The Great Highland Bagpipe is a rather delicate and complex musical instrument to maintain in full efficiency.
In this article, we aim to provide you with some basic knowledge to help you preserve your instrument in good condition, extending its lifespan and making it easier for you to play.
1. Never expose your bagpipe, especially if it's made of wood, to significant temperature fluctuations within a short period of time, meaning in the order of a few minutes or even a few hours. Of course, seasonal changes are not relevant unless you're departing from the Alps in the middle of winter and landing in the midst of the Australian summer or similar extreme situations. Wooden bagpipes, by their very nature, are susceptible to thermal shocks, so you could end up with "beautiful" cracks in the wooden parts of your instrument in a short time, potentially making it unusable. Plastic bagpipes, although certainly much less delicate, may still encounter problems related to condensation or the melting of adhesives on the joints of the bag if subjected to significant temperature fluctuations.
When traveling by air, keep in mind that in some aircraft, the cargo hold is not heated, so the temperature inside can hover around freezing even in the summer when at altitude. For safety, it's always best to travel with the instrument as carry-on luggage (there are even specific cases designed for this purpose), thus protecting it from temperature swings and the carelessness of certain baggage handlers. The same goes for car travel: in the summer, never leave your bagpipe in a parked car under the sun. In general, you could almost say that our dear instrument should be treated somewhat like a living being, with all the care it deserves!
2. Regarding temperature-related dangers, also be extremely careful not to keep your bagpipe too close to direct sources of heat such as stoves, fireplaces, radiators, and the like. Additionally, pay attention to homes with underfloor heating, which can be particularly deceptive because we are not usually accustomed to thinking of the floor as a source of heat. In these cases as well, the least that could happen is a significant crack or melted adhesive, if not both!
3. To provide further protection for your wooden bagpipe, at least once a year (usually before summer), use a cloth soaked in oil to apply oil to both the inside and outside of all the wooden parts of the instrument, excluding reeds and any wooden chanters, and let it sit for a day to allow the oil to penetrate well. However, please note that it must be oil specifically designed for this purpose, which can also be purchased from our store. In other words, cooking oil won't work, no matter how good it may be... And neither is car oil suitable for this purpose: the bagpipe doesn't eat and doesn't need lubrication, it just needs to prevent the wood from drying out too much, so the right type of oil is required! I mention this because, as obvious as it may seem, I have seen people use the most unlikely oils on their instruments, which, of course, suffered the consequences. If you plan to play in winter in situations that may require transitioning from cold to warm quickly, such as playing outdoors and then immediately entering a heated environment (a situation that is always best to avoid as much as possible), it's not a bad idea to apply a second coat of oil before the colder months, say between late November and early December.
4. If wood doesn't fare well in hot and dry conditions, it also doesn't thrive in an overly humid environment, as it can rot or develop mold and similar issues. Since, when playing, the wood naturally absorbs the moisture from your breath, it's a good practice to leave the instrument out of its case to dry for a few hours, or even a day if you've played extensively. However, be mindful that the wood should not completely dry out; it should only lose excess moisture. So, consider the drying time based on the humidity level in the environment where you store the bagpipe! Of course, this doesn't mean that, as soon as you finish playing somewhere, you can't put the bagpipe back in its case to go home – that would be impractical. Simply, once at home, take the instrument out and let it dry, making sure to separate the various drones so that the reeds and the interior of all the wooden parts can dry thoroughly. And never forget to run cleaning brushes through the interior of each drone before leaving the instrument to dry; this helps remove some of the excess moisture, facilitating the wood's drying process. Very importantly, if you're short on time and can't do this for the entire instrument as soon as you finish playing, it's crucial to perform this procedure at least on the blowpipe. By its nature, the blowpipe is the part of the instrument most exposed to moisture, essentially the part that swells the most with humidity, so it requires more attention.
5. To avoid exerting too much effort while playing, it's a good practice to occasionally check the condition of the bag, especially its airtightness. To do this, you should first remove the chanter and drones and then seal the stocks with the appropriate corks. Next, inflate the bag from the blowpipe and let it rest for a while, making sure there are no air leaks, not even from the non-return valve, which shouldn't happen if it's of good quality. Under these conditions, an intact bag should remain well-inflated even when subjected to various pressures and stresses for at least thirty seconds. If your bag deflates too rapidly, it's a sign that there is a leak. To identify the weak point, you can leave the corks as mentioned, remove the blowpipe and fill the bag with water from its stock. The principle is that where air generally escapes, water will as well. So, if there's a leak, simply observe where the water is escaping, and you'll have your answer.
6. When playing, the moisture from your breath deposits on the walls of the bag, creating an environment conducive to the growth of microorganisms that can, over time, develop into mold and fungi. These can be harmful to your health, and in some cases they can even be deadly, as unfortunate incidents with pipers have demonstrated, where the hygiene of the instrument was not properly maintained. Incidentally, this is not solely related to how long you leave the bag to dry after playing. While it's true that the drier the bag remains, the better, even in a perfectly maintained bag, you cannot completely rule out the presence of harmful agents. This is why there are special disinfectants available on the market specifically designed for bagpipes' bags. These products should be used AT LEAST once a year by pouring or spraying them inside the bag following the instructions on the packaging to ensure you don't take risks with your health while playing.
Truth be told, disinfectants are much more suitable for synthetic bags and hybrid bags, which are more hygienic than leather bags and are strongly recommended by us. However, some people also use them with natural leather bags. They do so at their own risk because over time, disinfectants can be slightly corrosive to sheepskin bags, while they are entirely safe for synthetic bags. This is also why only disinfectants designed specifically for this purpose should be used. Other products can potentially harm the bag and damage its seams.
7. The same discussion about hygiene applies to the hemping of the instrument, which includes all the parts covered with hemp thread. Even the hemp thread, when exposed to the moisture from your breath, can develop harmful agents to health. Therefore, the hemping must be completely replaced AT LEAST once a year, better twice!
8. The last piece of advice we give you, which is purely about hygiene, is often ignored by many, too many, pipers: avoid using someone else's instrument. You can't know the exact state of health of that person, even if you know them well. They themselves may not be aware of diseases they carry. Furthermore, you cannot be absolutely sure how that person treats their instrument in terms of all the aspects we've discussed so far.
For this reason, when we accept a used instrument in our store, the first thing we do is disinfect it entirely, replace all the hemp and discard the bag, giving the buyer the opportunity to choose a new one. Only in this way can a used instrument be considered 100% safe from a hygiene perspective.
Moreover, when you place the instrument somewhere, pay close attention to where the blowpipe ends up. Remember that you'll have to put it in your mouth later, and as we know, the mouth, along with the nose, is among the main channels for infection. It may seem trivial, but in my long musical career I have seen blowpipes, along with mouthpieces from other instruments, placed in places that still give me shivers when I think about them! People often underestimate the risk of infection, only to bitterly regret it later. Playing should always be a source of pleasure, so don't let a disease that can easily be avoided with a bit of attention cast a shadow on what should be one of the most beautiful things in life. Think about your health and the health of your loved ones, who could, in turn, be infected due to your carelessness!