A little advice for parents of musicians.

imagesInstructor’s often go through the horrible experience of teaching a student the basics, months if not years of effort, only to find that the student quits over the summer. I imagine this is not just limited to piping and drumming, it could be applicable to any instrument. It might be just a case of out of sight, out of mind.  However, I think there are things that can be done in the background to try and minimise this happening. It involves setting up some support structures in the background that can be utilised when the student is going through some moments of doubt.

I would estimate that my “drop out” rates when I first started teaching pipe band drumming were around the 40% mark – pretty high you would think. However, over the past three years I have managed to maintain a “drop out” rate of less than 5%. For this example, let’s take a look at younger students. I see a few key factors contributing to some of them opting not to lift up the sticks all of a sudden.

  1. The student has been off on school holiday and has been focusing on summer sports and vacations. This is probably the area where most students drop off the radar – they don’t have the instructor there to motivate them regularly and have no events or performances to re-ignite the old fire.
  2. The student has too many activities that they are committed to and they quit their instrument because they aren’t seeing as much progress as they would like. This is where the parent comes in … we’ll chat about that after.
  3. The student gets a hard time or is hassled by his/her peers in their year group about playing a traditional instrument and feels like it is uncool. This applies to clarinet every bit as much as bagpipes or drums.
  4. The student doesn’t enjoy the teaching style of the tutor.

There are, of course, many other factors that contribute to students quitting however the above points are ones that I hear time and time again from fellow music tutors. So what can be done to help combat this issue? Well, some support systems being put in place will go along way in helping to solve the issue.

Let’s take a look at the student who comes back after their summer holidays and says he/she is quitting. Instead of trying to rally around and change their mind, how about you think about what actions could have been taken to prevent this in the first place.  Taking seven or eight weeks away from routine is not good for anyone. So what could we do as tutors to help keep our students on track? Firstly, a conversation with the parents is a good start. Outline to the parent the importance of continuing personal practice (after a short break of course!) throughout the holiday period. Perhaps go as far to write out specific rudiments/tunes to practice, how often to practice them and get them to make a note of their practices. This will motivate the student (and parent for that matter) to feel that they need to make an effort, so when they return to lessons they will be able to show their tutor that they have made an effort. Another option might be to look up a summer school option for them, I personally host a drumming workshop for students two or three weeks before the year begins – it’s a great way to get them enthused and to brush off the summer cobwebs.Playing an instrument can be a a very solitary activity – so encouraging some of your pupils to get together during the summer to jam could be a good idea. This gives them the opportunity to have fun with their instrument without any “disciplinarian” around. Also, it is important to take the student through a structured form of learning. As with any other subject at school, the student works from a book. I personally use the Guide to Pipe Band Drumming Books, and also have my student’s sit the Scottish Drumming Certificate.  I think it’s important for the student to have structure, but also have the opportunity to get examined and rewarded for their achievements. Not all students like solo competition, so sitting examinations can be a great way for them to see their development tracking along. If the student is working from a book, you could let the parents know what their child should be looking at through the summer break. This then involves and engages the parent with the development of their child. I think that not enough focus is placed on getting the parent involved in the student’s musical development. I find that the students who progress the quickest are the ones whose parents take an active role in overseeing their progress. Obviously there are exceptions – those students who have a crazy passion for their instrument and practice hours each day!

Ok, let’s chat about a modern-day pandemic. I see so many students who are personally involved in cricket, rugby, swimming, chess, dancing, tennis, golf, cross country, skiing, cycling, polo, soccer and they play an instrument. I am not over-exaggerating when I say that this is becoming the “norm”. When I chat to a parent about the progress of their child and why they aren’t achieving as much as they could, the number one answer is that they have so many other commitments. In my opinion, this is something that the parent and child need to discuss. It’s a managed process, and it’s an ongoing one. I think we all have to make choices at some point. It’s a cross-roads if you like. There are only a finite amount of hours in the day. So, often we need to make decisions about which activities will have to go if we want to dedicate more time to another activity. The old saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” springs to mind. Don’t get me wrong, I think experiencing new things and learning from a varied palate is a positive thing, but committing to something and sticking with it (through thick and thin) until you  master it is a hugely important and valuable life lesson. If all parents knew how learning an instrument might impact their child’s life I think each and every one of them would be signing them up for an instrument in primary school. And when the child gets bored (because they can’t download a “make me a master musician app” overnight) the parent needs to explain why they need to stick at it. It’s difficult to encourage your child to stick at it when they want to quit. But in the long run they will realise that in life, you will go through tough times and there is often no option to quit or walk away. Instilling this mindset from a young age through committed musicianship could pay dividends. I’d go as far to say that a student learns as much about life in a music lesson (or perhaps more!) as they do in Maths, English or Science. But then again, Im biased.  To learn the skills of an instrument to a level where you can perform proficiently in public and create a positive emotion in your listener is a long and arduous journey. It’s also a very rewarding and enjoyable one.

Some of the key life lessons gained when learning an instrument :

  1. Perseverance
  2. Sacrifice
  3. Stamina
  4. Commitment
  5. Dedication
  6. Pursuing Excellence
  7. Goal Setting
  8. Focusing on processes, not outcomes.
  9. Empathy
  10. Self Esteem
  11. Humility
  12. Compassion
  13. Patience
  14. Self discipline
  15. Respect

Looking at the list above, as a parent, do you think any of these things will help your child to live a full and happy life? I would absolutely think so. I have many students who stand out in my mind as perfect examples of carrying the positive traits of a musician over to their academic life. In fact, one in particular placed at the World Championships and was crowned Dux (equivalent to Valedictorian) of his school in the same year. He was not the most naturally talented drummer, but he set major goals and worked extremely hard over a long period of time to reach his ultimate pinnacle of playing at the World Championships. To receive the Dux award is seriously amazing and comes with many scholarships for top Universities. When I hear parents/students saying that they can’t excel in their instrument field because of academic commitments I think of that one student. He’s an example to us all. When you want something bad, and you are willing to sacrifice time plus make a commitment over a long period … then anything is achievable. I know he will continue his life with some amazing guiding principles and will go on to do great things.

Now we all remember that moment at school when the bully spots you with your instrument walking across the playground and he heckles and laughs at you because you are doing something that’s “not cool for school”. I recall a guy at my school who used to goad me and prance around singing “Little Drummer Boy”. It was a bit embarrassing at times but to be honest I loved to drum and couldn’t care less what he said or did. I think it would be fair to say that he may have continued his life carrying his own set of “guiding principles”. So, if you are the student being teased, please don’t give up the instrument – stick with it and give the muppet who’s picking on you, a wide berth. Entertaining other humans is one of life’s amazing gifts – don’t forget it, and don’t throw in the towel.

Another huge factor affecting any musician is their rapport with their tutor. If you don’t gel with your teacher, then find another one. Keep going until you find the one that works for you. And if you go through 20 tutors and still don’t find the right one, maybe the tutor isn’t the issue?! But that is pretty rare I’d imagine.

Our fraternity (as musicians) is pretty special and is something we should try to preserve for future generations. It provides us with a strong sense of community and gives us a reason to collaborate and share great music, laughter and friendship. I hope that some parents might get a chance to read the blog, and that it might just highlight to them the major life-long benefits for their child being involved in playing an instrument.  The benefits will no doubt have a positive impact on the musicians academic life, career success and relationship happiness.

James

www.come2drum.com

 

 

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Some thoughts on preparing tunes

BLOGMany students often ask me what new tunes they will be learning for solo competitions each year.  They are generally quite keen to learn a new set each year, to keep it interesting. To be honest, I often try to discourage them from changing solos sets too much. What is the point in changing for changing’s sake? If the tunes are working well then I would be asking the student to hold onto them as a set and develop them. After all, it does take months, often years, to fully develop the musical style of a tune. If you listen to some of the all-time greats like Andrew Scullion and Jim Kilpatrick you will hear Donald Cameron and Highland Wedding being played for years and decades at a time. The tunes are fantastic, so there is no need to keep changing them up.

I do believe in keeping it interesting though, but that’s where concerts and performances come in handy. You can develop sets to play at other events, outside of your solo competition sets. Learning lots of tunes can be a great way to expose yourself to lots of different pipe band drumming styles. I recall as a young drummer listening to (on repeat!) – Victoria Police Pipe Band, 78TH Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, the RUC Pipe Band, SFU Pipe Band, FMM Pipe Band, Shotts, Jim Kilpatrick, Andrew Scullion and so many more. I would try mimic or copy what I heard (not very accurately of course!) and it has really influenced my style of music today.  Honing in on one style as a learner has its pros, but it also has its cons. The more varied styles you can listen to, and appreciate, the more rounded your ear will be and it will give you a broader platform to start from. Obviously you will work out what your own unique style is in the end, but always keep an open ear. I still listen to bands now to see what I can learn from them. Every band always has some quality that is appealing, no matter what the grade.

Back to getting tunes prepared for solo performance. I dislike when a student picks a new tune 4 weeks before a contest and is adamant that they will learn it “in time”. In recent years I have been a lot firmer with my students and will not encourage them to play a tune in solos that they haven’t had prepared for six months or more. By “prepared” I mean – memorized, polished and up on the instrument. Getting a tune ready for competition is a process – a long one at that. When the pressure of competing goes on, you need to know you can fall back on thorough preparation. Last minute attempts simply will not work on a consistent basis.

If you have a solo set, try keeping it for two full seasons. During that time ensure you record practice sessions, and actual solo events. Spend the time after each recording to write a few notes on your performance. A few simple headings could be : Accuracy, Flow, Dynamic Range, Musicality, Expression and Phrasing (there are lots of others but these are a good starting point). Give the tunes a chance to develop and mature. If you aren’t getting the results you want, or a judge suggests you change tunes, take a breath and give it some time. If every judge suggests you change the tune then listen up and act quickly! Another option would be to send some of those recordings to someone and ask them for a professional opinion.

It is St Patricks Day and so a little Irish Quote is appropriate and applicable to your drumming.  “ Like a pint of Guinness … Good things take time”.

James

Is competition healthy within a pipe band?

I look at some of the most successful teams around the world, whether it be rugby, soccer, AFL or NBA and they all have many things in common. But the one thing to me that really sticks out, is that they are all competitive within their own group. This breeds a mindset of mental toughness, drive and excellence at each and every game or practice.

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Let’s take the All Black’s (just because it’s Rugby World Cup time) for example – their individual talent level is extremely high. Each individual brings something special to the table, and they are determined to continually demand more from themselves and from their teammates. Self-ego is often viewed as a negative attribute, but to continually strive for that “X factor” or “next level”, players must posses some form of egoic mentality.  Each player doesn’t want to be outdone by the next, so they are driven to really push themselves to their limits, every time they step up to the plate.

There is no reason why the same approach couldn’t work for pipe bands. Creating a culture of healthy competition within the group cannot be a bad thing. So long as it is managed effectively it can really enhance the overall level that the team operates at. Seeing team players compete against each other in solo contest’s is a fascinating scenario, and at a subconscious level can really motivate the individuals to dig deep to get that advantage on the board. Some of the best pipe band drum corps’ of all time have all showcased a large number of the best solo players – I don’t think this is a coincidence.  The individual effort of each player can only enhance the collective product of the group.

There may not be a solo circuit happening everywhere globally that allows all bands to have their members competing regularly, however would it not be wise to consider an “in-house” solo? A way to have your players ranked by an external adjudicator?  I do feel nowadays there has been a push in some camps to make sure everyone feels good about their place and that everyone gets a prize in competitions. But at the end of the day, the only way to encourage world-class athletes or musicians to strive for new world records or Olympic bests, is to ensure that the best players and the greatest talents get the rewards. In life, there has to be winners and losers. That’s just reality. Those not getting prizes will be driven to work even harder to reach those new levels of performance. It’s a way that might help guarantee our art form will continue to develop for generations to come, just as it has done over the past century.

Do you know that moment when you witness a human being doing something freakishly amazing with their talent and you think, how on earth is that even possible? Or, Wow, I just witnessed something that this World might never see again? I recall such moments – watching George Best dazzle his fellow soccer players, being mesmerised by Jim Kilpatrick drumming up a storm on stage, watching Serena Williams dominate centre court with such ferocity … there are only a handful of things that come to mind that are truly freakish. Truly special. Once in a lifetime type things. These are the moments that make the hairs stand on the back of your neck. The moments that remind you how fortunate you are to be able to see these things with your own two eyes.  These moments are why it is important that we continue to reward the winners, the workers, the grafters and the lifers.  When a player see’s that they get the peer recognition for their sacrifices and passion, it continues to set the bar higher. And we all get to relish in the amazing potential that human beings are capable of.

Intra-corps competition in my mind – can only be a good thing for our little World.

James

www.come2drum.com

Tips for Memorising.

MemoryWay too many drummers (and bagpipers) complain about having to perform a tune without the sheet music – they moan about how difficult it is to commit the tune to memory.  But honestly, it’s not difficult at all – it’s all about discipline and repetition.

Whether it’s your first 4/4 march or perhaps your newest medley selection, the method remains the same. It’s not rocket science (like my previous post about what us pipers and drummers can learn from an Astronaut) – it’s just a matter of hard work and perseverance.

In a nutshell here’s what you gotta do :

1) Learn one phrase (that’s two bars of music) and then play it by memory – just turn the page over and test yourself. Join all the phrases together until you have one part – that’s actually only 4 bite-sized chunks and shouldn’t take you very long at all. Turn the page over and play the whole first part – flip the page and check that you got it. Do this 10 times.

2) Put your sticks (or chanter) away and go do something else for 10 minutes – make a coffee, grab a snack, watch Keeping up with the Kardashians (or maybe not!) then return to your instrument and see if you can still remember the part. If you can, great. If not, then repeat step one.

3)Come back first thing the next day and make sure you can still play it by memory. If you can, joy! If you can’t, repeat steps one and two. Do this every morning for 5 days and you will have the tune going no problem at all.

You can top-up your memorising speed by playing through the score in your head (visualisation) – or tapping the tune out with your fingers. I think young students often do this in Mathematics class!

Bottom line is, there’s no shortcut. But it’s worth it in the end. Once you have committed the tune to memory, you can really start having fun with it and moulding it with musicality and feel.

If you have any memorising tips, please share them!

Only hours left to enter the Online World Piping and Drumming Championships

A message from Jori Chisholm, the founder of the Online World Piping and Drumming Championships ….

“Thank you to everyone who has entered for the World Online Piping & Drumming Championships for November 2013. We are hoping to break our record for the number of entries so we’ve extended the deadline for entries.

Also, we’ll be giving away two $100 gift certificates for BagpipeLessons.com and Come2Drum.com. Everyone who enters by this Monday November 18 will be entered in the prize drawing. Check out the full details and sign up today!”

http://competition.bagpipelessons.com/

Strathspeys – a bagpiper’s point of view

Following on from the last blog post on Strathspey playing I have managed to get some great information from Richard Hawke, Pipe Major of Canterbury Caledonian Pipe Band and Gold Medallist.  He kindly passed on this information after discovering it some time ago – it was written by Lorne Cousin (Madonna’s Piper!) and Richard has re-worded it slightly to suit his style.

  • This article is written from the solo player’s perspective and is intended to assist the piper to bring out the musical and enhance his or her technique when performing this most classic idiom of bagpipe music. Generally speaking, the points will be relevant to pipe band playing although it should be noted that bands play Marches, Strathspeys and Reels at a faster tempo. This is not a criticism, merely an observation.
  • STRATHSPEYS

    Ceolas Tune index describes the Strathspey as “A tune, generally in 4/4 with considerable melodic content and highly irregular timing. It is considered characteristic of the Strathspey that a cut note often precedes a dotted one.” “Additional interest can be added by accenting particular notes, either by lengthening them (particularly when playing the pipes) or by playing them more loudly. The dotted notes in a strathspey, particularly those falling on the first and third beats of a measure are lengthened more than the single dot would suggest. Such dotted notes should be considered as double dotted.”

    In other words the Strathspey is unique to the Highland Bagpipe in the world of music in its rhythm and expression. It is in Common or 4/4 time. There are 4 quarter notes (or crotchets) to the bar and four beats to the bar. The dotted noted should be held and the cut notes cut quite markedly giving a bright, bouncy rhythm.

    The tempo amongst competitors varies from 114 to 120 BPM.

    To reiterate, the Strathspey is a dance tune and should be played as such. It is generally accepted that the accent should be “Strong, weak, medium, weak.” This however is very hard to produce in reality and the best course is perhaps to put the strongest emphasis on the first beat of each bar.

    The bouncing ball analogy is often used to highlight the lift or bounce that good strathspey rhythm should produce. A good method of improving your strathspey playing is to play for Highland dancers particularly experienced ones. A regular even beat is essential, and any expression should never compromise this.

    Special attention should be given to doublings in a strathspey particularly those preceding low A. Do not cut or snatch at these doublings too much and practice them by lifting the fingers higher for both G and D gracenotes in the doubling.”

    Some food for thought!!