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Improve Embellishments

By David Rock
(Revised 13 June 2006)

Bagpipe music is characterized by a number of rudimental gracenote combinations. These embellishments must be executed consistently and rapidly with a great deal of technical precision. There are a couple of basic principles involved. First, the embellishments should be articulate; this is Golden Rule #1: Always make distinct, well-separated gracenotes . The problem, of course, is to make a series of well-pronounced gracenotes concisely. Which brings us to the second principle: the embellishments should not detract from the tune. So, how does one go about playing the embellishments concisely without losing the snap-crackle-pop? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Practice a lot.
  2. Give yourself a chance to get it right a few times.
  3. Break it down.
  4. Get it right, then practice.
  5. Imagine the correct sound as you play.
  6. Pay attention to how it feels when it sounds right.
  7. Change your focus.
  8. Let your fingers bounce.
  9. Don´t keep practicing it wrong.
  10. Listen to the good technique happen.
  1. Practice a lot. Developing crisp technique is difficult and it takes a lot of work. But you already know that.
  2. When training a given embellishment, start slow and gradually increase the speed. Give yourself a chance to get it right a few times. The objective here is to train your muscles to execute a series of movements automatically, precisely and consistently.
  3. Break it down. For each type of embellishment there´s a logical progression of simple steps to master. If you´re working on Double E, for example, the building procedure is:
    1. Make a clean transition from whatever preceding note to the E, with the E landing precisely on the beat;
    2. Add a High G gracenote onto the E - the gracenote has to be clean, and precisely placed right on the beat;
    3. Add the F gracenote. (I will detail the building process for all types of embellismentes in future installments.)
  4. Get it right, then practice. All of the preliminary flubs don´t count - that´s just getting ready. If you´re rehearsing mistakes, you´re not really practicing.
  5. Once you´ve trained your fingers to do the task without thinking, try turning off that part of the brain that tries to execute the movement, and instead focus your attention on simply hearing the desired effect. Aurally imagine the correct sound as you play, and you´ll be surprised to find that your fingers will rise to the occasion - assuming you´ve exercised them properly, and if it´s not too cold outside.
  6. As you´re listening to the product (see number 4), assuming you´ve got some good ones going, pay attention to how it feels when it sounds right. You really have to listen carefully, and here a tape recorder can help. Don´t focus on what you should be doing (the process) or how you´re going to make it happen. Focus instead on the good-sounding embellishments in terms of the tactile experience. Just catch yourself getting it right and pay attention to the way your fingers feel when you´re getting it right. Then, without overintellectualizing the process or creating mental barriers for yourself, all you have to do is allow it to feel that way every time. It´s the ear that runs the show. I call this "playing with your ears."
  7. If it´s not working, change your focus. For example, if you can´t lift the spastic ring finger in your Double D, then don´t try lifting it; try tapping it - so you´re doing the same thing, but with a different focus. It´s a more concise way of thinking (but you´re not really thinking), or, to put it another way, concentrate on the desired result, and your body will conform.
  8. Let your fingers bounce, and hear the effect while they bounce. This has helped my half doublings on F and E, and particularly the Double E coming from F. The two taps are two distinct movements, and that´s how we learn them and train them, but in reality the whole experience is a unified whole: not "up-down, up-down", but rather, "tut-tut." And, as I´ve said before, listen to what´s happening as you do this, notice how it feels, and pay attention to what works.
  9. What if you never hear yourself execute the doubling properly? Well, don´t keep practicing it wrong! Playing a million bad doublings will never in a million years cause you to suddenly start making good ones. What you need to do is go back to the muscle movement training phase, i.e., (using Double D as an example) simply tapping the E finger, then build the doubling around that. Eventually you´ve got to get a good one. Then you can begin practicing. There is a difference between training and practicing.
  10. To recapitulate all of the above: You´ve trained your fingers to move a certain way. You know what sounds right (listening to good soloists helps immensely). So now, as you´re playing, stay out of your own way mentally and simply listen to the good technique happen.