Have we reached Peak Pipe Band?

Published: January 31, 2019

Field Marshal Montgomery appear pleased with their successful performance at the 2018 World Pipe Band Championships. [Photo Alister Sinclair]
“Wow. Can it get any better than that?”

Every generation, or, more like decade, asks the same question. Can it ever get any better than that?

And every time we think that the art can’t get any better, within a few years it does.

And then we say it again.

“It can’t possibly get any better than that!”

Our memories are both long-lasting and short-term. About every 10 years, our definition of the very top of pipe band performance is rewritten by a group that, by our experience, can’t possibly get any better.

Just like we today see a klutzy Peggy Fleming, or a weak-swinging Ben Hogan, or a slow-footed Pete Best, we listen back on recordings of bands whose standard we thoughts couldn’t possibly be surpassed, and we cringe.

This takes absolutely nothing away from the world’s best of their day. They were the best at the time, and the earned every championship they won. Their performances – like their achievements – are undiminished. The phenomenon remains: what was thought to be the apex of the art has been eclipsed.

But at some point, at some moment in history, it can’t get any better, right? Has Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 ever been bested? What about Charles Mingus? How about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles? It’s subjective, of course, but one could make a strong consensus case that nothing has exceeded these artists’ accomplishments, or ever will.

It could also be said that the leaps ahead in the quality of the very best pipe bands in the last 20 years is a product mainly of technology. Tuning metres. Moisture devices. Gorgeously crafted drums. Synthetic reeds. The accuracy of chanter manufacture. Brilliant new tenor instruments and mallets. Dremel tools. Better sticky tape. The Internet.

There are myriad better products and scientific breakthroughs that have allowed us to create pioneering quality by science or accessibility. We’re able to be better pipers and drummers because of technology. And pipe band quality has advanced in lock-step with technological advances.

There are now signs that those technological advances are peaking, or maybe have even reached a plateau. Yes, there are new tuners and the usual onslaught of new moisture devices and synthetic gizmos, each marketing a promise of improvement, but we’ve gone without true leap-ahead breakthrough products, like Wygent Synthetic Reeds, the Ross Canister system, or the Korg tuner, for the better part of a few decades.

The Holy Grail of course is a synthetic chanter reed that sounds like the best cane reed with timbre to match, with unalterable steadiness, that will – crucially – be played at the very top level.

Assuming that there’s no sign of that in the near future, we should also note that we’ve even retreated from existing very fine synthetic reeds and bags at the top levels to all-natural bagpipes – sheepskin and cane producing a more vibrant (although possibly slightly less in-tune) sound. It’s subjective, and maybe it was last year for you, but when was the last time the majority of us were absolutely bowled over by a pipe band at the World’s as being the “best ever”?

With that in mind, have we achieved the best that pipe bands, as they are defined today, can ever be?

Have we reached Peak Pipe Band?

 

The matter of time

“I have judged many Grade 1 contests over the last few years, and there has not been a single event where the winning bands were so perfect that I could not script a detailed critique,” said a veteran ex-pipe-major and adjudicator for several decades, who only spoke on condition of anonymity. (We will refer to him as “anonymous pipe-major #1.”) “There have been a couple that came close.”

It is indisputable that pipe bands, and in particular those in Grade 1, take increasing amounts of time to be a member of, let alone lead. Pipe-majors and lead-drummers essentially have another full-time job on their hands just to keep on top of the organizational aspects of leading.

To be sure, they delegate responsibilities, but the core aspects of a P-M or L-D – and increasingly the pipe-sergeant and lead-tenor – require inordinate amounts of time. The time commitment only seems to be getting more intense.

The solution of course is to make pipe bands an actual paying full-time job, but not since the glory days of the Strathclyde Police in the early 1990s has there been a band of professional pipers and drummers who were paid to be excellent pipers and drummers. (Yes, we know they were also constable on patrol, but they were on the clock at each of their daily practices and at competitions, so, come on – they were professional players.) Since police forces dropped what seems quaint today, the time commitment has grown as the music, precision and pressure have intensified.

Could it be that the members of pipe bands have simply run out of time? They can’t or won’t give up more of their lives for a conceit that robs them of money, vacation time, and family enjoyment, with a rather self-indulgent goal of winning a spike trophy – a tacky silver practice chanter jutting out of a rope tension drum? – on a soggy field at Glasgow Green.

If we accept that there is no more time to reasonably give to the pipe band hobby, can we reasonably expect pipe bands to improve?

“I think the ceiling on sound quality is determined by time commitments,” said another former pipe-major of a successful Grade 1 band who requested that his name not be used (anonymous pipe-major #2). “It takes huge amounts of time in preparing instruments and tuning over weeks to peak for major contests, with the talent prerequisite a given. In my view, that is the prime limiting factor here and, as we see today with Dowco-Triumph Street et al, the time commitment people are willing to devote to this endeavour is on the wane. So big improvements on sound on the horizon across the board? I think not.”

Indeed, something has got to give. Pipe bands have become younger perhaps because younger people have more ability to commit longer hours. But younger pipers in general are not better pipers, particularly when it comes to tone, tuning and maintenance of a superior instrument.

Pipe-majors get tired of trying to remember the names of their kids, and fewer lead-drummers – potential or experienced – are willing to sacrifice their lives only to get the shaft from a judge with a political axe to grind.

Perhaps we’ve reached peak pipe band because we’ve reached peak time commitment. Unless a pipe band becomes a full-time paid job, where all players can commit eight hours a day to practicing, performances and competing on the weekends, a case can be made that there is simply not enough time to improve.

 

The music

There is no doubt that, in terms of content and orchestration, bands of today are musically superior to those of the past. Complex and well-developed harmonies, intricate bass sections able to elevate chords, snare scores with detail that can be heard on incredible instruments – it’s all good.

But the core content of what pipe bands play has not really changed in 20 years. It’s still the same old five-to-seven-minute time constraint. Despite the fact that technology and know-how have both pipes and drums to hold their tuning for longer, the RSPBA has not recognized the opportunity to expand the time limit of medleys. The organization is apparently committed to the same old spectator unfriendly huddled mass of players with their backs to the audience and judges, instruments for some still unexplained reason facing inward.

As we have said for several decades now, what goes with the RSPBA goes with the rest of the world. Too many bands see competing and doing well at the World’s as Mecca. Unless the association changes the format, “overseas” associations will never alter their own rules, even for the good of the art. Their member bands would be up in arms, since such different rules would not allow them to prep for Glasgow Green.

The ultra-conservative RSPBA has the expansion and improvement of the art over a barrel.

Bands are still afraid to fall on their musical swords by deviating to far from “traditional” medley music, even though the medley event only started in the 1970s. Bands want prizes more than musical notoriety. As the Toronto Police and their avant-garde medleys of the late 2000s cautioned us, being a “pioneer” generally means not winning. You might be admired, but not many – or any – bands are interested in changing the musical world if it means losing the competitive prize.

Besides, has any band ever played any content in competition from any of those “ground breaking” Toronto Police medleys?

But just think of the possibilities if the RSPBA were to dictate from on high that medleys shall now be 10 to 15 minutes. It could take pipe bands into a new era.

“Once the limiting five-to-seven-minute medley format is expanded, then we will see massive steps in musicality,” said Terry Lee, who was pipe-major of Grade 1 Simon Fraser University for three decades, along the way taking them to six World’s wins. “I feel confident this will happen some day.”

There are pockets of musical creativity emerging for pipe bands. Oddly, they are often from pipers who have little or even no interest in competition.

“On the material front, I think that is an area where we are likely to see further steps,” said that anonymous former Grade 1 pipe-major. “Thinking back over the history of pipe band contests, as I understand it, marches morphed into MSRs, morphed into MSRs plus hornpipe and jig, morphed into the incorporation of folk or even-style playing. With the likes of Lincoln Hilton and the new breed of pipers making their living from piping, who knows what bands are going to experiment with in the future? This could lead to changing competition requirements and the like.”

With the well-intentioned Toronto Police serving as a cautionary tale, pipe bands are almost certain not to push boundaries too far. Creative content might wow an audience, but when has pleasing a crowd ever had anything to do with a pipe band judge’s decision?

But if musical boundaries are opened up, RSPBA judge and former Field Marshal Montgomery lead-drummer Gordon Parkes stressed that it can’t come at the cost of attention to detail: “Ensuring perfect technique – playing with so much focus on precision that playing feels mechanical and robotic – and super new tunes with amazing harmonies does not result in some sacrifice to musicality, musical arrangements and band balance and integration.”

“Creativity is an unknown factor as we go forward,” anonymous pipe-major #1 said. “New traditional music, new genres in our music, more world music, even top of the pops like Rab Mathieson’s scripting of Coldplay’s ‘Till Kingdom Come’ in a medley a few years ago. In the 1960s I thought the creativity of [the Grade 1 Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band] had surpassed anything of the time, but now their repertoire is commonplace within contests and on the stage.”

And anonymous pipe-major #2 added, “All said and done, regardless of material, in the main the best-sounding band tends to win the day.”

 

Hindsight

Our memories are at times clouded and biased by bands that we might have belonged to, or bands that we heard on a particularly perfect day when we were feeling great. We find ourselves clinging to the memory of a favourite, sublime performance that we just can’t shake from our psyche.

This seems to happen at a certain age or a certain level of crustiness. The unshakably stubborn will hone in on a band from their youth and decide that they heard something often that no one else is able to detect. The element is always something subjective. “No band will ever play music like ______ did when I heard them at ____ in 19__.” “The ensemble sound in 200_ of the ________ will never be matched. Ever.” “For the clarity of high A’s alone, ______ in 198_ was the best band in history.”

These people have the supernatural ability to hear things we can’t, and they will take their insistence and fond memories to their grave.

“The striking phrasing and tight unison of Muirhead & Sons at the time was as far as we could take playing,” said anonymous pipe-major #1. “As in the 1970s, when we thought we had maxed out for the decade, we cannot assume that now in the 21st century that the same is true.

Let’s have a listen to Muirhead & Sons from the 1960s for their “striking phrasing and tight unison.”

The same former Grade 1 pipe-major went on to say, “History is our teacher. Like the Model T in the early part of the 20th century, transformed to the Lamborghini of the 21st, we cannot be so presumptuous to thing that 2018 was the best. I am anticipating that the top of Grade 1 will be closer than ever in 2019, with more bands finding their way to the prize list.”

It’s important to respect the accomplishments of each era. Bill Livingstone admitted that the tone and tuning of his World Champion-winning 78th Fraser Highlanders of 1987 wouldn’t beat that of a modern Grade 2 band. But there are other elements of every pipe band that are intangible and, of course, subjective.

“I certainly don’t look back at the best bands of 30 years ago with that view,” said RSPBA judge and former Field Marshal Montgomery lead-drummer Gordon Parkes. “I think that does a great disservice to the great leaders and bands of that time – the sound and musicality was certainly not Grade 2 or 3 standard. Over time we are not comparing like with like, and technology improves instruments and also the sound recording.”

Lee seems to be on the same page as Parkes: “On the odd occasion I will hear some of the oldest Simon Fraser University tracks and I am surprised to think that it is still pretty good and could still be relevant today.”

If we agree that the pace of technological advancement has slowed, and is likely not to take another huge leap ahead, it follows that the pace of pipe band improvement no longer jumps up dramatically as it did in 1998 when the Victoria Police turned pipe section tuning into a new science, with synthetic drone reeds, bags, moisture devices and tuning metres that separated the band from everyone else in Grade 1.

“Certainly [there has been] enormous progress on sound quality, even in the last 20 years,” said anonymous pipe-major #2. “Compare Field Marshal Montgomery in early winning days to today. Can it get much better? Perhaps only consistency could improve marginally, but the margins of improvement won’t be as immediately noticeable.”

It’s also rare for any band to have an equally great pipe section, snare section and mid-section. The bands that are closest to that three-section balance generally win the prize, but they can also suffer from disconnections in ensemble. Increasingly, a “great” drum section must include the ability to play in time with the pipers, which, with some judges, wasn’t – and still sometimes isn’t – required for greatness.

Terry Lee seems to concur with the idea of balanced greatness. “When I listen to today’s top bands and pose the question, Is it as good as it gets? I think there will always be a way. While the standard is incredibly high, I can see improvement happening, if nothing else, in the overall ‘package.’ Some bands have unbeatable tone, or unbeatable playing, or unbeatable drum corps, or whatever. It is super rare to have it all.”

 

Teach your children well

Sustaining and improving quality will depend also on teaching. At least in Scotland, there is today more and better teaching of piping and drumming than at any time in history. Unless there is a radical rethinking, we should expect teaching to grow, and, with it, the number, breadth and quality of pipe bands will grow, too.

“The level of instruction for feeder bands has improved immensely,” said Pipe-Major #1. “It must continue to bring new blood into the Grade 1. Teaching methods have improved so much. From my own perspective, I am teaching at much higher musical level than 25 years ago, the technical level being a constant more or less.”

Non-Scottish pipe band jurisdictions are quickly wising up. Associations and band organizations are scrambling to create new and better teaching programs, recognizing that, if they want to keep testing their stuff at the Mecca of Glasgow Green under RSPBA rules, they will have to find a way to develop their talent.

This, too, is a massive time commitment, with mostly volunteers doing the instructing. It’s fine and good to recognize that new teaching programs have to be made, but they don’t happen without even more time being given up for the pipe band. Ironically, the more that bands expand their teaching, the more they will be asking of their best pipers and drummers – causing not a few of them to walk away from their full-time and overtime “hobby.”

We will also see more professional pipers and drummers, making a living from teaching and selling stuff. The more they teach, the more potential customers they create, the more likely it is that they will ditch the day job and go all-in for piping and drumming.

The commerce of the piping and drumming industry (and it is an industry) will be driven by teaching, making it realistic to solve the aforementioned time dilemma.

 

Optimism abounds

While it might well rattle some to think that in 30 years we could be listening to recordings of recent World Champions and wonder if they’d win Grade 2, many are embracing and looking forward to the future.

“Standards always rise,” Lee said. “This is true for everything. Even Lady Gaga has taken A Star is Born to new heights. There is always a way and that is what all pipe band leaders are looking for – or should be striving towards.”

“By today’s perceptions . . . many would argue it would be difficult [for the standard to rise], but in my view in pipe bands as in all aspects of life there is always the opportunity to further improve,” Gordon Parkes stressed. “Once you say there isn’t then all progress stops. Future generations will always find ways to further improve through technique and technology. The process usually goes in cycles. We could have peaked in the short-term, but eventually an even more amazing standard will be set.”

Perhaps there needs to be a new definition of what pipe band “excellence.” If today it’s defined chiefly in terms of tone, tuning, clarity and integration of sections, is it possible that we will grow tired of such a clinical achievement? Mingus wasn’t the greatest technical player. Many scoff at Van Gogh’s brush technique. Ringo Starr can’t play a decent roll. Does that make them any less great?

Maybe one day pipe band “excellence” will be gauged on performance – that is, entertaining and wowing non-experts. The definition of excellence itself might change in time as our attitudes about what we do fluctuate. We could well become so bored with achieving “perfection” that we dial things down and recognize that the Rolling Stones are great in many ways because they hardly play together at all.

“How can we say that we have peaked when the Grade 1 at the World’s is stratified to those that cannot make the Final 12 to those that are twelfth to seventh, and finally the top six,” said anonymous pipe-major #1. “Grade 1 has a level playing field, but exceptional leaders take their bands to the top. Who is the next Richard Parkes or Jim Kilpatrick, or like the 78th Frasers of the 1980s with the imagination of Jerry Quigg and percussion of Reid Maxwell and the creativity of Bruce Gandy . . . or Vale of Atholl with Gordon Duncan and Roddy S. MacDonald? We have not peaked out until the degree of separation between all Grade 1 bands is minimized, and even then there is still room for growth and improvement. Only a soothsayer can predict where we are headed – and that keeps Grade 1 exciting.”

So, perhaps there’s still room to improve. Perhaps, in 20 years, we will indeed listen back to the today’s seemingly impeccable World Champions – just as we have in every generation – and marveled at how far we have come. In 2050 we might even look at winners of today and agree that they wouldn’t gain a prize in Grade 2. If that’s true, it’s almost impossible to imagine what that future sound and music will sound like, but, arguably, it’s something to look forward to.

Let’s give the last words to Gordon Parkes: “The day we say there is no room for improvement is the day progress stops.”

What do you think? Will standards keep rising or have they plateaued? Or will the “standard” in time be redefined? Your comments are welcomed.

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3 thoughts on “Have we reached Peak Pipe Band?

  1. Great piece. But you kind of buried the lede. The lengthy analysis rehashes the same discussions that have been had, as you say, “for decades,” with no movement really in any direction, before reaching the proverbial nail head. “Perhaps there needs to be a new definition of what [is] pipe band ‘excellence.'” We’ve not reached “peak pipe band” rather, we’ve reached “peak assessment” based on the criteria we’ve established and the process by which bands are adjudicated. The dimensions of adjudication have always determined the nature of competitive performance. Given a set of measures, bands have “maxed out” what is possible in their constant pursuit to reach the best of those measures. The natural, fickle quality of bagpipes and drums and players though makes producing the best of those measures a constant challenge. It’s not a moving target but more like trying to steady a drunk archer enough so they can (maybe) hit the bullseye—which keeps bands interested and active. As you say, “If today it’s defined chiefly in terms of tone, tuning, clarity and integration of sections, is it possible that we will grow tired of such a clinical achievement?” I would argue we are already tired of it as assessment of these measures is an incremental exercise. Given an additional set of “non-clinical” measures, perhaps the best bands will strive to max those out as well. If we want “better” pipe bands, and desire to see higher quality performances, then those clinical measures truly cannot continue to be the only ones we use.

  2. Excellent article indeed . . . I feel this is the finest sort of journalism where your direct contact with the big players of the current and past game allows a fine multi-chanelled survey of the state of the art, and its technical infrastructure. Good selection of past decades’ Champion performances as well. I also enjoyed the engineering sort of approach in pipervin’s letter and as a former Ontario piper, I too feel the creativity aspect should be more emphasized. Mark Hriniw was a drummer with Alberta Caledonian I believe, back in the era when his brother was a big “beefy sound” front rank piper along with the likes of Mike Fitzhenry et al. Mark wrote from the Far East to the Forums early 2000s that judging in piping was something along the lines of 70% technical excellence (or technique) and less than 30% artistic taste or merit – with drumming being well the reverse of that. When I first attended the Green as a spectator in 2001, (same year as Al Cal’s fine Axeman medley run) I fell in love with the warmth and marvellous control of FMM’s big cane drone sound that put competitors in the shadows. But SFU playing in the worst weather of another dreich afternoon managed to cut the coronation short that day with amazingly tight and well marshalled playing that belted out their iconic mix of traditionals and new edge tunes with their hallmark arrangements of seconds to die for, and excellent tune deployment + changeups in the medley (your series of PMs like Terry L and Rab M speaking of medley arrangements were another excellent survey of the art – and I loved the Coldplay of both Shotts as well as Brian Lamond’s Dysart Band’s rendition of Yellow – but not for all in the trad pipe circles). FMM would have to wait yet another year with their incredible Sandpiper medley that also pushed the boundaries of technical digital dexterity and finely unisoned musicality. I was somewhat saddened to see said medley again win some 15 yrs later – same tune for tune? Richard Parkes believes good tunes stand the test of time but most of the audience demand some sort of break from sameness. This varies with one’s cultural background and exposure among personal factors. Can we elect to havethe top 6 Bands or 8 spell off against each other with 30 minute (or 20 with ambulatory drone tuners permitted?) mini-concerts in overhang protected massive stadiums with minimum echo, say, and have audience input to help determine the winners?

    And so it is useful to spell out and elucidate the criteria as pipervin speaks of, the metrics or measurement gauge criteria – sterile creativity on perfected instruments, or great heartfelt and meaningful tunes on the platform of fabulously sonorous and co-ordinated instruments? The big changer after 2001 had to be in the mushrooming of the mid-section size and its integral contribution to medley arrangements. Overseas Bands were generally slower to adapt to this game changer and the ensuing rush in corps sizes to accommodate the maximal orchestration reach that ensued. Pipers generally were resistant to the whole enveloping of such non-traditional changes outwith the shakers and movers in the UK, interestingly enough. I am thankful to see a slight reversal with sizing in the past year continuing, where even FMM’s pipe corps topped out around 20, with again a slight variance or latitude in snare corps numbers. I roughly calculate the volume difference between 20 identical volumed pipers vs 25 as about 12% increase (NOT 25% or 1/4 increase) in raw sound which in turn is approximately 3 dB (logarithmic scale of sorts) slightly noticeable to human physiological sensing, perhaps. The effort of tuning 5 extra capricious or fickle instruments under Glasgow conditions and obtaining unison playing may be hard to justify. Those section sizing changes appear to have basically fallen into a new equilibrium, maybe. Depending on where new minds want to take the idiom, and how they elect to do it.

    To make less of a moving target for the drunken archer on those vagaries of capricious instruments in inclement atmospheres, perhaps we do need to impress the guidelines and allow a definite and distinct category for creativity on top of just musicality and delivery expression. All such adjudication balances to be co-ordinated by the pipe band societies if the political will and leadership is lacking to get interest, revenues and spectator support for alternative contest arenas. I continue to follow all musical creativity and performance in the Band world with great interest – yours in pipe bands, aye – robin

    1. Great article as always. On the money. Mingus, the Toronto Police of the bass! Also enjoyed the little nod to Crosby, Stills and Nash and Young. Excellent musical taste.

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