Is the World’s killing the pipe band world? Part 2
What hope, then? On the one hand, solutions perhaps aren’t necessary. The pipe band world can progress as-is, placing undue pressure on bands to field large numbers, playing relatively safe, familiar and formulaic music with the all-consuming passion for doing well at the World’s.
But there is a way to maintain the World’s while restoring some of the lost long-term pleasures and traditions that pipe bands once had that go beyond one day of success. Here are a few suggestions that, if incorporated by associations worldwide – starting, by necessity, with the RSPBA – will stop the erosion of pipe bands while fostering the art.
1. Restrict roster sizes. Cap the number of pipers and drummers a band may have on its roster at reasonable numbers. Perhaps 20 pipers and 10 snare-drummers for Grade 1; 18 and eight for Grade 2; 14 and 6 for Grade 3; 12 and 5 for Grade 4. The band can compete with those maximums, if it prefers, or with a smaller number. Roster maximums for sections ensure the spread of talent, and ultimately more bands will be created, stimulating a more competitive and healthier scene overall. Such caps will eliminate the more common practice of padding rosters with excess need, leaving many on the sidelines at competition time. The playing field will not only be leveled, but as players filter into other bands, band playing standards will rise across the board. Roster maximums can be increased gradually over the years.
2. Set a travel radius. Make it a rule that members must live within 300 miles of the band’s stated home-base. Pipers and drummers not within that 600-mile circle must either relocate to stay with the band or look elsewhere for a more local gig. This may sound draconian, but ultimately it will restore the local community camaraderie and pride so often missing from today’s top bands. It will also encourage bands to develop their own training systems and feeder bands, cultivating talent from the area, rather than casting a massive driftnet to catch outsiders. Such an approach will actually foster teaching, creating more well trained pipers and drummers worldwide.
3. Set a roster deadline. Once a certain date has passed, bands cannot add members to its roster. A reasonable time would be one month before the first competition of the band’s home association’s season. Such a rule would be implemented by all associations around the world, thus eliminating the practice of padding rosters with talent two weeks before the World’s.
4. Nine-month memberships. Once a piper or drummer formally joins a band’s roster, he/she cannot join another band for at least nine months. If the player quits, then he/she must wait out the term. If the member is dismissed after a few weeks, well, tough; we all make bad choices sometimes. By placing a minimum term on members, stability will be fostered by further cultivating the local scene and developing regional talent.
5. Create new events and reward creativity. The World’s needs to set new requirements each year, the RSPBA working with other associations and the bands themselves to understand what could work. Sure, keep the MSR and/or the five-to-seven-minute medley, but introduce a completely new event that demands innovation and daring so that pipe band music can thrive and evolve. The RSPBA and Glasgow Council will soon realize that expanding the product it presents will generate even more interest.
6. Cater competitions to non-players, too. Eliminate the huddled mass circle of pipers and drummers, and have them face the audience, like any self-respecting performer should do. Let the listeners (and judges) see and hear the performance more clearly. Preserve and promote musical excellence, yes, but engage the general public better. While pipe band competition and Highland games are part of Scottish culture, elsewhere they are ethnic curiosities with a declining ethnic audience.
7. Make it a true World Championship. Allow only the bands that have won their grade in their national championship (including the Scottish) in the current and previous years, and perhaps the runners-up as well, to compete. Not only will this eliminate the need for tedious qualifier rounds for bands that have no hope of winning, but it fosters the world’s pipe band scenes outside of Scotland. More bands will travel to compete at their own national championship each year, rather than putting all of their funds into that expensive, solitary and, often, hopeless trip to the World’s.
To be sure, the World Pipe Band Championships are a wonderful spectacle for pipers and drummers. The RSPBA deserves massive credit for building the contest into what it is, remembering also that it is the involvement of non-UK bands that elevates this major to a completely different plateau. But the World’s is an intrinsically traditional and Scottish event. Non-Scottish bands will always be “overseas.” They have always been and will probably always be outsiders, saddled with the “overseas” pejorative.