Be a Better Piper: A Few Tips for the Games

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace
The following advice may be of use to all pipers, but especially those who intend competing round the games this summer.

Before any public performance be aware that your bagpipe sound is 99% of the battle. You will NEVER do well on an ill-sounding instrument, yet even the more middle of the road piper can excel when his or her instrument displays vibrancy and accuracy of tuning.

I say, perhaps rather brutally, that you are wasting your time going out with a chanter incorrectly set and unsettled drones difficult to tune. That said, the games can be quite forgiving. A pipe shading off might not be noticed among the general hubbub: starting guns, generators, babbling tourists etc.

Before setting off, make sure your bag is completely tight, that the reeds are not taking too much air and that you feel comfortable even after 40 minutes of playing. The drones should be tuning just on the hemp or above. If your pipe is in good order you should be able to bring it to equilibrium after only ten minutes playing.

Winners of the best bonnets competition, Champion Pipers William Geddes and Gordon McCready at Perth games
Technique. Spare no effort in bulling this up, and if you play in a pipe band remember that what passes muster there may not be good enough in the solos. The quality of your fingering can have a huge impact on adjudicators. Nippy, clipped doublings verging on missed may be forgiven in the band circle but on the solo board they spell death to all aspirants.

In piobaireachd, where technique plays such an important role in embellishing the melody, edres, crunluaths, dares and double-echoes must all be played in lyrical fashion, never at any time intruding on the passages and phrases of your tune. (Get your Bagpipe Tutor 3 now and/or Jimmy McIntosh's excellent compendium.)

Know your tunes thoroughly. Test yourself. Play different parts of different tunes at random and see how well you know them. Putting in Clan MacColl? Play the third part on its own. Struan Robertson? Give us the last part. Lament for Captain MacDougall? What about the Taorluath Singling? How much thought did you need before arriving at the correct passage? This could be a gauge of how well you know your music. Try this now and see how you get on. When anxiety strikes on the solo board the first thing that goes is the memory. The piper who has done the work can play through the crisis. Those who have not crash and burn and it's back in the car, sans petrol money.

Allan Russell, winner of the MSR at the recent Highlands & Islands competition plays for judge Malcolm McRae
Allan Russell, winner of the MSR at the recent Highlands & Islands competition, plays for judge Malcolm McRae at Roseneath in 2008
Presentation: Remember that your performance begins the minute you approach the bench. Be courteous at all times; salute if you feel the need. Most judges are sympathetic to the nervous competitor; they've been there themselves and know what you are going through. They want to hear good playing; make the list easy for them by giving them that.

And don't torture yourself with all this nonsense of bias and partiality that has become such a disease recently. Judges worthy of the name will only be interested in your music, not who taught you, whose reeds or chanter you play, which regiment your father was in or which band you played in, or any of the claptrap that will forever remain the pernicious lifeblood of the disgruntled.

Be properly dressed. For men: kilt, jacket (unless the sun is out), bonnet. For the ladies, the equivalent. It is disrespectful to the bench, to the instrument and to the competition to appear in an uncaring fashion, slovenly kitted out. Let the way you and your instrument look reflect the importance you attach to your music and your playing.

Get your pipe spot on before your turn to play. Sometimes it can be very difficult to tune when you are slightly higher up on a platform; the field noise seems to be drawn towards the drones. So get them as good as you can before your performance (behind a car or coach) and then, if they are properly maintained and set, you should need no more than a slight tweak on the boards.

In piobaireachd competitions it may be worthwhile playing through a variation to settle yourself before you begin. If so, make sure it is one you play well and one that is in a similar key to your performance tune. Judges will be listening from the moment you strike up your pipe. Poor expression in this 'trial' variation can compromise their idea of your musicality or the impression you give thereof.

Steven Leask on the boards at the Argyllshire Gathering
Avoid slow airs like the plague. These have no place in a piobaireachd competition. Would you play a march? no; a strathspey? no. Well slow airs are in the same bag. Leave them there. And don't indulge in tuning phrases full of flashy digits either (and this applies equally to ceol beag). In serious piping these finger acrobatics are less than impressive. Leave the kitchen piping where it belongs - among the pots and pans.

If you are playing a setting of a piobaireachd that is seldom heard then ask if the bench would like a legible score. Do not thrust it before them unbidden and in such a way that suggests they might not know it. Be deferential and mannerly. I am not so sure that it is a good idea to veer away from the mainstream anyway. Leave that to the pipers who already have their Gold Medals and Clasps.

In both light music and ceol mor march/walk where the judges can hear you.  Don't turn your back on them for the strathspey and reel or the crunluath a mach. This is always a sure indication of technical infelicity.

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