Opinion: Isn’t it time we formally rewarded the difficult?
The Winter Olympics are on, and of course that makes us think of piping and drumming. As bands and soloists around the world prepare their music for what they universally hope will be a return to traditional in-person competition, many or most will be pushing themselves with more technically challenging tunes and arrangements.
We can all agree that competitive piping and drumming is an artistic sport, along the lines of, say, figure skating or snowboarding. These sporting events are judged both objectively (you either execute the quad correctly or you don’t) and subjectively (the choreography and interpretation of the performance with the accompanying music).
The results of sports that are based on strict measurements like speed or goals scored are cut-and-dried. There’s a clear prize-list based on irrefutable stats. Piping and drumming has none of that, and, as far as we know, New Zealand was the only jurisdiction that once had a timed pipe band contest. Bands, without the aid of stopwatch, would try to deliver a musical performance to exactly four minutes. Closest to four minutes won. It was unusual, and they abandoned it years ago.
So, piping, drumming and pipe band contests are a combination of the objective and the subjective. And it’s subjectivity that always trips us up.
Sports with subjective judgment often have measurements of difficulty. A competitor will tell the judges the moves that they will include. In diving, for example, they rate dives by their difficulty. A reverse 4½ somersault in the pike position is rated at 4.8. The snowboarding halfpipe triple cork 1440 is a trick that entails spinning four full rotations while simultaneously inverting three times. These are apparently incredibly difficult and, quite rightly, executing them well gets more points. It’s a risk-reward proposition.
There are no rules in piping, drumming and pipe band competitions that govern difficulty.
There are no rules in piping, drumming and pipe band competitions that govern difficulty. In theory, a Grade 1 band’s MSR could be “Walter Douglas MBE,” “Orange & Blue” with two new simple parts, and “Captain Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree.” All wonderful melodic, brilliant tunes, but there’s a tacit understanding that they’re not suitably difficult for the grade. They’d be laughed out the park and likely finish last, regardless of how technically and musically flawlessly they delivered it.
Judges will reward “difficult” when they can’t decide between two performances. The one that’s harder music gets the nod. It happens all the time, and judges will openly admit it.
Then again, how many times will a judge say, “I’d much rather hear an easier tune played well than a hard tune played poorly”? It’s contradictory.
With that, isn’t it time we formally rewarded levels of difficulty? It’s a heretical idea, and we will generally say that a tune or score that’s hard for one set of fingers or wrists might “suit” another. But the same can be said of the reverse 4½ somersault in the pike position. Difficult tunes or snowboard tricks “suit” more skilled performers, so why not reward them accordingly?
How will we ever decide what’s difficult? Jim McGillivray has done it for decades on his PipeTunes.ca platform. To help guide customers, each composition is given a difficult rating of Easy, Intermediate or Difficult. “The 51st Highland Division at Wadi-Akarit” is Easy. “The Pap of Glencoe” is Difficult.
We recognize that grading medleys would tricky. Four-or-more-parted 2/4 marches, strathspeys and reels could be much more straightforward on a scale of, say, one-to-five. “Walter Douglas” would be a 1.0. “The Pap of Glencoe” maybe a 4.6.
But then, you might say, lower-grade bands will submit harder tunes in an attempt to get their difficulty score up. Okay, good. What’s wrong with challenging bands to be better? But there will also be bands that understand the risk outweighs the reward. Why sacrifice technical and musical excellence in the name of difficulty?
Perhaps some sort of international database of compositions and difficulty ratings could be established, and perhaps easier than we think to accomplish: create a list of published MSR tunes and piobaireachds, pick 50 respected pipers, and ask them with an online survey to rate each composition by their level of difficulty. The average rating would be the result. No doubt the RSPBA would want to own and control this, but we’d suggest a more international and agnostic group manages the central database.
The submitted MSR would then have a difficult rating based on the average of each tune. That difficulty rating would be factored into the final points awarded to the contestant.
Recognizing and rewarding degrees of difficulty would be difficult in itself, at least at the outset. But the potential rewards are clear: eliminate the traditional squabbles over subjective results, challenge contestants to push themselves, and add a strategic and fun new dimension to our art-sport.
Otherwise, just go out there and play an immaculate “Walter Douglas” at the Glenfiddich, because, by the rules, chances are you should deserve the prize.
What do you think? Please feel free to express your thoughts using our Comments feature.
July 14, 2015