May 02, 2019

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

When asked if he thinks Grade 2 is a vanishing grade, Somers said, “If what pipers are doing here in Alberta is any indication, I’d say yes. In some cases here, players are making the incredible jump from Grade 3 and Grade 4 into the big leagues of the Grade 1 circle – more realistically, the sidelines of the Grade 1 circle, holding capes and water bottles in many cases, as they’re not ready to make the cut.”

The notable exceptions are in areas without a relatively dense population of Grade 1 bands. The United States has gradually added top-grade bands, certainly because of a rise in talent, but also, it might be said, because of a more widespread pipe band population. Recent arrivals to Grade 1 in the US like Oran Mor and City of Chicago perhaps don’t have the stress of losing players to rival regional bands, and can more securely build for their futures.

If that’s true, then the same can be said of a success story like Inveraray & District in the relatively remote Argyllshire region of Scotland. Inveraray has benefitted from having a long-range vision and foresight to build regionally. While a trip from Inveraray to Glasgow may seem just around the corner to the Canadian or American or Australian player, to a Scottish piper or drummer the journey can be unacceptably far.

The 78th Fraser Highlanders competing at the 1997 World’s with 15 pipers.

“Players have always gravitated to the big bands, but the current World’s situation has, in my view, increased the recruitment that goes on,” said a piper connected with a Canadian Grade 3 band. “One can’t buy back one’s youth, and if a young player wants to spend his or her time before career commitments and adult responsibilities in playing for a Grade 1 band, who can argue? But the necessity of large pipe sections makes the recruitment unrelenting, sometimes starting as low as Grade 3 amateur. And in more than a few cases leads to the recruitment of players who are very unlikely to ever play in a Grade 1 band but could be very useful to a lower-grade band.”

The pressure for numbers perhaps paradoxically impacts the overall pipe band scenes that are more densely populated, like central Scotland, Toronto and Vancouver. Several Grade 1 bands, including Boghall & Bathgate, Toronto Police and Simon Fraser University, have even eliminated their official Grade 2 feeder bands, drawing instead from their Grade 3 groups.

“One reason for the large pipe sections is often unremarked,” said a piper who is part of a Canadian band’s youth program. “Teaching in the schools in Scotland is producing large numbers of very well-taught players, taught by excellent and well-paid players at 10 in the morning, not by someone who has put in a hard day’s work and might well want to put his feet up and watch the Blue Jays. And so our bands feel under pressure to have the biggest and best pipe sections they can, and with what they see as a limited number of suitable players available, go after what they can with precious little thought for the bands the players are coming from.

“This makes it especially hard in Grade 3, which I call the ‘elephants’ graveyard of pipe bands.’ The good young players in Grade 3 bands can often play in Grade 1, which is even more attractive than it used to be with the whole World’s Week experience. And a band in Grade 3 is so far from Grade 1 that young kids think they will be grandparents before the band gets there, if it ever does. Once a band gets to Grade 2 it may be easier to keep their players as the band may appear to be almost there.”

Recently in Ontario well-established bands like the Grade 3 Durham Regional Police and the Grade 4 Brighton Legion have amalgamated, while the London Firefighters had their application approved to move down to Grade 4.

In unexpected places like Nevada, three Grade 4 bands merged to become one “superband.” The reason? The group wants large enough numbers to do well in Grade 4A. So two bands are sacrificed within a local association because of the perceived glory that comes with doing well in Grade 4A at the World’s.

In the big picture, can this be good for piping and drumming?



  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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