Sadly, bagpipers live in a world where many of us just buy a kilt and a set of bagpipes and then bumble down the road like noisy, obnoxious fools, perpetuating the idea that the bagpipes aren't a real instrument worth being taken seriously.
But, that's not you. You've decided somewhere along the way that this instrument is worth playing well, and that you want to seek out the technical skills you'll need to express yourself on this seriously great instrument.
You've decided to see just how far down the rabbit hole goes.
And, as with any mastery-oriented skill in life, the rabbit hole goes infinitely deep, if you keep digging.
One of the biggest causes of frustration for those dabbling in the idea that the bagpipes are a thing worth mastering is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what mastery really implies.
Mastery doesn't mean you learn some great material and then regurgitate it. What mastery actually means is honing a process and then executing that process in and endless sea of indeterminate variables.
As we'll often do here at the Dojo, let's first look at some other common mastery-oriented pursuits to illustrate this basic idea...
A football team doesn't just learn some plays that they will blindly run against the other team. A master football team has an arsenal of plays, each with potential subtle variations, that can adjust to the indeterminate nature of the defensive scenarios that the opposing team presents to them! Also, while there is a specific plan of action before the play starts, once the action begins, there is likely to be adjustment on the play to maximize its output. US football legend Tom Brady is a true master as a quarterback not because of all of the easy games he won, but because of how he could navigate through the really DIFFICULT games.
In chess, no worthwhile opponent is going to play exactly the moves you expect. A master will have planned openings and/or defenses planned, but then they will need to adjust their process during the game (using their incredibly well-honed arsenal of skills) to defeat the opponent who is doing the same.
No one cares how well an airplane pilot can fly in perfectly calm skies with no air traffic, do they? A master pilot is ready, willing, and able to adjust to any potential situations in the skies. It's part of the reason air-travel is statistically (far and away) the safest way to travel - you have true masters operating the machines, with masterfully designed systems supporting them.
Martial artists, or warriors on the battlefield, will never be "sure" what actual "moves" they will have to defend against during combat. But mastery (i.e. survival) will be demonstrated by their ability to defeat the enemy regardless of what is thrown at them.
If you're familiar with computer programming – how does your program handle uncommon inputs?!
If you run a business, you'll know that no two customers are alike, and you can't predict what each customer will need. So? Mastering any business also requires the ability to adaptat to each indeterminate circumstance.
All of these show that true skill isn't how you perform in determinate circumstances. True mastery is determined by how you perform in indeterminate circumstances!
Do you suppose the bagpipes are in the same boat? You bet. While we all hope for clear skies, a judging panel populated by friendly faces, a band that only plays tunes that we like and that are easy for us, well-organized events, smooth traffic on the way to the gig, no instrument complications, lots of shade when you need it, no debilitating performance nerves creeping up on you, and friendly stewards...
I can tell you, from almost 30 years of experience playing at a high level that this is never what you get. There are always complications on the day. Always. You're never performing in a familiar environment. You are always outside of your comfort zone.
Being a bagpiper is not about picking a couple of tunes you like, running through them a bunch of times, and then showing up to the gig and regurgitating them. That's simply not how it works.
Let me give you some real-world examples:
- You might be able to tune your bagpipes at home in your practice room, but what about at the highland games, or even just at band practice, where there are a lot of other bagpipers buzzing around you, making it hard to hear what's going on?
- You sound great at home under the tree in the back yard, but how do you sound at the gig when there's no shade to be found anywhere?
- You sound great playing Rowan Tree, but when your teacher hands out a new tune it's a mess.
- Your pipe major got nervous and suddenly you find yourself playing 10bpm faster than usual, during the big performance. How do you cope?
- The judge got buzzed by a bee, jumped up from the table, and is literally running around the judge's table screaming for her life, during the 2nd variation of your piobaireachd (yes, this has actually happened to me!). How do that affect your performance?
- You took two weeks away from work and family and spent a fortune to compete at the Northern Meeting. The tuning room is (literally) 52F (11C), the performance room is literally 75F (24C). Somehow you have to try to perform well anyway. (For the record, I didn't perform well when this actually happened to me. A truly tragic failure to properly prepare!).
True bagpipers can't be fair-weather, head-in-the-sand, one-trick-ponies. We need to perform well despite a truly unpredictable, ever-changing performance landscape.
Bagpiping, like all other mastery oriented skills, is about developing and honing a process that can help you successfully cope with any tune, in (almost) any environment, despite a bunch of stuff not going to plan.
True mastery, and thus the true aim for you as you develop and head towards your own bagpipe freedom, needs to incorporate awareness and experience about preparing for the indeterminate.