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In the last 12 months two former World Pipe Band Champions have sadly folded, with the demise of the Edinburgh City/Lothian & Borders Police and the virtual disbandment of Dysart & Dundonald. And now Australia’s Victoria Police Pipe Band, founded in 1936, winners of the 1998 World’s title and for a few years considered the vanguard of pipe band tuning excellence, is allegedly being slowly shut down in a situation that has become increasingly messy.
According to several reliable sources, the once standard-setting band, which had not actively competed since 2000, is being phased out, as Australia’s Victoria Police force gradually winds up its musical services – part of the force’s public relations division – that have included brass, rock and other marching bands.
While the band currently exists in a technical sense, over the last few months remaining members – who were on the police payroll – have been offered a severance package or formal training to be bona fide officers, and then the option to be “ntary” pipers and drummers in and around their full-time policing or outside roles.
“In short, the band,?as it has stood for the past 30 years, has effectively been issued the coup de gr?ce,” said one person close to the band, who spoke on condition that his name was not used.
Following the band’s 1998 World’s win, the group was left unable to travel to competitions, with the force deciding that it was not in their best interest to allow so many officers to commit time to contests and non-police activities, even though the band subsidized its costs “via its own toil, not gifted by the taxpayers. It just got harder and harder for them to afford to go.?Full-timers were made to take leave to do each trip. It was never ‘on the clock.’ “
“In September last year, all of the police bands (pipe band, Code One [editor's note: the force's rock group] and the show band), were told that their positions were being made redundant due to budget issues, and that the funds would be allocated elsewhere, as well as allegedly ‘freeing’ up their sworn positions to put more members onto the streets,” said another source close to the pipe band. “The police hierarchy opted to ‘civilianize’ the pipe band only, which meant the members of that pipe band would be public servants and not members of the police force.”
The remaining pipers and drummers of the Victoria Police Pipe Band held a small gathering at a member’s home in December last year to commiserate about the news.
“Some members have been in the band or public relations division for close to 30 years and were offered severances that were disgustingly low (barely a year’s salary), and not commensurate with the work they’ve done and the value they’ve added. Three-to-five gigs a week, multiplied by as much as 30 years, says everything about their worth, netting tens of millions . . .
for the department and doing immeasurable good for the force overall, so far as PR goes. Along the way, they’ve also gone down in pipe band history as one the vanguards of absolute precision tuning and bagpipe innovation and performance.”
The severance conditions reportedly have caused the Victoria Police Association – the officer’s union – to take up the matter with Fair Work Australia – the country’s Australian industrial relations tribunal – and, until the situation is resolved, the members of all the bands who have not accepted the severance are still turning up for work.
At the end of 2013, the pipe band consisted of approximately seven pipers and a handful of drummers on the payroll, so had a relatively small budget impact.
Since the downsizing of the PR / bands division began, the force has allegedly added a Senior Officer, appointed to manage the group and the ongoing downsizing, with an annual salary, reportedly, of around $200,000. The Melbourne Herald Sun recently reported that the force had been spending $12.6-million overall on public relations, but the redeployment of band members had been “temporarily halted.”
“Somewhere within Victoria Police headquarters, a bean-counter has got a bonus out of this,” the source added. “We live in a world where the only thing that now matters is the bottom line, and all key performance indicators are pointed at it and nowhere else. Quality, culture, tradition, art and people can all be compromised to achieve a ‘healthy’ profit/loss statement that gets projected on a screen and published in a glossy annual report. Pomp and ceremony are dying out and giving way to the people who would have us all wear beige-coloured clothing and nothing else.”
None of the remaining members of the band would comment on the situation.
“What stood out for me was the precision and stability of the tuning,” said Bill Livingstone, former pipe-major of the Victoria Police Pipe Band’s rivals in the 1990s, the 78th Fraser Highlanders. “The tonal quality and richness was unequalled at the time. They revolutionized the tuning process as I was able to see firsthand. Robert Crozier and Ian Lyons, the set-up team for Vic Police played with the 78th Frasers for several years, and I turned the tuning over to them for Maxville and the World’s. We always used the method after they stopped coming, and the same process is used by Toronto Police. I judged them at Estes Park, Colorado, thousands of feet above sea level, which plays havoc with bagpipes, and they played a 15-minute set format medley. Flawless, unwavering tone throughout.”
“The importance of Victoria Police, to me, was that they were innovative musically and very well-tuned,” said Iain MacDonald, pipe-major of the Grade 2 City of Regina Pipe Band. “They thought about the mechanics of sound in a fresh way, and with a bag and reeds combination that changed the way many people around the world set up their pipes. Their level of detail in analyzing and achieving chanter unison and clarity was extraordinary for the time, although it could be argued that Strathclyde Police had made a similar jump before them, and Field Marshal Montgomery after them.ï¿½ï¿½
Police pipe bands in Scotland and other Commonwealth countries around the world for many years comprised pipers and drummers who were also full-time police officers. Until the 1970s, the most prominent and successful competition bands were those of the Edinburgh City Police and the Glasgow Police. In the 1970s the tradition of paid pipers and drummers began to decline, as “uest” players were increasingly brought in to bolster the ranks and improve the quality.
Over time, the practice of full-time paid pipers and drummers within police forces has all but stopped, and almost all of the world’s police pipe bands retained for their PR and marketing value are made up of civilians, with only a smattering at most of actual officers in the ranks. Many police pipe bands have folded completely due to budget cuts and/or a need for police forces to show ethnic diversity more reflective of immigrant populations and traditions.
Nat Russell, the one-time leader of the band, holds the rank of Inspector of Police and manages the musical operations with the force, will reportedly retain his job with the Victoria Police.
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