August 29, 2012

Attack: stop

By most accounts, Pipe-Major Tom McAllister Sr. of Shotts adopted from military brass bands the rolls, drones, EEEE attack that pipe bands have used for about 75 years. Before then pipe bands apparently scrambled their way to eventually playing a recognizable melody. Thanks, Auld Tom.

For decades the “attack” and the clean cut-off were significant parts of an adjudicated performance. Blow the attack or the stop and chances were you’d blow the contest. They were easy pickings for judges who assessed things with a negative ear – that is, looking for technical cons rather than musical pros.

As this year’s World Championship has shown, a bad attack today is hardly death. The world’s greatest bands regularly survive an early E or a trailing drone, and even epic scrabbling at the bag and chanter has gone on to win major titles.

Quite right; it’s all relative. An early E by my calculation is about a half-second of a selection that lasts between three-and-a-half and seven minutes. That’s about 0.02% to 0.01% of the total performance, give or take a few hundredths of a percentage point. Further, the bad attack is usually by a solitary piper, not the entire band.

Unison, expression, tuning, musicality, creativity, originality, orchestration, balance – these are the far more important, all-encompassing, sustaining aspects of the overall pipe band performance. A perfectly blown and executed attack is a thing of beauty, and definitely creates a more positive first impression, but a perfect attack occurs about once in every 20 performances.

It’s good that we have perfection as a standard to strive for, but when it comes to the traditional pipe band attack, very good is now good enough, good is okay, and even poor isn’t the end of the world. I tend to think our more relaxed consideration of attacks and cut-offs is all about a new sense of enlightenment in pipe band performance and music: first, reward the good; then, tally up the bad.

As Andrew Wright famously said about piobaireachd, “I’d rather reward someone who went off the tune than someone who was never on it.” So, too, with the pipe band attack. Get going decently and move on to the good stuff.


  1. Crivens, jings and help ma boab! Ah’ve seen ma share ay eedjits in ma day but watchin aw thus carry-on frae beyond the grave is enaif tae gie ye a dicky heart. But tha’ disnae matter a groat fae me the noo since ahm deed an a’. Ah wished ah’d naiver ay invented yon stoppit “attack” ya ken. Jist a bunchay clatter the noo. Gie us a pipe bahn wi’ yon faither bunnets an’ plaidies, ya bas, and leave yer sae-cawed “music” tae they Zulus, like, ken.

  2. I agree with allowing for changing out of this type of pipe band start for some more inventive, exciting, and musical starts. But I also believe this should only be allowed in medley but QMM and MSR remain with roll offs.

  3. The requirement to form a circle is the root of nearly all these problems that judges are criticised for. Until a ‘concert’ formation is de rigueur, judges will have to prowl around the circle in order to hear every aspect of the band, especially those bands with big numbers.

    There are comments on here that I disagree with. If a judge sees of hears something like a false ‘C’ being played, they have to take issue with it. Whether it’s worthy of an effective ‘DQ’ is another topic altogether. But a band is the sum of all parts. If one or two components have a tick or a rattle, there must be some sort of points deduction. It’s all about standards. The circle reduces the judge’s ability to see what is going on. Seeing is an important aspect, not a cynical one. We all know the tell-tale signs – e.g. drones that are heaving up and down, pipers constantly shifting their weight, and various other visual signs that all is not well. These are all legitimate cues for judges, who already have a difficult job of splitting hairs. If we are to make the judges work from a seated and static position, which I believe they should, the formation must change.

    As for attacks and finishes, these are basic technical disciplines that even grade 4 bands should be expected to nail. It’s all about muscle memory and is something people should rehearse until they are doing it subconsciously, ideally like the music. Luck, nerves and even the weather can play a hand. But that’s life! Early chanters are just plain nerves and a break from routine. People hunch over a little when they get nervous/scared, much like they are going into the foetal position, and hit the bag in the wrong spot as a result. It’s a primal thing. Trailing drones might be bad luck (e.g. a drone reed that cut-out during the performance). A high-grade band that has a poor start is also demonstrating poor intonation – a key element. They should be marked down for such transgressions, regardless of what happens during the entire performance. And when it takes them an entire part to settle (like FMM at the worlds, both times), they should really be out of the running for top spot, in my opinion. This is because we’re talking about a really fundamental and basic element, especially at that level, and something that should not be expected and/or tolerated from bands that strive for perfection. We can well imagine what PM Parkes might have done had he heard those attacks at a practice, or in fine-tuning. Why should the judges turn a blind eye….?

  4. The above argument suggesting the attack, false fingering etc. should be overlooked is tantamount to denigrating the standards in my book. If you want to change the standard, then, do it, but, until then, count the failures and reward those who do it right.

    1. Define “right” fingering. Did anyone catch P-M Terry Lee’s old-fashioned high-A fingering in the BBC World’s videos? What if a judge unfamiliar with it threw SFU out for “false” fingering? Open-C work was completely acceptable to many great pipers, including John Wilson (EDI/YYZ). What if a piper or pipe section wanted to produce a flatter/sharper note by altering fingering? Oh, um, wait a second . . .

      1. Andrew, as you well know, you can alter tape to accommodate the “old-fashioned” High A you refer to because that hole is covered for all notes bar the playing of High A. If they see it, a judge might then use their lugs to discern if there is a tuning issue (assuming they see it and then even bother to take issue). Open C’s, however, are not something one can cater for in the same way because Low A would also be affected in a bid to make the Open C a correct interval. Any judge worth his/her salt knows all this.

        The suggestions that we ‘lower the bar’ on starts and finishes, or accept false notes in competition, is a slippery slope. The other point is that Bands would never stop trying to perfect anyway because it’s good practice and a matter of pride to get them right all the time.

        This constant over-analysis and criticism of competition requirements (being constraints to the art form), and attempts to open the possibilities of it all, is not only unhealthy but is somewhat backward and misguided. Competition is supposed to be a test for all competitors on the same level playing field. A contest exists to determine who wins and who doesn’t. If you want a contest, by its very nature this is unfortunately going to get in the way of some artistic concepts. How is this such a shock to some people, still…?? So, what do we want? A contest, or a concert? Both are amply on offer and co-exist very well.

        The idea that we do away with certain standards and requirements in competition is akin to allowing any form of weapon to be used in Olympic fencing, for example. Where is the contest when one competitor decides to arrive with a Simitar, capable of removing limbs, and the other arrives with a bunch of flowers, thinking they’ll go ‘out on a limb’ and be different (and inadvertently actually lose a limb in the process!)…..? Competition regulation must remain relatively rigid for the whole process to be effective and fair.

        The art form is still going forward in leaps and bounds outside of competition (and also because of it). I simply can’t see why people feel the need to constantly blame competition for holding us all back, or for being an blockage that must be cleared in some way. If anything, competition (the overriding desire to be ‘the best’) has been the sole catalyst for execution and sound standards being what they are today. The music then naturally benefits from it, and is also showcased on the concert stage. The two co-exist very well. I see no need to water anything down. It’s soooo ‘Gen-Y’ to think that way. 😉

      2. RE Piobaireachd “High A” . Any specific year in mind?..Yes. I noticed this before….
        A bigger question, though, what about open or closed C’s in Pretty Marion, particularly in the 4th part?….Does anyone play them closed? Are you sure?…

  5. I really can’t understand the mentality of those people who want to penalise a performance heavily for one tiny little nano-second sound at the start of a pipe band performance. I wonder how much it affects the enjoyment of the performance? If people were being honest, the answer would be nil in most cases. How does that stack up against the overall musicianship, the sound, the blowing, the phrasing? It’s not about lowering standards at all, what nonsense! It’s about the opposite – about appreciating the best in a band’s presentation, of rewarding the good, but I can’t see that anyone is suggesting that these minor faults be overlooked. A question of balance, of evaluating music as a whole and placing a performance in the overall context of those performances it is being compared to. If people think that a small sound of a chanter or a slight trail of a drone should have a major bearing on a result, then they simply can’t see the forest for the trees. Those things could, and probably should, be taken into account when splitting almost identical presentations; but to my mind do not come into it when comparing performances where one is just simply better than the other.

    Can you imagine a pianist coming up at the Leeds competition, sitting at the bench, with his hands approaching the keys…. ooops, accidentally brushed a note before starting! – That’s it, “yer oot, bugger off, go home” would be the cry from some of the contributors here!

  6. Colin and Andrew making sense. @Andy—there is no “concert stage” in the pipe band world. Concerts are rare as openmineded judges. Most bands have never even played a full-on concert. Competition is the competing band’s performance place. It is there that performance should be encouraged.

    1. Johno, you claim open-minded judges are “rare”. I wonder if Richard Parkes thinks that judges hold back his band’s musical creativity…?

      How is it that all these judges – many of the musical trailblazers in their playing days – are now ‘old hat’ and holding us all back…? Wow, who’d be a judge?? Apparently when you become a judge you lose all sense of musical creativity and become a close-minded pawn of the RSPBA, and start giving prizes to only the best bands. Crazy.

      What some people seem to forget is that the body that administrates for member bands and facilitates competitions in Scotland (the “Auld World”) probably has an interest in preserving the ‘Scottish Idiom’. It’s Scotland’s instrument and surely there are some things that are worth preserving. The emergence of the ‘Reelpipe/Hornreel’, or the ‘Suite’-styled medleys has introduced a new sameness, not variety. It’s still the same 9 notes being played. Nothing has really changed bar the trend towards round music and the decline of the “Scotch snap”. There’s either a tune there that someone (sometimes a judge) identifies with, or there isn’t. If they’re a first-time listener of your amazing magnum opus, don’t be surprised if they have a reaction different to the one you were hoping for.

      Pipe bands can/should/do play whatever music they like, be that in competition or in concert (or gigs etc). There are no rules to stop them. If bands don’t play “full-on” concerts, it doesn’t matter. They can still play whatever music they like and just enjoy it, wherever it is played which, by the way, they generally already do.

      However, if they take to the competition field, there are some parameters like rules and subjectivity (personal taste – something the judges are entitled to, and have earned, not to mention why they ‘judge’ in the first place). When a band enters a contest, it accepts the conditions of entry and they put themselves before a judicial process. To then complain about a result, because the music missed it’s mark with the only audience that mattered (the judges), is as stupid as it is pointless in a subjective art-form.

      Colin makes a good point. There’s no need to sack a band for a few loose digits that are indiscernible by ear. That’s just silly, cruel and bloody-minded. But if it is an audible issue, some sort of penalty should apply.

      Generally speaking, the top-end standards are higher in all grades than they’ve ever been and yet we still complain of cronyism and conservatism. People, we dress in ethnic attire and play bagpipes and singular drums! Don’t let it shock you that we are a little constrained in some areas.

  7. Always wonder if these topics/titles are a bit of a windup, or mere devilment at the Champions’ expense. The responses validate the issue however. I spent some time listening to FMM tuning up in the lovely Stormont, NI setting. The only attention paid to the upcoming shotgun start (of the 2 MSRs) came with some 3 brilliant attacks in the march ‘up to the line’. I was fortunate to be mere feet away from P Sgt Dunn with these, and was amazed at the exactness and intensity of the introductory E’s and transition to part 1 of Highland Wedding, that held equally accurately in the 2nd and 3rd ranks as well. Absolutely unbelievable – and it erases decades’ old memory of Clan M’s notable “light switch” attacks with only half those numbers. The distant audience cannot always dream of how powerfully precise and well rehearsed such a high achieving outfit is. Those like Colin and Ken Eller understand the depth and breadth of accomplishment – having tugged the whole Team as PMs, and observing (very close up) as long experienced Judges and wrestled with all the idios and components that makes such a highly musical output possible. As a new generation of keen and ambitious PMs and Band folk continue to push up the bar, it is quite remarkable to see that all the details are well attended. Always problematic as IDPB found in last year’s intro, but not a full setback with 2 Circles to even out the mere caprice of a tiny, failed moment. More than just a nano-instant but fleeting enough, and soon left behind in the wake of a great Selection of melodies artfully and tunefully presented. We all make mistakes – the difference is in how we react and attempt to mitigate them.

    Getting all those heavily laden and immensely strong horses tugging in the same direction is also an ephemeral (passing) accomplishment that doesn’t happen every year for many Units dotted with talent – which only underlines the massive and consistent standard set down by these Champions and their main Competitors the past while. Time changes all, and even mega-stars switch their heavy pull to different teams. Many tire of the relentless tracking and chase eventually, as the pursuing packs dedicate themselves to a huge commitment of time and lifestyle resources. At this level there is only one real prize on their minds, and the sacrifices in its pursuit requires single-minded designation of hours and money at a level not usually considered by those who love and play the music. Social lives tend to revolve around the Pipe Band world year round to diminish the anguish of outside expectations from family and friends (plenty of exceptions of course). Many of these players are highly developed and skilled in other fields, which is often enough a stressful and also demanding day job. The focus of that dedication aligns well with individual competitive pursuits that aid and abet the Band initiatives and the musical acumen to reach them. Meaning that most top outfits now are chock full of those also successful in Solos, but many are increasingly professionals in a continuingly developing and lucrative Pipe Band market (all an extension of the Grail that people throw large wads of dough at). The benefit to the listening audience is huge and interest continues to build at the World’s each year as international Bands continue the virtually impossible, perennial quest for near perfection. I worry at times about the impact on other aspects of their lives but, of course, the race and its fulfillment is the thing.

  8. Agreed that an early E or the eventual drone trail should not automatically dismiss the whole performance, but ooooh, how I luv’d those clean-as-a-whistle strikes by the Polis back in the 80s… *Slightly* after the beat!



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