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.
“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?