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Using Science to Describe Playing “On the Beat”

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We pipers know that playing “on the beat” is critical, not only for unison in a group, but also to attain total musicality in the music we’re playing. However, as an individual how many of us have been told that we play “consistently ahead of the beat”, or that we are “sometimes on the beat, but not always”?

What kind of mental pictures do these descriptions of our piping conjure up?

Let’s start by defining “precise” and “accurate”, two words that may appear at first glance to mean the same thing. But, in fact, they describe two completely different concepts. The word precise means a “state of strict exactness”—how often something is strictly exact. Multiple measurements are needed to establish precision. Figure 1 helps to illustrate this concept.

Precise, but not accurate
Precise, but not accurate

Think of the target’s bull’s eye as representing the downbeat of a tune, regardless of the idiom or tempo. Anything to the left of the bull’s eye is ahead of the beat, and anything to the right of the bull’s eye is behind the beat. With respect to rhythm, this example shows a piper playing with great precision, but the playing is consistently ahead of the beat. Unfortunately, the playing is also inaccurate because not even a single note or gracenote was played on the beat.

On the other hand, the word accurate means the degree of conformity and correctness of something when compared to a true or absolute value. See Figure 2.

Accurate, but not precise
Accurate, but not precise

Something can be accurate on occasion as a fluke, but for something to be consistently and reliably accurate, it must also be precise. In this case, the piper is often perfectly on the beat, but not always. A few times he’s slightly ahead of the beat, and other times he’s behind the beat.

We should all strive for accuracy and precision in our playing, illustrated in Figure 3.

Both accurate and precise
Both accurate and precise

This means that every single note or gracenote is played precisely and accurately on the beat.

Using accuracy and precision in terms of playing on the beat.
Using accuracy and precision in terms of playing on the beat.

Finally, Figure 4 represents the above concepts as they relate to the presence or lack of both precision and accuracy in terms of rhythm. Only through both precision and accuracy can a solo piper expect to bring out the best musicality of a tune, or a pipe band come anywhere close to playing in unison. In the latter, every piper in the band must play on the beat (accurate), every time (precise).

Take Action

To learn more about why we need to play on the beat, and how to go about learning to do so, check out the following classes at Dojo University.

Mastering Rhythm
Rhythmic Counting
Rhythm Theory

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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.

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