Crackers & Blooters: the best and not-so-best in piping and drumming in 2022
It was a year of getting back at it. What was not to like? Not much, as we look back and hear from several prominent pipers and drummers for their thoughts on what was great and not-so-great in 2022.
There were many great Crackers to celebrate, and a few Blooters that could have been avoided. YMMV.
Cracker: The return to competitions. From an organizational point of view, this is a big achievement. After COVID, regular supporters and sponsors have little available cash and too many demands, so running an event is a big risk and also entirely necessary for us to keep bands going.
Cracker/Blooter: Pitch. The top Grade 1 bands clocking in between 490-494Hz at the World’s was a bit wild. Yes, it was a hot day, and it was interesting to see how they all handled it on the day and how some struggled, but the super-high pitch won’t do much for bringing the increasingly shrill sound of the instrument under control.
Cracker: The Competing Pipers Association took a stand and wouldn’t be pushed around after reportedly getting pressure from at least one organization because one or two folks don’t like the CPA’s decades-old conflict of interest policies. Sometimes, being an effective association leader often actually takes strong leadership, not caretaking to preserve the past.
Blooter: The steady stream of Scottish immigrants to Commonwealth countries and the USA has been a trickle for the last 20 years at least, and that Highland games audience is no longer ready-made. Associations have had years to make piping/drumming more attractive to non-ethnic audiences, but most have done almost nothing to proactively put more bums in seats. Piping and pipe band drumming can’t be seen as “ethnic,” and needs to be made cool and more of a genre and instrument that can adapt to and integrate with other music. Ironically, over the last two decades Scotland has been able to make piping cool with the kids, thanks in large part to normalizing the instrument in schools and, most notably, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Other countries must act before they’re all standing around looking for a place to play.
Without fail, RSPBA stewards get every single band to the line at their appointed time. Spectacular efficiency.
Cracker: The RSPBA’s stewards and administrators for the running of the five major championships – the World’s in particular – like they never left. We don’t notice how hard these events are to run so effectively because they run so smoothly. Without fail, RSPBA stewards get every single band to the line at their appointed time. If there’s a slip by a few minutes, each band is made well aware in advance so no one is left waiting at the line with their instruments falling out of tune. Spectacular efficiency.
Cracker: Lots of bands are struggling to retain or regain members, and too many people got used to weekends at the lake/beach/golf course. It was fantastic to see bands out playing, and especially those who travelled a long way to games, given the general state of the airways/schedules.
Blooter: One of the most frustrating elements of competition is the way bands feel they can predict results based on who is judging. “So-and-so always buries band X” or “Whozits always bumps up band Y.” Whether it’s true or just perceived to be true, pipe band associations have to work harder to avoid people judging their own family members, and former long-time band members should spend a few years judging other grades before they get to judge their peers, ex-bandmates or former competitors.
Cracker: Competitive standards. It was fantastic to hear excellent music being laid down in the big events. The big bands and top soloists lost no steps.
The examples set when Peoples Ford Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia’s Gordon Brown handed over the reins to Kerr McQuillan and Field Marshal Montgomery’s Keith Orr welcomed Gareth McLees were models of how this should be done.
Cracker: BBC Radio Scotland’s Pipeline. Gary West and the crew do an amazing job. Under the usual threatened cuts, we hope the show continues.
Cracker: Derek Midgley and the Competing Pipers Association pushing forward with the Bronze Medal. It was certainly advertised, but the magnitude of the event may have been lost on some folks. There was similar pushback from the pipers when there was talk of making a Silver Medal back in the 1970s. Many folks felt it wasn’t necessary and would just give newer/less experienced pipers an expedited trip to Oban and Inverness. When the big gatherings declined to hold it, Midgley made it happen. There are so many players who have a B or B-minus grade who are great players, and aren’t getting into the Silver because of time constraints and too many entries. The Bronze medal is an obvious next step to promote growth for piobaireachd and competitive piping.
Cracker: Grade 1 leading-drummers. The examples set by Peoples Ford Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia’s Gordon Brown handed over the reins to Kerr McQuillan and Field Marshal Montgomery’s Keith Orr welcomed Gareth McLees were models of how this should be done. No drama. Carefully and intelligently communicated, first, to the band, and, quickly after, to the piping and drumming media, not dribbled out by jumped up social media blabbermouths. Really, it’s no surprise given the professionalism that these bands and people have practiced throughout their histories. Textbook.
Cracker: There’s at least one top judge who steadfastly refuses to judge contests in which his former band, friends and family members play. We need a lot more of that.
Cracker: Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe-Major Richard Parkes winning record a thirteenth World Championship title. Words elude.
Rather than putting highly capable and experienced judges out to pasture, the RSPBA needs to review how they are performing and act accordingly.
Blooter: “Ageing out” of judges. As we all know, there are myriad versions of age 75 and older. With an ageing population and advances in well-being and physical fitness and mental health awareness, 75 today is 1990’s age 60. Rather than putting highly capable and experienced judges out to pasture, the RSPBA needs to review how they are performing and act accordingly. Come to think of it, judges of any age should have their judging and behaviour reviewed annually or every few years. If there’s a concern or, worse, a chronic problem, work with the judge to improve. At least give them the benefit of the doubt.
Cracker: The RSPBA for ensuring that the aforementioned drumming greats Gordon Brown and Keith Orr get right onto the judging panel. Too often, people of their calibre have been alienated or disenchanted or whatever enough not to want to become a judge. The result is a loss for everyone. This time, we all gain. Whoever’s responsible, well done and thank you.
Cracker: Reeds. It has to be noted that top reedmakers today have it nailed. We all have preferences about which reeds we like, but there’s no question that the top makers are producing more and better reeds than ever, with amazing consistency.
Blooter: Did St. Laurence O’Toole really deserve to be out of any major prize list or placed as low down as they often were? Listen to the videos. Alright, the band might not have been first, but something suggests that judges were judging them against their previous high quality and not the rest of the competition on the day. The “not-as-good-as-you-were-before” (and vice versa) judging syndrome must be avoided.
Cracker: Field Marshal Montgomery winning another World Championship. Few could argue that they deserved this, even though the contest could have gone any one of maybe three ways. On such a hot day against such strong competition, who could not like this result?
Cracker: The Silver Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering not being held in a basement replete with disco ball and the odour of stale beer. Many of these pipers are very much in line with the very best in the world and every one of them is superior to about 99.9% of the globe’s total piping population. They should be treated as such and good to say they were this year.
A new website does not automatically make for a transparent organization.
Cracker: Willie McCallum winning a record ninth Glenfiddich Championship. Similar to Richard Parkes taking his record World’s, how can you not like to see such a solid dude gain the biggest prize in solo piping after so many terrific years at the top? Heartwarming.
Cracker: The Solo Piping Judges Association introducing a mentoring program for new judges. Finally, gone are the days in the UK when newbies are thrown into the fire at solo contests, trying to figure it out as they go. (Question: is it possible to put a few existing judges through the process?)
Blooter: Alison Burke resigns as Chief Executive of RSPBA after only a few weeks in the job, and the association says almost nothing about it. After a two-year search, the pipe band world almost universally applauded the addition of such an obviously well qualified woman to this difficult role, only to have her leave abruptly. What happened? We might never know. And then 45 Washington Street hired Colin Mulhern without providing any meaningful information about his background and why he’s qualified for the job. After a serious period of controversy over finances and pre-pandemic spending, resulting in unwelcomed reporting in the mainstream media and an investigation by the Scottish Charity Regulator, the RSPBA reportedly resolved to be more transparent. Unfortunately, the enterprise seems as murky as ever. A new website does not automatically make for a transparent organization.
Cracker: The Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario modernizing its adjudication accreditation process, which remained pretty much the same since it was established in the 1980s. Music Committee Chair Jim McGillivray engaged John Cairns to renovate the process and is now poised to roll out a new system that’s in tune with the times.
Cracker: Glasgow Skye Association has to get a shout-out for continuing to operate without a pipe-major or leading-drummer for the last two years. They weren’t able to compete but still promoted and delivered their annual Pre-World’s Concert featuring Inveraray & District. And now the band’s back on its feet, heading in the right direction under new P-M Kenny MacLeod and Leading-Drummer Les Galbraith. That’s what you call tenacity.
Cracker: You. You’re reading this, so that suggests you’re engaged, involved and curious. We need more pipers and drummers and enthusiasts like you. Thank you.
What were your Crackers and Blooters of 2022?