As a younger man, I worked at night. I was able to practice four to five hours before I went to work. When I returned home at the end of my shift, I’d practice for another two. I made quite a bit of progress and, as a result, identified six hours of practice as the minimum I needed in order to progress.
As life progressed, so did the demands on my time. With a family and a new career, my piping fell by the wayside. I set the pipes aside for about thirty years before I picked them up again about a year ago. One thing hadn’t changed, though. I still felt that, in order to progress, I had to practice six hours a day.
I had to find a better way.
Work, mow the lawn, do the chores. By the end of the day, all of my commitments had filled up the available time. Practicing for six hours was not only impractical, it was impossible. I had to find a better way.
Rather than focusing on time, I focused on objectives. Within the grand plan of what I wanted to accomplish, I broke my practice down into smaller tasks that would help me to reach my goals. For example, my low G oriented embellishments had suffered during my hiatus. Rather than playing a crisp, D gracenote, I was lifting and replacing my D finger. It sounded mushy. My D gracenote was not crisp. So, for the taorluath, I focused on the following (outlined in the Dojo Tutor, V2):
Starting on low A, I focused on playing a crisp D gracenote on low G in addition to properly executing each step of the taorluath. If I met my objective of playing a crisp, D gracenote on low G, and the rest of the taorluath was even, then I’d run a scale. On the taorluath starting from D, I’d focus on making a crisp, B gracenote on low G. If I successfully executed the scale without any errors, then I’d run the scale again and attempt to bring the taorluaths up to speed. If I started to make mistakes, I’d go back, execute the steps slowly and correctly the taorluath from A. Once I got it right, slowly, I’d move on.
Total time required for the taorluath? Five minutes or less.
What can you do in five minutes? I try to dedicate a block of time every day for practice. Ultimately, work and chores can get in the way and I have to sacrifice my block of time. Six hours becomes nothing more than a pipe dream, pardon the pun.
I can, however, find five minutes here and there. Before I leave for work in the morning, I can run through my taorluath exercise and then bolt for the door. If I have a brief respite at work, I can pull out my electronic chanter and run through my grips for five minutes. After I get home from work and before I go outside to mow the lawn, I can run through my C doublings. If I only manage to find three five-minute periods in the day during which I can practice, that’s fifteen minutes of practice time. And since I’m focusing on objectives rather than actual wall clock time, I’m working toward my overall goals and improving.
Longer practice sessions? When I am able to dedicate longer blocks of time to practice, I still focus on objectives. I use my five-minute blocks to build an overall practice routine. I have a set of objectives for each embellishment and I maintain a list of problem areas in each of the tunes I’m working on. For embellishments, I’m able to dedicate five minutes to each. I still focus correct gracenote technique and bringing the embellishments up to speed. However, if I begin to make mistakes, I slow the movements down, get them right, and move on.
I do want to note that the bagpipe, like any musical instrument, takes a great deal of dedication to master. I am not implying that you could get by with only a few five minute practice sessions every day. Quite the contrary, mastering the bagpipe can take years and endless hours of practice. However, having a five minute practice routine in your hip pocket can keep your fingers in shape on those days when everything is hitting the fan.
We all have commitments. We all want to improve as pipers. The amount of time that we need to dedicate to our commitments may mean that we cannot find our “six hours” of practice time. When that is the case, get your list of objectives out and when you have five minutes, practice meeting one of your objectives, then return to your commitments.