May 29, 2020

Opinion: Virtual competition is real, and it’s here to stay

John MacFadyen performing to a rapt audience at the Smithsonian, Washington, DC, 1975.

The photo here is from 1975. It shows the great Scottish solo piper John MacFadyen performing in recital at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The venue is packed with hundreds of rapt listeners revelling at a rare opportunity to hear one of the greatest pipers ever.

Of course, back then, there was no Internet. There were no instant recordings. No YouTube or Facebook for anyone with a camera or phone uploading a video for all to enjoy and critique in real-time or shortly after.

We’ve had all of that for many years. The Internet has made travelling even a few miles to attend solo contests or recitals by the world’s greatest players a nostalgic thing of the past.

The beautiful mystique of listening to a great piper or band that you’d previously only dream of seeing in the flesh is replaced by virtual familiarity. We fairly killed off the desire for non-competitors to attend all but a select few piping and drumming events in-person a long time ago.

And now, with the piping and drumming world looking to quench our thirst for competition, solo events are being brought online. In many ways, we’ve been preparing for this moment for more than a decade.

Most solo piping events go on before an audience of two – a judge and a steward – and only one of them is listening. These events happen at great expense to competitors and organizers, who have to cover the cost of the venue, the travel, the accommodation, the insurance, the catering and so forth. Online, we save all that time and money.

The move to online solo competition proves, in many ways, that we are less interested in the integrity of the music and the camaraderie of the gathering, and more interested in, well, competition.

The move to online solo competition proves, in many ways, that we are less interested in the integrity of the music and the camaraderie of the gathering, and more interested in, well, competition.

Some have said that many or most pipers and drummers wouldn’t much care if the playing requirement were “Rowan Tree” ten times over or even the scale. It’s still all about competing and the thrill of winning and, more often, the somewhat masochistic pleasure in the agony of defeat.

The easy adoption of online solo events portends a new era. It’s cheap. It’s cheerful. And, most importantly, it’s just as much about competition as it ever was. You can celebrate or drown your sorrows at home with impunity. You can still watch it back on the net and argue over the results, just as we have done for many years.

Pretty much anyone or any organization can now stage a competition at any time for hardly any money. Charge a $10 entry fee, attract twenty contestants, and you have enough to pay a judge a decent amount without the added expense of travel, accommodation and pesky things like lunch and tea.

Previously, sponsors might be convinced to come on board in return for an ad in a quaint printed program that few would read, or a few products presented at the end to a few winners. Online, sponsors can have their links and details right on-screen for a far better return on their investment.

We’ve also learned that there is hardly any use now for donning “Highland dress.” So far, wearing the Garb of Auld Gaul isn’t required in online events. We haven’t watched every performance, but it appears that hardly any or even no contestants are choosing to strap on the kilt, wear a restrictive jacket, and tighten a choking necktie. They’re opting for comfort and – get this – clothes that are conducive, or at least unrestrictive, to the playing of their instrument.

Band competition can’t be far behind. We’ve said it before: the best place to listen to the World’s is from the BBC mobile recording truck. The next-best is on the live-stream. It’s nice to be there, but, really, very few pipers and drummers bother to attend the World’s or any other pipe band contest unless they’re already there as a member of a competing band.

Bands are already performing virtually with practice chanters and drum pads via Zoom. Someone is bound to make that format a competition soon. When the pandemic eases, and bands can practice together in-person on bagpipes and drums, inevitably there will be real-time online competitions. Bands will perform from their band hall or a local park, judges assessing online in the comfort of their home, audience tuning in to a live-stream. All those fly-in players might actually choose instead to play with the local band.

We’ve been bringing all this on for years. The coronavirus has only hastened the adoption of online competitions that was inevitable anyway.

Any piping and drumming association that is not working right now to adjust its policies and rules and vision for the online competition world is doing its members a disservice. They also might not be around for much longer. The very need for associations is now questionable.

Don’t get us wrong. We’d love to go back to the halcyon days of a seething packed hall, everyone on the edge of their seat transfixed while the legendary John MacFadyen enthralled us in the flesh.

But that era is long gone. We change. We move on, sometimes giving up ideals for the sake of practicality, convenience and safety. It does not make us happy, but it’s the unfortunate truth.

And even after we return to a semblance of normalcy, we’re not going to go back.



First Peel Police solo contest gains nearly 150 entries
May 27, 2020

Northern Meeting not opting for online; Argyllshire Gathering still scheduled
May 23, 2020

Associations adapting to coronavirus conditions
May 18, 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

Now for some good news . . . World Online Solo Piping & Drumming Championships returns


  1. Your comments bring into bold relief the complete failure of the Pipers and Pipe Band Society of Ontario to respond with imagination to the present situation. I and others, have railed long and loud against the lack of inspiration and leadership of the PPBSO in terms, for example, of teaching programs for pipers and drummers. This is a sharp reminder of how rooted to their stools the leadership remains. Fergawds sake….Peel Police Pipe Band can bring the energy and imagination necessary to stage an online competition with 140 participants and the once vaunted and leading organization, the PPBSO cannot? Big changes should be afoot.



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