Gill Cairns: Staying connected, part 2

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A few months ago, as Covid-19 was making its way around the world, I wrote here about the emergence of online competitions. Most countries were in lockdown and I, and my fellow ‘CLASPies’, had just competed in the world’s first live online competition. It was organised by the National Piping Centre’s Competition League for Amateur Solo Pipers (CLASP) and took place at the end of March.

We watched, first in disbelief and then in resigned acceptance, as pipe band and solo competitions were either cancelled or postponed one after the other. While the pipe band competitions couldn’t practically embrace it, the solo competition was able to switch quite smoothly into an online solution. As the opportunity was presenting itself, I thought it would be a good idea to play in some of the offered online competitions. Not only could I play in a number of American and Canadian competitions for less than the cost of one night in a hotel, I figured it would help my development as a soloist. After writing my first blog I had a vague idea that I might do a follow up.

So, let’s take a look at the various ‘outings’ I took part in. It turns out that every competition chose a different format – none were particularly challenging but it helped to be prepared and be confident using the required technology.

After the March CLASP competition, the next one I competed in was the Peel Police ‘season’: one discipline a month over four months and the first one was a march competition. After our entries were received we were invited to a trial run using Microsoft Teams. This went well and we moved forward to the day itself. I was given a time for my performance, which was an own choice tune. (I had decided not to dress in highland wear for this competition and the next one, before rethinking.).

CLASP member, Sven Volberg competing in the recent CLASP online contest. Sven won the Grade 3 Piobaireachd event.

Due to time differences – I live in Madrid, Spain – my performance was scheduled for late afternoon. I had an anxious wait as once I entered the ‘lobby’ it didn’t look like anything was happening but then a friendly steward sent a text message assuring me he could see me and at the appointed hour I was let in to ‘meet’ my judge, Bob Worrall. From there it was very similar to an in person meeting across a bench. We exchanged some pleasantries (the Spanish was a nice touch, Bob), I played my tune and he then gave me a few pointers on how to improve my performance. It was nice to have those few minutes with him after I played although my memory of the exchange is a little hazy. The following day we got our results and a few days later the crit sheet arrived which reiterated some of the points Bob had spoken about. I didn’t have to record my performance but I did video it and I’ll come to the reason why a bit later.

My next online competition was the Redding Piobaireachd competition. Having entered, we were giving a date by which to submit our video recording of an own choice piobaireachd. You get to record as many times as you like until you get a recording you’re satisfied with. You might, therefore, think that this would be the easiest competition to enter but that wasn’t the case for me. During a practice where I felt things weren’t going too badly I switched on the video recorder and captured a piobaireachd. I now had one I could send in but maybe, I thought, I could get something better. I spent the next three days recording every full piobaireachd I played. The evenings were spent reviewing and discarding.

Which performance was submitted?

The first one.

It wasn’t perfect but it was probably the most natural performance of any I produced that week. While it didn’t place, the sheet from Fred Morrison made me smile.

The West Coast Online Piobaireachd competition was next. The organisers very generously allowed us to select a time we wished to meet with a steward. Having switched on my video recorder the steward announced me and my tune (which had been selected from three that had been submitted prior to the day of the competition). After I played, I sent the video to the organisers. After two weeks the results were published and a day or two later our crit sheets arrived. This one was signed by Jack Lee.

 You may have noticed that I’ve named my judges in those online competitions. I wasn’t name-dropping. We all know Bob Worrall, Jack Lee and Fred Morrison but as an amateur who competes predominantly in Scotland, I wouldn’t normally expect to see them on the other side of a bench. This was a terrific opportunity to play for judges I wouldn’t normally encounter and I’m grateful to the organisers of those competitions for this.

I then came full circle with the last CLASP competition of the season. This followed the same format as the previous one. I met my stewards at the appointed time, made an audio recording of each performance that I submitted to the organiser after I played, and I made a video recording for myself. The following evening, the results were posted live and we received our sheets a few days later.

What the judges see. Gill competing from the basement of her house in Madrid.

I only had two small glitches to deal with, both involving time zones. I withdrew from the second leg of the Peel ‘season’ as my draw time meant it was 22:00 on a Saturday night in Madrid. It was a live performance for the judge so I didn’t feel I could ask for a change.

Time zone and technical issues are par for the course in online competitions. Like everything, it’s how you and the person at the other end handle them that can make all the difference. For example, in one competition, I was all set to play and awaiting the steward’s call when I received a cheerful message from him saying: “See you in an hour.”

That was the end of my online competition season. Living in Spain, where the temperature can reach 36˚C in July and August, I decided to take a break from competing at this point.

What about those video recordings I was making? Well, they proved to be very useful as they gave me a very useful insight into how I perform in a competitive environment. I would never dream of setting a camera up in the corner of the competition room but with the virtual events it was easy to do. It was well worth the small bit of extra effort to be able to review the videos with my teacher and find ways I can improve my competition presentation.

For the curious, I use a MacBook Pro with a Blue Yeti microphone and a Skype connection (unless the competition dictates another platform). For the competition entry I use an iPhone 11 whether it’s audio or video and an old iPhone 6 records the videos for my personal use. I have recently purchased a Zoom iQ7 audio recorder but I don’t feel confident enough to use it for a competition entry as I sometimes get technical interference with it. You don’t need all that though, a computer or laptop with a decent internet connection and a recording device will suffice.

(Photo: Billy Wardrope)

Some people get a family member to help with the recording but at the very least let people know not to interrupt you and get someone to take the dogs for a walk if they’re inclined to harmonise your tune. My friend puts a sign on the door just to be sure he is undisturbed – see photo. Oh, if you’re using your iPhone to record, don’t forget to put into ‘airplane mode’.

I wrote in my first blog about missing my piping friends but online competition has brought some of us together, just in a different way. We were there for each other on competition day as we reviewed our performances, shared recordings and later when we discussed our sheets and results. I reconnected with a couple of friends from my pipe band days who ventured into CLASP competitions for the first time and those of us who have been on the solo scene for a while delighted in helping them settle in. The support we gave each other helped with that sudden bereft silence that follows you switching off the computer after you have played.

I don’t always see the announcements of various online competitions, relying on friends to inform me of ones they know about. I joined a few online groups and then, sensing a need, created a Facebook group to try and help bring these competitions to people’s attention. I called it Pipes and Drums Online Competitions and it relies on people posting their competitions so hopefully it will go some way to helping others locate them. I was excited to see that the Competing Pipers Association (CPA) is organising an online competition. The C grade has just closed for entries with the B grade running in August and the A and Premier competitions planned for September. There are various other organisations running competitions online including the Pipers’s and Pipe Band Society of Ontario (PPBSO) in Canada and the World Online Piping and Drumming Championships. In Germany, the Bagpipe Association of Germany is very keen to attract an international entry to its competition. The CLASP is holding the ‘Remote World Online Solo’ competition next month. This one replaces the competition usually held during the PipingLive! festival.

I sometimes get asked which format I prefer in online competitions, and while I find merit in them all, I prefer the ‘one time’ live approach. I don’t mind if it’s the judge or a steward facing me through the computer but I do worry that my recording might not be technically good if the judge is relying on that.

The other question that comes up a lot is whether online competitions are here to stay. In recent years, I have lived in countries with little or no solo competition scene so, perhaps a little selfishly, I would like to see online competitions stay but not as a replacement for the excitement of travelling back to Scotland to play in front of a real live judge and audience. The live online competition gives you an allotted time to play and in the handful of live performances I’ve had scheduled the competition has never ran late. I wonder if this might become part of our solo competition day, particularly if we have to maintain social distancing moving forward.

After a couple of performances in street clothes I found that I prefer to wear my kilt and will now do so for every competition. I think it helps me get my head ‘in the game’ and it shows respect to the judge and the organisers for their time.

Next month, I get to see things from the other side of the screen, as it were. The Aboyne Games piping competitions for 2020 are going online and some of the professionals who have entered will be seeing me as their steward. I hope that my experience as an online competitor will help his one run smoothly on the virtual boards and I’m looking forward to hearing some great players ‘live’. Until then, I’ll analyse my own recordings with a view to improving my own performances and presentation. If you’re competing this summer I wish you a good tune and please everyone, stay safe. It won’t be long until we meet again.

* At the Redding competition, Gill’s tune was Lament for Donald of Laggan. Listen to her performance below:

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