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Dealing with Competition Nerves

Dealing with Competition Nerves


Are you like me, who has a tendency to get a bit nervous before either a solo or band competition? Do you wonder how some pipers appear to be so calm in the same situation?

I’m no expert on the subject, by any means, but I have spent a lot of time dealing with the issue personally, talking with the experts, and getting suggestions from a very wide range of folks who have far more experience than I. In this post, I’d like to share some tips that I’ve learned along the way that have helped me tremendously as I now approach a judge.

Let’s begin by asking ourselves the question: “Why do I get so nervous in the first place?” Each of us will surely have a different answer, but for me, it used to be my fear of being totally out of my element, or natural comfort zone. As an adult learner, someone whose entire career has been in medical teaching and research, I was now expected to perform a task before an expert judge, a task that has absolutely nothing to do with medicine. After all, who among us actually likes to be judged?  But if we approach a solo, or even band competition for that matter, in a common sense and logical way, it is likely that overall performance will be vastly improved.

Be Prepared

Be prepared well in advance by knowing your tune(s) inside and out. Don’t allow any room to say, “I should have played the tune more times in my practice sessions. Now it’s too late!” "Panic" is typically the next thought. Well, you’re on your own with this one, but I might offer a few suggestions. First, if you have learned the tune properly in the first place, you will thoroughly know your tune and be more confident before the judge. See the following Learn a New Tune the Dojo Way Clearly, for a number of reasons, recording yourself often throughout the tune learning process will be a huge help. The first reason is that as you learn each part, and record and listen, you will quickly hear those areas on which you need to focus. Learn the tune slowly and correctly, using a metronome for rhythmic accuracy, and listen to your "working" recordings. However, the most important recording will the one that simulates your upcoming competition. This recording must be done with lots of forethought. For example, pick a date a short time into the future and make that your "games day". Put the date on your calendar and prepare yourself as if it's an actual competition. On the morning of game day, prepare your pipes in your usual way, and warm us as you usually do. Play your competition tunes a few times, if that is your usual practice. But do not record any of the warmup material. Get in the mindset that you have only one chance (just like the real competition) to get things right. When you are ready, treat the recorder as if it is the judge, and start to record. Play your tune as you would on competition day. When you finish, your “competition” is over, but now you must send your recording to your instructor, your pipe major, or submit it to one of the Open Dojo sessions here at Dojo U. Critique yourself by listening to the recording while looking at your music, and note the areas that you’d like to have been better. But it is critical that you get feedback from other pipers who are better than yourself. If you have learned a tune well, and demonstrated that through your recordings, after a few simulated competitions that feeling of being unprepared can be marked off your worry list.

Silence the Negative Inner Voice

Next, let’s discuss those “inner voices” that tend to obstruct our comfort level before a competition or other performance. No, I’m not talking about auditory hallucinations. Instead, we all talk to ourselves. For me, at least, there are two voices that seem to compete with each other. One is saying, “oh no, here’s the part where I always mess up”, whereas the other voice, more often the quieter one, is saying, “now I’m going to play my favorite part of the tune, and I’m going to hit it out of the park!” I believe that psychological studies have shown that our performance will mirror what we are saying to ourselves during the actual performance. It is a learned skill, but we all must focus on totally ignoring the negative inner voice. Instead, if we direct our focus to the positive inner voice, our performance is far more likely to be successful. Think about that for a moment. What do we expect to happen right after we think, “I always mess up this bar”? You’re correct; we will consistently mess up, often derailing the entire tune. So, learn the tune correctly in the first place, and you’ll give the negative voice nothing to talk about.

It's About the Performance

Don’t think about winning your competition. Instead, focus on performance. Your goal is to showcase how well you play your tune. Seriously, I’ve found that when I began approaching a competition as a chance to get some great, independent feedback from well-respected piping judge, I was relieved of a lot of anxiety that I’d inadvertently put onto myself. On occasion, I have asked members of a top grade 1 band, “What do you think about at the line? Do you think about winning?” Very often, the response centers not at all on winning, but on the excitement of being totally prepared and anticipating a stellar performance. Of course there are “nerves to be had”, but the feeling is more like restless exhilaration to be at the line of the World Pipe Band Championship.

Use Common Sense

Get a good night’s sleep before the competition. Have a nice, relaxed dinner, but don’t drink alcohol to excess the night before, or you’ll be sorry the next day. I always try to eat at least something at breakfast the morning of the competition, but avoid too much coffee. There’s a lore that bananas help calm nerves, but I have no idea if that is true. Try to avoid prescription drugs that depress anxiety. Learn to deal with the anxiety in the first place; don’t use a crutch. After all, ask yourself why you’re competing in the first place?

I have found that morning solo competition helps my band competition in the afternoon. The adrenaline rush of the solos fairly well expends the potential anxiety for the band competition. But all of the tips mentioned above also pertain to band competitions. Be prepared, but now it involves all the other members of the band. Be excited, but not petrified, to know that the band is well-prepared and you can all anticipate playing the best the group has ever played.

Talk to more experienced pipers than yourself, and at least try a few of their suggestions to see if they work for you. Competing makes us all better pipers because it gives us more chances to perform in front of others and to get some pointers on our playing. Look forward to those chances, instead of fearing them. You will be a better piper for the effort.

Take Action

Learn more about preparing for a competition by checking out the following classes at Dojo U.

Beginning Solo and Intermediate Competition
Preparing Yourself for Competition


John Holcombe John began piping at the ripe old age of 55 years. Always liking the sound of the bagpipes, John grew up in Oklahoma, where he never had a chance early on to experience firsthand this amazing instrument. But after moving to Indianapolis, he had the great fortune in 2004 to begin lessons with Craig Waugh, and Open Grade piper originally from Manitoba, Canada. Through that outstanding instruction, along with annual attendance at Jack Lee’s Piping Hot Summer Drummer and being a founding and continuing premium member of Dojo University, John has continued through hard work and determination to advance his knowledge and technical skills. As a retired research physician, John now enjoys immersing himself in piping, and he is proud to have won several first place medals in Grade 4 competitions in EUSPBA-sanctioned events. John’s current goal is to achieve the Grade 3 level of competence.