Finally, some answers!
I recently spent some time "surveying" bagpipe judges from around the world, and taking mental notes on key concepts regarding pipers reaching the next grade level. This wasn't an official double-blind, triple tested, bell-curve study - I simply asked judges that I knew one simple question:
"What are the top reasons piper's fail to reach the next level?"
Out of the 20 or so judges I spoke to, I probed each of them enough to get 3 to 5 specific reasons out of them. Here's a few other things I included in my un-scientific (but, I think somewhat "clever") questioning:
- I asked them to think about players they heard often during a season, not just players they heard once.
- I asked them to think about score-sheet patterns that popped up on players who were (stereotypically, not definitely) "doomed" not to progress.
- I asked them to try to "group" smaller items into larger groups. For example, crossing noises and sloppy embellishments were grouped into "sloppy fingerwork;" to keep the list manageable.
What's interesting is, with very few exceptions, the same 5 items popped up in every conversation.
1) Sloppy Fingerwork
I suppose we all knew this was coming.
However, I think it's important to mention that, in this case, this means the rule, not the exception. In other words, sloppiness in fingerwork was the prevailing pattern in unsuccessful performances (as opposed to the occasional sloppy passage in a tune).
Obviously, sloppiness can and will creep into essentially anyone's performance from time to time. However, players that fail to reach the next level will have "chronic," consistent issues with:
- Regularly occurring, glaring crossing noises.
- Gracenote sloppiness - usually, gracenotes are too big and/or out-of-sync with the melody.
- Embellishments played poorly. Not only are embellishments themselves tricky, but they are also made up of gracenotes and note-changes - VERY easy to mess up if you're not careful (and well prepared for competition).
2) Lack of Instrument Control/Steadiness
Even when I asked specifically about higher grade levels, this was still a big issue.
The bottom line? People are unsteady; "sagging" or "surging" on their blowing on such a regular basis that it severely distracts from the music.
It's very easy to get lost in the fingerwork aspect of playing, and lose track of the concept of steady blowing. When I asked the judges, they all agreed that some sort of feedback, whether it be a private teacher and/or a consistent routine with a manometer, was what the successful players had in common.
3) Consistent Lack of Rhythmic Control
What is meant by this? Well, it's fairly simple really - players that are successful are able to keep a steady tempo throughout a tune, and unsuccessful ones can't.
Many players will slow down during difficult sections, and speed up during the "easy" parts. Sometimes, the opposite is true.
Another common mishap is a continual acceleration throughout a performance, due to a habit of regularly rushing the beat.
Judges commented that players known to have a private teacher, or a game-plan that utilized a metronome on a regular basis were able to prevent these issues.
4) Inability to Complete a Performance without "Blunders"
The definition of a "blunder" is simply a big enough mistake to disqualify a performance. Examples might include:
- A "Break Down" where the piper stops before the end of the tune/set.
- Forgetting to repeat a part.
- Major note errors that take the tune irreconcilably off track. (Note, minor note errors are seldom a huge problem for most of the judges)
- Going "off the tune" in any other significant ways not listed above.
What causes these blunders? Lack of preparedness? Lack of confidence? Remember, in general the judges are citing a repeated inability for a player to get through a performance without blundering.
So, if you're having trouble with this issue - it's time to get serious about not blundering.
5) Apparent Fear of Judge/Performance
One of the more interesting common responses from the judges I interviewed was that performance anxiety tended to be a huge reason pipers were unable to put together good performances.
Being fearful of playing in front of the judge tends to cause major issues concerning the first four problems; sloppy fingering, unsettled quality of instrument, rhythmic problems, and blunders.
What causes players to be scared of performing for the judge? What sort of remedy would help a player learn to transcend this issue?
Interesting Omissions from the List
While the following did come up from time to time, it was quite interesting to me that none of these were regularly occurring reasons that a piper didn't reach the next level:
- Expression/Phrasing Issues. That's right! An overwhelming few judges mentioned this in our conversations.
- Tuning - Precision of tuning was NOT an issue for most judges when it came to distinguishing between successful pipers and unsuccessful pipers.
- Style/Interpretation - ZERO people actually mentioned a specific style of playing or setting/interpretation of tunes to be the reason for lack of success.
- Tempo - I asked many judges if playing too slowly was a barrier to success in their experience. The answer was always overwhelmingly "No."
Getting to the Point: Successful Piping Performances are More Than Just Practicing Some Tunes and Playing Them In Front of a Judge
So, if you're a person who's struggling in your own piping to reach the next level - are you being held back by any of the above? If so, what is the solution to this problem?
Let's turn to the successful pipers (at all levels) for guidance as to the right way to approach solo competitions. It's so much more than just practicing some tunes and then playing them in front of a judge.
What do the players that are winning and/or reaching the next level do to be so successful? Here are some common "denominators:"
- Many have private teachers that they work with, online or in person, on a regular basis.
- Many spare no expense to travel around to a lot of contests.
- Many of them spend a lot of time immersing themselves in bagpipe music and the piping social scene.
What do all of these denominators show us? To me, the answer is clear: in order to be successful in reaching for new heights in our playing, we're going to need a detailed roadmap to success (like a private teacher might provide), we're going to need a lot of repetition (like playing lots of contests... although there are other ways to get performance repetitions), and we're going to need to immerse ourselves in the art form as much as we can.
Get Our 6 Month Road Map
Based on many of these ideas, here at the Dojo we've developed a "BluePrint" for next-level success. It is a 6-month chart, customizable for any level and any repertoire, that shows literally every day of a 6-month preparation plan for solo piping success. Click Here to Get it for FREE.
During each month of the plan, we focus on a specific task building up to a goal event 6 months away. Examples of tasks include selecting the right tunes from a "short list," working on weaknesses in our chosen tunes, focusing on memorization of our chose tunes, focusing on clarity of embellishments, focusing on rhythmic control and expression, and, lastly, we focus on preparation for the contest or major performance.
Simultaneously, we gradually build the tempo, using percentages of the goal tempo as a guide. For example, in the early months, we'll play at 50% goal tempo, then 55%, then 60%, etc. You'll know exactly when to play what, and at what tempo on any given day of the plan.
Every week, there is a recording day. This is where you get your repetitions that you need under pressure. How do we simulate the pressure? Well, we impose a simple rule on ourselves: we only get one chance to make the recording. We do one "take," and send it to our instructor or mentor for feedback. Trust me; at first you'll be plenty nervous. But what do you suppose happens after several weeks of recordings?
Myself and my staff have used this plan with literally hundreds of students, with an 87% success rate (for those who actually do the plan, that is). Click here now to get your free blueprint, and get to the next level in 6 months!