My high school pipers are an interesting bunch, and listening to them practice in their inexperienced way is an education in what many people lack in their practice sessions. Usually in class we work on one or two pieces, or a short set of tunes. We meet in a main teaching room, and then I often send them into break-out rooms to practice. I visit them one by one in these rooms for one-on-one tutoring.
I’m often struck by how they go into their practice rooms with, say, a 2/4 competition march to work on, strike up cold and immediately play their march. They might not even tune. Then they have a wee rest and play it again. This pattern repeats itself until I make my way to their room. After I go over the tune with them and leave, they play it once or twice more. In other words, they have had a 25 minute practice session, and all they have done is played nine times through the four-parted march we’re working on. This can’t be much fun.
I often find that after six months of this practice pattern all they can play is their band material and whatever solo tune we happen to be working on. If I ask them to play a tune we pounded 6 weeks ago, I may well get a sheepish grin and a “How does it go again?” I say to them: “You’re not becoming a musician; you’re just doing homework.” That’s strikes a nerve in most, because they do fancy themselves as serious pipers.
The biggest part of being a musician is building a repertoire. Most of my practice time is spent maintaining my repertoire, not working on my current project. If I’ve learned a new M/S/R, I might play it twice through during my practice session. How does it get any better? Here’s how: I’ll play that M/S/R during every practice session for three weeks or a month. I may have another few new tunes I’m learning like this as well. The rest of what I play is rotating repertoire.
Any serious set of tunes I’m trying to improve or perfect doesn’t get played until 20 minutes or so into my practice session, after my pipes are perfectly steady and my hands are warmed up. Every practice session has one or two “events,” and my new set will be one of them. A piobaireachd (or a new piobaireachd) is often the other.
I have about 25 four-parted -parted 6/8 marches I’ve played for 30 years. If I play 15 times in three weeks, a set of three of these will get played once or twice. Other simple march sets (4/4, 3/4, light 2/4) that I’ve learned in the last year or two might get played three times during that span. A typical 45-minute practice session might consist of:
1. a piobaireachd ground
2. a set of four 4/4 marches
3. a set of three four-parted 6/8 marches
4. a M/S/R once through, or maybe each tune twice or maybe two of each — MM/SS/RR
5. a set of two or three hornpipes
6. a set of four or five four-parted jigs
7. a complete piobaireachd, maybe two
Next day, maybe the hornpipe set is replaced by a two-parted strathspey and reel set. One day, if the pipes are going well, the hornpipes and jigs will become one big 10-minute set, or I’ll just play a string of jigs until my focus, strength or bagpipe wanes. Some days after the first set or two I’ll have a more relaxing day and just play two or three piobaireachds.
Sometimes, if I’ve learned a new piobaireachd, I’ll play if first. I’ll tune again after the ground, and again after a variation or two and just plow through to the end. This way I’m blowing my pipes down and working on the tune a bit as well. At the end of my practice session I may play the tune again as an “event.”
One day the 6/8 set might be 9/8s, or a set of two-parted 2/4s, or a set of slow airs.
It varies every day, and that’s what keeps it interesting. The focus may depend on an upcoming event or recital and what I plan to play there.
Very rarely do I play the same tune more than twice: none of this bludgeoning a tune until it’s good and dead.
The above is what works for me. Others may have patterns that work better for them, but the bottom line is that you must maintain an active repertoire while still working in new material.