July 24, 2017

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.”

[Photo: copyright pipes|drums]
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 . . .



  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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