Published: June 30, 2000

When Competition Rules Run Amok

We at the pipes|drums are often amazed at the number of rules for piping and drumming competitions that really have nothing to do with making music. Bands must stand at attention. Bands cannot “play off” the field. Competitors must wear a hat. Bands must march off when “the command” is given.

It’s enough to make you want to stay home and play music instead of putting art through a rules-bound competitive wringer.

Case in point: the Grade 4 Hamilton-Wentworth Police Pipe Band competes at the venerable Alma Highland Games in Michigan last week. The band neglects or forgets to march off at the “command” (we love that antiquated terms from the bygone military days), and is thus socked with a 30 point deduction from its overall score. Band plays, by most accounts, very well for the grade, and finishes 9th.

Now, there need to be rules for any trial, otherwise anarchy will ensue and there will be no pretext for what it takes to win. We accept the need for certain rules, even in almost impossible situations like piping and drumming where art is to be judged.

But many of the “rules” of pipe band competitions are holdovers from an era when making music was often secondary to military-style deportment.

When a Grade 4 band forgets to march off like little soldiers, what musical difference could it possibly make? When pipe band associations dogmatically adhere to non-musical rules, does it not communicate a very negative and archaic message that marching and discipline mean more than ensemble and expression? Yes, yes, it’s a rule, but what right-thinking rival band, judge, or association would relish seeing a contestant knocked down for something so insipid?

Even the Royal Scottish Pipe band Association routinely turns a blind eye to bands that inadvertently neglect to do their old-fashioned (but strangely charming) “pipes down / pipes ready / pipes up” choreography rule at the line. It could be pouring rain (and it usually is), but the steward or ensemble judge will generally whisper a bit of friendly advice in the pipe major’s ear about the rule if he sees the band’s forgotten.

We’re all for creating equitable musical rules that attempt to place bands on an equal playing field. But we’re also for eliminating or, depending on the situation, choosing to overlook nonsensical, non-musical rules that are simply holdovers from a long-gone era when military conduct actually had relevance on what we do.

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