October 04, 2017

Remember empathy

Why do many judges forget what it was like to be a competitor?

This came up the other day in a conversation about judging, competing, and judges. The current flap by a vocal minority about the Solo Piping Judges Association and Competing Pipers Association’s policies against teachers judging pupils and pupils playing for teachers, respectively, in the face of the fact that almost 80 percent of pipers and drummers appear to feel that teachers should not judge their students, re-raises the centuries-old debate that we thought was finally put to rest several years ago.

  • Is there a competitor out there who feels equally good about winning a prize whether their teacher is or isn’t judging?
  • Is there a competitor out there who, when a fellow competitor wins a prize when their teacher is on the bench (whether comprising one or several adjudicators), has zero disdain?
  • In the history of piping and drumming, has there ever been a competitor who was 100% okay with those situations?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, I encourage you to comment, so that I can understand your rationale.

Considering that all credible judges were once competitors, how can it be that some of them suddenly forget what it was like to compete? They seem to forget that they once swore oaths under their breath, ground their teeth, or at least rolled their eyes when their fellow competitor got a prize with their teacher judging, or didn’t sheepishly dread collecting an award given out when their tutor was on the pen.

The forgetfulness extends to other annoying judging behavior, like distracting a competitor with tapping feet and excessive writing, sarcastic or overly negative comments on scoresheets, or otherwise putting a player on edge before or during their performance.

Perhaps it’s learned. As much as they dislike it, competitors see teachers judging pupils, so they think it’s okay to serve their own interests when they have the opportunity to “give back” and judge. Some players distracted by judges think it’s their turn to get their own back when they join the bench. They give as good as they got. It’s an unfortunate cycle perpetuated by a few – unless guidance, policies, and rules are finally offered and implemented to break the generational pattern of entrenched tradition.

There is a fundamental truth so often forgotten: just like associations, adjudicators are there to serve not themselves, but the competitors. A judge’s experience as a competitor should inform his or her behaviour as a judge. Remembering what it was like to be a competitor – recognizing the constant significant problems and minor pet-peeves that accompanied their competition experience – is essential to being an excellent adjudicator.

Is there an age that I haven’t reached when pipers and drummers forget what it was like to be a competitor and they look out for only their self-interests? Does some sort of amnesia set in at 55? 60? 70? If there is, please let me know and I will try to remember to give my head a shake when the time comes.

Adjudicators are there to serve the competitors. They render and account for their decisions based on their knowledge, experience and adherence to policies and rules. Those policies and rules are and should be informed by the collective interests of the competitors, not the judges. If almost 80 percent of competitors agree that teachers should not judge students, then that is their will, and it should be respected. Adjudicators should never forget where they came from and what they went through to get where they are.

Among an excellent judge’s skills is empathy.



  1. This topic came up and was discussed more than I anticipated at the CPA AGM in August. What surprised me most was there were regularly competing pipers sat around the table who said “well I played for my teacher at _____ games because I didn’t know it was against the rules.” It’s very clearly listed at the top of the CPA Code of Conduct, “As a measure of respect to fellow competitors, it is expected that members do not compete in front of their teachers. This would include occasionally withdrawing from a competition members are otherwise eligible to compete in.”

    There was quite a bit of chat regarding when to enforce the rules, when to bend the rules, when it would be impossible to stick to the rules….a lot of back and forth. Most of the folks in attendance agreed that it should be as per the code of conduct, do not do it. Having an event like Oban able to run three-judge panels over two days and have no conflict is proof that it’s totally possible without compromising the quality of the benches or the competition.

    1. Yes, that was an important step by the organizers of the Argyllshire Gathering. In another conversation, the dilemma of when an association finds that a judge with one of more pupils (or family) in the one-judge event is the only judge available came up. Should the association bend the rule or policy in order for the event to go ahead? They often do, but I personally am not an advocate of turning a blind-eye. Much like allowing a judge unaccredited in piobaireachd, for example, to do the event, it becomes a slippery slope, implying that the rule isn’t really a serious rule. I am on the side of simply cancelling the event, rather than risk rendering what is seen by pretty much everyone as a tainted result.

      1. In that case, Andrew, I would say there are two acceptable options:

        1. the pupil/family member drops out of the event — the event carries on as normal.
        2. the judge drops out of the event — find another judge or cancel the event.

  2. Personally, I trust the judges to be fair in all cases. By paying my entry fee, I am asking for their opinion about my Technical and musical performance.
    When I pay for instruction, I am similarly asking for professional opinion and feedback from an experienced performer on how to best improve my own playing.
    Those two actions are independent of how many other students my teacher has, or how many other competitors they may listen to at any one event. Their opinion as to who played best is final in my mind. That is what they have learned by being placed in a position, by me, to be either my instructor or to evaluate my performance on the platform.

    I respect the collective wisdom to limit those adjudicating by excluding the off chance that they may be biased by either preconceived errors they know their students have, or some perception that their student must be better than the other competitors. However, I fully concede the knowledge they have and would prefer to have both the most qualified instructors and the most qualified judges, whether it is the same person or not.

  3. Judges have bias based on their being human. I don’t really care anymore whether a student is judged by their tutor because it is increasingly difficult at smaller games to find a judge who hasn’t taught a competitor. Just trust the judge to be professional or eliminate them from the panel if too many complaints are received. I’m OK with it, as long as associations end the practice of allowing judges to ask competitors who their tutors are or solicit potential future students from the bench.

  4. My instructor is always 100% honest with my and pushes me to be my best, and practice even harder. He tells me if I just played like rubbish, or if there were mistakes that pushed me out of the top 3. If you’re like me, you never feel like you just played a tune the best you have ever played.If I lose to someone else then I lost because I didn’t play my best.

    Of course you’re going to get higher in the list when your tutor judges. You’re playing the tune and a bagpipe to their style. They wouldn’t be teaching a certain style if it wasn’t their preference or the way they think “it should be played”. This is a double edged sword because if you have a tendency to mess something up and your instructor has been working on it with you for months, and you mess it up on the day, then they may be even harder than another.

    I want to say music cannot be objectively judged, but we do know when someone is playing an objectively bad bagpipe. Beyond tone, we need to remember piping is subjective and sometimes you just need to shrug your shoulder and move on from results.

  5. Here’s the thing though. Is competition really the be-all and end-all of our art? Is it really more important that judging is done than that teaching is done? Do we want to see judges withdrawing from teaching so they continue to get the judging gigs? Do we want competitions missing strong players because of who’s on the bench?

  6. Like most things this is not a black and white issue and not all teachers will be self-serving jackasses as judges. From a former competitor’s standpoint I would be bitterly disappointed if a contest were cancelled because a games could not find a judge who hasn’t taught the locals. Time, preparation, and the rare opportunity wasted. And this is far more of a problem now due to the internet, which increases the likelihood of competitors being taught even by out of town judges. From a judge’s standpoint I’ve always thought that a student is at an extreme disadvantage competing in front of his/her teacher. That teacher knows all their weaknesses and will be listening for them. The student knows this, which will only add to the pre-contest tension. I think of this as bassackwards bias.

    On another point Andrew you are absolutely right about the very distracting things that judges do. We all remember the tension – or should – and if a judge does anything at all during a contest, it should only be that which makes the competitor more comfortable. Anything else and especially anything that brings attention to the judge has no place in the competition arena. The focus always needs to be on the competitor and how well the tune is played. Walking off the boards a competitor should have no idea how a judge felt about the performance based on that judge’s actions before, during, or after said performance. And this is a black and white issue.

    1. This subject continually keeps coming up and we typically come to the same answer, you should not judge a family member or pupil. There are many of us now who have come up with fathers and/or even grandfathers as teachers and judges. To me its black and white, it should never happen and choices need to be made by the teacher, judge and competitor who attends and who does not. I was just asked to judge out of town/country, I asked if I could be kept away from my son’s grade 1 events. The organizers said yes, great, we can all go and do our thing without any issue. If it is a premier event, bring in out of country judges. Oh, now that brings up another topic, do we all accept other association judges and are we prepared to pony up and pay. In NA we seem to be able to do that quite successfully.

      As far as the comments about judges distracting habits, my father/teacher instructed me long ago to focus on what you can control not what you can’t. If I ever said to him the judge was tapping their foot or writing a book he would go off. Solution, acknowledge the judge, get into your world of focus and play. The only other comment about judges’ bad habits would be content of score sheets. I preferred sheets that told me what I did wrong to lose a contest not just, good performance, musical playing, good sound produced from instrument, 6th place. Sarcasm really didn’t bother me, it was probably deserved. 🙂

      Unfortunately, it’s not like running a race, who ever crosses the line first wins, it is highly subjective and we tend to fall back to what we like vs. what we don’t like. Adding the variable of family/student just increases the likelihood of a questioned result right or wrong.

  7. You know, competition is just another public performance, at the end of the day.

    When I was a young 1st Battalion The Black Watch of Canada Piper in 1965 I played for my first unsupervised regimental Officers’ Mess Dining-in Night. Having succeeded getting through the M/S/R, then a medley of slow airs, little marches, hornpipes & jigs, I went in at the end of dinner to play ‘Lament for Sir James MacDonald of the Isles’ around the table as the gentlemen enjoyed their drambuie & cigars.

    I was a bit surprised when I noticed not one but three Kilberry books come out from under their table to check out the new piper in the battalion!

    However, the thrilling moment was perhaps a bit marred when, as I settled into the Crunluath movement, one of the very young Highland Second Lieutenants, perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the performance (or the Port,) splopped me squarely between the eyes (pretty good aim – just, perhaps, faulty judgement) with a green pea launched from his tea spoon!

    I learned a great deal of forbearance & he had the opportunity to practice how to do the Orderly Officer’s job repeatedly for a month!

    Hugh Macpherson
    Pipe Major (Chief Warrant Officer Retired)



Forgotten Password?