On the last Saturday in February I played in the Archie Kenneth Quaich in Edinburgh, Scotland. Had I known this would be the last ‘traditional’ competition in Scotland for the foreseeable future I might have hugged my friends a little longer. I would certainly have tried to spend just a few minutes more with some of them.

From there, I flew directly to Orlando with my family. We were in the middle of a wonderful holiday when we began to feel a sense of change and urgency in the world. We realised we had to return home. Our flights took us first to Gatwick then on to our home in Madrid. Spain was being particularly proactive before we even left Orlando and her border was already closed to all but citizens and residents but we did eventually get home. In amongst all this uncertainty and activity, an email arrived from the CLASP organisers at the National Piping Centre (NPC). For those who might not know, CLASP is the acronym for the Competition League of Amateur Solo Pipers. They were seeking members’ opinions on the upcoming competition scheduled to take place at the NPC at the end of March. Rather than cancel it, how did we feel about holding it online, not just online but live? The proposed format was a good one and over the course of the next few days the plan was set. With a wave of enthusiasm and camaraderie that the CLASP membership is rightly proud of, we held the first ever worldwide, live solo piping competition. How did we do it? Well, I’ll come to that a bit later.

I hadn’t intended entering the competition when it was to have been held in Glasgow – it would have meant travelling back to Scotland days after I returned from Orlando – but I just had to be a part of this new adventure. I duly sent my entry.

The CLASP membership is worldwide so there was a great representation of countries. The numbers across all grades were healthy with a few new names from around the globe. It was exciting and a welcome distraction from what was going on in the world.

Gill Cairns competing at Inveraray in 2016.
Gill Cairns competing in a CLASP competition at Inveraray in 2016.

Within days of CLASP announcing its competition, the World Online Piping and Drumming competition was revived after a hiatus of a few years. Jori Chisholm did a remarkable job of turning this around in just a few short weeks. Hundreds of entries across dozens of categories from beginner chanter and drum pads, through the Amateur grades and Open. It must have been a huge undertaking and was met with enthusiasm from the now ‘locked down’ pipers and drummers around the world. The format was slightly different to the CLASP competition and there was no need to be registered with an organisation. Indeed, the competitors themselves selected the grade they wished to play in. It was the first opportunity for most to enter an online competition and they came in high numbers. While the spring contest is done and dusted, another contest has been announced for the summer.

Social media is a great way for us to share more than what we had for dinner or the latest adventures of our pets. Organisations are taking the initiative and either moving scheduled competitions online or creating new ones. While not an exhaustive list, this is what I’ve found recently:

West Coast Solo Piping competition on May 14 for Grades 1-4. There’s no geographic limitations but entries are limited to 35.

Redding Online Piobaireachd competition. This is also for Grades 1-4 (date unknown at the time of writing), having already held online Light Music competitions in early May.

• The Pipe Band Association of South Africa also held an online competition for Open and Juvenile players.

• Peel Regional Police Pipe Band recently announced its online competition which will be held on May 30 with further dates throughout the summer and is inviting players who are graded with a home organisation in other regions to enter although they may restrict numbers.

• Buffalo Scottish Arts School offer all grades in their Piping and Drumming competition being held on May 23. Under the rules of the EUSPA it doesn’t state if players from outwith the area can enter.

• CLASP has also announced two further competitions which will be held online: the ‘end of season’ competition on the June 20 and the World Solo Amateur competition on August 8. The latter is traditionally the first competition of the Amateur season and when held as part of Piping Live! it attracts a world wide entry. Hopefully, the online version will be just as popular.

As I researched the various online contests for this blog I became aware that the target group for the current online solo competitions is the amateur. Apart from the World Online Piping and Drumming competition, all others are for Grades 1-4. There’s not much doing for your Open or Juvenile competitor. An interesting observation I made while exploring the amateur competition scene worldwide was that the UK and Ireland are the only countries that maintain a separate register for juveniles. I could fill this blog with that research but I’ll save that for another time and try and stay on-topic. For clarification, being an amateur or a professional doesn’t always refer to the standard of playing. Quite simply, the basic rule applied to being an amateur is one who does not compete for prize money. That’s it! Starting out in Grade 3 (UK) and Grade 5 or D (pretty much the rest of the world) is generally a good place for the adult who has never played in a professional competition. Work your way up and while some chose to move into the professional or open grades, many chose not to. I digress.

Gill Cairns competing in March’s online CLASP competition.

I speak a lot about CLASP because that’s the organisation I’m a member of. CLASP, as I’ve already said, encourages people from around the world and in other organisations to enter their competitions. If you have a grade from an American or Canadian Association you can compete in that grade in a CLASP competition. Most, if not all of the American Associations will extend the same courtesy to players from outside their geographical area. As we seek new ways to compete and enjoy our music, I find myself wondering if we couldn’t expand on this someway? For an online competition to extend a welcome to the piper in Australia who can’t travel or the player in Ireland who currently has no traditional competitions scheduled, that could be something worth exploring. Of course, this would generally only work when the players are uniformly graded. As it stands, American, Canadian and UK registered players have clearly defined grading systems. However, a player in Australia or New Zealand doesn’t have an amateur league so either needs to find their own grade or seek the help of the competition organisers. A juvenile in the UK might not be able to enter an Amateur Grade 5 Juvenile competition being organised in America … or can he/she? Then there’s the 2020 Glenfiddich, the Donald MacDonald Cuach, the PM Donald MacLeod Memorial, the Masters etc … are our top players now consigned to judging the growing number of online competitions without the opportunity to compete themselves for the foreseeable future (a few at the recent World Online competition notwithstanding)?

The way we compete might take some time to go back to what we knew. We need to find new ways to engage in competition but even after borders reopen and we cautiously return to normality, will we have developed a lingering taste for online competitions? I wouldn’t like to see the demise of the traditional competition format, of course, but for now at least, the efforts of those who organise the online competitions in their many and varied formats are to be commended and supported. To them I say: “Bravo and thank you!”

I mentioned a couple of different ways that competitions are run online. Here are a couple of examples. The CLASP employed a system where each player was given an allotted time, the selected tune was advised a day or so previously (just to ease things along perhaps as players juggled pipes, technology and nerves). A National Piping Centre ‘steward’ video-called the player who then switched on a recording device. The recording that was taken – including an introduction by the ‘steward’ which acted as a time and date stamp – was then transmitted to the organisers and forwarded on to the judges. There were no second chances or retakes. Some wore highland wear just to keep things feeling as much like a competition as they could, and some were less formal. The World Online competition invited players to submit a video taken within outlined timelines, uploaded to YouTube, the videos were available for all to see. Interestingly, the judges’ comment sheets were published along with the results and links to every performance. I found this fascinating and quite educational. Some of the comments were witty, entertaining and encouraging but a small part of me recognised that I would find this very public aspect of a competition off-putting. On an aside, the Peel competition format focuses on one discipline each month over four months with an overall winner in each grade. This helps with the time management, keeps it interesting and is not too taxing on the individual.

It was while I was procrastinating with social media (I should have been studying) that I came across the question: “Why do many UK players not take part in online competitions?” The writer appeared to be under the impression that the RSPBA held the register for solo players. This is a common enough assumption as that would be the case in all other countries but not so the UK. Professional and Open players would generally be registered with the Competing Pipers Association (CPA) and amateurs with the CLASP, both of which have members from other countries as well. So back to the question, I think the answer is fairly straight-forward. We are two months into lockdown, give or take. I think the uptake in organising online competitions has been quick and plentiful but unless you know where to look, you might just miss them. As a prolific user of the internet and social media, I don’t think much gets past me but I wasn’t aware of most of the competitions I found when I keyed the words, “online piping competition” into the search bar. In fact, I now can’t find one I saw just last week and had planned to include here.

Maybe we need to find a way to bring the information together, a bit like the CPA’s Guide to the Games where all the competitions are listed rather than relying on social media and its much-lamented algorithms to keep us informed.

So far, the only UK based online competitions are being organised by the CLASP. Perhaps the CPA or other competition organisers will move their events online now that it’s becoming clear that restrictions on movement and gatherings will continue for some time? Further, could organisers find a way to collaborate on gradings to ensure a somewhat even playing field? That said, maybe I’m seeking to keep things too much like a traditional competition when all we really want right now is something to look forward to, something to work towards.

One of the reasons I compete is the social aspect, to see my friends. To walk into a venue and have someone reach to give you a hug, to share the triumphs and disasters, maybe a story or a chat with a judge … it all makes memories that I’m now reminiscing about in that nostalgic way we’re all prone to. Those days will return but for now we need to find a way to move forward and make new memories and maybe in time online and ‘traditional’ competitions will work together to be the ‘new normal’. I just hope it won’t be too long before I get to walk to a venue and hear that wonderful sound of piobaireachd variations wafting down from the windows. No online competition can ever emulate that. Stay safe, friends.

  • Gill Cairns has been a member of CLASP for five years. She won the Grade 1 competition at Piping Live! in 2016. Born in Inverness she now lives in Madrid, Spain.