Size Matters: Armstrong and Livingstone to square off in great debate

Published: July 31, 2013
(Page 1 of 1)

It could be the biggest issue of our time: whether or not to place limits on piping band section and/or roster sizes, and two of the world’s foremost authorities on the idiom will go at it hammer-and-tongs in a special debate sponsored by pipes|drums Magazine at Piping Live! at 11 am, Friday, August 16th, the day before the World Pipe Band Championships.

Piping legend Bill Livingstone, who led the 78th Fraser Highlanders for nearly 30 years, winning the 1987 World Pipe Band Championship, will argue for limited section or rosters, while Chris Armstrong, pipe-major of the Grade 1 ScottishPower Pipe Band, rising stars on a global scale, will argue against placing limits on numbers.

The 45-minute event will begin at 11 am at the Street Café, out in front of the National Piping Centre, focal point of the Piping Live! Glasgow International Festival of Piping. Strategically timed on the day before the big event, a more sober discussion is likely to take place.

Armstrong’s ScottishPower is one of the larger and most successful bands in the world, and he has been an outspoken critic of capping numbers. Ironically, Livingstone’s 78th Frasers of 2008 brought the issue to the fore when he competed with 30 pipers and had 38 on his roster, but sees the merits on maximum numbers.

pipes|drums Magazine has openly discussed the pluses and pitfalls of unregulated section sizes, particularly in the top grades. “RIP Grade 2?,” A recent blog post by pipes|drums editor Andrew Berthoff, brought into question the pressure on Grade 1 bands to compete with large numbers. The Blogpipe article spurred online discussion worldwide, including Armstrong’s original suggestion on Facebook to hold a debate.

“I see the appeal to both sides of the argument,” said Berthoff, who will act as a moderator for the session. “I love the sound and sight of a large, finely tuned and orchestrated band as much as the next person, but I also see the negative implications. It’s not unlike the climate change argument: people say that something must be done for overall good and even survival, but we’re all just having too much fun to do anything about it, and legislation is fraught with politics.”

The session will take on the structure of a traditional debate, with Armstrong and Livingstone going at it for 30 minutes. There will be a 10-15-minute period for the audience to pose questions and stand on their own soapboxes.

Invitations will be extended to members the RSPBA’s board of directors, who ultimately will decide on section and/or roster maximums. Because Grade 1 bands around the world prepare for the World Championships, which is governed by RSPBA rules, any change would realistically have to come from that association first.

The “Size Matters” debate is free to all who wish to attend and part of pipes|drums’ presence at Piping Live! The magazine’s annual free Pipes+Drums recital will be at 2 pm, Tuesday, August 13th, also at the Street Café. pipes|drums is media partner with Piping Live!

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  1. brucegpiper

    I”m sorry that I believe we will be in band practice at this time and probably cannot make this event. I”m sure there are positives to the big band, but that should be reserved for shows, concerts, etc. There are all sets of rules for playing, 3 pace rolls, time limits, judging who are judging specific things, but, in no other competition I can think of is there a complete do what you want with as many as you can and that’s fine. We all, know that if you have 30 pipers, and another band has 14, the bigger band has a huge advantage, either in creating more tonal effects, OR being able to drop so many people. Imagine if they didn’t have a rule for player roster size on the field in football or baseball. I’ve said that for years, that the New York Yankee’s would have just bought up everyone and put out 45 players on the field, you’d never get a hit. Or the richest hockey team would just put enough players out there to completely cover the goal. Finally, I thought the blog a few years back hit it right on the mark, and we here in Halifax are guilty of bringing players up to the grade one band, sometimes early, because we have to train them up to fill our rank. I would hope that this debate would do a lot more than just provide a wee bit of entertainment on Friday morning and hopefully some RSPBA folks will show up. Bill, it’s time for a rule change, and you have got to be one of the best around at a debate one would think. Do our small town markets proud!!! Bruce Gandy

  2. srmdrummer

    This should be an interesting debate. The issue is real: larger Grade 1 bands potentially ‘killing’ other bands by channelling the limited pool of talented players into fewer bands, or ‘lesser’ Grade 1 bands – with numbers considered healthy in decades past – looking embarrassingly small. I was recently asked why there were no Aussie bands at the Worlds this year. Aside from issues of cost, etc, the most obvious thought that occurred to me was of size. Of the three Grade 1 Oz band that (sadly) now exist, two are literally too small to be competitive (WAPOL is restricted by their official Police establishment and requires many, many guests to be taken seriously, themselves coming from top OS bands), and the third is approaching a respectable size, but has only recently been promoted. I’m still contemplating my own view of this issue. I have to admit, it is mighty impressive – awe-inspiring – to see huge, quality bands at the top level, but where does it end? Capping might not create more top bands with the excess players; funding/resourcing start-ups isn’t easy, and top players moving in and ‘improving’ existing bands in number would sideline many hard-working, incumbent members of those bands. Time will tell… – Stephen Matthews

  3. Bagpipermann

    It’s not just the number of players allowed on the field that needs to be capped. It is also the official “Competition” roster for the season that needs limiting. The numbers used below are purely for illustration. It’s the concept I’m trying to sell.. For example, let’s say in a given grade that the rule is you are allowed to have 25 competitive pipers registered by name for the season on the competition roster, but only 22 maximum are allowed to play on the field. This allows for a few spares when needed without going overboard and “hogging” all of the available players in the area. What about other non-competitive things, you say? You could have 50 player as members of the band if you wished, BUT, only 25 are allowed to register for “Competition” for the season with a maximum of 22 being allowed to play on the field on any given day. The other 25 would be non-competitive members who play in other events, like, parades and concerts to allow the band the freedom of having 50 or more players if they wished. Surely this would leave no doubt for the remaining 25 players that they will not be playing on the competition field and unless they like doing parades and concerts only, perhaps it’s time to find another band. This would “even the playing field” a little more and spread the talent around as well.

  4. AlMcMullin

    Interesting debate and my feelings are firmly on the Bill Livingstone side. As I stated in the grade 2 RIP debate, all one needs to do is check the numbers for the the finest symphony orchestras. If full time professional musicians have pretty much agreed on the number of first violins, second violins, cellos, etc. maybe we could avoid once again re-inventing the wheel on this discussion. (Hint, no more than 18 in even the finest symphony sections)

  5. aikendrum

    two points: If 2 golfers play a round of golf, one with the a full set of clubs and the other with just a half set, and they return the same score, who is the better golfer? I would say the half set man as he has to use his clubs more wisely and adapt to conditions. Capping band sizes will level the playing field and judges can compare like with like, given those bands play to maximum numbers, plus it will reduce the sound disparity between the bigger bands and smaller bands as the difference in numbers may not be so pronounced. The big question will then become what numbers for which instruments 16, 20, 25 pipers, 6, 8, 10 sides and of course, will this threaten the livelihood of some middle section players? Secondly, it is the RSPBA Music Board who neeed convincing as the Directors generally rubber stamp decisions passed up to them, but given the repercussions of the ‘Kilpatrick Incident’ last year, it’s unklikely anyone will want to express an opinion for fear of any reprisals made as a result of expressing an opinion, but if it doesn’t directly criticise the RSPBA then it might be alright. Should be a worthwhile debate, even if aonly to get this out in the open.

  6. BigPiper

    Like Bruce.. I’ll be practicing at 2.00.. So look forward to seeing the debate, hopefully posted here om P&D My only comments on previous ideas to cap numbers, is, that it normally ring fences Grade 1, and pipe sections… There are of course minimum numbers in each grade,,, So we should be looking at something pro-rata accross all grades, concerning pipes, snares and tenors… I remember in the 80s, minor games having 13-14 grade 1 bands at them…. now we can’t get that number at most majors…. So it’s very obvious, something needs looked at….

  7. Lawrie

    This has the potential to be the worlds fastest debate. Maybe 5 minutes tops. Bigger bands cost more to run, the sound is often poorer, there are more things to cover-up and hide and the impact this has on other bands (in Gr2 as well) is predominantly a negative one. Is there anything else needing a mention? An interesting stance for PM Livingston, given he presided over a pipe corps of 30 (or more at times) during the 2007 season and more or less had a hand in further raising the bar on corps size, that has gathered momentum since then. That is not a criticism of Bill, rather just a statement of fact. The numbers issue will hurt everyone in the coming years. The reality is there are only so many players to go around at any given time. The desire for bigger bands is as much about the basic size matters, ego-fuelled human condition as anything else. While some PMs wont admit it, theyd rather have a pool of 30-plus pipers, with a handful sitting on the sidelines at every contest, carrying capes and water bottles, than allow other bands to have them. The attitude is if we have them, they dont!. This is fairly narrow-minded, short-term thinking, all targeting success at major championships, nothing else. In some ways, I say fair play and good luck to these destination/bucket list bands. On the other hand, what is there to fear about a cap on numbers? Surely an SFU or FMM capped at, say, 22 pipers will be even more formidable given the increased competition for spots? And the eventual redistribution of pipers (who finally realise theyre not making the cut and let go) will bolster other bands and raise the overall standard. The potential downside to capping numbers is the risk that some pipers will be happy to sit on the sidelines and bide their time, hoping for the odd run here and there in their band of choice, and that these pipers will be effectively out of the contest circuit for the majority of the time as they refuse to let go of their dreams. Issuing a player a uniform that can be worn around the contest ground can be a way of holding on to them in some cases. Maybe this mega band trend is more about the ¡®look at me¡¯ factor than anything else? Standing ten across at the line might look impressive, but does it mean that band is more musically progressive, sound better (than 22) and even give some sort of general indication/signal that the band is more advanced and generally progressive than others? Or does having a huge pipe corps simply demonstrate that young, resourceful, more mobile and globally-minded pipers now have the desire and means to play in these bands more than they ever have in the past? Should you play 30-plus pipers just because you can? It seems innocuous on the face of it, but the reality is a pipe corps of 20 still sounds big and impressive. 30 pipers do not necessarily sound ¡®better¡¯ or that much bigger¡¯ than 20, in my opinion. It makes little difference other than the visual aspect. I have heard al

  8. Bagpipermann

    It’s not just the number of players allowed on the field that needs to be capped. It is also the official “Competition” roster for the season that needs limiting. The numbers used below are purely for illustration. It’s the concept I’m trying to sell.. For example, let’s say in a given grade that the rule is you are allowed to have 25 competitive pipers registered by name for the season on the competition roster, but only 22 maximum are allowed to play on the field. This allows for a few spares when needed without going overboard and “hogging” all of the available players in the area. What about other non-competitive things, you say? You could have 50 player as members of the band if you wished, BUT, only 25 are allowed to register for “Competition” for the season with a maximum of 22 being allowed to play on the field on any given day. The other 25 would be non-competitive members who play in other events, like, parades and concerts to allow the band the freedom of having 50 or more players if they wished. Surely this would leave no doubt for the remaining 25 players that they will not be playing on the competition field and unless they like doing parades and concerts only, perhaps it’s time to find another band. This would “even the playing field” a little more and spread the talent around as well.

  9. AlMcMullin

    Interesting debate and my feelings are firmly on the Bill Livingstone side. As I stated in the grade 2 RIP debate, all one needs to do is check the numbers for the the finest symphony orchestras. If full time professional musicians have pretty much agreed on the number of first violins, second violins, cellos, etc. maybe we could avoid once again re-inventing the wheel on this discussion. (Hint, no more than 18 in even the finest symphony sections)

  10. aikendrum

    two points: If 2 golfers play a round of golf, one with the a full set of clubs and the other with just a half set, and they return the same score, who is the better golfer? I would say the half set man as he has to use his clubs more wisely and adapt to conditions. Capping band sizes will level the playing field and judges can compare like with like, given those bands play to maximum numbers, plus it will reduce the sound disparity between the bigger bands and smaller bands as the difference in numbers may not be so pronounced. The big question will then become what numbers for which instruments 16, 20, 25 pipers, 6, 8, 10 sides and of course, will this threaten the livelihood of some middle section players? Secondly, it is the RSPBA Music Board who neeed convincing as the Directors generally rubber stamp decisions passed up to them, but given the repercussions of the ‘Kilpatrick Incident’ last year, it’s unklikely anyone will want to express an opinion for fear of any reprisals made as a result of expressing an opinion, but if it doesn’t directly criticise the RSPBA then it might be alright. Should be a worthwhile debate, even if aonly to get this out in the open.

  11. Lawrie

    Ive had my two cents already, but this might well be the biggest pipe band issue of our time. Pipe bands are tribal and, particularly at the pointy end, there is a ruthless whatever it takes underbelly that belies all the jovial banter in the beer tent. These bands exist to be the best, no other reason. A Pipe Major will not hesitate to put close to 30 or more pipers on the field in a bid to match or better the competition, if he can. This has almost no musical merit whatsoever, despite the arguments about Orchestral sounds etc. It is primarily a game of one-upmanship that sees the fear of failure being the key driver. It has very little to do with the music. In reality, only a handful of bands have the luxury of such big numbers by virtue of their location and because of who they are. The rest are victims of circumstance and are then, through no fault of their own, perceived as being somehow inferior if they have only got 18-20. It even sounds ridiculous to say that out loud, but thats where we find ourselves. Is it fair to be considered an ¡®also ran¡¯ before a note is played, based on the number of players standing on the line? We all know it is true. When we think of this in a musical context, it simply screams that we have a problem! Some argue that Gr1 should be the unbridled testing ground, where boundaries are always pushed. Yes, this is true¡­.but only to a point. For example, one of the big, high profile bands has sacked its Juvenile band for a season (or maybe two or more if they have to rebuild) as all the good kids have been called up to boost the senior band. Short term sorted. Long term¡­? Ok, if the kids are ready to move up, well and good. However it mo

  12. Eoin

    I won’t be at the World’s at all this year, so like BigPiper, I would be eager in at least reading what transpired in this debate, but if an audio/visual footage could be put up as well that would be useful for everyone around the globe that can’t make the worlds this year. What about conducting a little experiment to compare the sound/quality of playing with regards to band sizes, of two world winning bands? Have a blind judging of say Shotts and Dykehead from the 70′s and compare it to FMM/SFU from sometime over the last 5 years. Maybe adjust the recording quality of the recent one, so that it isn’t so obvious which is more recent, and see what the judges say on tonal quality, ensemble effect, etc etc.. Eoin Aitken.

  13. Lawrie

    Ive had my two cents already, but this might well be the biggest pipe band issue of our time. Pipe bands are tribal and, particularly at the pointy end, there is a ruthless whatever it takes underbelly that belies all the jovial banter in the beer tent. These bands exist to be the best, no other reason. A Pipe Major will not hesitate to put close to 30 or more pipers on the field in a bid to match or better the competition, if he can. This has almost no musical merit whatsoever, despite the arguments about Orchestral sounds etc. It is primarily a game of one-upmanship that sees the fear of failure being the key driver. It has very little to do with the music. In reality, only a handful of bands have the luxury of such big numbers by virtue of their location and because of who they are. The rest are victims of circumstance and are then, through no fault of their own, perceived as being somehow inferior if they have only got 18-20. It even sounds ridiculous to say that out loud, but thats where we find ourselves. Is it fair to be considered an ¡®also ran¡¯ before a note is played, based on the number of players standing on the line? We all know it is true. When we think of this in a musical context, it simply screams that we have a problem! Some argue that Gr1 should be the unbridled testing ground, where boundaries are always pushed. Yes, this is true¡­.but only to a point. For example, one of the big, high profile bands has sacked its Juvenile band for a season (or maybe two or more if they have to rebuild) as all the good kids have been called up to boost the senior band. Short term sorted. Long term¡­? Ok, if the kids are ready to move up, well and good. However it mo

  14. Eoin

    I won’t be at the World’s at all this year, so like BigPiper, I would be eager in at least reading what transpired in this debate, but if an audio/visual footage could be put up as well that would be useful for everyone around the globe that can’t make the worlds this year. What about conducting a little experiment to compare the sound/quality of playing with regards to band sizes, of two world winning bands? Have a blind judging of say Shotts and Dykehead from the 70′s and compare it to FMM/SFU from sometime over the last 5 years. Maybe adjust the recording quality of the recent one, so that it isn’t so obvious which is more recent, and see what the judges say on tonal quality, ensemble effect, etc etc.. Eoin Aitken.

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