I often find when I’m teaching beginner or intermediate pipers that the most valuable thing I can do is teach them how to teach themselves. With this in mind, I find the most important word I can utter is, “Slower.”
They don’t always know what I mean by that. They are working through a couple of bars and it is a mish-mash: maybe some short notes are cut out of existence, maybe the gracenotes aren’t where they should be, maybe the timing is completely out of control. So I say, “Slower,” and they drop the tempo a wee bit but continue to blast forward, wondering what’s wrong.
So I tell them this: play it as slowly as you need to play it to play it perfectly.
That seems pretty straightforward, but often they still don’t get it. They bash through it at about 3/4 of the tempo they had been playing, but parts of it are still crushed, inaccurate or bent out of shape. This frustrates me, because when I ask them if they can hear that the playing is not right, they say yes. They know it’s not good. I ask why they just keep doing it over and over again and expect it will get better. They tell me that’s practice. I tell them they are practicing how to be bad, and pretty soon they will be very good at it.
So I prod them more: “Slower yet. Play it as slowly as you can without falling asleep.”
Finally, they play those two bars slower than anything they have ever played in their lives. They take 15 seconds to play one bar that would normally take 3 seconds to play. But this time they play it perfectly.
In other words, they knew how to play the passage correctly all along; they simply weren’t allowing themselves to do it. I “taught” them how to play the passage correctly without actually teaching them anything. I just badgered them until they slowed it down enough that their fingers could figure it out.
They may need to play it a dozen or two more times at this tempo until they are confident of it, but only then should they start to speed it up, and then very minimally. And if it starts to fall apart again, they are speeding it up too much too early.
And for those learners who say, “I can’t play it that slowly” — they are not trying hard enough. Playing fast is hard. Playing slow just takes practice.
Remember: play it as slowly as you need to play it to play it perfectly.
That is your starting point.