November 14, 2014

Break it down

“I broke down.”

These are the saddest of possible words a competitive solo piper has to say.

The ignominy of going off the tune and skulking from the competition stage (even if the “stage” might be a parking lot or a bumpy patch of grass in a farmer’s field) is perhaps unique to our wee club.

Is there another musical instrument where the performer, after making a mistake, simply stops and walks off? Sure, small children at violin recitals might get so petrified that they break down and cry. Despite the tune, I am certain there are no breakdowns with banjo players.

But I’m talking about experienced and fairly mature performers think the best option is to go away, deflated, sporran between their legs in shame.

I lost the bottle.

He crapped the bed.

She lost the plot.

I made a *&$% of it.

He broke down.

I think pipers might be singular in this respect. It is somehow acceptable for us just to bugger off rather than continue the performance with little or no chance of a prize. Notwithstanding a physical mishap, like a hole in the bag or a reed falling out, where the instrument is no longer playable, it’s part of our tradition, it seems, to flat-out give up the ghost rather than persevere.

The show must not go on.

“How did it go?” solo pipers ask each other. “I got through it,” is often the response, not saying it was good or bad, but only confirming that you didn’t break down, because it’s always a possibility that the person stopped playing part-way through.

Many years ago I had a spell at the games when I couldn’t seem to “get through” any event. I had the equivalent of what golfers refer to as “the yips.” I was playing well enough in practice, but as soon as I got out there my brain wouldn’t allow my body to work right. The traditional piper thing to do was and is to simply stop. The right thing to do would be to keep going no matter what, just to prove to yourself that you can indeed, “get through it.”

At least finishing – as hard as it might be – is something to be proud of. There is absolutely zero pride, I suggest, to be gained from breaking down.

The strange thing is that there is not an experienced piper at any time in history who has never had at least one breakdown in competition. Breakdowns seem to happen less these days, but they still occur even at the very highest levels in the very biggest competitions.

It’s another peculiar and questionable piping tradition: the breakdown.

So, let’s break it down: is it better to stop and slink off, or is it better to get back on it and finish the tune?


  1. One I remember was at Dutton in an Open March contest. Bass went out half way thru the 3rd part of “Kilbowie Cottage”. I stopped at the end of the part, judge looked up with a question mark on his face. I said my bass went out. He said, “Oh, that’s to bad.”

  2. Well, there are times when it’s just “gone”. The notes…the melody…or simply the immediate capacity to play a certain note. No point in proceeding. Akin to a mechanical failure, there’s nothing to proceed with. Other times, it’s just losing the mental argument you have with yourself about where you currently are in the tune. Flail away. For one, you paid for it and can still obtain useful adjudication. And you never know. Did that once and it resulted in a first place and nice congratulations from the late Willie Connell in the beer tent. Of course, it was followed with a hint of a wink and a “Doing a wee bit of composing though there, eh?”

  3. Early in my competing career I always trained myself to keep going no matter what. No matter how awful it gets, it’s always possible that the other guy is more awful. Then I got to Gr. 1 piobaireachd, and one rainy day my drones went so far out that I couldn’t stand them, so I punched the bag to shut them off and kept playing. The judge basically said I should have stopped and taken my breakdown like a man.

  4. I think part of the problem is that you can’t really stop the instrument. There’s no reset in silence because you can’t achieve that with the bagpipe. It’s the inability to truly stop and restart that makes it so hard to keep going.

  5. Quite a few ways to approach this particular subject…
    First, we are talking about a competition. Correct? To me it is not fair to compare a competitive performance to a “recital” or “banjo performance”.
    Second, as a former professional level competitor, I do agree there is nothing quite as devastating as a true break down.
    Third, as a judge, I have been very disappointed with some amateur level competitors. Some stopped playing because a drone cut off or they played a wrong note. They should NOT have stopped and I have tried to gently tell them that as they walked away.
    On the other hand, there have been some amateur players who seem to have the impression they need to finish the tune no matter how many times they go off the tune. Unless there is some sort of rule to the contrary, I never have and never would tell a player he/she should have “quit”.
    That’s the dilemma here. I do believe there are times when a competitor should stop. But that should be the player’s decision. Those who stop because they think the judge will be irritated or whatever if they continue need to give themselves (and the judges) more credit and do their best to get through their tune.

    1. “Those who stop because they think the judge will be irritated or whatever if they continue need to give themselves (and the judges) more credit and do their best to get through their tune.”
      Love that attitude. I try to continue no matter what, although when I was younger I would be more likely to stop because my internal voice would start working against me (you’re a loser, can’t believe you did that, what an idiot) and then I would be unable to get back on the tune. Now my inner voice says, as my fingers are flailing around, “Oops! S*%^. Oh well. Now where was I?”

  6. nobody should quit, no matter what. This is a terrible habit for any who’d aspire to perform or play with a session group, with which, NO ONE “breaks down” – ever. (every session player plays through / disguises their mistakes – a great skill in and of itself)

  7. When I’ve broken down, it’s usually because my mind has gone utterly and completely blank. How does the next part start? I have NO IDEA.

    Other stuff (did I just play the wrong ending on the second part? Oops, bit of a choke there) I’ll persevere through, but when the tune itself is gone, what can you do?

  8. I think for many of us, the possibility of breakdown can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve always been very interested in performance psychology and what makes us perform our best when it really counts. One key factor seems to be the ability to commit — go for it! If you find yourself in the mindset of “I hope I don’t break down,” you’ll won’t play as well as if you have positive thoughts such as “I’m ready for this. I want to do this. I can do this. Let’s go for it!” Tennis Champion Rod Laver said “You play the best you can. If you don’t play your own game, you’re going to lose anyway… don’t starting wishing the shots go in. When you start wishing, you are in trouble.”

    Confidence isn’t a fixed trait. It comes and goes quite quickly as it is highly dependent on the task/skill you’re being asked to perform.

    That being said, I’ve always gone by the basic rule that breaking down is a last resort, but should be used when to continue to play would be disrespectful to the audience. Even with the best preparation and positive mindset, unfortunate things can happen in a performance. It can be quite hard to know in the moment. Do I keep going or call it a day? I think that depends on the player and the particulars of the event itself.

  9. One time I was playing at one of the Ontario games, and the famous Alec MacNeill of Montreal was judging. Pipe was singing, hands were great, certainly a top prize in the offing. Got into the 3rd part of the march and poof the chanter fell out. Well I was about to turn tail and go away long faced into that field that was mentioned in the article. Then I looked over at Alec, and he was just about rolling off the chair in laughter. He put very clearly into perspective what I considered a B/D!. I could not help laugh at or with Alec. Incidentally, I picked up his score card and the only comment, “Maintenance Man!”

  10. Good day:

    As a young army piper in 1st Battalion The Black Watch of Canada at Camp Gagetown in 1965 I once broke down playing a piobaireachd after dinner at the Officers’ Mess. It happened because I started laughing at some antics of the young subalterns at the table. I skulked out of the room…believe me I heard about it the next morning – first from Corporal Donald Carrigan and then from the pipe major!

    After those interventions I never quit half way through anything again in my life.

    Hugh Macpherson
    Pipe Major (CWO Retired)

    1. Hi Colin. It’s true! I think maybe he didn’t mean to hit me with it…it did get me to slow down The Prince’s Salute a bit in future, though!


  11. Depends on the contest/level of play. At Oban Gold Medal probably OK to walk off. Grade 4 at Estes Park: soldier on to get the judges comments on overall performance. Take the opportunity to learn from the sheet.

  12. Spectating at the Oban Former Winners MSR in about 2004, one of the players made a big “oops” in the march that would normally be the exit light. He seemed to mentally re-adjust and then carried on to play the remaining five tunes. Chatting with him a few days later at Cowal, I mentioned that I thought it was admirable that he just sucked it up and kept going, and delivered some very enjoyable tunes, despite not being in contention for a prize. He said that his reasoning at the time, was that if he stopped that early in the performance, the players following him would all get yanked ahead of their timing for final tuning, so he thought he’d take one for the team, and allow them to have the full time for preparing themselves. These are the events and players that can make competing such an enjoyable experience, regardless of the result.

  13. Been there – Done that! Comments from those judges who posted were both enlightening and humorous. Thank you for your patience and encouragement! Glad that none of you have had an ashtray at hand.

  14. Reay’s story is ironic. He may recall: one year in the Open March contest at Georgetown I was playing “The Argyllshire Gathering” and my chanter popped out in the midst of the third part. The suddenness of the silence after the “whoosh” of the air leaving the bag was matched only by the quickness with which Reay’s head snapped up. He must have nearly broken his neck. There was a good crowd and as I slunk off I heard somebody whisper, “Geeze, was that Jim McGillivray??” As to the topic at hand, I’m not so sure of the argument here. In a recital performance, pipers make mistakes but don’t breakdown. But in a competition, where the objective of the day is to win prizes, stopping when you know you’ve mistaked yourself out of the list is not such a bad move. Besides, pipe music is about casting a spell with sound and rhythm; a busted performance really breaks the spell and you never get it back, so yes, cut your losses and let the event move forward. I think more than a few judges would agree with me that when we have a long event to run and assess and much to keep in our minds, the job is rendered much more manageable if those with a spate of bad luck make a dignified exit.

  15. Stopping b/c of a glitch or for a tune lapse is a horrible habit to get into and one that should not be encouraged because building that habit can eventually impact others. Not just band mates (who will rapidly want to kill you for breaking down in the circle) but also drummers. We can’t compete without you! Associations worldwide bemoan the small turn out of drummers willing to compete. More often than not, it’s not unwillingness, but inability to find a piper willing to play and who can then play through a tune or set without breaking down! I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard judges tell a snare drummer or tenor drummer, “Oh, that was going so well… Shame about the piper…” when the breakdown takes us down. Yet fear of that happening prevents many pipers from volunteering to play with drummers. It’s a real problem, but accepting the breakdown/walk off as normal or okay only exacerbates the problem. Learn to just get through it as often as possible and, even if you don’t win at piping, you may be composed enough to get a drummer through to completion… or even victory! (Most drummers happily ‘pay the piper’ – be it in cash, food, or BEER. Good reasons to get over the fear and get through it!) Just a drummer’s perspective!

  16. Indeed I do remember Jim’s March at Georgetown Games, and my more than abrupt head movement. However, if Jim had stayed near, he would probably have observed me rolling off the chair in laughter, and chances are would have received the same reply as I got from Alec. In both cases the judge knew the competitor’s abilities. Hence, the audience reply, “Was that Jim McGillvray?”



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