August 31, 2002

Walk a mile in the soloist’s ghillies first

[Originally published as an Editorial]

Until about 15 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for pipe bands to be judged by those who had devoted most of their piping lives to solo playing. With little or no serious band experience, these purely solo pipers were allowed to wield pen and clipboard to try to detect pipers cutting out, poorly blown tone, and accurate introductory E’s.

Seumas MacNeill and John MacFadyen, two of the best solo pipers of the last 50 years, and two pipers who never really played with a band (and were even known to publicly scorn the concept of pipers playing with drummers) were frequent judges at pipe band events all over the world. To the chagrin of not a few pipe majors, they were vested with the responsibility of deciding the World Pipe Band Championships numerous times. Not surprisingly, they often gravitated towards the bands with a top soloist as a pipe major.

As bands became better, the practice faded. We all know now that pipe bands should be judged by those with the pipe band experience and expertise to make an informed decision. After all, if a judge hasn’t sweated to the end of a medley or MSR at the Grade One level, or learned the difficulties of “blowing tone” under enormous pressure, he will never truly be able to judge the nuances of a pipe section’s performance.

The ideal band piping judge is that rare individual who has reached the tops of both the solo and band ladders. Willie Connell, Iain McLeod, Jim McGillivray, Ed Neigh, Bob Worrall, A. John Wilson, Bill Livingstone, Iain MacLellan, Angus J. MacLellan, to name a few, are excellent examples of these “all-rounders.”

In most associations around the world, a prospective band piping judge must have played with a Grade One band for a substantial amount of time to be allowed to adjudicate at that level. In Ontario, five years of experience at the Grade One level is a prerequisite to taking the pipe band judging test.

But what about solo piping? While pipe bands are now judged by those with excellent pipe band credentials, we now find- -at least in Ontario- -that many, if not most, of our top light music events are determined by those with excellent band credentials, but with little or no solo piping experience.

But shouldn’t we require equivalent standards for our solo judging as we do for our band judging? We believe that a piper must have experienced solo competition at the highest levels to be allowed to judge at the highest solo levels.

The musical subtleties between a brilliant MSR and an excellent one can only be accurately discerned by those who have walked in the solo competitor’s ghillies. That knowledge comes through years of practicing and dedication to understanding and dissecting the music.

We respectfully suggest that, in order to accurately judge solo piping at the higher levels, adjudicators should have at least five consecutive years of successful participation in professional piping competitions. Those meeting the criteria may then be invited to sit the solo piping examination by a committee of experts.

While pipe bands have migrated away from pure soloists judging them, so too now should solo piping move away from being judged by pure bandsmen. Until that happens, pure bandsmen judging the top levels of solo piping will not have the professional respect of those they judge. And without that respect, top competitions cannot fully reach the lofty standards to which they aspire.




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