The general degree of difficulty in a bagpipe tune is typically gauged by the frequency of certain technique relative to the note groupings and timings, as well as frequency of finger and hand changes within musical beats. The concentration of these aspects puts a demand on the player’s mastery of certain fundamental skills. High fundamental demand = “difficult” tune. But this is really a subjective thing that depends on any individual piper’s fluency (or lack thereof) in different fundamental skills. For example, playing the taorluath and doublings and note changes in the first two bars of “Scotland the Brave” would not be too difficult for players who are well into the beginning stages of playing the bagpipe and have mastered embellishment rhythm and timing. A different player who has not fully developed good scale navigation might find the fingering up the scale and hand change in the first few bars of the same tune a challenge, and therefore, “difficult.”
The terms “difficult” or “easy” are subjective terms for categorizing tunes. Terms such as “beginner” and “advanced” are somewhat better, but similarly limiting. Tune difficultly is better measured individually, against personal mastery of certain fundamental skills required for a particular tune.
For the individual, something “too difficult” is a matter of where your fundamental skills currently rest. Someone with mastery of all their fundamentals will never find any tune too difficult. Someone with weakness in one or more fundamental areas might struggle over certain tunes that feature that particular skill. Strength in fundamental skills can be uneven. But things are only difficult until they’re not.
Every new tune is difficult in the beginning. Then it becomes easy through rehearsal and learning. Elementary school teachers sometimes tell their students to employ a simple technique for choosing appropriate books to read independently that can also aid in assessing whether a tune is appropriate for any piper.
Try this “five finger” technique for the next tune you’re interested in learning:
• Run through the first line of the tune at a slow tempo in typical tune-building fashion.
• Each time you make a mistake, struggle over technique, scale navigation, make a crossing noise, etc., make a mark on the score.
• Count the marks. If you amass more than five in that line, then the tune is probably pushing the limits of your skills.
When you are building a new tune, each phrase/bar is worked through at a slow, slow tempo. You struggle and correct. You utilize the techniques you know to work through difficult passages (e.g., good scale navigation; super slow embellishment steps; zooming in and slowing down on tricky note groups; etc.) for as long as needed. If you’re doing it properly, you are not moving ahead to the next phrase/bar until that mastery is achieved across your fundamental skills. This can take a long amount of time or a short amount of time but, with continued work, you will have achieved fluency and control and the concept of “too difficult” becomes meaningless.
Pushing beyond our limits is required for any kind of advancement. While a “difficult” tune might pose a challenge, confronting that challenge and working through it is what makes us better players, not limiting our repertoire to arbitrary, subjective groupings such as “easy” or "difficult.”