In addition to being musical, playing the bagpipe is all about precision. We play an instrument that is very loud. Because of that, it not only needs to be tuned to precision, but it needs to be played to precision to the best of our abilities. We memorize all of the music that we play. We also play 99% of our music as bands in unison. If you play in a jazz band and you make a mistake, you can claim that as "improvising". Most listeners aren't going to hear that as you are playing with other people playing different parts of the song. That's not the case for us.
In bagpipe music, we play everying in unison which means that all of the notes need to be played by all players exactly the same way by memory. The question is this: How do you learn and memorize tunes effectively and efficiently? I'm going to explain that using the "Tune Pyramid".
It all starts at the bottom with fingering. If you want to be a good bagpiper one of the strongest parts of your playing should be fingering. You need to practice and master playing not only the melodies but all of the ornamentation that goes with that. When you are learning a new tune, you should strive to play every single note, period. Don't move to the next position until you have thought about it first. The first reading is very critical. I believe that if you play a tune 10 times exactly the same way in a row you will have it memorized.
Analyzing the rhythm before you start your fingering will certainly help you master the tune sooner than later. The problems happen when you race your way sloppily through the initial readings. It's like a document in Word. Everytime you make a change and save that document it is a different document. Working in this manner makes you have to go back and fix problems that you created because you were hasty, taking even longer to learn the tune and memorize it.
In the pyramid, you can't have rhythm, expression or a memorized tune if you can't finger it. You can't have musical expression unless you have fingering and rhythm. Every layer of the Tune Pyramid is dependent on the layer underneath.
Make it a habit to learn your tunes as slowly as possible so that you aren't correcting yourself. More importantly, you should isolate and practice technique in warm ups before learning your tunes.
Just some food for thought...
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".