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One Simple Issue That Makes Your Bagpipe Playing Sound Mushy

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You are playing the right notes, you’ve worked on eliminating crossing noises, you play with a metronome, and you accurately play all rhythms, but your tune still doesn’t sound crisp and clean. And you can’t bring your tunes up to band tempo. What’s wrong?

Andrew articulates the one fundamental that could be holding you back from reaching that next level of playing. It may surprise you that this tiny issue has been around almost since you started learning pipes. Take a few minutes to allow Andrew to show you how to make mushy music a thing of the past.

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Video Transcription:

When we play a grace note, there's two different situations, but let's talk about the most important situation, which is what? What's the most important situation when we play a grace note? Separating two notes of the same pitch. That's the first situation in which we play a grace note.

What we want to do when we separate two notes of the same pitch is we want to play a grace note. We want to separate two notes at the same pitch. Ideally, we've got a little grace note here, and we just separated two notes of the same pitch. Looking at my diagram here, what do we have now that we used a grace note? We have a short note followed by a long note. Can everybody see that? Before, this is one long note. Now we have a short note separated by a long note. Let's play that together. Maybe we have something like that? Ready, go. Very nice.  When we're separating one note, the grace note, you could play it any number of ways. You could play the grace note a lot bigger if you wanted to. What's the problem with this though? What does this sound like?

All right. I just played what you see on the page. See how the grace note is essentially the same size as that first short note? Now instead of a grace note, can you even call it a grace note at this point? Yes or no? It certainly doesn't sound like I'm separating two notes. What does it sound like when I play it? I'm not separating two notes. What have I done? I've just added a third note, really. Instead of separating two notes, I've just added in a third note. It's obvious. We're staying in the land of totally obvious. You can see it visually, and you can hear it.

Now, okay, that's obviously too big. Let's shorten it down a little bit. This is a little bit better, right? This is a little bit better. I mean, it'll sound a little bit more like I've separated two notes. It's a little better. You can use your imagination to say you've separated notes, but we can still clearly hear three different notes here. We can see how we're getting towards an important fact about a grace note, which is a grace note has to be short enough that it doesn't sound like a melody note. Can everybody see how we're getting towards this conclusion? A grace note has to be short enough in duration that it does not sound like a melody note. Let's go a little bit shorter.

How are we doing? Better, right? But it still sounds like a melody note. I'll prove it to you. Let's do three grace notes of this size, and then we will repeat it over and over again. Here's a classic G-D-E combination. We're getting closer with this grace note size, but you can see in any real musical context, we still have a big issue, which is the grace notes are not clearly on melody notes or something. I don't know.

We do it in like a tune, right? Sorry, I'm getting confused.  I'm having trouble doing them at the same time, but there's my grace notes there, and they're still too big, aren't they? What are we doing each time? We're discovering each time we do this that we want to make the grace notes shorter and shorter, so we're learning a fundamental truth about grace notes, which is what? What's the fundamental truth about a grace note? The shorter, the better in duration. The smaller the grace note is in duration, the better. Let's go even a little smaller. I think at this point, we're definitely making progress conceptually.

Definitely making progress. We hear the tune there, and the grace notes are helping us play the tune. The problem we have still at this, and we've experienced this ourselves in our classes on a regular basis, the problem we have with this still it is what happens if we increase the tempo playing grace notes like this?

I guess you can still hear the tune, but let's go faster. Anybody see any problems? It's getting mushy. Why? Why is it getting mushy? It's getting mushy because as we increase the tempo, that means the melody notes are happening faster. The melody notes are closer and closer together, so now these grace notes that used to seem small relative to the melody notes are actually getting pretty close, so now we can no longer distinguish between grace notes and melody notes once the tempo gets faster.

Conclusion: Those grace notes are still not small enough. How small should a grace now be? Let's just cut to the chase. It's an infinitely small musical event. This line shall now represent what a grace note should be. Now, as long as the grace notes are infinitely small, we can play at any tempo we want. A grace note should be an infinitely small musical event.

We should be able to go super fast. Notice those would still work at a super slow tempo, but you see how we've gotten there. A grace note should be an infinitely small musical event, so just a brief timeout. When we look at real pipe music and we see a grace note written upside down, small with three flags on it, can everybody see how logically, it doesn't mean that should be a 32nd note? Instead, what are we really looking at? Instead, what we're really looking at on the page is a symbol to represent this idea, and the idea is a grace note is an infinitely small percussive tool that we use to articulate melodies. That's what a grace note is.

Then somebody said it earlier, it needs to be as short as possible in duration while still being able to hear it. That is a definition of how to play a grace note. Now, that's the baseline definition. Somebody mentioned piobaireachd earlier. Piobaireachd is a great example. That's a really slow melody, particularly in the early parts of a piobaireachd. It could be 100% appropriate to bend the basic premise of a grace note in that situation.

We can always bend and stretch this rule, but this is the rule. I hope that I've kind of illustrated to you how this is the rule and why it's so important, sort of where grace notes come from, and then we follow the logical train of thought all the way to this point. A grace note should be as short as possible in duration while still being able to hear it. This allows us to play fast tempo if we want to, and it allows the listener to be able to clearly hear the melody without a grace note that's too big getting in the way and obscuring things.

This week's tune of the week. Something like that. If I play the grace notes bigger, and that's the only thing that changes, listen to the effect. All I did was change the size of the grace notes. My expression, my tempo, I tried to keep everything else the same, but listen to the effect that has. It totally muddies up what? What does it make muddy when I don't play correct size of grace note? It sort of proves the grace note is not part of the melody. It's just a percussive articulative tool that we use to articulate melodies.

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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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