When I teach my boys at school, I often find myself forgetting to tell them important things. One of these things is how to practice. I assume they will figure it out. I realize I’m wrong when I discover that some think 90 minutes of practice on a Saturday afternoon will do them for the whole week. Or that if they can wobble through a competition march at least once without making more than one blatant error then they are good to go for the games on Saturday. Or that it doesn’t matter if they can’t play the tune we worked on a month ago because they are working on another one now.
I don’t remember being given a full-blown practice regimen at any point in my piping career, but as a teenager I was often around good players. I listened to them practice and compete, I asked a lot of questions and they were always free with their advice. I recall little tips that worked for me. The words for me are key here, because every piper has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. There is no single program that works for everyone.
Being able to understand your own skills package is part of the process. You need a few playing fundamentals, but then you have to teach yourself what you need to do to get better. And you’ll need to evolve over time, because as you get older your needs will change.
Over the course of the next few blogs, I’ll try to present some practice tips and philosophies: things that I found valuable, and things that probably apply to almost everyone, or that will hopefully give you a foundation for developing your own strategies.
Away we go –
Here is a pattern I’ve seen played out several times over the years: a friend wishes he’d kept up with the guitar, which he learned as a kid. He says he’s going to get his guitar out again, dig up the music books, and get back at it. Six months later I ask how the guitar is going. “Well,” he replies, “it was good for a couple of months, and then I just kinda drifted away.” I ask what he was doing to keep motivated. “Well, I promised myself I would do it for 30 minutes four times a week.”
That was the extent of his strategy to relearn guitar — a promise that he’d spend two hours alone in the basement every week doing something difficult.
Here’s the lesson, and don’t forget it: you have to have a reason to play. Just saying you want to isn’t enough. What my guitar-playing friend needed was a shot in the arm each week. Maybe he needed lessons, maybe a guitar-playing buddy, maybe a piano-playing buddy or a cute chick who liked to sing. Maybe he needed a little social group of like-minded wannabes resurrecting an old hobby. He needed something, because, clearly, just wanting to didn’t work.
We pipers are very lucky. We have plenty of motivational outlets at our disposal. Private lessons are a good start, but that only works for a while. Eventually you have to perform, or put yourself in a situation that gives you performance motivation. Pipe bands are a wonderful thing: once a week you’re going to get the pipes out and play whether you want to or not. And the pipe major is going to give you tunes to learn and a reason to learn them. You’ll have a social life, but if you don’t do the work, the group will reject you. That’s good motivation, assuming you’re a sociable sort. Lots of people who are not otherwise very team-oriented join a pipe band because it gives them good reasons to play.
For lots of pipers, solo competition is a great motivator. They don’t ever expect to win the Gold Medal at Inverness, and in many cases winning isn’t the idea. The idea is to be motivated to get better, and then to put all that work on the line several times a year to test themselves. Playing in public — even if it’s just you and the judge — certainly lights a fire under you. As a late, great old friend of mine, Duncan MacLachlan, used to say, “The minute you strike up in front of a judge, you’re the most honest man in the park.”
I’ve played pipes for 45 years. I make my living at it. But I still have to make sure I have reasons to play. If I don’t, I’ll watch the hockey game rather than practice. Or I’ll do things on the computer that don’t really need to be done. Just saying I want to be a piper doesn’t do it.
I don’t compete any more, so that’s out. I don’t really need to practice much to play “Amazing Grace” at a graveside, so that doesn’t help much either, though this might in fact work for lots of people. Sometimes I have to perform at school and the powers that be there want me to be impressive. Frankly, whenever I perform I want to be impressive. That’s my style, and that’s a good motivator for me. No matter where or when I play I want to be an the best I can be for that event. Sometimes there are recitals, but not that often any more because I don’t seek them out, and they are a lot of work. For me, recording the sound files for my pipetunes.ca sheet music site is a good motivator. My fingers have to be in good fettle to do that, and the idea that those files will be out there for a long time means I’m not going to take it lightly.
Recently I’ve decided I want to record full pipes in a home studio: piobaireachd and whatever light music I’m interested in. Why? Well, I’m not sure, but it’s giving me a musical purpose, and that’s what’s important. The rest will come later. I love to play, but I still need a better reason than just wanting to. And so do you, or you won’t do it.
Find a good reason, or you’ll whither on the vine. Trust me.
Next: How long?