April 22, 2009

Learning to lose

Quit yer greetin', ya wee wean!I have always thought that one of the biggest ancillary benefits of being a competitive piper since age 12 is learning to perform before an audience. Similar to solo piping, I’m not the best in the world at business presentations, but I do know how to handle the pressure and deliver a reasonable performance. In that way piping / drumming competition helps to prepare you for the real world.

Maybe 15 years ago, when I was still new to the public relations profession, I worked on Microsoft as a client. Less than two years into my new career I found myself managing a news conference for Bill Gates. It was to occur the week after the World Pipe Band Championships, and I remember thinking to myself, “What’s the big deal? If I can stand at the line with a contending Grade 1 band with a World Championship on the line, then I can certainly get through a thing with Bill Gates.”

Keeping that in the back of my mind helped, and everything went fine. He didn’t have one of his celebrated meltdowns on me, and – just like a World’s tune-up and performance – the whole thing was over in a flash.

But I think that competition piping / drumming prepares you for the real world in another important way: it prepares you to lose. Even the greatest pipers and bands place not-first many, many more than they win an event. We pipers and drummers learn to lose graciously and I don’t know of a single player who assumes he/she will win every time out.

I believe John MacFadyen said something to the effect of, “Take the boards feeling you can’t be beaten, but leave assuming that it wasn’t good enough to win.” It’s a philosophy or psychology or technique that I have carried into my work life in new business presentations, speaking at conferences or seminars with colleagues.

No matter how good you are, you’ll come in second or third or fourth far more often than first. Being able to deal with and learn from everyday losing is something that our kind of piping and drumming prepares you for in “real” life.


  1. Playin music is not about winning or losing, it’s about Rockin the stage when you are on it! Don’t really remember the placings, just the good times and music that lasts thru the years.

    For the spectactor, everybody wins!

  2. John’s comment is true, it’s not “all about” placing, there are hundreds of benefits, but Andrew raises valuable points about some of the benefits we don’t always think about. Consider Microsoft; they have thousands of losses in their history…but I believe they try to learn from the losses as well as the wins. I blogged in a related theme on some of the long term benefits of this activity a couple years ago. Great post Andrew! I’ll be adding a link and sending it out to our membership soon.

  3. This is an excellent point, this should be must reading for all people young and old who compete , in running a Youth band I frequently have to explain ( or console) the kids when the band or indidvidual plays very well but doesn’t get the desired result. This entry confirms the things I tell them .

  4. I’m dreading the day when piping goes “little league” and every competitor gets a trophy. Learning to deal with the results of a competition/event is one of lifes’ great lessons. We are not all equal, but we all deserve equal opprotunities.


  5. Reminds me of my first work golf outing as a young recent college graduate. Teeing-off in front of my new boss, my boss’s boss, a few clients, etc gave me the willys. Not to mention, it was the first time teeing off sober in a while (we routinely played drunk at Ohio State’s Scarlet & Gray course). But the same thought crossed my mind…I had played in several world championships at that point in my life with the weight of 25 other bandmates’ excpectations on my shoulders, and performed just fine. If I can do that, I can certainly hit this first tee shot straight and well past the ladies tee. And I did. Frankly, it’s the youngsters that don’t learn the importance of performing not just for yourself, but for the whole band that I often question. I assume that they will falter in life’s other goals if they don’t learn quickly to perform for the benefit of their peers as well as themselves. It’s a team sport. And that’s where the real pressure comes in. Letting down the band.

  6. I quite agree with the points in the article and it links to my points in response to Bill Livingstone’s article on Harmony writing. Emotional well- being in everyday life, relationships etc, depends on being able to access ALL the colours in the palette, not just the winning bright shiny ones, but the discordant, fiery, sorrowful, blue or melancholy ones too. One could argue that more useful experience is to be gained from losing, than winning actually. I suppose we all like to feel ‘up’ but being in touch with the ‘downs’ can take you to depths you might otherwise not have access to, and in there can be found pearls and gems which can be put to great use in everyday life, as well as in musical development and performance. The downs also give a bottom end of the scale to measure the highs against, otherwise there’s no complete measuring device. I noticed in the CLASP competition in London a few years ago, my giving the WORST performance , meant that everybody else was up a notch, and everybody felt better than ME. That feeling of having done something for THEM, was about the only positive thing to be taken away. But it did make me think again about the importance of losing, coming last, failing in something, and being left disappointed. I think it’s only when you know where your rock-bottom is, that you can really get an accurate measurement of yourself and your performance. Also, I notice that if all goes well emotionally, the distance to which you have sunk, is proportionate to the distance to which you can rise. (If all goes well, or with a bit of help). Failing and losing isn’t all it’s often thought to be. I’d say it’s up there with life’s other valuable experiences and there’s much to be gained from it. I think it’s a mistake to ignore the negative, just as it is to avoid the discord. Very interesting subject.

  7. Further to the last comment , please feel free to make yourself feel better by helping me to win. I know that it will end up making me feel better overall…….

  8. I’m not advocating it, just sharing an observation. The person losing, does play an important role. How many times do you hear someone who moaned about themselves before going in for an operation, come out and say ‘there’s always somebody worse than yourself- things could be worse’. It’s tough though , losing. I remember as a child being distraught and vowing never to play the fiddle again after getting 82 in a Music Festival, and the winner got 84. And just a couple of years ago, in a level 3 PDQB exam, failing after starting to play and a load of squaks and weird strangulated noises came from my chanter. I’d played for a solid hour in a group before the exam, and hadn’t dried out the reed which was completely saturated with moisture. As I thought I’d worked quite hard for the exam, I was devastated and came out in a pool of tears as if the world had just ended. But I’ve never again NOT put my reed in its dry stock after playing. So valuable lesson learned through losing. Life’s tough (for anyone who hasn’t noticed!!).

  9. Since “There can be only one” when it comes to first place, there will be more losers than winners in a contest in terms of placement. Being able to participate really is a victory in itself. The important thing is to be able to learn from our mistakes and to take it in stride in a graceful and professional manner. One can benefit more by concentrating on trying to play and entertain rather than trying to win. Satisfaction can be attained simply by working on improving our performances and allowing the placings to take care of themselves. In addition, a victory doesn’t mean much unless it is earned.
    However, my previous offer remains open for anyone who wants to take me up on it……

  10. As Janette and Art have both pointed out, there will always be more people losing than winning and the players responsibility is to find out WHY they just didn’t do it. I’ve been teaching for many years now and for 13 years as a full time teacher and the philosophies of teaching have changed over the years. I used to try to prepare to win events because they were so important to me. But you know what, i didn’t win as much as I should/could have. I then began to listen more to the competitors and even before a result would try to figure out why the just “might” win today. Which element of the big three, tone, technique, music did they have to influence the judges descision.

    One of the great teachers I have been lucky to have is Jim MacIntosh who taught me to understand the statement that “knowledge is Power” and how to use my own performances and others to gain insight. Now, when I teach competitors, I teach them to “not Lose” rather than trying to win and it seems to be very successful. Janette, your two examples provide a perfect teaching tool and example. I”m guessing but I would say you did NOT lose at the fiddling event Janette, you played very well, did what you could and just happened to get beat that day by someone doing the same thing as you. With the right thinking, you could take ALL of that 98% of a great performance and tweak it and then use your confidence, knowing that you have improved it to take on that person at the next performance. At the PDQB exam, well, you figured that out but the bottom line is that you lost that day just because you didn’t know that something like this was going to happen to your pipe, thus making your hands probably fly all over the place as well. Not a great prep in the long run but now, you know something very valuable for getting prepared for the next time you take the exam. good luck with by the way.
    Bruce Gandy

  11. I like the idea of teaching competitors to ‘not lose’. That seems to come at it from a different angle. Not sure how others think, but if I think, having read that, of ‘winning’, I think high, and have a high starting point – whereas if I think of ‘not losing’ I start at the beginning or the bottom of a scale, and think what I need to do to get higher up it. Somehow that seems easier to tackle, than pitching right in at the top with an idea of winning. After all if you start from scratch and think such things as – revisit/learn the notes, foolproof memorising, attend to the technique, explore the music in the piece, attend to the set up of the instrument and the sound, –if all these were thoroughly attended to, you couldn’t go too far wrong, and would surely not lose too much in the competitions. Whereas somebody thinking ‘win win win’ perhaps hasn’t done all the checking. I think in fact, that was certainly my problem with the PDQB (Inst of Piping at the time)exam.. I had actually sat and PASSED the Level 3 exam previously, but because I had a feeling I’d just scaped through, I wanted to re-sit to get a clearer pass and feel I really was at that level. So I was thinking ‘high mark’. In fact, if I’d stopped to think about common sense basic things, and built from there, it would probably have had a happier ending. Because what Bruce says, is true, When I heard these squawks and squeals, my fingers responded by trying to do something drastic to save the situation, as did my blowing – because I assumed the problem must be to do with blowing. I blew harder, then less, all to no avail, and all the while getting into a bigger and bigger stooshie! Much to think about.
    I can say though, that things I’ve won have been nice, but they’re largely forgotten, unless it’s some particularly satisfying thing – but things I’ve lost have certainly stayed around for longer as an experience, and I’m kind of glad of that, for all the reasons raised in the original article. There’s much to be learned and gained from it. Hmmmm….makes me want to get practicing for the next exam or competition.

  12. Good points, although I think we have all at one time or other shaken hands with the victor, whilst feeling that we beat them 100% hands down, and vice versa!

  13. For myself the path and the journey became a goal in itself. I took on a habit from my very first instructor, that I would never compete without critically listening and observing everyone lese with the aim of always learning something new. Regardless of how I placed, no competition was ever “wasted time”. There was always something to gain more then a gilded trophy. Then apply what you’ve learned and practice, practice, practice! I heard a quote from Leonard Bernstien, the great pianist, composer and director of the NY Philharmonic. To paraphrase…if I miss practice for a day, I know the difference, if if miss for a couple of days all my friends know the difference, and if I miss for a week, everyone knows! We’re all on our own little “Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey”!

  14. Are we not getting too hung up on the winner/loser aspect of the game, how about just playing well enough until it’s right?

    It’s like learing any trade or skill, you get educated and practice until you’re qualified.

    If you can crack off a good drive from the first tee, make the green in 2, do you really care if you win the game?

  15. Don’t forget the short game. Pitching and putting are just as important (if not more) than the long game. If you’re on the green in 3, you can putt for birdie or par (except for par 3 holes) or you can blow score by 3 putting or worse. Just ask Sergio Garcia about that….
    But seriously, to the point, it should be more about enjoying the playing experience (piping or golf) rather than being obsessed with winning.

  16. Here is an example of how not to behave when losing……
    “May 2, 1957: George Moss accuses Donald MacLeod of winning Clasp with “115 errors”.”



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