Published: August 31, 2002

Is Grade 2 most competitive?

[Originally published as an Editorial]

It’s a frequent refrain: “Grade 2 is the most interesting band contest this year.” For the last decade, it seems as if the penultimate grade at the World Pipe Band Championships or Maxville is the one with the most competition.

Grade 1 bands, with few exceptions, for at least a dozen years have been producing medleys that might have been stamped from a press. They go like this: Drumming-friendly, ultra-round hornpipe; two-parted jigs; melodramatic "Gaelic" air; two-parted strathspeys; reels/hornpipes/waltzes with harmony for a big finish.

While many Grade 1 bands can be accused of producing formulaic medleys, Grade 2 bands often seem to take more risks, with selections that test the boundaries of judges. To be sure, many Grade 2 bands produce selections that lack creativity, but, relative to Grade 1, at least, more of them seem to be trying to make a musical mark.

Similarly, judges assessing Grade 2 events seem to have much more musical leniency. It appears that they often more regularly accept and expect the bands to come out with something new.

Perhaps it’s because in Grade 1 only a handful of bands – or sometimes even just one – have a realistic shot at taking home the first prize. In a decent Grade 2 event, results usually vary widely, with as many as six bands having a viable shot at first.

But why is this? Shouldn’t Grade 1 always be the ultimate, most exciting event?

Our theory: Grade 1 is such a high-stakes game that bands are reluctant to take risks. Simon Fraser University, last year’s World Champions, are undeniably competitively successful, but – and their Pipe-Major recently admitted it in print – compete with conservative music. Offend no one, take no musical risks, produce a great sound is the strategy, and it gets results.

The conservative approach also worked marvelously well for the Strathclyde Police in the 1980s. Strathclyde played tried and tested traditional content with near-flawless tone, and that combination was hard to beat, because judges couldn’t find the courage to fault the band, even though many on the sidelines were practically dozing because they had heard that music many time before.

The exception that everyone can easily point to is 1987, when the 78th Fraser Highlanders played what at the time was very different, energetic material. They caught the right mix of open-minded judges, and got the necessary tone on the day to take the prize. Since then, in terms of Grade 1 winning music, it’s been pretty much same old, same old.

Perhaps judges in Grade 1 are reluctant to accept an avant-garde medley for fear of being caught out, or not being in sync with their clipboard colleagues. Judges take the safe route and reward conservative content and good tone over adventurous music and good tone.

If judges were more open minded, we firmly believe that at least three bands – Vale of Atholl, Polkemmet, and the 78th Fraser Highlanders – would have had World Championship titles under their waist belts in the 1990s.

Grade 2 might be compared aptly with the pop music business. Often the most interesting, trend-setting bands are the ones without major label deals, the ones that haven’t yet made the big time. Grade 2 pipe bands are trying to get noticed, and, like the garage pop group, are being more true to their musical selves.

It’s a shame that Grade 1 can’t always generate the same interest as Grade 2. We think that if Grade 1 bands took a more innovative approach to their competition music, the event would be far more competitive and interesting, and perhaps there would be six or seven bands with a realistic shot at the title than just the one or two we usually get.

But for that to happen, judges are going to have to clearly encourage it, by giving an edge to musically inventive, tasteful performances, and not always take the musically conservative, safe route.

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