The popular Montreal Highland Games decided that its August 2010 event would go with paid 45-minute performances by invited pipe bands instead of the usual piping, drumming and band competitions sanctioned by the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario. But Montreal Games organizers have determined that the 2011 event will bring back those contests in some form, and is currently in discussions with the PPBSO about various options.
Organizer Kirk Johnstone told pipes|drums that the 2010 mini-concerts were “well received by the public,” and that the four performing bands appreciated the $3-$5,000 flat fee. The games opted for the new approach with the desire to save costs, and Johnstone confirmed that the event did in fact reduce expenses by “more than $10,000.”
“We did, however, receive numerous complaints about not presenting the ‘big spectacle’ of the massed bands at the opening and closing ceremonies,” Johnstone said. “There are hundreds of people that come just to see that part of the day.”
He confirmed that the 2011 event will offer competitions for Grade 2, 3, 4 and 5 bands. “We would really like to include Grade 1, but historically their participation has never really warranted allocating resources to them.”
PPBSO President Charlie MacDonald said that he was not sure whether his organization has in fact been approached by the Montreal Games committee. At the PPBSO truncated AGM on November 27th, MacDonald acknowledged the need for his organization to be more flexible with the modern needs and challenges of events, and received some pressure from attending members to keep an open mind.
“Last season, outside of Maxville, the outdoor event with the most atmosphere was Montreal,” commented Michael Grey, pipe-sergeant of the Grade 1 Toronto Police Pipe Band, one of the performers at the 2010 Montreal Games. “The festival was full of activities and food you just don’t see at the standard Highland games. The band was one of those hired to provide entertainment. The festival provided a fairly large outdoor stage and standard audio-visual – this was an excellent touch and something I’ve long wished we had at outdoor competitions. The crowd had full view of the band with no bad sight-lines.”
Regarding a potential format for bands at the 2011 event, Johnstone said, “The organizing committee of the Montreal Highland Games has always been committed to encouraging and promoting the Scottish arts. While the concert format did allow some very select, very good bands, to show the public that a pipe band can do more than march in a parade or play a short competition piece, we would like to offer all bands a chance to participate and also give the public that big opening show.”
While pipe bands over the last two decades have grown accustomed to performing on a stage, often in full two-hour concerts, the competition format has – with few exceptions – remained a traditional circle on grass, pipers facing inward, with their backs to the audience.
“I know it’s obvious, but it has to be said that playing on a stage and playing on a patch of grass are two very different things,” Grey continued. “Not only are bands presented to best advantage, but I think the stage ups the quality of performance. It’s like that old line, ‘If you look good, you feel good.’ If you’re treated like a pro you play like pro. Stages are the only way to go. I think the day has come where we need to think of presenting our music in a better way – that probably means something new for us. Tramping up and down the field badly playing old tunes en masse and then trying to play our best on a field while facing away from the audience – that ship has sailed. We can do it better. Hat’s off to Montreal for their pioneering efforts on this front.”
The Montreal Highland Games are traditional the Sunday after the North American Pipe band Championships at Maxville, Ontario, making the biggest annual weekend of piping and drumming in North America. The 2011 Montreal Games are scheduled for July 31st.