top of box
bottom of box

Andrew Lenz's bagpipe journeyAndrew
seasoning hands playing drones bags and stocks people
reference articles competition journal piping links FAQ contact me

Andrew's Tips: What to know for your First Bagpipe Competition.

By Andrew T. Lenz, Jr., Santa Cruz, California, ©1999 - 2011

Andrew warming up Here I am getting ready for my first Piobaireachd event in July 1999.

A funny note, I met a piper in person who had seen the image to the left prior said he wasn't sure if it was me because I now have a black mouthpiece: "You aren't possibly Andrew Lenz, are you?"

You may notice that, yes, I'm not wearing gillie brogues in this photo—I didn't own a pair at the time.

Here's some advice for the first time piping competitor. I'm going to assume you'll be competing in Grade IV (4)—or Grade V (5) which in some associations is not just a "practice chanter only" grade but a full bagpiping grade. I'm also going to assume that you have an instructor, but if you don't, competiton will likely be a real eye-opener.

Before the competition:

Join your Piping Association. Preferably at least eight weeks in advance. In order to track your piping history, the association needs to know who you are. They don't want someone winning every Grade IV event for 10 years without moving up in grade. Here's a list of associations.

Send in your Registration for the Games ASAP. Sign up as early as you can. Generally, the last sign-ups have to play first—not the best playing position since judges may "forget" your performance by the end of the event when the final placements are made. (Though the bottom line is that you will win regardless if you clearly play the best.) While it's not common, some games have limited space and may have closed entries by the time you sign up. If you don't have your association membership number, but have applied for one, just put "Membership number pending" where they ask for it on the application. Don't feel obligated to sign up for every event available. Only participate in what you feel that you can perform well. There's no shame in signing up only for a slow march for your first competition, for instance.

Select an Apropriate Tune. You will score better playing an easy tune well than a hard tune poorly. Don't overreach. Pick something that you can be comfortable playing with your current skill level even on a bad day.

Record yourself. If you don't do it as part of your normal routine anyway, record yourself to study before the competition. Video, if you can do it. You'll be surprised what you see/hear as an observer of your own performance.

Play in Front of People. This can make a big difference. You learn to play the bagpipes for the benefit of other people, not just yourself, so get used to being watched. The less you know the listeners the better, but start with people you know, including your instructor, of course. You'll be surprised how much you can mess up while feeling a little self-conscious. (But beware poisoning strangers' appreciation for the pipes by playing a poorly tuned instrument for them, or simply playing poorly. They may think that's the way bagpipes are supposed to sound and get a negative impression!)

Watch Other Competitions. If you are lucky enough to get the chance, go to a competition and watch everything—the bagpipers, the stewards, the judges. Concentrate on the events in which you plan to compete. Don't short-change your solo piobaireachd observations—if that's one of your events—to go listen to the bands play. Maybe bring a video recording device and record a few performances and events in your grade level.

Mental Preparation. Take a few minutes once in a while to relax and then, closing your eyes, visualize yourself playing perfectly at the event. Go through with as much detail as you can imagine—greeting the judge, walking to a starting spot, starting the tune, walking, etc.—all in "real-time." If your event takes six minutes, take six minutes to visualize. It may be helpful to practice in the outfit you will be competiting in. Olympic athletes do this. It'll assist with piping too.

Don't just Memorize, Internalize. Once you think you have your tune down cold, try this: play and read at the same time. Grab a newspaper or magazine and read for comprehension while playing your tune, the tune should be secondary in your head. (Record yourself.) When your are done make sure you remember all of the article. If you can successfully play well and read well simultaneously, you've internalized the tune—you're better prepared for any distractions. Please note that I don't recommend this as much for piobaireachd as I do for other types of piping music such as marches, jigs, etc. Piobaireachd takes a little more concentration to play due to the length of notes for expression, the fingers just don't (or shouldn't) move automatically into the next note for piobaireachd. (For instance I can easily read this page playing "Mist Covered Mountains," but "Too Long in This Condition," a piobaireachd I know very well, is very difficult.)

Practice with a Metronome. Again, if you don't do it as part of your normal practicing anyway, play along with a metronome. This is particularly important for marches, but is not recommended for piobaireachd where you typically take liberties with timing to enhance the mood of the tune.

March tunes may require you to walk/march in a particular manner. The best thing is to check with your association for the marching requirements for march tunes. Either marching in place or walking in time with the tune may be expected for the event. Practice this if you intended to do it. Your association can tell you what is required and not required. If it's not required and you don't feel comfortable doing it, then don't!

Practice As You Intend to Play. If the tune has repeats, play the repeats. If it's required to play the tune through twice (like some slow marches) practice playing it through twice. If you will be competing outdoors, it will be helpful to practice at least some also outdoors—remember to try both shade and sun.

Hold a Mock Competition. Convince your instructor to hold a mock competition for you. Have his/her sit in a chair (ideally behind a table) with a paper to write comments. Follow the procedures outlined below on this page for the competition day, that is, walk up to the "judge," state your tune, prepare, play, exit. Then discuss it with your instructor. If you can get a few other pipers to watch your "mock performance," that's the best.

Play Longer. Be able to easily play at least double or triple the time required for performing your tune. If your tune is 2 minutes, you should be able to play 5 to 10 minutes straight on your bagpipes without your technique breaking down. The longer the better, so while practicing, push it. Play past the point where your lip starts to give out or your arm is tired. But if your fingers start to go (usually the last to go), play something other than your competition tune since you don't want to "absorb" bad habits. At that point, it's probably best to do embellishment drills or just stop. Remember to stretch those fingers and wrists.

Play Regularly. It's far better to play for 15 minutes every day than for 2 hours once a week. It's not good to try and "cram" for bagpipe performances.

Have a Back-up Chanter Reed. My first competition was marred by a chanter reed that decided to limp into death about 48 hours before the event. I didn't have a second reed worked in. It was the worst public performance I've had so far, i.e., the reed was wavering into extreme flatness a few times and it choked (stopped) a couple times. Definitely avoidable. If you have the luxury of a second chanter, have that one reeded up and ready to swap and play.

Try on all of your outfit. The night before my first competition I donned my whole piping attire only to find that the "Large" size stockings should have been purchased as "Medium." (I swapped them at the dealer mere 40 minutes before my competition time.) Kilt, sporran and a white shirt is usually the bare minimum. One piper played in kilt and tennis shoes in at a competition in 1998 (and took 1st, by the way). If you can get yourself a black tie and black shoes all the better. Or you can go hog wild and get everything—cap, Prince Charlie jacket, etc. It can't hurt impressing the judge, but it won't help your playing. My personal take is it looks silly/ironic/incongruous to be decked out to the nines then play averagely, or worse, poorly. It can't hurt to wear a glengarry (looks similar to one of those pleated military caps that men fold flat and slip over their belt when not worn), some judges prefer them and if you play for one that doesn't care, you haven't lost anything.

Get safety pins to attach your competition number. If you forget pins, sometimes they'll have a box of them at the registration table, but don't count on it! If the competition doesn't provide a numbered kilt label, you'll be expected to wear the number provided to you for the season by your piping association.

Double check your instrument. Make sure all the tape on your chanter is in good shape (not slimey or peeling up), make sure your tuning pins are sliding correctly and not rocking, make sure all your stock joints are tight, if you are using hoses or contraptions in your bag then make sure those are all in fully working order as well.

Put emergency items in your sporran. Keep your back-up reed handy in your sporran. (Protected, not loose!) Some Teflon tape and/or extra hemp isn't a bad idea.

Get directions to the games. If aren't sure of where you are going, get complete and detailed directions to the competition venue. These days, online mapping services are very handy—particularly those incorporating satellite photos. A map of the region would be good back-up if you get accidentally get off the correct route. (Speaking from experience!)

Consider the climate's effect on your instrument. If you are traveling to a location known to have significantly different weather conditions from that of your home area, prepare appropriately. Ideally, travel to the location beforehand to play. If not, try and replicate the conditions as best you can at home, e.g., if it's a humid venue, play in your bathrooom with the shower running. (Don't forget your earplugs!) Certain things you can't really simulate, such as high altitude. If you don't—or can't—practice in similar conditions, give yourself extra time at the games to adjust your instrument.

Get directions for the competition location at games. Try and get very specific instructions as to where the competition area will be at the games. Some venues are quite large and knowing exactly where to go may save you half an hour or more.

If you are driving yourself, don't forget to fill up. Some of these games are hours from home, remember to make sure you have enough fuel to get to where you are going. With all the preparations, it's easy to forget this essential thing.

Get coordinated. If you are going with other people, figure out exactly where and when you will all meet. If you need to leave town by 8:35 a.m., tell people to meet at 8:20 a.m. All it takes is one person to be late to mess everything up.

Try to convince your instructor to go too. If can manage it, get your instructor to come along on the day and guide you through the competition process. You drive (or pay for gas) and pay his or her gate fee. Maybe even buy him or her lunch. Or sweeten the pot by offering a stipend. Up the ante as needed to get your instructor there. Otherwise, perhaps another (more experienced) student of your instructor could make it. Or a piper in your instructor's pipe band. It'll make your life easier all around with a mentor on site.


Depart to the games early. Give yourself a comfortable amount of time to get to the games. You should be on-site at least an hour before your first competition time. If you've never been at the piping competition there before (perhaps as a spectator), 90 minutes would be better. Add time for more unknowns—that is, if you don't have exact directions, if there might be bad traffic, if you have travelers in your car that might need breaks on the trip—then leave even earlier. It's much better to get there with extra time to kill than to have to race into an event unprepared.

The first order of business is to find the competition area. At most games, the ticket sellers, gatekeepers, parking attendants, and other staff will have no clue where the piping competition is. If you didn't find out where it is in advance, asking other pipers are a good bet, though some may be band players who don't compete. Solo competitions usually happen early in the day and band performances are usually later in the day. If you get to the games early—which is pretty typical anyway—you going to run into more solo players and less band members and that will increase your odds of asking someone who knows the answer you are looking for. Regardless, if you ask enough people carrying bagpipes, you'll get your answer.

Check in at the registration table as soon as you arrive at the competition to make sure you are registered. Again, try and arrive at least an hour before you are expected to play. If there is a registration table, check in there. You'll also be expected to check in with the "steward"—this person is usually holding a clipboard at the platform/playing area (also called the "boards") for each event. They are not the judge, who is usually sitting at a table in the playing area. If there is no steward, don't check in with the judge. Double check to make sure that you're not registered for something you didn't sign up for. At my first competition I somehow ended up also registered for a 2/4 March by mistake.

Check your Playing Area, Especially If You Play First. As the first player, you get to discover any problems with the "boards." At my second competition, we played under a tree, the first registered player did a no-show so I went first. The tree had dropped lots of golfball-sized seed pods into the grass. I did my best not to turn an ankle! Arrive early, look for any hazards beforehand, and just get a feel for the area, no matter what position you play.

Make sure your drone reeds are in tight and chanter reed is not loose. You don't want a drone reed dropping into the bag or your chanter unstable due to its reed moving.

Warm up your bagpipes with few tunes and/or exercises. If you don't, the tuning will be all over the place and so will your fingers. A practice chanter run can't hurt either, but get your pipes warm. Just remember to not overdo it. The last thing you want to do is push yourself to fatigue before you step on the boards. Warm up in the same conditions as the playing area, i.e., don't warm up in the sun if you'll be playing in the shade and vice versa. Most games don't have a designated tuning area, so follow the lead of other pipers—if they are tuning in up in the parking lot, that's probaby a good place! Do try to be considerate of other people. There may be a reason that you are the only competing piper warming up in the "perfect spot" right next to the kindergarden birthday party!

Double check your outfit. Make sure your hose are pulled up, your tie is snug, etc. Just do your best to project a professional, clean, efficient appearance. (Baseball cap, sunglasses, etc. are not considered proper competing attire.) Wear your kilt number to make the steward's job easier.

Make arrangements for minding your possessions. The judge and stewards are not security guards. If you are alone, find a place for your things where you will be comfortable leaving them. The last thing you want to do is be worrying that someone is going to steal your pipe case while you are trying to concentrate on playing. (I've asked permission to park my bagpipe case at a clan tent in the past. It worked out.) Don't tie your dog to the judging table (true story) or ask the judge to mind your coffee (true story).

Tune up with a friend or instructor. Get some help tuning. You probably aren't super experienced at this. And also try to get in some final fine drone tuning just before you play, as when the person immediately ahead of you is starting. Out of courtesy to any performing pipers, try and do it as far away as is practical.

Check how your event is progressing. Check with the steward periodically to see how the competition is going and how soon you will play. If you are nearby he/she will tell you when you are next. If you are toward the end of the event, the time may be dramatically different from the schedule. Events sometimes run early and sometimes run late. Make certain that you are at least a few minutes early to your competition area for your true performance time.

Dry your instrument, if necessary. Depending on the weather, your instrument, warm up time, how you blow, etc., you may wish to dry out your drone reeds (a dollar bill under the tongues works wonders) and swab out the drones. If you have a moisture control system in your instrument, you might check your system. Even without a moisture control system, this step may be unnecessary for many pipers.

Try to relax. This is probably the hardest thing to do. Close your eyes and take a few slow deep breaths and release all the tension in your body. You will play better if you aren't all tensed up. No one is going to repossess your home or eat your children if you don't do well! Remind yourself at the time that you are doing this for fun. Sure, you want to do well, but just let everything go and just play the tune.

Walk up to the judge when it is your turn. Verify with the steward that it's your turn. Wait at least ten to fifteen feet away while the judge is writing up the previous score sheet, and he/she will make eye contact with you to indicate it's okay to proceed. (Or once he/she starts shuffling papers, that's also a good sign it's time.)
It's best to walk up, make eye contact, nod or salute, and formally say, "Good morning/afternoon. I'm [your name], and I'd like to play [tune name]." (Shows confidence.) If not, the judge should ask your name and your tune—at my second competition, the steward blew it and the judge didn't verify who I was so my evaluations were filed under the wrong name! Also, if you happen to know the judge, try and stay reasonably formal and don't boisterously shoot the breeze.
Sometimes there may be a number of versions (called "settings") of the same tune, for instance, the piobaireachd "Duncan MacRae of Kintail's Lament" has a Piobaireachd Society version and a Kilberry version. If it's one of these multi-version tunes, you will be required to identify which version to the judge before performing. I remember a piper about to compete who couldn't remember her tune…you could inconspicuously write it on your palm—I'd recommend the bag-side hand!—or check a paper in your sporran just before walking up to the judge.
Later on in higher grade competitions, you will be asked to provide several tunes from which the judge will select one.

Take Your Time (to a point) and Know the First Notes. The judge expects you to take a few minutes to compose yourself, tune your instrument if necessary and play a bit of another tune to test the tuning. Face away from the judge when doing this. Run through part of the first line of the tune in your head. Think about which note you start on. If you do tune the drones yourself, it's best not to stop the pipes to verbally tell the judge you are ready—the drone reeds could settle differently after another strike-in. When you are fully prepared after a few minutes (or less) face the judge make eye contact and give him or her a nod or other indication that you are now ready to perform.

Play slower? Pipers often times get excited playing before people, especially a judge. The adrenaline usually results in a quicker tempo than wanted. Whatever you do, don't suddenly change the tempo in the middle of your tune if you realize you are playing too fast, just stick to it.

Walking/Marching. It's normal to march/walk with the beat in a long thin oval or just back and forth about 5-10 feet in front of the judge while playing. For piobaireachd, you don't walk to any particular beat as long as it's slow walking. Some competition boards/areas will be deliniated by tape around the perimeter, then it's obvious how far to march/walk. If not, then just keep it to 4-8 feet past either end of the table. Also, try not to absent-mindedly wander away. (Once, while playing back and forth and realized I had wandered a good 15-20 feet from the front of the table!) For piobaireachd, you stop walking usually just before the last phrase in the tune. When marching, it's usually the last note. If you can end facing toward and in front of the judge that's great.
Marching is not usually required for slow marches in the lower grades. For standard marches (say, a 2/4) marching is usually required, but not always in lower grades. Check with your association.

Focus. Avoid looking at (or listening) to the judge, crowd or friends. These are distractions. The only thing you are living at that moment is the tune. Try not to think about the embellishments. Think about where you are in the tune. Don't freak out if the judge starts writing, he/she may be writing something good. (Once I ruined a perfectly good performance by getting freaked out when the judge was just writing "playing confidently" on my sheet! No small irony there!) Don't listen to that voice in your head commenting on your playing. Shut it out and focus on where you are in the tune.

Pause before exiting. Stop playing then hold for a few seconds then respectfully exit the playing area. It's good to make eye contact with the judge, say "thank you," and exit with a salute or nod. You do not want to strike up a conversation with the judge at this point—unless they talk to you first. The judge must drive any conversation. If you have questions, find the judge after he/she has turned in that event's adjudication sheets.

Exit Gracefully. Don't swear, shake your head, or give any other negative signs. The judge knows what you did wrong—and right. And if he missed it, you don't want to give him any reason to think he did.

Don't Forget to Check Results and Get Your Evaluation. Results are usually posted within a couple hours. The grading sheets used by the judge are usually filed at the registration table—try not to pester them too often for your sheet, can you imagine every bagpiper asking several times if the results are out for an event? After results are posted, ask for your sheet(s) by event number. Sometimes you may not be able to read all the judges comments—rather like doctor's prescriptions!—or have questions. You can try to find the judge and ask him/her when he/she is not judging another event.

If you manage to win something cool... If you do win some award of some kind that involves some official presentation, dignify the award by wearing your highland outfit. I remember years back, a young piper sauntered to the stage to accept his aggregate award in a T-shirt and shorts while over a hundred smartly dressed pipers during massed bands stood in attention—it was an awkward moment that didn't impress the crowd in the grandstand. Many games have since instituted the requirement of highland garb for award presentations, so be aware and courteous.


Slam down a pint of Scotch Whisky. Then watch the video tape of your performance (if you were fortunate—or unfortunate—enough to have it recorded for posterity). Or a "Slurpee" as I did, but I think the pint would have been better given the performance!

If you are interested, you can read a personal view of my first competition along with evaluations.

If you have comments or suggestions, please contact me.

This page last updated Wednesday, August 10, 2011.
Page first created in July 1999.

top of box
Kinnaird Bagpipes & Reeds - Play what the pros are playing

bottom of box