Many consider the Great Highland Bagpipe to be one of the most, if not the most, difficult of instruments in the world to master.
Common mythology has it that to be a piper “takes seven years and seven generations". So it should come as no surprise that, whether first attempting to learn the basics on the practice chanter or transitioning to the full pipes, you may say to yourself, “I am so frustrated!”, “Nothing I do is working!” or “When I learn one thing, I forget how to do another!”. The sad part is that, at this point, many will abandon their idea of learning to play this amazing instrument. Well, friends, you are not alone. Piping students of all ages and even experienced players at various levels will experience such thoughts or difficulties to some degree, but there are logical and practical ways to approach these seemingly insurmountable roadblocks.
A previous post discussed the different learning styles between adults and youth. Some of that information comes into play here, particularly because we adults have so many other responsibilities and necessary distractions on our minds besides piping. But for today, let’s assume that you are an adult learner who is at any stage of the learning process, either practice chanter or already on the pipes. Let’s further assume for the moment that you are working with an experienced instructor who is guiding you along.
One approach to address piping roadblocks is to separate them into minor and major categories. For example, mastering a particular embellishment, such as a taorluath, can be a frustrating roadblock, but it is truly a minor one. Having difficulty memorizing a particular tune, despite many hours of trying, would also be a minor issue. However, in the category of major impediment would fall that feeling of being so overwhelmed with frustration, often when you’re already a member of a band, that you feel that you can simply cannot carry on.
First, let’s tackle those pesky minor issues since all of them will have a solution, especially if a major part of your learning includes Dojo University. In our example of being unable to correct a “bad” taorluath, the best approach would be to take a deep breath (pun intended), relax, and thoroughly understand and be able to verbalize each step of this often difficult Low G oriented movement. In other words, say to yourself, “Step zero, come from any note”, “Step one, play Low G”, “Step two, play a D gracenote ON Low G”, “Step three, play an E gracenote TO Low A.” Recognize that you can’t just will your fingers to do something correctly. They must be taught through repetitions of finger movements played slowly and correctly. Muscle memory will establish itself through reinforcement of repetition. Tell yourself that a taorluath has three sounds, and those sounds need to be clearly audible and evenly spaced. You do understand that you will not master this movement overnight, right? So, be patient. Play each step of the movement as slowly as necessary to get it right. Close your eyes and play a taorluath, then play a taorluath from any note on the scale. Do it again. At each of your practice sessions, take a bar of music you’re learning that contains a taorluath, use your metronome, and spend 10 minutes playing that one bar. Record yourself, and listen right away. Listen for and concentrate on the three sounds. Are they clear? Are they even? Spending only a few, yet focused, minutes on this single movement will show dividends more quickly than you may yet realize. On the other hand, DO NOT play the entire part of a tune over and over, when the only taorluath in the entire tune is in the second bar! Focus and isolate the issue at hand. Trying to “finally get it right” by playing the entire part of or whole tune is, indeed, a waste of time and simply will not work. We’ve discussed here only the taorluath, but these same suggestions hold true for any embellishment that is presenting a roadblock to your progress.
If memorizing a tune is your minor issue (probably a major one for some of us!), be sure that you are learning the “Dojo Way”, and be patient. Be sure to listen often to the tune being played correctly, such as a recording by your Pipe Major, or any of the readily available online resources. Once the tune’s melody “gets in your head”, it is a whole lot easier to transfer that music to your fingers. Use a metronome set to a very slow tempo, and learn only one bar or phrase at a time before moving to the next bar or phrase. Then combine the first and second bar or phrases and play them combined until you are playing everything correctly. Do this at least ten times, then turn away from the music or turn it over, and play as much as you can. You may be surprised at how far you can get without looking. Playing at a slow enough tempo to get all the notes and embellishments correct, and on the beat, is the key to success.
Some developing pipers hit roadblocks by overwhelming themselves with unrealistic expectations. Why carry around the music for thirty tunes, when you have yet to memorize and play correctly not even a single one of them? Perhaps a good term here would be “pipers’ attention disorder”, because there is lack of proper focus. Set realistic expectations for what you plan to accomplish during each one of your practice sessions. Do not, for example, try to play all the way through five different tunes, failing to stop and correct your mistakes in each of them. Pick a single tune, and focus on the part, or parts, with which you’re having the most difficultly. Too many folks are too impatient to learn a tune correctly in the first place, especially adult learners, who rush through everything, build incorrect muscle memory, and the ending is never a happy one. Trust me, it is much harder to relearn a tune properly than to learn it accurately from the beginning. In summary, minor roadblocks can be dealt with, and overcome, with logical and common-sense approaches.
Now let us turn to major roadblocks, which are in many ways potentially more serious than minor ones. One example of a major issue may include problems with consistent unsteady blowing. You may have thought that you’re a “steady blower”, or “good enough”, but your PM keeps telling you to “blow steady!” You might not yet be to a point where you can hear the drones or chanter wavering in pitch, so how can we ever hope to correct something if the problem itself is not precisely defined? For unsteady blowing, that’s where the objective feedback from a water manometer comes in. Understand both the physical and mental blowing issues. Use the manometer frequently to continue improving your skill. Turn this roadblock from “I just can’t do this” into the challenge of “Let me see if I can play this entire tune and keep the water level within plus or minus one inch around the sweet spot.” Remember that it may take many months, or even longer, to become a “steady blower”. Dealing head-on with the issue, being patient and consistent, will pay off in the long run.
Manage Your Time
Have you ever been required to be away from your pipes or practice chanter for one or two weeks at a time, perhaps on a long business trip? Yet upon your return you pick up the pipes and they sound great, and your fingers are doing everything you ask of them, with gracenotes and embellishments actually sounding amazing? Such a break, with subsequent renewed enthusiasm for piping, means that it is ok to take an occasional short break from piping.
Before taking a break, however, it might be useful to examine one’s practice habits for a clue to what’s going wrong. Are you frustrated at the end of each session, or are you excited and encouraged at your slow but steady progress? If the former, consider shortening your practice times so that you work on only one or two issues. Do not try to do everything at once. Remember, short yet frequent practices are more useful than a once-a-week long and tedious session. Do you find that a short practice in the early morning is more productive than one at the end of a busy day? Try to rearrange your schedule, if possible.
What’s important is not to get overwhelmed by the time spent learning the pipes. Learning to be a superb piper takes time, especially for adult learners, but the journey should be enjoyable (most of the time!) Trying to muscle your way through a difficult tune, especially on the pipes during a tedious and long practice session, may well lead to frustration and further impede progress. If you do find yourself feeling defeated, take a short break and come back to it later. Take small pieces and build them up slowly; that’s the way to go. It’s not a good idea to cram for a test the night before, although a few folks can do that because of good short term memory skills, but it will not work for piping technique. Some say that the fastest thing you can do when trying to learn the pipes too quickly is to fail fast. Therefore, take your time, do it right, have fun and succeed.
In closing, the author wants to acknowledge his co-author, Jennifer Maillet, who suggested the original idea to write about piping roadblocks and who contributed her superb insight and editing skills.