May 31, 2013

Six kinds of pipers

After many years of judging solo piping competitions, one tends to notice trends. In places like Ontario where it’s typical to critique more than 50 performances in a morning, you can’t help but start to see certain types of competition personalities come forward. I say amateur, because the professional contestants all tend to be of a workmanlike, get-it-done-and-move-on consistency, whereas the amateurs are much more of a mixed lot of attitudes.

By and large, amateur competitors are fairly non-descript and don’t fit any of the types below. But for roughly the other half I think there are five basic distinct characters. These personalities don’t necessarily mean that they are better or worse as pipers, and for sure each performance is assessed on its own merits. The traits tend to be seen before and after the actual tune or tunes.

1. The Name-Dropper. Without fail, there is at least one amateur competitor in every event who someway, somehow slips in the name of his/her teacher. “I got this from Rory MacDingle,” the player will say. I’m pretty sure it’s an attempt to intimidate. The player’s letting you know who will be reviewing the scoresheet, or, if you criticize the tune you therefore criticize the teacher. There must be some sort of sociopathic thing here.

2. The I-Don’t-Really-Want-to-Player. There are always one or two whom you just know don’t really want to compete. They tune forever. They can’t remember the names of their tunes. They’re visibly forcing themselves to do it. Hard to understand why they’re self-inflicting such misery.

3. The Inflated. These folks have a certain strut to their demeanor that belies their true abilities. Often they have impressive and well-practiced tuning phrases. They’ve studied the pros and ape their pre-tune routines. They inevitably elevate the judge’s expectations only to perform at a grade-level that’s less than required.

4. Mr. Piobaireachd. These are usually older amateurs who spend a lot of money travelling to two-week schools and weekend workshops to be instructed by the world’s best. God love ’em. They almost always dress to the nines and have the latest silver-mounted instruments, drone valves, drying gizmos, and gold-plated $300 reeds. They have the music they want to convey rattling in their head, but little of the technical ability to deliver it. These folks keep the piping economy growing. They always fancy themselves hard-core piobaireachd aficionados and are often also . . .

5. The Obscure. These pipers just love submitting tunes that no one else plays, or has even heard of. The tunes are published, but no one else ever learned them, much less played them in competition. “What do you have today?” “I will be playing ‘The Ogilvies’ Gathering.’ ” “The what?” ” ‘ The Gathering of the Ogilvies,’ and here is the music if you don’t know it.” They then produce a photocopy of the manuscript. This often includes crazy notation on phrasing, with circled cadences and arrows to single notes that say “HOLD!!!

6. The Whatever . . . These competitors are maybe the most confounding. They’re aloof and carry on like they don’t really care at all. Strangely, they almost always have great potential, and either don’t realize their hidden talent or are just too lazy to cultivate it. They’re not nervous; just completely apathetic. They usually vanish from the scene altogether after a few years.

Your observations will vary. These six personality-types give otherwise excruciatingly bland competitions variety and spice. If you know of others, feel free to suggest in a comment.


  1. What about the up-and-comer? Much like the “whatever” in terms of potential, but actually trying…aren’t there ever any pipers who’re on their ways’ through the amateurs?

  2. Some great observations and done AMAZING truths!! Well done. I’ve just gotta find myself a well known teacher and learn some obscure piobaireachds and I should be okay???? C’mon, piobaireachd….how more obscure can you be???

  3. There’s the guy you have to send the stewards to fetch from the beer tent. After they find his pipes and run off the tartan miniskirts, he staggers up, tunes for about 30 seconds and plays the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard. When he finishes, he smiles and crawls over to the whisky tent for an upgrade. Tom Campbell comes to mind. Pure feckin genius!

  4. They’re all up-and-comers in their own ways. These are just pre-performance quirks. The actual tunes stand on their own and all the before and after stuff has nothing to do with judging. At least with me.

  5. This reminds me of a great article written by Neil Dickie in a June 2003 issue of Piper & Drummer titled “Piping for Eejits”. It is an elaboration on some of your six pipers.

  6. if i played Piobaireachd or competed then i might be classed as Obscure but what on earth is wrong with that? in playing new music or unearthing hidden gems or new arrangements?? this seems a derogatory term? a good friend of the editor once said as the preface to one of his splendid books (a statement from another musician whose name my mind escapes), there is so much good music it is a shame only to play the classic music. this is what is wrong with serious competition that it needs to conform!!! music is music, sometimes it takes time to fall in love with it, but its inevitable!

  7. “che2″ – no one said there’s anything wrong with being any of these kinds of amateur competitors. If you want to play obscure tunes, then fill your ghillies. In fact, as a judge, I would often pick these obscurities, or tunes I didn’t know. Funnily enough, often when the obscure tunes were chosen, they remark how it hasn’t been picked all year. And then promptly break down. I do however find it remarkable when Grade 3 pipers submit off-the-wall stuff, learning “The Ogilvies’ Salute” before, say, “Alasdair Dhearg” or “Donald of Laggan.”

  8. That was actually quite funny Andrew. One you left out was the Crab Piper, you know the person that walks sideways through their entire Piob. Thanx for the morning laugh. On a serious note lower grade pipers and obscure tunes, agree totally with you in that the standard beginner tunes we all got should be played long before the obscure settings. It’s all about the basics and how the program works, then go nuts in the upper grades.where are the Sir James, Munro’s Salute, the Glen is mine, Wee spree, Struan Robertson’s etc… you know the nice wee ones. Same for M-S-R’s. Anyway, good luck in the upcoming season Andrew and to all.



  9. do the “bling but no bang for their buck” pipers actually know who they are? nothing worse than name droppers mentioning all the greats they got tuition at at summer schools and were told how “good” they are. I always thought it from the other side, would a profesional piper paid to get 2 weeks in a san diego summer school really tell an enthuiastic ammatuer that they were mince? doubt it. They actually do the rest of us a dis service that have to put up with listening to them say how, angus or donald told them what a “great” piper they were. I liken it a person going to t a prostitute for sex, would the prostitute tell you you were a rubbish “piper”? I really doubt it.

    thats one silver set you got there buddy! blow hard!

  10. I would like to see an article on the professionals quirks. All pipers that pick the pipes up are a little nuts but those that have sworn to master the instrument are truly an interesting breed. There are the humble ones that quietly let the boards talk, to ones only drive is to proliferate the music to others, to ones that are personally arrogant believing their playing quality allows this attitude, to ones that are gods gift to piping, to ones that are the ultimate perfectionist in not just piping, but life as well. Gotta love the pro attitudes too. 🙂

  11. Love the article. I’ve been playing/mucking around with the pipes since I was 13. Competed for the first time in my life (solo) at the age of 50 this spring. Nerve racking, messed up, but still placed! Unbeliveable, but loved it. You bet I am inspired to practice harder this winter and enter the ring again this spring. Thanks for the article. If I had to pick me in the above it probably woud be The Whatever. 🙂

  12. Judgement call? Interesting observations and it leads me to reflect on how the struggling contestants view their own adjudicators. When I first saw the website assessments I was horrified. The game was suddenly reversed as to who who was under the microscope of scrutinization. After several semesters at Community College where every student anonymously rate their Profs in each course I began to overcome the self conscious angst. I will say there is a type that jumps off the page of frustrated and less successful student who is suddenly enarmed to get some satisfaction and fulfilment for once – and rails back for whatever imagined slight. Perhaps the same motivation of the disenfranchised that leads restless teen gangs to graffiti screed and vandalism in public parks.

    My very first lecture at Teachers’ College was our young, very cool and entertaining Psych Prof – Dutch and a full Western (UWO) Faculty guy unlike most of the Profs who were graduated high school teachers and education consultants. In that first impression of his seminal talk he emphasized the fear of walking in and teaching a room full of inquiring minds with wide open, staring eyes who drink in every tidbit of information. In the early part of my career Adlerian approaches were popular. Many will have heard some of the Nietzchean tinged ‘inadequacy’ ideas of Will to Power, inferiority complex and organic inferiority + birth order but Adler’s views evolved after the Great War to encompass a more holistic view that emphasized social aspects such as democratic child raising and offsetting problems with pride of accomplishment.

    Last August during a fun Todd conversation with several very internationally active workshop Instructors, I slowly cottoned on to the internal competitiveness as they vied with each other to gain a spot at the Outer Yuktotictac Summer Piping School (and I hasten to add they are all very warm and engaging personalities). So it’s good to see this empowerment of the judged, granting them democratic ownership in the learning process. With more Judges seeking those exotic, plum teaching assignments, they can start to exercise more of the niceties of humane people interaction. As we deem others, so shall it be meted back to us but long after the detailed minutiae of crunluaths’ articulation has faded, the young learners will remember that PM Wullie McBlooter was a lovely gem of a guy. Fun to have a pint with and kick back. I am heartened to see that today’s cyber-accelerated feedback facilitates closer communications on matters of import and improves the awareness of feeling – cheers – robin

  13. Coming next month to Blogpipe…..”Six kinds of judges”
    the engaged & competent
    the bored
    the condescending
    the drunk
    the incompetent friend of the Games Organizer
    the deaf and his cousin, the tone deaf



    1. Don’t forget the “Hung over from the night before” judge…….
      The dark sunglasses, even on a rainy day + the hand on the forehead while looking down at the sheets constantly are a dead giveaway…

      PS..also applies to pipers…..and drummers…..



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