Why Do I Compete?

In the doldrums of the Midwest’s summer competition break (do you want to spend all day wearing a wool kilt in the Midwest heat in July?), I like to take some time to prepare for future performances, as well as to reflect on what it is I am doing with my piping time. Today, I’d like to talk about competition, why I find it valuable, and why I do it at all. I also require all of my students to perform in competitions, and though I explain to them why I find competition valuable, it never hurts to retread that ground.

Competition as Deadline
Angus at the Terry McHugh Competition, April 2015

One very common explanation for why pipers choose to compete is because it provides deadlines for learning new music. You can’t change a competition date, so all of your preparation needs to be finished before your first contest. When the earliest contests begin in January (Kansas City’s Winter Storm event), that makes it particularly imperative that your new material is completely worked out in the fall prior to the competitions. Competition generally is the reason many pipers learn reams of new tunes per year. Myself personally for solo competition must learn 15 new tunes per year – three of them being large piobaireachd pieces! A Grade 4 piper needs to learn a minimum of three pieces. That doesn’t even include band competition sets, which can be upward of 10 tunes for a Grade 4 band, and over 20 for a Grade 2 or 1 band.

By setting deadlines on music preparation, competitive pipers build up a formidable repertoire in only a couple of years. Planning out how to tackle your tunes strengthens your ability to learn tunes quickly, read tunes with ease, and refine tricky fingerwork. You can do all of these things without the deadline of a contest to face, but very few people have the self-motivation to accomplish it.

Competition as Community

Competition isn’t all work, though. Competitive pipers travel quite a lot. The travel schedule for a competing piper features at least three or four contests within the piper’s home region, and typically also includes at least one contest outside of their home region. Occasionally, an international competition makes it onto a competition schedule. Traveling frequently, usually to the same places year after year, builds up relationships with pipers in other parts of the country and the world. That travel broadens a piper’s horizons, both musically and socially.

Winning bandmates – (left to right) Jacob Schrader, Keith Murphy, Angus Martin. Springfield Games, 2015

Former principal of the Army School of Piping, Gold Medallist, and former Pipe Major of the Scots Guards Brian Donaldson once said that the special thing about being a part of the piping community is that you can go anywhere in the world, and you have friends. He’s right, too. Those friends can be folks you already know and have built relationships with, or folks who you can reach out to when you show up in a city, and by the end of your trip can be called friends. There is a vast support network everywhere – from South Africa, to Malaysia, to Scotland, to New Foundland, to Indiana. All of them compete, and they all have common ground.

While I was growing up in the Sir James McDonald Pipe Band – a youth-only band hailing from Portland, Oregon – I liked to compare the piping world to the wizarding world in Harry Potter. We had our own celebrities, our own “sports”, or own annual calendar of events, our own common language of terms and ideas, and a whole structure of living life which no one in our day to day lives knew anything about. During the weekdays, I was a high school student in suburban Vancouver, Washington. On weeknights and weekends, I was a bagpiper, and I traveled to Alaska, Scotland, and New York.

The Sir James McDonald Pipe Band at the Pacific Northwest Highland Games, July 2006

Today, I have close friends from coast to coast, places to stay if I’m ever in the area, and even friends in other countries. These are friends who are not going to be limited to just one stage of my life – coming and going as I grow older, or change jobs. Because they’re in the piping world, I’ll always be in touch with them. I’ll always be in touch with them because we’ll always have the bagpipes and the pipe bands in common, and each year we’ll maintenance those bonds. Competitive pipers and drummers have extremely durable and deep life-long friendships.

Again, you can do all of that without competing, but it’s a lot harder to justify without the demands of the competition schedule pushing you along.

Competition as Personal Challenge

This is pretty closely related to “Competition as Deadline.” Though competition gives a deadline, it also provides many layers of personal challenge.

Laureano Thomas-Sanchez and Angus Martin, Grade I and Grade II Terry McHugh Champions of 2015.

One such challenge is the challenge of improving entirely new tunes each and every year. This is important, because the more tunes you learn, and the more you really dig into, the more you can play other tunes which you will never compete with well. Competitions are no more or less important than your paid performances (or nonpaid ones) – the big difference is there is a judge present to see how you stack up against other similar players, and give you some feedback. It’s pretty easy to settle into a performance repertoire and never change those tunes out – but when you’re learning brand new tunes each year to compete, you’re more likely to find learning music easier.

Another is to bring yourself out of your comfort zone. The number of people who fully enjoy competition, and are comfortable doing it, is very near to zero. The bit of stress you have to deal with in competition benefits the rest of your piping life. What happens if some popular band contacts you deciding they want to feature a bagpiper on their tour, and you’re the first name they pick out of the hat from the local piping scene? Competition may be stressful, but playing with a band which makes tens of thousands of dollars – or more – in a single evening is significantly more stressful. Take my word for it – I’ve done it. Playing on a stage with Rowdy Roddy Piper, or with the Chieftains, is a far higher level of stress than competitions. But competition can prepare you in methods to deal with that.

Finishing Thoughts

This very easily could become a small book. I do not argue that competition should be all you care about in your piping life – it certainly isn’t. We play for the sake of the art, and for those who live the instrument and its music. We play for those who love and identify with Scotland – no matter where they are from or if their family came from Scotland back in the mists of time. We play because bagpiping is first and foremost about the music, and not the number of medals or trophies you win.

However, a well rounded piper competes. The piper doesn’t have to compete their whole life, or even a lot, but to truly benefit from everything the piping world has to offer, one must compete at some point.

So why do I compete?

Because it’s fun, and it makes the music I play for everyone else better.


Piping for the People

For those not in the know, Scottish bagpipe bands have traditionally competed in a circle, with their backs facing the judges and audiences, and the tenor drummers and bass drum being placed at the center of the band. This formation has been the standard since the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association was established in the 1930s, but has recently seen some push-back.

Pipey got back – the Fountain Trust Pipe Band competing in a circle at the 2017 Milwaukee Games

Notably, the Chicago Highland Games for the first time in 2015 ran its medley contests for Grade 3 and Grade 2 bands as a concert formation, and it hasn’t looked back since. In 2016 they did it again, and again this year on June 17. The audience in Chicago loves it, and it projects the full sound of the band toward the audience. Musically, the audience is the center of the performance, and judges can sit down beneath tents for some shelter.

Other contests in the Midwest have considered a similar switch, and places as far flung as Edinburgh (in Scotland – obviously, Indiana is the center of the world) have begun making moves toward that switch.

Behold the Music! The Fountain Trust Pipe Band in concert formation at the 2017 Chicago Games.

My two cents on the subject as a performer, and as someone who dabbles in owning equipment which records the audio and video of my band’s performances, the concert formation is plainly superior to the backs-out circles as far as acoustics go. I also have been playing in concert formation since I was little. In all of the debate over concert formation recently, it has gone largely unnoticed that the British Columbia Pipers’ Association has been running its Annual Gathering on Easter weekend of each year running all band contests in concert formation – on a stage no less! See below for some excellent video footage of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band performing their MSR this past April there.

At the BC Annual Gathering, every band performance is in concert formation. It takes place in a school auditorium, so they are extremely limited in the sort of formations they can put bands in. However, the audience all sit before the bands with the judges at tables just in front of the stage, and the band contests are performances – for the people, judges and lay people.

Why don’t we do it this way more often?

I could provide long lists of videos of bands performing in concert formation, but all one has to do is to take a listen to a band “turn in” to hear the drop off in sound:

Pipe bands simply do not draw the sorts of crowds they drew even 10 years ago at most small contests, and much smaller than they drew 20 years ago. Our contests are public events, integrated into a festival where each section of the games is meant to draw crowds and make money. Pipe bands being displayed as an attraction, facing crowds, meant to entertain people, are much more likely to keep competitions financially viable and are more likely to attract new players. When you can enjoy the music, you are more likely to want to play that music.

On the other end of the debate, I do respect the importance of tradition. As a band member I do like the atmosphere of camaraderie which occurs within the circle itself during contest. It is an intense experience, and the sheer power of the sound inside the circle is impressive. In the end, though, we are musicians, and is there a musical benefit to playing in that way? Our instruments are designed to face our audience, be it a graveside funeral in Flagstaff, Arizona or a packed concert hall in Glasgow, Scotland. Why do we compete with our instruments facing away from the audience?

I know there are other contests in the Midwest which are thinking of shifting over to a concert formation in their medley events, and this is an exciting development. However, I would like to see contests begin to tailor their entire format to concert formation – for all grade levels, and all event types. Hopefully contests in Scotland beginning to experiment with a concert format for competitions could lead to the World Pipe Band Championships – that holy grail of the pipe band world – to try it out for their top grade bands. If that happens – then we can truly have competitions meant as performance, for the people who love the music.