April 18, 2017

What judges want

Sitting adjudicating an amateur solo piping competition the other day, I got to thinking again about the competitors, so many of them so anxious and apprehensive.

Playing before a judge who’s going to judge your music is a weird thing to subject yourself to, but it’s what we do. It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the table that I appreciated that I had it all wrong for all those years as a competitor.

Competitors generally have the wrong idea about judges. I know I did, especially when I was younger.

I can only speak with certainty for myself as a judge, but I like to think that these things apply to any right-minded and decent adjudicator.

So here are a few tips for competitors as to what judges actually want when they’re judging you.

  1. Judges want you to play as well as you can. This is the most important thing to know. Any decent judge is rooting for you to play well, or at least to your personal best. I think many competitors mistakenly think that judges rejoice every time you make a mistake. Not true.
  2. Judges were once on your side of the table. Every adjudicator (except for a few anachronisms from a different era who still judge in the UK despite every competitor preferring that they don’t) has been a competitor. We know what you’re going through. It’s not easy. We can empathize.
  3. You will be given the benefit of the doubt. I know that if I wasn’t sure about something that I thought I heard, I will assume it was my mistake, not yours.
  4. Don’t tip your hand. If you make a mistake keep going. Don’t draw attention to it. If you played the wrong tune or got the parts mixed up, never assume the judge noticed or even knew, so don’t proactively confess to it. While I admire your honesty, I’d shake my head at you drawing attention to your error.
  5. Don’t start unless you’re satisfied with the sound. Unless there’s a tuning time-limit, don’t start until you are completely happy with the sound of your instrument. This happens a lot: competitors feeling like they have to start, and knowingly begin with their drones out of tune. True, labourious tuning for no real reason is irritating, but if you are struggling to get your drones in tune or your instrument isn’t quite settled, take the time to get it right. As long as it’s not against the rules, no decent judge will penalize you for tuning, but you will be criticized negatively for an out-of-tune instrument. The memory of long tuning evaporates with the actual competition performance.
  6. We want you to want to play. Connected with #5, judges can tell when a player simply does not want to play. They’ll tune for ages not because their instrument needs it, but because they’re procrastinating. If you’re going to compete, wanting to actually perform is the first step. Maybe you’re a masochist, but if you hate competing, don’t compete.
  7. It’s all about you. Judges are there to serve the competitor. We’re not trying to distract you, and we are (or should be) conscious of how we operate, when we write, tap our feet, or play along with you. My least favourite judges were the few who thought it was all about them, with histrionics designed to draw attention away from the performance, ticking off every mistake they heard just to show others that they heard it, too. (Did they count up all the ticks or something to decide their prize-winners?)  It should never be about the judge; it’s all about you.
  8. It’s never personal. Reacting to not being in the prizes, thinking that a judge must not like you as a person, can be an automatic human response. No, they just preferred other performances over yours. Judges are ambivalent as to who wins; they only care what wins.
  9. Judges want you to be happy. It’s music, but we so often are miserable playing it in competition because of anxiety. Make the music that you love. It’s something out of nothing and then it’s only a memory. Consciously making and enjoying music is a miracle that distinguishes us from other animals. Make a good memory. Enjoy yourself.

It can take many years for competitors to understand these things, and sometimes that understanding only comes when you’re on the other side of the table.

I hope they might positively change your perspective the next time you compete.



  1. Well said Andrew. Nice for the younger grades to hear it from a judge as well as a competitor. It’s hard to convince a nervous player that there really is nothing to be nervous about… no one is laughing at your mistake, and no one is rooting for your demise. And remember, it’s just a bagpipe contest!

    Taking your time will help immensely in just about all aspects of performing. Breathe for a second, play a slow air, relax, and play what you’ve been practising. Oh – that’s the other easy, obvious way to reduce your nerves – be confident in what you’re about to play, because you’ve been practising it, and know it inside and out.

  2. Nice blog, and I totally agree with all of your points.
    The truth is no one judges because they don’t love the music and we are rooting for you to perform well.
    As a judge nothing thrills me more than a player totally nailing it.
    We are your fans.
    And as noted we have all been there.

  3. Andrew have to agree with your comments 100%+. As you say we as judges have been on both sides of the table and really want competitors do well. Despite what the competitor may think. Well stated.

  4. So there’s nothing negative about judges huh? Wrong.

    I know for a fact “8. It’s never personal.” Is wrong/a lie.
    Many of my student do better because of relationships with judges.
    Likewise with bands.

    …get real with your comments.

    1. Good morning,

      Against my better judgement, I feel like I have to respond to this misguided and unnecessary comment on a positive article, especially as this was geared toward amateur, and therefore probably younger, pipers and drummers.

      I think you’ve missed the point of this whole thing. This was aimed at attempting to put amateur players at ease about what the judge is thinking or not thinking while sitting behind the table. To encourage those in the lower grades to shrug off the nerves and not to feel fear or anxiety because someone is sitting there with a clipboard and a tweed jacket. If the title were “Bias Is Never An Issue”, I could see these kinds of comments at least being in the right galaxy.

      Do some judges give their friends a break? Maybe, who knows. So what? And what’s wrong with optimism, as long as it’s met with a grain of salt? You played well and you *think* he/she gave their friend a higher placing because of their relationship? Even if it were true, again, so what?

      Looking at your prize or your lack thereof, and trying to link it to something other than what the judge was looking for that day, is a toxic path to take, and nobody in the world wants to hear about it.

      The point is to play your best and know that 99.9% of the time, the judge is rooting for you to play the best you’ve ever played. As he said in point #1, “any decent judge would”.


  5. In my limited experience, I agree with everything above. Having said that, I have had the unfortunate experience of having a judge whose attitude screamed that he definitely did NOT want to be there; in fact, his analysis of my performance was essentially that my piping s–ked (he used different words but his true meaning was very clear). Yes, I have continued to solo because I think it makes me a better piper in the long run.

  6. I think its important for the player to realise that the judge is also under a wee bit of pressure, for he knows his decision will be judged by everyone who did not play

  7. Great points, Andrew. I might add that as either former or currently active competitors, often both in solos and bands, we all appreciate the time and effort it takes to compete. As such every judge I know feels obligated to give all competitors an honest listen with comments and placings that reflect the performance on the day to the best of that judge’s ability. Frankly, the performance is everything. Nothing else matters.

  8. Andrew, another well written piece with good thoughts about what we as judges should be about, I for one try to share my experience as a nervous competitor either verbally or through comments about relaxing and playing your best. I recall playing for the late John Wilson as a youngster and clearly believing this man WANTED me to fail, as his gruff approach had me shaking as I finished giving him my name and tune. I was done before I played a note! So, with him in mind I always try to encourage the lower grade players by presenting myself wit a positive, calm, and relaxing welcome, and at times toss in some humor.

  9. “I think its important for the player to realise that the judge is also under a wee bit of pressure, for he knows his decision will be judged by everyone who did not play.”

    Perhaps especially by everyone who did play (aside from the winner!): those who have rarely heard the majority of the contest. I’ve certainly been guilty of this.

  10. good points, only one I disagree with – if you know you played the wrong tune, or mixed the parts up – honestly means you will tell the judge so, at the end. That is, if you don’t simply stop playing. If I played the wrong tune and realised it, I would stop playing. It’s dishonest to keep playing and hope the judge doesn’t notice, in my own opinion. No one wants a prize where they don’t deserve it, and you don’t deserve it if you played the wrong strathspey, or mixed the parts.

    1. Many people do stop, assuming that the judge knows he/she is simply wasting the judge’s time. Others knowingly play on, including those at the very highest level. Occasionally, a judge will stop the contestant if they’ve launched in to the wrong tune, but I can’t remember a judge whistling off anyone for getting the parts muddled (apart from Andrew MacNeill famously and brutally literally whistling off competitors, as if they were sheep, in the marches at the Argyllshire Gathering in teeming rain in 1984). Similarly, I don’t know of any piper who received a prize after playing the wrong tune or swapping parts or whatever who didn’t accept the award on the grounds that they “didn’t deserve it.” Not saying that’s right, but it’s true. So, given that, why stop? Altruism aside, it’s all part of the game.

      1. Fair enough, I suppose. It just seems a bit dishonest to take a prize if you personally know you played the wrong tune, for example. It seems more honorable, if you played the wrong tune, even if you finished the performance, to let the judge know. But maybe this doesn’t really arise much, if you have knowledgeable judges, they will pick up patent errors like the wrong tune or the wrong parts, and you won’t be in for any prize anyway. I do definitely agree that it’s best to keep playing, as a general rule, rather than stopping, if you made small error or miss a gracenote, as you never know how well or badly others will play! Playing the wrong tune though is one ton of mistakes, every note is a mistake – so in that case, I would probably tell the judge I played the wrong tune.

  11. This is was a really good read. Myself, as a new grade 5 piper, just competed in my first PPBSO event this past weekend. I, along with a lot of pipers suffer from performance anxiety.
    I had the opportunity to compete earlier in the year and chickened out each time.
    For me, being able to stand up in front of the judge this past weekend, and actually play a tune was a victory. I didn’t place, but in my mind I played excellent.
    I will say, I did get some excellent feedback, and I am focused on correcting it for the next games 🙂

    Great article, thank you writing it

  12. Well said Andrew. A few years ago I put together a nine page treatise on how to address performance anxiety called The Mental Game. Some have read it and claimed it was of help. It’s on Ringo Bowen’s website The Bagpipe Place on his banner head. Cheers, Syd Girling

  13. Too funny and naive. Many years ago I played for a judge at Columbus Indiana games–he was a North Coast pipe band officer. This man ate a sandwich throughout my performance and then challenged me as to whether I’d played the 3rd part of my tune–seriously?! I offered to play it for him. Another year at Columbus Indiana games the steward asked me where I was from. Then the judge remarked that I seemed nervous–actually I wasn’t and knew I’d played exactly as Noel Slagle had taught me. What do you know, all the winners were from Indianapolis area. Such a joke about nonbiased judges. Don’t even kid new pipers!



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