DAILY BAGPIPE ADVICE: When you catch on fire, you STOP, DROP AND ROLL. When you’re practicing the bagpipe and you hit a bump in the music, you STOP, ISOLATE AND DRILL.

Stop, drop and roll is a very effective way to put out a fire on your body. You probably learned those three words when you were a child. Since it’s so memorable, I decided to come up with a similar adage for bagpiping – stop, isolate, and drill. Let’s talk about how this can help you practice and master the bagpipe…or any instrument, for that matter.

Practicing isn’t about playing something over and over again until its right.  When you start a new tune, you should first play as slowly as possible so that you play every single note, grace note, and doubling. Remember, learning to play a tune that you are eventually going to commit to memory involves muscle memory. Bagpipe technique is about muscle memory.  As you’re playing through the tune, your first pass is sort of like an audit. You play slowly until you hit a bump.  Stop!  Circle the problem with a pencil. (You should always have a pencil when you practice.) Continue on until you hit the next bump. Again, stop and circle. By the time you get to the end of the tune, you might have five to six circles. Congratulations! You have just isolated your problems of this tune.

My job as a music teacher or bagpipe teacher isn’t to teach you the tunes. My job is to teach you how to develop your own tunes. Before you go back and play through the tune again, you need to go to each of the circles and drill.  Here’s the plan:

  1. Play the positions to make sure that there are no crossing noises.
  2. If you’re playing doublings, play the note previous to the doubling followed by only the first syllable (the G grace note) to the new position. This is the place where most people mess up doublings.  Play this until you have no problem.
  3. Add the second syllable to the doubling.

When drilling something, use this as an opportunity to develop your breath. Do as many repetitions as it takes to expend a full breath. That should create enough repetitions to solve your problem. After you have performed this operation on all of your circles, you can then play through the tune again very slowly. It’s better to play a tune 20 times exactly the same way than 20 different ways!