When I started playing pipes as a youngster, it was more or less assumed that bagpipe tuning was the mystic art of the Pipe Major, so it wasn’t taught as a fundamental skill for pipers. For many pipers today, this is still the case. And I find this very unfortunate – for two reasons:
- Tuning, especially the all-important drone tuning, is not actually all that difficult when you know what to listen for. At many workshops I run, I have all attendees, including drummers, tune a drone, just to see that it is not a mystic art.
- When you play your pipes solo, such as when practising at home, you can hear the steadiness or otherwise of your blowing, when your drones are in tune. Once you can tune your drones reasonably well, you can learn to blow more steadily – and then you can tune your drones more accurately – so you can learn to blow even more steadily – etc…
Now – whether to tune with a drone tuner or by ear. I have a very simple belief here:
- If you’re tuning a single set of pipes, do the drones by ear
- If you’re tuning more than one set, tune the first (“master”) set by ear, take a reading with an electronic tuner and then use the tuner to tune the other sets. This approach will produce a more accurately matched set of drones across a group and will generally be quicker than trying to do them all by ear. It also mostly gets around the issue of people blowing at one pressure while being tuned and then a different pressure during performance.
When you tune your own drones and your pipes start singing, it is such a wonderful experience.