May 02, 2019

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

But what’s a modern-day pipe-major to do? He’s struggling for numbers himself, and if he gets down on his all-star member for aiding the competition at a contest his band isn’t competing at, then he risks alienating and losing the player. It’s not dissimilar to major league sports. Team managers are loath to chew-out a top player for not hustling or having a bad attitude for fear of a revolt and the star player ultimately demanding a trade or transfer. The manager mollycoddles the players, turning a blind eye to what used to be an ethical impropriety.

Of course, the band that’s not competing at the World’s is the one that the temporary help is leaving – temporarily. Generally, upper-grade bands that don’t compete at the World’s do so because they’re challenged for strong personnel. And non-UK bands that don’t travel to Scotland to compete in the World Championships might be seen as lacking commitment, so new top-flight personnel are less likely to be attracted. It’s an unkind circle in which they’re caught.

Impact throughout the grades

It can be said that, overall, no other grade has been more affected by the pressure for Grade 1 bands to produce large section than Grade 2. Only 10 years ago, some 19 Grade 2 bands competed at the North American Championships at Maxville, Ontario. In 2010, only eight entered. There has been a steady decline, not only in entries at the biggest competition in North America, but in the number of Grade 2 bands in North America overall.

The decline is perhaps most pronounced in Ontario. Only three Grade 2 bands competed on its circuit in 2010.

There is strong evidence to suggest that, with Grade 1 North American bands desperate to assemble rosters and sections large enough to be viable at the World’s, they are taking players not from Grade 2 bands, but from those in Grade 3. Pipers and drummers who before would stay with their local band, coursing up through the grades with pronounced loyalty, these players are leapfrogging Grade 2, attracted to the siren song of Grade 1. The preparatory ground for Grade 1 that was once Grade 2 is now, more often than not, Grade 3.

The bragging rights that once came with making the cut as an accomplished member of a Grade 1 band today are today commonplace, Grade 1 members and their alumni are scattered all over North America.

And, so, Grade 2 becomes more and more threadbare in North America. The bands that compete in the grade today more often than not lurch from year to year with wildly differing standards. Grade 2 bands can build up a large and talented roster one year, only to see the whole thing collapse over the following winter, often a result of being impatiently unwilling to persevere in Grade 2 or unable to accept not winning in Grade 1.

Glasgow Police, 1952.

And because players are coming straight from the lower ranks to the top bands, relatively few Grade 3 bands are making a successful leap to Grade 2. And because there are fewer Grade 2 bands outside of the UK, there are relatively fewer bands promoted to Grade 1, so, rather than the number of bands in Grade 1 increasing, that grade, too, is in decline in more mature pipe band regions like British Columbia and Ontario. In terms of the number of bands competing in both Grade 1 and Grade 2, both are in decline.

Recently the Grade 2 Rocky Mountain Pipe Band of Calgary, which finished fourth overall at the 2010 North American Championships, this year has decided not to compete because of numbers. But the band can field the minimum numbers in each section; it just can’t come close to putting out 15-plus pipers and six snare-drummers – numbers that make a Grade 2 band realistically competitive. Rocky Mountain would rather not bother at all than toil against bands with a small battalion of players.

“My personal view is that there’s an ‘unwritten rule’ in terms of minimum numbers as far as being competitive,” said Rocky Mountain Pipe-Major Sean Somers. “The fact is, a small army of players is an impressive thing. Visually speaking – before a note is even played – it’s hard to compete with an eight-wide swath of pipers four rows deep. We bailed-out this year, because if we showed up with eight or 10 pipers to Maxville again this year, I think we’d get laughed out of the park. And it’s not just pipers either. Mid-sections especially, are under the same pressure.”



  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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