How do you get better at something when no one is around to challenge you?
When you're trying to actively improve at something, it can be very hard to make any progress if you're toiling away on your own.
Sure, you might notice you're getting better or faster at certain skills, but...
Can you be sure that you're learning them accurately?
Can you be sure that you're headed in the right direction?
Can you be sure that you aren't just ingraining bad habits that will take you many times longer to undo and retrain the right way?
Of course, you can take advantage of tools like recorders and metronomes, to measure your own skills against an objective marker and listen back to analyze your playing with some distance from the performance itself. That's a great thing to do, and one that we encourage our members to do regularly.
But you only know what you know – you can only hear or see issues according to the level of knowledge and skill that you've already reached. To truly push past that to the next level requires objective feedback from someone who knows more than you do (or who knows a similar level, but can provide a different perspective or insight).
Think about experts in any field – like athletes, surgeons, and CEOs – there's a reason that they all get regular coaching and feedback from other experts in their fields. They recognize that getting regular, objective feedback from a range of people whose opinions you trust is vital if you want to make any kind of meaningful improvement.
On the whole, though, people tend to avoid situations where they have to ‘put themselves out there’ and risk being judged and not measuring up to some arbitrary standard - either one they imagine others have, or one they have for themselves.
This usually has one common outcome – it universally prevents progress.
That’s such a shame though, because without exception, if you try something – and especially if you fail in front of someone who knows what they're doing, and can offer detailed, personalized feedback on problem areas to focus on – you'll improve exponentially faster than if you avoid criticism of any kind.
So, why not form your own 'challenge network'?
Can you think of a few people in your band or piping community who you trust, who will be insightful and constructive, and who know more than you in terms of your playing? (Hot tip: if you're a student at Dojo University, you have access to more than a few!).
As organizational psychologist Adam Grant says, "I think of my challenge network as my Avengers: they all have different superpowers that they use to save me from myself. They’re the people who sharpen your thinking and push you toward rethinking. They don’t hesitate to tell you if you have food in your teeth, because their goal isn’t to make you feel good – it’s to help you do better."
Ready to assemble your own "Piping Avengers"? Here's how to do it:
1. Pick 3-5 people with a range of experience, knowledge and skills. One of the best things about getting feedback from different people is drawing on their own personal strengths, knowledge, and experience. You might ask your pipe major, an older piper who's excellent at piobaireachd, a bandmate who's done well at solo competition, a piper whose embellishments you admire, and perhaps even a friend who's a drummer or non-piping musician to get a completely different take on the overall musicality and performance.
2. Seek their constructive criticism separately. You may have encountered a phenomenon before known as 'groupthink', where you pose a question to a group of people, then one person states an opinion and everyone else agrees and follows the same link of thinking. That defeats the purpose of an exercise like this, where the idea is to draw on your network's individual strengths and perspectives. Ideally, you should aim to send a recording of yourself to each network member separately, and tell them that you value their objective and constructive feedback – in essence, tell them to pull no punches! Generally, no one you trust to do an exercise like this could ever be harsher than the critic we all have in our own head, and by telling them this, you're reassuring them that they won't hurt your feelings, which will open the door for them to provide you with valuable advice that you can integrate to improve.
3. Learn to spot the common issues and reject the preferences. The beauty of having many people's feedback to draw on is that you can start to see where the similarities lie in what they're telling you, and what outliers there are that can be written off as 'personal preference'. Did 4 out of 5 of your network tell you that your playing seems 'rushed' or 'ahead of the beat'? That would make that a problem area that you should work on. But if only one of them suggested that actually, you should try to play that taorluath a bit faster – you can leave it up to your own judgment whether that's something you should do, or whether that's just that person's personal taste.
4. Be open to their feedback and accept, don't defend. Receiving feedback of any kind can be a challenge – we're gifted/cursed, particularly as adults, with a handy little thing called an ego, and often it will try to step in as a defender when it feels like someone is trying to threaten something you're already sensitive about, like a performance – which constructive criticism can feel like, at least initially. Remember that everyone in your challenge network is there to help you – don't feel the need to defend yourself against their feedback; rather, see it as a kindness, and an opportunity to learn from their wisdom and unique take on your performance.
It’s hard to be brave enough to be vulnerable, and to put your playing out there for your peers and teachers to hear and critique.
Everyone struggles with it.
But remember, every piper is in the same boat, regardless of their level – and most will be impressed that you have the initiative to ask them, and will actively want to help mentor you to improve.
If you're a Dojo student, you can post recordings for insightful instructor feedback on our Discord server, explore how to realign your mindset for success as part of our 11 Commandments of Mastery course, or browse our many related articles and resources on the Dojo U blog.
If you're not yet a Dojo Student, we'd love to welcome you! You can take the 11 Commandments course, which covers the 11 essential mindset tweaks you'll need to prepare yourself for mastery, or explore our monthly membership options and join us as a student, where you can access our world-champion teaching faculty as part of your own challenge network, along with hundreds of other pipers around the world cheering you on!