October 31, 2003

Going for The Green

[Originally published as an Editorial]

If you live in Scotland or Ontario you may have noticed two seemingly contradictory trends: 1) there are more competing pipers and drummers than ever, and 2) contests are being cancelled each year. In Scotland, no fewer than three band events were scrubbed last summer, including some that have been around for decades. Ontario has seen several contests go bankrupt or declare that they can no longer afford to put up enough prize and travel money to attract Grade 1 bands. Several more competitions apparently are on the brink of extinction.

For the last decade, several of the top Scottish bands compete only at the five major championships. It’s infrequent when anything more than a handful of Grade 1 bands participate in a smaller contest. Ontario has a similar problem, and only one event in 2003 saw all of the province’s Grade 1 bands take part.

Why the alarming decline? The primary reason we think may surprise you: the World Pipe Band Championships.

Since the early 1980s, when bands embarked on “five-year plans” to win the World’s (remarkably, these five year plans are now ten-, fifteen-, even infinite-year plans) the World’s fixation has become so great that bands focus a startling amount of energy, time, and money on getting to the competition and doing well. The event has gone from being a team-building goal to becoming a do-or-die obsession.

Unfortunately, the World Championship is a caldron of politics. Many bands seem to think that exposing themselves at contests before the World’s is a risk not worth taking, for fear of generating negative pre-judging before the big event. If a band doesn’t play well or gets a poor result at a smaller competition, public perception can be adversely altered. If a negative buzz begins that a certain band isn’t playing well, or had a drum section that “isn’t ready,” or got beaten by a perceived also-ran, then the inevitable pre-judging that is the byproduct of a large entry can be negatively impacted.

So in the all-out quest to win the hearts and minds of the judges and the public, some bands going to the World’s simply refuse to show their cards. Staying home and practicing behind closed doors can be the safest route, even if it means the band really doesn’t do much in public until The Big Day In Glasgow.

One could certainly argue that the World’s has made bands better. To be sure, the standards of pipe section, drum corps, and ensemble have improved worldwide as the World’s has become more popular. But whether this should be chalked up to the growth of that contest is disputable. We suggest that today’s superior sound has more to do with improvements in innovations that have made teaching, travel, communications, and the instruments themselves better.

To many competitors and non-playing spectators, pipe band contests have become musically uninteresting. As a result (at least partially), attendance at many competitions around the world is in decline. When bands don’t attend, gate revenues drop, and events struggle financially. But even if an association wanted to liven things up musically for both bands and audience, say, by asking Grade 1 bands to provide a 20-minute performance where almost anything goes, there’s a backlash. “We’re practicing for the World’s, and we won’t compete with anything that doesn’t help us prepare for that.” Somehow, with such infatuation with the World Championships, the North American Championships at Maxville became a total dry run for The Big Day In Glasgow, replete with an outdated “own choice” medley requirement and civilians trying their best to execute the “pipes down, pipes ready, pipes up” military drill.

Amazingly, an argument can be made that the World Championship is actually stifling pipe band music. While many pipe band associations around the globe are open to trying new musical formats for contests, especially for the higher grades, the World’s sticks to a traditional—and some would say outdated—MSR and 5-7 minute Medley requirement. And woe betide the band that pushes the envelope to any substantial degree.

After a Grade 1 band at a mid-1990s World’s was almost disqualified for the diabolical act of—gasp—slow-marching into a medley with an adaptation of a more traditional than traditional ancient waulking song, the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, the de facto eternal governors of the World’s, created a rule that all bands must march into a circle with a tune “in quick march time.” So much for musical envelop pushing.

It can be argued that World’s politics have made bands musically regressive. Simon Fraser University, without a doubt one of the world’s super bands, a group teeming with musical talent and a band that clearly knows what to do to win at Glasgow Green, opened their Glasgow Green medley this year with “The Heights of Dargai”—a lovely 9/8, to be sure, but not exactly a tune that moves the art forward. The World Championships is actually a key factor in what could be deemed musical devolution.

In 1998, Ontario tried to make Grade 1 competitions more audience-friendly simply by asking bands not to turn their backs on the crowd by forming a crescent facing the spectators. The concept was abandoned after one try, mainly because bands protested that “it’s not the format” for the precious World’s.

The World Championships have also required top bands to dredge more than ever for talent. In the 1980s, Grade 1 bands were winning the World’s with 12 pipers. A section of 15 was massive. Today, a band without at least 16 pipers on the field has little chance of a prize. Bands now cast their driftnet for hundreds, even thousands of miles, catching all they can, whether or not the players ultimately get a contest game. Even in Scotland top bands now comprise members from all over the country, traveling hours to practice, whizzing by the practice halls of local bands they once would have supported.

Thus, pipe-majors and leading drummers who demand that their well-travelled players attend the small events risk having them quit. If the band decided to compete with reduced numbers, they may face a deservedly bad result. What happens? Bands skip smaller contests to ensure that their numbers and reputation are preserved for—you guessed it—the World Championships.

Yes, the World Pipe Band Championship is a terrific spectacle. For 20 years, right or wrong, the Piper & Drummer has hyped the contest probably more than any other publication. But the amount of time, money, and energy put into the World’s obsession by more and more bands is inordinate. The politics—in judging, in music, in numbers—has a negative pull on regions around the world, including, incredibly, Scotland itself.

Could it be that the World Championships are actually the biggest nemesis to the pipe band art?




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