August 04, 2009

From a frenzied Maxville Friday

Maxed out.Even when assessing about 90 performances over eight hours, as was the case last Friday on “Amateur Day” at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville, one can’t help but think of a few things in between players:

1. The RSPBA is seen by everyone – and rightly so – as a master organizer of pipe band events. They set the standard, and it’s a very high one indeed. But the PPBSO must be given huge credit for efficiently coordinating close to 300 solo competitors in a single day across about 50 events. This is a staggering amount of work, and the behind-the-scenes preparation and scheduling is as complex as it gets. The work of the judges is nothing compared with that of the administrators and stewards. If you were there and forgot to thank a few people, you may want to start with thank-you messages to PPBSO President Bob Allen and Administrator Sharon Duthart, who can then forward your thanks to Chief Steward Andy Donachie, Barb MacRae, Lloyd Dicker, your contest stewards and any others who deserve the praise.

2. When, oh, when will all solo pipers and drummers respect their fellow competing colleagues (and the judges) and tune up at least 50 metres away? The number of pipers – even a few in the Professional grade – who have to be told to move further away always amazes me. Sure, there are a lot of players, but there’s also a massive area. Please, find out from the steward who’s before you, tell the steward that you will be at that tree way over there, keep an eye on the contest, and mosey on over when the person before you is done. It’s simple!

3. Enough of the saluting business. I know it’s force-of-habit with some, but unless you’re in the military and the judge is an officer, the custom of saluting the judge is over. At ease!

4. Tell the judge your name and remember the names of your tunes. Most judges know many or most of the competitors, but, unless you’re certain the judge knows you, it would help if you said who you are. And then have the names of your tunes ready. Write them down if your memory fails when you’re nervous. Standing there tapping your forehead trying to recall the other march while your instrument is going flat doesn’t do you any good.

5. If the judge is still writing the previous competitor’s scoresheet, don’t just stand there! Feel free to keep your pipes warm and play something pleasant (but never anything you might play in the competition), all the time keeping an eye on the judge for when he/she is ready for you. This actually reduces your tuning time and increases your chances that your instrument will stay in tune . . . provided it once was.

6. Start only when your pipes are in tune. As long as you haven’t been screwing at your drones for more than five minutes, it’s okay to take a few more seconds to get them right. But don’t start tuning them until at least 20 seconds after you’ve started. But if five minutes have passed and you still can’t get them right, just get on with it. That dog just ain’t gonna sit.

7. It’s music; enjoy it. I know it’s easier said than done, but it kills me to see young kids so nervous about competing that they seem to forget that it’s music they’re playing. It’s a musical instrument. It’s art. Concentrate on enjoying the music that you are creating, and just do the best you can. Think of why you first took up the instrument. It was the music, right? There’s no such thing as a flawless performance, so you might as well accept that and have fun.

Just a few thoughts from the busiest day of solo piping and drumming yet known to humankind.


  1. Friday was the first time I’ve competed in a PPBSO event, and I was amazed at how smoothly things ran. With that many solo competitors anything except a well-organized and well-run competition would be a shambles. You have some good advice for competitors as far as tuning is concerned; after fiddling with the drones for 5 minutes and they’re still not in tune, it’s time to cut bait and just play. The few times that I’ve done that the judge hasn’t made any disparaging comments about tuning, so I guess it was close enough. My only regret about the weekend was that I didn’t play my strathspey and reel very well for the esteemed author of this blog!

  2. Very keen and relevant advice. As a matter of fact, you might want to offer these nuggets of wisdom to every association/society for distribution to their membership.
    Thank you also for highlighting the great job most organizers do. For my money, they are the unsung heroes and it is about time they receive well deserved recognition.

  3. Well said on all points especially “7. It’s music; enjoy it”. This advice is so very important if young players are to maintain their love for the music and continue to play well into adulthood. It’s advice that could be well applied if extended to players of all ages too.

  4. Here is one that is making me increasingly crazy. I’ll describe it by example. A year or so ago I judged the George Sherriff Invitational Amateur contest with Willie McCallum and John Wilson. The day consisted of three events: a piobaireachd, an MSR and two four-parted 6/8 marches. I believe there were a dozen competitors. Swear to God, every single one of them played an entire slow air as they tuned up for each event. Some played TWO. We listened to between 36 and 45 slow airs. At 2-3 minutes each we (and the audience) listened to *90 minutes of slow airs* that day. By half way through the day, it was a running joke between John and Willie and I. You never saw three guys so bloody sick and angry about slow airs as we were. Give it a rest people!! Play a piobaireachd variation, play tuning notes, but don’t play entire tunes of any kind, much less funeral dirges. Sheesh.

  5. I’ll admit that having to listen to that many slow airs would become a bit tiresome. I know that I wouldn’t necessarily want to, but, unfortunately, it’s not all about you (or me)! As long as the solo players aren’t breaking any rules, they should be allowed to do whatever they need to in order to settle down and put on their best performance. I’d rather be tortured with a slow air or two if it was then to be followed up by a pure dead brilliant competition piece….but only IF!

  6. Art:
    You had to be there. And in fact, it’s more about the judge than you might think. One of the first principles about solo competing is to get the judge on your side. Put him/her in a good frame of mind so that he’s looking forward to hearing your performance. Listening to sheep play slow airs doesn’t do it. And think of the poor audience. They paid for their Festival of Slow Airs. No matter what the rules say, every musician should be conscious of putting on a good show. Where these folks get the idea that they have to play a slow air before they compete I don’t know. But I bet they didn’t get it from the top players. Unfortunately, and I think Andrew’s editorial drives this home, not enough competitors use good common sense or good instruction when they heard toward the judge.

  7. Well, we certainly don’t want to annoy the judges…and I’m glad that I wasn’t there…Oh yes, and boring the audience won’t help much either….

  8. I agree with Jim McGillivray 100% and I am fairly certain he is correct that these players did NOT get the slow air prelude from top players. Fortunately the players at the Sherriff did NOT do this the year I judged it.
    I also agree with Jim insofar as “judge anticipation” is concerned. No judge I know wants to hear anything but the very best performance. However, based on a judge’s own past competitve experiences, if it takes more than a few minutes to tune, there is good reason to suspect either the piper and/or the pipe are not settled. I hope the “slow air advocates” will take these comments as friendly, empathetic advice.

  9. The slow air prelude advice to the amateur or otherwise competitor is very good. I have in fact seen professionals take far to long prior to starting their performance. The reason or reasons? Who knows – some do it to show their finger dexterity and or the pride of their instrument. The top players who become judges hopefully will pass on their likes and dislikes without being jerks. The youngsters competing are out to learn and nobody likes to play in front of judges who laugh or intimidate them and who in some ways show a lack of respect. After all, they were amateurs at one time or another.

  10. I remember well being an amateur, and I remember well that in those days the top amateurs used to finish our events and immediately head over to the professional events to watch and listen. That’s what our teachers told us to do, and that’s where we learned the finer points of competing, not so much from being told. I’m always disappointed at the games that while there are scores — maybe hundreds — of amateurs competing at the big events there are only a handful of people — usually adults — listening to the professional events. Most of what Andrew has described is clearly visible to anyone who goes to watch and listen. I wonder why so few of the young players listen?

  11. Jim, all of your points are basically valid but it would be interesting to know the year in question that you judged this event and who the competitors were. Typically most if not all are given instruction by competent musicians. Was it perhaps a case of monkey see, monkey do and if so, couldn’t an announcement have been made or the steward instruct the players after the first two or three competitors had made this error, in order to halt any further aggravation and waste of time.

  12. Bert:
    This was last fall and the competitors were the dozen best amateurs in the world brought together for the event. What they did was not an ‘error’ per se. It’s not something you would ever get up and announce in the middle of the event. It just wasn’t good style. Anyway, I didn’t mean to see this thread get sidetracked. I was just supporting Andrew’s view with another example.

  13. The slow-air-medley syndrome seems to take control at indoor events. It wasn’t an issue that Friday at Maxville. But it was when I heard the 2007 Sherriff Memorial. One person I remember played three of them, and some who tuned with an air played them as a tuneless dirge. A few lines of a melodic dithis variation is all you need.



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