GREY’S NOTES
by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #87 • 2017.

Every June in the town where I live there’s something called Buskerfest. It’s pretty much what you’d expect: a festival of street performers. The whole of the main drag in town is taken over by a good cross-section of the busking world – and, yes – it seems there is a “busking world”, with events like the one in my town happening all over the world almost every day. 

The hardcore of the talent seemingly travel the world’s circuit of busker gatherings (sound familiar?) swallowing their knives and blowing fire out of their bahookies at the drop of a hat. Almost literally. 

The life of an itinerant busker has to be riskier than most (there, again, goes my remarkable and penetrating insight). The busker relies on the good graces of his somewhat random audience to cough up the coin and, if lucky, a dose of clattering appreciation. The busker absolutely must amuse, entertain and impress to have any hope of rent money. Often novelty isn’t enough (see said bahookie man) – the audience has to like the show a lot. It seems to me the appreciation of any good busker show is based, at its core, on excellence:  a little savvy mixed with a lot of wondrous skill.  

It wasn’t the meticulous sword swallower that caught my attention this time (their kind are so yesterday, don’t you know). No, it was the classic – iconic even – ball-in-the-air, gravity-defying juggler. If you’ve ever given juggling a shot – even three balls at time – you’ll know, the whole effort is a tricky game. On this day the juggler had six balls going, at least, and kept them flying for an impressively long time all while joking with the crowd. A great display of mental strength and physical agility – and showmanship. Where are the nerves? A juggler’s shaky day at work makes for dropped balls, unamused crowd and another week of groceries bought from Poundstretcher. With so much at stake, it seems a remarkable thing that street performers, jugglers especially, aren’t angst-ridden basket cases. 

Performance anxiety is something relatable to almost anyone (it’s to be seen if busker jugglers can be included here). In fact, it’s generally believed to be one of the most common of human phobias. Anyone who has had cause to be responsible for making something happen in front of a group of people, large or small, will likely have tasted from the sweaty, palpitating cup of stage fright. We surely know this in piping. Both bands and individual appearances – in and outside of competition – have been known to make a shambles of planned performance steadiness. 

An expert in the field, Dr David Carbonell, says performance anxiety is what happens when you focus on yourself and your anxiety, rather than your performance. This, he says, comes from a tendency to resist and fight your anxiety, rather than to accept and work with it. All of this is the result of thinking of the performance situation as a threat instead of a challenge. And busker-juggler types must revel in this challenge in a big way. 

I understand explicitly Carbonell’s belief that a person can get so involved in their internal struggle to keep a performance on track that there’s never any involvement in the actual performance. I imagine the majority of competing pipers can, too. Instead of focusing on the tune, the music, the sound, any artful effort can be wrecked by dwelling on the performance anxiety – and trying to get rid of it, to suppress it, to deny it. And all that just makes things worse. Cue performance train wreck.

Harry Vardon, the English golf great of the early 20th century said that to play well, you must feel tranquil and at peace. “I have never been troubled by nerves in golf because I felt I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.” Golf strikes me as another of those human endeavours rife with potential angst-filled potholes (thank you Scotland). 

The academic world has studied performance anxiety for scores of years. It seems that Vardon is right on the money when it comes to mastering, or, at least making a little better, troubling performance situations: to play like you have nothing to lose is one of a long list of known PA remedies. Play like you own the field, play like you were born to walk the boards, that stage. And, if you make a mistake, a blooper, a blunder?  You do. Own it. Embrace it. It’s your very own piping cow pie. It’s not like anyone is going to push up daisies as a result. Life will go on. So will you and your tunes.  Unlike the busker, one bad show isn’t unlikely to get in the way of our means.

I am living proof – as may be many of you – as a survivor of my share of jittery, uneasy tunes helped along, usually, by a stomach full of hyper-caffeinated butterflies.  One of the most recent TWs (train wrecks) I can proudly say I own is one on the stage of The National Piping Centre at last August’s PipingLive. Bob Worrall was launching his third book of music and, as a contributor, he asked me to come along and play the (six-parted) hornpipe I had made for him when we both taught at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton – and my contribution to this collection? Easy-peasy. Turn up. Stand on the stage. Blow pipe up. Play hornpipe (did I say six parts?). 

Well, guess what. I got on the stage and looked at all the well-kent and – dare I say – judgey piping faces – and my own private festival of angst helped me gift the crowd with what ultimately became an uncontrollable escalation of tempo. Ugh. What a mess. Anyway, I was reminded in one of the most unpleasant of ways that preparation trumps bravado. I was in pipe band mode that week; who was I to think I could play a poorly rehearsed tune cold for such an august group of folks – let along a troupe of juggling sword swallowers? 

Like practising technique and phrasing and working at building a sonorous pipe sound, for most people the craft of performance excellence is something that needs to be given due attention. And rehearsal and preparation has to be the active ingredient in almost any antidote or medicine for PA. 

Anyone for a juggling piper?


Mike Grey is the pipe major of 78th Fraser Highlanders since September 2023, and he teaches, judges, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Grey’s Notes series ran in Piping Today magazine for ten years. His book is available in the UK from thebagpipeshop.co.uk.