by VICKIE GRAY.
February 2022: CLASP Live Online, Grade 4
I’d better face the wall so I’m not distracted by movement through the window. Oh crap, my sleeve is unbuttoned. I know I’m going to screw up the 3rd part of Lady Lever Park. I always do. I just don’t hold the long notes long enough and my fingers just trip over each other. Hours of practicing don’t make a difference when I get to the competition. I should probably just quit. What’s the point if I can never get better? It’s embarrassing to be so bad at this. I’ll be dead before I can play at tempo, much less correct my C to E crossing noises. I hope nobody watches me play. If I see any movement on the screen, I’m doomed. Oh crap, it’s time. I don’t know how Margaret manages twelve hours of this. I would lose my mind. Oh, there’s the guy from Nova Scotia. I wonder what other people are playing? It would be so cool to go to Glasgow and attend a gathering in person and meet these folks. Breakout room? Uh oh, where are the controls? There they are. Do I have original sound on? What if the latest update changed the settings? I’d better check. But I have to warm up. Should I check the settings or warm up? I didn’t warm up enough. If I hadn’t forgotten my kilt pin, I would have had more time. I need to pee. The pipes sound like crap. I should have warmed up more. Hands are shaking. I’ll never cover the holes properly. Hands are cold, too. Do I have time to run back and get the hand warmer? No, probably not. Can’t play a birl with my hands so cold. Ha! I can’t play a decent birl, anyway. How can I compete if my little finger won’t play a birl? Okay, may as well get it over with. What? Somebody said something. Maybe not. Ugh. I’m sweating. Bloody bag is just so uncomfortable. Never noticed how uncomfortable it was before. Have to look into a new one. I think I saw something about a different bag design. Maybe look online after the… Here we go. How does the 2/4 start? Argh! Crap. Didn’t hold that F. Too fast!
May 2022: CLASP Live Online, Grade 4
Mirror check. Uniform looks fine.
Computer plugged in and phone charged.
No sign of bad nerves yet. Interesting.
Pipes tuned up? Take another minute or two on that.
I can’t believe I got the time wrong. Well, I put the time in the calendar using my old brain, so no surprise. Next time I’ll get it right.
Run through the fingering for Lady Lever Park. Ok, good. Not fast, but clean. Slow and steady now. Speed later.
Steward just got interrupted. Okay, I’ll use the time to play through the transitions between parts.
Ready? Hold that first F. D throw. Doubling…
Ten days before the second competition, I was assessed as having ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and started taking the medication methylphenidate, also known as Ritalin. It changed my experience of practicing, playing, and performing, and everything else in my life.
I lived for 56 years with ADHD and didn’t know it. That means from the moment I woke up, a small animal gnawed at me from the inside. My skull was a beehive. There were 32 televisions on in my head, and I couldn’t decide which one to focus on.
Without methylphenidate, I am driven (Hyperactive), literally, to move and do things, especially new things, which I will usually do on a whim (Impulsivity). I can’t focus (Inattentive) if I have to sit still and do something that bores me. Sometimes I forget commitments, lose things, and miss deadlines. I “zone out” when people talk to me, and can’t read a page of text without being distracted by my own thoughts and having to go back and read it again. Despite my ADHD, and probably also because of it, I’ve had an international consulting career, have a Master’s degree in adult education, and have written several books. And for the last couple of years, I’ve been learning to play the bagpipes online through The National Piping Centre.
Adults with ADHD alternate between extreme boredom and extreme anxiety. Sometimes we develop something like obsessive-compulsive disorder about our keys and phone, simply so we know they are always in the same place and we don’t have to go looking for them in a hurry. Because we’re always in a hurry.
Without stimulant medication like methylphenidate, we will self-medicate with coffee, energy drinks, thriller movies, personal drama, gambling, drugs, extreme sports. We unconsciously organize our lives around our limitations and develop steel-plated coping skills that make us look like we’ve got it together. You probably don’t even realize who has the disorder because we improvise like ninjas, get other people to do the things we know we don’t do well or don’t like, and avoid activities that require a reliable memory, focus, or attention to detail. Inside we are terrified of being discovered, of losing something important, of forgetting to pick up the kid. And we have a really hard time performing a scripted recital.
In 2019, my piper husband and I attended Piping Live! Impulsively, I decided I would learn to play the pipes. At 53, I started on the practice chanter and I discovered what everyone reading this already knows about learning the pipes. It’s not for the faint of heart.
But adults with ADHD can get quite obsessed with their passions. We go all in, practicing for hours, buying all the books, watching all the videos, and predictably driving the people around us crazy. We never stop talking about our “thing” while it’s in the novelty stage, and do that thing to the exclusion of everything else. My ability to hyper-focus like that has been mostly a benefit all my life, and it certainly helped me in the early stages of learning to play the practice chanter.
Having lived with me for twenty years, my very kind and patient piper husband had experienced the ebb and flow of my enthusiasms many times. He found reserves of tact hidden from mere mortals, and never once said what any other experienced piper would have: “Are you sure you’re going to stick with this? It’s really complicated. There’s a lot to learn. And you can’t just cram and improvise.”
Instead, he was supportive of me, interested in what I learned, and even learned alongside me. That helped a lot. So did the pandemic; because piping discovered the internet. Though we live in rural Nova Scotia, Canada, I started getting Skype lessons from Margaret Dunn at The National Piping Centre, attending online NPC Gatherings, and competing online.
My hyper-focus drove my learning, but performing was a whole other can of haggis. In fact, performing a specific piece of music, as written, from memory once, and only once, was the hardest thing I would ever do. All the things pipers have to do to be ready to play for an audience were things I had given up in failure, improvised around, or just avoided altogether all my life. You know what I mean: playing from memory, staying on the tune from beginning to end, using working memory to keep track of repeats and transitions between parts and tunes, and staying focused through visual and other distractions.
I had fallen in love with the complexity, beauty, and variety of piping, so I wasn’t about to give it up as I had lesser passions. But I also knew I would have to perform live if I was going to keep progressing. In retrospect, I think that’s why I chose the pipes and not something easier. I knew deep down that my brain didn’t work “normally,” and playing the pipes was going to force me to figure out why.
My opportunity came when CLASP competitions went “live” last fall. I would have one chance to perform my tunes. Thinking my trouble with performing was just lack of experience, I started a personal challenge: play in public every day for 100 days. And if my problem had been performance anxiety, exposure therapy like that should have worked. And it did, sort of. But it wasn’t enough. I knew better, but I still started tunes too fast, didn’t give myself time to tune properly, my embellishments were inconsistent, and I forgot an entire part of a tune. After that first live performance experience, I really wondered what was wrong with my brain.
Then, in January of this year, I read an article in the paper about ADHD in adults. I was shocked to find I was reading about my life. I did some more reading on reliable websites and asked for an assessment. The psychiatrist found I had both the inattentive and hyperactive types of the disorder. He was straightforward about how common ADHD was in adults, how medication was the only proven solution, and he prescribed methylphenidate.
I started taking it right away, and that was the second shock. For the first time in my life, I could just sit. The buzzing in my head had stopped. I could attend to someone telling a story, read a page of text and follow it, and recall entire conversations. This was what life was like for normal people, I realized. I spent the first few days just enjoying the feeling of calm.
And it changed my experience of piping. I sat down for a couple of hours in the first few days and mapped out my tunes, highlighted my music, and planned my practice strategies. I was calm, focused, and patient, looping sections Margaret had pointed out, and practicing slowly and consistently. When I played my competition tunes on my pipes, I could hold that long F at the beginning without feeling pressure to move on because it was all so slow. I could keep upcoming transitions in mind while I was playing. I could play a whole tune without losing my place. The live CLASP competition was coming up, but apart from a little fizz of excitement on the day, the crushing fear of failure, sleepless nights, sweats, shakes, shallow breathing, and fight-or-flight response never hit me.
Let’s be realistic: I wasn’t ready for the Northern Meeting. The old brain had learned and practiced the tunes. I had only been on the medication for ten days, and I was still at a Grade 4 level of playing. But that May live CLASP competition was the first time in my life performing was fun.
If you’re wondering whether my new brain won me any prizes, all I can tell you is that I placed in the top six in every event I entered for the first time in the two and a half years I’ve been learning the pipes. But the most important outcome for me was feeling good while I was performing. I have loved music all my life, and it wasn’t until that day that I felt I could simply be in the moment of a performance and turn the potential of my hard work and dedication into a performance I could be proud of.
Since that May CLASP competition, Margaret and I have chosen new tunes for my new brain, and she’s helping me relearn how to learn and how to practice. I can use her teaching much more effectively now. To keep track of my practice sessions, I use an app called Andante Practice Journal, and it tells me I’ve been averaging an hour and a half every day on practice chanter and pipes. Andante also lets me track my mood and focus for my practice sessions, and I’m averaging a better mood and focus in the last month than ever before.
If any of this has struck a chord, I hope you seek an assessment. Because life is too short not to love learning and performing the pipes.
There are now lots of resources online for adults with ADHD. I’ve included a few here:
ADHD in girls and women (Duke University): https://adhdgirlsandwomen.org/resources/