The Secret to Making Good Music: “This Boy Needs More Practice”

May 1, 2012 on 6:57 pm by Michael Grey | In Music, Solo Piping, Stories, Tips | 2 Comments

Just so there’s no suspense on this one; the secret to making good music is simple: It’s practice.

We’re coming up to the bagpipe competition season and everyone who aims to seriously take part is hard at it trying to make the best music they can.

Today’s May first – a big day for those of the Pagan persuasion (Beltane and all that) – and a slew of other groups of varied and disparate kind. Maybe a few of you rushed out early this morning to wash your faces in May dew – an apparent tonic and secret to youthful appearance [by the way, the May dew thing seems to be working for me, as so many of you can clearly see, just an unsolicited tip].

But for me the month of May has always been the start of the outdoor bagpipe competition season. My first outdoor contest was in May. It was at “Alma Highland Games” [and that seems weird to key in as Alma is a pokey little place in the middle of the American state of Michigan – not so highland] where I launched my solo competitive piping effort.

It was 1977 and Star Wars was the movie tearing up the global box office. Me? I was playing “Hills of Perth” at Alma for Bob Worrall’s teacher, the Ulsterman, Bill Millar. And here’s my score sheet – or what’s left of it:

So, in case you have trouble reading Bill Millar’s infamously poor scrawl – and – the text tears of the old score sheet – here’s what he said:

“This boy needs more practice”

Break – 5/5 [Hello! No breaks in the performance of one march – 5 outta 5!]
Time – 8/10 “Expression is lacking” [the highlight of this score sheet]
Tone and Tuning – 12/25 “Pipe chanter very sharp on top; drones no’ in tune”
Expression – 13/30
Execution – 13/30 “Execution is very ragged”

So, all in all, a score sheet to toss in the bin. I didn’t. As you see, I have shreds of it now. Like almost all constructive criticism I’ve received – and continue to receive – I took it at face value. And practiced. Practiced my face off.

In 1982 I again went to Alma games, five years after my unsuccessful rendition of “The Hills of Perth” and won professional prizes – at my first outdoor open contest.

I add this little factoid with a view to encourage people – I know it appears as something less noble, but it is here to point out the power of practice. Really.

Yes, maybe Bob Worrall and Jim McGillivray blootered it up, paving the way for my wayward entry to professional prizes – but that’s not my point. My point is practice delivers great rewards: win or lose – with practice, better music is made.



  1. Are you talking about practice, man?

    Comment by ktj — May 8, 2012 #

  2. Ha! Good one, Karim! Classic. “We not talkin bout the game, we’re talkin bout practice”


    Comment by Michael Grey — May 8, 2012 #

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