How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

Some of you might have seen my previous post about looking for a practice test but I have another question.

Is it possible to become "decent" at the pipes in 3 months? (able to play a few tunes somewhat up to speed, etc.)

I practice at least an hour a day. I’m just trying to see about working in a few tunes for a presentation I need to do when I get back from my research abroad!

-WL

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

Surely that depends on a lot of factors:
i. what you mean by ‘decent’. You might be able to play a few tunes ‘up to speed’ but with imprecise timing or with little rhythmic feel - or with lots of wrong notes, squeaks, wheezes etc.)
ii. whether you have played a similar instrument before. If you already play flute or whistle, you will have a good grounding for pipe fingering; if you play traditional music on another instrument and have listenedn to lost of piping, then you will at least have a good idea of what sounds you are aiming for and how to get there; if you have never played another instrument and/or have not listened to much traditional music, then you’ll clearly have a lot more work ahead of you;
iii. aptitude. Whilst ‘talent’ may not be a substitute for hard work, I am in no doubt that we all have different innate abilities in different areas - and we have different life experiences that cause some areas to develop more than others. Playing music makes use of several different skill sets and personality traits: cognitive, memory, motor co-ordination, tenacity…, and we can all acquire them to the levels and proportions that we need them in to play competently. But some people are just lucky that their strengths co-incide to make learning an instrument easier than for most other people.

In short, how long is a piece of string?

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

It totally depends on your commitment, dedication and practice. Previous (lengthy) exposure to Irish traditional music would be a big plus. An hour a day is pretty minimal in my opinion. The uilleann pipes have a LOT going on all at once, that needs to be learned and eventually mastered. The most complicated instrument I have ever played by far, and requiring the most coordination.

Thinking back, I had been playing about 6 months before I felt remotely comfortable playing anything in public, and I suspect it was wretched. Thankfully, my U.S. audience had never heard of uilleann pipes and did not know the difference! I do remember that I played the song tune "The Cliffs of Doneen" and the first two parts of "The Frieze Breeches" jig.

I had been playing for four years when I played some slow airs for my dad’s funeral. I was much more comfortable by then and think I did a credible job. And I’m even more comfortable than that now (six years and counting towards my 21-year indentured servitude).

But hey, if you’re young and learn fast and practice a lot, you’ll almost certainly pick it up faster than I did, starting at age 55. Best of luck on your journey. Nothing else I’ve ever played is as satisfying or gave me more pleasure.

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

I wouldn’t get hung up on becoming decent within three months. It might easily take that long to master co-ordination: blowing the bellows, keeping the bag tight, and keeping your fingers loose enough to play melody, but you still have loads of time beyond that. The key thing is that you are motivated and you are only 18. In my twenties I was really keen to learn fiddle but everyone I talked to said it was too late; I should have learned as a teenager. Luckily, I made another attempt when I was 30 and got to a standard where I could play in public and get paid for it.

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

I’m tempted to say you have got this the wrong way around. Playing any instrument to a presentation standard takes time but that’s not really the point. Playing an instrument to any standard worthwhile at all is down to how you approach it. If you approach it as a goal orientated formula of work you aren’t going at it from where it matters most. The real motivation that makes a musician is not goals and presentations it is the shear joy of playing and the conquest of the many frustrations that involves as you go your way. You won’t do it in 3 months, you may never do it in a lifetime. be realistic. Make the presentation not of your accomplished playing but of how you have finally approached fulfilling your dream, make it about your motivation, your love and distractions in the art you are attempting. don’t make it about impressing or explaining the form to anyone through your ability, you are exceptionally unlikely to have much of that in 3 months.

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

A piper friend explained why he selected pipes over the harmonica: The harmonica, he noted, with fully 20 reeds, is reasonably easy to play — you can pick it up and blow it and get some sort of sound right away. The pipes, having merely 7 reeds, should be therefore that much easier to play! He tells me he’s never regretted his choice.

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

Thanks for all the comments. Everyone has great points to make. It has been a long time goal of mine to learn how to play the instrument and Im finally getting to spend an extended amount of time in Ireland and will hopefully be able to find a teacher near Maynooth!

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

I’m just starting as well. After about 3 weeks, I can blast out notes in the same sequence they would be in tunes.

Is it music yet? Heck, no ;) I don’t expect to play in public for a year, minimum.

It’s a difficult instrument, even coming from a solid background in highland pipes. In comparison, flute was a breeze.

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

As has already been mentioned, there are exceptions, but three months isn’t nearly enough time in my opinion. I played whistle for around 12 years before I started the pipes, and it took a few months to be able to squawk through a tune with the right fingering. It sounded terrible. I’m now 2.5 years in and am finally taking them out in public for gigs with the band I’m in. While I’m not super proficient, I can make it though tunes with decent rhythm.

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

Having come to the uilleann pipes from the Highland pipes myself, and helped get a large number of Highland pipers on the True Path over the years, I’ve come to regard Highland pipe experience to be perhaps as much hindrance as help.

Because people tend to transfer their hand posture, fingering, ornamentation, style, and even the way of lifting the fingers… and ALL of it is wrong (if you want to sound like an uilleann piper).

In other words I spend more time getting the people to un-learn than I do to learn, and wish for a nice Tabula Rasa free of old habits.

I do think people coming from Irish flute or whistle have more of a leg up than GHB players do.

But as pointed out above your question is too open-ended to be answerable.

I’ve been playing uilleann pipes since around 1977 and I’m no great shakes.

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

I’ve seen people who were reasonably accomplished flute players make relatively quick progress on the pipes. But in general, no, I think it’s pretty impossible to be playing tunes at a ‘decent’ standard after three months. I tried, and I was practicing like two hours per day, but it probably took about four or five years to become ‘decent.’

I’m curious: why do you need to have achieved this for a presentation? What sort of presentation?

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

Well, I’ve been playing them about 18 years and hope to be decent someday. :-)

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

You’ve achieved more than that, Michael!

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

I’ll chime in as a fellow starter and say that, as Dr. Spear suggested above, it really depends on the presentation context, too.

Example: I signed up for a "share the music" type of presentation at an elementary school classroom, intending to play just the whistles, as I had only been at the pipes a month. My daughter really wanted me to bring both, though, so I did.

Was it Irish music? Nope. I could play a steady scale and baa baa black sheep or something like that, but I didn’t venture any dance tunes. The kids didn’t care. They loved seeing and hearing such a weird instrument, so it was good despite my lack of skills. I don’t think they noticed any difference between my "piping" and my whistle playing, on which I’ve got many more years of experience - although maybe that says more about my whistle playing than about their listening sophistication!

It was fun, and I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do a more "formal" gig.

However, you’ll also have had several months of instruction in Ireland, I think, so you’ll be much farther along than I! Either way, enjoy it. Like you, I waited for years before I could start, and it’s a blast just to sit down and make it squawk!

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

They say it takes the same amount of time to become an acceptable player on any instrument because if the instrument is easier to play then a higher level is expected. This has been my experience. When I started playing fiddle everyone was suddenly being really kind to me because it is considered to be a difficult instrument. The same is certainly true of pipes.

I think three months is pushing it though. Anything which requires brain rewiring seems to take a minimum of 6 months of near daily practise. It will take some length of time between 6 months and however long it takes to get to a level acceptable to yourself - because you will be your own greatest critic.

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

"because you will be your own greatest critic"

A suggestion that is possibly true of musicians but rather dubious when applied to shaky egg players

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

Depending on the context of the presentation, showing them the instrument, explaining the mechanism, Audience participation (rubbing your belly and patting your head at same time), showing the reed. explaining progression with drones regulators, the 21 years to learn it, the fact it was nearly wiped out, sets are hand made . play a clip of Seamus Ennis/Willie Clancy or your preferred piper, perhaps finishing with a simple slow air Fainne geal an lae or similar might be an approach.
Its unlikely you will get to a standard that a general audience would appreciate in 3 months but if you do you could modify presentation to include more playing

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

I’ve seen the claim that it takes 21 years to master the Uillean pipes – seven years learning, seven years practising, and seven years playing.

Re: How long does it take to become decent at Uilleann Pipes?

10,000 hours seems to be a level suggested for mastery of almost any skill.
I hope you have tolerant neighbours or good soundproofing, although I wouldn’t object to someone practising the pipes myself.