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The Primary Key To Making a Tune a Joy to Play

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Did you enjoy your last bagpipe performance?  Was it meaningful to you as well as the audience?  Did you have complete control over the delivery of that tune and your instrument?

Andrew describes how having control over the basic fingerwork fundamentals will lead to a gratifying performance.  He will also explain how using a metronome can take you there.

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In our skills for the week, we're supposed to be thinking kind of directly about basic rhythm.  We've talked a little bit about this yesterday already, but skill of navigation, we know that means no crossing noises. What does basic rhythm mean? Beth says, "It's the horizontal portion of creating a melody and how events are arranged over time."

Remember, it's just horizontal in the sense that it happens sort of from left to right over time kind of like we're reading a book. That's what she means by horizontal. Then, vertical is the pitch whether a note is low on the scale or higher on the scale, you could think of that as vertical and then you could think of the way things are arranged over time as being horizontal.

Notice that …Playing note durations relative to the beat. Oh, I like that. It's pretty good. All right. Things are happening horizontally. Just think about this for a second though. Could we have a melody note? Pick any note you want. Let's say the note C. Could we play the note C without any aspect of rhythm? Okay. Yes or no?

No, you really couldn't because no matter how you play that C, it has some element of time associated with it. Maybe, you play it very quickly. That would be a quick measurement of time. Maybe, you play it very lengthy C, and that would be an element of time. Without some element of time, AKA rhythm, the playing of any melody is impossible.

We don't need a beat to have rhythm. Would you say that the waves crashing on the shore when you go to the beach, do the waves have a rhythm? Sure, they do. They roll in and out over a period of time. You don't need to have a beat to have rhythm. My point that I'm trying to make here is one on a melodic instrument, one cannot exist without the other.

A melody cannot exist without rhythm and, at least, if we're attempting to play a melody, a rhythm cannot exist without melody as well. The two things are 100% linked and require each other in order for the other one to exist, which is really kind of interesting. Pitches and rhythm are inextricably linked.

A great example of a melody without a beat could be the ground of a Piobaireachd. You cannot tap your foot to the ground of a Piobaireachd, generally speaking, but it still has a very distinct rhythm. As a matter of fact, a lot of people say, "I don't understand the rhythms of Piobaireachd, so I can't play it."

Yeah, there are lots of arrhythmic melodies. Think about like Gregorian chant. It's sort of a form of music before, like the typical Western modern version of rhythm, sort of was integrated into the vast number of types of music that we hear now, stuff like that. Rhythm is how things in music are arranged over time. Now, let's talk about the beat. What is the beat? The beat is a type of rhythm that has what characteristic? What takes it from just being just a rhythm to actually being considered a beat.

Good. I like John's answer better. It recurs at a regular interval. Generally speaking, to keep things simple, it recurs at the same interval over and over again. That's what we would call a beat. The metronomes really good. It was like a clock. A clock is a great example of a beat. Every second, it clicks one time. But, yeah, a beat is a rhythm that occurs at an identical interval.

It's basically like one musical event that occurs at a regular interval. We could Wikipedia it and figure out the safest definition. But you know what I mean? A beat is a regularly recurring rhythmic event like this. That's what a beat is. Not to be confused with a groove. What would be a groove? A groove is a little bit different than a beat. What would be a good way of describing that? If a rhythm is a single event that recurs at the same interval, okay, a groove might be a pattern or a pattern of events. Let's not mix the word beats in here to keep it simple, but it would be a pattern of rhythmic events that occurs at the same interval like a six, eight groove.

(singing) That would be what I would call a groove. It's a pattern of rhythmic events. I like that, Beth. A pattern of rhythmic events that happens that recurs at the same interval over and over again. That'd be a good example of a groove. That'd be a good definition of it. Rhythm is how musical events are spaced over time. Actually, you could graduate from music altogether.

Rhythm is how events are arranged over time. Would you say your life has a certain rhythm or your day-to-day routine? Yeah, I would say so. The seasons have a rhythm. Sure. Circadian rhythms. Yeah. Your heartbeat obviously has a rhythm. The reason they call it a beat is not necessarily because it's musical, but because it's a single rhythmic event that happens at roughly the same duration over and over again.

Although, you could kind of get fancy and be like, "Well, maybe the heartbeat is more like a groove because there's those like pre- and post-little heartbeat things that happen when you look at the EKG." Music is the same sort of thing. Take it away from objective science. In a 2/4 march, Donald Maclean's Farewell to Oban, we have 4-beat phrases, (singing).

Then, that is going to repeat itself again. There are going to be changes. But that same basic idea repeats itself again. (singing) That's the basic structure of a 2/4 march. But what's kind of interesting is we have these 4-beat phrases that are going on, but we also have 16-beat parts that are also simultaneously going on and recurring and really nice, beautiful rhythms that are all layered inside of each other just like life, which is really good.

Now, let's break this down and we want to go technical with it. When we play music like a march or a jig or a strathspey or a reel or a horn pipe or 6/8 march even some slow airs, these all have a very specific beat to them. The beat is regularly recurring. The beat, should it change a lot or always stay the same? Generally speaking, the tempo should stay the same.

I liked that a lot. Then, if it doesn't stay the same, whose decision is that? Well, the pipe majors may be, but like, "No. It's not necessarily that composer." Yeah. The player, the performer. That's right. Could be the pipe major. But if you're a soloist, it's going to be you. If the tempo changes, it needs to be your decision. Where I'm going with this is if the tempo speeds up and up and up in a controlled way, that's fine if it's your intention.

If it's not your intention to speed up, and it speeds up in an out-of-control way, that's always bad from the perspective of performing and mastering an instrument. I liked that. I like that we're saying stuff like, generally speaking, the tempo should always remain the same. When it doesn't remain the same, it's because of a decision that the performer makes.

Now, sure. The composer could be like, "This should speed up a little gradually over time." But it's still the performer's decision whether or not they do that. The common denominator of all this stuff is control. We have to control what's going on. I'm segueing to the main point I wanted to make today. I'm working my way. I'm getting there. I can feel it. Control is a common denominator. If we're out of control, it doesn't matter what we're doing, even if what we're doing sounds correct to the audience or sounds exciting, even if our losing control and going faster and faster and faster excites the audience, that doesn't mean it's good because from the performer's standpoint, the most important thing is that we have control over what we're trying to do.

Control is the number one goal. Of course, full control is never achievable.

There's always some sort of variable that challenges our degree of control. When we're talking about rhythm and developing rhythmic control, what is more reliable? A mechanical device outside of our body that we can rely on to produce a perfectly steady rhythm or option B, our own intuition as we are playing. What is more reliable of the two?

The machine is always more reliable. When it comes to training ourselves and our sense of timing and our understanding of rhythm, all right, a machine is a great tool to use. A machine is impartial. The machine is not thinking about music as it's producing its perfectly steady click over and over and over again.

In the digital era, a machine is always accurate. I metronome is an amazing tool for helping us develop our sense of timing. That is why we use the metronome so much at Dojo U is not because you need a metronome to play good music. It's because it's an excellent tool to help us develop our sense of timing. It's a double-edge sword. We should use a metronome in our development, but we can't rely on a metronome every single time we whip our chanter out to play something.

You can't be like, "Oh, I can't play Donald MaClean's Farewell to Oban unless I turn my metronome on." A metronome is a tool that gets us closer to the goal of having complete rhythmic control. Now, later on, intuition is what we want. Remember, we said that word “generally” before. A metronome is not going to help us perfectly artistically gradually increase the tempo when we're playing something like Steam Train to Mallaig.

A metronome is a great tool for helping us develop that essential skill of playing with perfectly steady tempo regardless of what's going on in the technique. A metronome is a tool.

The key thing, the thing that's been so important all along and the thing that the metronome has helped us do is be in control once we're ready for the tune to take the form that we want. If I were to start a solo competition, I'm not going to start the tune perfectly on the rhythm. It would be a lot more interesting and musical, I think, and certainly idiomatic. Certainly something that the audience and the judge would appreciate to ease into the temple a little bit, maybe across the first beat or two.

Then, as I'm playing, I'm thinking about the melody and the phrases and the environment. I'm taking my sense of timing. I'm using all of these developed skills to forge a performance that has meaning to me. That's the bottom line. That's what we're doing here. Developing control is the name of the game.

Then, once I have control and we have our five fundamentals up here, maybe there's a few more cool things we could have control over like pulsing, like a broader scale dynamics. Maybe, we have some tremolos up our sleeve, some false notes up our sleeve. But now, we have control over all of these key aspects of performing on the bagpipe. That, by having control over these things, that's what allows us to play tunes in a way that actually has meaning to us, and that can actually be enjoyable to us. 

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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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