The Millstone of Competition

by John Deignan

For the past ten years, I’ve regularly dragged myself out of bed at 4:30 a.m. on perfectly good summer Saturday mornings in order to drive three or four hours, stand on a soggy field, waiting to play for about two hours, then, after that, wait another couple of hours for score sheets. Sounds easy, right? But it’s all the things that happen in between those times that have transformed this activity I love so much into a very stressful job—and I already have a stressful job!

The day usually goes something like this: I stand in a field of 50 other pipers trying to lock in my drones and pray that my chanter doesn’t dive too far. The steward finally motions to me. I’m up. That’s when it starts—the funny feeling that’s a cross between having to going to the principal’s office, and being escorted to the electric chair. My pulse starts to spike. I try to keep my hands relaxed, and stay mindful that the fourth part of the tune starts on an F. By the time I’m at the station, I’ve begun to doubt whether taping the D was a good idea after all. And the next thing you know, all the fun (remember fun?) has evaporated like the dew off the morning grass. And there I am, 180 miles away from home on that perfectly good Saturday morning, standing in the rain or the blazing sun, just miserable. I recently heard the phrase, “the millstone of competition,” and thought it the perfect description for the stress that can accompany our pastime.

My wife just shakes her head at the whole scene and thinks we’re all ridiculous. To her, reducing music to a sport is sacrilege. “No one should ever have to lose at playing music,” she says. Be that as it may, the reality for most of us bagpipers is that, if we want to perform what we so diligently practice, the competition circuit is pretty much the only option we have.

It’s a paradox. The desire for a good performance itself can become such a mental obstacle as to keep it from happening at all. At some point you might start to ask why you’re knocking yourself out for it. A greater part of the answer for me lays in the admission that, like a compulsive gambler, I had become addicted to the thrill of a good performance. That did not happen all of the time, which only made those occasions all the more special. The problem was that after a bad day “on the boards,” I would heap more and more pressure on myself at the following games to make up for the previous week’s shellacking. Well, it didn’t take long for this emotional rollercoaster to dominate my warm-up routine and the performance itself. (And I wonder why I could never play as well in competition as I could in my backyard!)

I’ll never be as talented as some other writers of this publication, but I am eminently qualified to speak about being a nervous wreck during a competition. And I’m here to tell you: leave your anxieties in the parking lot. You can always have them back at the end of the day if you wish. I have begun to lean on a series of cheap ploys, mental tricks if you will, to help calm my nerves, focus, and keep it fun. While I don’t always place, I do generally play better when I rely on my tricks and keep my new outlook, primarily because it allows me to re-orient myself around having a good time.

Have you ever tripped up say, in the second part of a tune, then fixated on it for the rest of the tune, thereby causing you to make even more mistakes? The great pianist, Leon Fleischer said that performance was inherently a schizophrenic process. He claims there are actually three personalities inside you tasked with bringing out the music: one personality is responsible for “thinking” the music into existence; another person has to deal with the actual execution of what the first person thought; and a third personality evaluates the result. According to Fleischer, the whole game is to keep each “person” away from the other two, as they love to point fingers at each other. If you make a mistake, you need to leave it there, where you made it and forget about it instantaneously.

Here is what you can do if you want to play my new mental game:

Get past the “survivalist mentality” (when you just want it all to be over). I began to take longer warm-up times before I kicked off the tune. Many upper-level players always seem to take their time settling in. Why not me?

Quit “practicing” at competitions. It was unreasonable for me to think that somehow I could change my technique ten minutes before my run by playing a piece over and over and over. All it did was wear me out early.

Use the sports psychology trick, creative visualization—which is nothing more than a fancy way to describe imagining your performance in slow motion. Pro athletes swear by it, and as it turns out, many pro musicians do as well. On the days when I played around with it, I never had any memorization issues.

Quit listening to fellow competitors. You’ll automatically start comparing yourself to them. This tactic helped make me focus more on “giving a performance” than of “playing a competition.”

You may find completely different “crutches” to help you get through the day. The point is simply that it’s possible for every competitor to identify what distracts them from playing well, and find a way to counterbalance it. I hope that this season will be a good one for me. If I can enjoy myself regardless of the results, it will be. It only took me ten years to figure out what the real prize was, and how to get it.

John Deignan is a new Grade 2 soloist and has been playing for about 12 years. He is a former member of the Schenectady Pipe Band and lives in Petersburgh, New York.

(This article first appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of The Voice.)

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