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.
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.