December 02, 2015

Blurred lines

What shouldn’t judges write on a scoresheet? It’s a more complex question than it sounds.

Adjudicators are encouraged to provide constructive criticism regarding the performance, the key word being “constructive.” We know that comments that are designed to do nothing more than be hurtful are destructive and are probably a result of deep-rooted self-loathing on the judge’s part. We all agree that those comments shouldn’t be written.

But what about the “regarding the performance” aspect of the unwritten code of comments? Should judges provide comments that aren’t about the performance, however well-intentioned they might be?

I say no.

No matter how well-intentioned comments like “Tip: don’t tune for so long,” or “Get your kilts pressed!” might be, a scoresheet is not the place for advice that does not relate directly to the performance being assessed. By writing peripheral advice on the sheet, the message is that rumpled kilts or lengthy tuning had an impact on the decision, and one thing is very clear in our game: the performance and only the performance matters in the result rendered by the judge.

I recently saw a piping scoresheet from the legendary J.K. McAllister for a Grade 1 band competing at the World’s in the 1980s. On this piping scoresheet he wrote mocking comments about the tenor drumming: “Where are the Indians?” sarcastically communicating that he did not like the percussion. At the end of the sheet he wrote something to the effect that his sarky comment in no way impacted his piping decision.

Perhaps that’s true, but that he wrote such a hurtful and unconstructive (never mind his apparent racial insensitivity) remark immediately makes everyone in the band think that, yes, the drumming did indeed impact his decision, and that’s wholly inappropriate. Forty years later it still suggests that.

The band would have been well within its rights to lodge a formal complaint about McAllister. Muirhead & Sons was the only band to take action against Jock the Lum, starting a petition of Grade 1 bands to have him removed, but found itself suspended for several months, reinstated only after submitting a snivelling letter of apology. Muirheads was then — coincidentally, I’m sure — consistently put down by McAllister. So complainers thought twice thereafter.

As much as it might irritate me personally when a piper tunes to D or plays three slow airs or a band looks slovenly or whatever, these things almost always have no bearing on the way they played, and thus on my decision. But if a piper’s instrument went out of tune, then I have been known to suggest that he/she might have used another minute to tune, if that might have helped the performance. If a band’s untucked shirts got in the way of players’ hands, resulting in mistakes, then a comment about untucked shirts is relevant. If obtrusive drumming caused confusion in the pipe section, then comment away.

If a contestant wants friendly advice, I’m happy to provide it, but only if they ask. Otherwise you’re circumventing the piper or drummer’s teacher, and that is rarely if ever appropriate. Some might think this opinion is a bit pedantic, but it’s important that feedback about the performance is strictly about the performance.

So, keep the comments pertinent to the performance. Anything on the sheet not directly about the performance, no matter how well-intentioned, is impertinent and suggests that matters that don’t matter matter.


  1. Judges are there to decide who wins. There’s an argument that says it stops there.

    Judges are encouraged but not required to write anything. They can simply just write a placing if they like. At the high levels of solo piping, judges shouldn’t need to write much at all, if anything. They can discuss things off to the side afterwards. Most of the top flight players know what went right and wrong in their performances, in both ‘big’ and ‘small’ music. Usually at that elite level there’s nothing technical to discuss, only style.

    If judges are to write anything, it should be constructive otherwise there’s no point or purpose other than to disparage. That said, some home truths must also be spelt-out if the piper/drummer is heading down the wrong path. This is particularly the case in the lower/younger grades.

    Personally, I do not see anything wrong with a stark dose of reality/opinion being provided by a judge, provided it is ultimately something that will enable, not disable. Like anything, it’s all in the delivery.

    Stories of McAllister’s negativity never tire, or seem to run out. He once shared a lift with Ian MacLellan back in the 70’s when the ‘worlds’ was in England and he was an adjudicator. He remarked to a colleague, in the midst of a conversation and in the presence of MacLellan, “Well, I know one band that won’t be winning today”. Records aside, some people are just little and childish underneath.

  2. I always smile at the almost mythical nugget of Willie McErlean’s comment on a young solo drummer’s score sheet in the 70s: “You should switch to the piano”.

  3. I understand your point. Judges should NEVER make demeaning comments. Not sure comments/tips irrelevant to the result can be put in a generalized “no no” bin. One small example of what I think would be an exception to the “no no” rule is tuning. Less experienced competitors have a tendency to blow their pipes up and immediately start fiddling with their drones. I have made comments about getting “settled” before touching their drones and usually try to follow up with a verbal explanation time permitting. Most places I have judged, the instructor is nowhere to be found and therefore would not know about the issue. “Drones out from start” may be a true statement and most definitely is factored into the result. But it does not tell the whole story. If I can offer what I consider to be a helpful hint to less experienced competitors, I am inclined to continue doing so.

  4. I played with a band (snare drum)in G2 at the Scottish Championships in 1984. Our pipers won by a massive 6 points and we were joint 2nd for drumming, being just a half point behind the winners. Yet, having won on piping and drumming by five and a half points, we were not even mentioned in the top SIX. Mr McAllister was the ensemble judge, placing us 2nd last. His sheet mentioned nothing but derisory comments about our bass section. At Bellahouston several weeks later, we were crowned World Champions, so our earlier disappointment was forgotten. It shows though, how a judges single minded, destructive bias, can have such a massive impact on a single result on a band which should in this case, have won a major championship by some distance.

  5. Although I agree with you in the examples you’ve provided…
    I think constructive criticism is a good thing… Taking constructive criticism is a very difficult thing… Giving criticism that is insightful, honest, but encouraging is probably even harder… Some things need to be said, but how they are said or presented says more than the words themselves… The examples used in this post, definitely make these judges sound a little prideful… However, how we read things may not always be in line with how they were meant to be read either…
    Anyway, just my thoughts in an attempt to stay balanced.



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