August 18, 2020

Opinion: The player deficit to come

The repercussions of the coronavirus will be felt in every walk of life for a long time. One problem that the piping and drumming world might not have recognized is an inevitable decline in the overall number of active pipers and drummers.

And that decline could be substantial.

Newcomers are inspired to take up the pipes or drum when they see and hear it live. Young kids might be aware of pipe bands, but generally, it’s a moment when they witness them live do they express a desire to learn.

Without performances and competitions, the number of new learners has almost certainly already declined. We’ve now missed a full six months of hundreds of beginners worldwide starting the pipes or drum.

We’re also going to see established players drop out of the scene. With no events to motivate them, halls to practice in, even if they could get together in-person, pipers and drummers will have to self-motivate to stay sharp and interested.

Piecemeal online solo competitions are available but, seriously, they’re not even close to the authentic thing. Many will have put down their instruments for most or all of the last six months.

And, inevitably, many will not return. Pipers and drummers will discover that they quite enjoy having time to explore new hobbies or resume ones they had to abandon, or they’ll relish being free of the pressure to practice and perform under competitive duress.

No practices and travel mean a lot of money saved. Yes, it is certainly money well spent on priceless experiences and camaraderie, but there will be many who decide that the return-on-investment wasn’t there in the first place. Or they’ll simply find it too difficult to start up again if they wanted to.

It could be a year or longer of this situation, which foreshadows significant problems for piping and drumming. With a good number of pipers and drummers opting out, and with scant few new players, bands, associations, and businesses will see a sharp reduction in new members and customers.

Manufacturers and dealers of piping and drumming products depend on newcomers to feed their businesses. New players have to acquire instruments, equipment and gear. They have to be outfitted by bands. No new players and there will be a significant drop in revenues.

So, what’s the solution?

For a start, associations need to stop trying to fill the void purely with online competitions and things geared only for established players.

Composing contests, interviews with people talking about arcane stuff, and symposiums on topics like the Grade 1 medley at the World’s are harmless, but they don’t solve the more significant problems of recruitment of learners and teaching musical skills.

Associations should focus on coming up with new ways to attract new learners and provide new online forums for safe and engaging distance-learning, not only for beginners but also for established players.

Now more than ever is a time to learn, improve, and commit available hours to learn new skills and perfect established ones.

Before the pandemic, few associations had any formal teaching programs. They left the recruitment of learners to the bands. Had more sophisticated programs been in place, associations would have immediately sought ways to continue them online.

Instead of faffing around creating yet more competitions, organizations around the world should be coming up with creative and safe ways to engage newcomers.

We have discussed the mandate of associations needing to shift from being purely competition-running machines to being houses of free teaching and learning, most importantly for brand new players.

Instead of faffing around creating yet more competitions, organizations around the world should be coming up with creative and safe ways to engage newcomers. “A great time to start a new hobby, and you, too, can learn the bagpipes or pipe band drums with our free and safe online lessons!”

Instead, as always, they’ve strictly looked after only their existing members. There’s merit in trying to keep pipers and drummers engaged, but they’ve missed the more significant long-range challenge.

Without new players taking up the pipes or drum, and with a good number sure to drop off, associations could find themselves with far fewer members when things return to “normal.” Unless a safe and effective vaccine emerges in the next 10 months, “normal” could well be 2022.

It’s not too late. There’s still time for associations to step up and work to keep the ranks and market populated, to fulfill their number one mandate: to further the art of piping and drumming. If they do it right, we might still see a whole new crop of players emerge in 2021.

Furthering the art does not come from constant competition; it comes through continuous teaching. Even now.



From the archives: a 1988 editorial warning for organized teaching in Ontario


  1. Our circumstances are quite atipical, ours is a fledgling band in the Costa del Sol. so though 4 hours away by plane we’re, in a sense in the “Piping Boondocks”.
    Only one teacher in the area (and not the very best, if I may say so myself)
    The pandemic has been a Blessing In Disguise, virtually from day one of the lockdown the Practice Chanter lessons multiplied from 1 every fortnight to 3 a week, with lessons every single day.
    And in August we had our first “post-confinamiento” gig with extreme health precautions.
    We were 8 pipers when would originally have been maybe only 5 and with much less confidence.
    Why this lengthy story? two reasons:
    1) share our story of which were proud and,
    2) How this situation faced head on allowed us to drastically improve and even bring us closer.
    And this experience is applicable to Piping/Drumming in general.
    Furthermore we found ways to overcome the technical difficulties,
    We had pupils not only from the area but even as far as from Scotland itself.
    This was because no one else was actively teaching for free, for fun, and IN SPANISH.
    So, as the author of this Opinion Piece rightly says: “Furthering the art does not come from constant competition; it comes through continuous teaching” is a good concept and we, for one, are doing our bit in Spain.

  2. I agree That this is the direction Pipe Band Associations need to go( Teaching new students free of charge or incredibly cheap)

    However While finding teachers who are Willing an Qualified might not be difficult getting word out to prospective pupils may prove easier said than done.

    Any Ideas?



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