Or “Observations of a solo adjudicator after the combined R U Brown solo piping contest and Australian Solo Championships 2019”
This article offers some thoughts about HOW to go about competing in solo contests for those inexperienced in doing so. Perhaps it will also generate some ongoing online discussion and hopefully encourage more pipers to give it a try.
Last weekend, I was fortunate to be able to listen “up close” to many solo bagpipe performances and was also given the difficult task of choosing the winners. I was blessed with 35 wonderful tunes by pipers who appeared to have prepared well for the contest.
During the day, it occurred to me that we often do not prepare our newer soloists well for the PROCESS of competing in a solo event. That said, I thought the general preparation of the soloists I judged at this contest was very good.
Solos are a very different way of doing things to band performances and band contests. While you are delivering a performance which rests entirely on your skills, it is generally a bit more relaxed. As an example, the “attack” and “finish” are not judged as part of the performance.
At the same time, there are things that you should generally do in a solo contest and what follows are some of my observations and opinions about them, prompted by last week’s event.
Know your schedule
The first thing is to be clear where you need to be, at what time and what you are supposed to do there. Be on time to register that you are at the contest, arrive on time at the judging point (having ascertained where all the points are that you will play at) and come to the judging point ready to play the correct tune(s). I have had a piper come to my judge’s table to play a 6_8 march, when the requirement was for TWO 6_8 marches. He had not practised this and stopped the rhythm for a few seconds between the two tunes i.e. he didn’t actually play them back to back. Not a good look.
Don’t practise on contest day! You need to be mentally (and physically) fresh when you compete. Maybe you could run through your tunes once on the day, but if you haven’t got it right by now, you won’t have it right by the time you compete, and you will only tire your mind. Besides, playing for too long may have detrimental effects on your chanter reed due to moisture.
Check your instrument
Check that your instrument is behaving. It’s not a time to be doing maintenance; if it’s not right before you get to the contest, it won’t be easy to fix it reliably on the day. However, it still should have a quick check-over.
Allow your instrument to acclimatise, particularly if you have traveled to get to the contest. This was really hit home to me when I competed in Canberra a couple of years ago. The atmospheric conditions there (partly due to altitude) in Canberra are so different to Sydney that I had to restart instrument setup almost from scratch. But even if at a place you live near, instruments take a little while to settle into their environment. Note that keeping your instrument outdoors and tuning up outdoors when you are going to play indoors is not the greatest of ideas. Similarly, don’t prepare in the sun when you will play in shade – or on concrete when you will compete on grass. Sadly, often you have no choice of where to prepare.
Don’t tune up too near to a judging point
A major bugbear of mine – please do not tune up too near a judging point, unless it’s your turn to play.
When you go on to play
First impressions matter
When I am sitting at the judge’s table, the instant a piper takes the first step towards me, I already have an idea of what I am about to listen to – perhaps a polished performance, or perhaps something likely to be a bit sloppy. I judge on the merits of the music I hear, but I am already alerted as to what to expect; happily, I am sometimes (!) wrong. I have no desire to see solo performance become an exercise in military precision, but PROFESSIONALISM and the associated display of confidence should abound. Stand tall, be deliberate in moving toward the judge. The judge deserves some respect, but so do you, as a well prepared performer.
Pipes down or pipes on your shoulder is a matter of personal taste. I prefer to have mine down.
Beyond meeting the required rules of dress in competing, make sure your attire is well presented. When I see a piper coming on looking sloppily dressed, I gauge that he/she does not take his/her appearance seriously, and most likely won’t treat detail in their musical performances seriously either. As I have said, I judge on merit – but I can see what to expect. Your performance starts when you take your first step towards the judge (or earlier).
I can also see those who are into “bling” and can see where their focus is.
Not a direct comment about “bling”, but a piper played to me a few years ago with ribbons over the cords connecting his drones together. Part way through his performance, a piece of ribbon blew up over the top of his outside tenor drone and temporarily put it out of tune. A learning exercise for him and he no longer uses ribbons in solo contests.
A last word on attire; some years ago, a piper approached the judging table when I was judging and was wearing a flouncy Jacobite shirt, with black shoe lace drawstring. I guessed he was not so familiar with how to present himself for a solo contest. He then proceeded to play his tune for me with his chanter physically over the judge’s table (my poor ears).
My point is that physical presentation matters in making impressions. Poor or inappropriate presentation is disrespectful to the judge, to the audience and, importantly, to yourself.
Your instrument appearance
Pipers who come on and play without a bag cover over their pipe bags are equally not taking performance seriously (of course, barring last minute wardrobe failures). The same is true for pipes with silver or nickel ornamentation that is tarnished i.e. has not been cleaned.
Acknowledge the judge
When you get near to the judge’s table, acknowledge the judge. I always salute the judge (assuming I am wearing the required headwear), but in a professional, non-military way. Some pipers would disagree with me about saluting, but most will still acknowledge the judge either with a nod of the head or “good afternoon” or similar. I note in Scotland that, particularly in upper grades when indoors, pipers also acknowledge the audiences before and after their performances. This is all about creating an environment of mutual respect with an appropriate pinch of humility.
On occasions, I have had a piper offer a hand for a handshake. While I’m not a particular fan of doing that, I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with it. But be aware that your personal manner in doing so can also create a negative impression with the judge, which it did on one occasion for me as a judge.
Conversation with the judge
Usually, you will have a brief conversation with the judge about the tune or tunes to be played. This can be polite and friendly, but do make sure you are close enough to the judge’s table that he/she can hear you. In some circumstances, you may find it useful to give the judge a copy of your sheet music, but that is most often relevant to piobaireachd.
If you need to give the judge a number of tunes to select from, have your tune names written (preferably printed) on a piece of paper or card to hand to the judge. I see this done sometimes, and it just reeks of professionalism and preparation.
Preparing to play
When the judge says “When you’re ready” or words to that effect, it’s all over to you now. Step back from the judge’s table at least three or four paces and move your focus to the job at hand – which is one thing only: to play a nice tune for the judge and audience. Forget the scoreboard, forget the video cameras of the spectators – you have only one job to do.
What about nerves
There are many discussions on this topic, but I will share how I deal with nerves. I simply accept them. They are a natural part of performance. I have been told that, in my younger days, I always looked so calm when I went on to compete, but I know I was always somewhat nervous. The thing is that I just accepted nerves as a part of the gig.
Starting your pipes
You are not marked on how you start your pipes, but don’t forget that impressions are important. If you start with tenor drones that are squealing and just let them right themselves when your bag pressure is up, that’s a bad impression. If you start up playing a D (or an E for that matter) with no bottom hand on the chanter, bad impression. (If you start up and let your tenor drones double-tone playfully for 30 seconds, you’re an expert. 😊 Seriously, don’t try this in a competition – it’s a party trick.)
Get your instrument comfortably under your arm – no need to rush. Have a listen as you move around a little. If it is necessary and you are capable, use these two or three minutes to refine your tuning. But, at the last minute, when you are about to start your tune, make sure your bag is well tucked and you are comfortable, then make a definite signal to the judge that you are about to start. I normally do this by stopping my movement around the room and playing a good solid E (with both hands on chanter, of course). On occasion, I have even nodded to the judge.
Pipers have a habit of tuning to the nth degree (Just ask drummers. 😊 ). However, taking forever to tune before a solo performance is annoying to judges and audience, and, in my humble opinion, rarely produces a noticeably better result. Also, I have seen so many times pipers come on with their pipes reasonably in tune, then take an exorbitant amount of time to put them out of tune.
Let your pipes settle for a while when you first blow them up, then adjust if necessary. I have written a separate article on the use of complicated tuning phrases and “fiddly fingering” when tuning ( https://thebagpipeacademy.wordpress.com/2017/04/28/three-drone-tuning-processes/ ). It does not help with tuning your drones, and annoys me while I watch a piper taking up time to NOT tune them.
Another tip: if you are about to play a particular type of tune, do not play that type of tune (especially the one you are about to compete with) while tuning up. A judge is within his/her rights to declare that you started and either played the wrong tune or did not complete your tune, thereby disqualifying you from that contest element. I believe judges are generally reasonable about this, but don’t risk it.
Playing your tune
Start your tune off with a bold first beat note. It sets the tone in your mind for a confident performance and sounds good to your audience. Then play with feeling and expression. You’ve done as much work on your doublings and other embellishments as you can prior to the contest, so make sure the first one or two work well then concentrate on expression.
Marching while playing
You are not required to march while playing. In D grade, I would even suggest it’s better that you don’t. In A grade, it would be unusual if you didn’t for marches. Marching should not be military style, but professional and as an assistance to good expression.
When you march in a band, a counter march (a U-turn) is done by turning to your right. In a solo performance, you are better always to turn towards the audience (in a contest, the main audience should be considered to be the judge). I have seen A grade soloists over the last 12 months not doing this. You are not judged on it, but impressions count, and, if I can’t hear a competitor’s chanter clearly, I can’t give him/her credit for good performance at that point.
Most solo players don’t turn quickly – they take several paces to complete the turn. This is fine, but overdone it can look a bit sloppy. They usually barely lift their feet off the ground on the turns, which is also OK. Of course, if you turn away from the judge in the process, he/she may miss up to 3 or 4 bars of clear playing.
Many pipers make a point of stepping off boldly on a strong beat after a turn, usually a left foot beat. I do, most often at the start of a phrase. But I have seen some actually take a small step BACKWARDS with their right foot on the previous beat before stepping off. I am not a fan of this, but I guess each to his/her own.
Now – an important pointer. When playing a slow air, do not slow march in time with it. A slow air should allow very free expression. Some are suitable to tap your foot to, some are not. Generally, I stroll (not in time with the music) while I play slow airs. I always stroll when playing piobaireachd, as do most A grade soloists.
Tapping your foot while playing
When playing in a band, you are taught not to visibly tap your foot. In solos, most pipers, including myself, tap their feet when playing anything except marches, slow airs or piobaireachds. The lift and drop of the foot with the toe pointed downwards that we often see now by Pipe Majors in bands probably doesn’t belong in a solo performance. It is good as a very clear signal from Pipe Major to players, but not necessary in solos.
It’s important that you tap your foot the correct number of times per bar i.e. once for each beat. I so often see players tapping double time in marches or reels, or only two beats per bar in strathspeys. This practice distorts the correct rhythm of the tune being played. To highlight this, I can listen to a band playing a strathspey and usually tell without looking within two bars whether the P/M (and often the bass drummer) are beating two or four beats per bar. If you don’t know how many beats in a bar, then perhaps a little time invested in music theory would be helpful.
On piobaireachd; you MUST not tap your foot in time with a piobaireachd. While a piobaireachd has rhythmic characteristics, tapping your foot in time indicates very clearly that you don’t know what piobaireachd is about, and you are not going to be expressing it properly. Some pipers do make physical body movements while strolling and playing piobaireachd. This is an aid to expression, but no serious piobaireachd player would consider tapping his/her foot.
When you are approaching the end of your performance, do not start emptying your bag. You are not judged on your finish, so keep blowing and keep the bag at full pressure, and therefore your chanter at true pitch, until AFTER your very last note. Then play a low A or something while emptying your bag for a finish without trailing drones. (Tip: If you know your drones are now out of tune a bit, play a few birls close together so the judge can’t hear the drones so well. 😊 )
Also, don’t rush the last few bars. Play the proper rhythm, tempo and feel of your tune until the very last note.
Once you have stopped, acknowledge the judge and maybe the audience again and either walk off, or wait for a quick comment from the judge. Different contests may work a little differently at this point.
Don’t play like a band player
As a soloist, you need to do things differently to the way you do in a band.
Your sound should not be big, bold and strong. It should be rich, but a little more mellow. The big high A crackle is not good for solos. I personally like to hear a bit of a hiss on high A, but not a crackle.
Your instrument should be more focused on comfort than on contribution to volume as in a band.
Band tunes often do not make good solo tunes. While tune selection is another topic of its own, I have seen performances where pipers played a sudden-death start on D into the Highland Cathedral, as their band probably does. In fact, in some cases, this was the first sound their chanters had made since they walked on. Likewise, four beats in a row of a single note, sometimes used in band musical selections as a bridge, are not good in solos.
Learning from experienced soloists
I encourage all budding soloists to watch performances from top soloists. You can learn so much by watching and listening.
But I also offer a word of caution: just because an A grade soloist does something doesn’t mean it’s NECESSARILY a good thing to do. Remember, a lot of A grade soloists have also grown up without adequate performance instruction. Look at what they do, understand WHY they do it and then decide if it would be helpful to you or not. Picking the right things to imitate can be of great benefit, but the wrong things can be a distraction and even damage your efforts.
As an example, there appears to be a current epidemic of solo pipers tuning drones while playing D. This makes no sense to me whatsoever, but I see pipers copying this idea, because famous player Xxxxxxx was seen doing it. Note that this would have to be a falsely fingered D anyway!
As a second example, I noted a top international solo piper recently tuning drones by starting with both outside tenor and bass drone going – but who knows if this was perhaps because of a shoulder injury meaning he couldn’t reach the top of his bass drone to stop it (as an aside, I tune without stopping any drones).
Finally – receiving prizes
I have seen so many times a soloist receiving a prize at the end of a contest, not wearing the attire he/she competed in, perhaps even in jeans and T-shirt. Whenever you are in public, you are creating an impression. Always make sure it’s a good one.
I hope this article provides some food for thought and maybe even encourages a few people to give solos a try. I hope it also generates discussion to add to what I have said or even to give an alternate opinion.
Principal, The Bagpipe Academy