m always surprised by the people that hear the music and walk blocks to to find me.   More often than not, I am about to pack up by the time they show up and I’ll play some extra tunes.  When I was younger, no one ever said to me, “Oh please, keep playing, we can’t get enough of your clarinet music”.

One of the great things about piping is about how much happiness it brings to people (and how tolerant the folks in my neighborhood are).  More than one has remarked “you are so much better than you used to be!”  I accept the compliment.

Where do other folks practice?  I understand that cemeteries are always a good bet.    What is your experience? Let us discuss.

When the Battle’s Over


At 06:00 – the exact time the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 – around 1,000 pipers around the world will fill the air with a rendition of Pipe William Robb’s evergreen retreat march, When the Battle’s O’er played at locations of their choice. Most pipers have chosen to play at churches, cathedrals, war graves and war memorials but some global locations include mountains (including Ayres Rock, Australia), the Menin Gate, Westminster Abbey and Arlington Cemetery.

Your blog-master is playing at Soldier Field in Chicago at 0600 local time

It’s not too late to sign up.  go to http://www.collegeofpiping.org/join-battles-oer/

Please encourage your piping friends to register for this once-in-a-lifetime tribute.

The First Interview/Lesson

Stumped by the D-throw, I got on the googler and started looking for bagpiping instruction in Pittsburgh.  There were not very many promising leads but I found George Balderose of the Balmoral School of Pipes and Drums (https://balmoralschoolofpiping.org) and I set up a interview/lesson with him at his house.

For the uninitiated, the D throw is the first of the embellishments a beginning piper will learn.  The bagpipe is a legato instrument and the chanter (the part that plays the melody) is separated from your mouth by the bag.  Unlike a trumpet or a saxophone, the player cannot separate notes of the same tone by tonguing , one has to play a gracenote or an embellishment.d-throw  In the case of the D-throw shown above, the idea is to play the triplet thingy on the beat quick as one can and then play the main D note.

At the beginning of the lesson, George asked me three questions:

  • Do you play any other instruments?  To which I was able to answer that my mother had forced me the play the piano as a small child, that I had been a fairly indifferent adolescent clarinet player, and that I had also played the guitar in my teens and 20’s.  One could assume from that, an ability to read music and at least a middle-aged Dad sense of rhythm.
  • Anyone in your family play the bagpipes?  Having done some family history, I knew that my great uncle was a piper and that he had served in the First War in the Royal Scots Fusiliers.  I also knew that my great-grandfather (his brother) had been a musician of some sort in the 5th Cameronians but did not know what he played.  Triangle perhaps?

At this George went to a giant set of bookcases and pulled down a small slim blue book and said “see if you can look them them up in this”.  He gave me a book titled: The Pipes of War: A Record of the Achievements of Pipers of Scottish and Overseas Regiments during the War of 1914-18.  Issued in 1920, in addition to a number of accounts of pipers in action, there were lists of all of the Scottish-styled regiments of the British Empire with names of pipers known to have served in them.  I found the uncle James McPhee in the RSF but did not see his brother Donald Stuart McPhee in the Cameronians.   Potentially some residual piping DNA existd in my makeup.

  • Are you interested in trying to be a really good player or happy to be be good enough the fool the general public?   I answered that I wanted to be the “best I could be!” (or some other enthusiastic cliche)

One that evidence, George took me on a pupil.

And we started to learn D-throws and the tune Scot’s Wha Hae.

Pipes of War can be downloaded at https://www.electricscotland.com/history/scotreg/pipesofwar21.htm

Also please like or comment or pass this to your pals!

Getting Started

I had always wanted to play the bagpipes since I can remember.  I was born and brought up in St. Thomas, a small city in southwestern Ontario.   One of earliest memories  was going downtown with my family to see the annual Santa Clause Parade.  Not sure whether it was more exciting to see Santa and the reindeer or the pipe band that preceded Santa down the street.  In 1961 or ’62, the band was sponsored by the Royal Canadian Legion and became one of the best bands in Canada.

After 52 years and a couple of false starts, I started my piping journey.

In the summer of 2007, I was on a consulting assignment in Pittsburgh, PA working for the Siemens Large Drives Division and staying at the Marriott Residence Inn in Monroeville four nights per week.  Once can only watch so much CNN – this was the perfect opportunity to learn a new musical instrument.

I started by hunting around on the internet and ran across Oliver Seeler’s The Universe of Bagpipes website (http://www.hotpipes.com).  This site has lots of info on how to get started and I highly recommend it (after of course, reading this blog).

As per Oliver’s recommendation on his site, I ordered a Dunbar long delrin practice chanter and I went with the first book of the John Cairns’ Bagpipe Solutions series.  That July 4th weekend, I was down at the Jersey Shore.  When the others went to the beach to roast in the sun, I kept my pink British skin indoors and learned all the notes.

Bagpipe Solutions by John Cairns

For those of you who have used the Bagpipe Solutions series, they are clearly written and great for those who think they can at least get started without a tutor.   By the end of the weekend, things were going swimmingly.  I had banged the notes and fingerings into my head and could basically sight read the drills and do what I thought were great G, D, and E gracenotes.

And then I turned the page, and it was the D throw.


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