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Breaking the Block

Breaking the Block


There are always peaks, plateaus, and valleys when trying to improve your playing. When you hit a plateau or slide into a valley, sometimes its hard get motivated. Sometimes at the end of a competition season it’s hard to keep the momentum going for the next season. This happened to me recently. It’s hard, but there are ways to get out of it.

Here in Florida, the competition season runs from January to April. The performance band that I am in also has a season, due to the snowbirds (out of state people who over winter in Florida). This year the two overlapped. At the end of either season I tend to loose motivation. This year it has been a bit worse.

Since mid April I had a hard time getting in regular practice. It started to feel like a chore and not something that I loved to do. When I did practice, it felt like I was not making progress. During my lessons I was making beginner mistakes. It was frustrating.

I also do a lot of writing. I write for Dojo U and I’m in Pubic Affairs with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. I am supposed to churn out articles at a pretty regular clip. Sometimes it gets hard. I would suffer from writers block.

Writers block tends to come from three main areas, Fear, Timing, and Perfectionism. Fear: being afraid of putting your work out there for everyone to see and criticize. Timing: feeling that it’s not the right time, if you wait you could be better. Perfectionism: wanting to make sure that what you put out is exactly what you want everyone to see.

In my writing classes in college I learned some useful tips to deal with writers block. Eliminate distractions, I will at times use an old word processor, read a book, listen to music, create a routine, or freewrite.

Freewriting was one of the main things I try. It’s tough. Basically you just sit down and write. It does not matter what you write, it could be crap, but just put something out there. You are forcing yourself to just go through the motions until you break the block.

I recently realized that writers block is very similar to what I was experiencing with my bagpiping. What I learned is that these same techniques to break writers block can apply.

Eliminating distractions really helps. I practice in my spare bedroom.  I would typically clean and tidy it as a way to avoid practicing. During my "block," it is one of the cleanest rooms in the house. Finding a place to practice without distractions helps you focus.

Reading a book is meant to get your mind off what you are working on. When I get blocked in my practicing I will start to go through the Dojo U archive. Finding interesting tunes that you don’t know, and spending time working on them is a great escape. You can get away from the tunes you are struggling with and work on something else where there is no pressure.

Working on random tunes from the Dojo U archive also improves your playing. Working through a new tune can show you where you have weaknesses that you can’t see in the tunes you are struggling .

If reading a book helps alleviate writer's block, then the musical equivalent would be listening to music. Listening to music means not just listening to bagpipe music. Listening to any type of music can help. I listen to film scores. It’s completely different from bagpipe music and it lets your mind relax. Listening to other bagpipe bands and some of the great solo players helps too. It can give you motivation, something to aspire too.

Creating a routine really helps me. I work from home most days so I can set aside a specific time everyday to go and practice. Knowing that I have an hour a day in my schedule to be filled with bagpiping reduces the stress of trying to fit in other practice with all the other stuff going on.

Freewriting, or freeplaying, is harder. Just sit down and play. Play the first tune you learned, play a tune you heard your favorite band play. Get a piece of music you have never played before and force yourself to learn it. Just play random tunes you know. Don’t worry about being perfect, just play. It's a great way to free up your fingers and your mind.

When you fall into the valley, or reach the plateau use these tips. Breaking the block can be hard. When it finally happens you will be happy that you kept it up. You might also find that while you thought you were getting nowhere you have really been improving the whole time.

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David Lairson David has been playing the bagpipes for over 20 years. He is an instructor and soloist with the Palm Beach Pipes & Drums and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band. David is active in the Florida competition circuit, and when he is not practicing or playing he works as a computer technician. He currently lives in sunny South Florida.