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Learn a New Tune the Dojo Way


When first looking at a new tune, how many of us get out our practice chanter, take a few deep breaths, and start plowing our way through the entire first part, or goodness knows, the entire tune? It’s a new tune, so it must be OK to sound a bit sloppy at first, right? Those embellishments will come around over time, I’m sure, after I’ve played the tune a few hundred times. And besides, I’m so good already that I don’t need to use a metronome! Unfortunately, these statements describe too many novice and intermediate level pipers. So, let’s take a look at a logical, proven, and reliable way to approach a new tune.

Trying to plow (yes, plow, not play) our way through a new tune is a setup for a bad outcome for many reasons. Bad outcomes include the following: 1) Trying to play the correct notes takes away from the more important focus on perfect rhythm, 2) embellishments are played incorrectly, 3) the cut/dot patterns fall are inaccurate, and 4) these mistakes and more are simply becoming embedded into muscle memory from the outset! Of course, trying to go through a new tune has many more pitfalls than those listed here, but there is a better way, as can be seen with the following link. Tune Building Basic

Regardless of the type of tune or its complexity, every tune can be approached in the same general way. At Dojo U, we call this the “tune building process”, in which we build up the tune from small pieces at first, and join those pieces to make bigger ones, and eventually put everything together.

An example of how one might take on a 2/4 march is shown in Figure 1, which represents only the first part of a great melodic tune, "Allan Dodd’s Farewell to Scotland".

Reading a new tune 1
Figure 1.

Play only what’s enclosed in the square, from the first down beat of the first bar, to the dotted E in the second bar, all of which accounts for three full down beats. Use a metronome set to a tempo that's slow enough that all of these notes and embellishments can be played correctly and on the beat. With a 2/4 march, in particular, it may be helpful to “double time” the metronome, say at 70 bpm, which will give a single time tempo of only 35bpm, but will allow the downbeat AND offbeat to be heard. Repeat the first bar 5-6 times, always with the metronome.

After you are comfortable with the first bar, play only the second bar, shown in Figure 2. Repeat the second bar 5-6 times, focus on playing exactly on the beat, and make sure to play each step of each embellishment.

Reading a new tune 2
Figure 2.
Reading a new tune full phrase
Figure 3.

Finally, put both bars together to make the tune’s first phrase, and play the phrase 5-6 times (Figure 3).

The next steps include playing bar 3 on its own, then bar 4 alone, then putting them together to make the second phrase. Lastly, put the two phrases together and now you can play the entire first line of the tune. Repeat this process for the second line of the tune, which for a march is easier because there is usually repeated material.

In summary, by building from small pieces to larger ones, the tune building process helps to assure that the tune is learned correctly from the outset, the tune is memorized correctly, and the musicality of the tune will be maximized.

The tune building process has truly revolutionized the way this writer now approaches a tune. There are many more details about the process that can be found in such classes as the following:

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Building a Tune
Demonstration of Tune Building
Building up a 2/4 March


John Holcombe John began piping at the ripe old age of 55 years. Always liking the sound of the bagpipes, John grew up in Oklahoma, where he never had a chance early on to experience firsthand this amazing instrument. But after moving to Indianapolis, he had the great fortune in 2004 to begin lessons with Craig Waugh, and Open Grade piper originally from Manitoba, Canada. Through that outstanding instruction, along with annual attendance at Jack Lee’s Piping Hot Summer Drummer and being a founding and continuing premium member of Dojo University, John has continued through hard work and determination to advance his knowledge and technical skills. As a retired research physician, John now enjoys immersing himself in piping, and he is proud to have won several first place medals in Grade 4 competitions in EUSPBA-sanctioned events. John’s current goal is to achieve the Grade 3 level of competence.