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  • Advice for new dance pipers

    I recently had a poster here ask me for some advice regarding dance piping.

    He asked me some general questions, and I found it a little difficult to reply with all that I would have liked to, or perhaps could/should have. I wanted to go into all the details, and nuances involved, but I didn't have the time to write all that I would have liked!

    I'm going to start a thread here, in the hopes that people will chime in. Perhaps we can educate some new dance pipers as to good concrete things they can do to ease their transition into this world. It really is a new world, apart from what we normally do in piping/drumming.

    I know there are a lot of pipers here that have as much, or more experience than I do in this genre of piping. Let's pass on some knowledge.

    I'll start things with this question.

    If you were going to play your first dance competition tomorrow, what one thing would you concern yourself with the most - what one thing would you concentrate on?

    Here's my answer: Being as the question is "one thing only", my answer would be, confidence. Have confidence in what you're doing. Stand up, play your music for those dancers, and have faith in the fact that you're doing the absolute best that you can. You were hired because the organizers have faith in you - so trust them, and yourself. Play, and play well.

    Care to chime in?

    Cheers,
    Scot.
    There's only nine notes ... how hard can it be?

  • #2
    Re: Advice for new dance pipers

    Scot, that's a great question! I've spent much of my piping career playing for dancers (whether highland, Scottish Country Dance, English Country Dance, square dancers, contra dancers, step dancers... you name it), and it's a lot of fun.

    Some of my thoughts are more about general things than about "the gig is tomorrow, what do I do?!", but I'll include them anyway.

    - Steady tempo and rhythm. If there's one thing that matters no matter what kind of dance you're playing for, it's steadiness. Dancers are trying to coordinate their movements and time their kinetic motion perfectly so that their feet land at exactly the right time. To do this reliably, they need to be able to know in advance where the beats are going to be. Practice with a metronome (electronic, by preference, since the analog ones tend to be inaccurate) regularly, and trust the beat it gives you. Record yourself playing along with a metronome and notice the places where your playing pulls ahead or lags behind, then work on those spots.

    - Ability to play tunes at varied tempos. Dancers require tunes at different tempos. If you're playing for experienced highland dancers, the tempos may be slower because they want to show off; newbies require quicker speeds. If you're playing for social dancing, the callers may ask you to speed up or slow down in order to match the skill of the dancers, or just to alter the energy of the dance hall. Being able to play bagpipe reels at 90 beats per minute for competition, 114 beats per minute for SCD, and 128 beats per minute for fast contra takes some practice. Another big thing is that you have to learn how to hold that tempo rather than drifting back into your preferred tempo for the tune.

    - Ability to take tempo direction from dancers/callers. This can be simple--some dancers can give a clear tempo and make it easy to follow. The deeper skill is the ability to watch a dancer (or a dance floor) and adjust your tempo to suit their needs. If all the dancers are struggling to reach their places in time, chances are good that you're playing too fast. If they're arriving early and dawdling around, you can pick it up a bit. This comes with experience and focused attention.

    - Endurance: physical and mental. Playing for dancing is a lot of work. If your band medley is 5-7 minutes, you might think that the occasional piobaireachd is a lot of playing. Dance pipers routinely need to play for long periods of time (10-15 minutes) several times in succession. You may also be playing the same tune many times in a row, which requires some mental endurance--it's important not to get lost in the tune, forget a B part, etc. This comes with practice.

    - Pare down your ornamentation. Something I've had to admit over the years: dances are not the place for showy technique. Complicated ornamentation, beyond a certain point, makes it harder for the dancers to find the beat. If they can't find the beat, we aren't doing our jobs. Remember that dance piping is service music, not concert music. In reels and jigs for dancers, I often play only single gracenotes, doublings, and birls--dancers seem to have an easy time with all of these.

    - Tune selection. Pick tunes where the rhythm is clear. The dancers shouldn't have to work to find the beat. Tunes with syncopation can be okay if you consult the dancers first, but if you have to choose on your own, pick straightforward tunes with easily-followed rhythms. A related thought is that you should avoid overly flashy tunes if you're playing for any kind of competition--attracting attention to yourself is not the point.

    - Remember that it isn't competition. Several parts to this one. First, have fun. You're there to help the dancers, and dance is beautiful to watch. Have fun with it. Get to know the dancers, have them show you the dances, make some new friends. The other side of this coin: it's not the Gold Medal. Relax about your mistakes, and don't spend 24 minutes tuning before you start your 3-minute reel. Stay loose, have a good time, and make sure you get paid before you leave.

    (sorry that this is more than "one thing". I couldn't decide which was most important. Best of luck! Hollis)

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: Advice for new dance pipers

      Originally posted by Hollis View Post


      (sorry that this is more than "one thing". I couldn't decide which was most important. Best of luck! Hollis)
      ALL really good points Hollis, and exactly my experience as well. You've obviously done your fair share of dance piping. So you see my problem! It's hard (very hard) to distill it down to one point

      So, I'll expand on one point you've made - steady tempo. Very tough for some. In that regard, once you've established a tempo, stick to it. Don't let those premiers affect you, and drag you down. It's not fair to the rest of the group, and, of all the dancers out there, the premiers should be able to dance to the music as it's played. You'll also be doing them a favour (thought they may not realize it), in that the tempo you set, perhaps too quick at the outset, is just perfect at the end of a long 6 step dance. Stay with your tempo.

      Scot.
      There's only nine notes ... how hard can it be?

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: Advice for new dance pipers

        Having done dance piping for 40 years and still counting, Hollis brings up very good points. As does Scot as well.
        Playing musical with a good solid tempo is probably the most important. The dancers need to hear and feel the beat. Keep the tunes simple.
        The next thing that I find important is have a good bagpipe, but one that is easy to blow steady and sounds good. Nothing worse than hearing a pipe that is honking and squaking along, which in itself would be very distracting. Remember for dance piping you don't have to be playing a gut buster reed. I have always supscribed to this when playing for dancers it makes the whole experience less stressful if you look and feel like you are enjoying the process.
        Though I use the same tunes over and over again, people ask me how do you do that. I feel it helps to use the same music as I can then concentrate on a good pipe and keeping a good solid steady tempo for the dancers. And also the dancers get used to the music that you are using as well.
        As was mentioned we are in this situation, only a metronome for the dancers.
        Practice Hard, win easy!
        Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.
        Vince Lombardi

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: Advice for new dance pipers

          I have not played for a dance competition, however I have
          played alot for dancers. One point that was made that I
          personally disagree with is to watch the dancers.
          I find that that is a good way for me to start varying tempo.
          I agree with what Scot said and what I try to do is set the
          "proper" tempo and let the dancers dance to the music, rather than
          me trying to "play to the dancer[s]"
          Cheers

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: Advice for new dance pipers

            I've been piping for decades, but never play for dance competitions (way too much work), just the odd show or ceilidh. But, I'm also the parent of a premier highland dancer and have spent the last 12 years listening to pipers play for dancers, the good the bad & the ugly....fortunatley, most were good.
            So I get to hear what the dancers think of the pipers...and the one thing they dislike, is when some virtuoso decides he/she has to play every single Reel/Jig/hornpipe etc they've ever learned. The premiers can adapt to this, but the more junior dancers get thrown for a loop when the tune is new to them.
            It's interesting to watch the girls in the wings waiting their turn, while they practice dancing to the tune the piper is playing for the girls on stage...they go over it several times waiting to hit the stage. Then the piper switches the tune, and there's that split second of terror while they sort it out....please don't do that to the young ones.
            Just an observation from the other side....

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: Advice for new dance pipers

              Excellent point Lochie! I actually danced for 10 years myself before devoting myself to piping exclusively. I agree with all of the points made here with one to add. NO MATTER WHAT, KEEP PLAYING! The best dance pipers are the ones who just fade into the background. If you are remembered, most likely you have played something that the dancers didn't like.

              As a side note to that, dancers and their parents can all be pretty critical, even about things that you don't consider to be a big deal. Learn to have a thick skin and you will be fine if you play the same tunes with a consistent tempo.

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: Advice for new dance pipers

                when piping for dancers, the player is not supposed to change the tune within a category. if you play one tune for the "beginners 11 and under", you must continue playing the same tune for all dancers in "beginner 11 and under".

                and it's considered polite to continue playing the same tune for the entire dance.

                that's the way it is in ontario, anyway.
                Take it easy

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: Advice for new dance pipers

                  Yes do keep playing if you can. I had a situation once when the very first fling that I did in the morning, played the intro and probably part of the first step of the dance, when my chanter came right out. Talk of embarassing, fortunately I held on to the chanter and there was no harm to the reed. But more amazingly the crowd picked up the tempo and started clapping right away as the dancers just kept dancing. A bit of fumbling the chanter back into the pipes and I picked up my tunes right where I should have been and we all ended together.
                  All in all quite an amazing set for the very first fling. Since the dancers kept going, I asked if the judges they wanted a redance but they all said they were fine and let it go. Nor do I recall any dancers or mums making any complaints either. Lucky me.
                  So just a word of caution be sure all of the joints are hemped properly before you start.
                  Practice Hard, win easy!
                  Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.
                  Vince Lombardi

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: Advice for new dance pipers

                    My biggest advise to any new dance pipers is quite simply:

                    RUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!



                    Ok, in all seriousness....

                    Ditto to everything above. I just want to re-emphasize that dance competitions are NOT the place to show off your handy work in how many birls you can throw in to Ghillie Callum/Crossing the Minch. Make it easy on yourself, you're going to have to play the blasted tune 50 times today.

                    Also, leave your ego with the band playing. If the judge tells you to fix your tempos, don't walk over with the book you found on Amazon.com and tell the judge, "But the book says to play it at this tempo!" just because you don't want to admit fault. (I have seen this done - that piper, last I heard, is still in a coma from when the judge decked him.)

                    Have a good sounding instrument with an easy reed. Again, this is not the place to show off your reed that shows off your impressive tone, unless you can carry it off. This is when you do the decent reed that's easy to play and won't have you blowing out in 4 hours when you've been playing non-stop, except for that 5 minute break when they were changing for the hornpipe. Yeah, been there, done that. It sucks.

                    And most importantly, have an instrument that sounds good. I hate it when I'm cringing at the sound of my own instrument. I have to listen to that dang thing for the next couple of hours, it better be a sound I can live with and like.

                    Just my 2% of 100 pennies...
                    Forum Member Since... holy crap, that long?

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: Advice for new dance pipers

                      All good advice, I know some pipers that watch dancers (they were once dancers themselves), and pipers that don't watch them. If your poster/piper finds that they are following a dancers tempo instead of keeping to the tempo they set, stop watching the dancers, every Premier dancer has a set speed that enhances the way he or she dances, but not necessarily the dancer next to them. You dictate the speed.

                      In the past, dancers or parents were not to approach a dance piper and suggest tunes or tempos - only a judge if they wished to hear something different, or sped up or slowed down.

                      If you can find a teacher that will let a piper "sit in" at practice on occasion, it's great practice. Dancers "hear" strathspeys differently than some pipe majors - might even help at next band practice! I have a friend who can tell if a bass drummer in a band was once a dancer by the way they play.

                      http://www.stormpipes.com/dance.html

                      http://forums.bobdunsire.com/forums/...piping+dancers

                      And if you want to see some old give and take from almost 10 years ago:
                      http://forums.bobdunsire.com/forums/...piping+dancers
                      Margaret

                      Sarchasm (n): The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: Advice for new dance pipers

                        Originally posted by Margaret View Post
                        I have a friend who can tell if a bass drummer in a band was once a dancer by the way they play.
                        Doesn't surprise me ... the bass drummers for both SFU, and Triumph Street are dancers.

                        Scot.
                        There's only nine notes ... how hard can it be?

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