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Ann Sessoms, who plays both the Scottish and Northumberland small Pipes, provides some important hints and instructions for more effective use of the bellows. [See also “Interview”

COMMON STOCK Dec 1991. Ed]

When I attended the Workshop Day at St Anne’s Community Centre in May 1994 it seemed to me that many participants were making inefficient use of their bags and bellows. My suggestion of an article describing bellows technique met with enthusiasm, so I will set out my approach to winding bellows-blown pipes in the hope that it will be of use to players.

The basic fault lies in trying to control the air flow solely with the bellows, whereas the hard work should be done by the (usually) left arm pressing on the bag. Highland pipes can be played as ‘bladder pipes’ - the bag is kept as full as possible with frequent additions of air, and the elasticity of the sheepskin bag maintains a constant pressure. However, not only is the bag of bellows-blown pipes made of nonelastic calfskin, but constant pressure cannot be maintained with bellows alone. There is an unavoidable drop in pressure, also volume and pitch, every time the bellows are opened. Also, the tendency is to play at too high a pressure and wear the reeds out quickly.


Therefore the first step in learning to play bellows-blown pipes is learning how to apply pressure to the bag. The bag serves as a reservoir of air, and the sole purpose of the bellows is to replenish this reservoir. The hard work of pushing air through the reeds is done by the arm pressing on the bag, and the bag must be squeezed in such a way that it is free to expand when air is blown into it by the bellows and can be emptied in a smooth and controlled manner. The end result, when done well, is a varying volume of air being kept at a constant pressure.

It is best to learn how to fill and empty the bag before trying to coordinate the bellows and the bag, and to close off the drones and play only the chanter at first. Strap the bellows under the right arm (If you play left-handed pipes, reverse left and right), place the bag under your left arm, and attach the blowpipe to the bellows. Open the bellows fully and close them fully as many times (usually three to five) as needed to fill the bag to about 90% of its capacity, and squeeze the inflated bag with the elbow. The main effort will come from the muscles of the upper arm and will be directed straight into the body. Stand or sit upright with the shoulder relaxed. Imagine that you are touching your elbows behind your back and you should get the correct movement. This movement is the same as that used on the bellows, only more forceful and over a shorter distance.

If you are having trouble or are unsure if you are squeezing correctly, place a small ball (75- 100 mm diameter) between your upper arm and the side of your body. Hold it there while moving your forearm about, and you will get the feel of how you should press on the bag. The instinct of many people new to bagpipes is to hug the bag to the chest with the forearm.

This technique is appropriate with some bag shapes, but not with the standard small-pipe or Lowland-pipe bag which is tucked under the arm, as it makes the shoulder and elbow rigid and unable to control the bag.

Keep the sound going as long as you can. You will empty the bag to a greater extent than you would during normal playing, but it is important to practise maintaining a steady pressure on the bag before you try to coordinate bag and bellows. When you can no longer maintain the sound, stop; then refill the bag with the bellows, using full strokes of the bellows. Do not attempt to refill the bag while the pipes are sounding.

The sound will start strong and then start to fade away. The first goal is a smooth sound, without rapid changes of pitch. A jerky sound indicates that your arm is tense. Try the exercise with the ball again until you can hold the ball in place while the forearm is relaxed and moving about. Once you have achieved a smooth sound, try to keep the pitch constant. When you can keep the pitch constant, open the bass drone and tune it to the chanter, then try again for a steady sound. The pipes will use more air and you will not be able to keep them going for as long. Repeat the process with two, then three drones.


Determining the correct playing pressure is a problem for many beginners, especially if they do not have the guidance of an experienced player. Small pipes and Lowland pipes are played at a far lower pressure than Highland pipes, and playing them at a high pressure wears the reeds out very quickly, and if extreme will stop the reed from working. Reeds are made, and set, to play at a range of pressures, so a good rule of thumb is to find the pressure where you get the best sound from your reed. If this pressure does not suit you, you could try adjusting the chanter reed with the bridle, but reeds are delicate, easily damaged, expensive to replace, and usually best left alone.

To increase the playing pressure of a reed, squeeze the bridle at the sides, thus widening the opening at the tip of the reed. This will also lower the pitch of the reed and make the tone stronger and coarser. To lower the playing pressure, squeeze the bridle on the flat surface of the reed, narrowing the opening at the tip. This also raises the pitch of the reed and weakens the tone. A small change will make a large difference, so go gently.


Once you are adept at emptying the bag, try filling the bag with the bellows while the chanter is sounding. Again, shut off the drones until you are reasonably proficient. Remember that the purpose of the bellows is to replenish the air in the bag. If the bag is not fuller at the end of the bellows stroke than it was at the beginning, something is amiss.

Some players empty the bellows quickly and wait some time before using the bellows again; other players feed the air into the bag slowly and there is only a short delay before the next use of the bellows. It is best for novices to feed the air into the bag reasonably quickly in order that there is a significant gap after each use of the bellows. This ensures that the flow of air is controlled by the left arm on the bag rather than by the bellows. As a starting point, fill the bag fully, empty it for a slow count of 6, open the bellows fully on 7, empty them fully on 8,9,10, then relax the right arm so that the bellows are partly open. The time taken for the various actions will be adjusted according to the size and efficiency of your bag and bellows, and as you learn to judge when you have used a bellows-full of air.

Initially just try to keep the sound continuous. If the sound stops when you open the        bellows, either you are not pressing on the bag effectively or you relax your left arm when you open the bellows. The left arm must be pushed out by the expanding bag, not lifted   actively. When you are first learning, there is an inevitable increase in the volume and pitch of the sound as you fill the bag. This is caused by more air going into the bag than there is room for; either air has been added too soon, or you have not allowed the bag to expand. Be aware of this initial surge but do not try to eliminate it immediately; it will lessen as you become more proficient. Even if you are doing everything correctly, it takes time to learn to balance the rate of addition of air with the rate of expansion of the bag. However, it does eventually become automatic.

The most difficult thing for people learning to play bellows-blown pipes is keeping the shoulder relaxed while they press on the bag. The bag must be allowed to push the arm out as air is added. If you keep your arm rigid and do not allow the bag to expand, the bellows will push the air straight out through the chanter, and the reservoir of air in the bag will not be topped up. If you find yourself using the bellows twice in rapid succession, this is likely the reason. Another possibility is that you are waiting too long to use the bellows. However, most beginners tend to use the bellows too frequently rather than not frequently enough.

If you have this problem, you could try actively relaxing your arm as the air goes in, since it is essential to refill the bag. This is only an interim measure. Even though you are relaxing the pressure, try to keep the arm in contact with the bag so that you can get the feel of its being pushed out as the bag expands. It might also be useful to return to the exercise with the ball in order to make sure that you can press on the bag with the elbow while moving the forearm about. You should soon be able to squeeze the bag and still allow it to expand.

When you are reasonably proficient at maintaining a continuous, steady sound, open the bass drone and tune it to the key note of the chanter. The pipes will now take more air, and the bellows will need to be used more frequently to compensate. When you feel comfortable playing with one drone, add the second and then the third. The next step is to finger the chanter while using the bellows. Again, shut off the drones at first. Play scales, then fingering exercises of increasing complexity and, finally, tunes.

When you can play tunes accurately, with expression, at a steady pressure, you will have mastered the pipes.