July 14, 2023

South Africa debuts ‘Open Format Contest’ for band competition performances with goal to grow audiences

The African Skye Pipe Band competing in the Grade 3 contest in “OFC.”

With the world’s pipe bands struggling for numbers, competition venues and audiences, the Pipe Band Association of South Africa is working to grow audiences by trialing a new “Open Format Contest,” with the first events held in May in Johannesburg and the second in June in Pretoria.

St. Benedict’s Pipe Band’s drummers competing in Novice Juvenile at Pretoria. Note the ‘scoops’ at the bottom of the drums to help project sound.

The format – already referred to locally as “OFC” – sees bands competing on a raised platform, facing the audience. They’re still playing familiar musical requirements, and PBASA is already looking at broadening the creative component of band selections.

“As you can guess, it has been challenging in a number of ways, from kickback within the community (and just as much support), to figuring out how to make it a reality and go through the process from start to finish,” PBASA President Joshua Hogg said. “The first attempt was far from perfect in a number of ways and we learned from it. The contest in Pretoria was much better overall as a result.”

Hogg contributes:

Pretoria, Saturday, June 17th, on a typical South African Highveld winter’s day with clear skies, and strong sunshine delicately balanced out by a cold breeze. The sounds of pipes and drums fill the air, as is usual on a competition day. What is not usual however, is the layout.

On this day, the traditional pipe band circle has been replaced by a stage, with a backdrop, and seated judges. For the second time this contest season, the PBASA is hosting an OFC (Open Format Contest).

The first trial run was a month earlier at Jeppe High School for Boys, and was met with mixed results and aesthetics. After plenty of careful listening, and conversation, changes and improvements were made to the fledgling format this time around and the differences are immediate, and met with better response.

A raised platform, 40cm high, and two metres deep with a backdrop has been provided for bands to position their drummers on however they see fit. The adjudicators are on a platform too, seated about five metres in front of the bands.

Bands march through a large inflated arch behind the staging area before positioning themselves for their performance, getting a nod of the head or thumbs up from the ensemble adjudicator.

The venue for the contest itself is nestled in the corner of an open sports field, the Old Boy’s Club itself peering over the contest arena with a raised embankment on one side, and an elevated table area on the other. Bands march through a large inflated arch behind the staging area before positioning themselves for their performance, getting a nod of the head or thumbs-up from the ensemble adjudicator.

St. Benedict’s Novice Juvenile Pipe Band in the open format competition using two bass drums.

Open Format in this instance refers only to the formation of the bands, and not the musical requirements – yet. In an effort to provide a fresh challenge to local bands, as well as become more audience-friendly, the PBASA has made a real effort to bring this perennial, and often hotly debated topic into reality. This was applied to all grades of competition, and musical formats remained unchanged: March Selection, MSR, and Medley as have always been.

There are many arguments to be made for and against for the circle, and the concert-style formation, with it splitting opinions almost right down the middle save for a few fence-sitters. There have been some conversions, too – a small number of performers initially wary of the changes coming away quite invigorated by the change.

For the traditionalists, this is not the end of the circle. The MSR, and now firmly established (too soon to say “traditional,” perhaps?) Medley will always have a place in the canon, but there is space for both, as each format serves up something different for both performers and audience members alike.

Looking forward, it is clear that the next big changes will be that of musical format, with less stringent rules on the entire ensemble being stuck in tutti for the duration of the performance, three-pace rolls becoming unnecessary, and broader orchestral practices being implemented.

It is time for something different.

Various semi-circle or “concert” formats have been attempted since the 1980s by different associations, only to be abandoned, usually because of complaints from competitors or judges.

Massed bands at the end of the Pretoria Highland Games.

Breton bagad competitions are extensive musical events, with large ensembles of pipers, drummers and bombarde players orchestrating often complicated, lengthy pieces to large indoor and outdoor audiences.

What is your association doing to make piping and drumming more accessible and popular for members and audiences? We’d love to hear from you.




  1. As I have related here in comments before, we trialled what was referred to as ‘concert formation’ in Victoria, Australia in the mid 2000s I think. It was a trial rule and I’m not sure it was universally panned by the judges in our state (of which I was an early career one). I believe it didn’t receive support for adoption at the national level and that was it. Perhaps more interesting was one school band in the 1990s that elected not to form the usual circle in the circle, but created a very open horseshoe facing the band tutor who conducted with his foot more vigorously. If a band ‘just chose to do it’ at a major, would all hell break loose (thinking the Shots ‘turn out’) as a rule breaker? No one could complain that people behind the formation were disadvantaged because everyone gets players backs now. Judges could still move around but might naturally congregate at the ‘open end’, right? Food for thought!



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