Many people have said that the practice chanter and the pipes are different instruments; just because you are a “legend” on your practice chanter doesn’t mean you will be brilliant with a set of pipes on your shoulder. So, what’s behind this, why does it matter and what can be done about it?

I recently heard a recording of a world class solo piper (and Pipe Major) playing the Masons Apron on a video clip, and decided to expand my two part version into four parts, adding some of what he had played.  Pretty classy stuff; lots of echo beats and nimble fingerwork.  And, boy, watch out for all the false fingering potential.  I’ve mastered those two additional parts *ON THE PRACTICE CHANTER*. But I know they won’t yet work on pipes; I have work to do on pipes before they are OK.

So, what are the things that effect this?   I see two things:

  1. The environment is different; there are more things to think about when playing pipes.
  2. There is a physical difference in the size, feel, vibrance, shape and sharpness of the holes etc. of the pipe chanter compared to a practice chanter.


There are several things we can do to deal with these differences.  Here are some of my suggestions:

  • First and foremost, recognise that there is a difference and that there are things to do about it. Otherwise, we will continue to be ONLY practice chanter legends.


  • Stop using sheet music when practising on practice chanter, once you know the tunes. Use sheet music only as an occasional double check.  I regularly (the majority of the time) see practice chanter practice done with sheet music out.The issue here is simple – you don’t play on pipes with sheet music out. So, get used to doing without sheet music while on practice chanter – one difference just went away.  I’d make a prediction and say the rate of note errors when bands form up and play pipes would drop if this were done. If it’s difficult to do without sheet music when on practice chanter, why would it be any easier on pipes!?!?


  • While I’m of two minds about how important it is, I do see value in having a practice chanter with hole spacing the same as a pipe chanter. A practice chanter will never have exactly the same feel as a pipe chanter, but you can still remove one difference.I took up piping again after a 25 year break about 10 years ago.  Before my first solo contest after restarting, I remember walking around the house quite a bit during the few days before the contest with a pipe chanter in my hands, fingers on the correct holes, trying to maximise my comfort with that feel.  I do believe it helped.


  • Make sure your instrument is well maintained. If you are constantly aware of the potential for things going wrong, your mind will not be totally focused on the presentation of the music.  If you are struggling to keep the air flow up, because you are leaking air around loose joints, the same applies.  If you’re drones are spaced too far apart and it is uncomfortable to have them on your shoulders, same deal.  If your bag keeps slipping downwards because you haven’t got around to fitting the nonslip patches your band uses, same again.  Even if the silver (or nickel or whatever) is tarnished due to lack of cleaning, and you are feeling a little guilty or embarrassed about it, your playing will be less confident.The opposite is also true; if you are happy with your instrument and PROUD of it, you will play more confidently.


  • Make sure you play on pipes with the instrument in tune. I am aware there are bands that do not bother tuning pipes at band practice.  Once again, this is practising in an environment different to how you want to deliver performances. Furthermore, you cannot practice playing *together* if you actually can’t hear the togetherness (or separation) over the ruckus of the drones and unmatched chanters.


  • Practice starts and finishes by yourself at home. Another thing not to think (or worry) about when on pipes with the band.


  • Once you are familiar with each tune, practise it on practice chanter AT THE SAME SPEED you will play it on pipes. Playing it slowly, maybe with sheet music out, does not prepare you for playing it on pipes.


  • As an aside, when a band is preparing for a contest, they should make the preparation as close to the real deal as possible. When tutoring a band in northern NSW over the last two years, I asked for some of the contest leadup practices to be done with Ghillie Brogues on.  Marching on into the circle feels different in Ghillie Brogues.  I also requested the last few practices to be done in full uniform – same reason.  Put a vest on and your pipes feel different on your shoulder.


  • When practising around the table on practice chanters, put the bottom of your practice chanter on the table. This has several benefits, but one significant one is that your fingers are visible – you can’t hide mistakes.  Remember, you can’t hide in the circle either.  You want to be comfortable with your fingerwork being visible.


  • Recognise when you are covering up issues on the practice chanter by taking breaths. If you always take a break when there is, say, a tachum to be played, then you will not learn how to play that bit correctly.   You can’t stop the sound on the pipes, so you MUST be able to play all these bits.   I’ve seen a player take a breath at the end of every phrase when on practice chanter. This detracts from learning how to phrase music.


  • My last suggestion is very important.I use a number of techniques and adopt a “zero tolerance” mindset when doing my own practice. I use some of this when teaching students as well.  As an example, when practising on practice chanter, I will work very hard to make sure my taorluaths are coming out clean; a combination of listening and correcting when necessary.  The big trick here is to ensure you do the same when playing on pipes.I’ve asked many of my students the following question: “If you are marching down George Street on ANZAC Day, in the middle of the second rank of pipers, and you miss a doubling, does it matter?”

    I provide my answer; “It doesn’t matter to anyone – EXCEPT TO ME”.  If I missed it the first time through a part, I’ll make sure I get it the second time through.  I apply the same mindset and techniques I have on the practice chanter when playing pipes.

    But it goes a bit further.  On practice chanter, I may have had to do a lot of work on, say, round movements in a strathspey.  When I put that tune onto pipes, I will be very conscious of getting those round movements correct – the same way I play them on the practice chanter.  This is a very conscious mental activity.  It’s all part of transferring what you do on practice chanter onto the pipes.  You have to do that work again – but hopefully it won’t take nearly as much time and effort.


The work done on practice chanter is invaluable, but there is a significant and important step still to be taken to get that same outcome on the pipes.  You need to minimise unnecessary mental distractions when playing pipes (such as an unmaintained instrument, or trying to remember tunes) and then focus on those things you have worked so hard to achieve on practice chanter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s