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Are you getting any better ?
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Author:  rorybbellows [ Fri Oct 19, 2018 9:42 am ]
Post subject:  Are you getting any better ?

One thing I've noticed over the last few years is that I'm not getting any better as a piper. I'm beginning to think that whole 21 years thing is a pile of fertilizer and the truth is that for most of us, we get to a certain place after a few years and that's as good as we're going to get.
Any thoughts on my theory


Author:  tommykleen [ Fri Oct 19, 2018 12:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

I dunno: I still feel like I'm learning and discovering new things. But I also know that there are things I will never be able to do as a piper. From here on out I'm working mostly on playing music. I've had pipes bits since 1979, but I feel (in the past couple of years) that I'm actually just starting to make music.

Author:  John Driscoll [ Fri Oct 19, 2018 12:11 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

Bear with me on a lengthy post here, but this question is near and dear to me, so I'd like to share my thoughts.

Quick background: about 3 years ago, I was a bit grumpy one day, and my fiancee (now wife) asked me what was wrong. I was out of sorts because I hadn't had time that week to play the whistle she had recently bought for my birthday, and I was craving alone time with the instrument. She put the laundry basket down and said, "you're about to be my husband, and someday the father of our children. No one is going to give a flying f--- if you haven't had time to sit and play whistle for hours each day! Get over it!!"

That was a bit of a wake up call to my 27-year old self. I came from a music conservatory background, where 4 hours of daily practice was the rule. How could I learn a new instrument if I didn't have huge swaths of time to spend exploring and practicing scales and exercises??

I'm not a piper (...yet) but a musician of various other instruments and a flute and whistle player of almost three years now. My feeling is that progress with anything is very noticeable in the first few years - going from not being able to get a note to sound on your instrument, to cranking out a fair number of tunes at the session is a remarkable improvement! Once you get into years 2-4, growth becomes far less apparent. Add to that the lack of "honeymoon" excitement, and playing habits go from a few hours a day to a few hours per week, and at some point you are going to plateau. Toss in a few extra distractions (read: other alluring instruments) and you're pretty much where you're going to be until the end of your days.

I've learned that it's absolutely imperative to have a goal for my playing. When I have a goal, (a proper goal I should say, not just a dream or wish) I have something to measure against. Then I can create a strategy that will get me to my desired destination, and then break the strategy down into monthly and weekly plans, which helps keep momentum through the calendar year. Here's my approach:

Set a goal for the year. Making sure it's Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. Then create a strategy that will get me there. Make sure the strategy has multiple avenues - practicing, listening, learning from teachers, attending the session, recording myself, reading, attending performances. Then break it down:

My goal last January was to be a better musician by December 21st, 2018. In January of this year, I stated: "I will know I have accomplished my goal when I: can play 25 new tunes; have attended my local session at least twice a month; have taken private lessons with at least three different players throughout the year; listened to at least 10 new albums; and attended at least 5 concerts"

Then I made a plan:

25 tunes is roughly two per month. I kept a running list of tunes I wanted to learn, grabbed one at the beginning of the week and worked it each time I practiced. Call it my tune-of-the-week. Then made sure I had a practice schedule that ensured I'd get the tune learned: I'm busy with work and family, so I tried for 25 minutes, three times a week. Usually that means after dinner is washed up, I go to the bedroom, close the door and turn on a timer and commit to practicing a warm up, my tune of the week slowly, work some ornamentation, and then play a set with the new tune.

I'm very prone to distraction, especially at home, so my rule is: While the timer is on, I don't look at my phone, go to the bathroom, fuss with my instrument, or allow any other distractions. Even on nights when I'm not really "in the mood" or inspired to practice, I tell myself that I should just play for 5 minutes, then see if I want to stop. By then, the timer is running and I'm already 20% of the way done with my practice session, so it's much easier to keep going.

That keeps me playing weekly, and keeps a manageable stream of new tunes set with old tunes, and keeps my chops up.

Add to the plan the regular session visits and periodic lessons (and making sure to incorporate the suggestions made by the teachers into my practice session) the recordings, and the concerts for inspiration, and I had a pretty good recipe for gradual, consistent improvement. Essentially, I created an ecosystem that had many channels for bringing the music into my life. Because let's face it - things change, our inspiration comes and goes, our schedules fill up, and everything just seems to get in the way of the one thing we want to be doing.

The last thing I did was record myself in the first week of every month. This did two things: 1. showed me how different I sound on the recording vs. in my own head while playing, and 2. When I listened back to previous months, I couldn't believe how much my playing had changed. The interesting thing is that without listening back, I generally felt like I'd made no progress whatsoever... but the recording doesn't lie.

Without this, I probably would have played less than half the amount this year. I wouldn't have anything to measure against, so I would feel like I hadn't improved much. But now, my chops feel good, I'm getting good tone on my flute, I have a nice repertoire of tunes.I'm fairly convinced that if I keep this up even for two or three years, I'll be in an entirely different realm of musicianship, and I'll still be roughly in the same chapter of my life. Most importantly, I have a sense of what I want to sound like, and a plan to get there.

Author:  ausdag [ Fri Oct 19, 2018 6:11 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

I find that when my piping seems to plateau, a hiatus of 6 months to a year tends to have some sort of effect whereby when I pick the pipes up again, and refamiliarise my fingers with the idea of playing again, that I seem to break through that barrier and quickly find myself playing better than I was able to before the break.

I've only recently started regular playing again, blowing the dust of my pipes after not having played them seriously for a good 12 months, other than one or two sessions, or tunes with a friend once in a while, instead, spending the time devoting myself seriously to learning Cape Breton highland piping (yes, I seem to be one of the rare ones that goes from Uilleann piping to GHB piping instead of the other way round) and whilst it has taken me a few practice sessions to get my fingers to once again feel at home on the chanter, I'm finding the ability to add new skills I wasn't able to do before.

Maybe try a complete break for 2 or 3 months, devote yourself to something else in the meantime and see what happens when you pick the pipes up again.

Author:  oleorezinator [ Fri Oct 19, 2018 7:40 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

Am I getting any better?
A gentleman never tells......

Author:  dyersituations [ Sat Oct 20, 2018 1:31 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

Like has been mention, and like anything in life really, it's about how you approach it and how much time you devote. I've been playing Irish music for around 16 years, and there was about a five year chunk in the middle where looking back it doesn't seem like I advanced much. But during that time I was crazy busy with work and didn't devote enough or the right type of practice. About four years ago I started up again daily aiming for an hour of practice, and the difference in improving has been night and day. With that much regular practice I can daily push myself. That switch also coincided with joining a new band and a year later picking up pipes, so part of my mindset change was inspired by that.

Author:  CaperMike [ Sat Oct 20, 2018 1:44 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

I'd echo the interesting/paradoxical experience of improvement as a result of taking breaks from playing of a few months and overall steady improvement (as perceived by others) when self-perception was of a plateau.

Biggest thing IMHO is to find the pleasure in music and make the time to play. Face it, people have lots of time, binge watching TV, endless hours on phones and facebook (and Chiff and Fipple ). Just a matter of directing one's time to things that bring the most meaning. In that you can't beat the social aspect of music.

Right now I'm working on some Baroque duets with my violin playing daughter and still trying hard to get my harp playing wife to expand the family trio repertoire and was inspired to hear David Power recently play a set of my favorite jigs!


Author:  John Driscoll [ Sat Oct 20, 2018 4:34 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

I agree with taking a break as well! My drum set playing has definitely been improved by my flute studies, strange as that may seem. I find myself more tuned in to the melody makers when I play drums now.

I think whatever it is you do, be intentional about it. It’s easy to just noodle around for awhile during home practice and the months can turn to years pretty quickly, causing one to wonder why, at ten years of playing, haven’t they achieved a higher degree of mastery? A fully present, focused, intentional 20 minutes of practice beats an hour and a half of noodling, I think. And that kind of practice really adds up over time.

Author:  PJ [ Sat Oct 20, 2018 6:04 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

I don’t take long breaks from pipes but I sometimes go a month in which I’ll only play once a week and other times I’ll play almost every day for a few weeks.

I don’t notice a big change in my technique. But I do notice that the longer I’m piping the more I pick up on my own errors, which is not something I did when I first started and I’ll also spot something that works and vary a tune to include this, when before I would just punch out tunes as shown/learned, which I consider to be an improvement. :D

Author:  ChristianRo [ Sun Oct 21, 2018 4:03 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

I feel I am still making progress these days, although seldom in a "planned" way. You try something different here and there and see what it does to your playing. I have a feeling my most "dramatic" (to me) improvements in recent years came from messing with pure basics like posture, bellows and bag technique, fingerings etc. There's always room for improvement.

Author:  An Draighean [ Mon Oct 22, 2018 11:15 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

I definitely have plateaus, and other times that I have to take a step back, re-evaluate, make sure that I am not ingraining (too many) bad habits, and go back to the basics to reinforce good playing habits. But I am still able to enjoy any level that I am at. I am too old to ever be a really good piper, but I don't care because it brings me pleasure anyway.

Author:  pancelticpiper [ Tue Oct 23, 2018 7:10 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

Thanks John for that thoughtful post. Several things to mull over in it.

Years ago a friend mentioned that he had a dismaying ability to quickly achieve a certain level of mediocrity on any instrument he picked up. Dismaying, irritating, and frustrating because the rapid acquisition of basic skills seemed to promise so much, but instead of getting really good he would quickly plateau. He was a good musician but to break past that plateau would take a huge amount of practice time.

Beyond that tantalizing effect, I think that everyone has a built-in ceiling that regardless of work ethic cannot be exceeded.

In my Highland piping I was playing in a Grade 2 band only three years from first picking up a practice chanter. It's rather common with teenagers, which I was. My piping has, if anything, steadily declined since peaking in my late teens and early twenties. Now in my sixties I have no illusions of ever getting any better- stopping the rot is about all one can do.

My uilleann career has been sporadic and I never got very good. A decade or so ago I was doing regular studio work and I got pretty good at sightreading and became good at producing the smooth in-tune sound that the composers wanted. It did little for my trad playing, except for airs perhaps. I think it's fair to say that my trad uilleann piping peaked within a few years after starting the pipes.

An old guy told me, many years ago "a musical instrument is merely a mechanical device. The music is in the person".

I think that no matter what instrument I had picked up my arc would have been the same.

Author:  Steampacket [ Mon Oct 29, 2018 3:47 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

"I dunno: I still feel like I'm learning and discovering new things. But I also know that there are things I will never be able to do as a piper. From here on out I'm working mostly on playing music. I've had pipes bits since 1979, but I feel (in the past couple of years) that I'm actually just starting to make music." Tommykleen.

Yes, I'm definitely playing the pipes and flute better as I get older. I'm comparing my playing now to how it was a couple of years ago when I retired. The reasons are mainly that I have more time to play the tunes I already know, more time to learn new tunes and practice technique on both instruments. Also, so far touch wood, my body still works very well. No aches or pains, no arthritis in my hands, fingers, or shoulders, no carpal tunnel syndrome, and my hearing is fine. I realise that as musicians grow older their bodies can deteriorate, faculties can diminish, which can impact on physically playing an instrument, especially a demanding instrument such as the uilleann pipes

I spend some time playing the flute nearly everyday, and play the pipes maybe a couple of days a week, and at a weekly session we attend. Sometimes I'll play the pipes three or four days during the week and sometimes a couple of weeks can pass when I don't pick them up.

I'm better now at keeping, and playing my flute, and pipes in tune. I shudder to think what I must have sounded like before. I'm surprised the number of uilleann pipers that play with their chanters out of tune, and even post videos on youtube, seemingly oblivious of how they sound. We all know the difficulties that can arise daily regarding the weather/climate's influence on reeds. Seven reeds in a full set to keep adjusted. A hive of honeyed sounds when they are singing in tune. It makes the world of difference if at least the chanter over it's whole register, and the drones are in tune.

Author:  John Driscoll [ Tue Oct 30, 2018 2:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

pancelticpiper wrote:
Beyond that tantalizing effect, I think that everyone has a built-in ceiling that regardless of work ethic cannot be exceeded.

I suppose the lesson is that, when acquiring a new instrument or any craft, one will reach the same degree of proficiency as they do in other related endeavors. So the questions is, what will one do differently with the pipes to ensure one breaks through to a higher level of mastery?

Yes Richard, I agree that everyone has a plateau, but I have a hard time believing that many have actually reached it. And achieving the same degree of mastery on multiple instruments would lead one to believe that they have discovered their limit. But I don't think that's typically the case. I think it's more that they apply the same style and approach to learning the instruments, which keeps them at their current level.

It really boils down to creating an ecosystem that includes the usual suspects: practice time, focused effort, a good quality instrument, playing out in public. But add to that: regular recording and listening back; feedback and suggestions from masterful players; setting goals.

I've met so many players who insist that they are "slow players" who will never be able to play fast reels, and I think they truly believe that they are incapable of doing so. But barring injury or disability, I most players could break through to faster, smoother playing with consistent metronome work and a good mentor. I don't mean to say that speed is the end goal, or that staccato playing is not desirable. I do think a certain level of flow evades many players, and speed and consistency of tone are a part of that.

Author:  John Driscoll [ Wed Oct 31, 2018 8:49 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Are you getting any better ?

Rory, I'm afraid to took this discussion to a far more strategic place than you intended! I'm curious to know if you have any thoughts on the matter - or perhaps some of your trademarked wit to help lighten the load?

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