May 31, 2011

Is the World’s killing the pipe band world? Part 2

had dropped out of pipe bands making the annual trek to World Pipe Band Championships. The project, which brought together some 40 pipers and drummers from the UK, Canada, Australia and the United States, saw the group get together as a whole for only the five days before the World’s. Spirit of Scotland made it through the Qualifier and finished eleventh overall in the Final, and hasn’t played together since.

Regardless, the so far one-time experiment proved that a top-grade band can succeed at the World’s on the day without having to put in a full year, much less the decades that other bands commit, to do well. It’s the far flung phenomenon taken to an extreme. While its members, to a person, loved the experience, and the experiment worked, is it really what pipe bands are all about?

The stifling of creativity

While pipe band medleys from bands competing at the World’s can be imaginative and clever, bands more or less avoid rocking the judges’ boat. Non-UK bands investing tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars to compete in Scotland aren’t about to jeopardize their chances by being substantially creatively different. Conservatism is the name of the game, and creativity in Grade 1 comes in microscopic increments.

“Bands tend to cram toward the end of the summer instead of being consistent all year and band members are agreeing to all spend a lot of money on going to the World’s,” said Millar. “This causes stress and, because of the expenditures, bands may try to do what will be competitively successful rather than musically enjoyable.”

Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band, 1967. The band won every major championship but the World’s, and after five years essentially crumbled.

Probably the most musically adventurous and risk-taking top-grade band is the Toronto Police. The group has not competed at the World’s since 2008, and will miss it again in 2011. In 2010 the band chose to compete at the Cowal Championships, the last RSPBA major of the year, mainly because it didn’t have to qualify so was assured of performing one of its musically different medleys. The result? Last in Grade 1 with a hammering from piping judges especially on the musical content of its selection.

“Say what you like about their medley content, but many of the bands that were placed ahead of them were surely not within their league in terms of tone, stability, playing skill, and integration,” said Bill Livingstone, the former pipe-major of the 78th Fraser Highlanders, who joined the Toronto Police early in 2011. “That’s the punishment for making an effort to be fresh. And frankly, I suspect the intention is ‘let that be a lesson to all’ – play by our rules or go home. So the problem with the World’s is that it stifles imagination, new approaches, creativity, and any of the things that music (read: art) are supposed to celebrate. And the mentality permeates the entire pipe band scene because of the power of this contest – power that we, the musicians have given it, and have no control over now.

“What the World’s has done is create among bands, an atmosphere of caution, if not downright fear of offending and thereby taking themselves out of any consideration for a prize. The top bands in Grade 1 have all come very close to perfection of the art of tuning, stability, general sound quality, integration and all of the other fundamentals. The result is a fairly tedious display of uniformity. There is clearly no stomach for innovation at the top level, and the problem is that this trickles its way down to the lower grades. Year after year we hear the lower grade bands giving laldy to the stuff that the Grade 1 winners recently played. So the stagnation is perpetuated. Does anyone need to hear yet another medley opener  employing a hornpipe played on the nauseating repetition of E to low A followed by the ‘matching phrase’ on D to low G?”

Livingstone is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of pipe band music at the World’s. In 1992 his 78th Fraser Highlanders opened its medley at Glasgow with a Gaelic waulking song, marching in to the circle at a relative slow-march pace.

“I thought it was terrific,” Livingstone said. “Some fellow with a swagger stick came marching up to me before the march-past at the World’s to tell me that I would be pleased to hear that my band had not been disqualified. Indeed I was  not pleased at all. Better to have been DQ’d rather than spanked in the results. Disqualification would have drawn attention to the mentality rampant at that contest then, and now, too. And that would have forced an open debate. How refreshing such a thing would have been.”

The band placed seventh – “spanked” by Livingstone’s expectations then – and such an outrageous attempt at creativity, despite it being derived from one of the oldest traditions of truly native Scottish music, was shut down by those in power.



  1. RE: The Clan, City Of Toronto, etc, assigning blame” for the current situation is not really relevant. IT is merely an historical fact that the aformentioned bands were the first to attend from Canad and the USA. Someone had to do it first. The motivation to go to the WPBC in the first place is the real driving factor which is making the event popular. We have to pick one venue to meet globally to measure how we are all relatively doing. Some place in Scotland would be the most likely location to select due to the large number of local bands available

  2. Jamie here…I’ve signed before. Anyway, the article is about the Worlds direct and indirect affect on pipe bands, and in parts of the article it refers to the musical envelope being pushed/heldback a few times. There is a subtitled section labled The Stifling of creativity” and with in that a quote from Mr. Livingstone – “Say what you like about their medley content

  3. Andrew, Very thoughtful, well reasoned and insightfull. Unfortunatly, the Worlds and all they represent and have become are the crack cocaine of the Pipe Band World. Behavior is not logical when it comes to the Worlds, but it is predictable, it is the behavior of addicts. We will say and promise anything and everything, but we will keep going back. To mix metaphors, we are moths drawn to the flame. Cheers, Pitboss

  4. I well remember the excitement of our local Clan going of to the Worlds in ’66 at the time I thought it was simply great. However as I have witnessed the sad changes in the Ontario circuit in the intervening years everything laid out in the article has a solid ring of truth and common sense. Unfortunately that is probably the kiss of death in this crazy, wonderful world that we live in. Cheers.

  5. When was the last time that you’ve gone to the top of the circle of one of the top 4 bands playing 23, 11 and 7, and listened with honest, open, fresh ears? It’s a totally different listening experience than 12, 6, and 3. Even when they are playing a great MSR with their backs to you. The standard is out there for all to chase. The trick is to be humble enough to realize how high the bar is. Each Geographical British Colonial Region can only create one, or two bands at the most, that can play at that standard. That hasn’t changed since the 60’s. Go and enjoy the sound of the Big Bands” they are AWESOME! HOSSMAN “

  6. Any contest system is going to impose a standard format (je jure or de facto). to make effective judging decisions you have to compare apples with apples. if bands are going to come in with way-out medleys, how do you evaluate them? more to the point, why should you evaluate them at all, instead of just enjoying the performance (like Toronto’s). if anything is stifling creativity, it would be the concept of competition itself rather than the Worlds format in particular. pipe banding is never going to be like Drum Corps International or Cheerleading contest, where novelty and inventiveness is a huge factor – it’s just not that sort of thing. there’s a strong traditional element to it, and a non-contemporary idiom. if freestyle creativity is what you want, then maybe other forums better serve it: kitchen piping contest, quartets, mixed instrument ensembles etc? indeed, if pure music-making is the goal, then dump the uniforms and marching drill. but then it wouldn’t be a marching band, would it? another point: if Grade 1 PMs are not happy with the Worlds, why don’t they get together and do something about it? or isn’t there any consensus of opinion? i think it’s hard on overseas bands, that there isn’t a level playing field going into the Worlds, and that would be something the RSPBA should fix. Everyone should do a qualifier or no-one. but it seems to me that most bands are reasonably happy with the set and conventional medley format.

  7. This article is…..interesting. I get it, but also get that this debate is getting tired. For someone who has traveled to play over seas with a band before to talk about caps on distance is humorus. For Toronto to give up on the Worlds (in my opinion) and then complain about not being given a fair run is odd to me. I think if they kept at it and worked on getting past the qualifier, that we would be further along by now. What bands like 78th did took time. But they didn’t go and then stop when the results didn’t fall into their laps. And if the argument is to go someplace else so that the selection can be heard, then maybe the quality isn’t that of the top 6. After all the MSR is equally as important. No disrespect is meant in what I’m saying, it’s just an opinion. The whole cap on rosters and distance is also deeply flawed. 1. Buy a P.O. Box in desired bands location. 2. what happens if all the bands are at the max within your distance, where do you go then? 3. it’s a hobby!!! Why can’t I seek to go play with the best on my dime. I don’t think anyone is currently getting a salary from a band to travel and play. Now on to the Worlds. I understand that you have complimented them numerous times in the article but it’s about as sincere sounding as Kanye West telling me I had a nice video…BUT! It’s the RSPBA’s contest. It’s more inviting to the world then any other contest hands down. And for the msot part all the way down to the lower levels, you do get the bestbands in the world. Why? Becase when you have to spend $60,000 to go, you want to make sure you arne’t waisting your time. When I get to Glasgow, I am within 15 minutes of my hotel and walking distance of the competition. The same cannot be said for busing out to the Corn Field Championships AKA North American Championships. Not to mention, there isn’t much to do close to the games so you can’t really make much out of it. So why not put down the megaphones, step off of the soap boxes and start putting together a truly unique event. Take a cue from the Formula 1 teams. The biggies where prepared to start a new racing league when they where not happy with the governing body. If Ferrari (SFU), BMW Sauber (FMM), and the likes where to up and leave, I’m sure we would all be right behind them.

  8. To piperjde”: the Toronto Police Pipe Band has never complained about not getting a fair run. This article is about the Worlds not any one band. And why oh why do people not sign their names to comments! “

  9. Here I am as always signing my name… 😉 Nothing to add here to stir the melting pot, just to congratulate AB on this excellent piece. Twas a lengthy pleasure reading it – and I particularly liked the ‘numbers game’ bit in part one. FF

  10. Another thought provoking article Andrew. Very well done but I feel your frustration knowing RSPBA does not care what others think. Rather than write any longer, let’s just say I agree with Bill Livingstone’s comment and I always sign my name!

  11. Congratulations on a courageous and thought provoking article. Certainly there is much to consider. I think your suggested solutions have merit however I would also lobby for a greater focus on teaching and building at the lower levels. Without a large and healthy foundation, nothing is sustainable. Ringo

  12. I grew up in Ontario pipe bands in the late seventies and the early eighties. It was the heyday of Ontario regionalism. I understand Andrew’s concern. Even though I haven’t played in a pipe band for years, I still sit on the porch on summer nights and bemoan the decline of the Ontario pipe band scene. But what if people of our generation aren’t thinking big enough, Andrew? Is it possible that what is happening now is actually a positive step? Pipe bands go global. Perhaps this is our next evolutionary step. Technology and affluence allow people to practise with any band in the world who strikes their fancy and who will have them. We cross-pollinate, albeit slowly because of the limitations of judging, but we become a global community, not a regional one. Perhaps, in the same way that we couldn’t understand five years ago the transformative power of social media, we can’t yet see all of the advantages of globalism for pipe bands.

  13. Interesting article. I like the idea of national championships, but regional qualifiers seems more appropriate based on per-capita pipers/drummers, not sovereign states- in effect that generally happens automatically through this inter-band migration of players-You basically proposed that only the Scottish champions would play from Scotland. That would be to the entire pipe band community’s detriment. As a Canadian piper living in Australia and having played in the Gr 1 final a few times, I thought the Scottish Power Medley last year was the best medley I have ever heard for musicality and ease of listening. I don’t think they should have won the worlds, but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to miss having their performance on the worlds CD. Furthermore, if only one Canadian band could have competed, I would have missed Triumph Street’s sensational medley-opener(one of my all-time favourites), despite personally rooting for SFU for the overall title. However, I do agree that there needs to be an ideology shift from ‘glory-hunting’ to ‘legacy-creation’. A top band needs to feed the bands that ultimately feed it, at a grass roots level. Professional sports recognize this principle. In my view, SFU exemplifies this idea. And sorry Andrew, but throwing together an All-Star Band solely to prove that top soloists can play together at the top level for one contest (not to mention the media-buzz) is the antithesis of it. Top players together, make great teams when they work together (Olympic ice hockey). Nobody needed to prove that to anyone. All the same, you guys sounded good, had a decent performance and generated lots of discussion, which catered well to all of our little addictions of pipe band speculation and gossip. Anyway, the gist of what I’m saying is that every piper/drummer could do a good deed for pipebandom and teach their fine craft to a person of lesser vintage before we all burn out. Thankfully many already do. RJ Houston



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