As pipers, we always want to strive for clear, and well-articulated embellishments. Clarity and articulation in your embellishments comes when the movements are automatic. When kinesthetic memory kicks in and you can move through rhythms with ease. Achieving that requires a certain kind of practice.
Orchestral musicians will typically devote regular practice time to basic scale runs and arpeggios. There is no stage in one’s musical development where working through fundamental movements does not have benefits.
Orchestral instruments also have the benefit of generations worth of formalized music learning with decades spent developing teaching models and lesson content. There are playing exercises tailor-made for each instrument that produce proven results.
Bagpipers have only seen such formalization in relatively modern times. Pipers have historically made it up as they went along but there are certainly ways to get proven results in our playing. Embellishment exercises are one way to get those results.
Basically any exercise that breaks down bagpipe movements into their component parts, forcing you to slowly build the embellishment or fingerwork in steps, is going to pay off. You can search through published materials and Dojo U classes for specific advice on fingerwork exercises, but it is also possible to create your own, tailor-made for your own needs.
If you’ve been playing for some length of time and progressing through repertoire, your fingerwork weaknesses will be make themselves known to you. You might even be happily cruising along when you suddenly learn a new tune and run into a bit of technique that pushes you past your abilities. When that happens, it’s time to take care of it. It’s at these times that creating a short, customized technical exercise worked into your practice routine becomes necessary.
Do you want to bash away at the troubling technique until it’s right? Of course not. That is no way to get results. To really change and improve your technique, you’ll need to tear it down and build it back up.
One way to do this is to take the piece of troubling technique as a bar of music from whatever tune contains it and develop a step-by-step, layered approach to strengthening the movement.
This movement can be like kryptonite, even for experienced pipers. It’s a particularly tricky bit of technique that occurs in many tunes and can pose quite a challenge to articulate clearly, in time, especially if you’re still developing your birl. In “Arniston Castle,” it falls across bars three times in the 2nd part, with the G gracenote of the birl falling on the downbeat. The short B also needs to be fused to that beat for a good strathspey pulse. In other words, it’s an important bit of the tune.
Try to keep the sticky bit you’re working on within context as much as possible. For this exercise, we’ll pull the middle birl transition in the first line of the 2nd part and build a strathspey bar from elements of both middle bars.
Start Slow and Build
Set a metronome to 50 bpm and play Line 1 from the above figure. Repeat several times. Remain at the same tempo and play Line 2, practicing a good strathspey pulse and articulating the steps to each birl. (A G-gracenoted Low A is the beat. Make sure it is heard.) If at any time you stumble, crank down the bpm of the metronome and start again. Stay on Line 2 until you are comfortable with articulating the birl in good rhythm, then begin Line 3 at the same tempo. Again, if you stumble here, crank down the metronome more until you can comfortably articulate the technique in time.
You can add lines and layers as needed. In the above example, you might add a line after Line 2 that gradually adds in notes to fill time at the end of the bar. Experiment to find the right sequence. This approach can be applied to just about any piece of a tune that might give you trouble now, or in the future. Break down the embellishments and fingerwork into their steps and components, and build a bar of the notes and embellishments in stages, layering in more of the technique as needed. This process can certainly be done on the practice chanter at first, but it’s on the bagpipe where the most benefit will be realized. Work in short sessions like this into your practice, and you’ll be conquering your trouble spots with ease.