I probably have said this before: The only qualification to being a bagpiper is to be able to play a list of tunes by memory on the bagpipe. I find that as I work with my students, they get into the “plate spinning” mode. They’ll play the “tune of the week” and spin that plate, while letting the others that they worked on fall and break. The secret - in my opinion - to making all of this go together is a “tune list”. The tune list, as I’ve said before, is your goal list. I would start this process at the very beginning. Unlike classical musicians who pass through music to learn technique, the bagpiper plays all of the tunes that are learned. Scot’s Wha Hae, in most cases, is the very first tune learned. It is also performed on occasion.
Again, the goal is to memorize a list of tunes. The first thing you need is a list. Take all of the tunes that you play now and write them down in list form. Arrange them in sets of two or three. For instance: "Scotland the Brave" and the "Rowan Tree" are usually played together as is “Green Hills’ and “Battle’s Over”. Any time you hear a tune that you just have to learn, you should put at the bottom of this list. When you practice you should always start at the top and work your way down. If you goal is to play in a pipe band, I would take your Pipe Band Association's mass band tunes and place them on this list as well. Practice from the top down. I am a firm believer that all of the tunes will be memorized with enough repetition. You should play down this list everyday.
There is a process that I call the “tune train”. You might have a list of 10 tunes to start. If you play all of these tunes your “engine will be on tune number 10 and your “caboose” will be on tune number one. As you add tunes to the list, your engine will progress down. As your tunes become memorized, you caboose will move to the next tune. You might only be consistently working on 10 tunes at a time. As you leave tunes in the wake of the caboose, you have expanded your performing repertoire. Over a period of years, you could literally have scores of tunes that you can play for any occasion. After your tunes are memorized, you might find that you only need to review the memorized tunes once in a while.
Remember, spinning plates not only makes you unproductive, it doesn’t lead to a successful bagpipe career.
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".