February 25, 2010

Wait, a second

Looks pretty good to everyone else . . .Second is the hardest prize; you win gold and lose silver; always a bridesmaid . . . Watching the Winter Olympics there’s been a lot of talk about the heartbreak of not-quite-winning, and the fractional seconds and centimeters between glory and “defeat.”

We pipers and drummers are of course used to all that. The greater the competition’s stature, the less satisfactory any prize but first can be. Kids take gleeful pride in their third- and fourth-prizes in amateur and junior competitions. Grade 4 bands relish even a mention in the list. But, when it comes to the Professional Solo or Grade 1 band events, there’s often more disappointment than joy with the competitors who placed, but didn’t “win.”

As the Olympics remind us, that’s not right. Just qualifying to be good enough to compete at the highest level of athletic sport or piping/drumming competition is a massive accomplishment on its own. The competitors who don’t meet that lofty standard – probably 99 per cent of people who compete in the sport or art – are envious of just the achievement of competing at the top tier. They’d covet just being good enough to play in a Grade 1 band or at the Professional solo level, and any prize, to them, would be dreamy cake-icing.

It’s a bitter reality: the better you become, the more disappointing competition can be. Part of the reason why there’s disappointment is the pathological competitive drive required to reach the top tier. You keep pushing and pushing to be better and better, so, of course second-prize even at the loftiest level is tantamount to losing. It’s a necessary competitive mindset.

But the overall piping and drumming culture mistakenly and unhealthily plays in to that first-or-lost attitude.

It doesn’t help when we continually tear down our own. The sordid and spiteful tradition of ripping everyone but the winner continues in some fusty, old-think places. That sort of Sunday Morning Quarterback analysis is at least useless, if not downright mean. We should celebrate the winners, but we should also continually vaunt our best and brightest.

It’s interesting to me that, during these Olympics (which granted are receiving far more attention in Canada than anywhere else), it’s the favoured competitors who didn’t quite rise to the top who usually take things the hardest. While the disappointed athletes have on occasion sobbed inconsolably over their “loss,” the public cheers them on, proud of their achievements and their extraordinary dedication, commitment and talent.

We pipers and drummers can learn from that.


  1. i’m sure the guys and gals of St. Laurence O’Toole were completely downcast “only attaining” third place in the world pipe band championship, after placing in the top six the past couple years (save for a seventh in 2006)

    obviously, at such a professional level the stakes, commitment, pride, musical development, financial expenditures are so high that only the highest level of achievement will properly reflect bands-peoples’ desire for the highest recognition. even when i played in a grade 4 band a few years ago, we were rarely satisfied with anything less than perfection from our performance and subsequently the prize list. sure we were having a great time with members of the local piping community, but we were there to compete.
    however i don’t want to overplay and generalize the sentiments of individuals who play in grade 1 bands. i feel that there is a high number of bands who compete at the worlds, from the UK and abroad, not to win the contest but just to qualify or “play as best as they can.” but when you’re talking about the same top 4 or 6 bands in the grade, they expect the highest quality of music performance from themselves, and that is most often reflected in the prize list.

  2. Agreed fully. I’ve been re-hashing my own competition fears and goals this year while watching the olympics. After seeing these elite athletes put their heart where their mouth is and sometimes come up short, crash, or make a complete blunder I sat back and took it all in. I started to realize that even the best can have a bad day and that these athletes, who’ve trained for 4 years (at least), can walk off the stage with their heads held high and with a lot of grace even when a medal was not won that day.

    I’ve been glued to the tv watching these remarkable athletes and seeing how they can accept defeat (for the most part) with grace and honour was a lesson in itself.

  3. Then there are those who achieve a personal best–they may or may not have won a medal. But they know they’ve played (raced, skated, shot, whatever) their best. When the concentration was all there and they came away thinking “that was as good as I’ve done that” or “that’s what I hoped to do” — then it’s up to the judges or how fast others were. I love those stories of competitors who achieve those personal bests. At the end of the day, it’s ourselves we have to beat.

  4. A lot comes into it. If you’re the eldest in your family, used to ploughing the ground before you, being the trendsetter for others coming behind you, maybe its a really big deal to be overtaken, and to land in second place for a change. Or maybe that’s a huge relief. If you’re a middle child or second in age, maybe Silver is where you feel comfortable though maybe secretly you long for a Gold day. If you’re a disabled piper who through an accident thought you’d never play again, and end up 6th on a prize list, maybe that’s more Gold than Gold. If you’d to unexpectedly break in new reeds the day before, maybe you’re glad to have competed at all never mind win Gold or Silver. There’s a pressure that comes with Gold, whereas a Silver can just shelter that wee bit under the rays of the Gold prize winner. A second allows you to wait – to wait for the day when you too might be Gold, whereas the Gold is the Gold already. Waiting, might bring advantages with it. What I’m saying, is that Silver might in fact be more Gold than Gold, depending on who you are, where you are. There might be more weight in a second, more worth to be wrung out of the bit of extra time it gives you. Maybe more to be got from the waiting time, than is got from already having arrived. Better perhaps to be a Gold-in-waiting, rather than a Premature Gold. Could Silver be the new Gold I wonder?

  5. Excellent Post! It is just human nature to want to excel, in whatever indeavor that we pursue. Nobody goes into sports, or piping, for that matter, to be second-rate. It is just who we are, as a species, that pushes us to the limits of our chosen field. I know that I, personally, understand the huge amount of talent, and commitment, that it takes, for any of these individuals to reach the top levels, let alone to compete with others of that grade. While I will never attain such heights, I can thankfully, rejoice in the accomplishments of all of them, as a fellow human-being. It is always inspiring, to watch competition, at any level, and to relish the victories, and shall we say, near-victories. All are to be given accollades, and all to be cheered on!

  6. I have to agree with Max on this one. On many occasions, and with many people it is just the opposite of what you describe Andrew. With my bands (GrIII and V) if we don’t win we might as well not have shown up. On my first solo competition I didn’t place and thus did not compete again for another eight years. I can’t imagine Inverary being so dejected if they don’t qualify this year that they give up and disband. Or, an open soloist come in second at Oban and retire because of it. Of course different circumstances affect people differently. If I felt there was something inherently wrong with the setup and judging at Oban that caused me to not win, I might not go back.

  7. I think for those that put in the time,effort, and sacrifice to reach the top level of competion it only stands to reason that the victories are that much sweeter and the losses that much more painful. How could it be any other way?

  8. I fear that we sometimes put too much emphasis on the prize versus the journey to get there. If the fear of losing causes one to abstain from playing, then there is something seriously wrong. I thought (and I could be mistaken) that the bagpipe was a musical instrument and that we “players” consider ourselves to be musicians as opposed to (athletic?) competitors. While competition helps one to hone their skills due to the self evalution required to play at the top level, the real point is to push the art form forward by impoving the overall skill level of the group thereby also improving the musicianship. If winning was the only goal. then why not bribe the judges, or sabotage the competition to ensure that victory? Just wouldn’t be the same, would it? In addition, the careful performances that have been put out there lately to increase the chances of win really are a bit dull. Where’s the musicianship in that?
    Take heed of “Robbie’s” comment….a very healthy and balanced attitude towards our little game.

  9. Michael Grey wrote a great tune for me many years ago, it is in his books, called “Worth the Wait”. For about two years it seemed that I was getting nothing but 2nd prizes, actually it was buiding into a pretty impressive record, but statistically it was pretty remarkable. This spell ended when I managed to win two major competitions in the one day, it doesn’t matter where or what they were, but Michael then wrote the tune. I don’t remember any of those second prizes, perhaps that a bit sad….



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