by Michael Grey
Piping Today #66, 2013.

Winning isn’t everything, but it beats anything in second place, said the American poet, William Cullen Bryant. Competing pipers and pipe bands might swear by Bryant’s words. The driven need to compete is firmly soldered very near the heart of the piping world — and — to be truthful, near the heart of all who walk the boards. Pipers have been known to strike up a tune for the flimsiest of prizes: a plastic trophy, a chanter reed, a ball of hemp. Money is no object. Pipers. Must. Compete.

We know people have always loved competition.  Even the Bible has something to say about it: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”  I have no deep knowledge of this Book but holy smokes, even the Bible suggests — no says — if you’re going to compete, you’d better damn well go for it.  

But why do pipers compete? Other musicians seem to get by fine without the cruel competitive blood sport that is the piobaireachd at Glenfinnan, jigs at Glen Isla, or, the super atomic ring of death, arena one at the World Pipe Band Championships. True, there are high falutin competitions peppered throughout the classical music world — $20,000 to the winner of the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, don’t you know — but nothing seems to quite compare to the tradition and intensity tightly set among pipers.

I believe there are a couple of reasons at the core of the question why. 

First, as an invention born of rural roots, a folk instrument, there has always been plenty of opinion as to the questions of what’s right, what’s good piping.  Geography and circumstance helped in the development of different styles and approaches. Isolated piping hotbeds and schools of thought would invariably meet — say, at a place like Falkirk — and the only way to satisfactorily settle the question of what and who stands as the best (outside of a fist fight) would be a competition.  Many today view most big contest outcomes as the gold standard in preferred tune interpretation and what personifies “good piping”.  While today’s piping may be more homogenised, less stylised, than the old days, contests still stand as an arbiter of what’s good — and, in turn, what is not. 

The second reason is all about the instrument itself: loud and proud.  For an instrument not tailored for indoor performance or always easy-to-digest music, a contest offers an angle of entertainment that ups the listener’s excitement level.  The messy, dejected breakdown is solo piping’s rolling Formula One car crash, the pipe band’s missed introduction or “early E” is the singer’s forgotten lyric. The audience at a piping contest is never averse to a little tragic choking among the sonorous examples of virtuosity. It’s all part of the good fun.  

Oh, one more, competition offers pipers a performance platform in a world where few exist. We’ve created our own special welcome world where the good old tunes can be freely administered, without fear of anything but (the cruel and cold) judgment of aficionados and peers.    

But for all the good that comes of competition — consider alone the intensity of competitive performance that leads to high standard of play — there is one truth we can’t overlook: with competition comes winners and losers; in fact, far more losers than winners. The late prize-winning machine, Donald MacPherson, said he always admired the pipers who competed regularly and got few prizes. For him, the high prizes kept him on the boards and without them he’d not likely play.  

So if competition has an easily understandable place among drone and chanter, what sustains MacPherson’s (large) admirable group of pipers and pipe bands that compete — and seldom win prizes?  There’s only one winner. The odds are stacked against anyone, or any band, entering a large competition. The world is rife with second-fiddles, runners-up, nearly men and losers. Competition often tears down rather than uplifts and when there’s no shiny bauble or ball of hemp at the end of the day, what sustains a competitor, the winning impaired?

For some, it might be the thrill of the chase. For others, it might be a little like a lottery where you have to buy a ticket to have a chance to win; think contest entry as virtual lottery ticket. For most, I’d say, it’s for love — the love of the music. Competitions offer a place to make music, a forum for those with winning mindsets to be the best they can be. Learning how to lose is a first-line character builder; learning how to win is a distant second.

To win first prize is not part of everyone’s definition of success.  Success comes in a broad variety of forms and flavours. Winning first prize is an outcome. That’s not to say the self-aware also-ran fails to walk away with something — perhaps a prize of an intangible kind. For the vast majority, that is the winning impaired, competitions are only parts of a journey, a musical adventure where being your best trumps being the best. Piping is not all about winning the prize.  

The author Margaret Atwood recently talked about the winning impaired, she offers a little competition insight:  “There are lots of good writers who are not prize-winning authors but if you’re really hooked on the prizewinning thing, go to the store, get some of those round, gold legal seals, get something embossed on them — Latin is good — and stick them on your books. People will think you’ve won a prize.”

Or, treat yourself to a brand new beautiful ball of hemp and carry on. •