Hello pipers! It’s Kevin from Gracenote Apparel to bring you some (hopefully) helpful tips to win over piping judges! So much of what we do is competition-based and everyone is always looking for that wee edge to put them ahead of the pack. Hopefully you’ll be able to take away a few tips from this article that will help you do just that.
Just a wee note - these only pertain to solo piping contests but I’m sure some of the points can be extrapolated to fit into bands or drumming contests also. This list isn’t meant to give you a shortcut to winning a contest – if you’re nae good, you’re nae good. This list won’t change that. So it’s important to get all of the things right that your teacher has been working with you – have a good sounding pipe, play with control and accuracy etc.
What this list WILL do is give you some tips I’ve picked up over the years that will hopefully help bridge the gap between the competitor and the adjudicator and make it easier for them to see things in your favour. Remember, this is a subjective game we are playing so if you can make the judge feel a bit more comfortable about your performance, maybe that will help tip the scales in your favour.
Enough rambling – here we go:
1) Give the judge time to get used to the sound of your pipes
Who knows what the judge heard right before you came on – maybe the last competitor was tuning at 465 Hz and you’re at 480, or maybe the person before you had a sharp D… whatever it was, you’re likely going to sound very different than the person who came before you – give the judge’s ears time to adjust to your sound.
The competitor is never expected to start their tune right away – take two or three minutes at least to play your favourite slow air or a variation of a piobaireachd to help the adjudicator get used to the sound of your instrument. Small imperfections can be forgiven in this time… maybe the judge will get used to your slightly sharp F. But above all, they’ll start to erase the sound of the previous player and hopefully begin to warm up to your sound.
A bonus advantage of doing this is it gives time for the judge to settle (finish writing the tune names on the sheet, preparing his comments section, getting organized etc.). It will also give you time to settle your nerves and focus on the tune you are about to play.
2) Submit tunes the judge will be familiar with
This is a tricky one. Many pipers like to be unique (after all, we do play the bagpipes). But from my experience, sticking to ‘safer’ tunes pays off more often than not. I went through a phase in my piping career where I refused to submit ‘popular’ tunes and would comb the most obscure books looking for a hidden gem, which I would sometimes find. But when it came down to prizes, I’d always get better results with my more popular tunes.
Looking at the top players, it’s not a coincidence that we recognise almost all of Willie McCallum’s, Gordon Walker’s, Jack Lee’s, Angus MacColl’s, Roddy MacLeod’s, Iain Spiers’, and Stuart Liddell’s tunes. They more than anyone would have the license and ability to get away with submitting something more obscure… but they rarely do. I think they’ve had the same experience as I have – submitting tunes that the judges likely know yields better results.
From a judge’s perspective, they feel more confident in the player’s ability if a familiar tune is played. They know you didn’t leave out a second ending, mix up the second and third parts, or leave out half of the doublings. The judge is much more able to sit back and relax and enjoy your performance rather than worry about looking like a fool for placing a player that completely went off the tune.
3) Don’t try to impress the judge with speed
Trust me on this – the judge would rather hear slower and accurate over fast and out of control. Probably one of the biggest downfalls of many pipers is they let the nerves get the best of them and they play too fast and out of control… OR they think that speed will win contests. It doesn’t. Judges primarily listen for three things – a good bagpipe, good execution and fingerwork, and good musicality. Nowhere in there was speed. Playing too fast will take away from those – you have less time and space to open up your execution and it will impinge on your musicality.
Keep it under control right from the start so your tempo doesn’t get out of hand before it’s too late and becomes impossible for you to scale it back.
4) Don’t do anything unorthodox
Keep it simple. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I’ve heard some crazy stuff while judging – from players breaking into different time signatures/idioms during a hornpipe/jig (like waltz or even strathspey), or submitting tunes with slurs/false notes etc. A good rule to go by is if you don’t hear any of the top pipers doing it (see the list provided in #2), then you shouldn’t be doing it. Save it for the beer tent later on.
All you’ll accomplish is making the judge feel uneasy and ultimately probably won’t give you a prize (even if the rest of your performance was good). Some associations may even have rules that will automatically disqualify a competitor for not following the exact rules of the competition.
5) Print your tune list off in advance
Submitting your tunes to the judge creates for some pretty awkward moments if you’re not prepared. I remember one time having to sing the tune to the judge because I forgot the name… how embarrassing! I’d encourage you to print off your tune list ahead of time – this will relieve stress from your brain having to remember the names, save you time (so your pipes don’t get cold and go out of tune), and makes the judge’s job a bit easier than having to remember the tunes you are reciting off to them (especially if it’s a long list like in the higher grades).
This literally takes less than 5 minutes to do ahead of time and will save you and the judge a lot of added stress.