Perhaps you’ve been to a live performance and have noted how relaxed and fluid the piper sounds. His or her finger work is spot on; each embellishment is crisp and even. You think to yourself, “I can do that!” Inspired by such a performance, you rush home, fire up the pipes, try to push the tempo, and the death grip sets in. You are anything but relaxed and your fingerwork becomes sloppy.
There is a path to learning how to play in a relaxed and fluid fashion with accurate fingerwork. You start by practicing slowly.
Andrew asked over twenty bagpipe judges a simple question, “what are the top reasons piper's fail to reach the next level?” Andrew noted that the same items popped up in every conversation. Most notably, judges identified sloppy fingerwork was one of the main culprits. This sloppiness breaks up into three “chronic” issues:
• Regularly occurring, glaring crossing noises.
• Gracenote sloppiness. Usually, gracenotes are too big and/or out-of-sync with the melody.
• Embellishments played poorly. Not only are embellishments themselves tricky, but they are also made up of gracenotes and note changes—VERY easy to mess up if you're not careful (and well prepared for competition).
Dojo U has developed a Six Month, “Next Level” BluePrint. The BluePrint is an organized schedule of six, one-half hour sessions each week that lasts six months. The BluePrint is an organized approach that will help you to improve in order to reach the next grade level in piping.
A cornerstone of the BluePrint is to practice slowly.
For example, if you are working on a 2/4 march and are in the entry-level grade, the BluePrint recommends a target tempo of 60 beats per minute. During the first four weeks of the 6-month plan, you practice at 45% to 55% of your target tempo or 27 to 33 BPM. As you progress through the plan, you eventually increase the percentage at which you practice your tunes.
In my case, I am in the fourth month of my BluePrint, so I am practicing at 70% (42 BPM) of my target tempo for my 2/4 march. At this tempo, I can relax and play nice, even embellishments. If I push the tempo by playing at 80% (48 BPM) and find that I am making mistakes or the death grip sets in, I can slow the tempo back down to 42 BPM and focus on relaxing while playing nice even embellishments. By practicing slowly, I find that I have eliminated crossing noises and have, overall, improved my embellishments.
I also find that practicing slowly helps as I progress from open gracenotes (in my case overly open) to more rapid, closed gracenotes that are in sync with the melody. I can focus on keeping the gracenotes even while not lifting my fingers too high off the chanter. While doing so, I am able to stay relaxed. I’ve even slowed my exercises way down, I practice them at 40 BPM. This helps me to focus on nice crisp gracenotes that are nice and even.
Overall, I can testify that I have reduced the amount of sloppy fingerwork in my tunes. I have, though, identified some key areas where sloppiness sets in. For those problem areas, I slow the tempo way down and loop through the phrase that is giving me problems. Slowing down key problem areas and looping through them is my one modification to my plan. That is one of the nice things about the BluePrint. As Andrew notes, “you can (and you should) tweak this plan to suit you better!”
At first, playing in a relaxed fashion was a nice side effect of practicing slowly. Now, at least for me, it has become an objective in and of itself. If the death grip sets in, I set the chanter down, stretch, relax my fingers, and get myself into a relaxed frame of mind. Then, I pick up the practice chanter again. I find that relaxed fingers can better execute the melody and embellishments and, as a result, reduce sloppy fingerwork.
The next time you hear a live performance and are inspired, resist the urge to push the tempo. Rather, pick up your pipes or practice chanter, and slow down. Practicing slowly can help you to perform in a fluid and relaxed manner.