Published: December 31, 2005

A for effort

Anyone who has been a competitor at a piping, drumming or pipe band competition knows the good events from the bad events. The good events are well organized, they have respected and experienced judges, and they reward the competitors appropriately. The bad events are full of confusion, run off-schedule, and have judges who no one really wants to play for because the competitors don’t respect their decisions.

But why are some events inherently better then others? Why is it that some events with a long pedigree of historical “success” just don’t seem to be enjoyed as much as others? We’ve thought long and hard about the reasons, but we keep returning to two essential, simple facts.

The best competitions put as much effort into the event as the competitors do preparing for it. The best events understand just how seriously competing pipers and drummers take their contests, and they return that seriousness in kind.

These are maxims that contest organizers should tattoo on their foreheads—backwards, of course, so they can read them when they look at themselves in the mirror.

The foremost complaint from pipers and drummers is that they are not treated with the respect that they feel they have earned and deserve. New competitions more often than not do not fully understand this fact, and they quickly realize that what they have bargained for is not necessarily a quaint tartanned spectacle, but something every bit as fraught with competitive zeal as a major sporting event. After one or two years they realize that they have bitten off too much and, sadly (or happily in some cases), many contests simply give up the ghost.

Without fail, the best competitions are run by pipers and drummers who have been there and done that. The strange club of competition pipers and drummers is one that is extremely difficult to comprehend without actually doing it. Events that are run solely by non-pipers or drummers are doomed for failure simply because they do not understand the actual effort that serious players put into competitions.

If a competition, no matter how small it might be, feels that contestants take competing lightly, then organizers invariably put little effort into it. They don’t sweat the details. They take the easy route towards sourcing and hiring judges, towards communicating with competitors, towards awards and accuracy of results.

But this lack of respect is not the sole province of small contests. Some of the world’s most famous competitions that built a historical reputation years ago when they were better organized still get a strong competitors attendance, even though today competitors come to them simply because they are. Pipers at these events grumble about the conditions and mistakes that the organizers make, but they feel obliged to come out year after year because of the event’s historical importance.

These poorly run established historical contests better watch their back. Today’s soloist or pipe band has more events every year from which to choose. Competitors gravitate to contests that might be smaller, but are better organized, and where they get the respect that they deserve.

The RSPBA is one organization that fixed this problem, beginning in the 1930s. Rather than having disparate events across Scotland, with no standardization of format or judging, the RSPBA comes in and, for a fee, produces a turn-key operation. The event organizers don’t have to worry about a thing. Let the pipers and drummers who know take care of things. The PPBSO takes the same approach for band and solo events.

But the Scottish solo scene comprises events run by the organizers, and there are jurisdictions that take the same approach. Various associations might help to hire the judges and to advise on the format and system, but the actual running of the contest is left to the games or gathering. There’s something to be said for variety, to be sure, and the RSPBA and PPBSO have been accused of running “cookie-cutter-contests,” but there is a lot more to be said for knowing exactly what to expect when you or your band turns up at the contest.

Here are the five essential tenets of a successful competition:

1. Organizers must put at least as much effort into preparing for the event as the competitors.
2. Performers must be respected in the way they are communicated with, treated on the day, and thanked.
3. Prizes should be commensurate with the prestige of the event. History alone does not a prize make. If the organizers are not sure of what good constitutes a good prize, do some research (see point 1).
4. Judges must have the respect of those they judge, again commensurate with the standard of the competition.
5. An audience must be cultivated, the event properly marketed. Friends and family should comprise no more than half of the audience.

A successful event comes down to this unassailable tenet: the organizers have to put in as much effort and understanding as the competitors put into their own playing. Without that, a piping, drumming or pipe band competition is always doomed eventually to fail.

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