Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Death-Grip Bagpipe

As great as that would be, Death-Grip Bagpipe is not the name of the latest rock band. It refers to my bagpipe teacher’s comment on how I was holding the chanter. Why so tense?
Perhaps you know the joke:

“Why do bagpipe players walk while they play?”
“To get away from the noise.”

Lessons already carry a built-in tension, the student worried about pleasing the teacher and determined to get it right. That tension leaps from the brain to the fingers in any case, but is magnified exponentially when the sound coming back is piercing every nerve, your left arm is squeezing for all it’s worth to get the air out of the bag while you’re blowing with all your might to get the air back into the bag and your teacher is shouting “Relax your fingers!” And all of this playing songs in 15/16 meter. Any wonder that I was using the death-grip, holding on for my very life?

But here I was again, biking on BART to my Bulgarian bagpipe lesson in Berkeley. It had been some six years since my last lesson on the gaida, a Bulgarian bagpipe (yes, Virginia, there are bagpipes beyond Scotland—at least some 30 different types mostly found throughout Europe).  Since one of the pieces we will play in our July Salzburg Orff Symposium concert is a Bulgarian dance tune, I thought I better brush up my chops. “Bulgarian bagpipe?” you say. “Whatever possessed you to try to learn that?”

It all began in the early ‘90’s when I was dancing with the kids at school to a bagpipe recording that always felt too short. That’s when I first had the idea that I should get a bagpipe to play a longer version live. For two years, the joke in my family was “What do you want for your birthday/Father’s Day/ Christmas?” And always the same predictable response. “ A Bulgarian bagpipe.” At one point, my wife actually contacted Lark in the Morning and the search took on a more serious quality. Something fell through there, but a friend of mine met a teacher at a folk dance who had one for sale. Off I went to conclude the deal in his kitchen and as I was about to depart, turned to him and said, “Wait a second. How do you play it?”

So began my lessons, first with Gyorgui Doytchev and then with Hector Bezanis. The monthly meetings in Hector’s kitchen with his cat rubbing at my feet was just the kind of learning environment I love, similar to studying drums under trees in Ghana or xylophone on verandahs in Bali. After several years off and on, I learned some 15 to 20 tunes in all sorts of scales and meters and played almost bearable versions—especially if you were standing across the street, or as some preferred, in another town. But there was always the moment when Hector would play the tune at the end of the lesson for me to record and the distance between his playing and mine reached Grand Canyon proportions.

And mostly it had to do with the ornamentation. It became clear that the melody was just the skeleton and the ornamentation the muscles and breath that brought the song fully to life. The problem was that the ornaments were not random hippy-improvised flurries, but a systematic approach that required great finger dexterity and hours of practice. And here I felt my Achilles heel ache again.

When I was studying piano as a child, I would listen to Horowitz play the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and then just rip into it myself, trying to imitate his dazzling technique. I was a kid, so my impatience was somewhat excusable. But during a piano recital in which I hoped to surprise my piano teacher by playing it twice as fast as I ever did practicing with her, I took off like a skittery racehorse with her at my side muttering emphatically “Slow down! Slow down!” Needless to say, I was thrown off that horse, embarrassing us both and making me reconsider how musical accomplishment really works.

I’m not proud to say that this habit of just wanting to feel it and damn the hours and hours of practice persisted somewhat, always with predictable consequences. So all these years later, I finally decided I would play this Bulgarian song slowly again and again until it became embedded muscle memory and bring it up to speed only as my muscles were ready for. 10,000 hours of practice is the going rate for mastery and when you’re trying to be a jack-of-all-musical trades like me, there ain’t enough 10,000 hours to go around. That’s why world-class musicians, athletes, writers, etc. tend to pick one instrument, one sport, one literary genre, etc. and get down to work. But still, attention to detail in any venture is always a good idea. Sure, it's important to feel the spirit, but those wings need some firm ground beneath them to help with lift-off. 

World, pay attention. This is one of the irrefutable truths that lie shining in the mess of my failures. You can’t skip steps and get into the house. Go slowly and patiently and persistently. In any endeavor.

Then you can finally relax your death-grip on the bagpipe.

PS It has become a tradition in my family and close friends that I call them up on their birthday and perform a Bulgarian bagpipe rendition of “Happy Birthday.” I can perform the same service for any readers interested—you either pay me to play or equally pay me not to play!


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