November 30, 2000

A pail of spit?

[Originally published as an Editorial]

“Prizes won by pupils when their teachers were judging are not worth a pail of spit,” were the famous and, as it turned out, legally actionable words printed by the late Seumas MacNeill. The Piping Times and the College of Piping in Glasgow were subsequently sued by Pipe Major Donald MacLeod for that phrase and, in an ironic twist, MacLeod’s non-competing, Royal Scottish Pipers Society pupil, Sheriff Sandy MacPherson, was his legal counsel on the case.

Along with the unresolved blight of chanter manufacturers, reedmakers, and bagpipe producers being permitted to judge, the dilemma of teachers assessing pupils has been argued as long as there have been piping and drumming competitions. Should they be allowed to judge? If they have a bias should they declare it and bow out? Should their students magnanimously drop out of the event? Or does the issue really matter?

Yes, yes, no, and yes.

Solo piping and drumming competitions will always be faced with the issue of teachers judging pupils, and here’s why: the best judges are those pipers and drummers with the most respected knowledge, and those whose knowledge we respect most are most sought out as teachers. Inevitably, the best teachers are judges, and the best judges are teachers.

Some teachers who judge their pupils mistakenly try to reconcile the matter by contending that they’re harder on their pupils than on other competitors. But that’s not an out because that too is unfair, as it skews the contest against their pupils.

By far the most significant problems arise when pipers and drummers seek out a teacher not for his knowledge, but because they’re known to dole out prizes to their pupils whether or not they honestly merit them. These instances are most insidious, and the only way to correct them is to ensure the judge / teacher is confronted and then removed from official lists.

We should not blur this issue with the matter of manufacturers judging. Although they each involve judging and ethics, they’re totally different situations. Teaching, judging and musical knowledge are inextricably linked. On the other hand, manufacturing and musical knowledge are mutually exclusive. We’ve said it numerous times before: Manufacturers judging is wrong and must stop if we’re going to take ourselves seriously.

Here’s our stance on the teachers judging matter: teachers should avoid judging if they feel biased in any way, and that includes the phony escape clause of contending that they’re “harder on their pupils.” Judges suspected of unjustly awarding prizes to their pupils should be confronted by the relevant piping and drumming organizations and the matter should be resolved.

What should not occur is a sweeping rule that prohibits all teachers from judging their pupils. If this were to happen, those whose musical opinion we respect the most would not be able to lend it to the competition arena. The musically inferior would be left to judge, and the results would be a certain sham.

Seumas MacNeill was neither right nor wrong in what he wrote. As with many of his views, they were communicated in a pejorative, uncompromising tone. He could have softened things by saying, “Some prizes awarded to some pupils by some judges are not worth a pail of spit.” We all know that this is true, and these situations must be carefully and sensitively addressed and dealt with decisively by the Competing Pipers Association, the Piobaireachd Society, the PPBSO, and other organizations vested by pipers and drummers with the power to enforce impartiality for their members.

If all teachers were prevented from judging their pupils, we would either lose their valuable musical insights as adjudicators or their priceless ability as teachers. Either would be debilitating to and unacceptable for our art.




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