A simple framework for judging practice chanter competitions

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By Neill Mulvie

Judging practice chanter competitions is fraught with danger. It is surprising how often the competitor’s tutor and even parents feel they themselves are being judged and some are not shy in letting the judge know when they are not happy with the result.

And some can be quite persistent. The late Jimmy Young (a great player), with whom I judged a number of times, could often be more than somewhat tetchy. He also had something of an aversion to completing Crit/Score Sheets. I remember a competition where one parent was quite persistent in asking for a Score Sheet and Jimmy eventually provided one, writing a final comment, “Avoid this person at all costs”. Not really appropriate but it did and continues to amuse me when memories of Jimmy come to mind; happy days.

I’ve judged a fair number of chanter competitions in my time and after judging an online one recently I concluded that quite a number of competitors had not given much thought to what elements influenced the decision. Many were clearly just following the common advice: “Just get up there and play well”.  

I have a framework which has three elements. In order they are:

  • The Instrument,
  • Fingerwork, and
  • Musicality.

… each subsequent step being founded on the previous one. 

Of practice chanters it is often said, “Oh the tone doesn’t bother me. It’s not the bagpipe and it’s not important for beginners.” But the tone and tuning of the practice chanter are important. Beginners should learn at an early stage the importance of a well-set instrument. Many of the tuning apps available today will help beginners tune their practice chanter to a balanced scale as they begin to train their ear. Badly tuned practice chanters have to be unacceptable. It is also the case that some competitors play with chanters that lack a pleasant musical sound. Assessing balance and pitch is objective, assessing sound quality more subjective. A well-set practice chanter sound is a non-negotiable foundation for good music.

By Fingerwork I mean how well the scale and embellishments are played.  At beginner level, correctness rather than speed is, in my view, the cardinal requirement. I don’t expect to hear false notes. I do expect to hear separate gracenotes in doublings etc. I expect to hear balanced embellishments, by which I mean they should be timed equally – the gracenotes in E doublings, for example, should be played at the same speed as those in C Doublings. Crushed doublings where the gracenotes are so close as to be indistinguishable from one another are heard but I don’t regard that as good playing. At beginner level, playing open doublings can sometimes mean they take away from the force of the melody note. At professional level that would be unsatisfactory but at beginner level accuracy has to be the key aim.

The Musicality requirements at beginner level are not the same as would be expected of professional competitors. Of course, no note errors is very important. In a practice chanter competition, I would firstly want to hear embellishments being played on the beat; I want to hear that the learner understands the concept of the ‘pivotal point’ (for an explanation of this see Jim McGillivray’s superb book Rhythmic Fingerwork).

The next thing I want to hear is control of a steady tempo throughout the tune. I don’t think it is necessary for the piece to be played at too brisk a pace. In a couple of recent online events, some competitors used an audible or headphone metronome. I regard this as an unfair practice, as is reading the music whilst playing.

Still on the question of musicality, I would expect to hear the beginnings of an understanding of phrasing. If a competitor takes a breath part way through a phrase, I conclude they have not really understood the nature of the tune. Similarly, breathing at the end of a part and losing the beat of piece is, in my view, unsatisfactory. Whilst not essential, it is surprising how many young competitors can circular breathe. Where the competitor marks the phrasing, for example, by stressing the first pulse and using the connecting notes with effect are pluses but not all that common in chanter competitions.

These elements and more apply also to professional competitions but for beginners playing in chanter competitions it does not have to be overcomplicated.

• Neill Mulvie is a committee member of the Solo Piping Judges’ Association, a member of the Highland Society of London, the Glasgow Highland Club and the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society. He lives in Stirlingshire, Scotland.