Hounds and foxes

I'll show you early E!It’s too bad that World’s Week coincided with the first half of the Olympics. Not that I watched or followed the second week that much, but I didn’t see any of the first week except for the awesomely staged opening ceremonies.

I did note quite a bit of commentary about the Olympic events that are subjectively judged. Diving, judo, synchronized swimming and the like are all subjective sports; that is, you don’t score goals or race against a stopwatch. There even seemed to be calls to get rid of these judged events, since uneducated viewers can’t easily determine what’s a good triple-spin-double-loop-hold-the-toes-no-splishy-splash dive and what isn’t. These events are also fraught with allegations of bias and corruption.

Sound familiar?

It all got out of control when a Cuban tae kwon do competitor took out his frustration on one of the judges and delivered a flying wheel-kick to his chin, putting the judge in the hospital, resulting in the Cuban’s probable ban for life from competing.

Pipe band judges over the years have rarely been the victim of an actual physical assault by a competitor, but every year there are tales of band members having a verbal go at a judge for the decision they rendered. Usually, it goes like this: after the contest competitors meet at the beer tent or a popular pub for one two or 20 pints. After tense competition there are those few who are celebrating a win, but the majority is probably disappointed. Emotions run high, and alcohol fuels the mood. Someone decides to ask a judge a question about the result. The answer’s not satisfactory. An argument starts. People get pulled apart. Complaints are filed. No one wins.

A few judges make the chronic mistake of trying to share in the socializing with the competitors. Instead of doing their own thing, or simply going home, far from the madding crowd, they instead try to take part in the competitors’ party. In an ideal world there’s no reason why a judge should not be allowed to socialize with competitors, and one would wish that everyone could just get along. But that’s just not realistic.

After a significant event, it’s best for a pipe band judge to make him- or herself scarce. As tempting as it might be to hit the beer-tent, it’s not advisable. There will always be disappointed competitors and those who read their score sheets with incredulity and make a B-line for the judge for an explanation. Add a few drinks to the mix and you’re just asking for trouble.

Judging can be rather lonely. By necessity, it should not be about socializing with competitors before, during or after the event. That’s not to say that a judge should not be approachable and not welcome reasonable, sober questions. Far from it. But that can happen a day or days after the contest, when heads have cooled, recordings have been assessed, and hangovers have been beaten.

An adjudicator who insists on hanging out with those he just judged does so at his peril.


As Harry Tung alluded to recently, the decision to put Oran Mor into Grade 2 at the World’s has received a lot of post-contest discussion. Promoted to Grade 1 by its home organization, the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association, Oran Mor was subsequently asked to compete in the penultimate grade by the RSPBA, which the band then gamely accepted.

Oran Mor went on to gain a fourth prize in Grade 2 at Glasgow Green. Some people seem to think that this is confirmation that the band is in fact Grade 2 standard and the RSPBA made the right call. It’s not.

I didn’t hear Oran Mor or, for that matter, any of the Grade 2 bands at the 2008 World’s. But I do know that it’s not uncommon that the bottom two, three or even four bands in a larger band or solo competition would not gain a prize in the next grade down. Conversely, the top two, three or four bands in a big contest often would easily meet the standard in the next higher grade. That’s why grading committees go not only by the results they see, but also by the sound they hear.

I heard the Grade 5 band contest at Maxville this year and thought that the Paris/Port Dover band on that day actually met the Grade 4 standard. A few weeks later, the band finished second in Grade 4B at the World’s. Similarly, I heard one or two UK-based Grade 1 bands at the World’s and thought that they might not win a Grade 2 contest in Ontario.

But the issue at hand is not the grade-standard that the band meets; the issue is that of reciprocity between organizations. If one of those bottom-tier UK-based Grade 1 bands decided to make a trip to compete at the 2009 North American Championships, then (assuming it’s still in Grade 1 next year) I am certain that their entry would be accepted unconditionally. There would be absolutely no question as to their proper grade: it’s the one assigned to them by their home association, in this case, the RSPBA. End of story.

When Oran Mor entered Maxville there was never a question as to the grade the band would compete in. It was Grade 1, the grade assigned to them by the EUSPBA, and the grade the band entered. It was well known that Oran Mor would be competing in Grade 2 at the World’s and that it would be competing against very successful Grade 1 bands at Maxville. It did not matter.

Oran Mor finished last in Grade 1 at Maxville, but it still won’t matter in 2009 if a Grade 1 Oran Mor enters Grade 1 at Maxville. Their entry should be accepted.  Likewise, if Cap Caval, Ravara or Torphichen – the bands that finished ahead of Oran Mor at the World’s – come to Maxville in 2009 and enter to compete in Grade 2, then that is the grade they would compete in, provided they were assigned to Grade 2 by their home association.

I’ve read the arguments for and against the decision to put Oran Mor into Grade 2 at the World’s. What I haven’t heard, so far, is the reaction of Bagad Brieg and Buchan – the bands that finished, respectively, fifth and sixth, or, for that matter, Dumfries & Galloway Constabulary, which would have gained a prize had this Grade 1 graded band not bumped them from the list.

Who would really care if Oran Mor had competed in Grade 1 at the World’s? If they didn’t qualify for the final, then that’s their problem. If they did qualify, then the other bands would at least be able to say that they were beaten by a band legitimately graded Grade 1 by its home association.

The same cannot be said by the Grade 2 bands that finished behind Oran Mor at the World’s.


Honestly, they're playing facing you.Never under-estimate the value of canny marketing. Some pipe bands get it, and two bands used actual competition performances to draw attention not only to the band itself, but to issues of competing and musical presentation.

The first, of course, is the Toronto Police and its very different “medley.” I discussed it after the band performed the medley for the first time at Georgetown back in June. TPPB didn’t qualify for the Final at the World’s, and I’m quite sure they had every intention to play it there, even if it may have meant disqualification. I was hoping that they would get through.

The latest competition statement to be made was from House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead in the Medley event of the World’s Final. With about 30 seconds of the medley left, the pipe section turned outward to face the audience and the judges. Knowing the value of surprise, I understand that P-M Robert Mathieson kept this plan from even his own band members until the morning of the contest . Listening to the BBC recording of the performance, the pipe-section sound when they turn gets noticeably clearer, even if there’s a slight loss of unison.

Like TPPB after Georgetown, the Shotts turn was the talk of the day. I heard more about that from people than I did about how Field Marshal or the eventual World Champions SFU played. One can say that 2008 has been a year when the first-prize-winners had their thunder completely stolen.

The TPPB and HOESAD examples show what can be done simply by acting differently. I’m pretty sure that both bands saw 2008 as something of a building year, so perhaps winning was not the number-one objective for either. Would either band have done what they did if they thought that they were favourites to win the World’s? I don’t know. But I think that, without that win-at-any-cost mentality that guides a band that seriously thinks it can win, these bands made the most of the situation and decided to make very large musical statements.

Rab Mathieson calls for World’s reform in his pipes|drums Interview, even wondering why pipe bands don’t face the audience like any other serious musician would. Last Saturday he made a simple yet bold statement, risking losing the prize, but becoming the talk of the park while putting the spotlight directly on the important issue of what we are all are as musicians.

That’s the spirit

It was 2005 when I was last in Glasgow for the World’s, and 10 years since I was there as a competitor. 1997 was the last year before the Qualifier system was introduced. I stopped playing with pipe bands with not a little disappointment with the whole process that competitors must endure if they want a chance to succeed: the conditions, the lack of transparency, the back-biting that often took place between rival bands and even within them.

Since then much has changed. The biggest improvement is not with the contest itself – although the RSPBA has made it massively better. No, the best upgrade with the whole experience is the Piping Live! festival. Not only does the week-long event provide visitors with forums to learn and have fun, but it allows competitors to socialize and get to know each other. Where 10 years ago it was standard to look at the opposition with suspicion and distrust, often presuming that the enemies you don’t know must be people of misery and deceit, today, mainly due to the Piping Live! events, you end up having pints with members of other bands, getting to know your counterparts and learning that that guy in the band that might beat you on Saturday actually doesn’t have horns and a tail.

The week of the World’s has become a place of camaraderie and fellowship, similar to that of the solo piping scene, where competitors (well, most, anyway) lend support and genuinely wish each other well.

It’s interesting to me that Piping Live! is managed mainly by people heavily involved with that more egalitarian solo piping scene. It can be said that the whole festival was prompted then by a non-bandsman, Willie McCallum, who is of course one of the great solo pipers in history, after seeing the Todd Bar near his University of Strathclyde office become for a week the centre of the piping universe. With so many “overseas” bands staying at the uni, the central pub was a place where competitors could lighten up, relax a little and actually let down their guard. They could visit other bands’ practices, have a drink together, and see that, gee, those are guys pretty much like us.

So Willie’s brainchild was the Todd Bar Recital Challenge, an event that integrates the audience with the players, placing camaraderie before competition.

And it followed, I think, that Willie’s friend and competition rival Roddy MacLeod would extend that concept and build the Piping Live! festival. I can only detect positive comradeship and community in all of the Piping Live! events. At least with those who have embraced the festival, there’s none of the bitterness and back-biting that may have existed a decade ago.

The sniping times are officially a thing of the past. The festival injects into the pipe band world the solo piping world’s communal support system – and it succeeds. It’s funny what can happen when you work with people rather than against them, and it’s no surprise that that spirit extends right through the National Piping Centre.

After five days of Piping Live! the actual World’s seems now a much more congenial place. Of course, everyone wants to win, but I don’t see many people taking pleasure from seeing the rival band lose, as may often have been the case pre-Piping Live!

Back on the park as a competitor once again, it was great fun trying to win in competition with a bunch of friends with whom I really wanted to play. That’s no different, I guess, than any other healthy band, but I enjoyed feeling like Glasgow Green was more like the solo scene I love than the old band scene I grew to dislike and ultimately leave (as a competitor, anyway) for 10 years.

Of Piping Lives!’s many accomplishments – the workshops, the recitals, the lectures, the launches, the lunches, the panels, the exhibits, the café, the creative contests, the parties – indirectly improving the entire atmosphere of the pipe band world and the World’s itself is perhaps its biggest.

The price of a reed

Going once, going twice . . .About 20 pipers (I assume all of them were pipers) went to Colin MacLellan‘s workshop on making chanter reeds at the National Piping Centre, and I was one of them. I figure you can always learn more about reeds, and learning from a reedmaker is getting it straight from the source.

I thought the seminar might be very straightforward explanation of how a chanter is made, and it was, but it was also an in-depth, step-by-step demonstration that involved actually making a few reeds on the spot. Colin allowed two people there to make their own chanter reed and take it away with them.

For all their finickiness, the construction and manipulation of chanter reeds is a very basic, yet still meticulous business. Because he’s handled and made tens of thousands of them, Colin has total confidence sanding, bending, squeezing, snipping, even pummeling reeds to get them the way he wants them.

The reed that Colin made at the session turned out to be one that he told the class that he “wouldn’t hesitate to play in the Clasp.” He decided that he would hold a little charity auction, and, after the attendees rejected the idea of the proceeds going to the Spirit of Scotland Drinking Fund, people agreed that money should go to the College of Piping’s Building Fund.

So, Colin started the auction. Now, for all the moaning people do about not being able to get a good chanter reed, here was a reed that at least 20 people knew was a first-rate product. They had watched it being made by a master craftsman, watched it being tested by a master piper, and heard it being endorsed by a master competitor.

After some hemming and hawing, someone started the bidding at £6. To get things moving, I bid £7, and I went back and forth against one other bidder until I actually won it at £13.50. Still a massive bargain. (Rab – the cheque is in the mail. Promise.)

I was surprised at the relative bargain. In an era when people will spend $200 on the latest set of synthetic drone reeds, you would think that a guaranteed great chanter reed would have a much higher value to more people. I wonder why it doesn’t.

Piping alive

In Glasgow just now, part of the 42 per cent of p|d readers (according to the current poll) who are also here. So far the weather’s been mainly dry, and not a bolt of lightning to be seen. Piping Live! is in full swing just now. Drumming for Drinks went on today, and the kick-off concert was tonight at the Royal Glasgow Concert Hall. 

I’m back at the band thing for the first time in a few years, and I must say it’s a lot better to be playing and here than not and here. It’s a lot of fun, with a great atmosphere of all-gain. After months of practicing in isolation, with only MP3 files and sheet music as company, it’s great to hear it come together.

With everything that’s going on, I don’t have much time to commit to the site, but I’ll do my best. Stay tuned!


It’s interesting to see the various reactions about the now well known compiling error that the PPBSO made with the Grade 4 Final competition at Maxville last Saturday. Fortunately, mistakes like these are very rare, and happen to even the best organizations, including the RSPBA and the 2003 Grade 1 result at the World Pipe Championships, no less.

Stuff happens. If stuff happens a lot, then there is cause for concern. If stuff like this happens rarely – and only then on a chaotic afternoon of rain-drenched nerves, electrifying competition (pun intended) and scoresheets that were like wet bogroll – then people should be forgiven.

Everything can be improved. That’s what we humans try to do. And things do improve. Lessons have been learned from this and other mistakes, apologies have been made, and everyone has I hope taken a collective deep breath. The correct result has been made, and affected bands I think have each moved on, looking forward to their next outing or season.

Given the lightning storm on the day that bands voluntarily played through, perhaps it’s a good time to put into perspective the true gravity of mistakes.


Nice attack.A month or so back the pipes|drums Poll asked readers about their preferences for extreme weather conditions at an outdoor contest. The condition that got the most favourable response – 37% – was “No rain, but thunder and lightning in the area.” This beat out “Very cold and rainy” (4%) and “Roasting heat and no shade anywhere” (36%).

I am still a bit miffed that piping and drumming competitors are perfectly happy risking their lives around lightning rather than putting up with cold. It’s all about competition.

And so it was at Maxville on Saturday when the thunderstorms that had been predicted for days finally happened. The place within a few minutes turned into a huge tempest, and some of the cracks of lightning that struck right overhead while I was judging the Grade 5 band competition were downright awesome and a tad insane.

But it was really only when the rain became too heavy, and not the life-risky lightning, that common sense finally prevailed and the competitions were halted. This after a vendor on the park reportedly was struck.

I must confess that while I was out on that wide-open field I was somewhat reassured to see about 50-feet in the air a metal cherry-picker that they use for tossing that big bag of hay in the heavy events. If lightning did strike, it would hit that thing and not my umbrella. I also couldn’t help but fantasize about the clichés they would say if we were hit: “Oh, but he went out doing what he loved.” Screw that. Cold comfort from pain, indeed.

Some people were comparing the weather to the 2007 World’s. Um, no. There’s a huge difference between soul-destroying incessant mist and life-destroying bolts of 100,000,000 volts.

Trying to persevere through that mess was theatre of the absurd. Bands came from long distances for the contest but, really, lightning and piping just should not mix.


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