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Demand More From Yourself
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Demand More From Yourself

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In order to progress as a piper, you will need to improve shortcomings in your technique. The first step toward improvement is to identify where your technique falls short. The second step is to identify a method that will help you to improve your technique.

Your teacher does not see or hear all of your practice sessions. If that were the case, he or she could identify all your problems for you. In all probability, your teacher is not looking over your shoulder every second of the day. It falls upon your shoulders to identify areas in which you have problems.

To that end, record yourself and review your recordings. Listen to your recordings with a critical ear. Identify the areas with which you have problems. It might be a B doubling that is too open, it might be a grip on high A that is uneven, or it might be a throw on D that places too much emphasis on the low G. This is the first step in demanding more of yourself. Knowing what you need to improve.

Once you’ve identified problem areas, work with your teacher or your pipe major to correct these problems. Work to identify a method that will help you to improve your technique. In doing this, you are demanding more from yourself and more from your instructor.

For example, my B doublings are very open. When I play a B doubling, I can play the G grace note on B, grab a cup of coffee, read an article in the paper, and return, leisurely, before I play the D grace note on B. When listening to my recordings, this was particularly evident. I had identified a problem in my technique, but I needed to identify a method that would help me to improve. To correct the situation, I recorded a B doubling exercise and sent it to my instructor. During my lesson, we reviewed the recording together. This was particularly valuable because I could hear my mistake while my instructor described my error.

My instructor had me play through the exercise and attempted to help make corrections. He finally had me play the B doubling, on it’s own, in succession, until I got it right; clean grace notes, with even, and quick, spacing between the G and the D grace notes. He would not let me stop playing until I played the B doubling correctly. Played properly, the B doubling had a different feel in my hands in comparison to my open version. More importantly, in working with my instructor, by demanding more from my instructor, we had arrived at a method known as "practicing for proficiency."

The typical mantra for gaining mastery on any musical instrument is repetition: Play an exercise a certain number of times or practice it for a specific period of time. To a certain extent, practicing repetitively is valuable; I don’t mean to demean the time-honored method. However, practicing an exercise or a piece repetitively and incorrectly will not yield results that will take you to a higher standard. If you sow bad seeds, you will harvest a bad crop. Rather than setting a goal of executing a defined set of repetitions, or practicing an exercise for a defined period of time, I started practicing exercises and portions of tunes until I could execute them correctly.

In my case, that meant practicing the B doubling exercises until I could execute them correctly and snippets of tunes where my B doublings were particularly offensive. This changed the structure of my practice sessions; I dedicated most of the time to the B doubling and practiced it until I got it right. If, during a practice session, I gained a level of proficiency on the B doubling, I then moved to another embellishment that I could not execute correctly and focused on it until I could execute it correctly.

The elephant in this room is that practicing for proficiency can, seemingly, slow your progress. If you have to spend an entire session practicing a specific embellishment to the exclusion of others, you may slow your overall progress. However, assume that you can play all your embellishments well with the exception of your B doubling. Assume that the B doubling constitutes 20% of the embellishments in a piece that you are playing. That means that you run the risk of being unable to play a small chunk of the embellishments in your piece correctly. We all like to demand more from ourselves by practicing a diverse selection of exercises and tunes. We like to demand more from our teachers when we ask them to teach us new tunes and techniques. But, if we can’t execute those tunes and techniques correctly, we are slowing our progress by building a large repertoire that we cannot execute correctly.

Start demanding more from yourself. Identify, the areas where you have problems. Demand more from you teacher, have him or her help you to correct the problems. Chances are, the two of you will arrive at a method that will help you build your technique. You can then use this technique to build a large repertoire.

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Mark Olson Mark Olson is a software engineer in Omaha, NE. Over the years, he has played numerous musical instruments including the bagpipes, guitar, piano, flute, and saxophone. As a young man, Mark competed as a solo piper. Due to the demands of raising a family, Mark had to forgo his musical pursuits. While he regrets the fact he gave up the bagpipes, he is proud of the fact that both of his sons have grown to be fine young men. With the nest now empty, he has picked up the pipes once again. If he gets his chops, and his groove, back, he plans to compete again as a solo piper.

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