July 22, 2010

No ask; no tell

Not Bob Nicol.The late great golf teacher, Harvey Penick, used to say something like, “Don’t give advice unless you’re asked.” Of course he was talking about golf, and the habit of some hacks who aren’t much better – or even far worse – than their playing partner of telling them what they’re doing “wrong.” Try moving your feet apart. Your grip looks bad. You’re taking your eye off the ball . . .

We face these irritating people in piping and drumming all the time. You’ll have finished your competition performance and some know-it-all will come up and start telling you what’s wrong and what you should do to fix it. Often these officious folks will be rank amateurs who couldn’t play their way out of the proverbial paper bag. Sometimes it will be busy-body professionals or judges, and they’re just as annoying.

The rule of thumb in piping, drumming and pipe bands should be: don’t offer your opinion or advice unless you’re invited to do so by the performer. If you break that rule, no matter who you might be or how good you are, you’re really just a dink.

I remember coming off the boards at the piobaireachd at Crieff games one year and practically being accosted by a famous teacher-judge-Claspy-piobaireachd-guy. He was almost breathless he was so anxious to tell me everything that I did “wrong” in my performance. I bit my tongue and let him bloviate at me, but I really wasn’t listening, much less interested, in his opinion. “Who the *%&# asked you?” was all that I was thinking.

There’s a famous story of a young Bill Livingstone who was similarly confronted at a Scottish games in the 1970s by Bob Nicol, half of the Balmoral Bobs. Nicol apparently ranted on at him about how dreadfully unmusical and “wrong” his tune was. Nicol, who was perhaps accustomed to Scottish pipers just politely accepting his unwelcomed counsel, was reportedly stunned and mystified by Livingstone’s response: “Well, that just fries my ass!

Judges are asked to provide their opinion of a performance via a scoresheet and/or the final result. Beyond that, they have no real business arrogantly lording unsolicited advice at competitors. No matter who you, it lacks tact.

It’s simple: Unless you’re asked, keep your advice to yourself.


  1. Reminds me of th time an acquaintance of mine, who ‘took up piping’ because it was ‘fashionable’ competed in a novice slow air event in Arizona. The judge was Jimmy Yardley, who crooked his finger at the competitor at the end of the performance and when he came over, Yardley asked the One Question: “WHO’S YOUR TEACHER? Because I want you to tell him that you have no possibility of ever becoming a piper!”

  2. It’s true….it was me, and I said much more actually, but I’ll save that for the Diary….what was so annoying was the unsolicited advice….not that my tune lacked this or that, but that it was “wrong”….and the wrong bit was playing the opening E to Low G with the E quite short, and the Low G quite long. Seemingly what was wanted by R.B. was a very long E and a short E.

    I was baffled that such a microscopic difference could prompt such an onslaught. I didn’t ask him. He came along unbidden to tell me how wrong this was. I didn’t know as much then as I do now, but I knew nonsense when I heard it. I pointed out that I had the tune from John Wilson (Edinburgh) a guy many youngers won’t even know about these days, and reminded him that John Wilson pretty well mopped the boards with him and many others of that generation.

    I did not endear myself to Bob Nicol on this occasion. Never got a prize from him, but I still believe he was wrong. It seems to me that this kind of hardmindedness is disappearing. And that’s a good thing.

  3. correction….it was E to Low G that caused the problem…blame it on trying to type without any skill…like playing a crunluath when you shouldn’t

  4. imho this is one of the worst things one can witness. Somebody who could do no better themselves, in fact do a whole lot worse, telling a seasoned performer how to do it and where they went wrong. Even worse perhaps, people who slag off other peoples playing in a narrow minded, pompous, arrogant way, showing up their own inadequacies, but not realising they are doing so. Cringeable in the extreme, highly embarrassing, and definitely not cool!

  5. In my opinion a judge is hired to give a top 6 or top 3 result, what ever the case. occassionally you come accross that kid or adult that just impressed you so much you busting to know who instructed them. Small market, probably know them anyway. In that case i have asked who the teacher is more for curiosity, thats it. Those that take it the step further such as lessons at the table, poaching the person or just playing the role of “Big Wheel” cross that line and what they have been hired for. Keep in mind, our lovely art is judged by personal opinions, if the judge liked it, your in if not SOL. The best thing for everyone to do is be possitive and promote the art. It is funny to hear from amatuers how to run your band, what you did wrong and how to fix it. So easy, Hakunna Mattada. On another note, those late starting adults that will never win the gold medal but could be accomplished in beginner Piob/small march playing pay big money for products, memberships and all that stuff. That allows the piping organizations to survive and pay for the judges etc… That persons grandson may however win the gold medal on that high end new Atherton Duncan MacDougall replica pipes he purchased! So get out there and spread the love.



  6. The other side of the coin is that one should never ask a question unless one is prepared to accept any answer. If you are merely seeking praise and ask, “How did I play?”, don’t be annoyed if you get an adverse answer which is critial.
    So, there’s an etiquette and responsibility to remember that an artist has just performed, never to his satisfaction and they should be let-down lightly

  7. Did you know that rule 8-1 from both the R&A and USGA states that:
    “During a stipulated round, a player must not:
    a. give advice to anyone in the competition playing on the course other than his partner, or
    b. ask for advice from anyone other than his partner or either of their caddies.”

    Next time you have an annoying friend, feel free to remind them of that.

    Maybe we could adopt that to the piping world, no advice during the competition day except from your tutor.

  8. In my experience, the unsolicited advice that I have received has been carefully worded and constructive without any hint of being abusive. One instance in particular comes to mind (I will not identify the judge who volunteered the advice, as I would not want to discourage that judge from doing it again in the future). The judge approached me after a significant contest and told me that I have everything that it takes, but on that day, with that panel, some minor touches were needed. I took the advice in stride and implemented the suggested changes. I consider that advice to have been a very valuable, and free lesson, from one of the greats of piping. I am a competitor that welcomes advice, and I have had good experiences with unsolicited advice, so I suppose that I am disagreeing with the overarching suggestion that unsolicited advice should not be provided. In my view, as with other judging duties, providing unsolicited advice should be done judiciously and carefully.

  9. Maybe I just don’t take criticism well, but I must admit that I cannot stand it when someone overdoes the unsolicited “helpful” advice. Their motives may be well intentioned, but the advice is not often welcomed. This applies much more so to golf game than with piping! Golfers can be so much more annoying…..It can really ruin a game.

  10. This one intriques me. I have witnessed competitors and even then parents approach judges after the event is over just to ask how they or their child did. Most times they get some positive feedback and sometimes that includes some constructive criticism. Then there are times when the judge feels he/she have stated their case on the scoresheets and so no further mention be required or offered. The judge is then branded as an ass because of their refusal to comment or make further positive comments. After all when a person approaches a judge as they often do, most times they are seeking praise not neccesarily the truth. When a judge or expert is asked for their opinion and simply responds by saying “No Opinion” or sorry but I have no opinion or comment to make at this time. Is the judge or expert worthy of the possible accusation of being an ass because they offer no opinion. Sometimes when an opinion isn’t offered it’s a polite way of avoiding insult or confrontation but I don’t think it’s generally taken that way. Anybody can offer opinions and the two gentleman specifically mentioned obviously had their differant styles both in music and their approach but by all accounts they were both great assets to piping.

  11. I love youtube advice, it’s the best! (but not really). In all honesty, I think when you are much younger (early teens, younger) you get used to a lot of judges saying a little something to you sometimes at the table (in lower grades) and I always kind of thought it to be nice when they offered a little advice here and there, but took it with a grain of salt as the next judge would probably like it a different way. At the same time, once I got into the higher grades I used to be a little surprise when all I’d get was a head nod after I finished, and I spend the afternoon thinking I may have played like garbage, took a little while to get used to the people just doing their jobs as they should. I’m not one for approaching judges after a contest, other than to say hello if I happen to know them, and think it should be kept that way. If you want more advice from the judge, then approach them for a future lesson or attend the workshop the next day if the games is holding one.

  12. I agree that some judges take great delight by giving comments, sound advice and above everything else instilling confidence in the musicians playing etc. As you mentioned every man’s meat is another’s poison as in the case of all judges personal technique. However, a judges job whien judging is to “judge” not to “instruct” that is the responsibility of the instructor or performer. I think that in some instances a judge may come across perhaps a bit too eagerly and approach a player with his/her comments but I also think the judge/expert wouldn’t bother should he/she feel that the recipient’s abilitity wasn’t worthy of mention. To me I would take it as a compliment if a judge/expert took the time and made the effort to approach me and of course I would then draw my own conclusion re the comments and decide for myself if they in fact had any merit.

  13. Funny how apt this post is. I was watching the Grade 2 bands complete their competition circle at Enumclaw just yesterday with some fellow band members, when a man approached the pipe sergeant of my Grade 3 band. He was very keen to tell us how bad our attacks had been.

    His words – “you’ve never had a good attack”. (He must have been secretly present at all our previous rehearsals and competitions.) He then proceeded to tell us exactly how we should drill our bands in the future to avoid said bad attacks. Unbelievably, he continued in this vein, refusing even to let our P/S speak. After a while we had to hold out our hands to quiet him, and when that didn’t work, we actually turned and walked away while he was still talking.

    It was particularly strange because our P/S had been reading this thread of comments during the week prior to the games. This was all the things you describe – unasked-for, impolite, inappropriate and disrespectful. We all resolved on the spot never to act like that under any circumstances.



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