March 31, 2005

Associations need to teach to compete

[Originally published as an Editorial]

Does your association have an organized teaching program? Or is it simply a competition-governing organization? Aside from assembling rules and gradings and judges, what is it truly doing to advance the piping and drumming arts?

These are tough questions, but they need to be asked. Since the formation of the Scottish Pipe Band Association 75 years ago, the number of formal teaching programs that have been deployed by organizations is scant. Most organizations’ only idea when it comes to “advancing” the arts is to put on—what else?—another competition.

With few exceptions (e.g., the National Piping Centre and Colleges of Piping at Prince Edward Island and Glasgow), teaching around the world is left to bands and individuals who simply wait for the phone to ring with interested learners. It’s misguided for pipe band associations to expect others to do all of the teaching. While it can be rightly said that, by putting on effective competitions associations therefore promote the art and attract interest, that has never been enough.

In fact, as attendance at events has declined, and competitions more often than not attract only friends and family, the time is riper than ever for associations to deploy formal teaching programs. Pipe band organizations need to divert some of the energy and money that they commit to creating, maintaining and implementing rules and regulations and put some of it toward building ways to attract new players, and providing sound fundamental instruction by qualified instructors.

And that instruction should be free. Rather than looking at teaching as a pathway to profit—as associations so often get caught doing when it comes to any initiative—they should consider instruction a loss-leading investment in the future. Every new piper and drummer means growth and, ultimately, revenue, for an association.

But eventual revenue should be secondary to advancing the arts.

Here’s how a teaching program can work:

  • The association recruits qualified instructors to provide a series of 10 weekly lessons in an open-classroom setting, limited to 20 students.
  • With the pool of instructors, the association plans and determines the teaching syllabus and materials for the lessons.
  • The association goes to regional dealers of piping and drumming merchandise to underwrite the cost of the lessons (i.e., payment of instructors, development of materials, hall rental fees, and so forth).
  • Pupils receive free instruction and course materials, but must put down a deposit on their practice chanter or drum pad and sticks, which are provided by the sponsoring dealer.
  • Sponsoring dealers are given exclusive rights to market their merchandise to students at the classes.

Pupils can choose to purchase the instruments from the dealer. Those who stick with their lessons most certainly will do that.

After the 10-week course, pupils are then connected by the association with approved instructors in their area for private tuition. The terms of payment for these lessons would be determined by the teacher and pupil. Bands can offer their members as teachers, and thus have access to new recruits.

To be sure, the world’s bands know the need to teach, and many of the most successful bands have formal programs and feeder-bands. The model was pretty much developed in the 1970s by the Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia Pipe Band organization. Thanks to their forethought, that band has had longer sustained success than any on earth. Other organizations, like Vale of Atholl and Dysart & Dundonald followed suit.

Bands without a teaching program are generally fraught with instability, and live from season to season, hoping that players will stay and those that leave will be replaced by poaching and migration. That’s a tough and dangerous way for a band to operate. But it’s pretty much how pipe band associations have always worked: hoping that member bands will continue to grow on their own, rather than the association itself developing new membership and interest.

It’s high time that associations took the cue from the likes of Boghall, Simon Fraser University and others and implemented their own teaching systems to ensure stability, growth and a continued rising standard.

We firmly believe that simply by taking out in local newspapers a few cheap ads that read, “Free Bagpipe Instruction from [insert association name here]. Contact [insert phone number/e-mail address/Web site here] for details.” Would result in a plethora of responses. Granted, not all of the newcomers would actually stick with it, but that’s true of any newcomer even getting private instruction from the outset.

The notion that pipe band associations exist simply to run competitions is, ultimately, self-defeating. For their own health and future, organizations must invest in teaching and welcome newcomers into our rather secret club. For associations to assume that bands and individuals will always fill the teaching need is presumptuous and risky. It’s time for associations to teach, and truly advance the arts of piping and drumming.





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