A few online competitions have taken place as a result of the measures brought in to manage the Covid-19 pandemic, the latest one being the one by Aboyne Highland Games that was announced here yesterday. However, that one is for professional pipers. The first one that catered to junior competitors was The Matrix: Virtual Junior Solo Piping & Drumming Competition held in April and hosted by Burntisland & District Pipe Band, based in Fife, Scotland.

A total of 202 entries were received (128 on pipes and 74 on drums) from competitors in seven countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Ireland, USA, New Zealand and Australia.

This was a very well organised and pioneering competition, one that other organisers may wish to learn from. With so many new ideas coming through in what is quickly becoming a new and necessary competitive piping and drumming forum, Bagpipe.News asked the organisers, the competitors and judges of the Matrix to review their experiences of this new concept.

The main organiser of the competition was Bryan Spears who is a Piping Tutor with Burntisland & District Pipe Band and whose daughter plays in the band. Bryan is also Pipe Sergeant of Police Scotland Fife Pipe Band. We asked him what inspired the team to organise an online competition for children. Bryan said: “We needed a response to Covid-19 that supported youth tuition and competition.

Bryan Spears.
Bryan Spears.

“We knew from teaching over the hard winter that most of the kids had already spent many hours preparing for events; and this effort would be for nothing if we couldn’t provide them with an alternative to traditional solo competition pretty quickly. We were worried that with nothing to play for many young pipers and drummers may simply pack the instruments under the bed and give up; we needed to find a way to avoid a ‘lost year’.

“Our band is committed to providing free piping and drumming tuition to all; we’ve had fantastic support in delivering this from our tutors and our main sponsor, Briggs Marine. So we set out to apply this model to a new virtual solo competition – The Matrix 2020. The Matrix is a reference to the cult movie – it fit with the reality of being trapped within this dystopian simulated competitive world … pretty geeky.

“The competition was a team effort, run completely by volunteers made up of our admin and judging team. The key to its success was undoubtedly down to the enthusiasm and openness of our judging panel who supported us in developing this new model. They were a fantastic source of advice and guidance as we tried to balance competitor experience with judging format. We thank them all for volunteering to join the Matrix team: Lee Innes, Stuart Coils, Steven McWhirter, Douglas Murray, Mark Stewart and Shaunna Hilder.”

Lee Innes.
Lee Innes.

We asked a few of the judges why they got involved and for their thoughts on virtual piping and drumming contests.

The senior drumming judge for the contest was Lee Innes, an RSPBA drumming adjudicator. Lee said: “To give youngsters this entirely free opportunity to compete from home, anonymously and simply have a week or so to focus their practice during the lockdown was a great thing to be a part of.

“The standard was very high and there were some tricky decisions to be made splitting some placings. The banter with the other adjudicators was also good fun and it would be fair to say all of us were glad to be part of the project. Who knows, maybe this could become an annual event.”

Double Gold Medallist and Pipe Major of Police Scotland Fife Pipe Band, Douglas Murray, was the Senior Piping judge for the contest. He said: “This was a new experience for all the judges. We set up a chat and spent a few weeks discussing the judging format, making sure our approach was consistent across the team.

“Our feedback videos were a key output for us – a new way of providing feedback as tutorials to young players all over the world. Bryan tells me they have been watched over 25,000 times.”

Steven McWhirter, Leading Drummer with Inveraray & District Pipe Band said: “I throughly enjoyed the whole experience. The entrants all performed very well. It really is a credit to the Burntisland band taking on this ‘wee’ contest to keep their young members engaged during lockdown. It grew arms and legs to become a worldwide hit for young players. I was so encouraged to see so many young enthusiastic pipers and drummers embrace this form of competition during such uncertain times. Adjudicating a worldwide 2/4 March contest was a great way to enjoy my Saturday morning coffee.”

Shaunna Hilder of Vancouver, Canada, said: “Many judges, like myself, are instructors and have been teaching online for some time. Judging online is the next appropriate step. This new format, I believe, is here to stay. Players are becoming more and more comfortable with making their own recordings. Another key element is that this format eliminates the geographical boundaries and is very inclusive of all players – allowing feedback to be given over great distances. The organiser’s job – technically – is immense.”

Once the concept was conceived, it was developed and delivered within one month and the team had to adapt to a new way of working within government guidelines.

Bryan Spears again: “Given we were focused on delivering a competition for kids we wanted to trial a few new things, mostly out of necessity. For example, I worked with Lee to address child protection issues, ensuring that no images of competitors were accepted or shared, that only voice recordings would be accepted, and that intellectual property was recognised. All judges had participated in the Scottish Government Protecting Vulnerable Groups Scheme, or similar in Canada.   

Dougie Murray, Steven McWhirter, Stuart Coils and Shaunna Hilder.
Dougie Murray, Steven McWhirter, Stuart Coils and Shaunna Hilder.

“We settled on voice recording apps on mobile phones as the competition media for various reasons. It provided a leveller with respect to recording quality; meaning that the judges had to focus on technique and not tuning. Because of social distancing, we recognised that drummers would be constrained to stick and pad and would have to play without piping accompaniment. This gave as a chance to anonymise the files – providing a unique identifier for each competitor – resulting in a set of nameless files for each event. These files were then uploaded to a Dropbox folder to which the judges were provided with access. In this way, the judging could be conducted blind – and in the comfort of the home.”

This approach meant a very different experience for competitors.

Ann McCartan’s two sons, Christopher and Euan, entered. Both play with Mid-Argyll Pipe Band and, in fact, 2021 would have been Euan’s first competing season. Both Christopher and Euan were in the prize lists in The Matrix competition. Indeed, Euan was the overall winner in the 12 and under piping category. Christopher said: “Euan and I both enter solo competitions and were preparing for some when the news came that they had been cancelled. Then we saw the Burntisland online competition and thought it would be good to take part. We’d never taken part in an online competition.

“It was really different. We usually have to travel quite far for solo competitions and with early starts. I liked the fact that we could make the recording at our chosen time. I also quite liked the idea that we were judged ‘blind’ – although, actually, this wasn’t really something we thought about.”

Euan said: “I usually get a bit nervous before solos but this was just like a practice at home. I was more confident. I didn’t have to get all dressed in kilt gear and I didn’t get nervous recording my performance.”

Hamish Scott from Harris, Outer Hebrides, is a pupil of Ashley MacDonald and he gained a fifth place in the March. Hamish told us: “I entered the contest because, in the lockdown, I didn’t have much else to do at the time. I also enjoy competing and was interested by the idea of a virtual competition.

“While the format of the online competition was a bit of a change to a traditional competition, it was a lot less stressful. This was mainly because instead of spending all day in a tuning room, worrying if your pipes will go wrong or you’ll forget your tunes, all you have to do is send a recording of you playing. While I still prefer the traditional competition format, I think there is definitely something to this idea.

“The fact that anonymous recordings are used to judge competitors is a good idea. This ensures there’s no bias and that the judges won’t make decisions on things they already know.

Mark Stewart composes a critique from the comfort of his home.
Mark Stewart composes a critique from the comfort of his home.

“Not having a live audience was slightly strange, given that it’s what you’re probably used to in a competition. But then again, it takes away the risk of something or someone distracting you in the middle of a performance.”

Poppy Spears is the 12-year-old daughter of Bryan Spears. Poppy said she thought the competition was a good idea as all her local contests had been cancelled and she had been working hard on her competition tunes.

She felt it was an “easier experience” than the usual competition format “because there is loads of pressure when playing in front of a judge. This was much more relaxed. I felt I produced a better performance because I could go back and do it again if I messed up. Also, knowing about the ‘blind’ judging format gave me greater confidence in the results being fair.

“I didn’t feel the same performance nerves, but also I didn’t get the same buzz when I played well.”

Gregor Noble is a drummer from Dunfermline, Fife and is aged 10. Gregor is the son of RSPBA adjudicator, John Noble. Gregor said: “I entered The Matrix competition because I had worked hard for other solos and the outdoor season and was really disappointed when they were all cancelled.”

The experience was also an enjoyable one for Gregor who said: “With traditional solos I get one attempt and with this online one I could submit my best performance. Also, I think the ‘blind’ judging format is fairer as they don’t know who you are.”

With there being no live audience, Gregor said he felt less pressure: “I was a lot less nervous and more relaxed.”

Brooklyn Morris, from Inverkeithing, Fife, also enjoyed the experience. He said: “The format helped me to perform better. I played more confidently and with much less stress than normally. I liked the whole concept of the ‘blind’ judging. This is the way all judging should be.”

Georgia and Tayla Eagle, from Christchurch, New Zealand, entered the contest. Their mum, Kim gave the following feedback: “We loved the idea of an online competition as it kept our girls busy and focused even in lockdown. Also, how novel is it to enter a competition on the other side of the world. Definitely something you don’t do every week. Our girls did feel a little more relaxed about entering as you could do it in your own time and pace so the pressure wasn’t there in that respect but the pressure of getting the performance perfect for a recording was higher. We thought the blind judging was fantastic as it got everyone on the same level.”

The competition relied solely on communication through social media that meant that new methods of providing judges’ feedback to competitors needed to be found.

Bryan Spears: “We wanted competitors to receive multiple levels of feedback. Firstly, judges were able to ‘listen again’ to performances which hopefully resulted in more comprehensive and targeted feedback in their sheets. Secondly, we asked judges to consider providing general feedback to the field in videos. These videos have been openly shared through a dedicated YouTube channel and through the band Facebook page. The idea for judge’s feedback videos came from watching young Calum Brown and John Dew deliver excellent feedback speeches to the whole chanter competition field at the recent National Piping Centre’s junior solo competition.”

The need for social distancing required that prizes and the prize giving events had to be redefined. Burntisland & District Pipe Major Craig Hooper worked with parent and renowned Drum Major Adjudicator, John Noble, to produce yet another new approach.

Craig Hooper.
Craig Hooper.

PM Hooper said: “One innovation we trialed was in reward and recognition. We remembered the little faces of our students leaving prize giving ceremonies at indoor contests having worked so hard but receiving nothing in return for their effort; some in tears. We asked the kids in the band what the fairest way to deal with this was and they suggested drawing prizes across all entrants giving everyone the same opportunity to be rewarded for their effort. So, this is what we did, in combination with offering prizes to overall first place winners.

“We tried to focus our prizes on virtual lessons respecting the social distancing guidance and also breaking down international barriers. What better reward for our young players than beginning a new journey with the world’s best tutors and composers. The feedback form prize donors, too many to mention individually here, was amazing. A real show of community support from some of the most influential and successful musicians across the world. John and I estimated that about 20% of our competitors received a prize in this way.   

“Of course, we also wanted this to be fun, and to build some suspense throughout the event, recognising that no live music was accessible to the spectator; only, tutors, competitors and judges shared this experience. We tried to deliver this by including videos from our judges, spreading their results announcements out over a week, so that people could take time to listen to their detailed feedback and congratulate the shortlisted players. I knew we were succeeding with building suspense when I started to receive messages from people who were shaping their day around the results announcements; every day at 17:00, or thereabouts, our ‘march past’ would take place.”

Ellenor Waddell: one of the prize donors.

Ellenor Waddell, a recent graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and a piper with Fife Police said: “I was very happy to donate a prize in music composition to support this contest, won by Rylan Cliff from New Zealand. Rylan and I worked together over a few weeks to compose his first piece of music. I structured the lessons around key skills in structuring music and constructing melodies. The final product was a terrific piece of music Rylan has called The Journey. Well done, Rylan.”

With a growing number of online competitions being announced in recent weeks we asked Bryan and some of the competitors to comment on what they thought worked well and what could be improved upon.

Bryan said: “We used the Burntisland band’s parents and players to trial various approaches to submitting, processing and managing files. We wanted something that was repeatable; relied on small file sizes; did not require expensive recording equipment or advanced IT skills; that used file types that could be opened on all media platforms; and could rely on web based email platforms. This wasn’t a flawless process. Working quickly inevitably results in mistakes being made but we tried to minimise these by including multiple checks on files and emails and by producing clear guidance for competitors on file submission. This last part represented the greatest risk in the whole process – when separating the file from the email, manually transposing the competitor’s details into a spreadsheet, and then assigning the unique file name to the file. I can see that others have hopefully found more efficient ways of doing things, The Jeppe Pipe Band Competition looks, to me, to be the most innovative so far.

“My biggest mistake was planning the submission deadline during the scheduled Easter holidays in Scotland. I received lots of messages towards the deadline requesting extensions. As we watched the thing go viral (in the piping world), we realised we had to close entries as planned, for the good of the judges. In a little over a week, we received 202 entries, from seven countries [UK, Canada, South Africa, Ireland, USA, New Zealand and Australia], representing 48 listed pipe bands. On average, each judge assessed 33.6 entrants; each of our 15 events had an average of 13 entrants; the maximum entry was 35. Next time round, I would expect a far greater entry.

“We have watched with interest as others have attempted to develop their own format of online competition. Some have requested entry fees, some offer both adult and youth opportunities, some offer grand titles, most have utilised video recordings, judges have been paid, cash prizes have been won, charitable donations have been made. We are proud to have contributed in some small way to this movement; and to have provided a free and open competition focused solely on youth development.

“One of the great success stories of this project came in an email exchange from the parent of a young piper in New Zealand, Maggie McConnachie, aged 10, who passed on her thanks for the opportunity to fulfil her dream of competing in Scotland. I received this email at a particularly dark time in the admin journey and it made me realise the impact we were having – thank you, Maggie.”

We asked the competitors if they had any feedback for future events.

Weighing up the pros and cons, both Christopher and Euan said they would repeat the experience. Christopher said: “I’d definitely enter another online competition. Maybe they could be split up into different age categories rather than one junior event.”

Euan said: “I’d enter another one. This one was so easy to take part in and it gave me something to practice towards. I’d like it if there was a set time for all the results that we could watch online.”

Hamish said: “Just that I think there should be an annual online-based piping competition with particular focus perhaps on young pipers who may be new to competing.”

Poppy said: “Yes, they should maybe not use Facebook in future as not everyone has access to it. Use multiple social media platforms: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. Maybe get sponsorship so that every entrant gets a free t-shirt.”

Gregor said: “Yes, keep the format the same but open it up so that drummers can compete accompanied by a piper.”

Tayla, Georgia and Kim said: “Yes, definitely more virtual online competitions please. Possibly four times a year would be great. Since the Matrix our girls have entered five more online competitions around the world. They think it’s fantastic.”

When asked if he thought the event would happen again Bryan said: “I would be very surprised if this event didn’t happen again. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and we have been working to scope this out with friends across the world who have expressed an interest in hosting future Matrix contests, following this model.”

In fact, since interviewing Bryan we have learned that a team led by Kim Eagle of The Scottish Society of New Zealand Pipe Band has offered to host the next Matrix competition.

In an exclusive announcement, Kim told us: “We are delighted to be hosting the next Matrix competition, The Matrix Reloaded. Plans are already in place and we are working hard to make this another free and open competition supporting youth piping and drumming all over the world.

“Entries are expected to close late July and contest information will be posted soon on the Scottish Society of New Zealand Pipe Band Facebook page.”