Memory and Music

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for my students, and for a lot of modern pipers, is the problem of memorization. The bagpipes as an instrument are a marching band tradition generally speaking. Most bagpipers spend their time piping with a bagpipe band. Those bands do a lot of marching – parades, competitions, massed bands, with the occasional concert thrown in. We do not have equipment meant to bring our music with us. Part of the piping tradition is memorizing your music.

There is a vast debate regarding whether memorization or reading is better – I firmly fall into the camp of “memorization” – and may at some point choose to expand on why. However, for our purposes, we are going to assume that memorization is the superior method, and lay down methods for improving memory.

Short and Long Term Memory – Why they Matter

The first thing we need to do is understand exactly how it is our memory works (in broad strokes, of course). Neuroscientists generally accept two different types of memory – short term, and long term. Short term memory is for remembering small bits of information quickly in order to function. That’s reading a phone number off a text message, and if you’re a barbarian whose phone can’t automatically read that number and let you tap it to call, pulling up the phone app and dialing it. Remembering short strings of numbers, and within a minute entering it.

When you get off the phone with the store, odds are you can’t remember that number anymore.

That’s short term memory. In piping this is akin to playing the first bar of a tune, repeating it without the music, going and playing a tune you know, and then attempting to play the bar you had just read through. Because it was committed to short term memory, you can’t play it again.

Long term memory is more permanent, and will allow you to play through 20 minutes of music, deciding to play a tune you haven’t played in a month, and still be able to do it. A lot of pipers can do this particularly with a tune like Amazing Grace, because we’ve all had it drilled in so hard that our corpses will be able to play it. Long term memory doesn’t have a limit – we don’t forget it. We just have difficulty recalling occasionally.

The mission of every musician trying to memorize music is to transfer music from short term memory into long term memory. This requires a few different techniques.

First, we want to break a tune into easier to consume chunks. Memorization relies first on committing something to short-term memory, but short-term memory is limited. If you can break a tune into chunks – build associations between parts of the tune to turn individual notes into phrases in your mind, and then build those phrases into whole tunes – then you will have a much easier time committing music to short-term memory. Once that’s done, it becomes a matter of drilling the piece into long-term memory.

Let’s talk first about those associations…

Associative Memory

Associative memory in piping is the practice of look at a tune, identifying repeated sections, and memorizing that tune by those sections. Some folks in the piping community will refer to this as “the snowball effect.” The first disclaimer I’d like to give is that those sections can be various sizes – I generally use two measure phrases to illustrate this, but a phrase of music can be very different things. In piobaireachd it can be a single measure, in some light music it can be three measures. However, the key is to find repeating phrases, then plug those phrases into the tune pattern in order to build the whole piece.

This works great in piobaireachd. A single piobaireachd can be anywhere from 5 minutes long to 25 minutes – that can be a real bear to memorize. However, there is a well established method of classifying piobaireachd which breaks it down into insanely small pieces. There are tunes out there – Hector MacLean’s Warning in particular – where I have been able to memorize the entire tune in 15 minutes. Hector MacLean’s Warning is 188 measures long, as written.

Yes. 15 minutes.

Let’s look at something a bit simpler though – a classic 2/4 march named “Teribus”:

This tune comes out to be 32 total measures when played with repeats – but there are only 8 measures which are unique.

You will notice that I have highlighted this sheet music in four different colors. If you look at the music presented here, each colored section is identical to the colors of other sections of the same tune. If you memorize line 1, you already have 16 of the total 32 measures of the tune down. You then only have to learn the last two measures of line 2, and the first two measures of line 3.

Your phrase structure through the whole tune is:

Part 1: Blue, Orange, Blue, Pink, Blue, Orange, Blue, Pink
Part 2: Green, Orange, Green, Pink, Green, Orange, Blue, Pink

Let’s look at another one, shall we?

Scotland the Brave.jpg
Dum dum ba da dum ba da dee dee badee da dum bum THROW da…

In Scotland the Brave, once you’ve memorized the 2nd line, you’ve memorized half the tune. At that point, you just need to lock down line 3, and get the ending 3 beats of line 1 plugged in.

Scotland the Brave is 16 measures long – 9 measures is all you need to memorize.

Almost every bagpipe tune can be broken down in some way to simplify and speed up the memorization process.

Moving to Long-Term Memory

Now that we’ve broken tunes up into more manageable chunks, we now need to transfer those chunks from short-term memory to long-term memory. This is where individual preference starts to play a role, and I believe is where a lot of difficulty in memorization lies.

Partly, this is where point number two on the How to Study Music sheet I include in my student policies comes in. You can’t memorize a tune if you have distractions, period. While practicing your phone should be off, your computer should be asleep, and anyone else at home ought to be aware that you are practicing for a set amount of time, and so should not bother you while you are working on your material. You can’t commit material to memory if your mind is wandering.

However, it goes further than simply focusing.

Repetition is the method I find to be the most reliable to move material from short term to long term memory. Here you review the music, then play through it as far as you can without the sheet even accessible in front of you (no having the sheet near you as a crutch to fall back on in order to get through the tune). Once you hit a point you can no longer work through, flip your sheet over, look at that section, then flip over the paper and start again from the beginning of that section. Memorize the section, then move onto the next section.

Once the sections you have pre-selected are all memorized, you then plug them together and memorize the phrase structure of the tune.

This process does take time – you have to step away and do something else once you are relatively comfortable with the memory on the section you have worked out. Beating a dead horse isn’t going to make it run. Likewise, flogging your brain with intense repetition at a certain point becomes useless. Set down the chanter, put the music away, and go do something else. Sleep on it, and come back to it tomorrow.

But it has to be tomorrow.

This is where daily, consistent practice comes in. If you work through a tune as I’m describing above one day, then wait four days to pick up the chanter and play the tune again, you will have lost all of the progress you made. Work on the tune, sleep, work on the tune, sleep. After a few days you’ll have it memorized. Introduce it into your practice warm up repertoire, then your performance repertoire.

Do you have a method of memorizing which works particularly well for you? Sound out in the comments!

For additional thoughts on this exact topic, take a look at this article.

Why Do I Compete?

In the doldrums of the Midwest’s summer competition break (do you want to spend all day wearing a wool kilt in the Midwest heat in July?), I like to take some time to prepare for future performances, as well as to reflect on what it is I am doing with my piping time. Today, I’d like to talk about competition, why I find it valuable, and why I do it at all. I also require all of my students to perform in competitions, and though I explain to them why I find competition valuable, it never hurts to retread that ground.

Competition as Deadline
Angus at the Terry McHugh Competition, April 2015

One very common explanation for why pipers choose to compete is because it provides deadlines for learning new music. You can’t change a competition date, so all of your preparation needs to be finished before your first contest. When the earliest contests begin in January (Kansas City’s Winter Storm event), that makes it particularly imperative that your new material is completely worked out in the fall prior to the competitions. Competition generally is the reason many pipers learn reams of new tunes per year. Myself personally for solo competition must learn 15 new tunes per year – three of them being large piobaireachd pieces! A Grade 4 piper needs to learn a minimum of three pieces. That doesn’t even include band competition sets, which can be upward of 10 tunes for a Grade 4 band, and over 20 for a Grade 2 or 1 band.

By setting deadlines on music preparation, competitive pipers build up a formidable repertoire in only a couple of years. Planning out how to tackle your tunes strengthens your ability to learn tunes quickly, read tunes with ease, and refine tricky fingerwork. You can do all of these things without the deadline of a contest to face, but very few people have the self-motivation to accomplish it.

Competition as Community

Competition isn’t all work, though. Competitive pipers travel quite a lot. The travel schedule for a competing piper features at least three or four contests within the piper’s home region, and typically also includes at least one contest outside of their home region. Occasionally, an international competition makes it onto a competition schedule. Traveling frequently, usually to the same places year after year, builds up relationships with pipers in other parts of the country and the world. That travel broadens a piper’s horizons, both musically and socially.

Winning bandmates – (left to right) Jacob Schrader, Keith Murphy, Angus Martin. Springfield Games, 2015

Former principal of the Army School of Piping, Gold Medallist, and former Pipe Major of the Scots Guards Brian Donaldson once said that the special thing about being a part of the piping community is that you can go anywhere in the world, and you have friends. He’s right, too. Those friends can be folks you already know and have built relationships with, or folks who you can reach out to when you show up in a city, and by the end of your trip can be called friends. There is a vast support network everywhere – from South Africa, to Malaysia, to Scotland, to New Foundland, to Indiana. All of them compete, and they all have common ground.

While I was growing up in the Sir James McDonald Pipe Band – a youth-only band hailing from Portland, Oregon – I liked to compare the piping world to the wizarding world in Harry Potter. We had our own celebrities, our own “sports”, or own annual calendar of events, our own common language of terms and ideas, and a whole structure of living life which no one in our day to day lives knew anything about. During the weekdays, I was a high school student in suburban Vancouver, Washington. On weeknights and weekends, I was a bagpiper, and I traveled to Alaska, Scotland, and New York.

The Sir James McDonald Pipe Band at the Pacific Northwest Highland Games, July 2006

Today, I have close friends from coast to coast, places to stay if I’m ever in the area, and even friends in other countries. These are friends who are not going to be limited to just one stage of my life – coming and going as I grow older, or change jobs. Because they’re in the piping world, I’ll always be in touch with them. I’ll always be in touch with them because we’ll always have the bagpipes and the pipe bands in common, and each year we’ll maintenance those bonds. Competitive pipers and drummers have extremely durable and deep life-long friendships.

Again, you can do all of that without competing, but it’s a lot harder to justify without the demands of the competition schedule pushing you along.

Competition as Personal Challenge

This is pretty closely related to “Competition as Deadline.” Though competition gives a deadline, it also provides many layers of personal challenge.

Laureano Thomas-Sanchez and Angus Martin, Grade I and Grade II Terry McHugh Champions of 2015.

One such challenge is the challenge of improving entirely new tunes each and every year. This is important, because the more tunes you learn, and the more you really dig into, the more you can play other tunes which you will never compete with well. Competitions are no more or less important than your paid performances (or nonpaid ones) – the big difference is there is a judge present to see how you stack up against other similar players, and give you some feedback. It’s pretty easy to settle into a performance repertoire and never change those tunes out – but when you’re learning brand new tunes each year to compete, you’re more likely to find learning music easier.

Another is to bring yourself out of your comfort zone. The number of people who fully enjoy competition, and are comfortable doing it, is very near to zero. The bit of stress you have to deal with in competition benefits the rest of your piping life. What happens if some popular band contacts you deciding they want to feature a bagpiper on their tour, and you’re the first name they pick out of the hat from the local piping scene? Competition may be stressful, but playing with a band which makes tens of thousands of dollars – or more – in a single evening is significantly more stressful. Take my word for it – I’ve done it. Playing on a stage with Rowdy Roddy Piper, or with the Chieftains, is a far higher level of stress than competitions. But competition can prepare you in methods to deal with that.

Finishing Thoughts

This very easily could become a small book. I do not argue that competition should be all you care about in your piping life – it certainly isn’t. We play for the sake of the art, and for those who live the instrument and its music. We play for those who love and identify with Scotland – no matter where they are from or if their family came from Scotland back in the mists of time. We play because bagpiping is first and foremost about the music, and not the number of medals or trophies you win.

However, a well rounded piper competes. The piper doesn’t have to compete their whole life, or even a lot, but to truly benefit from everything the piping world has to offer, one must compete at some point.

So why do I compete?

Because it’s fun, and it makes the music I play for everyone else better.


Practice Tips #1: Time

Every so often I will be posting some practice tips for my students. These topical posts are meant to give specific advice for how to practice effectively to hone the craft of bagpiping. This episode in the series will feature on practice duration and frequency, and how to best schedule your time for practice.

One of the biggest questions I always had as a student was “how long do I practice?” Over the years I have developed strategies and habits which answer that question. The answer to the question is two-fold: daily, and as much as you need to.

The more important of these two, frequency, is what we’ll talk about first. Practicing is about building upon material – creating a kind of snowballing effect where each time you pick up your instrument your skills grow. A key to developing skills quickly and efficiently is to practice each day, and if you can, multiple times in a day.

15 minutes per day, seven days a week, will produce better results for you than 2 hours on a Saturday every week. Sure, you may be practicing more hours on that Saturday, but between sessions you lose a lot of what you did the last time.

How long should you practice each session? Ideally, however long is necessary to achieve your practice session goals. Are you looking to memorize a new tune, and it takes you about a half hour to roughly commit one part of the tune to memory? Practice at least a half hour, then do the same thing the next day. However, it’s always better to get some practice time in a day than none at all. Even if you can practice one hour one day, and only 10 minutes the next, and an hour the next, that 10-minute session in between will help a lot in retaining skills.

For those playing pipes, you ought to dedicate two separate practice sessions – one on practice chanter, and one on the big pipes. Each session should focus on material specific to those instruments.

Here’s a couple ways you can do it:

Chanter Learner: 15 minutes per session, twice per day.
Beginner Piper: 30 minutes on practice chanter, 15 minutes on Highland Pipes
Novice Piper: 30 minutes on practice chanter, 30 minutes on Highland Pipes
Intermediate Piper: 15 minutes on practice chanter, 1 hour on Highland Pipes

the bigger time blocks can be broken up – a hour per day can be broken up into two 15 minute chunks, and one 30 minute chunk.

The big takeaways here are:

  1. Practice every day, even if it’s for just 10 minutes.
  2. Break chanter and full pipes time up into two practice sessions.
  3. Aim to practice as long as it takes to achieve a single day’s practice goal.

Our next practice tips will discuss setting goals at the start of each of your practice sessions.


  • Chanter Learner: A bagpiper who is learning basic notes and fingerwork on the practice chanter.
  • Beginner Piper: A bagpiper who has graduated onto the full bagpipes, but is still learning instrument management, and has not yet progressed to playing full tunes on the instrument.
  • Novice Piper: A bagpiper who has begun to play full tunes on the Highland Pipes, but is still developing instrument management skills and mastering transferring fingerwork to the bagpipes.
  • Intermediate Piper: A bagpiper who is able to perform full musical pieces on the bagpipes, and is capable of playing with pipe bands, in gigs, and compete with full tunes.

Piping for the People

For those not in the know, Scottish bagpipe bands have traditionally competed in a circle, with their backs facing the judges and audiences, and the tenor drummers and bass drum being placed at the center of the band. This formation has been the standard since the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association was established in the 1930s, but has recently seen some push-back.

Pipey got back – the Fountain Trust Pipe Band competing in a circle at the 2017 Milwaukee Games

Notably, the Chicago Highland Games for the first time in 2015 ran its medley contests for Grade 3 and Grade 2 bands as a concert formation, and it hasn’t looked back since. In 2016 they did it again, and again this year on June 17. The audience in Chicago loves it, and it projects the full sound of the band toward the audience. Musically, the audience is the center of the performance, and judges can sit down beneath tents for some shelter.

Other contests in the Midwest have considered a similar switch, and places as far flung as Edinburgh (in Scotland – obviously, Indiana is the center of the world) have begun making moves toward that switch.

Behold the Music! The Fountain Trust Pipe Band in concert formation at the 2017 Chicago Games.

My two cents on the subject as a performer, and as someone who dabbles in owning equipment which records the audio and video of my band’s performances, the concert formation is plainly superior to the backs-out circles as far as acoustics go. I also have been playing in concert formation since I was little. In all of the debate over concert formation recently, it has gone largely unnoticed that the British Columbia Pipers’ Association has been running its Annual Gathering on Easter weekend of each year running all band contests in concert formation – on a stage no less! See below for some excellent video footage of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band performing their MSR this past April there.

At the BC Annual Gathering, every band performance is in concert formation. It takes place in a school auditorium, so they are extremely limited in the sort of formations they can put bands in. However, the audience all sit before the bands with the judges at tables just in front of the stage, and the band contests are performances – for the people, judges and lay people.

Why don’t we do it this way more often?

I could provide long lists of videos of bands performing in concert formation, but all one has to do is to take a listen to a band “turn in” to hear the drop off in sound:

Pipe bands simply do not draw the sorts of crowds they drew even 10 years ago at most small contests, and much smaller than they drew 20 years ago. Our contests are public events, integrated into a festival where each section of the games is meant to draw crowds and make money. Pipe bands being displayed as an attraction, facing crowds, meant to entertain people, are much more likely to keep competitions financially viable and are more likely to attract new players. When you can enjoy the music, you are more likely to want to play that music.

On the other end of the debate, I do respect the importance of tradition. As a band member I do like the atmosphere of camaraderie which occurs within the circle itself during contest. It is an intense experience, and the sheer power of the sound inside the circle is impressive. In the end, though, we are musicians, and is there a musical benefit to playing in that way? Our instruments are designed to face our audience, be it a graveside funeral in Flagstaff, Arizona or a packed concert hall in Glasgow, Scotland. Why do we compete with our instruments facing away from the audience?

I know there are other contests in the Midwest which are thinking of shifting over to a concert formation in their medley events, and this is an exciting development. However, I would like to see contests begin to tailor their entire format to concert formation – for all grade levels, and all event types. Hopefully contests in Scotland beginning to experiment with a concert format for competitions could lead to the World Pipe Band Championships – that holy grail of the pipe band world – to try it out for their top grade bands. If that happens – then we can truly have competitions meant as performance, for the people who love the music.