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Room for Improvement

Room for Improvement


Last April, 2016, I competed in a Grade 4 Adult (EUSPBA) event at the highland games in Dunedin, Florida, a true hotbed of piping in the Southeast United States. It had been raining heavily all morning, and I was due up in a large group for the 2/4 march competition, with Rab Mathieson as the judge.

The rain had just stopped, but I still had on my raincape, just in case. Then I remembered that Alan Bevan (Pipe Major of the six-time World Champion Simon Fraser Pipe Band) had told me once that if possible, play without a raincape because it can distort some of the bottom hand notes, particularly Low G. So, I took off the cape, despite the light drizzle.

My march was rather new to me, "Allan Dodd’s Farewell to Scotland," but I had been playing it for a few months. This tune has an incredibly beautiful melody, which for me, at least, makes a tune a lot easier to memorize than one without a “catchy” melody. During my practice sessions at home, I always use a metronome, even when on the pipes, and I march. I hook my headphones into a metronome, so that I can clearly hear the clicks while I march. At first, of course, I use the metronome in double time to assure that the beats and offbeats are played as accurately as possible, but then I switch to single time, slowly building up the tempo. My goal is to play a 2/4 march around 54 to 56 beats per minute in my grade. I've learned, here at Dojo University, that if a judge’s only negative comment is “tempo too slow,” and everything else is good, then it’s a success. I know from experience that if I start a tune too fast at the beginning, it’s all downhill from there, so I have really been working on achieving a nice, controlled tempo.

I took my time in front of the judge. I was more excited than terrified, which is now more typical than in the old days. I was “OK” with the tuning of the drones and chanter, but knew that the moisture in the air was going to play a bit of havoc that day. I started the march at a controlled and comfortable pace, trying to focus on good finger technique and rhythmic accuracy. I felt that things had gone well, until the second ending of the fourth part. Then it happened. I totally got off the tune and played the first ending again. Darn darn darn—but those aren’t the real words I told myself.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that I had placed third, out of 17 in my group, despite my mistakes, especially that fourth part! Rab Mathieson’s comments included the following:

"Tempo on the slow side."
"Good melodic phrasing."
"You need to drive the melody more."
"Starting to round off in 3rd part."
"Girls slurring."
"Last part drifted off the melody and metric pulse."
"Good understanding of the 2/4 idiom."

In addition, Rab noted that my drones had drifted, and that my D, High G, and High A were a bit sharp.
I look at competing, especially as an adult learner, as an opportunity to get comments from a judge who is a far better than I ever hope to be. When I saw the comment,“tempo on the slow side,” I smiled, knowing that I had accomplished what I intended. I can always gradually increase the tempo. But the best part of the comments was the last one: "Good understanding of the 2/4 idiom." I didn’t just smile, I had the biggest grin on my face, seeing that comment from Rab Mathieson! In spite of the mistake of missing the second ending in the last part, the good parts of my performance overshadowed that one misstep. Of course, I appreciate all the other comments as areas for improvement and more focus, but on that rainy, cloudy day in Dunedin, the sun seemed to shine.

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John Holcombe John began piping at the ripe old age of 55 years. Always liking the sound of the bagpipes, John grew up in Oklahoma, where he never had a chance early on to experience firsthand this amazing instrument. But after moving to Indianapolis, he had the great fortune in 2004 to begin lessons with Craig Waugh, and Open Grade piper originally from Manitoba, Canada. Through that outstanding instruction, along with annual attendance at Jack Lee’s Piping Hot Summer Drummer and being a founding and continuing premium member of Dojo University, John has continued through hard work and determination to advance his knowledge and technical skills. As a retired research physician, John now enjoys immersing himself in piping, and he is proud to have won several first place medals in Grade 4 competitions in EUSPBA-sanctioned events. John’s current goal is to achieve the Grade 3 level of competence.