Practical matters rule the day. We can talk all day about artistry, ability, practicing and all the things that make a good bagpiper. But it is often the more mundane, practical things on which all of that rests. Addressing the practical matters of music, instrument, and logistics will set you up right and allow you to get the most out of your efforts this competition season. There are also benefits to "ritualizing" your efforts to keep them enjoyable. Here are five things that will set you off on the right foot this year.
1. Expand your horizons. This is the time of year I think about where I want to go and what I want to accomplish and what I'll need to get me there. Bagpipe competitions can be a slog sometimes. Driving, flying…it all requires quite a bit of traveling here in North America. But it adds a bit of excitement to plan new trips and new sojourns each year, too.
Everyone has their "definite" games or events. These are the contests that you attend each year no matter what. I usually plug those into the calendar immediately and then I expand from there. Obviously, if you play with a band, much of your travel is pre-decided. But you need to achieve a good balance as many of us have other things going on in our lives, and it is good to expand your personal piping horizons. Sit down and take a look at the calendar. What days are definitely taken up with non-piping commitments? Scratch those off. Block in those games that will meet your desired level of activity.
Having a fleshed out travel calendar for the season will give you something to work for and look forward to throughout the year, as well as head off any potential conflicts in scheduling. It doesn't necessarily even have to be personal competitive activity that maps out your travel goals. You can determine that you wish to attend specific events or workshops that add a social dimension to your piping. All of these things give us something to work for.
Once you've plotted dates on a calendar, think about "time." What kind of time off from work will I need? Are there weekends involved? Will the family come along? Long drives? Air travel? Hotel reservations? Those things can't really wait until the last minute. Get those done and come up with a plan. This leads us to…
2. Budget. I always like to plot out how much money I will be using up for travel, lodging, etc. Any air travel will have its own schedule for purchasing tickets at the ideal time (and airfares are expensive!), so it is going to hit in the wallet if you drag your heels. Same with hotels at bigger or more remote games. Rooms fill up fast. Coming up with a budget will give you the knowledge up front whether a certain trip is feasible or not, or it will give you a reason to allocate funds down the road. Like any budgeting, achieving your financial goals in the future will depend on how well you manage your money early on.
3. Take stock. What does my instrument need? Put it in place now. I like to take inventory of my reed supply and then fill it out if I need to. I also like to fool around with new set ups and new gadgets at this time of year because it works out all the bugs before things get real.
For example, I've also got the timing mapped out for a new bag. My old sheep needs to be put down soon. I'm hoping to get through then next few weeks with it, but we'll see. Been wanting to try a new set of drone reeds? Now is the time to purchase them and fit them in so you can get comfortable playing them. How are you fixed for chanter reeds? Time to buy some and start playing a few so they are nice and ready for the start of the season.
4. Instrument TLC. This is basic maintenance. The winter months are ideal for those bagpipe chores that you put off but are extremely necessary. Replacing hemp, changing bags, cleaning, and oiling your drone bores are all chores, but skipping them will really hold you back during the playing season if they're not done at the right time.
Now, you might think this is where I'll talk about your new tunes and tips to get them ready for the competition season. New tunes are great, and music work is something that is always done, but I want to talk about…
5. Inspiration. This is the time of year I seek out to inject some winter excitement into my piping life. This could mean attending an event to hear great live piping or attending a workshop where you'll get great instruction to carry over into your efforts (see number 1). I think we're all guilty of this little time-sink, but I like to poke around the internet and find clips of excellent piping performances and spend time listening. YouTube is a bottomless treasure chest of great pipers and great performances. There are other sources as well. The videos from the Glenfiddich championship and the recent Winter Storm competitions in Kansas City, Missouri are good ones to get fingers juiced. It would be nearly impossible to watch those and not feel invigorated and excited for the start of the new season.
And that's the ultimate goal, isn't it? To feel good about your efforts and keep your passion alive.