December 1, 2022

Imagine someone came up to you and said, “No matter how hard I try, I just can’t juggle 5 balls in the air.”

I’m not a juggler, but to me that makes a ton of sense. 5 balls is a lot.

But pipers all over the world regularly say, “No matter how hard I try, I can’t sight read bagpipe music.”

That… also makes a ton of sense. Sight-reading involves juggling a lot of different skills.

So, what’s the best way to learn to sight read?

The same way we’d learn to juggle – start one ball at a time, and work your way up to 5… or more.

The first ball in the air – sight-reading rhythm

Rhythm is the most primal and fundamental element of all music.

Even if you have no musical training at all, you’ll know if the rhythm doesn’t sound quite right long before you notice any note mistakes – you will notice that the ‘groove’ of what they’re playing is out of sync, or that beats aren’t landing where you felt instinctively that they should.

So of course, as our base layer of music, rhythm should be the first thing we read when we look at a sheet of music.

If you can’t sight read the rhythm (yet!), it doesn’t make sense that you should worry about a whole lot else, right? 

The video above demonstrates how to do this with a tune. Essentially, you want to simply strip out all gracenotes, embellishments and notes, so that only the basic rhythm – the time signature, note values, and bar lines – of the tune remains.

Then, work on clapping or tapping until you get the ‘groove’ of the tune as a foundation for what’s coming next.

The second ball to juggle – sight-read the “big notes”

The “big notes” in a sheet of bagpipe music are usually the main melody of the tune. No embellishments. No fancy grace note combinations. Just the simple stuff – notes on a chanter.

If you can’t sight-read the big notes (yet!), it doesn’t make much sense that you can somehow magically sight read all of the embellishments in addition to that, does it?

Now, some grace notes may be necessary to separate notes on the same melody note, or to help demonstrate downbeats or off-beats. Don’t sweat this too much – the important thing is that you’re focusing just on getting the basic rhythm and notes right.

No need to worry about anything else at this stage of sight-reading. Don’t worry about expression. Don’t try to work on finer points of embellishments. No call and answer responses. Just notes.

Another important thing to consider at this point is how to reduce the number of variables you need to “juggle” by simply playing less of the tune. Start with one or two bars, and work your way up to more of the tune as you get more practised at sight reading.

The next ball – add more complexity (not fully embellished!)

So, after nailing those first two balls, what’s the third to add to the mix?

Here’s what it’s not – jumping straight to a fully embellished score.

Even the best players in the world don’t always play every embellishment as written on a sheet of music, especially when they’re learning a tune for the first time.

Here’s what you should do – add embellishments in, one at a time. Maybe start with adding back in all the D Throws, but not necessarily the grips, birls, and taorluaths. Then, as you get more familiar with the D throw placement, start adding in embellishments incrementally until you’re comfortable with them in the flow of the tune.

But always remember to nail the rhythm and melody, then worry about the embellishments.

Because that’s what they are – just the icing on the cake!

So how does this all come together? 

Just like juggling 5 balls at a time, with sight-reading (or any mastery-oriented skill) you have to be willing to start with one “ball” (or fundamental skill), and gradually introduce more as you become competent with the previous one. 

Before you know it, you’ll be able to pick up a new tune and “just play through it” with relative ease. 

The Piper’s Dojo Weekly Show brings you weekly advice about how to be a better bagpiper. Tune into our weekly livestreams on our Facebook page, subscribe to our YouTube channel or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on this topic. However, as with everything in piping, there are many schools of thought, and I’d love to hear yours! Leave a comment below to keep the discussion going…

About the Author

Andrew is a prolific practitioner of the bagpipe, active at the highest level of pipe bands, solo competition, teaching, and creative endeavors for the past 20 years. He was 2017 & 2019 World Champion with Inveraray and District Pipe Band, 2017 Winner of the USA Silver Medal for Piobaireachd, 2008–2013 Pipe Major of Grade 1 Oran Mor Pipe Band, multi-prize winner of Silver Medals at Oban and Inverness, and the 2004 B-Grade Winner Strathspey/Reel at Oban. 

Andrew published his debut and award-winning book, Finding Bagpipe Freedom, in 2021. He's also an Accredited Bagpipe Teacher and Examiner (Scottish Qualifications Authority) and holds a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts from Simon Fraser University.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}


Join Dojo University - Just $1

Your first month is just $1.
Click the button below to get started!