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Andrew's Bagpipe Tips: Why Compete?

By Andrew T. Lenz, Jr., Santa Cruz, California, ©2003-2006

Former champion piobaireachd player Jim McColl judging a piping competition at the Loch Lomond Highland Games in 2003.

Competition. The word makes some pipers shake their heads knowingly. Been there, done that—or tried that. Others relish the thought. If you've never competed, you may wonder what drives a piper to compete and what drives a piper away from competition. Here are some of the reasons.

Why NOT TO compete?

Stress. Probably the most common reason that people don't compete is the mental pressure. Be it the goal to improve oneself or to place well against other pipers, the pressure is there. Some people don't deal with nerves well and quit competing or don't even attempt it in the first place. Others don't deal with it well, but push through anyway. The blessed ones are the ones that can be perfectly calm right off the bat.

Possible Discouragement. You can get discouraged by one or more bad competition performances, subpar or not. Or you may run into a rogue snobby upper grade piper or a rare abrupt judge.

Comparison. Some pipers don't want an objective appraisal of their performance, or a comparison to other pipers. A new piper can keep his/her thoughts of being a great piper if he/she never competes. An instructor might lose students or a pipe major might lose face if he/she has embarrassing performances at games. A piper taking paid performances might lose those gigs if word gets around of a failure to do well.

Distance. For some pipers, competing at games means some very long driving, or perhaps even having to fly.

Cost. Association membership dues, gas/airfare, entry fees, food, hotel accommodations, lost wages at work—it all adds up. If you don't already have kilt and other highland garb, it will require some investment. (Usually the minimum requirement, good kilts will run in excess of $400-$500.)

Time. Competing requires a serious time commitment. Time to practice competition-worthy tunes, possibly time away from learning band tunes and time away from family and employment to be at the games.

Band Conflicts. Sometimes band performances may be scheduled on the same day as a competition but at an entirely different venue. On the other hand, sometimes your games day may include running back and forth between solo competitions and band performances/competitions. It can be a little nerve-wracking.

Solo Gig Conflicts. If you are a very competent piper and are being paid to play at weddings, parties, funerals, etc. then you may find you'll have to give up some of those opportunities to compete instead.

Why TO compete?

Specific Goals. A competition gives you a specific goal with a drop-dead deadline to improve your skills. You'll have to push yourself, perhaps be more disciplined than you might be otherwise.

Objective Feedback. Rather than a subjective opinion of your skill level—some pipers have a too high an opinion of their own playing—you get an objective view and hopefully constructive specific feedback from the judge on where you can improve.

Overcome Pressure. By competing, you will learn to play under pressure in a new unknown environment in front of strangers. Though some may feel differently, aside from high-profile band competition, there aren't many venues with equal (or more) pressure. (Well, except maybe playing a wedding, but that's a different pressure.)

Camaraderie. Highland games are a great opportunity to meet other pipers doing the same thing as you. Granted that you don't have to compete to rub elbows with other pipers, but there's something to be said for being "under fire" together.

Inspiration from Great Piping. If you are at a competition, you usually have the opportunity to see exceptional pipers live. It's one thing to hear a recording, another to be there in person. Seeing how well they perform gives you a target to strive for. Again, you don't have to compete to see them, but you might not even be there otherwise.

Focus. Competition gives you a reason to learn a tune at a very focused level, usually with more attention to detail than you would otherwise or have drive to learn. No dropped grace notes allowed. Every nuance can be critical.

Encouragement. If you do well, you'll get a "pat on the back" from the judge and other pipers. Fellow competitors are pretty supportive usually. If your drones shut off in the middle of your competition piece, odds are it's happened to them too and they'll tell you so. I've never had an unkind remark come from another piper at a competition. Most pipers understand that it's not about beating other pipers, but the piper trying to do his or her personal best.

Legitimized. There are those that assume that non-competing pipers are less skilled (or at least an unknown quantity) and by competing you put those prejudices to rest. There is a certain respect given to pipers who overcome all the potential problems and compete regardless.

When to quit competing?

For all competitors there comes a day to step away from the boards and move into a different phase of piping life. Sometimes that decision is voluntary, sometimes not. It could be that travel or time away from work gets too costly. It could be that you develop health issues—or someone close to you does. It could be that you get discouraged with a lack of progress. Or a lack of support from family or friends. Perhaps you get old enough that your fingers no longer have the speed or accuracy that you want. Whatever the reason, the time will eventually come and it's rarely an easy decision.

What does it all mean to you?

You have to decide what is right for your circumstances. (For instance, if you have a heart condition, stay away from competition!) Perhaps visit a few highland games, watch the competitions and talk to a few pipers—competing and non-competing—about it. If you want to use competition as a tool to improve, great. If you want to improve other ways or are happy where you are, that's fine too.

Bottom line, whatever you decide, is to enjoy your bagpiping—it's supposed to be fun!

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This page last updated Sunday, March 14, 2010.
Page first created in November 2, 2003.

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