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Better Bagpipes by Doing Nothing

Better Bagpipes by Doing Nothing


The brain is an interesting piece of biology. It is also arguably the most important piece of equipment we use when learning Highland bagpipes. If we can gain better understanding of how it works, we can leverage that to our advantage.

We all want to play bagpipes well. That’s what we all strive for. But it takes focus and discipline. Unfortunately, that same focus, when applied for too long, actually has a detrimental effect on our overall ability to actually focus creatively and in a way that moves us forward.

The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound, or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. We lose focus and our performance declines. Research has shown that taking short diversions from focussed effort helps integrate learning and provide fresh perspective and increase performance. Some studies have shown dramatic increases in productivity when workers follow a regular rhythm of work/rest. So, when you’re hammering away at cleaning up the rhythm in your D-throw, or sweating out the effort to blow good sound at the sweet spot, taking regular breaks will actually help those efforts by “resetting” the brain.

Taking short breaks from focussed work puts our brain into “diffuse” mode. This mode is the default setting when taking a walk, day dreaming, relaxing in some way. There are studies that have shown that a wandering, “day dreaming” brain is better at solving problems. Different regions of the brain become more active in this mode, regions that are not as active when we are in “focussed” mode, i.e., doing work, learning something new, or working on important tasks. Focussed mode actually temporarily blocks access to the diffuse mode, the very mode which helps us sort out the sticky problems we might be faced with, problems like “Why can’t I blow good sound,” or “Why do my throws sound like that?”.

The bottom line? Your brain needs downtime to remain creative and generate ideas. It can be exhausting to improve your bagpipe playing, particularly if it is a struggle, and especially if you are improving. The better you get the more difficult it becomes and the greater the need for more focussed work. Schedule short, regular breaks in your practice routine and give your mind a chance to rest. The best breaks are ones that some might call “idleness”: Taking a long walk; doodling; meditation; taking a nap. These are the moments our brains need to reboot and take a fresh look at or efforts, generate new approaches to our problems, and generally be more creative.

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Vin Janoski Vin is a long-time piper based on the east coast of the USA. He has been on the Executive Committee of the EUSPBA and been the editor of the acclaimed Voice magazine. Recently, he has played in the Grade 1 Oran Mor Pipe Band, and the Grade 1 Stuart Highlanders pipe band. He currently produces the websites Pipehacker.com and WhiskyTunes.com.... And, needless to say, he spends way too much time than is allowed for any one person playing, writing about, and thinking about bagpiping.