I’ve been wondering if Patrick Og is rolling in his grave…
Living in a relative bagpiping wasteland, and not having access to decent in-person instruction, online lessons using Skype have allowed me to get first-class tuition with a top teacher and player (Bruce Gandy). Many of the more computer-literate teachers now offer lessons over the Web, and from where I sit here in Boise, Idaho, it’s a great thing despite the wild departure from the MacCrimmon school of yore.
This virtual schooling has some obvious drawbacks, though: with student and instructor remote from one another, it is impossible to get tactile feedback on bagpipe setup. In my case, as a relatively new player, this is the biggest lack in the Skype format since Bruce can’t test my setup himself and see if the struggles I’m having are purely my own or if my equipment could be optimized to make it more of a musical instrument and less of a grueling workout. Bandwidth is another potential issue: Skype requires high-speed Internet to pass the sound and images cleanly between teacher and student. Add to this the cost of a decent external microphone (see below), and scheduling issues caused by radical time zone differences, and online lessons can be challenging.
But the rewards are clearly more than worth it, at least for this student. The New York Times recently did a story about online music lessons (in which they highlighted a doctor studying the GHB), the gist of which was that it has led to a sort of renaissance in people learning to play instruments. For me, and others I know who use this method, the greatest benefit is having a highly skilled instructor listen carefully to our performances and offer detailed constructive criticism. The other very helpful element in this virtual tuition environment is file transfer: if I’m trying to learn a new piobaireachd, Bruce can send me, during our Skype lesson, a variety of recordings and settings of the piece so that I have a helpful reference to refer to between lessons. Similarly, I can email him a recording of my progress on the tune, which we can listen to during the lesson, with Bruce providing feedback throughout.
I’ve been a woodwind musician for over 40 years, with a fairly extensive classical and jazz education. Starting on the pipes about four years ago, my progress prior to Skypeing with Bruce Gandy had been sporadic and often frustrating. With my musical background I was able to advance quickly to a certain level, but the unique difficulties of GHB music – both ceol beag and ceol mor – pretty much stopped me in my tracks. I was treading water in a turbulent sea of taorluaths and regularly engaging in ritual sacrifices of unsuspecting Strathspeys. With Skype lessons, the waters have calmed a bit, and the wall preventing my progress has begun to crumble (although Bruce would be a better judge of this than I!). For those without access to in-person instruction Skype has been a godsend.
- High-speed Internet connection: I have used a 12Mbps DSL connection and a 50Mbps cable connection with excellent results.
- Skype: there are other online video-conferencing applications (such as Facetime, which only works between Mac computers), but Skype is the clear leader and runs on both PCs and Macs. You can download it for free, and the connection is over the Internet so it is “free” as well (of course you have to pay for your Internet service; mine runs about $50 US per month).
- Webcam: you will need a computer with a good webcam. Many now have them built into the computer, but you can get a decent USB webcam for under $30 US and clip it right onto your monitor or laptop screen.
- Microphone: although most computers have internal microphones, adjusting the sound levels for the bagpipe can be very challenging. The instructor will want the best signal possible, so an external USB microphone is almost required. A popular choice among Skypeing bagpipe tech geek students is the Blue Yeti, at about $100 US.