I find that my students come in on a regular basis and say “this is what I did this week”. If you have been reading my blog, you know that I ascribe to the premise that my job is to teach my students how to practice this week. The growth happens between lessons. I once wrote about how investing enough practice time can make all of the difference in the world. This week, I want to say again, that if you come into my studio and tell me “this is what I did this week, you missed the point.
Because bagpipe music is played by memory, we need to invest our practice time with a plan. The goal is to be able to play a list of tunes on the bagpipe. If you’re a bagpiper or another type of musician, have you taken inventory of your repertoire? Do you know what you are capable of playing? This week I had a number of my students make a list of their bagpipe tunes. One of them had over 200 tunes on their list! I am a firm believer that if you play a tune enough times, it will “pop”. When it pops it is memorized and at that point you won’t have to spend as much time on it.
Next, take your list of tunes and sort them into sets. Put them in order and mix up the meters. When you perform, especially for weddings and long gigs, your brain remembers the tunes in a sequence (at least, mine does). When you practice you should always start with the tunes that are most familiar to you. People who feel like they are winning practice longer. I have students that come in saying that they only practiced one tune for the whole week! When I asked them how much they practiced every day, they said it was no more than 15 minutes. Heck, if I only had one tune to play, I probably wouldn’t practice any more than that either! You always start with familiar tunes and sets and work your way down the list. If you are learning new tunes, you add them to the bottom. It’s sort of like a developer building a housing development. They build the models first, and then build away from them going down the street. As you progress down the street you see houses in less completed stages of construction. That’s what your tune list should look like. When the tunes at the top of the list “pop” and are memorized you can start practicing down past those tunes as you will only need to review them occasionally.
If you work in this fashion, you will develop a long and interesting tune repertoire. With this process and the right amount of time (a minimum of 60 minutes per day) you will accomplish a lot and win “the bagpipe game”. (This process could also apply to other instruments and other areas of your life!)"
In my last blog post I told you about my student (the flight attendant) who was having a problem trying to find time to practice her bagpipe. We went back and forth on that for some time, trying to find her a solution. Just to recap: My flight attendant student travels 4 days a week in her job. Her practice chanter playing is excellent. However, because she is away for long stretches, she doesn’t get the benefit of blowing and squeezing her bagpipe. We talked about using a drone valve, but then something hit me that I thought would be better.
When you buy a maintenance kit for your bagpipe, you usually get stock corks, drone corks, hemp, a mandril and some other tools to help maintain your bagpipe. I always thought that it was funny that you got 5 stock corks in the set. You probably would never use more than 4 in one sitting. Anyway, I told her to take one of those stock corks and drill a small hole in it. When she travels, I suggested she take the bag and blow stick only with corks in the drone stocks. In the chanter stock she can insert the cork with the hole in it. The idea is that when she is in her hotel room on her trips, she can blow and squeeze the bagpipe and her neighbors won’t hear a peep. The hole creates enough resistance as the air escapes, similar in force to blowing all of the reeds.
Another student from way back came around again after 10 years. She complained that although she started her bagpipe project 12 years ago, she still isn’t able to blow her pipes for any length of time. I asked her how often she blows her pipes. She said maybe twice a week. I told her that we would both be dead by the time she is able to play for any length of time at that rate. This situation might be perfect for her also, and anyone like her. You can blow and squeeze while watching TV or any time you want as it will be quiet practicing.
The question is this: Does your lifestyle inhibit your bagpipe career? If so, this might be for you.
Gary Guth is a professional bagpiper with over 45 years of playing experience and has been teaching bagpipes full time for the last 20 years. He has written "Bagpipes For Beginners", "the Bagpipe Hymnal", and " A Piper's Christmas".