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Playing for an Accomplished Piper
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Playing for an Accomplished Piper

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Your band is holding a master class with an accomplished piper. Your sitting at the table playing through your band set on your practice chanter with your bandmates. Your guest instructor invites individuals to play the tune by him or herself. What do you do?

Do you volunteer and play right away?

You should.

When I was a young piper, I played in a band. It would have been more properly labeled as a quartet; we had four pipers and no drum section. We always practiced on Saturdays and for one particular practice session, we had a Grade I piper drive up from Kansas City to give us some instruction. I’ve always looked back on that day as a turning point. For such a landmark in my life, I should be able to remember the important details of the session, such as the piper’s name. I can, unfortunately, only remember his first name…Keith.

Until then, I had been self-taught. I had some good habits but most were poor. I did have one thing going for me, though. I was young enough that I had absolutely no fear about playing for an accomplished piper.

Keith listened to us play as a group. At the end of each set, he gave us tips on tuning, embellishments, and rhythm. Then, he asked if anyone would like to play through the set as a soloist. With youth and no fear on my side, I volunteered. I struggled through the set. I remember, particularly, trying to execute my, what can only be described as rather lame, double tap birl. After I had completed the set, Keith went over what he liked about the performance and identified key areas where it needed work. He then provided me with some instruction that I can only describe as an epiphany.

He showed me the "seven" birl, the birl where the little finger traces the number "7" across low G and is then quickly drawn back across. He played it for me several times on the practice chanter. It sounded like a rapid fire, two shot roman candle on the Fourth of July. I was mesmerized. He had my try it, but I failed miserably. After a few attempts, I was able to execute the movement slowly.

At that point in time, I knew where I was as a piper. I knew what I could do and how I would perform. I also knew where I wanted to be. Keith had not only inspired me, he had provided me with several practical exercises, and particularly the exercise for the birl, that could get me to where I had decided, then and there, I wanted to go.

Over the years, I’ve been to numerous camps and classes. In most cases, the instructor will ask for volunteers to play through a piece for the class. When that happens, I always remember my experience with Keith. If I’m not the first to volunteer, I am usually right behind the first volunteer.

I can’t say that I am as fearless as I was when I was younger. I’m a lot more careful now and that can get in the way when I pick up the tempo. We all have our weaknesses, we all have fears. For some reason, we fear playing for an accomplished piper. It might be some sort of stage fright, a fear of failure, or a fear of being harshly criticized.

Look at it from a guest instructor’s perspective, though. She or he has an interest in helping you to improve. Your instructor has a highly trained ear. She or he may be able to, and probably will, identify issues in your playing of which you are unaware. You might be smashing your doublings, or you grips may be uneven. Or, it might be something simple. You might landing a phrase before the beat.

And since your guest instructor has an interest in helping you to improve, she or he may provide you with some practical exercises that will help you to become a better piper.

More importantly, you instructor, just as Keith did for me, may give you inspiration. That is the greatest gift. Inspiration is something you cannot buy at your local bagpipe supplier.

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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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