I have been very fortunate to be able to teach the bagpipe to people all over the world during the last 25 years.  The majority of my students are people who have always wanted to play the bagpipe and have decided they are ready to do it.  The other group of students are those who started the process on their own and are frustrated and now calling me for help.

I have students who find themselves ready to play in their first band but have hit an obstacle.  Most of the bands that they visit are suffering from lack of continuity,  terrible tune arrangements, and bad attendance.  This problem happens all over the world and usually with non-competitive pipe bands.  We often call them “street bands”.  There is nothing wrong with a street band if their process is consistent to welcoming new pipers.  Unfortunately, pipers who go to these bands and then end up frustrated will never call the pipe major and complain.  Most will just stop coming.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Let’s talk about continuity:

Does your band have a tune list?  It should.  The tune list is the goal list and the path for new pipers to become playing members of your organization.  The tune list should be the tunes that your new pipers learn in sequence.  The tunes should be arranged in sets that your band plays, from easiest to hardest.  When I started a new band, I told everyone there that there was one rule:  NO FAKING!!  Every week we played down the list.  It reinforced the tunes for the experienced players and gave the new people an opportunity to play with all of us.  My rule was you can sit at my table or stand in my circle as long as you can play the tunes on the tune list.  When you get to the tune that you can’t play, you can excuse yourself and go home.  Your goal is to be able to stay longer so maybe you’ll have another tuned learned by next week.

This process didn’t demean anyone and actually created some good competition to see who could hold out the longest.  After the new people left, we had the most advanced players left.  At that point we could pull out a medley or a march, strathspey, or reel.  The point is that the people knew what they had to do to become a playing member of the band.  I was fortunate enough to play in a band early in my career that used this process so I stuck with it and it’s worked.

Let’s talk about music:

If you want your players to respect the music and practice, it shouldn’t be free.  I think that it’s a disgrace to have a whole pipe band full of 3 ring binders and copy paper.  Buy the damn book instead!!  I have a student that plays in a pipe band full of copy-paper arrangements.  He actually likes playing out of the Scots Guards Books as the tunes feel more natural and are easier to play then his band arrangements.  I’m amazed at how badly this (and other) band music is arranged.  Grace notes, doublings and tourluaths are accents in the music.  Bad arrangements put these accents in the wrong places and make it harder for your pipers to play the tunes.  The tunes in the Scots Guards and other books were arranged by the greatest bagpipe composers in history. If you want to be a good tune arranger, you need to be playing the best arrangements that you can find.  Just my opinion.

The bottom line is this:  If you want to improve attendance, your people need to see consistency.  You can’t pull out a set of tunes on a whim.  You need to have a pattern that they can follow.  At that point it is up to each of them to move through the pattern at their own pace.  The hungry ones will practice more and be there every week because they see the light at the end of the tunnel.