CLASP solo circuit

What interesting news from Scotland about the launch of the new Competition League for Amateur Solo Pipers (CLASP). (And it’s a good thing they put “Solo” in the name, I’ll tell you.)

It’s the second time that I know of where the UK has taken a North American idea and applied it to their domain. (The first time was when the competitions in London started to use score-sheets, an almost unheard of practice in the UK until then.)

But instead of applying the amateur solo piping system used by many North American associations, CLASP will start things at Grade 3. That means no Grade 4 or Grade 5 levels of novices. You still have to be able to make a musical noise to compete in the UK.

How the Competing Pipers Association will integrate with CLASP, I don’t know, but I’m sure that I will hear and let everyone know the story when I do.

By avoiding novice categories for amateur pipers, is CLASP doing the right or wrong thing? My own belief is that Grade 5 events are not of sufficient quality to be held in public. These events should be replaced by Institute of Piping testing. But I’m interested to hear what others think about this and about CLASP in general.



A few days ago I wrote that I didn’t much like Coldplay’s new X&Y recording. In fact, after the first listen, I thought that I didn’t like it at all.

Well, after a few more spins I’ve grown to like it quite a lot. There are still a few songs that I skip over, and that falsetto voice is overused, but the musicianship of it is impressive. The songs are mostly enjoyable. It’s gone from maybe a three- to a seven-out-of-10.

Which of course all comes back to piping and drumming. How many of us have heard a top band’s medley and not liked it on first listen? But after a few times with it, you start to hear new things, and you begin to look forward to certain elements. It begins to make musical sense.

Conversely, how often do we love a band’s selection on first listen, but then, after hearing it again and again get annoyed by its predictability? When contending bands trot out the same selection for three straight years it can get really irritating.

It would make a lot of sense to give bands a way to preview their new medleys to judges. Some very fine and sophisticated pipe band selections are not fully understood or appreciated on first listen, and far too often those medleys are heard by both judges and audience at the World Pipe Band Championships for the first time. Because of the need for a positive first impression, bands strategically have to sacrifice musical sophistication for musical predictability.

Perhaps it’s a subtle rule in all art, whether it’s Coldpay’s X&Y, Picasso’s “Guernica,” or Joyce’s Ulysses: the things you don’t understand at first inevitably improve after the second, third, or fourth listen, viewing, or reading.

Predictable art is art that fizzles. Great art requires patience to be appreciated.



More numbers

You hear it all the time. Everyone seems to agree on it. Everyone seems to want it. Everyone thinks that more judges for pipe band contests would make the results fairer.

So why doesn’t it happen?

The typical configuration at a decent contest is two piping, one ensemble- and one drumming. Remarkably, non-Major RSPBA contests have only one piping and one drumming. Even with the four-configuration, that’s quite a bit of power that each judge wields.

Ten judges would be more like it. Doug Stronach at the PPBSO Adjudicators Seminar in May that, whatever the number, each judge should assess ensemble as well. I think that this approach makes sense.

And with 10 judges comprising five pipers and five drummers and each putting down a mark for both piping/drumming and ensemble the result would be equitable.

But, back to the question, why not? Two reasons: associations and contests aren’t willing to pay for it or can’t afford it, and associations simply don’t have enough certified judges to do it.

But, with some planning, it could be done at certain events. The World’s and Maxville would be good starting places. Everyone seems to want it, so let’s find a way to do it.


Think tank

The editorial in the June 2005 print edition of the Piper & Drummer is really an extension of a stream-of-consciousness Blogpipe posting on “authority.”

As it happens, one concept led to another, and feedback from Blog readers helped form more thoughts, and all that came pouring into the final version. I’ve written on similar topics in the past (to be honest, it’s difficult sometimes to remember all of the topics from the 70-odd editorials I’ve written), and this extends the challenge further. (It’s now posted on P&D Online in the Editorials if you’re interested.)

Many people in piping and drumming fear and resist and reject change. I like what we do and our music as it stands today, and it’s always great to hear perfect renditions of things that have been played before. But there’s always room to extend our art and we should never be afraid of that.

I do think that, if piping and drumming had incorporated an attitude that’s more accepting of change, what we do would today be far more popular with and accessible to far more people. Pipe bands really started to accept change about 20 years ago. Solo piping is only now just starting. But it is happening.

Some are frightened and work hard to keep things status quo. Others are excited and energized by new challenges and changes. I know where I stand, do you?



Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood . . . is an excellent recording. The group’s first CD was pretty good, too.

So I downloaded the band’s new X&Y album yesterday and have listened to it a few times. Good God. What a total treacle-fest. The whole thing is so repetitive and self-absorbed. It should be called “CD About Gwyneth.”

I’m sure Paltrow wouldn’t permit it, but Chris Martin needs to hang around a pipe band for a year.


Section sizes

I posted a poll asking if there should be caps on pipe band section sizes. There was one two years ago, too, and so far results show that about 10 per cent fewer people now think that there should be maximum limits than in 2003. The polls aren’t scientific, of course, and maybe it’s the time of the year. Ask the same question in September and people might answer differently.

Here are the pros and cons of putting limits on section sizes:

1. More players to go around for other bands.
2. Strengthens the competition community.
3. Levels the playing-field.
4. Makes members practice harder to keep their spot.
5. Shortens tuning time.
6. Lowers band overhead costs.
7. Less travel time for judges walking around the circle.

1. Stifles natural evolution.
2. Limits creativity.
3. Smaller overall numbers at practices and competitions.
4. Less visually impressive.

At any rate, no association will ever put caps on section sizes unless the RSPBA does it first. Non-RSPBA bands that want to compete at the World’s can’t have their size limited if they want to rate against the UK bands. If Field-Marshal Montgomery (note the hyphen and the single L in Marshal) goes out with 22 pipers, then sure as hell SFU will, too.

Personally, I think it’s a good idea to put limits on sections, but I do admit that there are drawbacks. I just think that there are fewer cons, and the pros are weightier.

In Grade 1, I’d say a maximum 20 pipers, 10 sides, two bass drums and five tenors is reasonable. Bands would have to submit their final rosters two months before the first contest, which allows enough time for players who don’t survive the cut to find other places to play. Grade 2 might be 18, 9, two and four, and so forth.

Capping sections at large-but-not-crazy-large sizes makes sense for all — and especially for the overall competitiveness of the grades themselves.


Boxed in briefs

Just what do band and light music judges carry in those stereotypical briefcases, anyway? I mean, how much room do you need for a pen and a back-up?

Piobaireachd judges I can see needing one. A PS Collection and the Binneas books (and maybe Thomason’s Ceol Mor) require a carrying case. But for all other judges the briefcase can’t be anything more than a prop.

If band and solo light music judges insist, I think that they should go the whole-hog and sport wrap-around sunglasses and handcuff that briefcase to their wrist. Perhaps a supply of Semtex and a detonator button if a performance gets really bad.

I’m going to make it a point to find out what judges have in their briefcases. I’ll report back with the inside dirt about the stuff inside. In the meantime, if anyone has any insights, feel free to share.


Grade ?

It’s still early in the 2005 outdoor season (in the northern hemisphere, anyway), and it seems as if non-Major Grade 1 contests are rapidly vanishing.

So many events that used to attract a decent crowd of Grade 1 bands now seem to stop at Grade 2. If they have a “Grade 1” contest, it’s made up of mostly bands from Grade 2 that are playing up against the one or two Grade 1 band(s) that bothered to attend.

The trend started when Shotts & Dykehead about a decade ago decided that it would compete only at the Major Championships in the UK. It was too much effort and cost too much to get to the minor events.

Sure. But I think that what was really at stake was the fact that at the smaller contests there was much better chance of a “big” band getting beaten by a “small” band. Not only that, but in Scotland – presumably for no other reason but to save a few pounds – the RSPBA appoints only one piping and one drumming judge at the small competitions. No additonal piping and no ensemble. Those two judges therefore essentially call the contest. Two piping, one ensemble and one drumming judge are too few for any event, and having only one piping and one drumming borders on ridiculous. Who can blame a top band for avoiding the risk of damaging their reputation? All it takes is just one of the two judges to miss something or have a hate-on or be in the back pocket of some manufacturer or other. Not that that ever happens.

The non-attendance of top bands at small contests is resulting in gridlock in the UK. The big-name bands stay away from the smaller contests, so the bands that don’t normally get into the top six at Majors don’t get a chance to beat those perceived top bands except at Majors. Consequently it’s desperately difficult and takes ages for bands to break into the upper ranks.

What is it going to take to get the top Grade 1 bands back to the smaller events? More judges? More prize money? Appearance fees? Prestige? Better toilets? A rule requiring them to attend at least X number of non-championships in order to compete at the Majors?


Rainy day instrument

Is there another instrument that’s made for playing outdoors? Because the volume of the Highland pipe and the accompanying snare-drums, band competitions are best outside. It will always be so.

Solo-piping events are, on the other hand, best inside. All the top ones are indoors, except the Thursday events at the Argyllshire Gathering, which are hard to hear and subject to starter’s pistols, sack races, and the unbuiquitous drone of the bouncy-castle’s generator. They have their traditional charms, but they’re nowhere near the stature of equivalent indoor events at the Northern Meeting.

Because pipe bands pretty much have to play outside, they’re subject to the vagaries of the weather. Bands will troop their way through searing Florida heat or horizontal Glasgow rain to do what they do.

But the garb of auld Gaul (or the galling old garb) that we wear is designed for playing outside in Scotland. Ghillie brogues and Glengarrys are designed to drain away rain. Worsted wool and barathea are made to repel wet and keep in warmth. The get-up is made for 12-degrees and rain.

What we wear makes great sense in Scottish weather. Except for the fact that it’s what the public want to see (and that’s important), it makes no sense almost everywhere else. The Scottish Regiments understood this, and there are jungle and desert kilted uniforms to suit the variety of climates in which soldiers operated.

Is it time for pipe bands to get a fashion makeover?



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