A while back, I wrote about how developing a tune is like baking chocolate chip cookies. To review, the first step in making chocolate chip cookies is the dry mix; the flour, salt, and baking soda. In tune development, it is the rhythm.
During this Covid-19 pandemic, we have a million people playing Amazing Grace to honor our medical personnel. While their heart is in the right place, the majority of what I have heard are performances that lack rhythm. Does it matter in this instance? Probably not. But as a bagpipe teacher, I make a big deal about rhythm as it is the main channel for developing musical expression on the bagpipe. In this process we take a pencil and we write in the “rhythm syllables” below the melody notes. Then we practice saying them until we are fluent. At that point, even if we have never heard the melody before, we have an idea as to where the tune is going.
The wet ingredients in chocolate chip cookies are the butter, the eggs, the sugar, the brown sugar, and the vanilla. In tune development, that is the fingering. The fingering is what takes the longest to develop. Because you took the time to ingest the rhythm at the beginning, as your fingering evolves you are going to start hearing the tune.
The last ingredient in chocolate chip cookies is the chocolate chips. This is the metronome. Bagpipe music doesn’t have good musicality if there isn’t a steady beat. I think marching in place creates a steady beat…unless you have a club foot or a peg leg. 😉 You can even practice marching in place while sitting in a chair. To do that you lift your heels while leaving your toes on the floor. Practice doing this with help from a metronome, alternating your feet. (You can download a free metronome phone app. There’s no need to purchase one.)
The metronome is last!! Why? Because if you use it too early, you are going to sacrifice ornamentation in the tune. When you start using a metronome in 4/4 time, say at 72 BPM, that might be too fast for you. My suggestion is to play the tune in 8/8. Tap to the eighth note. This gives you an opportunity to open all of the doublings and tour paths so that the grace notes within those ornaments land on the right syllables. As you improve, you can up the beats per minute and then convert to playing back in 4/4.
I’m not opposed to using a metronome. I think that student bagpipers take it upon themselves to use it too early without proper instruction and supervision. Chocolate chips by themselves create nothing except a headache and diabetes.