March 19, 2010

Raising the chances

Shophie had to make a choice.Most solo piping competitors I think have a strategy when it comes to the tunes they choose and how they submit them. Of course, I’m talking about the higher levels of competition, where competitors have to put in more than one tune, and not thinking so much of submitting tunes that suit one’s hands or that the piper enjoys playing. Those are givens.

I’m thinking about the strategy involved with getting the tune you want to play chosen by the judge. When you submit four or more tunes, there are always one or two that you would hope to be picked, or, perhaps, one or two you hope aren’t picked. Consequently, pipers have their personal strategies for increasing/decreasing the odds.

Most would never admit it, though. If asked what you’re hoping to play, the standard answer has bravado: “Oh, I have no preference.” That’s supposed to communicate a combination of readiness and humility. It’s a subliminal warning-shot to a fellow competitor that you’re well-practiced, confident and ready for anything, while also trying to trick your own mind that you’ll accept what comes.

In piping and drumming, getting one’s hopes up – whether expecting a certain prize, favourable treatment from a judge or having a preferred tune picked – is ill-advised, and only sets you up for certain disappointment. A good rule of thumb for competing is, Expect the worst.

But you might be able to improve the odds. Here are some of the things that I either did as a competitor or as a judge notice others doing, attempting to get preferred tune(s) chosen from a list:

  • Name your preferred tune first. When you tell the judge your tunes, the first one should be the one that you want to play. It often gets chosen for the simple reason that the judge remembers it because he/she’s thinking about it as you rhyme off the rest of the list. And, as we all know, many judges have ADD or frequently simply lose the plot.
  • Increase the odds by including obscure stuff. Most judges pick stuff they know, mainly because they don’t want to be caught out. When two of the four tunes in your list are little-known and seldom-heard, chances are the judge won’t choose them. I used to submit a really good but obscure tune by G.S. McLennan called “Castle Toward.” I can’t remember it ever being picked.
  • Conveniently “forget” the names of the ones you don’t want to play. This happens a lot. A competitor just can’t remember the third or fourth tune in his/her list. They stammer and stall, and then it suddenly comes to them. Most judges are kind, so will probably not pick it because they assume you don’t want to play the tune or don’t actually know it.
  • Be cute. For example, if your last name is “MacDonald,” it might be a good idea to put in “The MacDonalds Are Simple,” or “John MacDonald of Glencoe,” or something else with “MacDonald” in the title. You see this quaint humour all the time. Judges think they’re funny and casual when they tell competitor Trixie McDonald, “Oh, well, we’ll just have to have ‘Mrs. MacDonald of Dunach,’ now, won’t we, haw, haw.”
  • Look for connections. Since there aren’t many competition tunes with “Berthoff” in the title, in addition to it being a fantasic tune I used to submit “Edinburgh City Police” in my marches, because judges often knew that my father-in-law played with that band for 25 years. As a competitor, I remember more than one nod-and-wink on the boards. You might want to choose tunes that relate to your hometown, band, teacher or some other connection.

Those are a few strategies that I’ve noticed and/or used myself. They might work for you but, then again, they might not – never count on anything in competitive piping and drumming.


  1. Good tips . . . I think. But who’s the wan lass? What’s the connection? Was posing this image your strategy to get people to read your post?

  2. David – nothing so strategic, I’m afraid. Just Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” – the only thing I could think of that involved choosing. She did win an Oscar for that, so, competitively, her decision to take the part paid off, strategically.

  3. Interesting stuff.
    When I was actively competing in the past, without intending to, the tune list that I submitted almost always resulted in the same ones being selected at every contest. It was not actually my intention to slant things in that direction, but it did happen. I tried my best to balance the choices (4 parted Marches, 6 parted Jigs, 4 parted Strathspeys, 6 parted Reels, same length/style/similar? Piobaireachd) so as not to slant things, but….
    I’m intending on hitting the boards again this summer and plan to have a rotating list. IE, IF (I’m emphasizing this point….) a particular tune “places”, then “Off The List” it goes………That should fix the problem of always playing the same few…! Note AGAIN, I said, IF!!!! Hello? Paying attention?
    Also, for those of us who don’t actually intend to fumble over the names of the tunes, write them down and hand them to the judge on a piece of paper!!!! Too many times in the past I’ve had a brain meltdown and just cannot remember the names of the tunes for the life of me. I felt like an idiot standing there humming and hawwing and then humming bars, notes, etc……Just write them down. It’s easier.
    Good luck to all!

  4. Andrew, you left out my favourite. At Maxville, (now, over ten years ago) I recall seeing a certain young open piper listened to the tunes submitted by the competitor ahead of him, and made sure to submit those tunes. My assumption of his logic is that the judge wouldn’t want to hear those tunes again, and as such, would be reluctant to select those tunes from his list.

  5. Sounds like a bit of a lottery to me. Why not make it fairer and have a public announcement that machine Guinevere will be used and set of balls number three, then toss the submitted tunes into the clear plastic drum, give them a whirl then the machine deposits the decision out the other end. Removes the human unconscious from the process because my goodness it must be having a field day with the current system. Take it a step further as a fund raiser. The audience is given a ticket on entry and they pick numbers as to what selections they think will be made. Anybody getting it all right gets x amount, next down less, and so on. If it IS a kind of lottery anyway, what gets picked, may as well make it official. That way its all above board, removes human jiggerypokery, fairer all round, and raises some money for the prizes or the next competition.



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