I hear a lot of bagpipers tell me that they have a hard time memorizing tunes. That’s a true struggle because a good bagpiper is a person who can play a list of tunes by memory. It’s pretty much essential.
The first question that I ask these people is; “Can you sing it?” Do you know how the tune goes or can you hear it in your head? If they say no, then they won’t be able to memorize it yet. I don’t believe that most people can actually visualize the music. I know that when I am playing something, I hear it in my head and my fingers correspond to the song I’m hearing.
I can tell you that if you play a tune 10 times and you play it exactly the same way each and every time, you might have it memorized by the 10th time. If you play that same tune 10 different ways, the you might just be confused by the 10th time.
Tune development has a process that includes: fingering, rhythm and expression. I’m going to break these down into bite-sized pieces.
1) Develop the fingering:
When learning a new piece, always start with fingering. Perhaps before you put your mouthpiece into your mouth and blow, you should talk your way through the fingering. Do that a few times. When you start blowing through the tune, don’t move until you know where you are going. Performing tunes well means performing them without any mistakes.
2) Define the rhythm:
Take a pencil and write in the rhythm syllables (1e&a 2 &a etc) under the melody notes. If you do this for a while, you’ll get to a point where you can read that rhythm without a problem. You have to do your due diligence!
3) Say the rhythm:
Read the syllables that you wrote under the melody notes. It’s all about inflection. If you have questions about the use of rhythm and need more of an explanation, go to my Rhythm Program.
4) Clap and say rhythm:
Clap the beat and say the syllables to the beat. Your claps will be on the numbers. It might take some time to get used to doing this but it will certainly be to your advantage.
5) Sing the rhythm:
Use the rhythm syllables like lyrics and sing them to the notes of the melody. If you don’t know how the tune goes, you might be able to find it on YouTube. All of my books have practice chanter audio for that purpose. After practicing in this manner, you should have the tune in your head before long.
6) Finger and sing the rhythm to the melody:
Now you are associating the song in your head with the fingering, while looking at the music. By now, you should be close to having this piece memorized.
You will find as you do this for a while that these will become habits. You might also find that when you play a tune enough times, you will also have it memorized. All of my books have practice chanter audio associated with the tunes in the book. You can find these books at: Gary’s Books.
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".