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Learning 25 tunes in 2 weekends

A couple of tunes per day? Not quite… I don’t think a couple of tunes per day would have worked, even if I had given it a try... Here go a few tips on how I learned the repertoire I needed for joining the North Texas Caledonian Pipes and Drums (a grade 5 and grade 4 pipe band organization).

First of all, I must say that I have been playing the bagpipes for over 20 years now, and I have completely lost count of how many tunes I have learned in all this time. But I don’t think it would be too incorrect to assume that an average piper with this tenure should have in the order of hundreds of tunes he/she has actually studied, and perhaps another so many tunes he/she has listened to and has more or less guessed what the score (or at least the approximate fingering) should look like. This is by no means a note to discourage beginner pipers enthusiastically learning new tunes to join a pipe band. It is just a way of establishing a framework that explains the head start a relatively seasoned piper would have over a beginner. The key point is that while learning more and more tunes, one tends to refine the ability needed for finding patterns within tunes, and thus finding predictability rules as well as mentally highlighting the parts that distinguish themselves for not following any recorded-till-then rule. Simply put, and generally speaking, the more tunes you know, the easier it tends to be to learn more tunes, and more complex ones too.

Another point that I believe in is that having a good background of classic tunes also contributes to accelerate the learning process of more tunes, be them classic, or more modern-styled and adventurous compositions, often nick-named “Nintendo tunes”. “Classic tunes” is a hard concept to define, but the best definition I can find is “those tunes that have passed the test of time”, and I am talking about more than half-a-century. Of course, neither I nor anyone who has gone through this orthodox learning process can live their life again and see what their piping would sound like if starting with modern tunes. But there seems to be a widespread consensus that classic tunes contain most of the building blocks of everything that came later.

A fact that helps in this process is that the pipe band is most likely practicing these same tunes that you are learning. I made a point of attending the band’s practices, not for playing, instead for listening to the tunes being played. By the time I got the music scores, I had at least heard the tunes 2-3 times per practice. Once you have the music scores, attending the practices is also a good way of checking these scores. Often pipe music scores are altered after being distributed so you may not be receiving an updated version (e.g. dot-dashes, repeats, ends of parts, end of tunes, embellishments, etc). It is common that pipe bands make these adjustments, so attending the practices is a good way of checking these possible changes before spending too much time with scores that need to be modified. Make sure your scores are as close as possible to what the band is in fact playing, because between one practice and the next, all you have in most cases is the music score, so check these discrepancies with the P/M rather than use an erroneous score.

I used Bagpipe Music Writer Gold to have my own “clean” score of the tunes. This kind of software also allows you to hear the tune over and over, and even change the tempo and key. If necessary, this can also be used to play-along (make sure the player and the chanter are on the same key), and can even be used to check the harmonies of a tune without the need of another piper. But beware of the weak spot common to all music writing tools available: these will play exactly what is written on the score, and in the best of cases this will sound like a robot. I do not recommend this to practice tunes with particular cadences such as strathspeys, or tunes that are intended to be played very pointed or very rounded. Listening to these virtual pipers will give you a rough idea of what it is supposed to sound like. I consider it a big step above playing with a metronome, but once you get the idea of a tune, it may not be a good idea to practice it this way for ever.

Have you noticed that the Highland Bagpipe is one of the few instruments in the world that is performed in public without a music score? Well, this is why learning a tune by heart is so important in this activity. Now that you have the right score, and have heard the tune several times, it’s the moment of truth: you, the practice chanter and the score. Your mission: get these tunes accurately into your head, and for ever. One of the two most important steps in the memorizing process is the repetition. At this stage, play the tunes over and over, about 10 times before moving on to the next one… and then start again. It is tiresome, but when you start getting tired of listening to the tune, this means that the memorizing process is starting to work!

Practice does not make perfect, instead, practice makes permanent! Repetition is a two-bladed sword, and this is why I make so much emphasis in checking your scores before getting into the repetition stage. If your scores are not accurate, you will be memorizing an inaccurate score. It takes a much larger effort to correct something memorized than to getting it right from the beginning.

To sleep-over something it is not only an expression, it is a medical fact! A good night’s sleep (naps don’t count!) is what your brain needs for the second most important step in the memorizing process. While at sleep, our brains condense (meaning processing to a higher level) what it has learned to be important during that day, and discard what they consider of no use. Notice that this is a natural neurological process and it is beyond our conscious control. The tiresome repetition in the previous stage is how we tell the brain that this is something worthy of processing and hence keeping for the future. But it is the condensing process during sleep that actually stores the information in a sturdy and handy place for future use. Once the tune has been condensed in your brain, it will seamlessly flow; meaning that you can whistle, hum, and play the tune on the chanter.

These two steps are the key for planning your practice hours. Fortunately half the job gets done while we are asleep, but this also means that frantic efforts the same day as the practice may get you through that practice, but will not likely get the tunes in your head for ever. Spread your practice hours throughout the week. You will notice that by the second or third day you are working on a set of tunes this way, your fingers will be moving on their own, you will be staring into the score, but you will not be reading it. That’s it! Now try the tune without the score. At first it will feel uncomfortable, almost like a baby not having his/her dummy (US English: “pacifier”). You will be surprised with how much of the tune you can actually play without peeking. Now you are ready to work on the weak spots, i.e. those fragments during which you would have liked to have looked at the score. Repeat these fragments a couple of times, at first isolated from the rest of the tune, and then within larger contexts (bar, phrase, line, part). Then make the additional effort of again turning-over the score and playing the tune by heart. This does not mean that you will no longer look at the score, all the contrary; you are making the effort towards becoming independent and gaining confidence.

Of course, finding the right place and time for doing your repetitions is not always easy. This often requires some quota of patience from your family, and some logistics are also needed. In my case, I was open in explaining that this was one of those (another of those) one-time efforts that had to be made, and that it was an investment of time for getting these tunes up into my head. I spent many hours in the dressing room (clothes are good sound dampers), playing the tunes over and over with my practice chanter, and when possible I would also take my scores with me elsewhere to continue reading the tunes and play with my fingers.

This may sound tedious, but after two weekends of following these techniques (rather than months of frustrating practicing), I was playing with both the grade 5 and grade 4 bands at the Texas Scottish Festival (Maverick Stadium, University of Texas in Arlington).

Give it a try and good night!
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Training highlights
June 2008, my first show with the NTCPD (Maverick Stadium - Arlington, TX).