I was pretty much without bagpipes for the month of April. I play McCallum bagpipes, as some of you may know, and decided to take Kenny MacLeod up on his offer to have them refurbished. I’ve worked with Kenny and Stuart McCallum for years (the two who lead the McCallum Bagpipe enterprise) and have been an early and enthusiastic supporter of their efforts to make great bagpipes happen in Ayrshire. In fact, the set I play today is the first silver and “ivory” set the company made. So there you go.
Years of heavy bagpipe travelling and bagpipe playing made my set a stand-out candidate for refurbishment and a little bagpipe TLC Kilmarnock style.
My timing wasn’t great in looking to get the job done: a recital here, a concert there; on the cusp of the hardcore bagpipe performing season, April is not the best month to be without pipes. Whatever. I forged ahead and shipped the pipes overseas by Fedex and their super-expensive-jig-time-delivery route. Kenny assured a speedy turnaround – the norm for McCallum, by the way. We didn’t bank on the customs equation and unfortunately my “horns”, as Scott MacAulay might’ve said, were tied up in London for about a week – ugh!
Long-story-short: for about a month I didn’t play many tunes on the big pipes. I did, of course, finally get my customs-delayed pipes and have to say I’m thrilled with hallmark outstanding McCallum attention and workmanship. But this is not the point of my note today. It’s about practice.
Right. Here’s the thing. With only a week and a half on the pipes I trotted out to the Livingstone Invitational contest – and sucked. Really not great. Not even good. Since receiving my revitalized pipes I had pulled together at home what I thought were solid “living room performances”. But bring on judges and a room full of critical/”nurturing” ears, well, it’s just not the same thing.
Practice is everything. To make it look easy, to be able to deliver something interesting in an environment of stress and distraction (like a competition), well, that just takes practice – and lots of it.
This past week I was working with a young pupil on his pibroch. He was playing really nicely. Hands creating engaging rhythm and technique – and music, too – but, oh, for the blooters . Note mistake here, note error there. Blooters don’t cut it in bagpipe competitions – let alone score-tracking pibroch events. I coudn’t prevent him from making note errors but I could find out a few facts – like how much he practiced.
I found that this promising – and quite excellent – young piper played though each of his two competitive pibroch tunes once every daily practice sess. NOT ENOUGH!
Until a piper get to a place where s/he has a comprehensive understanding of pibroch structure and form, one run-through on the horns is just not enough to burn the score on the personal hard drive. My prescription for this piper was to double his effort: he had to play each tune twice on the pipes – every day. And, if still falling to error-making, extra chanter work was in order.
My pupil wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of more practice (“what about other stuff, my marches, strathspeys and reels and all that!?”).
Suck it up, I say. The old line is so true: if it was easy everyone would do it.
Lauryn Hill nailed it when she said, “you don’t know how much artists go through to make it look so easy. It’s all in the practice”.
S/he who can play bagpipes well must surely be the poster child for the hard practice brigade.
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