The whole experience on online piping competitions is something many of us are quickly getting used to. For those who haven’t experienced this, CLASP member Gill Cairns and CLASP alumnus Bob Low recount their recent experiences ‘stewarding’ at two of them. We will follow this with the experiences of competitors.

One of my favourite weeks of the year is the one I spend volunteering at Piping Live! I’ve only missed two since 2013 and when it was announced in April that this year’s festival would be cancelled, 2020 was looking like being the third.

Volunteers have the opportunity to try many things. For example, I operated a camera at the Masters, stewarded bands through the streets of Glasgow, and helped out backstage at the Alasdair Gillies Memorial recital challenge. In 2015 I played in the CLASP World Solo Amateur competition for the first time and I now balance that competition with my volunteer duties. It’s a mad, busy, fun week and like everyone else, I was disappointed it wasn’t happening this year.

However, despite the current pandemic bringing about the cancellation of almost everything in our piping world, I still managed to take part in Piping Live! and in the CLASP World Solo Amateur Piping competition as both went online. Due to relocating this summer I decided not to compete in the CLASP competition but instead I volunteered to steward. I had already competed in a number of online competitions and was also stewarding at the recent online Aboyne Games competition held the week before the CLASP.  I thought perhaps I could bring some of that experience and be part of CLASP’s day and the Piping Live! online festival.

I was allocated Grade 2 Light Music and with the Grade 1 Piobaireachd steward, Helen Urqhuart, also required at the Silver Chanter event, I had the pleasure of stewarding a number of American and Canadian players during the early evening as well.

Preparations started the week before when I received the draw and contact details of the players in my grade. As a steward your first duty is to make contact with your players on their preferred online platform. Most of mine used Skype but I had a few using FaceTime and WhatsApp. By midweek, I had spoken to everyone and done test calls with those who wanted one. The next job was to ensure I knew what tune they were due to play. With the tunes announced about a week before, I just made sure to have a note of them beside me in case nerves got the better of anyone.

Margaret Dunn and her National Piping Centre colleagues, Helen Urqhart, Wilson Brown, Dr Andrew Bova heading the stewarding team. The volunteers were myself, Alastair Dunn and Bob Low. We had a WhatsApp chat group set up which was really handy if we needed a quick answer to a question. We even had time for a little light hearted banter – see Dr Bova’s Skype dance on the CLASP Facebook page.  I was extremely jealous of Wilson’s outdoor set up. Having recently moved to Malta, it was tempting to sit outside in the sun as well but one of the first things I learned here was how unpredictably noisy it can be so it was indoors with the air conditioning on for me.

Tea, notes, phone, laptop … bring on the first competitor. Gill Cairns on stewarding duties last week.

To the day itself and my first player at 08:40 UK time. I had my script and I had (I hoped) a nice friendly smile on my face. In a CLASP online competition the players have a draw time and as pipers ourselves, the stewards were very aware of how important it is that we call them right on time. Having been a competitor at the previous two CLASP online competitions I like the additional touch of a message beforehand to say everything is running on schedule so everyone got a short message an hour or so before they were due to play assuring them I was running on time.

After the initial greeting and quick recap of the main rules, I then asked the player to turn on their recording device after which I gave the stewards introduction which must be at the beginning of every entry and I wished them a good tune. While the player was tuning up, I took a photograph for the CLASP Facebook page and then pushed my laptop aside – so they didn’t see me while they were playing. In the absence of an audience we were asked to give everyone a round of applause when they finished, I enjoyed every performance so much I was clapping and cheering without needing that instruction. I knew most of the players and after they had played many of them wanted to have a seat and a chat. I usually had a few minutes before I had to prepare for the next player so I was happy to spend them having a quick catch up. 

Players and stewards have to be prepared for things not going to plan and while we had a couple of small technical issues there was one in particular that presented a few challenges. When I connected with the player they didn’t have sound, we moved on to a second then a third platform, changed computers, rescheduled and finally, we got the recording. The player remained calm throughout and that experience really stayed with me as a lesson in how to push through challenges as a steward and as a player. 

Before I knew it, I was recording my last introduction and settling in to enjoy the final piobaireachd of the day. It was so good to hear live music and to connect with friends in CLASP. Being online, we had the added bonus of players from all around the world joining us from their homes, gardens, even the local park. It really felt like a ‘World’ competition and I was as excited as if I’d been playing to hear the results announced.

While I really enjoyed my CLASP stewarding experience, I plan to be back on the other side of the camera in future. I would like to congratulate all the players on their fine performances and well done to the prize-winners, I look forward to seeing you all at the next one.

Like many another piper, July normally finds me juggling home and work demands to make room for some runs out during the summer’s competition season.

Not this year, of course.

However, the rapid rise of the online contest format has given us all an opportunity to fill the gap and when I was asked by Jack Taylor if I could help out with stewarding the virtual Aboyne Games, I decided it would be a good day to be on the other side of the screen.

So what was it like? The stewards quickly got together on a WhatsApp group for instant communication and with Jack’s patient coordination and a good-humoured Zoom call or two, we all lined up with details of our competitors for the day.

Prudently everybody was encouraged to ‘road-test’ each player’s preferred web conferencing tool in the days running up to the contest so that we would have no hiccups to upset the running order. Come the day, all went without a hitch thanks to this. If you’re entering one of these in the future, a takeaway is that it’s always good to check the link works with your steward beforehand! And although the full display of sartorial styles was on display, from the “just-out-of-bed” look to “John Burgess was scruffy compared to me”, every one of the competitors gave it ‘welly’: full-on piobaireachd delivered as though on the boards.

Bob Low stewarding in his baffies.

With that sort of commitment from the competitors, you want to make sure as a steward you do your bit to help them get a good run in and to ensure the timing works for everybody.

Having thought “that was an interesting one-off experience,” I then got the chance to repeat it when Margaret Dunn asked me to help out with the CLASP’s World Solo Amateur Piping Competition’at the online Piping Live!

How could I say no?

So that was me signed up for another day of the Zooms and Skypes. This time round, even more organisational wizardry on display from the NPC team: a WhatsApp group for the stewards, my phone pinging like a metronome with updates, constant checking of running order, stewards adjusting shifts and slots on the fly to cope with problems … the ‘full bhuna’ of frenzied, hidden activity beneath the surface. Regular photographic updates from each steward’s computer corner were required and it’s fair to say quite a few muscle-relaxing beverages appeared in these by the later stages of the event. And the banter was great.

I was allocated the five-hour evening shift on the Grade 3 piobaireachd competition and I can honestly say it passed in a flash. Here again, the great attitude of the competitors was a constant reminder that the stewards are there to help them and to ensure they have the best run they can. Consequently, as stewards we were all careful to be on time, to be encouraging, to disable our own cameras while the competitors were playing and to provide reminders of what to do with recordings, if needed.

Having participated in one ‘send a video to YouTube’ online contest as a competitor, and having seen the ‘live’ format twice as a steward, I would say I already prefer the latter format. It’s never going to reproduce all the features of a live contest but it’s growing and maturing in its own right; people are sharing experience and refining the format with every event. And let’s face it, trailing around in the glaur of a muddy games field, trying to tune pipes in a cloud of midgies and lunching on a rain-sodden square slice roll isn’t the best way to make great music anyway. Whereas in my two contests as a steward, I got to hear plenty of great music. In my slippers. What’s not to like?

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• CLASP is a Competition League for Amateur Solo Pipers. Organised by the National Piping Centre, it exists to provide a circuit of graded solo piping competitions for adult amateur pipers, to maintain a grading system and to raise the standard and profile of amateur piping. To join go to