Published: February 28, 2001

Is competition true promotion?

[Originally published as an Editorial]

The primary objective that’s spelled out in most piping and pipe band associations around the world is fairly simple: To improve and promote piping and drumming.

Unfortunately, with every association we know of (except the Competing Pipers Association, whose charter is strictly competition), this simply means “putting on competitions.”

But do competitions alone really promote our music? Does piping and drumming competition reach out to untapped audiences? Are associations in fact nurturing the art by forcing it to be judged weekend in and weekend out?

When the idea of putting on an event is raised at an association meeting, the first thing people think is, “Let’s have a competition.” Solo piping, pipe bands, solo drumming, composing, dress and deportment – we’re accustomed to having each somehow judged, graded, and prized. It seems difficult for associations to think beyond the parameters of what’s always been done before.

Since 1987 when the 78th Fraser Highlanders turned the pipe band world on its ear with their truly revolutionary concert and recording in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, our little world has become so much more than competition. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, concerts and public performances have been left primarily to bands, soloists and private groups to organize themselves.

We venture to say that the world’s associations are missing the point when it comes to truly promoting piping and drumming, bringing the music to a new level of understanding, and improving overall respect for what we do.

The first Highland games were athletic and hence competitive, with perhaps a single piping competition. The emphasis on competition seems to have begun there. Even today, the athletic events have bigger audiences, higher prize money, and are more understandable to the uninstructed.

The piping historian Hugh Cheape in his May 2000 PD Interview described the whole thing as an “incestuous circus,” and he’s right. We put on these contests not for the inquisitive and unenlightened public, but for us, our families and those who have finagled their way into our little club.

Seumas MacNeill, seen by many as something of an evangelical piping missionary, in his day traveled all over the western world teaching anyone with the wherewithal to learn. His accomplishments should be vaunted, as we have done many times in these pages. He should have been knighted for his services to Queen and country, and we hope someday he receives his official, posthumous recognition.

What MacNeill also did was to perpetuate the closed club mentality of piping. He promoted the notion that the Highland bagpipe is an instrument for Highland pipers and few others. It is truly ironic that, for all his indefatigable teaching of the music, he was equally tireless when it came to passing on the tradition of competition over performance, of the Highland pipe as a solo instrument, of us against the rest of the musical world.

When run well and conducted in a constructive and magnanimous spirit, competition is a good thing. But it’s not the only thing. We suggest that the real promotion and nurturing of piping and drumming is yet to come, and it will take the associations of the world to change their tune.

By simply acting as competition machines, piping and pipe band associations do not fulfill their primary mandate. Today’s piping and drumming should continue to be winched from the competition rut dug over the last 100 years.

We call on the world’s piping and pipe band associations, from the RSPBA on down, to improve and promote piping and drumming not simply by running more and bigger competitions, but by helping to put bands and soloists on platforms where the only reward is the applause they receive for playing good, entertaining, and creative music that reaches out to those outside our little family.

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