July 24, 2017

Poaching and tampering

“Poaching.” It’s a pipe band allegation that’s as old as pipe bands.

Loosely defined in pipe band terms, poaching is actively coaxing a player from a rival band to join your own band.

Most people think of poaching as recruiting players from bands within the same grade. You simultaneously weaken the competition by strengthening yourself. It’s a part of pipe bands, just as it’s a part of business to go after top-talent.

Poaching isn’t necessarily entirely ethical, but it’s pretty much unstoppable. Making it known that someone is welcome and wanted and would fit in as a playing member should they wish to make a change is simply hanging out your help-wanted shingle.

But with the advent of bigger bands, particularly in the top grades, a whole new level of poaching has emerged: call it tampering with players from lower-grade bands. With the pressure to field large pipe-, bass- and snare-sections in order to be considered competitive, top-grade bands are increasingly going after young pipers and drummers in Grade 3 and even Grade 4 bands.

Spirit of Scotland competed with 26 pipers in 2008. [Photo: Derek Maxwell]
Impressionable players with only a few years of experience are approached by veterans at the top with the promise of playing in the big-time. Starry-eyed, they’re wowed and wooed, and flattered that a Grade 1 or Grade 2 band would want them and feels that they have what it takes.

So, the lower-grade band that they grew up in, that might have taught them from the beginning, that is struggling themselves to have the numbers to stay together, loses someone who’s inevitably among their best players to a band in which he or she will probably be the worst.

As Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands around the world get increasingly desperate to field strong numbers, they appear to resort to more and more aggressive recruitment tactics. The irritant that used to be fairly limited to poaching players from a rival band is now often tampering with players from the lower-grades.

It’s worth noting that tampering probably occurs mostly with Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands that don’t have a formal feeder-band system. They resort to pillaging the ranks of lower-grade bands. While they are eminently aware that a teaching program would eventually create a developmental band or two, they haven’t started one, so they have to rely on more aggressive means to attract players. More often than not, it’s a matter of survival of the fittest. And “fittest” in pipe band terms generally means “most players.”

But is this sort of recruitment actually a problem? To be sure, it’s not as if top-grade bands are running around raiding every lower-grade band. But the frequency seems to be more pronounced than in the past and complaints are increasing as more bands struggle to stay afloat.

“This is a topic that is certainly not new, and one that is definitely discussion-worthy,” said Trish Kirkwood, pipe-major of the Grade 3 Hamilton Police Pipe Band of Hamilton, Ontario. The Hamilton Police organization has developed a sophisticated teaching program that includes a Grade 5 novice band, but they still experience the frustration of losing their best players to top-grade bands.

“I understand the lure of wanting to play in a Grade 1 band,” Kirkwood continues. “It’s the natural tendency of many to want to progress to the level of ability to be able to make the Grade 1 cut. Coming from a multi-tiered organization, each grade has its standard. Countless hours of instruction and directive are put into supporting players so they develop the necessary skills to not only become proficient band players, but also to strengthen the playing quality for that grade. Graduating players between groups is a natural part of the improvement process within our organization, and it keeps us in constant forward motion and advancement.”

Most would agree that it’s okay for young pipers and drummers to move upward and outward when they feel that there’s no other way to progress. But problems begin when these impressionable players are sold a bill of goods.

Playing well and winning are the best recruitment tools, but, for bands that aren’t regularly in prize-lists – and that’s probably 75% of the world’s pipe bands – they’ll use . . .



  1. I think having a more open rule for members of a lower grade band also playing with a higher grade band would help. I know that the fear is padding a low grade band with ringers is real but the current limits seems to force members who may enjoy playing with and helping a grade 5 or 4 band but can play at grade 2 to leave. In WUSPBA only one piper and one side can be registered as “instructors” and play with both bands. At grade 2, the “instructor” can’t also be the PM or LD. I don’t quite understand this since I would think a grade 2 PM in a local grade 2 could benefit from playing with a grade 1 going to the Worlds? I am a PM of a grade 5 fire department band that does fairly well in competition. I compete solo at grade 1 and have another member who would likely be grade 2 or 1 when he gets back into solos. I am somewhat restricted in what I can do in terms of playing with another, higher grade band and so is the other member. It would only benefit my band to have more than one of us get experience at a higher grade band competition. Maybe a certain number of “training and development” slots can be allowed in lower grade bands to have members compete at a higher grade for a while. This would allow members of lower grade local bands to try out playing with a more regional higher grade band, gain experience, keep interest, and bring that knowledge back to the lower grade. If a grade 4 band gets packed with folks playing up, then they can be regraded by the association.

  2. Very interesting article, great to read and reflects what has also been happening in the scene in continental Europe over the past couple of years – more established higher grade bands recruiting or even poaching players from lower grade bands internationally, primarily to stand the competition at the majors in the UK, but also to compete against said lower grade bands domestically.

    I personally think it is up to every individual what she or he does with their leisure time, but I also strongly believe this presents an opportunity for bands to teach new players, especially young players, values of working hard towards goals and achievement, instead abandoning ship and finding a quick fix. Every established higher grade band was also once a struggling lower grade band.

    What is interesting to look out for these days are the implications that occur to bands without their own teaching system and who seem to rely heavily on recruiting from lower grade bands – the majority seem to fall apart after a couple of seasons at least. The question I ask here is, do bands who recruit really believe this is a long-term solution or is it enough to feel like a rock star for one or two seasons while the social fabric of recruited players still holds together?

    1. Large Grade one bands are certainly impressive to watch and listen to. It seems like larger bands in other grades seem to be happening, as well. While this seems to be good, there are problems: (1) smaller bands find it very difficult to be competitive against larger ones. Being out of the prize list is a significant factor in the demise of a pipe band. A band with eight pipers competing against one with 14 or 16 is like comparing apples to oranges. (2) Starting a new pipe band is very difficult. Sponsors are needed, in most cases, and large numbers can make the costs prohibitive. Marching around in mismatched kilts doesn’t impress anyone. Smaller band sizes may encourage the formation of new pipe bands, by creating opportunities for talented leaders to become pipe majors of new bands, and the potential personnel available to do this, not to mention the lower costs for uniforms and equipment.
      Poaching and tampering can be a problem. As soon as a band seems to be doing well, interest is aroused, and the “sharks” start circling. If the band should have a not-so-good year, the sharks move in for the kill!



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