Hacking Bagpipe Competitions: Abandon the Fear
I was thinking about the state of US bagpiping and drumming competition. Way back in November I wrote about “The Path to Better Bagpipe Competitions” using Highland dancers and their example. We just don’t have “special” events here in the eastern US. Our circuit is all the same stuff with the same significance and meaning. Add to that the fact that there is no fallback plan for when Highland games—the prime venue for competitions—start falling like dominoes, and it becomes apparent that something needs to change both in style and content.
Then it hit me. The answer was staring at me in the mirror. There is no incentive to change bagpipe competitions because the whole system continually feeds off of a seemingly bottomless resource: The aspirational need (and anxiety) that pipers and drummers feel for themselves and the hopes and fears they have for the future. Insecurity underpins the whole thing.
It’s a truism to say that here in America are conditioned from the time we are born to strive for more. We’re also conditioned for the most part to fear failure. Better things await (and failure kept at bay) if you can acquire and aspire. At least that’s the idea, isn’t it? Aspire to more in the craft of playing Highland bagpipes and it naturally takes you into the realm of bagpipe competition. I think those of us who choose the path of competitive bagpiping feel that if only we can achieve success—even just a tiny bit— that that success will take us to further success, fulfill our need for validation, and clear the path toward a brighter piping future…or something. The fear of what it might mean if we accept defeat drives us onward. It goes on and on. Why else would we spend so much time traveling to games, practicing, buying gear, instruction, CDs, books…?
The trouble is that once we begin achieving some competitive success and are at it for a while, the flaws in the system become apparent. We begin to question the nature of what we do. Is being critiqued by an individual or individuals really the only way to validate the work we’ve been doing? Is competition really the only way to feel successful musically as a piper or drummer? Are prizes and medals the only way to gain the respect and admiration of our peers? (All of those questions are rhetorical by the way.)
Of course, we conceptually understand that the answer is “no” to all of those questions but, you’d never know it by the way we behave or by what happens at the 50-odd games sites here on the east coast. Our current system of competition is a negative feedback loop. A reductive process where “winners” are not the “best” but (more accurately) the “least worst.” Pipers, drummers, and pipe bands step in front of the judge(s) more often to find out what they’re doing wrong—whether they like it or not.
Which brings us back to anxiety and hope. The current system of competition stays exactly as it is by keeping the dynamic of anxiety and desire alive in pipers and drummers. As long as we remain insecure and afraid, nothing will ever change. You’ll hear a lot of talk about how to “spice up” bagpipe competitions to make them more interesting, which speaks to the fatigue many feel with the current format. But if we do that—spice up competitions and change the format, that is—are we prepared to also abandon that dynamic of fear and insecurity?
That is not to say that there is no fun in bagpipe competition. It can be thrilling and rewarding and there are many, non-musical aspects about it that are worthwhile. But would it be so hard to make it more rewarding by making a few tweaks? For example, how hard would it be to institute a 4-minute free-form solo medley contest? How difficult would it be to have pipe bands perform a 7-minute mini concert? I mean, the ideas are really all there. The hardest thing about it is abandoning the fear and anxiety in favor of fun and creativity.