May 07, 2020

Opinion: Time for a reset

Changeable conditions. [Photo: Alister Sinclair]
The rest of the 2020 competition year is for all purposes done. Pipers and drummers are, for the most part stuck at home, and gatherings of any substantial number are prohibited.

It’s a situation none of us wants, but it is necessary to beat a disease that is otherwise beyond our control. Everyone, to a person, is trying to make the best of it, finding new and different ways to get things done, discovering that many parts of life can continue with technology, with ingenuity, and with creativity.

We’re all changing and adapting to the times. Meetings and competitions are online; we’re learning new repertoire and improving our skills.

The competition piping and drumming world has been in a rut for a long, long time. Most everyone seems to want change, but change has been almost impossible.

Why? Mainly because of time. We simply have not had the time to allow change to sink in, to try new things, to give creativity time to gel. No sooner than we try something substantially new do we declare it a failure because it didn’t receive 100% adoption. So, we go back to the same-old safe. Competition formats. Musical genres. Money-wasting associations. Bad habits routed in traditions that no one has the time to confront, much less change.

Until now.

The last two months have demonstrated that we can embrace change for the better. We can rise to the challenge of doing things differently. And with possibly another six months, a year, or even longer before things get back to the previous normal, we have the luxury of time to adjust even more.

Some thoughts:

Associations don’t need in-person meetings. If most businesses on earth can manage their business using Zoom or some other platform, it’s evident that piping and drumming associations can dispense with expensive in-person travel and accommodation with the members’ footing the bill. Annual general meetings and other official gatherings can and should be online to enable far more attendance with no travel, financial or time restrictions. It’s the end of the gravy train for executives and administrators who are in it for the wrong reasons, and they will drop out.

The World’s won’t be the be-all, end-all. Again, we love the World’s. pipes|drums has given the event more positive coverage than any media outlet in the world for the last 35 years. But this crisis will remind pipe bands that the World’s or any competition is not everything. Community is more critical than cobbling together strangers to try to win a prize. More bands will have a chance to return to local roots, feeding more local competition and local performance with a locally-based and available group. The newfound appreciation for community will improve the sustainability of bands, associations and events.

Remodel the World’s. While the rest of the world reconsiders the value of that event, the organizers of the World Championships can rethink the whole thing. Endless streams of 200 bands and multitudes of events scattered all over a weather-susceptible park are not ideal for pipers, drummers or punters. Make the World Championship a true World Championship for the world’s elite bands. Call it something else if you need to (Champions of the Universe? InterGalctic Supreme Championship? Universal Championship?), and go ahead and hold the World Championship separately for the other grades. But stage a true Supreme Championship, just like any other sport or art, that is reserved for the very best in a comfortable venue that showcases the art to its fullest potential, on stage, performers facing their audience.

Associations will need to be creative. It’s a good bet that there will be a lot fewer Highland games, and possibly none for even a year. If associations are going to continue, they need to provide value for members and listeners. That means coming up with new approaches to competitions, performances, instruction and fun. The associations that don’t or can’t or fail to do that will be replaced by new ones that will.

Try new formats. If we hear another person say that pipe and competitions should be like Breton bagad contests that emphasize creativity, orchestration and performance, we’ll gag. But they are right, and they have always been right. So, now is the time to reconsider the worn-out constraints we traditionally inflict on bands and soloists. Allow them to deliver new and creative music, not the compulsory figures of MSRs, too-brief medleys and too-few judges with too much power.

We recognize that some pipers and drummers like things just so. They like the tradition and the familiarity of playing and hearing and doing the same things year after year. We respect that. But we think that the majority of competition pipers and drummers and members of associations want to try new things and are willing to implement changes, if only there were time enough to do that.

We are in a time of change. There’s now time to reassess, to be creative and to implement change so that, when we get back at it, we can embrace the familiar and the new.

And it’s about time we did.



Pittsburgh Piping Society Zooms session with almost 50 attending
May 4, 2020

Balmoral School to Zoom this summer
April 30, 2020

Piping Hot Summer Drummer goes online worldwide with July summer school
April 26, 2020

Shelter in place resulting in spike in solo business
May 5, 2020

Medley consulting by Alen Tully offers creative potential for bands around the world
April 19, 2020



  1. I agree it is a good time to reflect and possibly hit the reset button on some of the ideas in your piece. However, I don’t agree with the idea that the Worlds should be the preserve of our Elite bands only. Giving our young players the opportunity to socialise with and meet their idols can only be a positive thing. Without the open nature of the Worlds, many of these young folk would not have the opportunity to meet and hear some of the leading lights of the Pipe Band World. It helps fuel the lifeblood and the development of new talent. I do agree the format of the Worlds could be refined however.

  2. Change……..having read through this piece several times now I would wish to say a few things regarding the competition format. I personally look forward to my day at a competition and as such always try to support as many competitions as my free time allows. My band plays probably six or seven competitions each year. Its a great day out, win or lose. Meeting other bands and catching up. The “Worlds” is huge in terms of competitors and events. I cant get to see what i want to see so have to be very selective. The live streem of grade one lets me be free to wander the tuning areas and get up close to bands from all over the world. We are a community, a worldwide community. The “Worlds” is the one BIG chance to spend time with friends old and new. Its the one thing where the top intercontinental players are here for two or more weeks. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, USA, South Africa, Japan and so many more countries all together sharing a common interest. Concerts, events and all sorts of gigs happen in that two week window. I personally cant think of anyone that doesnt look forward to it and all of my fellow pipe banders have a count down callander to worlds fortnight. Bands aim for the worlds pin hopes on it etc. To me, and i know im gonna be hammered for this lol, the majority of the pipe band world love the build up to the big weekend. Yes it has its downsides like costs for overseas bands etc. I think, and here is my point, that local competitions could be run to allow talented bands to be identified as Grade contenders. Then its up to the bands in question and the association to help finance the trip by sponsorship fund raising etc. That in its self is another debate for another time. The arguement to have the Elite bands showcase the world championship is very harsh and single minded in my opinion. Novice Juvenile and Juvenile should also be considered. Never as a side show but as true world title events. These young learners are the best and the future of our elite. Hence why i would consider them. The grading system or nameing of the grades to me is just not correct at all. We have 4b 4a 3b and 3a. We could end up with 2b and 2a then 1b and 1a. Give each grade a number its much clearer to everyone. 1,2,3,4,5,6 Juv and Nov Juv. Or 1a,1b,1c,1d,1e,1f, Juv and Nov Juv. How stupid does that look in this day of mass equality for all. Geeza number !
    Change…….. the comments regarding new technology are very agreeable given that im dinosaur when it comes to I.T. Im very interested in the employment of systems that mean everyone is in attendance at every meeting from the comfort of their own homes. (Very open to corruptive influences in more ways than face to face). That said i still think its a very good idea. I feel the need for change is needed as our association carries too much influence and makes decision without clarificatiin from membership. I agree that the association should do what we the members vote for and should be answerable and open to criticism. We as members cant really do that for very well known reasons. Personally i have in the past approached and spoken to office bearers with concerns and have found that my points were listened to and discussed in a very civil manner. So i feel there are people that listen. Its not all gloom and doom at the RSPBA. There are many people that work hard with no real thanks, several branches are very ‘member’ aware. I do still feel that big changes are ahead, the writing is on the wall so to speak.
    MSRs and Medleys. These have for sometime been the accepted competition format. I see no reason to change that. Spectators at competitions tend to be other players, family members (dragged along for the day out). Very few people actually attend a competition to see what a pipe band does. The place to showcase talent is, in my humble opinion, in a concert environment. One that allows total free style. Maybe we could introduce a free style event on our competition entry forms. Allowing both bands and spectators variety and choice. Do they go watch Field Marshal or Neilston and District Pipe Band incorporating the RSNO or perhaps go see the Red Hot Chili Pipers instead ! Its pretty clear where this change is going. We will end up with several catagories across all of the grades and possibly lose the traditions of what we have from our very early days of Pipe Bands. The MSR Medley format has my vote. I get to be creative with concerts my band put on for our local community. We can push competitive barriers all the time. We can come up with more new tunes by the score. There are pipers and drummers out there doing great things and posting on youtube. Many bands dont want to compete but still register with the RSPBA as there are benefits of having members register and sign for the band.
    I hope i have made some valid points and i look forward to some interesting replies. Please remember i am but only one member and these are just my own opinions based on personal experiences over fifty years in Pipe Bands. Maybe one day ill get it right lol. Until then i hope that you all stay safe and well and come back to an arena of your choice soon. Goid luck and thank you for reading.

    1. “Associations don’t need in-person meetings”: Amen to this. The Association I am registered in passed a resolution in 2016 calling for reports considered at its AGM to be posted prior to the meeting. To date, even though promised in person, no report posting has occurred. Associations seem to like operating in the dark.

      The AGM used to be held very close to Remembrance Day when many local bands/pipers are on parade. Attendance from all but those close to the meeting site was very difficult (now the meetings have been moved later in the year, ie into snow season).

      Changing the meeting from an in-person to an on-line format would at least let interested members from all over their vast area attend and see/hear the activities, intricacies and finances of the Assn. Knowing some of the people involved and having some understanding of the time and effort spent assuring the proper running of volunteer organizations, seeing our representatives in action might serve to limit grumblings from the corners.




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