Poaching and tampering
and a Grade 5 band competing in 2018 so that they can “grow their own crop of players.”
It’s hard to blame pipe bands from employing more assertive tactics. Large section sizes have gone unaddressed by associations, mainly because the RSPBA refuses to do anything about the problem – and it is a problem for the frustrated lower-grade bands whose players are wooed away.
“Some players from our band have been approached, and when they ask, ‘Where are you getting players?’ the answer is, ‘We’ll just steal them from other bands,'” says that veteran player who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I obviously started out in the wrong era, and worked my way up to the higher grade bands. I guess the rationale is that if they take all the players that they can brainwash, they won’t be playing against them in the future, they will just have them on the side to play the drone tuners pipes or carry water.”
“We do have the option of only playing those pipers and drummers who are at a Grade 1 standard, but if we do this, we do not have any hope of being competitive against the bigger bands,” Cairns adds. “That leaves us with one option: to recruit players who we believe have the potential to make the grade and develop them to the Grade 1 standard ourselves. There are growing pains with this approach, as the band becomes both the pro and farm team at the same time. But if we don’t take the time to do this, we run the risk of never having sufficient players to become competitive on an international level.”
Cairns stresses that they try to be judicious and sensible with their recruiting tactics: “While this is and will be a continual issue for any band at the Grade 1 level, we must ensure that we are mindful of the lower-grade bands. If we are too aggressive and draw out players before they are ready, we risk damaging the success and possibly even the existence of the lower-grade bands. That would be disastrous for the long-term success of all of the Grade 1 bands. So, our approach to recruitment is this: After the season is over, we will contact potential players to let them know that if they are interested in playing at the Grade 1 level, we would love to have them come out to the band. From there, if someone takes us up on our offer, we work extremely hard to develop them over the fall and winter. If we determine that they are not going to be at a standard where they can play on the field, we set them free and encourage them to try again in the future.”
No doubt that a handful of Grade 1 bands with 25 or more pipers and 10 or more snare drummers and a battalion of tenor drummers is impressive. But at what cost? Because these bands are continually – and in all likelihood deservedly – rewarded in competition, other bands strive to field similar numbers. Bands with large numbers are winning, so they set the standard not only with music but with size.
“I have taken in one or two younger players from lower-grade bands every other season after the usual audition process, which allows me to gauge whether the individual is of, or can be of the desired standard,” Chris Armstrong says. “I don’t see this as poaching, as either these younger players are ones I have taught myself for solo piping, or people who have approached me to ask about becoming a member of the band. I have, on the odd occasion, targeted an individual, too.”
There are those who argue that it is only because of the large size that the top bands can create such great music. That might be true, but is it worth the trickle-down effect across every jurisdiction in every grade? Capping section roster sizes at reasonable – yet ample – numbers (e.g., Grade 1: 22 pipers, 10 snares, six tenors; Grade 2: 18 pipers, eight snares, five tenors . . .) could ease the pressure globally. Bands would have to be even more judicious with who they keep, players would have to work even harder, playing standards would inevitably . . .