Keeping it interesting

Drama is not a word you hear much in piping circles and I’m not sure why. The best pipe music is dramatic, and good pipers and pipe bands use drama all the time, whether they are aware of it or not.

Many years ago when pipe band medleys were first breaking free of traditional bonds, the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, still not yet winners of a World Pipe Band Championship, stood at the starting line at a Highland games in Ontario. Rather than two-three beat rolls, they struck up standing and played the Irish air “My Laggan Love” borrowed from singer Van Morrison. Harmonies began four notes into the piece, and the drum corps toggled between dynamic rolls and shadowing the melody line. The piece ended with an unheard-of “slide” from a long low G to an even longer low A before the band marched into the circle. It was the most dramatic moment I’d ever seen or heard in pipe music and I’m not sure I’ve heard it equalled since. Ironically, Scottish Pipe Band Association rules barred the band from beginning in the World Championships with anything but two three-beat rolls, so the rule book denied the biggest stage in the pipe band world this breathtaking display of sheer musical theatre.

Today, pipe bands continue to strive for moving moments, though the dramatic effect is not limited to bands.

Take the competitive solo piper breaking from his or her strathspey to the reel, hitting the first two or three notes slightly under tempo, then ramping up to full full by the end of the first bar. When this is done well, the listener feels a slight quickening of the heart. The player will often feel this too, and it’s a wonderful feeling when you know your little dramatic device has clicked.

It takes a certain degree of artistic judgement to pull it off successfully, and the best bands often learn from the best solo players. Frequently (I’m sorry to say), you’ll hear a band break from a strathspey into a reel by sitting on the last note of the strathspey for two or three seconds before flying into the reel at full tempo, as if this pregnant pause has left the listener wondering might possibly be coming next. Oh goodness! Of all things, it’s a reel!!  This is drama done badly. It is maudlin and unimaginative and it stirs nobody’s blood. You will almost never hear a band led by a top solo player do this, and bands would do well to pay attention to how the best soloists play.

Drama can also be achieved simply by playing with key changes between tunes. If you’re playing a set of four jigs, try alternating keys between tunes. You don’t need to be an expert in music theory to do this: play a tune that has lots of D’s and F’s followed by one full of low A’s, C’s and E’s. Then maybe look for low G, B and D tunes. Play around with the order until each break between tunes makes you feel something. Don’t just play the tunes in whatever order they pop into your head. This lacks musical imagination.

Do this with band sets too. Don’t play “Scotland the Brave” (ends in low A) followed by “Flett from Flotta” (also low A). Play “Scotland the Brave” (low A) followed by “Brown Haired Maiden” (D) and then maybe “Flett from Flotta” (low A). Juggle the flavours of the tunes. Give the listener some emotional variety. Give them some tonal drama. This can bring interest and texture to very simple sets. It stirs the blood a wee bit.

No where is drama more neglected than in piobaireachd. Despite what punters might say, piobaireachd isn’t bad music. But it’s played poorly far too frequently. Even if the pipes are in perfect tune and not a gracenote is missed, a piobaireachd lacking drama is a big loud bore with perfect technique. Managing tempos, manipulating breaks between variations, turning loose the dogs when the tune calls for it — these touches all take courage and musical charisma too often lacking in the play-safe world of competitive piobaireachd.

Sadder still, too many piobaireachd judges are willing to accept this because the tune is error-free. Should it win the prize over the an edgy performance that had slight technical faults but which stirred the blood? Playing with flare and boldness is hard to do, so cut the guy a break. A mistake comes and goes in a second. Cautious playing lasts for 12 interminable minutes. Playing boring music is the biggest mistake of all.

Drama — remember that word in your breaks, key changes, medley construction, and in the expression of your slow airs and piobaireachd. Maybe even in the way you march. There are lots of young players who can impress listeners with their fingers. It’s much more challenging to turn the audience on with your musical personality.

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Let’s lose the slow airs

This is a bit of a rant, but I hope it can be seen as instructional as well.

I’ve been judging solo piping competitions for a very long time. In the last decade or so I’ve judged fewer. In the last several years I’ve been inclined to judge even less. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is that I am very tired of listening to slow airs.  Let me give you an example.

Some years ago I had the privilege of sitting with Willie McCallum and John Wilson of Glasgow to judge the George Sherriff Memorial amateur competition in Hamilton, Ontario. It’s a prestigious event and well run. There were 14 competitors and each played four events, so it was a long day. All of the competitors except one played an entire slow air as he or she tuned for each event. Here is the math: 13 pipers times 4 events is 52 performances. A slow air takes, conservatively, 2 minutes to play. We calculated that by the end of the day we (and the audience) had listened to approximately 104 minutes of slow airs. It was actually closer to two hours because some pipers played one slow air, tuned, then actually played most of another. It was one of the most unenjoyable and aggravating piping experiences of my life. It was less a piping competition than a Festival of Slow Airs.

Professional players aren’t immune. I’m writing this on an airplane returning from judging the superb Metro Cup competition in Newark, New Jersey in February, where I sat on a bench with two other adjudicators and judged 16 top professionals in what may have been the best piobaireachd competition I’ve ever heard. The evening event was a medley with the same 16 pipers. Every piper played a slow air in his/her medley. That’s okay, though why they all felt the need to adopt this very band-oriented convention puzzles me. Around 10 of the 16 played another slow air to tune up. That’s 26 slow airs — nearly an hour of slow airs — over the course of a 4-hour competition. Again, a few played some or all of a second slow air.

Imagine looking forward to a professional medley event and getting an hour of slow airs thrown into the mix. (My refuge was to read the introduction to each volume of the Piobaireachd Society Collection during the tuning.)

Why this is so aggravating I haven’t quite figured out. I do know that if all of those competitors had played a piobaireachd variation instead, I’d be dozing on this airplane instead of spouting off. There is something about the lack of a strict rhythm in piobaireachd and the more obscure melody line that make it less obtrusive. It doesn’t demand to be listened to the way “Leaving Lismore” does. It’s much more subtle.

One of the other great advantages of playing a piobaireachd variation is that if you find the pipes are nicely in tune as you play it, you can stop at any point and no musical offense is taken. However, maybe the only thing more aggravating than listening to 25 complete slow airs is to listen to 3/4 of 25 slow airs.

Is somebody telling all these pipers to do this? If so, these teachers need to listen to an entire competition from start to finish real soon. If they did, I’m sure we might all be able to agree on this guideline to give our piping students: do not play any part of any recognizable piece of light music when you are tuning in front of the judge or audience. Play a bit of piobaireachd, and/or develop your own system of tuning notes and phrases.

I suspect more teachers read this blog than competitors, so please make it your responsibility to teach your students how to conduct a tasteful tune-up.

And that doesn’t include seeing how many birls they can cram into four minutes….

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Ontario Pipers’ Society in need of a remake

The old adage about re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic is so cliché I would normally never use it, but for the fact that it applies perfectly to the direction of the Pipers’ and Pipe Band Society of Ontario for the past many years.

I can remember a time not too long ago when you could attend a Highland Games in Ontario almost every weekend from early June until the end of August, with two or three games some weekends. At one point we had games weekends in May because there were no other free Saturdays. Now we’re down to eight, including Cobourg, which is newly back on the scene. There is no sign of a resurgence, and sparse attendance at some games suggests that a rain day might wipe them out.

The PPBSO, meanwhile, continues to dance around the minute intricacies of judging, more and more modeling itself after the RSPBA who, despite the dropping away of Cowal from its list of majors, is not nearly so threatened by extinction. Consultative judging, one of many innovations which once distinguished us from our Scottish sister, has gone by the wayside as a result of communication mismanagement rather than any good reasoning.

The Society could give you a full afternoon workshop on how to judge midsections, but ccouldn’t tell you why almost none of the paying public listens to the administratively expensive and musically bankrupt solo competitions that fill games mornings with a cacophony of noise that leaves this long-time adjudicator not wanting to be there any more.

The boat is foundering unless we embrace the needs of our Highland Games committees and structure ourselves accordingly. Here are some things that I have long thought might help right the ship.

1) Dramatically decrease the number of individual competitions held in the mornings. Nobody listens to them but friends and family, and they are costly to run. Certainly these competitions are important to the furtherance of our art and the development of players, but a good argument can be made that running fewer events and promoting them better would do more to further piping and drumming and bring players along than three hours of shoulder-to-shoulder dissonance in the hot sun. There is no evidence that today’s plethora of events is making better players than half that number did in the 1970s.

2) Work with the games committees to stage a showcase pipe band event that the paying public will love. Competing bands are good for the art form, but most of the listeners are pipe band people, not paying public.

Here’s an example of an event games committees might like: A few years ago I attended the South American Pipe Band Gathering in Santiago, Chile. There are 8 pipe bands in South America, and every three years they gather in a different country. I was there along with another piping judge and a drumming judge. The event consisted of a roped area about 50 meters long and 30 meters wide. Each band had 20 minutes to perform in that rectangle. They could do anything they wanted. Bands would do intricate marching displays, drum fanfares and little bursts of solo piping. Drum majors added visuals. Each band would bring out a dance troupe that would perform once or twice during the show. By our playing standards, the bands weren’t very good, but the show was thoroughly entertaining. The crowds were packed five deep around the entire perimeter for three hours and they cheered like it was rock concert. By the luck of the draw, the last band to play was working toward competing in North America. They formed a circle and played tunes for 20 minutes. By the 10-minute mark you could see the crowd lose interest and start streaming away. This said much about what we do here in Ontario. A showcase event of this kind would probably attract the most ambitious of our Grade 3 and 4 bands and would make a huge contribution to the entertainment value our Society provided. Offer big prize money for this event.

3) Continue to run our more traditional World’s-oriented events, but more as a service to the art form, with reduced prize money and in less prominent areas of the field.

4) Stop paying bands travel expenses and pass the savings on to the Games Committees. This is our hobby. We should pay for it ourselves and support the games committees, most of which are volunteer-driven.

5) Use the reduction of morning events as a way of shortening the day. Move seamlessly from the solo events to begin the “traditional” band events at 11 am, and the display showcase at 1 pm. Support a 12 noon Opening Ceremonies parade of determined length with no first massed bands, and target the closing massed bands for 3:30 pm so the bulk of the crowd has reason to stay for this climactic spectacle. Streamline the prize-giving (don’t announce solo results). Make the finale about the paying customers, not the musicians.

6) Find a way to change the governing principles of the PPBSO to blow this ridiculous business of membership voting on motions at the Annual General Meeting completely out of the water. What a miserable practice this is. It’s an antiquated system of mob rule that essentially chops the rudder off the ship every November. As long as it remains in place, the Society will meander wildly and history will repeat itself again and again. We should elect the leaders we want and then let them lead.

7) Strive to populate the Music Board with members who have time to devote to the task and who don’t have strong allegiance to groups that might be self-interested. Back in the 1960s, the original “Advisory Council” consisted by definition only of Grade 1 pipe majors and leading drummers. Members in these situations are both time-challenged and face possible conflicts of interest, so the potential for progressive reform is limited. Competitive achievement should not be the prime reason for membership.

None of the above thoughts is going to turn things around on its own, and each requires a supporting structure beneath it. And these ideas say nothing about important topics such as publicity and promotion, funding, administrative enhancements (i.e. you call that a website??) or how to involve non-competing bands. These are sea changes, and I use that term deliberately because if we don’t starting doing something dramatically differently from what we’ve been doing for more than 50 years, we’ll slip beneath the waves. The numbers are telling a tale.

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Blow with your ears

I recently discussed the issue of women having pipes that are too hard to blow because they were being given reeds that didn’t suit their physical strength.

A corollary of this misguided approach to teaching pipers is the pipe major or instructor who has a pupil or band member who tends to overblow when playing under pressure. These players are fine in practice, but come performance time they blow their top hand sharp and they may squeak and squawk. Some instructors think the solution to this is to give the player a harder reed. “That should do it,” they muse. “Now he can’t possibly overblow!”

This may be an option, but it is not the solution. Once in a while, especially with very inexperienced players, it is time to increase reed strength. But the fact that a player is overblowing a reed to the point where it makes funny noises despite his or her best efforts is an indication that the player lacks blowing control.

Here is an illustration: give a very good player/blower the easiest chanter reed they have blown in five years. The chanter may honk when they strike in and they may overblow initially, but they will quickly adapt and blow it in tune with no funny noises. They may not like it, but they can still do it. These players have developed good blowing control skills.

The sad thing is, when you give the overblowing player a harder reed, more often than not they will stoically say, “Yes, I can blow this reed!” But they may be quite wrong. I frequently have boys in my high school band tell me a reed is “fine” to blow, but when they play for me they blow flat on D and low A (that’s called “sagging”), or they miss top hand gracenoting they can normally make on the chanter, or they make mistakes in tunes they know well. These are all signs that the reed is too hard for them.

Here’s the point:  just because a player can sound a reed for a whole set of tunes doesn’t necessarily mean he or she can play well with it. The trick for instructors is to get these players to blow accurately with reeds that you, as their instructor, think are at their proper strength.

Often, the best way I know for sure whether a bagpipe is the right strength for a player is to take the bagpipe from them, wipe the mouthpiece with a tissue, and play it myself. I do this all the time. Once I’ve determined that the instrument is the right strength for the player I’ll tune it — chanter and drones — so that it is perfectly in tune at what I feel is the optimum blowing pressure. Then I give it back to the player and ask them to play it. I tell them: “Blow with your ears.” In other words, blow so that the instrument is in tune. This is how good pipers always blow. I listen to them play, and if the high A is sharp or flat, or if the low A isn’t in tune with the drones, I shake my head as they are playing until they get it right.

When I play my own pipes, If I’m having trouble blowing in tune or if I feel physically compromised by a reed so that my playing is suffering (even a little bit), then the instrument is too hard for me. If I’m having no trouble whatsoever with the physical aspect, but I’m constantly searching to hit the notes in tune because it’s too easy for me to overblow, or if I feel like my technique could be crisper, then perhaps I need a stronger reed.

This is all very important stuff. Nothing has a greater affect on the quality of your playing or tone than the strength of your instrument. Lots of pipers play on pipes that aren’t well tuned because their instrument is too hard to allow them the physical and blowing control required to tune well.

Tuning is half the game. Blowing with finesse is the other.

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Summer piping camps: things you should know

When I was 15 years old, my teacher, Ed Neigh, took me to a summer piping camp that was presided over and taught solely by John MacFadyen of Glasgow. One of the famous MacFadyen piping brothers, along with Duncan and Iain, John was one of the leading piobaireachd players in the late 1950s and ‘60s. His competitive record and strong personality were formidable. The school was held on a remote 100-acre farm near Petrolia, in southwestern Ontario. The farm was owned by Mac and Dorothy Campbell, whose daughter Trudy was one of the leading young players at that time, besides being one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known.

The school was small — sometimes as few as 8 students — and we each received one private session from John in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Ed, his brother Geoff, and Bill Livingstone were regulars at the school along with some of the Detroit piping crowd like the late John Goodenow and Dave Martin. Each evening, one student was required to play for 20 minutes in the farmhouse garden, after which “Mr. MacFadyen” would get his pipes out and play for 40 or 45 minutes as he prepared for his annual recital in Detroit at the end of the two-week school. It was an idyllic and seminal experience, and I knew it even then. It gave me some of the fondest memories of my life.

I attended this school for five years and it was a boon for my piping. It was not just about the instruction, though that was the biggest part of it. It was also about having the opportunity and motivation to practice for six hours a day for two weeks. The additional opportunity to watch and hear other pipers do the same thing and to observe what they did during those hours was enlightening. Hearing a first-class Scottish player every evening opened by mind and boosted my repertoire. One of the greatest benefits came when John would ask one of the young players to take his pipes away and “put some air into them” for an hour. It was hot and dry there and he wanted his 1912 Hendersons to be kept in good playing condition for his upcoming recital. Those of us who got the chance to play The Pipes marveled not only at their remarkable steadiness, but at how easy they were to blow. This in itself was a marvellous education for me and it affected how I set up my pipes for the rest of my life.

In truth, few if any other summer piping schools are conducted this way. But I would still recommend summer piping camps to anyone hoping to raise their piping a notch or two. Having attended them, taught at them and run them, I’d like to offer a few tips about what you might look for at such a school:

1) Choose a school that offers small classes and lots of hands-on instruction.
Being lectured about music is like reading about art: it’s interesting, but it won’t improve your skills much. A few minutes of one-on-one attention from an instructor each day for a week will do more for your playing than any amount of piping discussion. Lectures and workshops have their place, but when an expert listens to you play and then makes suggestions for improvement, you get better.

2) Practice hard outside of class.
The best schools are those where you are given some new material to learn, and every day the instructor offers suggestions on how you might improve. As an instructor, when I give out a tune, I don’t necessarily expect the student to memorize it for next day, but I need them to be very comfortable playing it on the chanter with music or I can’t teach them what they need to work on to improve. I can’t teach you much if you’re still struggling with which note comes next.

3) Memorize some tunes during the school.
Your instructors don’t expect you to memorize everything, but you’ll get more out of the school and you’ll feel better about it if you can go home with two or three new tunes firmly embedded in your head. Increasing your repertoire is a big part of becoming a better piper. Once the school is over, get right on the tunes you started and finish them off. You’ll always remember where you learned those tunes. They will mean a lot to you.

4) Work on the quality of your instrument.
One of my goals as an instructor is to send every student in my classes home with a better instrument than they came with. Improving your bagpipe should be a major objective. Budget some money for supplies that might help you along. How many other chances will you get to have a world-class piper help you get your pipes going? I remember teaching at a school once where one of the instructors, who was renown for his instrument, asked a student to buy a new reed from the school shop and bring it to class so they could set it up together. The student declined because the reed was $20 and he could get one at home for $12. Bad strategy.

5) Talk to people who are at your age and piping level.
Most people will do this naturally, but be sure you find out how others manage their piping careers. It may be reassuring to learn that you are not alone with your piping trials and tribulations, be they personal or musical. I’ve learned much in my life from how other pipers do things. And don’t think these schools are full of hotshot young whippersnappers. Middle-aged hobbyists are the bread and butter of summer camps.

6) Learn a piobaireachd.
If you are already a piobaireachd player, make sure you take one complete tune home, memorized, and on the pipes. If you are not a piobaireachd player, here’s you chance to give it a try with daily help from an instructor and support from your classmates.

7) Make recordings.
You’ll find your instructors very willing to pick up their chanter and let you record the tunes you’re learning. Take advantage of this. Having personalized recordings of tunes you’ve been given is fantastic tool. Modern handheld devices make this a breeze. Record the instructors’ recital if their is one. You’ll listen to it more than any CD you might buy.

8 ) Stay focused during class and let the instructor lead. Sometimes we get a Chatty Charlie in class. Charlie’s a nice guy, and he’s been looking forward to the school for months. Now it’s here and he’s in a class being run by one of his piping idols, and he’s so excited that he just cannot shut up. He tells stories, carries on long one-on-on discussions with the instructor, appears to show off his knowledge and basically wastes a lot of class time, frustrating and angering his classmates. Having known some Charlies, I would guess Charlie is the last one who is going to think this paragraph applies to him, but I figured I would try anyway. The bottom line is simple: no small talk or personal anecdotes in class unless you’re asked. That hour whooshes by very quickly. If you have a Chatty Charlie in class and the instructor isn’t shutting him down, speak to the instructor about it after class. If that gets no results, try the administrator.

9) Ask the questions you’re afraid to ask.
I can’t tell you how many times in a class or an evening workshop someone puts up their hand, says “Maybe this is a dumb question, but….,” and six other heads in the room nod, acknowledging that they too really need to know the answer to this question. Sometimes these answers are just the breakthrough you need.

10) Offer feedback to the instructors.
You may wish to do this privately, but I can assure you that instructors love to hear feedback about their classes or performances. If you’re naturally hesitant to tell them what you didn’t like, please tell them what you did like. We appreciate the positive reinforcement! We’ll build on that to make our next classes/recitals/workshops better.

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Hey, P/M: give the lady a break!

Over many years of teaching summer schools and workshops, I’ve come across some sad things in piping. The saddest is women who can’t blow their pipes. What’s sadder is that often it’s not their fault.

I see this pattern play out again and again: we go around the table at a summer school to see what the students would like to work on. A 45-year-old woman who took up the pipes three years ago just wants to be able to get all the way through a set of three 4/4 marches without, as she says, “puffing out.” She’s explored every possibility: maybe her bag is too big, her blowstick is too long, she doesn’t practice enough, she holds her pipes wrong. Maybe, she thinks, she’s just not suited to be a piper because she’s too weak or frail, or just doesn’t “have it.”

Pretty soon we get the pipes out. When it’s her turn, she fills the bag, then stands there with a look on her face like she’s about to bungee jump against her will. There is a momentary pause while she takes one more deep breath. Then she strikes in, hitches the bag up, puts her bottom hand on the chanter, gives a mighty heave, and out comes an E.

She begins to play. Sounds of struggle fill the room: there are chokes, slurs, sputters, memory lapses and lip noises. She finally gets to the final bars of the tune, but while the fingers wiggle there are no chanter sounds, only drones.

She stops and gives me a welcome-to-my-life look, waiting for the oft-heard judgement that she just has to “keep practicing hard and be patient!”

I walk over, remove the pipe chanter from its stock and blow it in my mouth. The reed is harder than mine. It’s harder than anything I would give my strapping teenage boy students. “This reed,” I say, “is way, way, way too hard for you.”

One of two things now happens. Some of these ladies will immediately beam and say, “Thank God, that’s what I’ve been saying for months!” I like these ladies because they have been thinking for themselves. We are immediate allies.

However, some disagree with me. “Well, I don’t know,” they say. “Sometimes I’m okay. My pipe major says it should be okay for me. I think I just need to persevere.” These ladies will need a bit more convincing. They trust their pipe major — which can be a good thing — but this pipe major is unwittingly misleading them and they are following not-so-merrily along. He may not realize it, but he’s driving these eager players away, slowly but surely.

Whatever the player believes, I’m going to try to make this person’s life more pleasant, if she will let me.

When I grab my utility knife to begin surgery on their gut-buster chanter reed, they gasp. I tell them I’m going to make this reed much easier. The pipe major’s disciple is terrified. I barge forward. I assure her that she can tell her P/M that the piping school instructor said this was the right thing to do, and that the P/M can email me for more information if they want. I’m not going to give in. I need to do this. I begin to shave cane.

The more progressive lady reacts differently though. She watches me with glee as I have at her reed. I ask: what will your pipe major think? “I don’t care,” she says. Good. Now we’re more than allies. We’re rebel insurgents.

One of the ironic twists in this process is that usually when I’m finished with their current reed, or have given them a new one at the proper strength, they blow the snot out of it so it squeaks, squawks and growls on low G. The enlightened ladies say, “That’s much better. I know I’m blowing too hard now, but I’ll get used to it.”

The pipe major’s disciples say, “No way, that’s way too easy. I can’t blow that. It needs to be harder.” It will take more time, but they’ll come around. I tell them I’m not changing anything. I want them to play that reed just like that for three days and then we’ll talk again later in the week.

Almost invariably, by the end of the week, these ladies are in love with me because I’ve changed their piping lives. (Or so I like to think.)

Unfortunately, I still often go away discouraged, because I know these women will have a fight on their hands with a pipe major who thinks everyone in his band needs to blow like a man. If this is his way of driving women away from pipe bands and piping, I can assure him he’s doing a great job.

Come on, guys. Let’s smarten up.

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Practice Strategies, Part 7 – Final Thoughts

Here endeth the seven-part practice strategies journey. There are a number of final points that bear mention but aren’t complex enough for each to warrant separate articles. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) Record yourself. You can be your own best teacher if you’re willing to put some time into listening to yourself play. There are lots of things we don’t notice when we’re playing; some of them stick out like a badger sporran when we’re just listening. And today, with hand-held devices like iPhones, it’s easier than ever to hear yourself.  One helpful hint: don’t listen to your recording immediately after you’ve made it. You won’t be very objective because you’re too close to the performance. Leave it for a day or two. I critique my own playing best when I’ve left the recording long enough that I don’t even remember what’s on it.

2) Get in shape. If you have trouble staying in good physical shape, the knowledge that physical conditioning will improve your piping might be a good motivator. You don’t have to be an Olympian. Any regular exercise defined as minimal for your age group will help. Weights and swimming and particularly helpful. For the games season when you’re on your feet all day, getting your legs in shape makes a huge difference. In short: you pipe better when your body works better. I’m quite convinced that the reason many competent bandsmen make unexplained mistakes in the competition circle is because they’re worn out from having been on their feet all day.

3) Learn new tunes. Many people do this anyway. But if you find your motivation to practice is waning, the reason could be that you’re bored with your repertoire. Or that your bagpipe is too hard to blow….

4) Don’t blow gutbusters. It doesn’t take long to get sick and tired of blowing your guts out. Reed strength could be the subject of three blogs, but maybe the following little-known fact will help keep things in perspective: most top soloists have absolutely no difficulty in playing their pipes for an hour straight without once stopping to rest. They tune between sets, but the pipes are going the whole time. Could you do that? My pipes are easy.

5) Sing your tunes. Most people think this applies only to piobaireachd. Great piobaireachd players have spent countless hours singing their tunes as a way to memorize and learn how to play them without the big bad bagpipe getting in the way. The same applies to light music. Singing a tune is a great way to figure out how it goes. And here is a fact: if you can’t sing a tune, you can’t play it.

6) Take breaks. This scenario may be familiar to you: the weekend competition is approaching, and you’ve played every day for a week. It’s Wednesday now, but your playing is getting worse, so you step up your practice time. But it gets no better, and Saturday is a disaster. What’s the problem? Well, chances are you’ve exhausted your hands. Piping is physically demanding, and competition tunes are particularly hard on your hands. When your hands won’t do what you think they should, your head get messed up. So when things start getting worse, resist the urge to practice more and take a day off, maybe two. Piping can be a bit like weightlifting: you need regularly to give your muscles some time to recover and redevelop.

7) Join a band. One of the reasons Highland piping is popular is that it is very social. Band members help us stay motivated. Many have interesting ideas, tunes and humour to add to your piping life. Often your non-piping spouse can get involved socially as well, which doesn’t hurt your piping life. Bands give us a reason to take our pipes out of the box and to learn new tunes. Also, if you like to compete as a soloist, join a band that supports solo competing. The bands that don’t support solo competition have no idea how wrong they are about the best way to improve their band.

And finally, remember: the reward is in the journey. People I know who don’t play a musical instrument are envious of me. They are envious that I have something I’m so passionate about and that engages me so fully. When I play at a wedding or funeral they are perhaps more aware than I am of the impact the pipes have made on the day. They wish they could contribute like I did. They are amazed that I have a large number of people in my life whom I’ve known for more than 40 years — all piping and drumming people. Piping has its highs and lows, like the rest of life. The prizes are great goals, but try to revel in the countless moments when your hobby brings you something you can get no where else in your life.

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Practice Strategies, Part 6 – The Sound Hobby

The passing of the great player and gentleman Donald MacPherson in the Spring made for much conversation on the quality of this piper’s near miraculous instrument. I might guess that in no other musical discipline did the quality of one man’s sound so far exceed all others so consistently for so long, particularly in the days of cane and sheepskin. Very few players made performing look so effortless. No one else equalled his record for winning the premier prizes at the major gatherings over such a long time.

Donald MacPherson recorded a superb CD of piobaireachd some years ago, when he was in his 80s. Barnaby Brown, who produced the recording at his studio in Sardinia, recounts that Donald spent more time that week getting his pipes going than actually recording the tracks. Barnaby says that once the pipes were ready, the recording process went smoothly and efficiently.

There is a big lesson here. It is one that the top players in piping already know, though maybe none as well as Donald MacPherson did. That lesson is: the better the bagpipe, the better the playing. If your bagpipe is brilliant, your playing level soars by at least 25% over your playing on a mediocre instrument. Maybe more.

Too many pipers practice hard and intelligently and then give 25% of it away by playing on a substandard instrument that is too hard to blow, may be unsteady, isn’t in tune or isn’t comfortable. This is a terrible use of practice time. Worse yet, it makes unpleasant noises. There are few redeeming features to an unpleasant bagpipe. Yet too many pipers accept it as the normal life of a piper. It affects our reputation as musicians.

This lesson can be applied even to the higher levels of piping, to bagpipes most people would say are superb. All of the top pipers I know would agree that all it takes is one substandard element — a tenor drone reed that takes a bit too much air, a chanter reed that is a wee bit unstable on one or two notes, a bass drone that doesn’t quite lock in, or a set of drones that may be steady but lacks magic — and these players don’t play as well as they are capable. So, rather than practice harder to make up that 25%, the good players stop practicing and work on their pipes, relentlessly and without mercy, just like Donald MacPherson did in Sardinia and probably all of his life.

Trust me: it can be maddening. I can’t tell you how many times in 45 years I’ve thought, “This is damn crazy what I’m doing. Why can’t I get this right? I’m quitting this ridiculous beast. That’s it! I’m done!!!”

When I was competing, I might have trouble sleeping at night at the height of the season because I couldn’t get my pipes right and because I knew how absolutely crucial the best bagpipe was to the music I wanted to play and to competition success.

It’s a great era in which to play pipes. The products are superb. New pipes are well made, and there are lots of great old pipes to play. Chanters are the best ever. There is a huge variety of excellent synthetic drone reeds. The cane used in chanter reeds is better than I can remember, and I can’t recall a time when it was easier (or should I say less difficult) to get a good reed going.

There is very little reason to be satisfied with mediocre sound — unless you really don’t care.

Bagpipe tone can be hobby in itself and you need to treat it as such. It is well worth the time and effort, because nothing makes you play better or enjoy playing more than a great bagpipe.

It’s your most important practice tool.

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Practice Strategies, Part 5 – Getting it together

The need to maintain a useful repertoire became apparent to me very early, when I was in my teens and going around to competitions and other piping events. Gatherings after the events were commonplace (are they still?), and if you were a reasonable player, you knew that at some point a set of pipes would be handed to you and you were expected to play a tune. Usually, “a tune” meant a couple of sets: something slowish to get in the groove, and then something quick to impress. If you played your band stuff, that was completely bogus. If that was all you could do, then it was better not to play at all.

I always made sure I had a couple of 6/8s or a M/S/R and then a few jigs or a little strathspey and reel set to follow. In fact, I always made sure I had two or three such sessions in me because in two weeks I could find myself at a new gathering with many of the same people in attendance. Having to play the same thing meant you were a one-trick pony. That was a source of motivation for me over and above just competing.

Fortunately, I liked new tunes and I liked to practice. I just had to make sure I planned in advance.

As time went on, I had learned so many tunes that I actually started to forget about some of them. I don’t mean I forgot the tunes; I just forgot I knew them. I would hear someone play a great tune I knew but hadn’t played in a few years and I’d think, geeze, why don’t I play that any more? The reason was simple: I just couldn’t stay on top of all my tunes. Some of them just slipped out of my mind.

So I began writing them down. I have a Word document that was created many, many years ago in which I simply write down the tunes I’ve learned and played seriously. It’s arranged by time signature. Under “4-part jigs” is a list of dozens of titles. Under “Competition marches” are another 50 titles. Two-parted strathspeys and reels and two-parted jigs are arranged into sets because those little party tunes are much more effective when they are presented with some thought rather than just played in some random order. I can’t necessarily play all of these tunes right now, but pretty close, because over the years I’ve revisited them several times because they are stay on the list.

Not every tune makes the list. Sometimes I may learn at tune, play it for a few weeks, decide it doesn’t interest me much, and drop it. Putting those on the list would be like taking a reed that’s not quite good enough and putting it in a bottle so that some day I can have the pleasure of re-discovering why I didn’t like it.

I don’t consult the list daily or even weekly, but three or four times a year I’ll print out all six pages of it, tape it to the wall and see which of my old friends wink at me and want back out of the toybox. It’s an especially valuable list when I have a major recital to do and need to put together a program.

If you’re really organized, you’ll have a copy of the music to every tune you’ve learned filed away. I have to confess that I don’t have that for tunes I learned decades ago, because back then it wasn’t so easy to have paper copies of everything. But in recent years I’ve taken the time to make copies of the piobaireachds and competition tunes that I’ve learned and I have them all in a big fat binder. If I forget how the third part of a tune goes (and I often do, especially as I get older), it’s great just to grab the binder and twig my memory. When I learn a new reel or jig that I really like, I try to get the music into the binder for future reference. Initially they just get tossed into a file folder of “new tunes.” If they make the cut and still interest me in a year they’ll go into the binder.

Seems like a lot of bother, doesn’t? It is, but it means I haven’t wasted time learning a bunch of tunes only to forget they exist a year down the road. It’s an important “non-playing” part of maintaing my repertoire.

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Practice Strategies, Part 4

My high school pipers are an interesting bunch, and listening to them practice in their inexperienced way is an education in what many people lack in their practice sessions. Usually in class we work on one or two pieces, or a short set of tunes. We meet in a main teaching room, and then I often send them into break-out rooms to practice. I visit them one by one in these rooms for one-on-one tutoring.

I’m often struck by how they go into their practice rooms with, say, a 2/4 competition march to work on, strike up cold and immediately play their march. They might not even tune.  Then they have a wee rest and play it again. This pattern repeats itself until I make my way to their room. After I go over the tune with them and leave, they play it once or twice more. In other words, they have had a 25 minute practice session, and all they have done is played nine times through the four-parted march we’re working on. This can’t be much fun.

I often find that after six months of this practice pattern all they can play is their band material and whatever solo tune we happen to be working on. If I ask them to play a tune we pounded 6 weeks ago, I may well get a sheepish grin and a “How does it go again?” I say to them: “You’re not becoming a musician; you’re just doing homework.” That’s strikes a nerve in most, because they do fancy themselves as serious pipers.

The biggest part of being a musician is building a repertoire. Most of my practice time is spent maintaining my repertoire, not working on my current project. If I’ve learned a new M/S/R, I might play it twice through during my practice session. How does it get any better? Here’s how: I’ll play that M/S/R during every practice session for three weeks or a month. I may have another few new tunes I’m learning like this as well. The rest of what I play is rotating repertoire.

Any serious set of tunes I’m trying to improve or perfect doesn’t get played until 20 minutes or so into my practice session, after my pipes are perfectly steady and my hands are warmed up. Every practice session has one or two “events,” and my new set will be one of them. A piobaireachd (or a new piobaireachd) is often the other.

I have about 25 four-parted -parted 6/8 marches I’ve played for 30 years. If I play 15 times in three weeks, a set of three of these will get played once or twice. Other simple march sets (4/4, 3/4, light 2/4) that I’ve learned in the last year or two might get played three times during that span. A typical 45-minute practice session might consist of:

1. a piobaireachd ground
2. a set of four 4/4 marches
3. a set of three four-parted 6/8 marches
4. a M/S/R once through, or maybe each tune twice or maybe two of each — MM/SS/RR
5. a set of two or three hornpipes
6. a set of four or five four-parted jigs
7. a complete piobaireachd, maybe two

Next day, maybe the hornpipe set is replaced by a two-parted strathspey and reel set. One day, if the pipes are going well, the hornpipes and jigs will become one big 10-minute set, or I’ll just play a string of jigs until my focus, strength or bagpipe wanes. Some days after the first set or two I’ll have a more relaxing day and just play two or three piobaireachds.

Sometimes, if I’ve learned a new piobaireachd, I’ll play if first. I’ll tune again after the ground, and again after a variation or two and just plow through to the end. This way I’m blowing my pipes down and working on the tune a bit as well. At the end of my practice session I may play the tune again as an “event.”

One day the 6/8 set might be 9/8s, or a set of two-parted 2/4s, or a set of slow airs.

It varies every day, and that’s what keeps it interesting. The focus may depend on an upcoming event or recital and what I plan to play there.

Very rarely do I play the same tune more than twice: none of this bludgeoning a tune until it’s good and dead.

The above is what works for me. Others may have patterns that work better for them, but the bottom line is that you must maintain an active repertoire while still working in new material.

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