Let’s continue talking about practice strategies.
A good friend of mine told me a story many years ago about one of the top pipers of the day. The competition season was approaching and my friend asked this great competitor, “How long do you practice?” The piper replied: “Forty-five minutes a day.” My friend was shocked. “You’re winning professional piping competitions and you only practice for 45 a day??”
“Yes,” the piper replied. “And I haven’t missed a day since October 1st.” The conversation took place in April.
There is a huge lesson here. The key to improvement is not primarily in the number of hours you put in per day, it’s in the regularity of your sessions. Talk to the best pipers and you’ll find that maybe they didn’t put in a huge number of hours last week, but they have been pounding away at it steadily for decades with relatively brief recuperative breaks during that time.
If you can find two hours a week to practice, don’t play for an hour on Saturday and an hour on Sunday. Play for 20 minutes Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and then an hour on Saturday. Or 30 minutes Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
There are a couple of advantages to this. First, activity requiring physical strength and skill responds well to this approach. You don’t get in shape for a marathon by running 26 miles once a week. Physical benefits accrue as a result of short, regular bursts.
Also, assuming you enjoy piping, your 20 minutes will frequently extend to 25 or 30 minutes or even longer. You give yourself more opportunities to commit. I often tell myself I’m going to “play my pipes for 20 minutes.” If the pipes are going well and I’m enjoying myself (I always do when the pipes are going well) that 20 minutes almost always extends to 30 or 40. I knew it would. Saying I’ll “practice for 20 minutes” is just how I con myself into getting them out of the box.
Another advantage of short, frequent sessions is that if life intervenes and you miss a session, you haven’t lost half a week’s practice time; you’ve only lost a quarter.
Playing regularly is a very significant tenet of most successful pipers’ practice regimens. How long you commit to each session will depend on your passion and your goals. But certainly if you hope to improve as a player, no matter what your age, two hours a week is probably the minimum amount of practice time needed to get you there. Five would be better, but whatever that number is, spread it out as much as possible.
And avoid lengthy layoffs of several months if you possibly can. I remember the late Willie Connell, the Robert Reid pupil who moved to Canada in the early 1970s, telling me that the worst thing he ever did was take a year off from piping after he retired from competing. “My piping was never the same after that,” he said. I’ll never forget that lesson.
Up next: how much on chanter, pipes?