Pareto Piping: The Three Things at the Core of Pipe Band Success

Pareto Principle: Roughly 80% of the effects of many events come from 20% of the causes.

We all want to crack the secret of good bagpiping and drumming and achieve success on the competition field, don’t we? Pipe bands here in the USA work very hard to be musically and competitively successful, but I’ll bet that not many can identify the keys to their success—or lack of it. Sure we toss around comments such as “bad run,” “lousy judging,” “mistakes,” “the weather” as blame but none of it, if removed entirely as factors would guarantee success.

So, hereby note this pronouncement: The secret to good pipe band-ing is found in the secret to good tennis. What is the secret to good tennis, you ask? Well, for starters, the secret is not found in the clothes, the balls, or expensive rackets. Nor is it in the types of shoes you wear. The trick to good tennis is to lob the ball over the net. If you can do that, you will score and/or convert 80% of the time in all the games you play. Why? Because it is an unspoken fact that 80% of amateur tennis players will not be able to return the ball if you lob it over the net. No topspin, power serve, or fancy swing required.

As you’re scratching your head on this one, ponder this: An 80% success rate is a better starting point for greater success than 20%, yes?

So, what is the bagpipe equivalent to lobbing the ball over the net? If you’re following the analogy, it is not going to be in the kinds of pipes you play, the reeds your band uses, the tuner you use, the drum brand, the chanter make, or the pipe bags.

If we think about all the musical and mechanical things that could and should be mastered, it is almost a given that competitive and musical success will be there when they are. It’s amazing though that one will see time and again, many bands simply sabotaging their own best efforts in competition by ignoring or overlooking basic things. We have a tendency as pipers and drummers to overthink and overcomplicate matters in our efforts to make a musical statement. But the key to success on the competition field boils down to simple things, mastered and done well. Pareto Piping: 80% of your success will be determined by 20% of the things you’re implementing. Like lobbing a tennis ball over the net.

But what are these simple things that will bring success in a pipe band? Once we get past the necessary interpersonal factors such as commitment and dedication, work ethic, and teamwork, there are three basic elements that you should consider to be the top 20% of all the elements your band works on, perfects, and polishes: Instrument; Technique; and Routine. With those out of the way, the pitch is clear for the band to achieve the success rate they deserve.

1. Instrument
Good pipe band music is going to start with good instruments. Whether it is a bagpipe or a drum, the instrument must be in tip-top shape if it is going to perform well for you. For bagpipers, this means good maintenance practices, an airtight and efficient instrument, reeds that are suited to your strength and calibrated for balance—irrespective of brand or make. This is mostly individual work, but as a group, it is important that the practices are taught, discussed, and applied. It is easier to get down to work and make musical progress when everyone shows up with good working instruments.

2. Technique
Simply put: Good playing unison in the pipe band will come when all players are able to execute the necessary fingering. With technical mastery comes control and the ability to adapt to whatever tune or circumstance arises. Again, this is individual work and practice. Each individual player must hone in on what aspect of their playing needs work and work on it. Personal technique includes clear articulation of embellishments as well as solid blowing of the bagpipe. Band technique includes good starts and stops. Technical mastery comes once your instrument is good working order. Musicality and all the good stuff that happens in the band circle begins with technical mastery.

3. Routine
Good pipe band-ing is playing together. But more than that, it is everyone focussed on the same goal when you’re working toward that goal. That simply means that how you practice, how you lead up to a competition performance, what you play and how you play it, and how long you play and/or tune should all be routine and clear to everyone so that everyone is doing the same things at the same time. With a strong routine in place for competition tune up and regular rehearsals, there are no surprises. All pipes should perform as expected and, if numbers 1 and 2 are being mastered, good results can be expected as well. It is then that the real work to creating good music as a group can begin.

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