December 31, 2004

His way or the highway? Hit the road, judge

[Originally published as an Editorial]

As we have often discussed in these pages, our art is subjective and judging it invites debate and, at times, disagreement over results. But because there are various definitions of what constitutes “good” piping and drumming, our judges, in order for our competitions to be successful, must come to the bench with a mind both open and informed. The best judges will always have their personal preferences as to what they like to hear in the music, but they also must be aware of and ready to tolerate other artistic licenses.

The very worst judges—and, sadly, they still exist—are those who summarily and automatically award prizes to those who most closely matched their own playing style. These dinosaurs have studied only one way to play things, have often played under one pipe-major or leading-drummer, and close their ears to music that they’re unaccustomed to hearing.

Actually, only 20 years ago this type of close-minded, intolerant judge was the norm. To win prizes, competitors would routinely skew their music to try to suit a judge’s taste. Today, thankfully, the world of piping and drumming is more enlightened. Bands and soloists not ready to listen to and appreciate and try to play different styles and musical idioms will be left behind, considered boring by the ever-more-critical listener. Judging has changed along with the musical liberalism that started in the late-1980s.

But still, there are fuddy-duddy judges, both young and old, who are trotted onto competition fields, who think their job is solely to give prizes to soloists or bands who meet only their definition of what’s good and what has merit. There’s little the competitor can do, except 1) grin and bear it, 2) wait for the old bastard to retire, or 3) pander to the judge and try to guess what they want to hear.

Option three is all-too-often the taken course of action, and, invariably, it ends in disaster. For example, a band will guess from experience that a certain influential judge likes slower tempos, and on competition-day try to pare things back, resulting in a performance that sounds unrehearsed and clumsy. Similarly, a solo piper might try to swell piobaireachd cadences, or open a crunluath movement, and, like the band, come across as unsure and stilted, and certainly not true to the performer’s musical talent.

Using the power that comes with judging to make money teaching is, in a word, insidious. “If you come to me for lessons, or if you hire me for a workshop, I’ll show you what I want from competitors,” these dinosaurs insinuate. Many of them do quite well at it, attracting paying students who dutifully imitate the only things they know. The very best judges are those who are confident with their diverse knowledge, and that diversity comes through in the teaching. These are the scholars who show their students, “You can play it this way, or this way, or this way, but, at the end of the day, play it the way that you like it.” Beware the judge or the teacher who says, simply, “This is the way it must be played.”

For the dinosaur, judging is easy: simply give the prize to the competitor who played the way that’s most personally familiar. At the end of the day, summarily chalk it up to “personal preference” and it being a subjective art and all that. Go home and do nothing—don’t listen to recordings, don’t attend any piping and drumming events—until the next competition you judge.

For the fair, informed, and open-minded adjudicator, judging piping and drumming is difficult. It’s hard work taking the time to listen to recordings of other pipers, drummers, and pipe bands in your spare time, to appreciating all forms of music and thinking of ways that they might be applied to piping and drumming.

Being a judge today requires a lot more than sitting back, resting on laurels, and hoping that past playing history and long-gone tuition automatically provides the right to wield a clipboard. Today’s top judges work at it. They’ve done their homework and they hit the field knowing what’s new, what’s old, and what’s what. The biggest part of their job isn’t the two or three hours that they spend assessing the actual contest, it’s the homework they’ve done to prepare, to be aware that there are other equally meritorious ways to perform our music, and to open their minds to our music’s full potential.


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