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How to Find Your Perfect Practice Tempo

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Do you play your tunes too fast so you can’t hear your mistakes?  Or maybe you always keep the metronome at the same easy tempo for every practice session?  How do you know what tempo to choose to improve your playing?

Andrew walks you through why choosing the correct tempo for practice is a major factor in your ability to improve.  While the perfect practice tempo is not the same for everyone, finding the right tempo for you is a simple process everyone can use.

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Video Transcription:

I want to talk about something really important, just as a general thing for everybody to think about. I want to talk about learning thresholds. What I mean by a learning threshold is, what is the appropriate tempo at which to practice your tunes?

Now, in the real world or in the objective world, let's take the world of sport. Threshold is really easily discussed and thought about and makes total sense and it's totally obvious. Let me give you an example. I can run an eight-minute mile. Actually, I'm not sure I could right now, but conceptually I can run an eight-minute mile. That's about as fast as I could run it. Now, if I want to develop my running and if I want to get faster, trying to run a six-minute mile would be a huge mistake.

Why would trying to run a six-minute mile be a huge mistake? Remember, I'm trying to improve my running. I currently run an eight-minute mile, why would trying to run a six minute mile be a huge mistake?

Good, Tina says, "Your body's not ready."

Janet says, "You need to work up to that."

Then Ephraim, very, very correct, "You're going to gas out before you finish. You're going to die, probably pretty quickly into the run."

Brian says, "Too much too soon." I love this. This is giving me great ammunition.

Dave says, "Too big a leap." Right.

Meanwhile, the correct thing to do would probably to shoot for maybe 7:45, right? Meanwhile, if I run an eight-minute mile and I want to improve, shooting for 7:45 might be the better way to do it. Then what we're going to do is gradually increase the pace of our mile over time.

The mile is a big body of work, right? We need to be able to sustain our bodies for quite a long time in order to run a mile, right?

Ephraim says, "Yes, that's really good." Thank you very much.

Meanwhile, here's the other thing to think about, though. If I just keep running eight-minute miles, am I going to get any better? No.

Now, I suppose you could sustain, but by definition we measure a mile by how fast it goes. So, unless we're actually getting faster, we're not getting any better. Right, you could sustain it and that's valuable, but we're not actually going to get any better.

I'll be good at an eight-minute mile for sure, but not any faster. Or, maybe I would be able to go faster, but if we never really attempt to go faster, we're not going to get any better because we're not going to know.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's possible to continue to run eight-minute miles while focusing and changing our technique, to make running an eight-minute mile easier, and then the next time we attempt to go faster, it's going to go well for us. I don't want to confuse the issue too much.

And then Tina says, "You would stay in your comfort zone."  That's right, staying in our comfort zone, exactly.

Now, the issue there is just discussing our threshold.

Dave, it's all right.  It sounds like Dave might actually be a runner, or a worker-outer. Oh, he's a swimmer, there you go.

And then John says, "A 10% increase in tempo for me is often too much jump at one time."

Exactly. Now, the problem with piping is that it's not a subjective measurement. Quality is not a subjective measurement, at least, sorry, excuse me, it's not an objective measurement, generally speaking. Right? The quality of it is always in the eye of the beholder. I think the Dojo is the closest methodology that exists to help aspects of piping become more objective, which has its own set of pros and cons. But the big problem is piping is not an objective thing.

What happens when people try to run the equivalent of an eight-minute mile, when they're playing the bagpipes, is it doesn't go well for them. What's the equivalent of an eight-minute mile playing the bagpipes?

Let's say it's Atholl and Breadalbane Gathering at 60 beats per minute, or something, right? It doesn't go well for them when they try to run the eight-minute mile, the Atholl and Breadalbane Gathering at 60 beats per minute. It doesn't really go well for them, but there's usually a couple things that mask the fact that it didn't go well. Number one is, it goes well for very few people. None of our friends can play an eight-minute mile either, right? I think that's one of the reasons. I think the other reason is, not that many people know any better. Then I think another big reason is, the person playing Atholl and Breadalbane Gathering at 60 beats per minute, doesn't know, themselves, the volume, the degree, the number of things that are actually going wrong as they attempt to play it. Partially because they don't understand fundamentals correctly, and part of it's because things are going by so quickly, there's no way they can keep track of it all. This person is playing, the person I'm describing, the average person, is playing Atholl and Breadalbane Gathering, above or below their current threshold.

You know, we're just kind of thinking of this, this is just a thought experiment. That person, the average person, is playing above their threshold.

Now, going back to running. If we continued to attempt to run six-minute miles, Ephriam says, "We're going to burn out early, we're probably not even going to finish the mile, if we try to run it in six minutes."

But if we keep doing that, if we keep bashing our heads against the wall, what is going to happen?  John says, "Maybe you'll get injured."

That's probably not going to happen in piping, but you're probably going to develop bad habits. Agree? Let's bring our athlete back into the mix. Bad habits probably, right? And then fail and give up?

Dave says, yes. Okay, good, Dave and I are back on the same page.

"Resentment." I like that.

"Fail and give up," Brian says, yeah.

You know, the problem with piping is, everyone's like, "Oh my God, it's so great. You play bagpipes? That's so cool."

Then your instructors are usually like... They don't want you to fail and quit either, so they're like, "Oh my God, it's coming along, keep at it."

It's different than when we run the mile, right? If we run the mile and your mile is eight minutes, what do people say? "Hey, good job. That's an eight-minute mile." You know, because that's what it is.

But, in piping... We attempt to run our six-minute mile in piping, and it doesn't go very well for us, and people are like, "Hey, great job, keep at it." Which is good, okay. It's good, but it doesn't give us the dose of reality we probably need to acknowledge the very important reality, which is, that we are operating far above our threshold.

Right? Everybody agree? We're operating far above our threshold.

Ironically, if anything, the average person's reaction to that is just to play faster. Playing faster as a piper is a really...By the way, I keep looking down cause, I think if I just move this up here..Playing faster as a piper is really appealing because things go by faster, it's even harder, for you, the user, to detect all the faults, so it seems more enjoyable.

Your yucky D throws throws, right?

If you just play faster there, it's over sooner, but that's, of course, not the right thing to do. In real life, if we're playing a sport or if we're running, it could result in actual injury, and it's certainly going to result in the development of bad habits.

What is the correct threshold for us to operate in?

We already sort of talked about it with running, right? If our current personal best is an eight-minute mile, the threshold for us to operate in should be just slightly faster than an eight-minute mile. Let's make our goal for this mile--and again, I'm generalizing, sorry for actual athletes here--but, let's make our goal is 7:45, and then if we run and we get 7:45, great! Now we could increase our threshold to an even better time, 7:30. Then maybe, in shooting for 7:30, maybe we go back up to 7:50 in the next attempt, then maybe we get all the way down to 7:37 on one attempt. But, at that point, you're kind of operating in the appropriate threshold, if your goal is to improve the time of your mile.

That's the correct threshold. You find the point where you can't achieve the goal, but you're close. You're riding that line between where you can't achieve the goal and where you're close. That gives us really big clues as to where we should be operating when we're practicing our bagpipes. There's some good thoughts here, and there's some underdeveloped thoughts, as well.

Brian says, "Our threshold is our own tempo, man."  Yeah, but if I continued to run eight-minute miles and I don't really try to run any faster than that, generally speaking, we're just staying in our comfort zone and we're not actually moving forward. We can't just arbitrarily say our own tempo, we need to be more specific.

Beth says, "The tempo at which we can play well."  Getting warmer, I think. I don't think we're quite there.

John says, "Slow enough for good fundamentals then increase until mistakes start to occur."

We want to start in our comfort zone, John says, and then we want to increase the tempo over time to find the point where mistakes start to occur. I kind of like that, I think that's basically it. It's not about having perfect control, either. We need to just figure out where that line is, where things start to break apart, and that would be our current threshold.

Perfection is kind of not what we want, right? At least not until we get to that optimal tempo. We know optimal tempos, generally speaking, kind of exist, like a jig's optimal tempo is around 120 beats per minute. Strathspey's optimal tempo is around 120 beats per minute, could be a little bit more. So, once we're there and we're achieving perfection, great, but most of us are not there. What we actually need to do is we need to find the threshold where things start to break, things become perfect, but then they start to break, and that's the appropriate tempo for us to play at.

Lou says, "Reach your breaking point and pull back a bit."

No, reach your breaking point and practice there.

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Andrew Douglas Andrew is a prolific practitioner of the bagpipe, having been active at the highest level of pipe bands, solo competition, teaching, and creative endeavors for the past 20 years. He's also the founder and creator of Dojo U and of PipersDojo.com

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