May 02, 2019

Is the World’s killing the pipe band world? Part 1

A game of numbers

RSPBA rules state that in order for a band to compete in Grade 1 it must have a minimum of eight pipers, two snare-drummers and one bass-drummer. The reality is that, if a band were to field such a paltry complement, they would be laughed off of the park. By all intents and purposes, they would be wasting everyone’s time – most of all their own.

In fact, the City of Washington Pipe Band did almost exactly that at the 2010 World Championships. The Grade 1 band competed with 10 pipers and, while it produced a decently tuned tone and good clarity of execution in its four-minute Qualifier contest MSR, it did not appear to matter. The band finished last or near-last from each of the four judges.

The Edinburgh City Police competing at the World’s in 1950.

By no means did City of Washington deserve to make the Final, but the band perhaps was not given a fair shake simply because of its size. The band found itself downgraded by the RSPBA in the fall, so, if it wants to play again at the World Championships, it will have to be in Grade 2, regardless of whether its home association, the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association, maintains the band’s status in Grade 1. [NB: City of Washington disbanded a few years after its downgrade.]

To have a fighting chance in Grade 1 at the World Championships a band needs to field at least 16 pipers, six snare drummers and a mid-section of no fewer than four. The likes of the powerhouse groups Simon Fraser University, Field Marshal Montgomery and St. Laurence O’Toole assemble far more than those numbers, with pipe and snare sections routinely exceeding, respectively, 20 and nine.

So far, the apex of the numbers expansion was in 2007 when the 78th Fraser Highlanders (perhaps ironically the evolutionary offspring of the City of Toronto Pipe Band) produced a pipe section of 30 at the 2007 World’s, choosing from a pool of 36 pipers on the band’s roster. The massed band of that vintage of the Frasers was a major talking point of the year. While the 78th Frasers were spoiled-for-choice, many in other bands pooh-poohed the size as being simply too large, perhaps because, even with a pipe section roster of more than 20, there was no way that they could match such a massive band.

The 78th Frasers did not fare as well as it hoped, finishing fourth. Sure enough, so far no bands since, including the 78th Frasers themselves, have fielded such a large band. But while the notion of a pipe section of 30 has not taken hold (yet), the settling-out of numbers has meant that set-ups of at least 18, eight and five are an unofficial standard.

“The one trend that I do find problematic that may or may not be as a result of the World Championships is the growth in player numbers within bands over the last 10 years or so,” said Rod MacLean, pipe-major of the Grade 1 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel) Pipe Band of Nova Scotia. “With our relatively small population base, it has basically required us to bring in players from long-distance to stay competitive. This has had an impact financially and on the way we organize the band.”

The pressure, then, for Grade 1 bands competing at the World’s to gather as many players as possible has become enormous. Bands that once felt huge with 14 pipers, now are not satisfied unless they have at least 20 on the books. But how best to do that?

Most bands have taken the obvious tack: open their doors. Where once bands were the pride of a local community, members coming from the general vicinity, top bands today draw talent from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. They recruit from areas that might not have a Grade 1 band for many miles, and they attract far-flung members with the allure of playing in the big-time.

There are no limitations in any association on roster sizes. So bands increasingly gather up as many players as they can. A huge roster, they feel, promotes competition within the band. When there are 35 pipers on the books and only 23 spots in the circle, players work harder. Meanwhile a dozen stand on the sidelines. A pipe section of 12 used to win the World’s. The over-recruiting practice is so severe with some bands that it has been likened to a “driftnet,” in which everyone is scooped out of the ocean of talent in a way that disrupts a delicate ecosystem.



  1. Great article Andrew. Certainly agree with you on the numbers game. My experience in Australia supports the view that a couple of what are effectively all star” bands sucks alot of the available talent out of the lower grade bands. It takes significant time

  2. The pipe band community” is now a “global” community and not a local one. The “Arabian Awakening” that has changed everything in totolitarian regimes in the mideast has its reflection in the pipe band world. Everyone talks on line

  3. Excellent work as always, Andrew. Appreciate the commenters’ thoughts as well. Me? I’ve always been more of a local” guy. But driving 3-5 hours each way to band practice for 20 years….even though those were the closest Gr I bands….? Was I a mercenary? Should I have tried to start a band locally? Played with a lower grade band? If you’re driving at the speed of light and turn on your headlights

  4. Andrew, this is a great (and timely) article/editorial. It won’t change anything (but you know that, too). There’s simply too much to reflect on because you’ve covered so many bases. But overall you are on the money, in my opinion. What concerns me is the numbers at the top flight. We are starting to see a mirror image of all pyramid competitions and organisations outside of what we do. Take the English Premier League, for example. Those who have the money, thrive and dominate each and every year. In pipe bands, if the upper echelon open their doors to 20+ pipers, they become destinations and ‘tick the box’ ventures for the good players who may have previously adorned the ranks of lesser bands (and been of benefit there). There is a draw on the lower grades as a result, but we never see more than about 20 grade 1 bands at the worlds each year. They’re just bigger in size. One thing that seems to get lost on some is the amount of money required to bankroll the ‘modern’ pipe band. It seems that many people forget we are still on the fringe, whilst at the same time aiming for so much more. It’s ok for the few bands that have secured ‘sponsorship’ (aka someone in the band – usually high on the pecking order – supplies the band as a ‘loss leader’ for their business, or a corporate who will hang around for a few years at best). But the rest of us are out there selling raffle tickets and paying our own ways and dressing ourselves. And maybe people who spend thousands on a one-off contest like the worlds want greater satisfaction and return on their ‘investment’, so they pursue the apex bands. Look at the ‘composite’ bands that assemble in a truly ‘global’ sense – they never last because it’s a simple matter of not being good enough and the novelty wearing off. This is a direct result of aspiring to do well at one contest – the worlds. On a more local level, some bands take on new leadership, and the regulars that have underpinned the band are then pushed aside for the ring-ins to achieve expensive short-term goals. Do bands ever recover from those sorts of situations…? The one thing I do not like is the attitude that is starting to emerge where the ‘mercenary’ piper/drummer sees themself as a someone that can expect everything on a platter……in return for 11 minutes of (good!) music from them (hopefully!). I am starting to tire of the “what’s in it for me” attitudes and the diva-like whining that I hear from some people who are merely setting out to hunt trophies for themselves and who believe that pipe bands own money trees. I know several people who have played in 10 bands in as many years. And they continue to turn up and expect a full uniform, reeds etc to be ‘on tap’. Where do they think it all comes from..? It’s still coming from the hard toil and pockets of supporters and regular members in most cases. Personally, I think the world PBC’s are getting so big that they’re almost out-of-reach for anything but the ‘super bands’ – that are now destinations for good players who need to ‘tick the box’.

  5. I think overall this very comprehensive report could benefit from a little more balance. It is not all bad in my mind as the current movement within pipe bands obviously has many good points as well. It is probably also wise to remember the pipe band world is a very dynamic place, which has, and always will change. There are certainly many problems and there always will be! Incidentally has there ever been a time when the pipe band world could be described as perfect? Folk will always do what is needed to enjoy music and reach the highest standard possible.

  6. From my perspective, limiting the size of the band is paramount to maintaining the integrity of band competition. Why should a band need to recruit? This competiton was established to find the best local band in the world. if recruitment is from many miles away just to establish a large band, then local communities lose theri pride in their band. Hopefully the RSPBA will take the time to establish band size soon.

  7. Band caps should help the situation to come back under control. Right now, as was pointed out, GrIII players go to GRI and generally hold water bottles (there are exceptions). With the exception of the thirsty, how does that help anyone? Wouldn’t it make more sense to gain experience and a proven track record in GRII before moving to GRI? Caps would help in this case by limiting the number of open spots available in each band thus allowing for a more even (and proper) distribution amongst the grades? A cap of , say, 30 max on the roster should help. Stay with the minimum of 8P-3S-1B and allow the bands to add up to 18 more players of any type at their own discretion. If they want 18 more tenors, go for it! If they want 18 more sides, so be it. Or maybe an ideal mix might be 18P 7S 1B 4T? Your choice… The other benifit would be the reduction in expenses to the bands since they don’t need to buy 30 chanters, 11 side drums, 19 tenor drums and 2 bass drums in addition to the associated uniforms, airline tickets, etc…. Trouble is, how do you get everyone to agree on any sort of cap? And are we infringing on freedom of expression/creativity? But then again, that’s what rules usually do.

  8. Andrew, Here is an analogy that fits with your interest in Major League Baseball….. Would you rather sit on the bench for the New York Yankees and probably win a World Series or play every day for the Toledo Mud Hens? Most young people I deal with of the mellenial generation want it all and want it now. Cheers, Doc

  9. I read again this wonderful piece and fell I could add another tuppence to the talk. I think capping the sections would be hard, yet capping the roster would prove impossible. And also, unnecessary – if a band’s pipe section capped at [say] twenty would travel with a roster of thirty pipers, it’d be down to each one of those putatively benched ten surplus men to decide whether they wanna actually play the Worlds in a Gr2 band [or even in another Gr1 one] or be at the sidelines holding water bottles and offering friendly ‘well-done’ nods. Also there is no way of disagreeing with Pipe Major Somers when he stated, ‘visually speaking (…) it’s hard to compete with an eight-wide swath of pipers four rows deep’. However this description fits more [in my auld heid] the massed bands parade than a competing single band entering the tee.



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