Article from the Voice Magazine, 2011
Here is an article written by Andrew Douglas for the Voice magazine some time ago, outlining the differences between his tutor and "standard" bagpipe tutors. Does any of this resonate with you?
Learning the Bagpipe as an Extension of your Self
By Andrew Douglas
I started the Piper's Dojo in the summer of 2008 as a year-round school for bagpipers in Albany, NY, with the help and encouragement of my long-time teacher and mentor Donald Lindsay. Since then, the Dojo has expanded by developing a nation-wide online store for bagpipe supplies, an online "University" for bagpipers, and even a social-networking platform for American pipers and drummers called "BagpipeNation.us".
I’ve always nurtured a passion not only for playing, but for making the instrument accessible to others. Piping is a part of me, and traditional programs of study never really fit the way I approached either the music or the technique. To really share my passion, I needed to develop a new way of teaching. After years of study, reflection, and hard work, on September 1 of this year I released the first edition of "The Bagpipe as an Extension of Your Self," a distinctly different learning experience than any other "standard" tutor.
Flaws in the traditional way of learning the pipes.
Those who have learned from me, perhaps at a workshop or as a member or onlooker to the Oran Mor Pipe Band approach, know that I don't subscribe to the idea of piping as a linear process. For me, the major downfall of this approach - which is uniformly the approach of our standard tutors - is the idea that somehow by adding 'A' + 'B' + 'C' together, these finger moves and terminology (which often seem daunting and random) will eventually turn you into a piper. To me, the linear process laid out in these tutors is so far removed from the realities of music making, that I sometimes speculate it does more harm than good. Sure, it teaches you the notes of the scale, but it also engrains anti-musical notions that will haunt your technique and musicality for years.
To give one example, one of the great ironies I often witness around the games is how the D throw is the least accurately or consistently executed movement by pipers of all levels (including professional level). It's ironic because this is almost universally the first embellishment pipers learn - it was certainly the first embellishment I learned, as proscribed by the "Green Book." It was only recently, after over a decade of playing at the professional level, with top level bands, that I myself have finally tamed the style of my own D-throw, and am able to do so consistently. Could it be that this movement is introduced to pipers way too early in the learning process?
In the "Green Book," the D throw is introduced in order to learn your first tune, Scots wa' Hae. To me, this creates a loop-hole logically. How is it that we are now learning to embellish something that we haven't even learned how to do yet? The D throw is a finger technique that embellishes a pipe tune, but we are learning this without ever having played a pipe tune. How does that work? How can any activity be “embellished” before you learn the activity itself? It’s no wonder, to summarize, that the D-throw is played incoherently by a large segment of the bagpiping population.
The idea behind the Green Book and most other recognized teaching volumes is that a piper should learn the mechanics of piping in a certain “linear” order, which will eventually enable him to play a standard repertoire of tunes. To me, these tunes don’t become music as a result of the tutor. They’re a collection of instructions that let a novice sound like a piper without actually becoming a piper. How is one supposed to understand what they are doing? Where are they going to go next? Some are fortunate enough to have talented, wise, experienced instructors (like I was fortunate to have). What about the rest of us?
The Bagpipe as an Extension of your Self
The way I see it, it is this "monkey-see-monkey-do," additive approach to learning and teaching bagpipes that has led to the largely one-dimensional, conformist, un-musical population of players in and about our communities, at all ages and stages. I call this the "You as an Extension of Your Bagpipe" phenomenon. A player goes through the motions, but does not have any understanding - they are simply an extension of someone else's style, and, while that style may have merit, it is not their own true voice. In turn, if the music isn't coming from their own "Selves", is it really music? If they say, "yes, it's music," is that music really any good? Why wouldn't I just listen to the original? Why wouldn't they? In my opinion, the bagpipe needs to be an extension of your Self, a representation of who you are. A tutor needs to prepare you to make your own musical decisions, and to develop your own style.
Monkeys aren't all bad.
Many peers and colleagues (and possibly you as you read) will say: “Andrew, monkey-see-monkey-do is a necessary part of the learning process.” In general, I agree! I definitely learned much of my basics by "copying" my dad, and later other teachers. The problem that arises at that point is – what are you supposed to do with the basics? As a true musician, it is important to adapt the fundamentals to suit your own musical style and vision. This is where the standard tutors, and arguably our current bagpiping culture, falls short. I was extremely fortunate to have learned from many outstanding teachers whose goal it was to foster a true musician – but in this regard my Green Book book doesn’t come to mind as having helped at all.
Let's use the example of a young child learning a language (isn't speech mankind's quintessential "instrument?"), and learning largely by copying. If you are encouraging them to speak, what do you start with? Adjectives? Adverbs? No. You’d start withnNouns; the simple "identifier" words like Mama, Dada, etc. Pretty soon thereafter you'd need to introduce action words (verbs), so the child could start to make simple sentences. Only much later would one need to learn to "ornament" language with adjectives and adverbs. Yes, a child begins by copying, but pretty soon he’s making sentences of his own, putting words in his own order. He’s making the language his own.
After learning the fundamentals, people are encouraged and expected to use their language skills to express themselves. Not to do so would be a waste of this great skill that we have attained, right?
In the world, if you copy someone’s written or spoken language, it’s called plagiarism – illegal! But, in the piping world, it seems to be encouraged. The standard tutors implicitly teach us: Copy us, letter by letter, and you too can be a piper. Many piping teachers will say, “when you can play it exactly the same as [insert mystical bagpiper here] would play it, only then will it be good piping!” What they don’t tell you is: ALL of the world’s greatest pipers have developed a distinct style of their own, by exploring the music and its fundamentals from their own perspective. That is what my tutor, the Bagpipe as an Extension of your Self, is meant to encourage.
How this method works
In my learning method, the learning path is meant to foster true musicality. It starts with melody notes only, teaches you the basic scale-navigation techniques, and then encourages you to make some simple music using these simple building blocks. In chapter 2, G gracenotes are introduced. After that, supporting gracenotes like D, E and strikes are added (layered) in. As a matter of fact, most of the basic pipe tunes are learned at this point, simply without embellishments. This idea, of offering a “prelude” version of pipe tunes, has already been borrowed by Maureen Connor in one of her previous Voice articles to illustrate a more music-first approach to learning a pipe tune.
Only once a piper is successfully making music using these fundamental building blocks do we introduce embellishments. The nature of embellishments can be seen right in their name: they embellish, or decorate, the music that we play. How can you decorate something that hasn't even been assembled yet? Do you decorate your Christmas tree before you put it on the stand? Before you bring it in the house? How much easier would it be to wait to decorate the tree until it is safely up in the tree stand? Similarly, the learning of the basic bagpipe embellishments is much simpler now that we have the building blocks of bagpipe music under our belts.
Just like learning a language, or even just putting up a Christmas tree, learning the pipes should follow a logical, musical, pathway that allows plenty of room for your own personal point of view. That is what the Bagpipe as an Extension of your Self is all about. Even if a young child is to learn the pipes by copying - they should do this copying along this logical pathway, that starts with the true basics first. Then, they can build on that knowledge towards more complexity, and a whole world of possibilities.