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Competition Fail

Competition Fail


Mistakes happen. No matter how hard you practice or prepare at some point in your carrier you are going to mess something up. The thing that sets the better players apart from the herd is how you recover. This is the story of a mistake.

I have been competing in grade 4 for about 2 years now. There have been about 12 different competitions and around 25 to 30 events. For the most part I have been pretty successful. This season I have taken 1st place and Piper of the Day several times. All of this is what lead to my epic fail and my recovery.

At my last competition this year I decided to try a new tune. It was one that I had been working on for only a few weeks, and one that was much more difficult that any of my other competition tunes. I was over confident and under prepared.

On the day of the competition I decided to use a different set of bagpipes. I have two sets, one for competitions and one for playing in the band. The reed in my competition set is a little harder than the band reed.

The weather was bad, there were heavy showers moving in, and I decided rather than using the set I had been playing every day for the past two weeks, that were 60+ years old, I would used my new-ish band set. That was my first mistake.

When I get in front of the judge my mind went blank. I walked up and almost just started to play before the judge stopped me and asked what my tune was. This was mistake two. I fired up my pipes and launched right into my tune. I didn't pause to let the pipes get settled. I didn't take a moment to settle myself and relax. I didn't do any of the things I normally do.

The tune started and things were bad and they steadily got worse. Each line I played was worse than the last. I was over blowing, squeaking and squawking. I lost my confidence and got flustered. My fundamentals suffered.

First to go were my birls. My finger just refused to work. Then the d-throws, I wasn't getting my pinky down. By the time I got to the third part ALAP/ASAP was out the window. By the time I made it to the 4th part I was just trying to finish so I could go and hide.

I was so flustered I started having breathing problems. The tone of my drones started warble and my chanter tone was inconsistent.

It was the worst competition play of my life. I knew it, the judge knew it. It shattered my confidence. I had to compete in piobaireachd in 20 minutes. Fortunately I was able to recover somewhat and I did ok in the next event.

I learned an important lessons from this: Sudden change and breaking from routine is stressful. First, never change your instrument setup on the day of a competition. A small tweak here or there is not bad. It's common to have to adjust the calibration for example. But keep things as constant as possible. Sudden changes will only distract you and put you on edge, keeping your mind off of the task at hand. Second, make sure you know your tune backwards and forwards. Like changing your instrument, suddenly changing your music will introduce unneeded stress. Don’t be afraid to rely on an older tune when conditions are tough rather than forge ahead with something brand new.

The key thing to remember after something like this happens (and it happens to almost everyone at some point) is to let it go in the short term. With the next event coming up you have to force the bad from your mind and concentrate on what's next.

When all was said and done I took 12th out of 14 in my first event but 4th out of 10 in the second. It was far from my best competition but it was a learning experience.

The thing to remember is when you make a mistake or have a bad play at a competition, take a moment to recover. Get back to your familiar routine. Try to relax and remember that you are doing this for fun.

Take Action

Preparing Yourself for Competition with Bruce Gandy
Preparing Yourself for Competition Part II with Bruce Gandy
Dealing With Competition Nerves


David Lairson David has been playing the bagpipes for over 20 years. He is an instructor and soloist with the Palm Beach Pipes & Drums and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band. David is active in the Florida competition circuit, and when he is not practicing or playing he works as a computer technician. He currently lives in sunny South Florida.