Published: January 07, 2022

Jori Chisholm: Making online piping competitions sing

By Jori Chisholm

Jori Chisholm

Competitions are a central part of the piping world in which most pipes|drums readers participate. Competitions are our most common performance platform. They offer an opportunity to find joy, inspiration, and motivation to perform, practice, prepare and strive to improve our craft and refine our art.

For hundreds of years, piping competitions have been an essential part of Highland games, where we’ve traditionally gathered as a community, playing music together for an audience as well as for ourselves, reconnecting with old acquaintances and making new friends.

For many pipers, competing at the games as a soloist or as a member of a band can create some of our most memorable life-experiences. From beginners to world-class professionals, we use competitions to test our skills under the pressure of live performance to discover how we rank against other players, seeking helpful feedback from knowledgeable, experienced, and credible judges. Attending and participating in competitions gives us a source of identity and connects us to a community of like-minded passionate pipers and drummers.

I founded BagpipeLessons.com in 1999 with one core idea in mind: I wanted to bring high quality educational materials and learning experiences to anyone interested in piping, regardless of age, previous experience, or location. My own passion and background in piping and performing drove me to reach out to both musicians in need of instruction as well as beginners wanting to begin playing. I knew that access to expert guidance and helpful resources was in short supply in many places around the world. This guidance can be what makes an accomplished player, and it can be what draws a new musician to the pipes in the first place. Over time, BagpipeLessons.com has helped create and encourage a growing global community of engaged pipers — something I’m immensely proud to be a part of.

I ask myself every day not just how I can best share my knowledge and inspire others, but how I can find ways to make a bigger, positive impact for pipers everywhere.

I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to inspire and motivate thousands of people to begin or continue their journey with the bagpipes and help improve their ability to practice with confidence and care. I’m passionate about finding ways to use the latest technologies and tools along with the best of tradition to help pipers learn more efficiently and find greater enjoyment in their playing. I ask myself every day not just how I can best share my knowledge and inspire others, but how I can find ways to make a bigger, positive impact for pipers everywhere. I’m constantly working to make piping more available and more accessible around the world.

In 2003, I was the first to offer webcam-based bagpipe lessons over the internet. The growth of high-speed connectivity, webcams and video chat has made online education accessible to billions of people. Learning online gives you the opportunity to find a teacher whom you connect with, not just a teacher who’s near you. Teaching online gives me the opportunity to help pipers around the world, eliminating the barriers of geography or travel. Anyone who has used Skype, Facetime, or Zoom can attest to the power and immediacy of an online video call to bring people together.

In 2011, I created the world’s first online piping competition to give pipers everywhere the opportunity to be part of the wonderful experience of competing. Having completed 13 online competitions, I’m more excited than ever to be hosting the largest and highest-ranked online competition in the world.

I created the format that has now happily become the global standard for online piping competitions — competitors record their performances and post their videos to YouTube for our world-class judges to view, award prizes, and provide valuable comments. This format has proven especially important for competitors over the past two years due to the restrictions on travel and in person gatherings as a result of the pandemic, which resulted in most or all Highland games and in-person competitions being canceled around the world.

We received record numbers of entries in 2020 as pipers and drummers began to embrace the online competition format as a way to continue improving their skills and experience. Our competitions also continue to present an opportunity to maintain valuable connections to fellow pipers in the middle of a truly isolating time.

I’m thrilled that we have now received nearly 10,000 total entries for the World Online Piping & Drumming Championships! I’ve been able to share my experience as a leader in online education and online competitions with many other organizations and conveners of traditional, in-person competitions who have moved their events online.

Dozens of new online competitions have sprung up following our lead, which brings me a great sense of excitement and pride for our engaged and growing audience of pipers and drummers. Some of these new online competitions have focused on a smaller local audience, such as members of a single association. Other online competitions have incorporated a live performance aspect, requiring competitors to perform live while the judges watch online from another location. Some competitions have integrated both live and pre-recorded components, where the competitor plays live for a steward and while simultaneously creating a higher-quality local recording of the performance to be used by the judges for their evaluation.

These different online formats seek ways to use technology to connect the player, judge, and the audience together to deliver some of the benefits of the traditional in-person competition experience.

I encourage everyone to participate and compete as much as they are interested and able at both in-person and online competitions. The live in-person competition experience and the online competition experience have some key differences, but there are also many similarities. Both can be helpful to pipers and drummers in different ways.

Creating a recorded video performance from home gives you the benefit of analyzing multiple takes. This encourages you to listen, evaluate and try again as you strive for the performance that comes closest to your highest potential.

There’s always an unmatchable level of excitement and intensity that you feel when traveling to compete in front of a judge and live audience in a new and exciting far-away place. But creating a recorded video performance from home gives you the benefit of analyzing multiple takes. This encourages you to listen, evaluate and try again as you strive for the performance that comes closest to your highest potential.

Attending an in-person competition is a social gathering and remains unbeatable for elevating a sense of camaraderie and spirit, but the online competition format gives you the chance to compete against musicians from literally the other side of the world — something that you might never encounter in-person.

I have had fantastic experiences at piping competitions all throughout my competing career. Performing in front of experienced judges and a live audience is a process that inevitably leads to a better understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses, increased focus in practice sessions and improved technical, musical, and overall performance ability.

A montage of performances from the 2021 Summer Online Championships.

Online competitions also offer the opportunity to set and strive to meet a personal challenge and receive feedback. I’ve spent much of my own time and expense traveling to compete, averaging 25-30 competitions each year. I’ve even made more than 30 trips to Scotland. I love to attend competitions run by my local associations and Highland games and I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to compete around the world. But I also know that many pipers miss out on the opportunity to compete due to the expense and complications of traveling to competition locations. Many regions host very few or no competitions at all.

These factors inspire me to continue hosting a high-quality competition — to offer a low-cost, accessible way to challenge and invigorate pipers everywhere.

I strive to make my online competitions available to as many pipers and drummers as possible from around the world. I focus on communication and outreach to promote participation from first-time competitors and competitors without good access to other in-person competition opportunities. I use judges that are world-class players (Gold Medal and Clasp Winners, World Champion pipe-majors and lead-drummers) and top-level communicators. Our judges are from all over the piping and drumming world, and many are top-level teachers, too. The detailed and high-quality comments from the judges are valued by the competitors and are a big part of my vision — to provide the best resources to inspire, motivate and help pipers and drummers everywhere improve and find greater satisfaction from their playing.

To expand interest in the bagpipes, pipe bands, and the worldwide piping and pipe band community, I believe we must embrace the best of our traditions and find innovative new ways to learn, perform and come together as a community.

The World Online Piping & Drumming Championships are the world’s first competitions to publish the entire record of the competition online for everyone to see. We publish links to every competitor’s video along with their tunes, placings, and the judge’s comments. This growing library of videos, tunes and comments is a hugely valuable educational resource, and gets better with every additional competition. Pipers can watch, listen, and learn for free. Competitor video performances are hosted on YouTube where they are available to watch, providing learning opportunities and entertainment for millions of viewers for many years to come. We are testing a new results searchable database of the complete results for all of our competitions going back to 2011 (search by person, tune, event, grade level, placing, judge, and more). This will be the world’s biggest searchable database of piping and drumming competition videos and we expect it will be an extensive and valuable library of video performances for pipers and drummers, teachers, and other organizations.

The Highland bagpipe has a unique sound and style of musical expression that have kept a strong connection to history while remaining relevant to the present day — but this is something that needs to be maintained by those of us championing the instrument. To expand interest in the bagpipes, pipe bands, and the worldwide piping and pipe band community, I believe we must embrace the best of our traditions and find innovative new ways to learn, perform and come together as a community.

Online competitions will never be a perfect substitute for in-person competitions, but they can instead provide a fun, rewarding, and different way to enjoy performing and competing. We must continually strive for innovation as well as excellence to keep our community strong.

In addition to being the owner and manager of BagpipeLessons.com and the World Online Piping & Drumming Championships, Jori Chisholm is a piper who has achieved success at the highest levels. He was a member of the Grade 1 Simon Fraser University Pipe Band for 19 years, and lives in Seattle.

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