Instilling Confidence in Students

Copyright 1995 David C. Daye


Here's a sketch of some points and training sequences I use with students in their early phases of learning to compete and perform in public.

My goal is for students to do their best work when people are listening to them. After all somebody went to extraordinary trouble to make the bagpipe loud; presumably they intended it to be heard.

I seem to get the best results by upholding standards yet keeping personal negative reactions out of the process. Ideally, instead of struggling against failure to mimic, the student is playing from his or her own heart.

All but a very few of these points are equally applicable for performing as well as competing. Competition is a game, to be sure, but it's judged mostly by practicing artists. Much of what is entertaining for an audience is good in music competition too, especially training and mental preparation of the performer.


Teaching the student

Anger is for master professionals and ignoramuses. A few learners thrive on it, some are unharmed by it, many are further distracted. However it is important to make the student bear the full consequences of their actions or bad preparation however. I use all the usual tricks--diversion to drills, visible disappointment, suspended progress, even lessons cut short. I just skip the abuse. Coping with My Ego just wastes the student's already-overtaxed brainpower.

Practicing for contests

Memorize music by its sound and not sight. Then you're thinking with your ears when you perform, just like the listeners.

Practice all sorts of nuisances. Play bagpipe with doublet or jacket on. Chanter twisted too far around, bag in slipped position, drones leaning at odd angle. Sporran off center. Other pipers playing nearby out of tune. Drummers present :) I've even been known to practice after a few pints of De-tuning Fluid.

Practice deliberately playing below your extreme level of technical ability (less than highest possible speed, not the tightest possible dots & cuts, less than fastest possible embellishments). Everything clean, correct & bold, of course, & proper tempo, but allow a margin of error so that you're not distracted by having to pray. Performing--as opposed to some phases of learning--must be comfortable and have a safety margin to be musical.

Practice recovery. When hands tighten and/or errors develop, keep on with tune but learn to relax the fingers and to regain more natural control, loosening the death-grip while continuing. This is a terrific confidence builder because it treats error as a reversible condition. Which for an entertainer it must be.

Practice prep & warmup. Do warmup interval, then play into tape recorder and listen to playback for tuning, blowing, ease of fingering when the contest music is played. Evaluate sufficiency or excess of warmup period on both tone and fingering.

Practice competing. Do a formal warmup in isolation, then play formally in front of fellow students, neighbors, teachers' friends etc. Maybe even at a scheduled clock time. Good to do this a few days before contest so the contest seems less new and strange.

Prepping for Contests

Pick music student will be able to learn to handle in comfort on a mediocre day. Leave severe "training tunes" for lessons where they pay to struggle. Public struggling is for opponents.

Pick reeds student can handle in comfort on a mediocre day, for the entire duration of the warmup and contest period. Leave the gut-busters for bands where it's the P/M who looks stupid when students tire. Public struggling is for opponents.


Never let the instrument sound ugly, it makes us all look bad. No wildly blown notes while tuning, no squeaks, fingers slipping off holes or gross mistuning anywhere you can be heard, no matter how well you play the actual music.

Never let yourself sound ugly. When prepping in public, stick with tune bits or phrases you play easily. Why give listeners an excuse to dislike you?

Dress competently. Remember some people have a national identity with this craft and that may include your audience or judge. How would you feel about someone who made you look like a fool?

Blow a bit extra-hard when tuning. Till you're more advanced, you'll probably blow harder than usual when people are watching. Compensate by doing the same when you tune.

Don't burn out during warmup. Don't play your contest tune(s), at least not incessantly. It may help to play selected phrases to get the feel of tempos. Pick other tunes in same key to check your tuning, or tunes that use same movements to warm up hands. Don't over-play difficult technique, just enough to get warmed up for the listeners. You don't want to begin tiring till well after your appearance.


In contests, don't watch the judge and/or anyone else. This is one big difference from entertaining, where you need to react to onlookers. Contest onlookers, including at times a harried judge, have good reasons to disturb you purposely. I've seen it happen.

Don't begin playing at your extreme level of technical ability. Aim at about an 80% level to allow for good comfortable control if it's not your best possible day. If you find you are having your best day, have fun and put your soul into the music.

Don't make silly mistakes.

When you do make silly mistakes, don't wince or react visibly. The judge doesn't need the reminder--especially if s/he missed the error!

If you must make silly mistakes, make them early. You'll place higher making a few slips in the beginning and then pulling yourself together, than if you make the same number at the end thereby seeming to fall apart.

If you screw up big-time, try not to break down. In contests you could still have a shot at a trophy if you don't compound your troubles. If you're performing you have a hospitality obligation to your audience. They're pulling for you. Get your stuff together and carry on, they'll reward you. NEVER show disappointment or anger in public. Judge doesn't need the reminder, audiences came for entertainment and require this of you at all times, and the Nobel Prize Committee doesn't care.

Do what you most love to do. If it's performing, ham it up. If it's the tunes or the tone, focus on sharing the thrill of those things with the listener. Don't worry about yourself; people who want to see Stars listen to rock concerts not pipes. Your listeners want to hear what you can do with a collective treasure. Go for it!

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