In the past I've written about the importance of a tune list and "plate spinning". Look, when we are bagpipers we are always excited about new tunes and different music. The problem is this: Every tune that we learn we are going to memorize at some point. Again the only qualification to being a bagpiper is to be able to play a list of tunes on the bagpipe. We get a new CD of solo bagpipe music, we hear a tune and the next thing you know we are looking for it on the internet. When we find it, we print it and drop everything else to learn this tune right now. I call this behaviour a "BTO" which is short for "Bagpipe Tune Orgasm". This kind of behaviour if not properly channeled can lead to being able to "kind of play the bagpipes" and years of non productivity.
Again, my job as a Bagpipe Teacher is to teach you how to practice this week. As every tune we learn we will probably be playing for the rest of our lives, we need a different strategy than the normal music learning strategys. As I've said in previous blog posts, learning to play the trumpet, clarinet, piano and guitar have "pass through" songs that are only used to teach a specific skill. That is not the case in bagpipe music. As we memorize bagpipe music we need to start with a different process from the beginning. I personally introduce tunes that have certain technical challenges in the course of my program and we build from there. I also encourage my students to buy CD's and listen to the end result of what they're hoping to achieve. This is where "BTO's" can become fatal to your bagpipe career.
The first thing that you need is a list. You need a list of tunes that you already play. When you have a "BTO" with any tune, you put that tune at the bottom of your list. There is a psychology to practicing which is very important. If you start your practice with a new tune, you will struggle for about 5 minutes, put your chanter down and walk away from the table. In most cases you will get involved in something else and not get back to it until the next day. So, what did you accomplish, five minutes of practicing? Instead, you should always start at the top of your tune list. Better yet, if you have some technical exercises to do, you should work on them for about 5 to 10 minutes. You should then play down your tune list. Every time you've played a tune, you've won. People like to win. If you are winning you are going to want to do more. As you work your way down the list the fact that you are reviewing the tune brings them another step closer to being memorized. I honestly believe that when you reach the point of a tune being memorized, it will take less time for the next tune to be memorized. It's like developing a muscle in your brain that you've never used before. As it gets stronger you will eventually be at a point where you eat tunes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. After 40 years of doing this, it takes nothing for me personally to develop and memorize a tune. I believe that will eventually happen to you. Fear (false expectations appearing real) of not being able to memorize will limit this ability. This fear is caused by an unrealistic goal of memorizing a tune by a certain date. If you are new and want to compete in the spring and summer, you should start your new tunes in September. Again, warm up with your tune list first.
What you need to do today is to make your tune list. Start with the tunes that you play the best. If any two of those tunes are played in sets put them together. Control yourself and put your "BTO's" at the bottom. Hopefully you'll all live long enough to play all of the tunes that you want to play.
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".