July 06, 2017

Touch blackwood

“There’s plenty of time for despair,” a friend likes to say when playing golf after someone hits an iffy shot. Rather than assuming that the ball went into the bunker, he encourages you to err on the side of optimism and enjoy the moment.

After hitting tens-of-thousands of bad golf shots and competing in hundreds of piping and pipe band competitions, I’ve learned to take a different tack: assume the worst, because getting your hopes up inevitably results in having them crushed at the prize-giving. In other words, lower your expectations.

Some might see that as a “glass half empty” outlook. Far from it. It’s a line of thinking that’s as much about superstition as it is peace-of-mind.

When competing, I would actively disabuse myself of the idea that I’d be in the prizes, so that in the event that I or my band did win, it would be gravy. And, if we didn’t, well, then, that was no surprise. No matter how well I or the band played, I thought that it was a jinx to expect to win.

I have plenty of small superstitions in piping. Actually, it’s debatable whether they’re superstitions or an attempt at psychological strategy. You be the judge.

When submitting four tunes to a judge, say the one that you’d most like to play third. Why third? Well, listing it first automatically suggests it’s at the top of your mind, so you’re not getting that. Saying it second makes it an instant afterthought to the first. “What was the second tune again?” many judges will ask, proving the point. It takes a cruel judge to pick the last tune you say (of course after you paused to make it look like you can’t even remember it), and contrary to what you might believe, judges are nice people. Trust me, it’s the third tune that on average is the most likely to be picked.

In a draw at the line in a band contest, always pick the right hand. Most people are right-handed. They favour the right side. Chances are the right pick will be in the right hand. Did you know that the Latin word for “left” is “sinister”? Enough said.

Forgetting, or – much worse – consciously deciding not to take your rain cape means that it’s sure to rain. It’s all your fault. Yes, you can be all-powerful and control the weather just by thinking of or forgetting things.

Never wear sunglasses while competing. Okay, it’s not exactly bad luck, but unless your vision is impaired, few things communicate arrogance like sporting shades in a contest. Playing well should be cool enough. What are you hiding?

Prizes are better announced in order. People often think that announcing in reverse order builds suspense. It just creates more despair, since we all like to live in hope that, Hey, maybe I’m first! only to find yourself and 10 other competitors crestfallen. Vice versa can be true, but by the time they announce third or fourth I no longer care much. That said, I’ll never forget many years ago at the World’s when Grade 3 or something was announced in order. The band next to us got increasingly more agitated when their name wasn’t called out with each prize announced. After they were not even sixth, the lead-drummer screamed out an ear-splitting obscenity at the poor RSPBA Executive Officer that rhymes with Truck My Flock! But overall, announcing in order is better for everyone.

A perfect tune-up invites disaster. Warming up on the golf range or the putting green, hitting everything well or going in brings one thing: a terrible round of golf will follow. Similarly, tuning that seems to be flawless right out of the box inevitably results in a performance that craters on the field. Get out the flaws. Miss a few attacks. Fly around madly searching for that bad F. Get a bit unsettled. It focuses the mind at crunch time.

Eagerly checking the prizes results in your not being in them. Most solo competitions post the results somewhere. You can tell newbie competitors. They’re the ones hovering around, anxious to see their success. Experienced competitors hang back. Many never even look and instead wait for someone to say later in the day, “Well done on the prize(s)!” And then you say, “Oh, was I in? I didn’t even look.” Nonchalance is key to playing the part. Your bag might be bursting with anticipation, but under no circumstances should you actively seek out the result. Often, the only result is embarrassment.

When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition is the way.

Are you superstitious? Carry a talisman in your sporran? A lucky tie? Idol thoughts? Feel free to share.



  1. Never ever chuckle, smirk or laugh at an opponent who has the misfortune of not getting their pipes away for the introductory E. if you do, it will be your turn at the next major championship.

    1. So true, Ross. Last year in the band’s last attack walking up to the arena in the final, I somehow scrabbled around on the chanter with my bottom hand. It was ungodly. Iain Speirs turned around and laughed, saying, WTF was that?! He wasn’t laughing at it, but with it, and we all got away fine two minutes later.

    1. Good stuff Andrew.
      Philosophy from my tutor, Bill Morrison of Hamilton and Peterborough, one of the original founders of the PPBSO. “Practice smart and hard, relax, enjoy competing, play as well as you can, don’t go into competition expecting a prize. If you do win something, consider it a good day, and that you deserved a prize for your efforts that day.”
      Something I have passed on to many I have tutored and my band.
      Many don’t agree with that philosophy. But I live by it, in piping… in life.

  2. For many years I wore a green camouflage bracelet on my right wrist as an unofficial addition to my uniform. One of those “livestrong” kind of things, that said “Support our Troops”. I was certain if I didn’t wear that, I would experience disaster, maybe even death, at my solo or band piping gig. Well, low and behold, said silicon rubber bracelet eventually broke…and I’m still alive to talk about it.
    Similarly, early in my piping career my parents bought me a family-crested sgian dubh. I was never overly fond of it, but again, my concern that the magical powers possessed therein would cause piping disaster or even death outweighed my dislike of the little dagger. I recently worked up the nerve to replace it, and again, I live to tell the tale.

  3. Never listen to pipe music or country music on the drive to a contest.Pop or rock only. That tradition started in high school, and seems to work for me. The few times I’ve violated that rule, things didn’t go well on the day. Science LOL



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