July 12, 2018

(Revised) World’s Grade 1 qualifier draw: a game of two halves

2017 World Champions Inveraray & District march off with the title. [Photo copyright pipes|drums]
The draws for the two sections of bands competing in the Grade 1 Qualifier at the 2018 World Pipe Band Championships have been made, and contestants and enthusiasts are doing their usual analyses.

The Qualifier will be held again on Friday, August 17, at Glasgow Green. There’s seemingly endless debate about the merits of the Friday event, originally created to level the playing field. To that extent, it has certainly worked, requiring every band two cracks to “get through” to the Final of 12, including those at the very top tier, the perennial contenders and winners of RSPBA major championships and high prizes at the World’s.

Before the all-band Qualifier, the RSPBA deployed a complicated seeding method, using a league table approach. Bands gained points by winning prizes at major championships and/or the previous year’s World’s, and those at the top gained a bye to the Final. That system was eventually shot down, mainly by those who contended that it gave pre-qualified bands an advantage in that they had to play only twice, whereas those going through the qualifier had an extra round of set-up, pressure, instrument fatigue and weather vagaries with which to contend.

Some critics of the current system say that having to compete on the Friday adds complexity to travel, accommodation, vacation and expenses on band coffers already spread thin trying to keep up with a larger roster and the costs for uniforms, travel and instruments that come with it. They say that the whole Grade 1 shooting match could be done in a day, with all bands competing, in some sort of equitable format.

Some even wistfully wonder if the RSPBA should go back to the format that was used for several decades: all bands play, every band submits two medleys and two MSRs, MSR drawn at the line, play, 15-minute interval to tune, then same again with the Medley. Add up the totals. Done.

The problem with that traditional format is not necessarily a competitive one, it’s a challenge for the all-important broadcast. With two bands competing at once, where would the cameras turn? Or does the BBC broadcast only the Medley event? For many Grade 1 participants, being on the broadcast is a major return on investment.

A day after announcing the Grade 1 Qualifier draw, the RSPBA rescinded it entirely due to erroneously using a result from last year. The organization was forced to redo the draw “in its entirety” and expressed its apologies to all concerned.

Let’s have a look at the groups. This year, there are an even 22 entrants, each group comprising 11 bands. Seven of them are “overseas,” as the RSPBA refers to them. (Strictly speaking, St. Laurence O’Toole of Ireland is considered overseas but, because they compete at every RSPBA major, we’ll exclude them for these purposes.)

In alphabetical order:

Group 1

  • Bagad Cap Caval (Brittany)
  • Canterbury Caledonian (New Zealand)
  • Inveraray & District (Scotland)
  • Johnstone (Scotland)
  • Manawatu Scottish (New Zealand)
  • New Zealand Police
  • Peoples Ford Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia (Scotland)
  • Police Scotland Fife (Scotland)
  • Police Service of Northern Ireland
  • Simon Fraser University (Canada)
  • St Laurence O’Toole (Ireland)

Of these 11 bands, five can be considered perennial contenders for major championship titles and prizes – Inveraray, SFU, SLOT, Police Scotland Fife and Peoples Ford Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia (SFU by merit of their strong prize at last year’s World’s). Five of seven overseas bands are in this group, making it lopsided in that regard. Inveraray are the reigning World Champions and both they and St. Laurence O’Toole have won a major championship in 2018.

+ Inveraray & District: 2018 European Champions

+ 2018 UK Champions: St. Laurence O’Toole

Again alphabetically:

Group 2

  • 78th Fraser Highlanders (Canada)
  • Buchan Peterson (Scotland)
  • Denny & Dunipace Gleneagles (Scotland)
  • Dowco Triumph Street (Canada)
  • Field Marshal Montgomery (Northern Ireland)
  • Glasgow Police (Scotland)
  • Glasgow Skye Association (Scotland)
  • Lomond & Clyde (Scotland)
  • ScottishPower (Scotland)
  • Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia (Scotland)
  • Vale of Atholl (Scotland)

Group 2 has only two overseas bands. Three three bands in this group – Field Marshal Montgomery, Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia, and ScottishPower – have gained a prize at a 2018 RSPBA major. But only one of those – ScottishPower – has won a major championship this year, although Field Marshal Montgomery is, well, FMM, and no one would have quibbled seriously if they had won one, two or even all of the previous championships. FMM just beat SLOT at the All-Ireland.

+ ScottishPower: 2018 British Champions

+ 25th All-Ireland for Field Marshal Montgomery


The scene at the march-past at the 2017 World’s. [Photo copyright pipes|drums]
Comparing the two groups is tricky. Brittany’s Bagad Cap Caval and New Zealand’s Canterbury Caledonian and Manawatu Scottish are returning to the event after a year or two away, and most will not have much of a sense of how they might fare. The 78th Fraser Highlanders have won everything so far on the two-band Grade 1 circuit in Ontario, but each generally in close calls. The rest, including Vancouver’s Dowco Triumph Street, have been heard at RSPBA major championships, with some, like Johnstone and Vale of Atholl, enjoying stronger results over last year.

Joe Noble and Greg Dinsdale, judges at the 2014 World Championships. [Photo copyright pipes|drums]
Anything can happen on the day, but, with five “contender” bands in Group 1 and three in Group 2, there is strong likelihood that there are is only one likely spot available in Group 1 and three in Group 2, for the remaining bands to find a place in the 12 band Final.

You definitely want to be in Group 2 if you’re on the periphery.

We stress, again, that anything can happen on the day, and, as always, decisions are at the mercy of the judges’ subjective ears.

Who are these powerful people? There are two panels handling the Qualifying rounds, each assesses one event for one group and then switches groups.

Panel 1

  • Ross Walker, Scotland (piping)
  • Harry Stevenson, Northern Ireland (piping)
  • Stuart Coils, Scotland (drumming)
  • Jim Baxter, Scotland (ensemble)

Panel 2

  • Mark Faloon, Northern Ireland (piping)
  • Ken Eller, Canada (piping)
  • William Black, Scotland (drumming)
  • Gordon Lawrie, Scotland (ensemble)

Interestingly, the two ensemble judges each have a piping or drumming background, which could please many, but be careful to assume that a drumming ensemble judge will lean towards drumming excellence, and vice versa. These are trained and experienced professionals, well versed in each domain. Presumably, they know a good band when the hear one. Walker and Faloon will make their Grade 1 World’s judging debuts. Despite three New Zealand-based bands, each of them investing more than $100,000 to get the event, there is no judging representation from that country.

The draw and times when bands perform are important. Proximity to contending bands can make a difference, as can an early or late time. Scottish weather can changes by the minute, but there can be a considerable swing in temperature and conditions from morning to mid-afternoon. Fortunately, the Qualifier starts at 11 am, at least allowing enough time for things to warm up a bit, which can be conducive to achieving a brighter pitch.

The order of play of each group:

Group 1

  1. Johnstone (Scotland)
  2. St Laurence O’Toole (Ireland)
  3. Simon Fraser University (Canada)
  4. Manawatu Scottish (New Zealand)
  5. New Zealand Police
  6. Canterbury Caledonian (New Zealand)
  7. Police Scotland Fife (Scotland)
  8. Police Service of Northern Ireland
  9. Inveraray & District (Scotland)
  10. Peoples Ford Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia (Scotland)
  11. Bagad Cap Caval (Brittany)

Group 2

  1. Glasgow Police (Scotland)
  2. 78th Fraser Highlanders (Canada)
  3. Lomond & Clyde (Scotland)
  4. Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia (Scotland)
  5. Glasgow Skye Association (Scotland)
  6. Vale of Atholl (Scotland)
  7. Field Marshal Montgomery (Northern Ireland)
  8. ScottishPower (Scotland)
  9. Denny & Dunipace Gleneagles (Scotland)
  10. Buchan Peterson (Scotland)
  11. Dowco Triumph Street (Canada)

Indeed, one Grade 1 overseas pipe-major, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “To me, the key issue in the draw is what time of day you play because, no matter how you analyze the competition, you have to play well and beat a few bands to get through. We worry about ourselves and how we play. Every other variable is outside our control, so why worry about that?”

At the end of the day, anything can happen on the day. Perhaps because of advances in set up techniques, gear, tuning gizmos and general all-round improvement in players, results seem to be closer and closer worldwide. We’ve seen a trend in close-calls and placings separated by ensemble preference. We’ve seen three different winners at three different RSPBA majors, and a consistency from a handful of other bands. Hairs are being split more and more finely, and a judge’s task is increasingly subjective.

Also asking that his name not be used, a pipe-major of a Scottish Grade 1 band remarked, “[The groups are] balanced and pretty even. It’s a very strong grade, that’s for sure.”

One thing is certain: things will be close and exciting on both August 17 and 18 at Glasgow Green.





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