Updated: Jul 24, 2019
Members of Wake & District are preparing for the next round of competitions which commence the weekend of August 3rd in Canada at the Glengarry games. Remaining games include the Montreal Games, Scotland County and Stone Mountain.
Because preparations can be more important then the competition itself — we wanted to share a particularly well penned piece Bruce Gandy authored; PREPARING FOR A COMPETITION (give it a read below).
Mr. Gandy points out fundamentals and offers strong advice. His article concludes with comments on the ability to focus.
It seems so very simple. But maybe because it’s so simple, it’s also hard. No matter where we play or why – if we fail to remain focused on the mission at hand…we fail. See you on the field.
PREPARING FOR A COMPETITION
Preparing yourself properly for a competition, in most cases, can be as important as the competition itself. The skilled professional generally has a routine in which he or she goes through automatically but in my experience as a teacher, I have found that each and every step towards the optimum performance must be carefully explained and instilled into the memory of the student, no matter what age he or she may be.
Some students will be able to pick up some of the tricks by watching and asking questions of the premier players. Others will not have the ability to do this, therefore, it must be taught. All too often I have seen this scenario: A person walks shyly up to the judges table and mumbles out the name of some tune which he will be playing. Then he stands back about ten feet and gets ready for the scariest two minutes of his life.
Standing at attention, he blows up the pipe, shifts it under the arm while sounding a flat or squeaky “e” as the right arm is still pushing up the bag and he proceeds right into the tune as soon as his right arm hits the chanter. He hasn’t marched at home or in lessons so whatever rhythm he had is now lost because he is now marching aimlessly along to a tune looking at the judge as if he wants his approval that he has gone far enough one way, now it’s time to turn the other way. No wonder he is scared.
I am sure that a lot of people have seen this sort of situation and I believe that with good tuition, the minor problems can be easily fixed so the person has a better grasp of what he is doing. The reason I say these problems are easy is because I have seen the youngest of kids marching up to the platform like they own the world and it is very impressive.
There is always an argument from folks who say “ he’s just a young laddie and it’s his first time and he’s barely been on the pipes six months, and it’s a new tune and so on. How’s he suppose to remember all that? “ Of course you cannot expect everything in a day but there are some things that can be learned easily and others that will take longer.
In preparing a person who is going into his first contest, I feel these two steps can be successfully usedto ease some of the nervousness.
1. Rehearsal: Plain and simple, this means practise the tune so you are sure of it and you won’t be wondering how the 2nd part of the march goes when you get up there to play it.
2. Role Playing: This procedure is used all through your competitive years but is most important in the early stages. What I suggest is that the teacher sits at the table with a pen and paper (teacher is the judge) and you (the student) play for him just as if it was Saturday morning at the Games. Starting off in the other room, the teacher tunes the drones, checks the chanter, and makes sure that the instrument is in good working order. Note - while the student is warming up, the teacher should be letting him know that everything is okay and giving him confidence. Don’t give him trouble right before the contest because he didn’t practise enough last week or he’s missing birls, etc., just try to put him at ease.
Now, the competitor (you) enters the competition area ( your basement, for example) and proceeds towards the table. This is what you do. You should be walking proudly with the pipes on your shoulders or in your arms. Don’t slumber along with your pipes like a child dragging his school bag down the hall. Stand at attention and tell the judge your tune! Don’t whisper!
When the judge is ready, turn around and get yourself ready. Take your time and relax. When blowing up your pipes, do not sound the chanter until the bag is under your arm and both hands are on the chanter as it looks terrible and sounds awful as well.
The next step is to learn a couple of tuning notes or a bit of a tune to play to get yourself relaxed for a few seconds before you start your tune. Now your bagpipe has hopefully settled back into tune and you are ready to start playing.
The more you go through these rehearsals, the better you will be on the day of the contest. You really have to concentrate for the time it takes to play the tune and if you can picture yourself on the platform, you will be much better off when the time comes for the real event. I would not suggest going as far as dress rehearsals at lessons, but just remind you to look smart when you play. Simple things like a tie done up, a kilt ironed and socks pulled up really make a difference. These few things not only prepare you to play with a bit more ease, they also begin to teach you proper ways to practise which is a very common problem.
Assuming that you have reached a higher level of skill, I would like to look at some of the tips and techniques of preparation and how to use them.
3. Nerves and confidence: Are you rehearsed enough that you are ready to give a good sound performance?
Having talked about this with many different performers, most agree that the best chance of getting rid of nerves is to be prepared solidly. James MacGillivray, an Inverness clasp winner says this of his own preparation: “I feel that as soon as winning or playing well becomes important, the nerves start to show through. If you are just out to have fun, then naturally, you won’t be affected by nerves as much. For example, If I know that the last ten times I played over the march, it was very good with no errors, I am confident that I am ready to compete”.
A person must be honest with themselves. One of the real problems of competitive playing is that the competitor doesn’t realise how well or how poorly they are playing. In this situation, it is advisable to not only tape yourself at home and on the field, but find another person whom you really trust and respect and listen to their opinion. Maybe you thought your jigs, for instance, were okay but when a few people start telling you that you are playing too fast, don’t just say “I don’t think so”, listen to a tape and listen to their opinion.
4. Fatigue: Although piping is not an athletic event, it is a performance requiring at times a lot of physical strength and mental concentration, therefore, fatigue can become an important factor in playing. For instance, if you are playing in the amateur or open class, you may have 3-4 solo events plus a band contest all in one day. If you take into account the extreme heat playing with a black jacket and hat, the possibility of playing for a drummer, the opening ceremonies and an average 1-2 hour tune up to prepare for the band contest, a person will most likely be very worn out before the band steps on to the field. As soon as you get tired, you begin to lose concentration and the mistakes suddenly start to reappear.
Everyone is affected in some way by fatigue, some more than others. If you are in good shape and you are health conscious, a day like this may not try you as much. On the other hand, the stress may wear you out to a point that you think you are going to collapse. Take advantage of any time you get to relax and use it wisely
5. Tune Selection: No matter how young or old or how good or bad you may be, proper tune selection for your competition is very important if you want to have any success at all. There are a great many things to consider when picking the right tune but the most important one would have to be - do not play a tune which is too difficult! The goal in a contest is to play your very best to give yourself the best chance to win the prize so why play a tune where technique and musicality are beyond your capabilities when you know that you can make a very nice job of a tune much easier. The other big problem I see with lower grade players is that they barely have a tune memorised and already they want to compete with it. This is competitive suicide.
Why not play a tune that you learned awhile ago that you are sure that you can make a good job of? Not only will you have a much better chance of success, you probably won’t be as nervous as you would be playing a new tune. You will have more confidence.
Picking a tune at a higher level takes a lot of evaluation if you want the right tune. Some players have what you might call a very heavy handed style and might pick tunes such as Atholl Cummers and John MacKechnie’s Reel while others might play a light handed version of Caledonion Canal and The Ness Pipers. This is a very broad comparison but the point is that some tunes, even if you like them, may or may not suit your playing. The trick is to find out either by taping yourself or taking someone else’s opinion and deciding which tunes best suit you. After awhile, the skilled or experienced player will know which tunes he can play to best enhance the musicality of the tune.
6. Technique: Depending on your level of skill, technique will also play a deciding role in the tunes that you pick. Getting control of technique is one of the biggest stepping stones to developing good music. It has to be clear, and consistent and there is no better way to achieve this than by playing exercises and the rule of thumb which I was taught is quite simple:
“Learn how to play the exercise properly then be honest with yourself. Don’t try to play the exercise 10 times over, occasionally letting yourself off the hook, just try to play it once correctly.”
If you can do this, your ability and control will be better and there is a much lesser chance of making an error in the tune.
7. Instrument: One of the most important factors in producing a good competitive performance is the ability to produce a good sounding instrument. Good tone can account for up to 50% of your total score when competing and an unstable bagpipe can also knock you right out of the contest if, for example, a bass drone stops.
You have to make sure that you know how your pipe is going to react. Most of what you need to know would be covered in a maintenance session but I’ll just point out a few things to look for when getting the bagpipe ready to compete with.
First of all, if you are struggling to blow the bagpipe steady, this will not only hurt your tone but your concentration of the tune will also suffer. Make sure that you check the bag for leaks by corking up the stocks and seeing if any air leaks through. If the bag appears to be fine, check the drone slides to make sure that the hemp has not dried out and lost its grip ( this is a common problem if your pipes have not been played very regularly). Then check the chanter reed to make sure that it is not too stiff and lacking in vibration.
Last of all, and what is one of the big problems in blowing a hard pipe is that the drone reeds are taking too much air. Getting the drone reeds just right takes a long time to master as moisture has such a great effect on them so just because the reeds were fine last week doesn’t mean they will be fine next time. Just get into the habit of checking each individual reed before you play.
8. Summary: Now that you have picked your tunes and practised hard and your bagpipe is going well, are you ready to compete? The answer is, almost. First of all, do you know how to march? If not, watch some of the veterans and ask your teacher how to practise this at home. Once you have this skill learned, It will soon become awkward not to march when playing this type of tune.
Do you have any tuning notes? There are thousands of pipers playing thousands of different tuning notes and none of them are right or wrong. Listen to others playing and try to also make up your own or get some help making them up. The only guideline that you need to follow, if any, is that these notes or phrases should be pleasant to listen to. The best way to check this is to tape yourself and listen to these notes with friends to decide if they meet your standards.
The last thing to look at is the ability to focus. I feel this is extremely important in practise and when used properly, it will be successful. It is no secret that athletes around the world focus on their task while practising and envision themselves either scoring, sinking the putt, making the highest jump, winning the race, etc. When you can see yourself playing great up on the platform, you will begin to believe in yourself and thus overcome those two big stepping stones, building up confidence so you know that you can win and controlling your nerves. What is there to worry about when you have already seen yourself play great several times and you are sure that you are going to win?