The old adage from the fable The Tortoise and the Hare is that “slow and steady wins the race.” This is an idea that can have a big impact on your bagpipe playing.
A lot is made of practicing slowly at Dojo U. We hear it all the time but what do you really get out it? Isn’t it dreadfully boring and unproductive to be playing bagpipes at slow, slow tempos all the time? Well, maybe, but the benefits from slowing things down well overshadow any boredom you might feel. And, like the tortoise in the fable, you can be victorious by staying slow and constantly working.
Musicians from all idioms tout the benefits of slow, deliberate practice. Repertoire is broken up into pieces to achieve the right intonation, articulation, and feeling. Rarely do professional musicians work through repertoire in its entirety all the time. Once the various parts are polished, they naturally fit together nicely.
Below is a list of slow practice tips and advice culled from working musicians across idioms. Naturally, everyone is different and some of these techniques might fit better with you than others, but they all center on doing things slowly. Any of them can be easily rolled into the bagpiper’s practice regimen.
Use a metronome. The most important reason for practicing with a metronome is to keep you slow. Bagpipers are effectively multitasking when they play and if you lapse in any task, music and technique both suffer. Practicing slowly allows you to keep track of as many tasks simultaneously as possible. The metronome keeps things moving at a manageable pace to cement learning. (Read "Practicing Slowly" for some tips on finding a good slow tempo.)
Practice short sections, slowly. Turning your practice into manageable chunks allows the brain to notice critical bits of information. The more detail that can be noticed, the richer the feedback loop of learning. By working in small steps, slowly, we allow learning to take hold.
Play the whole tune slowly. Start learning tunes at a very slow tempo and gradually work up to faster speeds once all the fundamentals are secure. If you play at a faster speed but slow down the tricky bits of the tune to work on those, you can ingrain anxiety over those parts of music, dreading them each time they come up in a performance.
Find your “Tempo of Consistent Control.” Find the slow practice tempo at which you can play without mistakes in your fundamentals. You will need to find what Burton Kaplan in his book Practicing for Artistic Success: The Musician’s Guide to Self-Empowerment, calls the “Tempo of Consistent Control” (TCC) To find your TCC:
• Set the metronome to the tempo at which you think you can play the tune or part of a tune.
• Begin playing.
• Stop when you make a mistake, no matter how small, and set the metronome 5 to 10 bpm slower
Repeat this process until you can play through the passage with no mistakes. This might seem maddening at first, but after trying it a few times, you will begin to recognize what true control over your playing feels like. Stay with this TCC for at least four days before moving on to the next faster, comfortable tempo. You should feel secure playing at a faster tempo now that your fundamentals are stronger.
Zoom in and slow down. If you are having a difficult time with a particular tune, isolate the trouble spots by slowing down those pieces. Evaluate that spot and pick an even smaller section to work and slow down the tempo for that. Keep shortening sections and slowing down the tempo until you’ve zoomed in and identified the problem and understand how to fix it. Then gradually build up speed, and expand the section again until you are playing the full line or tune.