California has a wealth of pipers and bands to choose from, a competition schedule that runs 12 months a year, and a wealth of pipers and bands to compete with, along with a wealth of everything else (except actual money). For these reasons, California bands are very good bands full of tiptop pipers and drummers.
Despite these odds, last year the Salt Lake Scots scraped up enough money to send the band to Ventura to compete against these bands. As you might expect, we did not place. Or even show.
What we DID do was take the score sheets back to Utah and study them and apply them to our playing. We listened to top bands like SFU (Simon Fraser University), and we got people like Bob Worrall in to tell us how we could improve. We worked those sets ad nauseatum. The better pipers were aching for a chance to play the harder, Grade III, tunes that they used to play to warm up in Grade III practice. We scraped up some more money and went back to Ventura this year.
Pretty much the same bands were competing this year as competed last year, the best being UCR (University of California Riverside), the LA Scots, and Westminster, but also including our brother band, White Peaks from down Payson way. It was nice to have familiar White Peaks faces around corners and in hallways.
Saturday was the Timed Medley competition. This is a selection of tunes that have to contain certain types of tunes (march-strathspey-reel-slow aire-jig), and the whole set has to last a certain amount of time: not too short, not too long. If you get nervous and play the set too fast, you are under time and get disqualified. If you get nervous and play the set too slow, you go over time and get disqualified.
Our tendency is to play faster and faster, like a locomotive with no brakes heading downhill towards the washed-out bridge.
About an hour before our turn, we played bits of tunes and strike-ins and did some last minute tuning. The PM listened to who made the stupid mistakes still, and at T-minus-20 minutes he called a break and spoke to those people. The only comment directed towards me was, "How're ya feelin'?" I raised a thumb in response. When we circled back up again, we were 3 pipers shorter. We tried the Achilles tunes again and they were perfect.
Marching up to the line always strikes me the same way walking up to the guillotine struck the French nobility. If I allow, I can get lead butterflies in my stomach and overcooked noodle arms and legs. I tell myself that I've played this set well a million times before. I also tell myself that I am not that other person, the person who collapses under pressure, who can't do anything well, who gives up at the least friction. I used to be that person. I used to psyche myself out of doing things well.
Sometimes I still am that person, but I don't have to be. I can choose to be the piper whose brain doesn't have to remember the tune because my fingers remember it perfectly. I can choose to be the piper who focuses on the tiny errors from last time and corrects them as I play this time. I can choose to be the piper for whom the world outside the circle DOES NOT EXIST! No judges, no audience, and above all, no snarling Other-Band pipers praying I'll do something wrong. There's just me and some friends playing the set perfectly the first time through for practice like we've done a million times before. There's just the tunes in my head, the tapping foot, the beating drums, and the moving fingers. Nothing scary in that.
Next thing I knew, the set was over.
We circled up just out of range of the audience and discussed what went wrong. Well, something happened at the beginning of the slow aire, perhaps a timing issue, but we corrected it and went on. Nobody could think of much else. Everybody kicked back until Massed Bands at 5:00, when all 200 pipers and nearly as many drummers got together to wait for extended lengths of time to learn who'd won Saturday's competition.
I wasn't hoping for much. I had heard the other bands and they were all excellent. If we were really lucky, we might get 3rd. But they called out third place and it wasn't us. I gave up hope. Second place was announced. OK, OK, I thought, let's just get this over with so I can go back to the hotel and go to bed. First place.
Salt Lake Scots!!!
Oh! My! Gosh!
It was not a dream because the rest of the Scots cheered. We really did get first place for the Timed Medley (the more difficult of the two sets we performed). We beat out all the bands that beat us out last year! I didn't care what happened after that: my summer was made.
Sunday we competed with our Quick March Medley, a collection of 4 marches of various kinds. We've been playing this set for at least 6 years. I don't know about the rest of them, but I can play it in my sleep, and often do.
Nobody was cut at the last minute. We marched up to the line with the same leaden butterflies hovering threateningly over my head. I used them to keep me focused on how the tunes were supposed to be played. I used my fingers to remember the notes. Before I knew it, the set was over and we had marched out. Again we circled up, but all that was mentioned was a wrong note or possibly two, nothing significant. Again we broke until Massed Bands, which again involved interminable standing around and waiting. And again, we didn't get third. Or second.
First Place: Salt Lake Scots!
And because we'd won both days' competition, we got the aggregate trophy, too! Said aggregate trophy is a traveling plastic cup on a stick on a plinth, rather beat up from all the traveling it has done over the years. It's not shiny. It's not engraved with our band or anything. But. We get to keep it for a year because We Were the Best! The moment in time shines bright enough for 10 trophies!
We packed up and went home. Dennis was even nice to me and gave me a ride back to the hotel to wait for my Dear Family.
I'm still have difficulty believing. We swept the Seaside Games!