July 02, 2020

Lockdown release: judging a live video piping competition

Never doubt the ingenuity of the modern competition piper or pipe band drummer. We never did, actually, and, as the last few months have borne out, the mother of invention is has by necessity birthed a new generation of contests.

We had the opportunity to judge the second the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band organization’ solo “season” of four competitions. The contests are taking the live video route. It’s very much like a typical solo competition, even though it’s totally atypical.

Like an in-person event, each competitor had an assigned time to be ready to play. The platform used was Microsoft Teams, which seems tailor-made for us: contestants could be placed in a “waiting room” – a virtual tuning room until it was their turn to compete.

There were two virtual stewards throughout the two 17-player events we judged. When it was a piper’s turn to compete, they were connected with the judge, where they’d be introduced by the steward, the head of the Peel Police organization, the 1999 Double Highland Society of London Gold Medallist John Cairns.

An example of what a judge might see.

It was, for most purposes, like an association’s format. But this was more orderly, with fewer interruptions and slightly less pressure on the judge to finish the sheet and get to the next player. The stewards had ability to usher on competitors. No hunting around a games field for players hiding behind trees or coming up with lame excuses to finagle a later place in the order of play.

Donning a kilt was optional. There seemed to be a correlation between those wearing a kilt and how seriously they appeared to take the event. Usually, they took their time to tune, they knew their tunes, and they seemed to have a game plan. There were exceptions, of course but, by and large, it was again similar to an in-person event: the well-turned-out came across as better prepared.

That said, there was no compunction for judges to wear Highland dress. I elected to go with shorts and tee-shirt. If I did it again, I would put on the usual judging attire. I felt at times that I was being disrespectful to the players and missed that age-old adage for presentations or job interviews: always dress slightly better than your audience.

Get a decent microphone. The above notwithstanding, music competitions are all about sound. It was interesting to see the wide range of approaches that pipers took to deliver their performances, with everything from a professional-quality microphone setup to using an iPhone in a park. Microphone and audio quality were by far the most important variables, some too quiet, some overloaded to painful levels.

If you think about it, apart from the entry fee, online solo contests cost virtually nothing. No travel. No accommodation. No greasy burgers and chips for lunch. Given that competitors would spend at least a few hundred dollars, and possibly thousands, to get to a solo competition, why not invest in a $400 microphone and a bit of audio software? I’m sure that will happen if these formats continue, but I’d be browsing Best Buy’s site right now for a quality mic.

Check your Internet connection. As with the mic issue, a solid and fast connection to the net is critical. It would be a logical idea to disconnect any other devices connected when you’re competing to make sure that your performance gets all the juice it requires.

The audio was so weak on occasion I felt like I was listening to a wax cylinder recording of Willie Ross in his formative years.

Connections varied widely. Most were consistent, but some suffered from drops and gaps, and with others, it wasn’t easy to tell if it was the piper or the connection that was pushing and pulling tempos. There was one where the video and audio was at least a full beat out-of-sync.

The audio was so weak on occasion I felt like I was listening to a wax cylinder recording of Willie Ross in his formative years.

All of that was also reminiscent of a Highland games. Sound quality and consistency were similar to a piper at a games playing away only to have a pipe band march by, or a hyperactive snare drummer suddenly deciding to get in a bit of twitchy practice 20 feet away. “The organized chaos of the Highland games,” as one friend called it; the luck of the draw and the vagaries of a somewhat absurd format.

It was interesting to hear where pipers were. I’d often ask where they were, and learning that they were hundreds, even thousands, of miles away was a bit miraculous. One piper was getting in the competition in between performances at a military funeral in Maryland.

Another was competing in a meeting hall in his home town of Manhattan, where it’s pretty much impossible to practice the full pipes in an apartment without eviction. One gets an appreciation for just how challenging it can be for some pipers simply to practice.

Nerves are nerves, or they’re not. Some pipers are inherently nervous. I tend to think it’s because they care so deeply. That’s not to say others don’t care just as much or even more, but if you’re not nervous at all, it might be because it’s become too routine. I would have thought, though, that without the monetary investment, the travel, the time commitment, and the face-to-face elements, most would be pretty relaxed. For many, it should be like having a tune in your usual practice space, no?

Audiences don’t much matter to competitors, and they never really have.

Not really. I firmly believe that nerves and anxiety produce a kind of strangely alluring natural drug. Endorphins? Dopamine? Adrenalin? We get addicted to the miserable thrill of competition and, even virtually via the Internet, the same angst persists.

Audiences don’t much matter to competitors, and they never have. Apart from judges, competing pipers, drummers and even pipe bands don’t need or want to play for an audience. It doesn’t matter. Indeed, playing to a big crowd live is an additional positive aspect, but 99% of solo events in regular times are audience-less. In that regard, doing this stuff online is a seamless transition.

The other approach to competitions so far is by uploaded video. I’m not sure about the merits of this but can assume that sound quality and audio consistency will be far better than going with live video. A few events have already ironed out the conundrum of ensuring that performances are more spontaneous, rather than players uploading their best go at it. They assign tunes, and then a player has only a certain amount of time to record and upload the performance. I guess that works for top-grade events, but can’t see it working well for amateurs who have their one tune that they submit and play.

Yes, online competitions happened sporadically before the coronavirus situation. In reality, we’ve been doing virtual events for only a few months. The bugs will be fixed. We’ll learn by trial and error, and there’s a good chance that even post-COVID, online contests will continue.

If the Peel Police events are an indicator, we’re on to something good, which will inevitably get even better.

At least for solo events, there’s not much “virtual” about them. We all want to be together, but online alleviates the hurdles of expense and time. Remember “flash mobs”? We can see impromptu competitions being held at the drop of a glengarry on any given afternoon, giving pipers and drummers an instant, spontaneous whack of endorphins, adrenaline or dopamine.

Online events are competition over performance. Ingenuity over inactivity. A lockdown release.



Krogh, Dawson win top prizes in second Peel Police online solos
June 29, 2020

Aboyne Games face virtual reality with 2020 solo piping events
June 7, 2020

Peel Regional Police take command with online solo contest “season”
May 11, 2020

World Online Championships draw 1,650 entries from 23 countries
May 7, 2020

USPF solo piping championship to carry on online
March 31, 2020

Self-isolation: perfect for pipers (satire)
April 6, 2020

Now for some good news . . . World Online Solo Piping & Drumming Championships returns
March 17, 2020

Piping and drumming. Now, more than ever.
March 16, 2020



  1. Great article, thanks, made me think.when i was young i played in pipe contests across ontario. What made me stop was the ideology of prrfection and fastdious orthodoxy which seems to underlie this instrument. My tutor, whom i loved, insisted on perfection, and playing within my scope. I practised so diligently , striving to get every gracenote prrfect, that competitions became stressful ,onerous tasks, and i ended up hating my long time tunes, Elspeth Campbell, Shepherds crook/ smith of chliiechassie. I didnt play them again until last month, 40 years later! I richly enjoy reading your publication, and remain, happily, a sloe piper deriving pleasure from playing these beautiful tunes in my basement imperfectly.thank you



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