Starting piping at age 55 years, in retrospect, wasn’t the way I should have done it, but better late than never, as the old saying goes. As a result of many factors, primarily self-induced, my journey has had many successes, along with lots of not-so-successful adventures. The latter is also known as failure, pure and simple. Many of the failures had to do with lack of mental preparation before the competition, along with insufficient practice time, poor technique, etc, but today we’re talking about mental preparations. By no means am I an expert in these matters; I’m writing this piece to pass along some ideas that might help others.
Let me share a tidbit of my background, because in many ways there are facets that most adult learners will share, especially when it comes to solo piping or competitions. For eight years after my professional training I was a faculty member at a medical school. My responsibilities included teaching medical students, carrying out clinical research and providing patient care. I presented scientific material, usually with slides as visual aids, to groups with as few as a handful of students, all the way up to two-or more thousand folks in an audience. Later, I joined a pharmaceutical research company, and gave lectures in many countries around the world, often needing a translator to get the information across. The reason I even mention any of this is because I cannot recall a single time in my professional career when I was nervous before giving a speech or medical presentation. I have never been afflicted with glossophobia, also known as the fear of public speaking. Back in the old days, give me a subject within the realm of my expertise, and I was ready to talk. The bigger and more famous the audience, the more confident I felt.
But with piping, everything in my developing universe was turned upside down. Nothing from the previous part of my life mattered. Put me in front of a judge sitting at his table, and I became petrified with fear. I imagined everyone around me, including the judge, hearing my knees knocking together. (that’s actually hard to do, too, given that I’m a bit bowlegged). My hands would be as cold as my mouth was dry. My heart would race, and it wasn’t uncommon to think I was about to faint. That thought led to other weird thought, such as “will I damage my pipes if I faint”, along with “who’s going to help me?”, and “how will I ever live this down?” “Oh, yeah, I remember that guy who fainted in front of Robert Mathieson.”
When I started piping, I could not read a note of music, as there was no musical background in my family. I found every bit of the technique and music itself overwhelming, yet I kept at it. What was missing early on was any teaching about the MENTAL ASPECTS of piping, such as how most effectively to memorize music, and how to deal with performance anxiety.
All of those early thoughts of insecurity and lack of mental preparation came flooding back as I worked through the new Pipe-Psych Success Plan, by Dr. Fiona McConnochie. She is the Director of Sport & Psychology at Abertay University, Dundee, Scotland. I wish that I had known early on how important the mental aspects would be regarding piping. How does that old saying go, about “I wish I knew then, what I know now”?
The ideas, in particular, put forth by Dr. McConnochie that struck this writer were those that deal with internal distractions, or those “little voices inside our own heads”. We all have them, but some people can deal with them, or ignore them completely, better than others.
My internal distractions before and during piping events or band rehearsals have decreased significantly over the 15 years I’ve been playing. But it never came easy; it took lots of mental practice during piping itself, as well as before a solo or band event. The biggest issues in the past were those self-destructive thoughts about failure, not knowing the tune as well as I should (oh no, how does that third part start??), and simply trying to manage marching and playing simultaneously.
The positive feelings before a solo or band competition now far outnumber any negative or harmful thoughts, I am delighted to report. Had Dr. McConnochie’s approach been known to me sooner, there’s no doubt that the good feelings about piping would have come much sooner. I was using pieces of different mental techniques, but Dr. M puts it all together in a nice package for all of us.
Many years ago, for one example, I was planning to play at a nephew’s wedding, which would be my first wedding as a piper. I was exceedingly nervous about doing a good job, and shared my anxiety with a successful, experienced local piper. She simply told me, “picture in your head only success”. She didn’t even say the words, “don’t think of failure!” And that advice seemed to make a difference, even back then, but I was playing before a friendly audience.
On the other hand, piping before a judge used to be an entirely different story. I never seemed to feel adequately prepared mentally. In all honesty, I dreaded solo competitions because of what Dr. Stephanie Burns calls that “yucky feeling” I experienced with every contest. After every event, I would ask myself why I even bother?
So, what has made some of the differences for me, as limited as they are? First, I have tried to rid myself of my piping hubris. Why in the world would I expect myself to be as good at piping as I was with medicine? Yet, I always thought I was better than I actually was; that is, until I joined Dojo University. My practice sessions are now organized and far more focused. I no longer try to do everything at one sitting. Focus allows me to get the competition tunes in sufficient shape that I don’t question (at least usually) whether I’m ready for the competition. When I am well beyond the point of solid memorization, and can focusing on the small details to make them even better, I feel ready. Thus, that destructive question of “am I ready” no longer has a voice.
Practicing the most difficult bar or phrase over and over until I get it right, including the rhythm and all the other fingerwork fundamentals (the Dojo way), has practically eliminated that performance killer thought of “oh no, here comes that hard part’. I am now sufficiently confident to get through the tunes without hitting those old speed bumps. My technique will always need more work, but my self-doubts have greatly receded through repetitions of finite, smaller pieces of the music.
Our internal distractions are for most of us the biggest impediment to steady progress in piping. External factors certainly abound, but those are the subject of another article. For now, suffice it to say, knowing and becoming proficient at those techniques proven to decreasing the sources of our internal distractions will go a long way in improving the enjoyment of playing the Great Highland Bagpipes.
Download our free "Bagpipe Performance Psychology Workbook," by Dr. Fiona McConnochie - An amazing "template" for eliminating performance anxiety. Hint! None of this involves hocus pocus, fairy dust, divine providence, or the bloodline of legendary pipers! We can all perform to our maximium ability, every time. Let's learn to do this the right way!