The journey to become a better Highland bagpiper can be hard. It’s uneven. Success is slow. Failure and frustration are hiding around every corner. It’s like the world’s most unpleasant roller coaster.
But success is never immediate—in anything.
Being a “better piper” is also not a single destination. Progress in all things takes constant effort and dedicated action. You build on your successes toward greater success still. You’re here at Dojo University, so you are already taking those constant steps toward improvement!
Setting the goal to be a “better piper” is a big one. It can offer excitement, but it is just big enough to scare our brains and overstretch our skills. We’ll always compare ourselves to XYZ bagpiper and lament that we don’t sound as good as that. The trouble is, big goals and comparisons like that can often paralyze us and prevent us from taking action. There are many articles and videos (see Take Action below) that offer suggestions for setting short-term, actionable goals that build on one another toward the ultimate goal of improvement. The challenge is to accept what is required to achieve those goals. The key to that though, is to create a system that works for you. Instead of establishing goals, establish a great system that brings positive results in distinct areas of your playing. Achieving positive results in small areas again and again makes achieving new goals less of a struggle. Commit to your process. Focus on practice instead of performance.
The Japanese principle of kaizen, or “change for the better” (i.e., “improvement”), is applicable in Highland bagpiping just as it is in business practices. The notion of continuous improvement is ingrained in Japanese manufacturing and business. The modern application of this philosophy drills down to the smallest amount of improvement that can be achieved. Even 1% improvement in any area adds up to a large amount when it is constant and spread out over many dimensions of effort.
This is the concept of “marginal gains” I’ve written about before. Small improvements/gains made in all areas of practice add up (eventually) to large leaps in performance.
Think of the smallest step you can make right now in your piping practice that will lead to some degree of improvement. Do that. Every day. Each time you pick up your instrument. Commit to improving some aspect 1%. A small amount. Establishing a system where you are always working toward improvement by some small amount, not huge leaps, will get you to the goal of becoming a “better piper” faster than anything else you can devise. It’s certainly less intimidating and definitely more manageable.
Let’s take an example of a piper who is working on their sound production. Working with a manometer is one of the easiest measures to determine how well (or how poorly) you are blowing at the “sweet spot” of the reed and achieving the best sound possible. How long are you able to hold the water level steady during a tune? Let’s say that you are holding steady for the first part of “Scotland the Brave” but the second part has the water level jumping up and down as you lose steadiness. What would equal a 1% improvement on that? If you work and are then able to keep that water level consistently steady up to and through the first bar of the second part, you will have improved your sound by 1%. It’s not a precise measure, but it’s a small improvement that we can call “1% better.”
A 1% improvement does not seem like a lot, and it isn’t. It’s tiny. And it’s simple. These small improvements are not as exciting as a huge leap in progress, but they are crucial to that progress, are stronger, and are more sustainable. Commit to a system that is always making you 1% better in various areas of your playing, and you will be on your way to developing kaizen—constant improvement—the single best thing that will make you a “better piper.”