April 09, 2018

Editorial: Is Grade 2 now where it’s at?

With all credit due to the world’s Grade 1 bands and their awesome achievement in reaching and staying at the top, events over the last few years are suggesting that, increasingly, Grade 2 is, of the top two grades, the more interesting and competitive category of band competition.

Outside of the Central Belt of Scotland and a few exceptional distinct one-great-band areas like Dublin, Vancouver and Belfast, there is no longer much of a dense presence of competitive Grade 1 bands in any country. There are close to 30 Grade 1 bands, but about 80% are not competitive with the elite groups that are good enough to win an RSPBA championship.

Since the 2017 World Championships, we have seen several Grade 1 bands move to Grade 2 or take a year’s hiatus. In most areas outside of the UK, a real Grade 1 band competition isn’t even feasible. The Australian Championships isn’t holding a top-grade event for the first time in its 57-year history. Last year, the North American “Championship” featured a lone Grade 1 band. Elsewhere, it’s difficult or impossible for bands to compete locally without bringing in players from all over.

On the surface the situation might seem dire, but in reality, something of a recalibration is going on, with new life being injected into Grade 2. Outside of RSPBA majors, it’s generally the Grade 2 band competition that is the most interesting and competitive. We’d even say that Grade 2 at the 2018 World’s could be an overall more compelling contest for far more than just a handful of bands with a real chance of winning, as will again be the case in Grade 1.

Think about it. The dream is of course to be an elite Grade 1 band and actually vie for a World Championship. However, the odds of that happening for any other bands outside of the Central Belt of Scotland (apart from the existing exceptions) are slim to none. The stark reality is that simply sustaining a decent band that meets the standard of the grade, maybe qualifying for the World’s Final, is their sense of achievement.

It’s less about winning, and more about surviving.

Your priorities might be different, but, to us, the greatest enjoyment from pipe bands comes from the camaraderie gained from playing refined music with people you like and know. Winning should be a byproduct of that camaraderie but, in reality, being competitive keeps many people happy and engaged and winning attracts new members. It’s a vicious, or virtuous, circle, depending on your perspective.

We are seeing, though, that bands in the top grades are realizing that maintaining Grade 1 status on its own can be detrimental to the long-term health of the group. They are realizing that there is nothing wrong with being Grade 2, and it could in fact rebuild any camaraderie and esprit de corps that declined while they desperately tried to sustain their place in Grade 1.

Not only that, but in Grade 2 there is probably more room to try new ideas and experiment with the music than there is in ultra-conservative Grade 1, where most bands are loathe to rock the musical boat for fear of being tamped down by close-minded judges.

We’re pretty sure that the RSPBA is at least considering the creation of more competitive environments in Grade 1 and Grade 2 by breaking each of those grades into A and B (name TBD) sections. It would make sense, and such a change is just a matter of time. Until then, though, the global situation will continue to be less than ideal.

To be sure, we will continue to be thrilled and even awed by the world’s greatest Grade 1 bands. They deserve great credit, and the elite bands at the top of that grade will continue to inspire.

But being competitive in Grade 2, with a strong sense of local community, of building a project within a region without resorting to flying in players just to put a group on the field, can be far more satisfying and productive overall for many of the world’s best bands.

What do you think? Please do add your voice to the discussion with a comment, using our system below.



  1. Great editorial. Just one thing — “It’s less about winning, and more about surviving.”

    Stealing mantra from Michael Grey — In life there’s winning prizes and then there’s just plain “winning”. In “plain winning” I mean, winning as in feeling really (really) good about the group where you’re a member, feeling an affinity with your team, your pals; win or lose, the group just feels right. In “plain winning” you almost always feel better after having attended rather than not. Like the American basketball legend, Michael Jordan, said, “winning isn’t always about championships”. Someone once passed along an interesting definition of what makes a good friend — and that’s someone who makes you feel better after having had a chin-wag, a visit. That’s a “plain winning” group, you feel better after simply being a part of something…


  2. Great editorial! I would however add that flying in players is not something new. There are those that live in different places that become a major part of the fabric of a band. This is evident in the top Grade I bands as much as it is in the Grade II bands. I actually really like the fact that you may have a band practice with people attending via Skype. I have also found that it does a tremendous amount to help the local bands creating a network of friends in the piping community from near and far.

    The part that bothers me is the lack of desire of many to put work into a band to raise the standard. Many feel it is easier to go off to a distance to join a band with a higher standard rather than build it from within. This a very difficult for any pipe band to handle. I simply wish people had greater loyalty and desire to enjoy the process. The process is often long, hard and frustrating. However, it allows for greater enjoyment when you reach the goals set. I say, pick a band, commit to it, and put the work in!

    I also believe that there is no need to split the Grade I or Grade II events. This happens naturally via the qualifiers at the worlds. If they need to extend the qualifiers to other contests it might be a worthwhile effort. These grading issues become very difficult. Looking at the CPA as example, you start with P, A, B and C. Before you know it, you have P, A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, C. This is in no way a criticism of the CPA but a simple observance of how tricky it can become when you start picking apart grades.

  3. It’s been said before…limit the size (esp. in Scotland), and the number of bands will increase, and this will increase the chances of any participating band coming from less-than-piper-rich areas of winning. The competition circle, as with any “battlefield” is influence greatly by numbers. Smaller bands would, most likely, result in more bands, and they would be competing on more level ground. I recently saw a programme for the St. Andrew”s Highland Games, held on Bob-lo Island in 1978. There were seven Grade One Ontario bands, on that day. The bands were smaller…..averaging around 10 – 12 pipers per band.



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