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One Technique That Could Solve Sloppy Playing Forever?

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Do you work really hard on your crossing noises but they still seem to creep in at the worst moments? Do you have trouble with sloppy gracenotes and embellishments, and nothing you do seems to fix them? How about rushing key phrases in your tunes? Struggling to stay “tight” with the rest of the bagpipers in your band?

Well, this lesson could be eye-opening for you. Andrew shows us ONE key aspect of finger work fundamentals we all may have overlooked that could produce significant improvement and consistency across all of these common sore-spots for pipers. Check it out!

Class Transcription

Okay, are we recording to the cloud? I think we are. Things are happening. Okay, so let's talk a little bit today about how... I want to talk a little bit today about how rhythmic accuracy is so, so important to piping. We saw this a lot in the recordings that we had last week, and we see it all the time. What's the number one most definite thing about teaching a beginner, intermediate, and, frankly, most advanced players? There's something, if you had to put money on it, you would put money on it every single time. It's one of my icebreakers at workshops, to really make people understand that they're not all that.

It's the fact that everybody plays ahead of the beat. So, let me draw a line, if my computer lets me have my mouse. Okay. Let me draw a line. Let's pretend this line is the beat. No, that's not a line, what is that? Let's pretend this line is the beat. It's still not a line. What's going on with my line? It's glitching out, there's something wrong. What the heck? Oh, my screen sharing is paused anyway. Maybe that's the issue. There we go, now we're back.

All right, let's pretend this line is the beat. All right? If we're going to play... Let's do some examples. If we're going to change from low A to C, and the C's supposed to go on the beat, right? No gracenotes, no nothing, we're just changing from low A to C, the C is supposed to go on the beat. Where does the note change... Where should the note change happen? Keeping in mind, this line down the middle of the screen is the beat. Where should it happen? Right, the exact moment that we switch from low A to C, you know, our fingers have some work to do, but the exact moment that should happen should be right on the line. Right on the line, or at least so close to the line that the human ear could not detect any difference between the two. All right? Within one standard deviation of the speed of light or sound, or something, right? That's where it should go.

Any takers? Where does it usually go? It usually ends up somewhere over here. Right? Why is that? What is it about our brains that makes this happen? We usually play way ahead of that line for some reason. What's weird is way more people are going to play here, like 95% of players are going to do it here, and almost no one ever, like 0%, actually plays after the beat. It's really weird. I'm willing to bet real money that when I go to a workshop, nine out of ten people are going to play ahead of the beat. Not missing the beat. Everybody picking up what I'm saying here? They're not missing the beat one way or the other. It's not that they can't hit the beat, it's that they can't hit the beat because they're early. Does this make sense? Yeah, you know it's coming, and you jump the gun, right? You don't wait until you can see the whites of their eyes. It's an anticipatory reaction.

Let's do another example. Let's pretend we have an E doubling, an E doubling coming up on the beat. What is the thing in the E doubling that should line up with the beat? Good. The G gracenote of the E doubling should end up on the beat. So, let's just, like... We'll do kind of a hybrid graphic. Here's that G gracenote of the E doubling, and here's our E doubling, and just sort of... You can sort of see what I mean. The G gracenote is what should happen on the beat. But what most people do until they're really serious about developing rhythmic accuracy is this E doubling is over here somewhere, and we're already on the final E of the E doubling before the click of the metronome even happens.

Let's do some audio examples. I'll just grab my metronome here. Okay? Here's what we heard a lot of the other day. What's really interesting to think about is, let's turn the metronome off, I'll play the same way. If I turn the metronome off, does it sound like there's anything wrong with what I'm playing? Not really. If I turn the metronome on, it's blatantly obvious, right? Whatever. I lost focus there. That says, "Good, but not accurate." Well, it's not good, right? Rhythmic accuracy is the backbone of a ton of stuff that we play, and so... But it's tempting, right? From the audience's perspective, if I was judging that performance, right, and we didn't have a metronome to hear it, you might be tempted to say, "That's actually not too bad." But from the performer's perspective, it's definitely bad because we're not in control of what's happening. Our intention is to play the thing that should go on the beat. On the beat, right? Okay?

And that is why playing with the metronome is so important. And I was not always a believer in the metronome, but now I am, because the metronome, it doesn't teach us to play on the beat, it gives us a measuring stick, it gives us a reference point so we know if something is on target or not. Does everybody understand that? Very, very important.

Imagine doing a... Anybody ever seen the discus competition before? Imagine being in a discus competition, and everybody throws as far as they can, but there's no measuring tape to decide the winner. How would you figure out the winner? Have you ever been in a situation like that, where... Like, we play bocce in the back yard sometimes at family gatherings. It's amazing the times you can't tell for sure who wins, and you ask to measure it, and the ball that you thought for sure was closer is actually farther away. Anybody ever experienced things like this before? Imagine just shooting arrows at a target, but there's no indication of where the bullseye is, stuff like that, okay?

So the metronome is so important for us as learners, not to teach us how to play on the beat or to keep the tempo steady. That's not really what it's for, okay? The metronome is a measuring stick for us so we can be sure that what we are intending to do is actually happening. Everybody following what I'm saying? Give me some sort of feedback there in the chat. John Holcombe is. Thanks, John. Okay? That's why playing on the beat is so important. All right?

Now, let's look at all of our other fundamentals as well. We've talked a little bit about this before, and this is going to be kind of a bastardized version of it, but let's say this is playing on the beat, this circle. All of the other fundamentals rely on this fundamental in order to be played correctly. All right? How many of us have lift/drop crossing noises sometimes, and no matter how hard we practice, we're just so frustrated because they keep creeping in? Well, what if it was a rhythmic accuracy problem and not a crossing noise problem? Okay?

Let's say we know the note change needs to happen on this black line in order to be rhythmically accurate, but we haven't quite figured out how to wait for that properly, so some of our fingers, maybe some key fingers lift ever so slightly before the beat. Or let's say these ones drop ever so slightly before the beat, and then these ones lift... No, that's still green. Let's say these ones lift exactly on the beat, right? See how we have a rhythmic accuracy problem here? Sorry, that's a crappy color of red. So, some of our fingers dropped a little bit early, and other ones lifted, let's say, exactly on time, or maybe a different degree early, maybe that's more realistic.

But if these fingers drop before the other ones lift, what do we get? Right? Whereas if we take the green line, I don't know if it'll let me move it over... Now if we drop the fingers and lift the other fingers at the exact right time, what do we get? Right? If we simply play with better rhythmic accuracy, suddenly our crossing noises will go away, or at least be a lot easier to get correctly. Does that make sense to anybody? Does that open anybody's eyeballs? A little bit, right?

So, my point being... That's not a good Venn diagram. What the heck is going on here? Right? So, scale navigation is a Venn diagram with basic rhythm. The two things are always going to be tied together, and if our rhythm is bad, our scale navigation can go sour as well. Anybody here ever have a gracenote synchronization error? To review, that is when we get to a note at a different time than our gracenote fires, so we get kind of a doubling type sound accidentally. Or we have a tachum, where it's like... Right? Anybody?

Okay, gracenote synchronization error, it happens all the time. It's the exact same idea again. If we switch to the note, if we jump the gun a little bit with our note change, but our gracenote is actually in the right spot, what do we have? Gracenote synchronization error. Or the opposite could also be true. If our gracenote fires too soon, but our note change happens at the right time, what do we have? We have a gracenote synchronization error. So, the problem with your gracenote might not be the gracenote at all, it might be your basic rhythm. Okay? So, trying to find my... Trying to get good at this drawing tool. So, here we go. Gracenotes and basic rhythm are also very closely tied together. Barb says, "Not all that clear on that subject." What subject, gracenote synchronization? Okay, I'll come back to it in a second.

Let's talk about embellishments. Embellishments, we want to play the steps of the movement accurately, want to play them evenly, but each embellishment also has a specific step that belongs where? On the beat. Okay, so embellishments are a huge thing, right? A huge thing. Especially because embellishments are tricky, what we tend to do is we tend to take our embellishment step that should go on the beat, and it ends up way out in front, because embellishments are tricky and we anticipate and we jump the gun. So, even though our embellishment might come out in such a way that you could call it correct as far as how you played it, the timing is all wrong. Okay?

And so then, we end up with a hot mess musically, just because we're trying to play our embellishments. Right? I'm just exaggerating. But what's the big problem with that playing? If you turn the metronome off, it's not nearly as horrendous. Right? Like, for a beginner or intermediate, that's pretty darn good playing. Then you turn the metronome on, and you realize what the real issue is. What's really holding them back is we're nowhere close to the beat on any of these embellishments. Right? Where what we really want is... Right? Not necessarily perfect, but striving for perfection there, putting those things on the beat. Just a little disclaimer, my own playing there.

Okay? So, suddenly now we have... What's a good color? Orange, orange is a good color. Now we have embellishments attached at the hip to basic rhythm, right? And then ALAP/ASAP is the final fundamental that we talk about a lot with our playing, and it's going to be the exact same idea. What happens is people abandon the dotted note, they abandon the dotted note way too soon, and they don't wait for the beat in order to execute that tiny little note. Right? That tiny little note, the ASAP, is more a part of the subsequent beat than it is of the current beat. Okay? Won't go in too much depth there, I feel like that's a rabbit hole that's dangerous, but we have another fundamental that's attached at the hip to basic rhythm. Okay?

Everybody understand this: If your basic rhythm is bad, if you're not rhythmically accurate to the click of a metronome or to the tapping of a foot, you are screwed. Okay? It's not a pesky thing that Andrew tells you that you should get back to later. That's usually the first thing you need to figure out before you can expect anything else to go even remotely well for you. John understands. "And realize that you're talking about me for the last 20 minutes." Yeah, I'm talking about most of us, because most of us are a little bit not great. Although I will say, somebody like Jen, who's been playing really well lately, it's no coincidence that her rhythmic accuracy has also been really dialed in lately.

Rhythmic accuracy is like bagpipe maintenance is on the other side of the equation. If your bagpipe maintenance is crap, there's no point worrying about how steady you can blow, or whether or not your drones are locked in, because it's never going to happen if you have poor bagpipe maintenance. Basic rhythm is the same thing, it's the base of everything else, which is why technically, maybe, when you list out the fingerwork fundamentals, rhythmic accuracy should come first, technically. That's right, Jen, you still have a lot of work to do, and you'll probably go through a phase sometime soon where it comes apart, and it's not as good as it was. Just, when that happens, it's probably because you took your eye off the ball of one of these fundamentals that the other one is dependent on, and that's the way that it goes.

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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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