Introducing Bagpipes to a Primary School

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At the last Blowout, there was a lot of discussion as to how the Society could act to sup- port more young people to get involved with bagpipes. This was no doubt partly inspired by the amazing performance of 15 year old Grace Lemon on the uilleann pipes and her telling the audience how she had been inspired by a piper visiting her school when she was aged 7. As some of you will know from articles I’ve written before, I often use bag- pipes in my work in museums, though usually to explore history rather than music. So I started thinking whether there was a way to reach more young minds and introduce them to bagpipes at an age when they could maybe absorb the skills more easily than some of us who arrive at the pipes later in life.

In January 2011, I was lucky enough to attend a training day about using music in museums, especially with younger children. There was an excellent and inspirational workshop on singing and using percussive instruments to explore history topics. This was led by Cate Madden, a teacher who is also the Music Advisor for schools in my area. Cate told us how some schools have an “Instrument of the Week” to broaden pupils’ knowledge of music. The chosen instrument is often placed in the classroom for the chil- dren to see and try and they might also listen to recorded examples of it being played. I thought on this, and suggested the idea that schools might consider having a bagpiper come in to be their instrument of the week.

After discussion, Cate suggested that we try this out at her school, Frodsham CE Primary, and if it proved successful then I could repeat it at other schools in the area.

The plan was to begin with a presentation to the whole school followed by a session with the Year 2 pupils (6-7 year olds) and Year 5 pupils (9-10 year olds). These classes had been chosen because the Year 2 pupils had been learning about Scotland (I don’t play GHBs though) and in Year 5 the pupils have a Wider Opportunities programme to ex- plore and learn new instruments. At Frodsham the year 5 pupils concentrate on strings and, as I’ve heard for myself, achieve brilliant results. Bagpipes would be new to them but at least would fit the idea of broadening musical experience.

I was keen to make an impact, but wouldn’t be so bold as to say inspire the pu- pils, I’d be happy to think I could intrigue them with the bagpipes. I did have a slight concern that if the presentation wasn’t engaging it could perhaps have the effect of pupils being switched off bagpipes. So preparation was all important. Now, usually I would go for things being as hands-on as possible but clearly it wouldn’t be possible for nearly 200 children to try out a set of pipes in an afternoon. So I decided to go for a mix of short performances, storytelling of bagpipes in folk tales, teaching a couple of dances, han- dling artefacts that had pipers depicted on them and making simple “reeds” from plastic straws.

Then there were the tunes to consider. I’m still far from an accomplished musi- cian so thought it best not to stretch my skills too far, pleasant simple tunes played well would be better than trying to manage a new tune with fancy variations that I would probably mess up. I ended up choosing tunes which would have some sort of connection to the stories I would be telling, so amongst my choice were some medieval tunes I play a lot on my double-chanter pipes and my arrangement of a Cheshire souling song col- lected close to Frodsham where this school is located.

So the day came and as suggested I arrived at the school to share lunch and chat with the teachers before the session. Well, school dinners have definitely improved greatly since my day! Lots of veggie choices, very tasty too, but I digress. They were a friendly welcoming bunch in the staff room and made me feel very comfortable which is just what you need when you arrive to try out a workshop for the first time.

Then it was into the hall to set things out, tune up and await the arrival of the pupils. Now, I’ll admit to feeling some nerves at this point. I work with school children all the time and was totally at ease with them, but I always feel self-conscious perform- ing in front of professional musicians and I was hoping that Cate would feel that I was doing a good job after arranging all of this. But as soon as the classes came in and were visibly intrigued I relaxed completely.

The next half hour with the whole school passed in a bit of a whirl, and I wished I’d had more

time with them. I’d been playing

bagpipes as they came in, but

switched to recorder to suggest

how different instruments can suit

different occasions and places and

we explored how reeded instru-

ments can be better suited for the

times you want a bit more volume.

I used an old trick which I knew

could get lots of school children

suddenly sit up, that of making

funny noises with a reed. After

the giggling, I got a pupil to blow through a rauschpfeife until their face went as red as their jumper then we considered how it would be better to get a bag to do the job if we were to play for any length of time.

I then played for a very short while on different bagpipes, got a child to help me demonstrate the idea of drones in the background by pulling out the drone plugs one by one whilst I stopped the chanter. There was a collective “ooh!” from the children as the notes built up. There were quite a few children with their hands up for questions at this point which I answered but feeling that I didn’t want to turn this into a lecture-recital I thought to follow this with a bit of interactive storytelling. I told the tale of the King with donkey’s ears whose secret is revealed by a piper’s reed, following this by playing “When the King Enjoys his Own Again”. Then that was it, the whole school part was over and I was asked if I would pipe the children out of the hall.

Next was a further half hour with the Year 2 pupils. They each clutched sheets of questions they’d prepared for me and were very keen to have them answered. Some could have been predicted; Do you wear a kilt? How do you play the bagpipes? But others were pretty interesting; Do you play in the winter? How many chords does a bag- pipe have? Do you play the bagpipes in bed? “No,” I said, “my wife wouldn’t be able to sleep. I have tried playing bagpipes whilst lying on the floor, but it doesn’t work very well.” We could have spent a lot of time answering all of them, but I was keen to try other things. I suggested taking their questions away and sending back the answers, which I did and had an enjoyable evening typing up my responses for them. We moved on to using the bagpipes for dancing and taught them the Horses Brawl which they picked up very quickly and had great fun with.

Following on, I repeated this for the year 4 and 5 pupils. I let a couple of them try to get sounds from my pipes with help, we looked at some images of piper carvings and different pipes from around the world then we did some more dancing. And that was it, the end of the school day.

So, had it worked? It is probably too early to tell for sure, but several of the children came up to me and told me that they would like to learn the bagpipes. Nearly all of the children had seemed intrigued through the whole workshop. They had asked interested and intelligent questions, enjoyed the stories and dancing and not one child had put their fingers in their ears. One teacher made a point of telling me, “They get a bad press, don’t they, the bagpipes. When I sat down I was thinking this is going to be painful, but they’re actually a very nice sound.”

CateandIhadabitofadebriefattheendoftheday. Webothfeltithadgone well and we should try it at other schools. We talked about the possibilities of running something similar for school music teachers at a training conference and also running a taster day for older pupils in the area who are pursuing music to GCSE perhaps playing clarinet or oboe and may want to try something a little different. So this all seems posi- tive and I’ll be continuing to explore this work. I’m also hoping that it might give ideas to other Bagpipe Society members to try it in their local area, I’d be very happy to chat about this more to anyone interested. It really wasn’t scary but was great fun and could well help in developing some future pipers.

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