July 04, 2023

Opinion: No more having to pay your dues. The world is listening.

Not too long ago, any piper, drummer, band or drum section, no matter how well they played, had to pay their dues before getting the nod from stubborn and, perhaps, spineless judges.

A young competitor, or one new to the grade, would have to compete again and again before getting even the benefit of the doubt from an adjudicator. A newly-appointed pipe-major or leading-drummer, particularly in the top grades, would have to run their band or section out repeatedly before they creep into the prize list, much less get a first.

Even worse, no matter how well they played, it would take an “in” with a judge – a teacher, a former member of the band, a relative, a business partner – to coax things up the charts. They’d get a nod and a wink, land on a prize list for the first time, and then off to the races.

Whether they were denied a prize when they performed exceptionally or given a corrupt gift when they didn’t, it was frustrating for everyone who didn’t benefit.

Thankfully, thanks in great part to the internet, those days are now gone forever.

In pre-internet days, only those who heard the contest live were aware of the insidious dues-paying system of judging.

In pre-internet days, only those who heard the contest live were aware of the insidious dues-paying system of judging. A handful of listeners would leave the event shaking their heads, muttering, “So-and-so was robbed today,” but chalk up another lousy result to the well-established system.

Today, we can hear virtually every competition in some form on the net. Within hours of a contest ending, sometimes even before the results are announced, video recordings wizz around the world to anyone with an internet connection and a few social media accounts.

Now, judges are held almost instantly accountable because the performances they assess or assess are there for all to hear. It does not matter if a competitor or leader is new or young or unknown or not a judge’s pupil or customer; the only thing that matters today is the sound of the performance. Not the uniforms. Not the flourishing. Not the products bought or lessons taken. Not whether a stick slips or fingers lift too high off the chanter. Only what is heard.

And that’s the way it always should have been. Judging accountability is what competitive piping and drumming has needed forever and now has.

Two hugely significant examples this year are evidence of this welcomed change.

In the off-season, the pipe band world saw two massively significant changes to two of the world’s greatest pipe bands: the appointments of Gareth McLees and Kerr McQuillan to the respective roles as leading-drummer of Field Marshal Montgomery and Peoples Ford Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia.

They took over, again, respectively, from Keith Orr and Gordon Brown, two legends of pipe band drumming who had each led their corps for more than 20 years.

Had these changes occurred in 1990, we would have bet that, no matter how well their corps performed, it would have taken years of frustration until they experienced the prizes they’ve already enjoyed in less than half a season.

Under McLees, FMM has won the drumming at his first two RSPBA major championships as L-D. Similarly, McQuillan’s corps have been given the nod over far more established sections at several contests.

And we’re noticing that everywhere. Newcomers to major solo competitions are deservedly winning on their first or second attempt. That was a rarity 30 years ago, as they’d have to serve their time and pay their dues.

By and large, the negatives of social media (narcissism, the lack of accountability, the ironically anti-social behaviour) far outweigh the positives. But this change to judging piping, drumming, pipe bands and drum sections is a huge benefit.

Today, judges are held accountable for their decisions, even if they are relatively subjective. If their result is deemed incorrect, they’ll hear about it because everyone hears it.

There are no more dues to be paid or time to be served because, finally and literally, the world is listening.

That’s out opinion. What’s yours? As with every story, readers can express their views – provided they adhere to our posted policy – using the comments feature that follows.




  1. One (or two) swallows don’t make a summer. Sadly, I think the ‘payment of dues’ is still very much alive and well, at least with some judges. And if there’s one band that has most certainly ‘paid their dues’ it’s Boghall!

  2. Good points well made. Still think there is some level of corruption about, but even a gradual change is welcome. Oh and by the way, Boghall won in Lurgan with a bit to spare. Heard the whole grade. Their ensemble was the best I have heard in 20 years. The only problem is that it was so good, it will be very difficult to repeat or better



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