Music Background…Blessing or Curse?
This post was originally titled “On Being an Adult Learner” but I decided that this wasn’t specific enough for the real topic and an audience that extends well beyond mature students. My experience as a beginner was as an adult with a classical music background. Believe it or not, this may have complicated things.
Although my thoughts are directed to people who may have a shared experience, I think that there’s something for everyone here: beginners of all ages, for those who instruct them, and for the organizations they join.
I’ve recently noticed a number of people commenting on various forums and sending private messages regarding an inability to apply their extensive musical knowledge to piping. I get it! I had an identical experience. It didn’t take long for me to realize what I thought was an asset was actually a liability! My instructor actually encouraged me to quit. Thankfully, I did not.
I’ll wager that most everyone that reads this article will have either
- been that person or
- known someone who appeared at band practice for lessons only to disappear a few weeks later…and you’ve always wondered why as they were a seasoned musician!
By sharing my experience, I hope to shed some light on this.
I’m going to recognize here the organizations that are currently trying to bridge the gap between classical music and the music of the GHB. In my opinion, they serve as a great example of what is possible.
Learning About The Music
This was the real challenge. It was good on the first day: there are nine notes, no bothersome accidentals to consider, and no pesky key signatures to memorize. The time signatures were all very common. Frankly, that’s awesome! But then every day after that was difficult for a long time.
The things I had learned, had taught other inspiring musicians, and held as “ultimate truths” were suddenly “untrue”. In order to fully understand and eventually embrace these contradictions, I had to put my flute down for a year and focus solely on the Great Highland Bagpipe, its music, and the workings of the band I joined.
Here’s a quick list of head-liners that took me sideways:
- There is no “music is in the silence between the notes”
- There are no rests
- There is no traditional staccato, only legato (which you need to use to accomplish staccato)
- A dot is held “until your teeth bleed”
- Don’t short the cut notes-even though you’re holding the dot what seems like forever
- Gracenotes are not graceful; they’re forceful
- The dynamic range of ‘piano’ to ‘forte’ does not exist
- You must learn all of the technique before you can play a tune
- You must adjust all of the technique when you advance to a bagpipe
- If you don’t play all of the technique, you could be considered a hack
- 99% of the tunes are not familiar or a part of anyone else’s repertoire
- With some instructors use of a metronome is optional, with others it’s absolutely discouraged making learning music and unison play within sections really difficult
After a lot of research, perseverance, and patience I can now say that there is articulation, dynamic of sound, and a way to learn the expression of cut and dotted notes. Finding someone to communicate this to me was very difficult. Ultimately it came in the form of piecing together new “truths” delivered by several truly great players over several years.
Bottom line: Don’t give up. There’s a lot of beauty in this music once you can understand it properly!
What You Think You Know, You Don’t.
As we become adults we assume that we gain knowledge and shorten the learning curve in new challenges and activities we choose. For instance, if I learn to drive a car and I can pretty much rest easy that my mastered automobile operational skills provide a good foundation for driving a pick-up truck. This isn’t necessarily true in piping. If you played another musical instrument, you are likely no better prepared for learning the bagpipe than someone who didn’t. Don’t be offended. Yes, you can read the notes on the staff and do the math for the rhythms of 2, 3, or 4 between each bar line. Here is where you need to temporarily let go of all else you know. Fighting to apply nuances learned for another form of music will only frustrate you and impede your progress. Accept that you were interested in this because it is different!
Don’t worry. This frame of mind won’t last forever. Once you’ve moved beyond the “beginner” stage, your understanding of musical structure, ensemble, and composition will become invaluable to you and to your pipe band organization.
[Note to instructors and pipe majors: formally trained musicians are smart folks, too! You may find that their background allows them to learn very quickly or become frustrated very early. Differentiate your teaching methods to improve retention. The bands that have successfully grown through instruction make realistic goals, provide level-appropriate music, and find ways for beginner pipers to be involved while they’re preparing to meet the performance standard. Little successes become big successes!]
The Music Is Just a Guideline
Pipers perform while standing and without music stands. Aside from ‘Amazing Grace’ and the melody of ‘Scotland the Brave”, little of the music is familiar when you’re at the beginner stage. Everything is in the huge binder that you’ve been given with instructions to “practice daily and memorize”. The task seems daunting!
As you tackle your tune list you may identify theory, note, and gracenote errors. After you gather the courage to say something the reply is often “don’t worry about it, the music is just a guideline.”
Here’s my advice: The sheet music really is just a guideline. (yup, really…) As you’re learning new music don’t stare at the page and take the tune note for note, embellishment for embellishment. The best approach is to actually learn the “tune”. Forget all the little notes and focus on the melodic line. Identify the phrases in each part. Listen! Listen! Listen! Utilize your knowledge of a theme with variations. Hum the tunes while you’re walking anywhere and doing anything. Find how note values fit into the length of your stride. Progressively learn and add the technical work to the melody because it is important to the idiom, but don’t let it detract from your melody.
[Note to instructors and pipe majors: Band members who’ve been playing a long time don’t realize how confusing, nerve-racking, and dismissive wrong notation really is. It might be a good policy to make sure all of the music is error free and that everyone understands it the same way. This not only helps new students, but it also improves overall unison and ensemble for the whole group.]
At the end of the day (or actually a few years) I found that my musical background is indeed a blessing. As piping and pipe bands evolve to include new music and collaboration with other instruments, I’m finding my place in this musical world. The many summer schools, weekend events, and highland games are great places to meet new people and enjoy the journey together. Skype and web-conferencing make it easy to learn from more than one teacher, broaden your exposure, and share what you’ve learned with others.
The first year is the most difficult for learner, the instructor, and perhaps a band organization. If everyone can keep their focus on the greater good of community, music, and celebration of culture, the work becomes enjoyable and the experience incomparable!