Stewards, chiefly

Published: June 01, 2011

The passing of the esteemed piper, leader and organizer Robert Stewart of Inveraray in May was a sad loss for piping. I can’t say that I knew him, but those who did had all-good things to say, and talked of him with reverence and respect and admiration.

My encounters with him were limited to competing at the Inveraray Games 10 or so years ago. I was impressed with the way he handled the large number of competitors as both the piping convener and steward for the competitions. I remember thinking that, without such an adept hand, the whole thing would be chaos instead of the fun and smooth-running event it was.

Stewarding takes a deft touch. It’s true that once pipers and drumming gain experience, they essentially know the drill and look after themselves. But good stewarding can turn a decent competition into one a soloist will return to again and again.

The best stewards are often those who played the game themselves. Former competitors have been there and understand how to improve a piper or drummer’s overall experience, while simultaneously looking after the necessities of the event itself.

Until about 1986, the Edinburgh City/Lothian & Border Police Pipe Band used to organize a popular indoor solo competition. It was popular with competitors, in large part, because the band’s members did the stewarding. They kept the events moving, but also were true to the definition of “steward”: one who manages and assists.

I would add empathy to that description. Too often piping and drumming stewards don’t fully appreciate their role and, instead of being empathetic with the competitors, are almost unfeeling by not first giving the soloist the benefit of the doubt, or deferring to the piper or drummer’s experience when they themselves haven’t walked the boards. Although stewards at times need to get tough, stewarding shouldn’t be considered a position of authority.

I understand that competitions can’t all have a fleet of Robert Stewarts managing events. We all do the best we can, and are always grateful to volunteers who step up and who strive to do a good job. Often, though, volunteer stewards aren’t aware of what they can do to make an event better for the competitor.

So here are a few tips for stewards:

– Get a briefing. If you’re new to stewarding, a run-down of dos and don’ts from the organizers is essential. Also, ask the judge how he/she likes to operate before the event starts.
– Talk to competitors. Introduce yourself and help them to feel at ease. These people have put a gazillion hours into preparing for the event you’re stewarding, and part of your role is to, if not keep them calm, not let them get any more anxious.
– Don’t just sit there. Some stewards are evidently told that their only task is to check off competitors on their list as they report to them. You need to get up and about and even ask competitors and other stewards if someone entered but not checked in is in fact present. Walk around keep competitors informed on what’s going on.
– The idea is participation. We want pipers and drummers to compete and enjoy their day, not to be unnecessarily DQed. Find ways to solve misunderstandings. Not permitting someone to compete should always be a last resort, only when it’s out of fairness to other competitors.
– Ask for feedback. After the event, ask the judge and a few competitors how you did, and ways you might improve.

Stewarding can differentiate a competition and a good steward improves “customer service” for the event and the association. What do you see as the most important aspects of stewarding?

3 thoughts on “Stewards, chiefly

  1. Good stuff Andrew. Comparisons as they say can be odious, so I’ll not make one. But I will say that one of the best stewards ever to operate in Ontario was the late lamented John Watson. He brought humour, light heartedness and the right degree of getting on with it. I always had the sense that he knew most of us were scared witless, and he didn’t want to add to the already high stress level that goes with the competition territory. Great guy…great steward.

  2. I loved stewarding for my Dad – always a laugh and always highly educational! How he wanted things run would depend on many factors but it was very important to be aware of the disasters that can happen and accommodate where possible whilst still being fair to all.

  3. Hi Andrew, Thanks for your article and your kind words about Robert. I’m Robert’s step-daughter and my sister Laura and I will be stewarding at the Inveraray Games this year, therefore I found your tips very useful. After many years of dedicated service, Agnes Liddell will be standing down as piping secretary and I am delighted to say that Robert’s grand-daughters, Eilidh and Emma will be taking over her role from next year. Robert is a great loss to the piping world and especially Inveraray Games, where he will be sorely missed this year. As a family we will endeavour to keep up Robert’s tradition of high standards and organisational skills, but sadly we will never be able to replace Robert – A truely wonderful Highland Gentleman.

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