The Secrets of Solo Bagpipe Competition

On the February 3, 2011 installment of Bagpipe Nation, we covered a lot of ground talking about the game of solo bagpipe competition. And solo bagpipe competition is a game. Like any game, once you know the rules you can play. But to play the game really well you need to grasp the inside secrets—the subtleties, the nuances. The basic rules are the nuts and bolts. The real game comes when you can answer the strategic questions that will help you navigate the playing field. Developing a strategy and a game plan is an ongoing effort but here are some of those answers.

Where do I go? Plan your traveling. The calendar is a known thing and dates are set. Games are typically the same weekend every year so it is easy to juggle dates and travel plans. Check the EUSPBA calendar. The easiest approach is to stay local and find the closest games within an hour or two’s drive. But traveling long distances is sometimes the best way to prepare and gain experience in navigating the game.

Should you play at big contests or small? Many games on the east are small events that draw only a handful of solo competitors. Sometimes, to really test the waters of solo competition you have to throw in your glengarry at a larger festival where your grade may be broken into as many as three large groups. Sometimes there is no substitute for that kind of exposure. You get to really see the field in its near entirety. On the other hand, playing small events is more personal and you can sometimes get better feedback from a judge as well as gain some success and some extra motivation.

When do I enter for competition? All games will have an entry deadline. All games these days also have a website with competitor entry information or downloadable forms. The first entry received will be the last to play on the field. Get your entry in early. Playing last is considered to be very desirable by experienced competitors. Not only does that give you more time in the morning to settle in and warm up, your performance 21st on will typically be more memorable to the judge versus the player who was the 1st to play two hours before. The downside: The judge could very well be tired and your performance will have to be that much better to make an impression.

The Stewards keep bugging me, how do I handle them? Keeping pushy stewards in line without losing focus or getting rattled is an art. Many will be polite and want to do what is best for you and the judge. But sometimes there are one or three who try to pressure you to go on before your scheduled time or tell you where you should be while warming up. Stand your ground and don’t be afraid to dictate the terms of any change to the steward. Insist on keeping your order of play within reason or tell them when you will be ready. Try to be flexible and don’t be rude. Winning their favor will win their cooperation.

How do I approach the judge? There is always a lag between competitors. The judge is typically finishing score sheets and making notes. Be ready and use this time for last minute tuning. This is an additional bit of time when no other competitor is nearby and nothing is happening. When the judge is ready, stop playing and approach the table to give your tunes. A “good morning” is always a good way to start off on the right foot. Don’t engage in small talk. Exchange pleasantries, present your tune(s), and go about your business. Strike up and begin your final tuning. If you’ve used those minutes between competitors wisely, your final tuning should be a snap and your instrument should settle quickly. A quick final tuning may impress and catch the judge’s attention all the more.

  • eileen

    As someone who volunteers as a steward at EUSPBA events, I think it’s unfortunate that you didn’t provide the same objective advice about stewards as you did with the other aspects of competition you listed. As an experienced competitor, you know that the schedule is a guide. There are so many variables that change the timing of events, to think that every competitor will play exactly at their listed time is silly – especially the later it gets. My best advice for any competitor is to check in with the steward/s at the beginning of your scheduled event/s. Find out if the event is running on time. Let the steward know where you will be tuning, so he/she can find you when it is your turn to play. The vast majority of stewards and competitors are lovely, wonderful people. It’s disappointing that you chose to focus on the negative few.

    • Vince

      Eileen, thanks for your comment. You are right that the large majority stewards certainly make competition a more pleasant experience! (And believe me more than one has made the extra effort and has saved my kilted butt from disqualification.) But the item in my list is designed to provide advice for the competitor who is in fact dealing with those rare few who may be making the experience not so pleasant. Preparing for competition is nerve-wracking enough and that rare steward who might be pushier than average can ruin an entire morning. Competitors have no control over that and will never know when or where they might encounter them, but competitors do have control over how they handle it.

      • eileen

        Thanks, Vince. I understood that anxiety was the motivation behind your point. However, your question and answer create an adversarial relationship. “Keeping pushy stewards in line,” “standing your ground” and “dictating terms” is neither being “flexible” nor “winning their favor.” If a steward comes for you earlier than you anticipated, ask why, so you can make an informed decision. If you’re not ready to play, say so and ask the steward to move on to the next competitor.

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