Jori Chisholm interview

Learn Tunes Fast by Avoiding These Common Mistakes

Jori Chisholm •

A complete understanding of any tune always starts with general principles first, followed by specifics. It helps to understand not only what we want to achieve, but also common mistakes we should avoid. Experienced players can learn tunes quicker and more efficiently by identifying likely mistakes and correcting them before they become habits. When looking at a new tune, notice the time signature — it tells you the number of beats per bar and which kind of note gets a beat. In 2/4s, each bar has two beats and a quarter note gets one beat. In 6/8s, each bar has six eighth notes, and a group of three eighth notes gets one beat. Next, we need to understand the particular style of expression for the tune. For example, 2/4 marches are played with a strong dot-cut feel with extra emphasis on each beat. Strathspeys are played with a strong dot-cut feel with extra emphasis on the first and third beats of each bar. These days, jigs are played with the eighth note triplets more or less even or with a very slight emphasis on the first note of each triplet. These general concepts are important as they lay a foundation for how to approach your tunes. But each tune is a unique combination of medley notes, rhythms and technical embellishments. Every tune has easier parts and more challenging parts. Your job as the student and future performer is to work through your tunes and identify the trickier parts, working on them so they sound just as smooth, consistent and polished as the rest of the tune. You will be able to learn tunes faster and easier if you are aware of some common mistakes and how to avoid them.
Keep the short notes short, especially right before an embellishment.sheet music
One of the most common errors of expression made by beginning pipers is the inadvertent lengthening of the short note prior to a doubling, grip or embellishment. It’s important to have clean, clear doublings, but be careful that you don’t pause on a short note to set up for what comes next. The short B prior to the grip in bar one of The Green Hills of Tyrol is a classic example. Your goal is a very short B and a nice, crisp grip. Focus on holding the first note of the bar (low A). The short B should almost sound like part of the grip. It might take some practice, but good pipers can achieve fully expressed rhythms and clean technique. In other words, don’t sacrifice the timing of big notes in order to get in the little notes (i.e., grace notes and embellishments).
Wait for your strikes.sheet music
We pipers are much more likely to play a strike early rather than late. So make sure to give the preceding note its full value and place the strike rhythmically right where it belongs. In the second part of the famous jig, Glasgow City Police Pipers, it’s quite easy to rush the thumb strikes on high A. If the first high A gets too short, you lose the triplet rhythm and it sounds more like a high A doubling.
Control your tempo through a sequence of several even eighth notes.
Some parts of tunes naturally seem to slow down; other phrases naturally seem to speed up. Some marches, however, have phrases with several even eighth notes in a row, so take it easy and hold back on your tempo. In bar three of the first part of the 4/4 march Meeting of the Waters we have eight eighth notes. Without quarter notes and dotted eighth notes to help you control your tempo, be careful that you don’t speed up.sheet music
Don’t forget the note after the taorluath.sheet music
From day one, we are taught to hold the notes just before taorluaths. This note is usually a long note and often it’s the first note of a bar, phrase or part. However, in many cases, the note after the taorluath is also a long note. In the very first bar of Scotland the Brave, the low A after the taorluath is a dotted eighth note. If played correctly, low A after the taorluath should be nearly as long as the low A before it, so be sure to hold it for its full value.
Don’t get tricked by syncopation.sheet music
Syncopation is a clever musical device that can trick the listener to thinking the beat and time signature have changed. In pipe music, syncopation often occurs when the rhythm or grace notes change from the regular pattern. For example, a bar of a 6/8 jig usually consists of two groups of three eighth notes. However, some modern composers create jig phrases that sound more like three groups of two eighth notes. It’s tempting to change the tap of your foot to match the syncopated notes, but don’t fall for the trick! Let your audience enjoy the unexpected rhythmic change, but keep your tempo and foot nice and steady. Notice how the regular jig pattern in the fourth part of Shane Smith’s six-parted jig Swagger changes to syncopation in the fourth bar.
Doublings on short notes: keep it going!sheet music
Typically, doublings and other embellishments are used to emphasize long notes, but occasionally you’ll encounter a doubling on a quick note. In Swagger you’ll notice doublings on the first beat of several bars. You’ll want to keep the rhythm flowing through these eighth notes. These notes are quick — especially once you get up to speed — so resist the urge to pause on the note after the doubling. No time to hang around. Keep it going.
Grips in jigs: let them flow.
In conventional bagpipe music notation, the time taken to play grace notes and doublings is not written into the tune. Doublings and grace notes are quick and they simply fit in between the melody notes. They generally take their time from the note that follows them. Grips in jigs are an interesting case where the rhythm is written differently from how it is played. Check out example six from the third part of Old Wife of the Mill Dust. In bar two, the note prior to the grip is written as a quarter note. But if you listen to a top piper performing this tune up to speed, the length of this C is shorter —  probably closer to the length of an eighth note. It would be more accurately written as an eighth note, with the grip taking up the time of the second eighth note of the triplet and the E in the third position. Grips and other embellishments don’t get any time in traditional bagpipe notation, so the C is written out as a quarter note to give that beat its full value. To demonstrate this point, play that section and play a low G instead of the grip, so the three notes would be C – low G – E. Now simply split the low G in two with the D grace note without changing the timing of the C. Now you have the grip and can keep the nice flow.
Don’t over-hold your quarter notes in jigs and 6/8 marches. 
The quarter note-eighth note combination is found in most jigs and compound time marches. Give the quarter note its full value but no more. In Old Wife, over-holding the first note of the part (C) would result in shortening the following note (A). This interrupts the flow and smoothness you are trying to achieve with your jigs.
Keep your GDEs in jigs open and clear.
GDE grace note combinations are a common staple of pipers’ practice. They are the backbone of many great jigs. As you build speed in your jigs in preparation for competition or performance, check that your GDEs don’t get compressed. Keep them open and clear to improve the control and clarity of your jigs.sheet music
Wait for a doubling on the same note.sheet music
It is very easy to jump the beat when the note before and the note after a grace note or embellishment are the same note. Be aware of this common pitfall and wait for the beat. In the first bar of Bonnie Dundee, be aware of the tendency to rush the E doubling coming from E and wait for it.
Set up properly for your strathspey triplets.sheet music
Strathspeys are some of the most exciting and technically challenging tunes in the piper’s repertoire. Most strathspeys are made up of only four different rhythms: the quarter note, the dot-cut (long/short), the cut-dot (short/long) and the triplet (short/short/long). Often the triplet follows a dot-cut rhythm, so the entire five note sequence would be long/short/short/short/long. In this two beat pattern, don’t pause on the short note just prior to the triplet. In the first part of the classic competition-style strathspey, Dornie Ferry, sometimes pipers pause on the D, making it longer than the two short notes in the triplet. Hold the first long note (E) for its full value so the next three short notes can flow quickly to the last note of the sequence (high G). The important lesson is that all three short notes should be equal in value.
Keep your fingers low to help make the short notes short.
Many pipe tunes have a strong dot-cut feel. Particularly in strathspeys, we strive to hold the dotted notes in order to make the short notes short. Lifting your fingers too high off the chanter can make it harder to play these short notes as short as they need to be. Try the last bar of the first line of Dornie Ferry and try to make the short D (beat 2) as short as possible. Now try it again and shift your focus to keeping the fingers of the bottom hand closer to the chanter. You might find it makes it easier to make the D short when your fingers travel a shorter distance up and back down to the chanter. You can lift your fingers higher on the long notes (if you want), but try keeping them close on the short notes.
The most misunderstood and misplayed rhythm in all of piping: the long note followed by the short/long.sheet music
Look at the second beat of the third bar of the first part of G.S. MacLennan’s 2/4 march masterpiece, Muir of Ord. This rhythm is found in many 2/4s and also in reels. It’s so commonly misinterpreted or incorrectly executed that many pipers don’t even realize they are playing it wrong. In this example, look at the three notes, B-A-G. The B is the longest note of the three. But you might be surprised at how many players rush the tachum and make the low G the longest note of the beat. Tachums and other places where the short note falls on the beat or offbeat are some of the most common places that pipers jump ahead of the beat. Be aware of this rhythm and hold the long note before the short/long rhythm.
In conclusion, when learning a new tune, follow these steps to learn quickly and efficiently:
1. Start learning tunes with a good understanding of the fundamentals of the rhythm and time signature.
2. Appreciate the traditional ways of expressing different styles of pipe tunes.
3. Be aware of common mistakes and how to fix them and you’ll be able to learn tunes faster and more efficiently.

Good luck!

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