Haves and have-nots

There are those pipe bands that have and those that have not. And increasingly there are competitions and Highland games that have and have not. The size and success of bands and competitions are linked.

June 23rd was one of the more ironic and remarkable days of piping and drumming news that I can remember. Within hours of one another, the Virginia Tattoo folks proudly announced that two “have” bands – Inveraray & District and ScottishPower – would be flown in to the April 2016 event in Norfolk. Big, successful, wonderful bands that are having all expenses paid to the sunny and warm southeast USA to play in the first annual big extravaganza.

Nice news. What’s not to like?

An hour or so later came a rather different message from the good people who organize the 150-year-old competition in northern California, referred to fondly as “Pleasanton.” This somewhat dire announcement outlined that hoping for top-grade bands to get to their event, each bringing upwards of 40 members, has become unrealistic for the bands to pay for, and impossible for the contest to underwrite. So, Pleasanton’s solution is to reset their own rules. Three invited Grade 1 bands would be limited to competing with no more than eight pipers and seven drummers total.

Interesting, but not a little sad.

Thanks to the proliferation of the numbers game – not just in Grade 1, but really across all grades – larger bands have to be far more selective about where they travel. If their way is paid, as with Inveraray and ScottishPower, or the event is a must-attend, many  simply can’t get to most events. Unless a competition like the World’s or Maxville has built up its stature, events have to find the money to attract bands with prizes or travel subsidies or both to get them out.

The irony is that when bands have size enough to be competitive, they can no longer get to events to do what they want to do: compete.

John Biggar, with the cooperation of the Western United States Pipe Band Association, has created a new event: the small band competition, which is pretty much a step back to 1975 or so when bands of eight, three, two and one were not only acceptable, they were common.

Pleasanton used to have it all, attracting full-sized Grade 1 bands to finish their season in northern California. Today, this very successful event is left having to not just reinvent itself but reinvent pipe band rules to continue its success.

It’s a ridiculous state of affairs, but that’s what it has come to.

Because so many bands prepare for the World Championships, it will take the RSPBA to evoke positive change. Otherwise, we will see competitions like Pleasanton take things into their own hands by creating events that more bands can attend, that the event itself can afford. But those events will need to work with associations to bend their rules, and, as we saw in Northern Ireland with the Spring Gatherin’, that’s not always possible, or even likely.

I’ve written over the last 15 years (for example, here, here, here, here, here) about the dangers of allowing band sizes to expand unchecked. For sure, large bands make for interesting sounds and sights, but it invites situations like we’re seeing now, where there are not only have and have-not bands, but there are have and have-not competitions.

Twenty years ago, most Scottish pipe bands would compete at about 15 contests a year. Now most get out to maybe eight, five of those the major championships. The larger size of bands makes it difficult to get to an event with a full complement of players, so they pick and choose. I see top-grade bands scraping for players to boost numbers, bringing in pipers 15 years retired, fielding kids with experience no higher than Grade 4, pressured to feature at least seven across the front at virtually any cost.

I think the majority of bands would support reasonable limits of section sizes — not tiny bands of eight, four and one, but maybe 18, eight, four and one for Grade 1; 15, seven, four and one for Grade 2; and so on. There would be better quality bands. There would be more bands. There would be more bands to attend competitions. Bands could afford to get to more competitions.

Other than hurting a few feelings for a few days when lesser players are cut loose (to become better players in other bands), I can’t really think of a single good reason not to limit section sizes.

The situation is capitalistic. Survival of the fittest and all that. But, to me, the piping and drumming world needs a more social approach. We need to level the playing field by putting a reasonable limit on numbers across all grades, so that we can continue doing what we do and make the business of competition sustainable.

 

Easy prizes, or challenging fun?

Play easy and boring music well, or play harder and interesting stuff and have more fun?

It’s an age-old quandary for lower grade pipers and pipe bands. Almost every judge would say (over and over again), play tunes that your hands or your pipers and drummers can manage better.

For time immemorial, judges will sit or stand there at virtually every competition and wonder, usually several times throughout the day, why oh why that piper or pipe band is throwing away the competition trying to play a tune or tunes that they simply can’t manage. Or, perhaps more accurately, wondering why they don’t play far easier stuff to get better results.

You would think that after a hundred-odd-years of competition, competitors would learn that playing easier stuff better would more likely produce better results. So why is it that season after season pipers, drummers and pipe bands come out playing stuff that’s too difficult?

The answer: it’s more fun.

It’s more fun because it’s a bigger musical challenge. I would venture to bet that many lower-grade bands recognize that if they were to play easy tunes all year long, they’d lose their members’ interest. Practices would become monotonous, and bored members would pressure the pipe-major to make things more interesting by engaging members with more challenging stuff.

But, but . . . the name of the game is to win, right? Why risk sacrificing winning for the sake of a few musical challenges?

It’s counter-intuitive, but that kind of sacrifice (the prize for the musical experience) is exactly what we need more of – pipe bands most of all. Producing engaging and interesting music – even if it’s not played to the competitor’s potential – is better for the art than interminably cranking out boring, repetitive tunes that no one, but no one, really wants to hear again.

The choice of playing easy tunes for better results or harder tunes for more fun is one of the great strategies of our competitive game. Allowing pipers, drummers and bands the freedom to make that choice adds spice and variety to our contests. Associations might think they’re practicing tough love by prescribing tunes for lower grade competitors, but they’re not.

When I was a kid, one of the first four-part 2/4 marches I was given to play was “Abercairney Highlanders.” The late Gordon Speirs said I would get far more out of that technical challenge than playing some boring, easier thing that would lose my interest. Yes, I wouldn’t make a great job of it, but it would help my hands and give me an opportunity to expand my horizons. And, I think it worked.

After years of the RSPBA’s MAP restrictions for lower-grade bands, the dividends, if in fact there are any, are difficult to see. Lower-grade “overseas” bands still regularly come to the World’s and do well. Requiring kids to play “Corriechoille” ad infinitum for a year I suggest drives more of them away than retains their interest in the art.

And, I will say it again: requiring contestants to play certain tunes is far less about the art and learning than it is about making judging easier. And that is no good for anyone, except of course the judges.

Pipers, drummers and pipe bands need to learn to challenge themselves, expand their horizons, take musical chances, and understand that there are things far more important than winning. “Play simple better” might work in competition, but, in reality, it goes only so far.

Toeing a fine line

Pressuring bands to compete only in sanctioned contests makes some sense. The RSPBA’s most recent alleged request – some use the word “bullying” – that bands not compete at the new Spring Gatherin’ has brought the topic to the fore. Should bands toe the line for their association by competing only in events that adhere completely to the association’s rules and regulations?

My answer: it depends.

It depends on whether an association is truly looking out for its members’ wishes, by demonstrating a willingness to bend when it makes sense. An association that summarily rejects any event that wants to try something new for the enjoyment and benefit of the competitors and the audience will rub most member-bands the wrong way. And when the association’s rationale isn’t communicated to members, it causes further ill-will. Silence is always met with contempt.

Associations today face many quandaries. Chief among them is the dilemma of representing both the interests of their members and adapting to the interests of the events that they want to sanction. A pipe band association is, to some degree, a union. They are unions of pipers and drummers so that their interests are represented; so that they can expect to attend contests and not be blindsided by unfair rules or unqualified judges; so that there is continuity from contest to contest.

But there is a big difference between solidarity and protectionism. Associations need to tread very carefully when they are faced with events hoping to do things a little differently, but with the cooperation of and supervision (to some degree) by the association. Non-standard contests certainly want meaningful and equitable competitions that pipers and drummers take seriously, but not at the cost of diluting the attractively different nature of what they’re trying to do.

The RSPBA isn’t the only association that apparently pressures or even requires members to compete at only sanctioned competitions. The Western United States Pipe Band Association is said to have it in their rules of membership. The Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario has been heavily criticized by some of its members for not getting together with events that refuse to play by their rules. The PPBSO has not pressured, much less suspended, any bands for participating in these events, but the inference is there that, every time a member band competes at one it weakens the union and slackens the association’s leverage to negotiate. I get that.

There’s no clear solution. The hard line is disliked by most members, and the softer approach makes members wonder why these non-standard events can’t be fully sanctioned for aggregate points. The current pipes|drums Poll shows that about 90% of readers agree that pipe bands anywhere have the right to compete anywhere without threat of suspension by their home association.

The key is partnership and patience. Summarily rejecting with no explanation contests that try new things is certainly the wrong approach. Associations have to maintain an element of partnership, working with people – most of all their own members – rather than being perceived to be obstinately unwilling to change.

In short, every association must somehow always represent the wishes of its members, and never be considered wagging an authoritative finger at them, telling them that the association knows best. Intransigence and inflexibility have no place in the modern piping and drumming world, which risks burning down completely if it doesn’t adapt and change.

Associations are the pipers and drummers. The church is the congregation; not the preacher or the elders or the building. If an association loses sight of that truth, and is seen to act only in the interests of its leaders and officials, it’s in big trouble.

Shake up or shut up

The grand old Crieff Highland Games deciding, at least this year, to drop solo piping competitions from its day in August is certainly a shame for piping tradition, but it’s  emblematic of the challenges facing event organizers — and us.

I wrote about this very threat nine years ago. We pipers and drummers like our competitions. And the large majority of us like our competitions to be just so: piobaireachd, MSR, five-seven-minute medleys, and so forth. We like our assembly-line of contestants. We dislike any more muss or fuss than the predictable: judges and stewards, no fanfare, nothing but closed backs-to-the-audience circles, no inquisitive outsiders who are not part of the club daring to ask just what the heck we’re doing.

Despite occasional attempts by associations to be more audience-accommodating, such suggestions, motions or trials, with rare exceptions, have been historically shut down. Just keep doing what we’ve always done, and screw the rest.

It’s the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

We rely on events like Crieff to supply us with a place to compete. And when places like Crieff make the tough decision to drop events that are, to non-pipers and drummers, rigid, mysterious, repetitious and, let’s be honest, boring, we act surprised, as if we are somehow owed something.

Well, we are entertainers of sorts who are willing to perform for free, but, in truth, we are owed nothing.

Highland games and Scottish festivals are businesses. They might be for-profit and nonprofit, but they are businesses at least looking to break even. To do that, like every business, they must offer a product that people like. If solo piping and pipe band competitions are not attractive products, why on earth would a business offer them? Because they owe us something? Give your head a shake.

It’s simple. We can increasingly continue to hold our own events that are supported by the competitors themselves via membership dues and entry fees, or we can help Highland games to offer a better product. For the former, we can play “Blair Drummond” ad infinitum, and all will be good. For the latter, we have to be flexible and creative; we need to be prepared to entertain non-pipers and drummers better and work creatively with Highland games to break down that wall of mystery between our wee club of pipers and drummers and the general public. They might be interested and like the music, just not hours and hours of what, to them, becomes the Same. Damned. Thing.

I’m all for both kinds of events. We can continue to hold our anachronistic competitions for ourselves. But for our “public” events, we have to help ourselves by creating a better product.

And if we’re unwilling to create a more sellable product for the games, we have only ourselves to blame when they drop piping, drumming and pipe band competitions.

If we don’t help ourselves by trying to help them, they owe us nothing.

 

It’s time for Scottish solo piping reform

The Scottish solo piping scene is a singular beast. While Scotland invented the idea of Highland pipers competing with subjective music judged by “authorities,” there’s really no other country on earth that still uses its system.

And, famously like the old TV show Seinfeld, the Scottish “system” is no system at all.

There are no rules that are applied to more than one competition, let alone a whole circuit. There are no defined grades from contest to contest. There are no training or accreditation processes for judges. There’s frequently not even an order of play on the day. Goodness – judges don’t even have to be accountable to competitors for their decisions and guys who never competed and wouldn’t win a prize in a Grade 3 contest in Arkansas are entrusted to assess performances that they could only dream about delivering.

There is the Competing Pipers Association, run by active competing pipers, almost all of whom are afraid to upset the hierarchy of acclaimed judges, for fear of repercussions on the boards. Borne of the Joint Committee for Judging (or associated with it, I’m still unclear), there is the new Scottish Piping Judges Association, which seems to be trying to do what’s best for judges, but appears to be detached from the competitors in the CPA. The first move of the SPJA is to create milquetoast conflict of interest “guidelines” that appear to say, Declare your conflict, but, well, go ahead and judge if you must.

Um, okay.

Unlike all other piping areas, and pure pipe band organizations like the RSPBA, the solo piping competitors in Scotland have little if anything to do with judging or rules. In Scotland there is almost total separation in the solo piping scene of the powerful from the masses. It is anything but a democratic or member-driven process in Scotland. Everywhere else, the members – the pipers (and drummers) – make the rules by electing or appointing the leaders, by putting through motions, and by voting on rules and policies.

Scotland does none of that essential democratic work and, as a result, it’s a largely haphazard and often inequitable scene. The absence of rules are part of the charm and tradition of solo piping in Scotland, which is okay for tourists, but alarmingly frustrating for those competing in it. The rest of the world’s piping scenes long ago created and opted for something better.

Twenty-five years or so ago when I last did the Scottish games circuit, I knew the drill. After realizing the “system” is no system, and navigating the scene by making connections, playing the game, and, for lack of a better phrase, working it, I thought then that by 2015 reform would have occurred in the shape of amateur grading, criteria for and accreditation of judges, and continuity of rules. In essence – a format adopted by almost the entire rest of the world.

Instead, virtually nothing has changed in Scotland. It’s stuck in a time-warp. Calum Piobaire would fit in comfortably if he came back from the dead to compete at Luss or Lochearnhead or even the Argyllshire Gathering, but he’d also be grumbling still about the familiar inequities and those with power pushing around the pipers.

There are certainly faults and problems with piping and drumming associations around the world. But the key difference is that those faults and problems are in the control of the members – the competitors. They can affect change. The only religion I practice is the religion of piping, and the congregation ultimately changes the church. The congregation is the church. Or it should be. If it isn’t, it’s time to reform the church.

The judging side in the UK seems to want to affect change. The pipers definitely want change. But the fact is this: until there is one association that brings competitors and judges and administration under one roof (with competitors by virtue of their large majority determining their own rules, policies, guidelines and structures), the Scottish solo scene will be stuck in that charming, traditional rut, that few but the tourists seem to think is ideal.

Wipe the slate. Combine the CPA with the SPJA and JCJ and the still fledgling CLASP amateur competing pipers effort and create the Scottish Highland Pipers Association or the Highland Pipers Association or Bruce Og or whatever you want to call it. Allow the members – the large majority of them the pipers themselves – to govern the judging and the rules, as they are set by the members through voting and via the leaders whom they elect and appoint.

The man or woman to lead that reform could well earn a place in the Top 20 Pipers in History.

Until then, the antiquated Scottish system of no system will just see more and more disconnection between judges, competitors and organizers, while the rest of the world continues to do things better.

 

Forward

The 2015 World’s format is backwards.

It’s hard to fault the organizers for having another go at the 2014 format: Friday only Grade 1 qualifying; Saturday is the Grade 1 Final and everything else.

It’s an opportunity missed. But in a few years it will go like this – guaranteed:

On Saturday, all bands compete at Glasgow Green in qualifiers and/or finals, except all Grade 1 bands entered competed in two heats in Medley and MSR events to determine a final round of 10 or 12.

All winners and Grade 1 finalists are announced at a wonderful march-past.

Then, on Sunday, those 10 or 12 Grade 1 Finalists compete in an afternoon MSR (if they insist), and a Medley at night at a ticketed indoor venue like the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall or SECC.

Charge £25 for the MSR. Clear the packed hall, and then £40 for the Medley and announcement – or £55 for the combined deal. At an average gate of, say £60, with a certain packed hall for each event of 2,800, that’s approximately £175,000 in ticket sales. People pay £30 for one Grade 1 band for two hours; they will pay at least that for four-plus hours of a dozen bands.

The Sunday event is hosted by Bob Worrall and A. John Wilson, tag-teaming in their inimitable styles. When one is not on stage, the other is in the broadcast booth with Jackie. BBC Scotland (or whatever broadcaster bids the highest amount for the valuable broadcast rights, which would be on the order of £50,000-75,000, given the overall value of the event) mounts at least seven cameras in the hall, and conducts behind-the-scenes shots and interviews as bands tune and leave.

The RSPBA can take, say, £10,000, the hall gets maybe £5,000, the stewards and compilers get £1,000, each judges gets his/her usual £75 and a Jaffa cake, and the remaining £180,000 or so goes to the bands and the composers and arrangers – those whose terrific music is the valuable product being sold.

People will argue that there’s not enough room at these venues to handle 10-12 bands tuning. That’s incorrect. As with top-flight solo competitions, there will be two designated tuning areas. Each band has exactly 40 minutes to tune in the building, and that’s bags of time for these elite groups in a controlled, indoor environment.

Sunday might be problematic for some religious people, just as Saturday is for some others, and perhaps Friday is for even others. I completely respect those with religious beliefs, but if they conflict with the quasi-religion of pipe bands, well, they’ll just have to choose which is more important. The shops are open on Sunday, after all.

I’m confident that this format will eventually happen. It’s the obvious thing to do.

The benefits of Saturday outdoor World’s and a Sunday indoor Grade 1 Final World Championship are obvious to me:

  • The Friday is freed up again for Piping Live!
  • All of the bands get to compete on Saturday.
  • Those not competing on Sunday (and maybe also those who are) can celebrate Saturday night.
  • Nearly 4,000 total enthusiasts can enjoy the indoor Grade 1 Final nirvana on Sunday in cozy comfort.
  • The world’s greatest bands can show their stuff without the threat of being drenched with horizontal rain, equalizing the conditions.
  • Bands compete in concert formation.
  • Judges hear and see everything.
  • Audience gets the pipe band listening experience of a lifetime.
  • The broadcaster can create an even better production (and sell pay-per-view, if they like) for those who prefer to watch the stream.
  • The bands and composers can share in the substantial licensing rights.

And the Grade 1 World Championship can have the venue and conditions and spotlight that it truly deserves – finally.

Instant replay

recorderThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Great Tape Scandal of Inverness. In 1974, Bill Livingstone’s second-prize in the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal was rescinded after Lezlie Webster (nee Patterson) produced a tape recording of his tune, conclusively proving that Livingstone “went wrong” in his performance.

No fault of Lezlie, of course. She was and is a keen piper who was simply capturing the big contest as an early-adopter of portable recording technology (which we can assume was some giant reel-to-reel magnetic machine that ran off of a car battery).

It was a famous event. Seumas MacNeill wrote a pithy and scathing report in his inimitable style saying that recording devices found on listeners should be “smashed into little bits.” Presumably he feared that using recordings would upset the time-honoured tradition of judges working from pure concentration and super-human memory. Bill Livingstone is probably still chagrinned, even though he went on to far bigger and far better first-prizes over an illustrious solo career.

Fast-forward 40 years.

Today, solo piping competitions are recorded by everyone and their grandmother – and that’s no exaggeration. Anyone with a mobile phone can record any contest digitally. If they tried to smash every device into little bits, there’d be hell to pay.

But the judging tradition of relying on concentration and memory continues. Why is this?

There is not a self-respecting competitor out there who would feel good about winning a prize because their major error was missed. And absolutely no piper feels good about a fellow competitor coming away victorious due to an inadvertent adjudication oversight.

In most sports, technology is quickly making major mistakes by officials things of the past. Reviewing uncertain calls is a reality in tennis, baseball, football, soccer and even in the time-honoured self-policing game of golf. And the competitors want it. They like it. They want the right decisions to be made. Too much time, energy and money are wrapped up in competing not to use it.

A piping judge today can easily come equipped with a tablet computer with virtually every setting of every piobaireachd published. He or she can simply press Record before each contestant. If, at the end of the event, he or she was not sure if a player “went off it,” it takes a few minutes to have a listen and be assured that the result in that regard was accurate and free of NMEs – “no major errors.”

If an adjudicator feels it’s too onerous or too much responsibility or above his or her pay-grade to record the tunes, it could be the job of the steward. Or, if it’s a major event with a “reader” – a non-adjudicator whose job is simply to follow the score – that reader should also be a “recorder.”

The technology has been available for years. It’s smaller, more reliable and easier to use than ever. Competitions should use it. Time to join the 1990s.

 

Keeping score

Scoresheets or crit-sheets have never been a regular thing at UK solo piping competitions. I remember arriving at Montrose Games in 1983, an awestruck 19-year-old from St. Louis playing at the “senior” solo competition on a brilliant, sunny day at the links.

My bass drone stopped while tuning for the Strathspey & Reel (cane, sheep, wet, overplayed), so I slunk off, too frightened to take it out and flick it in front of Old Jimmy MacGregor, who might have been too, um, under the weather to notice. Never mind. I thought that I played pretty well in the March, and keenly waited around for the result.

Nothing for naïve me. But I remember being surprised that, not only was there no ranking order of finish past third, there weren’t even scoresheets. I was told that such things weren’t done in Scotland. I eventually got used to it, but always had a sense of miff as to what I did right or wrong, or why I was in or, more often than not, not in the prizes.

Thirty-one years later and, but for a few experiments with CPA B- and C-Grade events, there is no system of feedback for solo competitors in the UK.

That is truly ridiculous.

As with pipe bands, every solo competitor deserves to know how an adjudicator accounted for his or her decision. They don’t need or even want a “lesson,” or to be given helpful hints for the next time, as I have heard scoresheets reasoned away by many UK judges. Instead, competitors should at least come away from an event knowing that each judge’s decision was more than arbitrary.

The lack of feedback and accountability in the UK has at times propped up truly shallow, and even nonexistent, piping pedigrees from not a few adjudicators over the last century who, if they had to account for their decisions by providing constructive and informed criticism, would have been exposed as the frauds they were. The aristocratic “society” types who didn’t or wouldn’t know a phrase from a pheasant could simply draw up a prize list and go home.

Today, even, the best a competing solo piper in the UK can do is ask and hope for feedback from the judges. I once did that after I got nothing for what I fancied was a really good tune at the Northern Meeting. Days after the event I emailed one of the judges (who was someone who had never competed himself), and he responded with comments about how my taorluaths from D weren’t good. That might well have been the case – with another piper. The tune I actually played had no taorluaths from D.

In every other piping jurisdiction, not only are scoresheets mandatory, but judges only become judges after amassing a long history of competition success, learning feedback techniques, and proving that they can produce accurate and constructive scoresheets. It works. And if a judge were to write on a scoresheet criticisms about technique that didn’t even exist in the performance, he or she would be held to account.

Over the next few weeks many of the world’s greatest solo pipers will converge on Oban and Inverness. Some will come away with a prize or two. Most will get nothing. But the majority of those competing will receive no accounting for the result from the adjudicators.

The old world of piping should join the new world order, where formal feedback and accountability aren’t just nice to have, they’re essential aspects of a well-run and fair competition.

And not only do they account for judge’s decisions, scoresheets weed out the judging imposters.

Post-World’s-Week

World2014_Saturday_ (182)_smallA week has already gone by since Piping Live! and the World’s wrapped. It was another terrific week of piping, drumming and musical (and other) excess. The planning involved to put on the Festival and the World’s never cease to astound, and every year each event seems to improve.

A few impressions of the week:

Timing: it’s everything, and the RSPBA is the Rolex watch of associations. Even with, um, challenging weather, events run like clockwork, down to the second. If you consider that a single grade at the World’s is usually bigger than the entire number of bands at a Highland games in other parts of the world, and the RSPBA flawlessly executes eight of those events (plus finals) on the day, I, for one, am left awestruck.

Timing: the Friday experiment was worth trying, but the day was flat and many people were failing to see the need for holding a Grade 1-only day to see which bands would qualify. Many said that it seemed feasible simply to have all bands compete in MSR and Medley events on Saturday, and then decide the prizes from that. No more qualifier. One and done. Get on with it.

Calum Ian Brown: this 14-year-old won Pipe Idol with sets of tunes played effortlessly, on a sweet instrument, and, most importantly, beautifully and faithfully on the beat. The last skill is elusive to even some of our best pipers. This kid has it.

Shotts: won the drumming. Finished fifth overall. Could have been as high as third. 2014 marked a remarkable and welcomed comeback for this historic band. Here’s wagering that Shotts will pick off a major in 2015, and the World’s within three.

Family judging family: again there were several examples of judges adjudicating bands with their direct family within the ranks. This is not to say that these judges were not fair, only that it looks terrible, and people talk about the optics. Just about every judged thing there is has rules preventing family judging family. It’s time that all associations around the world did the same.

Stuart Highlanders: Solid Grade 1. Nuff said.

GGPSPB: credit to Pipe-Major Duncan Nicholson and Leading-Drummer Eric Ward and the whole Greater Glasgow Police Scotland Pipe Band for delivering almost three hours of complicated Ceolry content, and then two/three days later finishing just behind SFU at the World’s.

The crowd: the main arena was a bit awkward on Saturday. The stands were not full or even close to it for much of the day, and all but deserted during the (kudos there, too) Grade 2 Final. Yet, the gallery to the side was mobbed, 30-40 deep. Why not just relax a bit, let them in, fill the seats, and create some atmosphere for the bands and the cameras? After all, these are hard-core pipe band fanatics.

Grudgy judges: those who seem to allow some ancient slight to cloud their objectivity are out there with a clipboard at the biggest event of the year. Everyone knows who they are. Their eyebrow-raising results are as predictable as a crowded beertent. They think they’re slick. They are not. Time to monitor these people and remove them from panels if their results continue to be out-of-kilter.

Last major: making the World’s the final RSPBA major championship of the season is a good move. Finish at the pinnacle. No more restarting the motor to drag to another championship. Like this.

Ian Embelton: people should remember that it has been under his watch that the World’s and the RSPBA in general have made huge strides forward. Sure, they can do more (see above), and not everyone will ever be happy all the time, but Embelton has overseen everything. He has a board of directors to answer to, of course, and they should take due credit, too, but Embelton deserves acknowledgement for often exceeding expectations in a job that is generally thankless.

Just a few thoughts from the week past. There are plenty of others not mentioned — live stream, excellent beertent, FMM, IDPB, ScottishPower . . .

What are some of your pros and cons?

Making the grades

The second-most-important role of an association is upholding grading standards. We all know that the first is – or should be – promoting and teaching the piping, drumming and pipe band arts, but since every piping and drumming association that I know governs competition (with many, that’s all they do), the accurate maintenance of grading standards is key to the success of the organization and its members in its own region and around the world.

A reader recently wrote wondering how the whole grading system works. He was confused, since a few bands that won most everything last year and were declared aggregate champions in the association, were not upgraded. This year the bands are competing in the same grades. He tried to find details on the association’s website about how the grading process works, but, as with many pipe band associations, there was no information obviously available.

I have said before that grading should never be based entirely on competitive success within one association. Grading should be based solely on the world standard. It’s all good if a competitor wins everything locally in a grade, but if that grade’s standard is not commensurate with the rest of the world, that competitive success is relatively meaningless.

If the quality of the grade is not as good as, or maybe even better than, the benchmark set on a world stage, then it is the association’s responsibility to correct it by shifting bands or soloists to where they belong, regardless of competitive success. Too often bands and soloists are prematurely moved up when they don’t meet the true quality of the world standard. When that happens, the association just makes works the problem of a weak overall grade, and the quality of their scene is eroded.

But how best for an association to ensure that their own grade standards are in line with the world’s standard?

Start with the grading committee. As a member, you should know exactly who is on this committee, when they meet, and their process for making decisions. Go to your association’s website and look for that information. (If it is not there, your association has a problem, and you are not being served well as a member.)

Each of the members of the grading committee must be:

Experienced – they must have competed successfully at the highest levels. Anyone who has not walked the talk carries little or no respect with the members they assess.

Knowledgeable – competition success is one thing, but a well-rounded and multi-faceted competitive career is quite another. What level of repertoire do they have? Are strictly pipe band people making solo grading decisions (and vice versa)?

Informed – they need to have actually heard the competitors they’re assessing play. Do they have first-hand information on specific abilities, or are they simply looking at a results spreadsheet?

Current – are they listening to competitors in other jurisdictions? Do they travel to the top competitions to listen to the year’s best?

Inactive in competitionno one on a grading committee should be an active competitor. If current competitors are making grading calls at any level, members will be suspicious. Even if they recuse themselves from involvement with competitors in their own band or solo grade, it does not matter. Each grading committee member must not be perceived to be in conflict.

Lastly, it should go without saying (even though it had to be said recently) that no association should re-grade a member of another association. If there is a grading concern, associations must work together to resolve it. If a competitor’s grade is seen to be inaccurate when the band or soloist enters, then pick up the phone and speak with a knowledgeable and respected representative who has the above qualities, and work it out.

Accurate grading hinges on accurate standards. An association’s grading committee is responsible for the monitoring and upholding of those grading standards, and it starts with grading committee members who meet the standard of the committee itself.

Reciprocity and respect. Please.

The debacle that the RSPBA created by taking upon itself to upgrade the Stuart Highlanders to the ultimate level of Grade 1 is one for the ages.

The Scottish organization’s former Chairman, Kevin Reilly, agreed when he represented the RSPBA at the 2005 Alliance of North American Pipe Band Associations’ (ANAPBA) annual summit that they would stop the practice of regrading bands that aren’t their members. That was after his organization refused to recognize the WUSPBA-member Prince Charles Pipe Band as Grade 1. Just weeks before the 2001 World Championships the RSPBA insisted they move to Grade 2, only to upgrade them in 2002. For the better part of a decade, Prince Charles fought for their survival, and only this year rebounded in Grade 2.

Let’s look at what’s happened since 2005 when Reilly said his organization would regrade only its own members.

In 2007, the RSPBA upgraded the Robert Malcolm Memorial to Grade 1, causing massive turmoil within the Simon Fraser University organization, which subsequently lost nearly the entire band to the then Grade 3 Triumph Street Pipe Band.

In 2008, EUSPBA-member Oran Mor had to compete in Grade 2 after the RSPBA decided they didn’t meet their standard, then decided in 2009, after the band paid its penance in Grade 2 at the World’s, that the band was in fact good enough for Grade 1.

In 2010 the RSPBA put the EUSPBA-member Grade 1 City of Washington down to Grade 2, following a single MSR at the World Championships, when the band’s small pipe section should have by any measure been at least several bands from the bottom. The band struggled for members since and  this year can’t get out. It could be the end for CoW.

This year, after the aforementioned Oran Mor fell on hard times, folded and joined up with the EUSPBA-member Grade 2 Stuart Highlanders, the RSPBA – apparently without anyone official actually hearing the band – decided seemingly unilaterally that the band should be Grade 1. According to EUSPBA President Eric MacNeill, his association never consulted with the RSPBA, and wasn’t even asked for their opinion about the matter. The RSPBA simply went ahead and did it.

There are those who insist that it is the RSPBA’s prerogative to uphold the standards of their competitions. I agree that they, just like every association, must do that – but only with their own members.

Every other pipe band organization on earth practices reciprocity. That is, they respect the gradings of recognized sister-associations. If there is a concern, every other organization works together to express concerns and work it out discreetly and amicably, before or after the event. It is part of the checks and balances process that takes place every off-season around the world.

If the PPBSO, for example, unilaterally insisted next week that a Grade 2 EUSPBA-member band had to compete in Grade 1 at the North American Championships, it would probably result in the resumption of the War of 1812.

But at least the band could more practically cancel its plans to attend. The RSPBA must know that an “overseas band” (as they continue to pejoratively call any non-British band at the World Championships) by the time they enter the contest would have paid for airfare and put deposits down for accommodation. It’s a done deal, and regraded bands are over a barrel.

Days after the news of the RSPBA’s promotion of the Stuart Highlanders to Grade 1 (while the EUSPBA maintains their Grade 2 position), the band finishes third overall in a three-band Grade 2 competition. The RSPBA would have been able, predictably, to say the result was an aberration, if it weren’t for the fact that one of the RSPBA’s most respected and senior judges, Joe Noble, himself had other Grade 2 bands ahead of the Stuarts. The Ottawa Police are not planning to compete at the World’s, otherwise they also logically would be upgraded by the RSPBA. New York Metro has entered the World’s in Grade 2, and I am certain that they’re awaiting the proverbial other brogue to drop.

The RSPBA had to know that Noble was judging at Fair Hill. Other associations are required to go through the RSPBA, and not deal directly with the judges, when they want to fly in one of their adjudicators. RSPBA judges accepting gigs abroad get in trouble if they don’t follow protocol. With that, couldn’t the RSPBA simply have waited a week for the knowledgeable Noble’s report on the Grade 2 standard, and then, if they insist, make a grading call?

What a fascinating, freaking mess.

Maybe 20 years ago the RSPBA might have had a legitimate concern about the occasional band with other associations not meeting their own standard. But in 2014, it’s just plain meddling. It’s also incredibly disrespectful to these associations that are often – not always – better governed, better run and far more transparent than the self-anointed mothership at 45 Washington Street, Glasgow.

The RSPBA should rescind its upgrade of the Stuart Highlanders on Monday, admit it erred, and apologize to the Stuarts and the EUSPBA. If history is any indication, there’s more chance of the World’s being moved to Tahiti this August. But here’s hoping they do the right thing.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that a cadre of non-member bands have suffered significantly or folded completely after their grade was changed by the RSPBA. Let’s hope the Stuart Highlanders can weather this storm and somehow become stronger for it. Let’s also hope it’s the last time that the RSPBA decides what’s worst for a non-member band.

Masons’ April

My first real introduction to the Masons was in 1983 and I didn’t even know it. A naive 19-year-old American piper at the Argyllshire Gathering, I thought that Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay simply had a strange handshake. When I was introduced to him and shook his hand, he sort of tickled my palm. I didn’t think much of it, but when I saw him the next day and he spat on his hand before shaking mine, I thought it a bit queer.

“You idiot,” a more canny piping friend said to me when I told him that MacNeill had a strange handshake. “He’s trying to find out if you’re a Mason.”

“A what?”

“A Mason. A member of the Masonic Order of [I don’t know].”

My only knowledge of the Masons up until then was as a fan of Monty Python, and their “How to Recognize a Mason” sketch. They were dressed in black tie and tails, so I figured it was some bizarre aristocratic thing about the UK class system, along the lines of their “Upperclass Twit of the Year” skit.

My Canadian friend went on to explain that, in piping, being a Mason helped you win prizes, and that in order to win a World Pipe Band Championship, the pipe-major had to be a Mason. Rumour had it then and for a good long time after, that that tenet was actually true and verifiable. I’ve asked several people who I believe do know to expand on it and, to a person, they refuse to say. They don’t deny it; they simply stay silent. And silence almost always means acceptance.

I was even told about a prominent piper who joined the Masons for the sole purpose of winning more prizes, and, looking at his incredible record, it certainly did not hurt.

There are many American Freemasons, to be sure, but the so-called “secret society” seems to be far more prevalent and popular in Commonwealth countries. To me, the idea then and now that anyone is awarded a prize for anything but his or her performance is repulsive.

But apparently it still happens. In fact, I have been told by someone I trust and who is deeply entrenched in the Scottish solo scene that the benefit of the doubt “70 per cent of the time” will go to a known Mason piper from a judge who is a brother (forgive me, Masons, if that’s the wrong term). And apparently there are a lot of Masons who populate the benches of solo competitions.

I don’t know for sure. And I guess the only way that one could know is by becoming a Mason, but doing that requires a vow of silence and secrecy, so I wouldn’t be able to spill the beans on threat of punishment by running the gauntlet of spanking with a cricket bat or wet noodles or something.

So, you can see how the tradition of the Masons continues in piping, since our other big tradition is sweeping serious problems under the rug and pretending they don’t exist.

I have nothing at all against anyone having their club with their rules. If the Royal Scottish Pipers Society wants to ban women from joining, that is their prerogative. If the Masons want to hold their meetings and get off on their rituals, fill your apron. Just don’t foist it on others.

And foisting it on others is what happens when delicate and subjective music competitions are swayed by anything but the musical performance itself.

For sure, the Masons do a lot of great things. They contribute to communities and charities, they volunteer their time. They are good people. This is simply a topic of conversation in piping and drumming based on my experience and what I have been told by those I trust. If it is indeed a practice or a problem, then sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant. If members of the Masons are offended by the perception simply being raised for the first time (that I am aware of) in a public forum in piping, then I guess that can’t be helped.

I am sure that readers know more about this and have had many more Masonic encounters in piping than me. Feel free to fill us in. Any Masons who want to refute it, you’re welcome.

And your identity can be secret.

Double-dip

The New Zealand Championships again brought to light the growing practice of pipers and drummers playing in multiple bands in the same grade in the same year. Almost unthinkable 10 years ago, the custom is now commonplace, with pipe bands playing within the rules (or the lack of one) and, essentially, gaming the release and transfer system.

On the surface, temporarily switching bands in the off-season seems harmless, and when compared with, say, civil war in Syria, it is. But in our little pipe band world, the idea of splitting time between competing bands is an erosion of healthy competition. It’s also another symptom of the large numbers condition.

To stress, I’m not talking about people flying in to play in the only band they play in. That’s just a longer distance to travel to play in one band. Go for it.

What I’m talking about is the practice of learning the music, submitting release and transfer documentation to the home association, and hopping on a few planes to contribute your talents during the northern hemisphere’s off-season, and once the contest is over, rejoining the original band. At first blush, it seems like a harmless thing to do for those talented and wealthy enough to pull it off. But, on closer look, it simply compounds a problem that is becoming more significant every year.

As discussed a few times now, bands across all grades – and especially Grade 1 – are under pressure to field large numbers. Bigger is seen by many judges as better, or at least more impressive, and “impressive” is often correlated with “better.” Ratcheting up a pipe section by a few good players promotes presence. Pipe-majors and leading-drummers can’t be blamed; they’re only responding to pressure that has gone unregulated by associations by their inaction to establish maximum numbers. One band sees another band doing it, so they do the same, and now southern hemisphere bands even recruit fly-in temps in Glasgow in August.

Imagine working a few times a year for a company that is otherwise your direct business competitor. Or lending your football talent to a team in the same league when your usual side isn’t participating in a tournament. These examples wouldn’t happen without you being fired or thrown off the squad. It only happens in the pipe band world because we don’t disallow it, associations have encouraged it (through inaction on maximum numbers), and our changed sense of competitive ethics have enabled it.

It’s a tough thing to regulate, since accurate roster tracking is almost impossible, and currently relies mainly on trust – and bands ratting out their competition. But it seems to me that all the RSPBA needs to do to address the situation is establish a policy that says something like, “A playing member of the organization may only compete with one band in a grade in a calendar year.” That is, you can’t play with another band in the same grade until January 1st.

For sure, there are positive claims that come from double-dipping, always from pipers and drummers and bands that do it. People have explained away the practice by contending it builds camaraderie and allows them to experience new pipe band scenes. That’s lovely, but it comes across as scrambling for reasons.

I’ve actually received a number of messages from players in Grade 1 New Zealand bands that fly in members from their competition. They have expressed their agreement that it should stop, but also understand that it’s being done for their short-term success because it is within the rules.

All this is not to say that any piper, drummer or band is at fault. Double-dipping is simply a response to worldwide pressure to create bigger bands. The inaction of the RSPBA when it comes to creating caps on section or roster sizes is the real reason.

A rule is needed. One band, one grade, one year.

Look at me!

Self-promotion is a touchy thing in piping and drumming. Tradition tells us that we accept our success and failure in equal measure. Apart from handshakes, fist-pumps and back-slaps at the prize announcement, publicly celebrating a victory has always been frowned upon, just as much as outwardly harping about a result to anyone but band-mates and trusted friends.

Thanks to social media, all that seems to be changing. Open up Facebook and you’re likely to see pipers and drummers flaunting and vaunting their wins, usually in a tacky and clunky way:

  • “Really pleased with my first in the March and 2nd in the Piob today! Congrats to all other prize-winners!”
  • “A great day and really humbled to finish ahead of gold medallist ____. Great competition!”
  • “Piper of the Day! Well done to all!”
  • “Thoroughly enjoyed judging today with [much more famous and accomplished person].”

Selfies of people wearing their own medals or in front of their trophies right after the contest even five years ago would have been unheard of. It’s pretty common now, as the “Look at me!” nature of social media has eroded piping and drumming’s tradition of letting only others and your playing itself do the promoting.

The generation of pipers and drummers that has grown up with social media, the unseemly notion of being famous simply for being famous, and “success” often determined by self-promotion is now coming into prominence as top-level prize-winners. Our tradition of magnanimous tact – quietly accepting success and failure – is being chucked out the window. Discreetly enabling and encouraging others to do your publicity is quickly becoming a bygone art.

The Look at me! culture of social media is changing the customary self-effacing nature that pipers and drummers have learned for centuries.

Magnanimous in defeat; gracious in victory: a piping and drumming tradition that we should keep.

Less is more

In 2006 this blog first raised the growing issue of large pipe band section sizes being ultimately detrimental to the health of pipe bands themselves. Eight years have gone by, and the topic has been raised repeatedly, with another call in July for the RSPBA to do something to address the problem.

In 2011, I wrote and published a feature article on the World Pipe Band Championships’ anicillary negative effect on the pipe band world in general, a chief example being the growing size of pipe bands paradoxically diminishing the scene overall.

Last month, one of the great pipe band institutions, the former World Champion Dysart & Dundonald, decided, for all purposes, to cease to operate. It wasn’t the only reason, but the fact the band’s numbers were way down and the ability to build them up again to compete against the top tier in Grade 2 was unlikely in the near-term, informed their decision to release all of their players.

It’s not just Grade 1 and Grade 2. Larger bands in the lower grades are increasingly dominating, making judging comparisons ridiculous, as the formidable “presence” of a large, reasonably well tuned pipe band almost always trumping the clarity of technique and tone of a very-well-tuned small group with small numbers.

While pipe bands around the world continue to gaze longingly at being competitive at the World’s, they ever-increasingly look for quick-fix solutions to their numbers, such as recruiting even more players from afar and merging with the cross-town rivals. Bands are bigger; bands are fewer. Local Highland games suffer as they are no longer worth the logistical effort and cost to bring everyone together

Pipe bands today play at fewer events, simply because they have to be selective for financial reasons, or simply to save face because, even though they could compete with the minimum numbers from the local members, they don’t want to put out a group that does not reflect their full complement.

And the RSPBA, so far, has done nothing. It’s up to them because their rules influence every association, whether they pertain to music, format, judging, or section sizes.

As the World’s turns, so does the pipe band world.

Placing reasonable limits on rosters for the 2015 season through all grades will almost immediately reinvigorate the world pipe band scene. It will make almost all members of large bands do one of two things: practice all the harder to keep their spot, or, face the music, and join or form another band. There could be a very small minority who fall off completely because their interest in almost solely social, and they see competing as a necessary evil, but the world passed these folks by long ago anyway.

I’ve competed at the World’s with a band of 25 pipers, and it is a certain thrill. The energy created is terrific. I’ve also competed with a pipe section of 12 that won the MSR event at the World Championships. The precision and tone were similarly thrilling. I’ve also seen two bands that were inspirations to me when I was younger collapse in the last year. That’s not so thrilling.

There are reports that the RSPBA is in fact going to address the situation, and will try to put through roster / registration limits. If they finally do that, they will need to be prepared to fight the good fight, and do what’s best for the pipe band world. There will be dogged resistance by some of the most powerful and successful people and bands around.

But if the RSPBA takes a courageous stand they should know that bands will get even better. There will more of them. And they will be judged on a far more level field.

Or, they can waste another year of inaction at everyone’s peril. It’s time to lead.

Seven realizations in 2013

2013 was one of my more memorable years in piping, mainly because I was seeing things from a different but familiar perspective. Following a few springtime commitments, I took a break from judging, and, after eight years away, competed as a solo piper.

For the first time I didn’t have the self-inflicted burden of set tunes to crank through. It was true before, but, also for the first time, I practiced and competed with whatever I wanted to play. I was also free after competing in the morning to do whatever: go home, or stay around to listen to the bands.

Not soaking up an entire day judging 50 solo pipers and then 35-odd pipe bands was a nice change. Judging in Ontario is lonely and exhausting work; an assembly-line of competitors, each deserving close attention and specific and constructive feedback. Paradoxically, you’re thinking so much that there’s no time to think. So, this year I felt liberated from another self-induced burden, rewarding as it might be to try to give back to the community.

Looking back, there were several things I realized:

1. Tuned and steady are almost everything. If your pipe falls away even slightly, with all but the most courageous judges, you might as well forget it. Professional solo pipers who are in the prizes have impeccable, steady instruments. Wonderful music and technique more rarely than ever trump an untuned instrument.

2. Piping and drumming manufacturers have finally figured out marketing. Pipers and drummers will do anything to achieve the previous point, and makers of things know it. There is no end to what pipers will pay to gain a microscopic competitive edge. You make it; they’ll try it. The last decade has produced a dizzying array of products, each promising to deliver what you need. (Money-back-guarantees don’t appear yet to be widespread, though.)

3. Be ready to spend if you’re going to be a competing solo piper. (See points 1 and 2.) I compare solo piping to two other hobbies: golf and skiing. Each is expensive to maintain. Every year brings new equipment that promises to lower your score, allow you to turn more sharply, or steady your instrument. And, as with golf clubs and ski resorts, the price of participation in competitive piping is high. I handed over almost $500 this year to the PPBSO for the right to compete in five competitions. Low-income pipers and drummers are gradually being pushed out of the art.

4. One percent of the pipe bands control 100 percent of the pipe band scene. The world’s top pipe bands have more political and musical power than ever. As it goes with them, so it goes with the rest of the pipe band world. To some extent, this has always been so, but it seems today more pronounced than ever. Changes that should be made in the pipe band world, won’t be made unless a handful of pipe bands approve.

5. Tenor drumming jumped the shark. I’m not sure if it was a single episode akin to Fonzie jumping over man-eating sharks on water-skis, but it’s clear that pipe band tenor drumming at some point went just a bit too far, and there’s an overall retrenchment in the histrionics and pirouettes we’ve witnessed. Unlike Happy Days, the Tenor Drumming series won’t be cancelled, but it will continue in a more music-first manner.

6. The piping and drumming world is friendlier than ever. Particularly in the solo piping scene, pipers respect and support their fellow pipers, and there’s a spirit throughout of camaraderie. As I’ve said, we might thank social media for that, but I doubt there’s a more pleasant atmosphere at the games than among the Professional solo pipers, filling the time awaiting their turn to play with friendly and enlightening conversation.

7. Snide loses. The demise of hate-filled anonymous piping and drumming Internet forums is testament to point 6. Haters will hate, as they say, but we know who they are, and they will continue to be outed and ostracized from the community. Those who make personal attacks will quicker than ever find themselves without a band, out of solo circles, or, in the case of one well known attack, off of judging panels.

Those are a few of the things that I realized in 2013. I hope your year was full of realizations, and all the best to you and yours for a happy and prosperous 2014.

Event-full

Mash-up.If an alien from Mars – or even a first-time-travelling piper from Inverness – landed in the middle of the Friday solo circus at Maxville they would think they’d encountered a species of insane tartaned busy-bodies, running between myriad solo events, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, in a cacophonous din of piping pandemonium.

In North America we have far too many events, trying to cater to far too many people with far too little ability. There’s a solo event for everyone, it seems, from Flourishing Grade 4 Tenor, to Novice Piobaireachd, to split heats of Grade 2 Strathspeys & Reels, to dreary 6/8 marches, to a quaint old holdover from the 1970s for amateur quality pipers looking to scoop some cash called “Professional Over-45.”

And yesterday I received in my traditional paper-and-stamps post a written notice of my home association’s annual general meeting. I nearly put the anonymous envelop straight into the recycling bin, along with the junk mail that makes up 99 percent of the stuff through my mail slot, but decided to open it.

I’m both glad and sad that I did.

The Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario traditionally has its branches convene their own annual meetings, so that motions on rules can be tabled and voted on, so that they may be passed along for the consideration of the 40 or 50 folks who have the energy to turn up for the organization’s overall AGM in November. Four or five percent of the members on the day have the power to make 100 percent of the rules. It’s an antiquated system designed in the 1950s for an association that covers more than a million square kilometres that could only dream then of the technology we have today.

Among the motions from the branches this year: “. . . add a Grade 5 Piobaireachd event.” Split Grade 4 solo piping into 17-and-under and 18-and-older categories. “. . . add a Grade 3 Jig event.” A separate playoff event after heats.

More events for more people requiring more space, more time, more money, more judges, more stewards – all for less benefit.

It might seem that creating more events is a good thing. It’s not. We’re so busy trying to cater to every person who can scratch out a tune, that we foster the notion that “furthering” piping and drumming means creating more competitions. No. We advance our art by fostering its integrity, and that means that associations must ensure that we present it well, and sometimes – often, actually – that means showing less of it, but in a more impressive way.

Yes, amateur pipers and drummers should have a place to test their abilities to be inspired to improve, but we need to be judicious, and recognize that sometimes less is better.

The North American habit of creating a competition event for every piper and drummer of every interest and ability has to stop.

Champion Juveniles

The RSPBA’s decision to hold the Juvenile band competition in the number-one arena at the World Pipe Band Championships at Glasgow Green on Sunday at 10 am is a stroke of brilliance.

While the stands are not likely to be full, the experience of playing in the crucible of pipe bands will be an experience that these young pipers and drummers will remember for the rest of their lives.

In reality, a good number of players in Juvenile pipe bands decide not to go much further after their time in the band or the school is up. Inevitably some – if not most – become interested in other things, and drift away from piping and drumming.

My bet is that, with this single act of generosity and decency, the RSPBA will motivate at least four or five kids, who otherwise would have moved on, to stay with it after experiencing the distinct thrill of playing in the big arena.

I hope that the Juvenile bands get the full-on BBC treatment, complete with Bob Worrall and Jackie Bird repartee, and sweeping camera close-ups of faces, fingers and sticks in the glow of warm sunshine. These bands are a treat to hear, as pipes|drums took the time to video the contest at the 2011 World Championships.

It makes sense, after all. Many contend that there are only two World Champions: the winner in Grade 1 and the winner in Juvenile. Whether one agrees with that philosophy or not, putting the spotlight on these impressive bands on the biggest day on the piping and drumming calendar, is a bold and smart decision that truly promotes the art of piping and drumming.

Five ways to improve the World’s

For what it is, the World Pipe Band Championships is a magnificent event. I’ve remarked before that it runs like a flawless Swiss watch, with thousands of moving parts and several rare jewels. Three-hundred-odd pipe band performances running on time, judges and stewards and administrators all knowing their role and doing their jobs. There is no bigger or better competition in the pipe band world.

But the World’s is at a crossroads. As the organization realized back in the late-1990s, they had a great product on their hands. The popularity of the contest with pipers and drummers from Canada, USA, France, New Zealand and just about everywhere in the world where pipe bands exist had grown so much that it finally dawned on the City of Glasgow to get on board in a serious way.

In a stroke of obvious entrepreneurial genius, Piping Live! was born 10 years ago. Events Glasgow partners with the RSPBA to stage the spectacle. If we are to believe the purported stats, tens of millions of pounds come into Scotland during World’s Week. It is a cash-cow for the local economy.

The World Pipe Band Championship is a great event, and it could be so much better, and so much more beneficial to the art overall and to the performers who make it the spectacle it is. The move to a two-day event shows that the RSPBA wants to try new approaches. It could be a spectacular success or a colossal failure, or even net-neutral, as they say, but at least they are trying.

Here are five more changes to improve it:

1. Transparency. We do not know how much the RSPBA charges the BBC to broadcast the event, or if it is given to Events Glasgow to negotiate. We just don’t know. As a broadcaster, by law the BBC must pay or negotiate a direct license with the organizers. The BBC doesn’t send eight tractor-trailers, miles of cable, dozens of technicians and an editing team back at head office to cover just anything. This is a mobile broadcast crew on the order of the Glastonbury Festival or T in the Park. There is a lot of money either unrealized or unaccounted for. It’s time to share the terms negotiated with the performers.

2. Bring the Grade 1 Final indoors. The SEC or the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall are prime venues to stage a 10-band Grade 1 Final. If a two-hour Pre-World’s concert with one band can sell out 2,000 £30 tickets, then certainly a four-hour World’s Final could command £60 a ticket. That’s a £120,000 gross. Do the Grade 1 Qualifier and all the other grades at Glasgow Green on Saturday, and then focus on a guaranteed dry Grade 1 Final on Sunday.

3. Pay-per-view. Again, the RSPBA, by selling or giving away the broadcast rights to the BBC could be missing a huge opportunity. The BBC is not allowed to charge viewers or listeners, so it’s all free. That’s nice, but the only way that is fair is if the BBC is paying the RSPBA at least as much as it could make from a pay-per-view broadcast. This year’s Saturday event is being streamed, not by the BBC, but privately, and that, too, is free. A pay-per-view streaming format each day where viewers purchase access for, say £10, at 10,000 viewers a day (a fraction of the number they contend logged in to the streamed broadcast last year), would bring in £200,000. And, if the viewers knew that the performers were being compensated fairly, they would be happy to pay a fair amount . . . so . . .

4. Share the wealth. Even without a ticketed indoor Final on pay-per-view streaming, the World’s is big money for the Scottish economy, and the license to broadcast the Grade 1 event is extremely valuable. The money must be shared with the performers. No performers; no money. The RSPBA can take an administrative share, but the rest should go towards prize money and appearance fees. The performers have a legal right to be compensated fairly, and saying that bands waive their right when they enter the competition is simply not legally true.

5. Promote the art. All pipe band associations contend that their first mandate is to “promote the art of piping and drumming” (or words to that effect). In truth, they are little more than competition-running machines. The RSPBA is by far the best in the world at keeping its competition machines finely tuned, but whether the World Pipe Band Championship or anything else they do truly promotes the art is debatable. The art is not solely competition. Fair enough, promote the competition as a product, but plow some of the money from the product into truly promoting the art through teaching, by taking it further afield, by promoting new and creative ways to present the music.

Many people still say that there is no money in all of this. Bollocks. Just look around. The week in Glasgow culminating in the glorious World Pipe Band Championships is huge money, and the performers deserve a fair share. Piping Live! by all accounts does a great job of compensating performers, and many bands are able to recoup some of their costs by playing during the festival.

We are not unique. Musicians of every kind can be and are exploited. Rock, rap, classical, pop, opera – you name the genre; all of them start off just happy to play and to have their music heard and they don’t know enough or are afraid to ask questions. We are really no different from the fledgling garage band who ignores their rights while others reap the benefits, until one day they realize they’re playing stadium gigs and can’t afford anything but fish suppers.

The irony is that we are not talking about greedy for-profit record labels. This is a nonprofit association that represents the will of its members and strives to create a fair and level playing field for all. Pipe band associations are not businesses, and they can be forgiven for missing business opportunities. They do a fantastic job of executing competitions, and now they need to catch up to the business end of the deal.

It’s now time to compensate fairly, once and for all, those who provide the product: the performers.

Ceol Competition Cam

Time to strap on the Compettion Cam (also known as the Glen Cam, the Bass-Cam and the Heavy-Cam . . . so far) for a different perspective on competing – which is actually a very familiar one to anyone who has competed. Thanks to Pete Aumonier and Jim Murdoch for being such good sports.

For those who have never competed on the Ontario circuit, this is pretty much what it’s like having an early draw during the summer.

All in good fun.

RIP Grade 2?

Grade 2 is on life support. The number of pipe bands competing in the grade around the world is dropping so fast that they could be declared an endangered species.

Ten – 10 – Grade 2 bands competed at the European Championships at Forres, Scotland, last week. Granted, the event was (in the minds of UK-based bands, anyway) hard to get to. But there were only 13 competing at the British at Bathgate in May.

In Ontario where only several years ago there were at least six in Grade 2, there are now two. The BCPA has two. There are four Grade 2 bands in the EUSPBA; the WUSPBA and MWPBA have none. The grade is becoming superfluous.

I wrote about this a few years back in a two-part feature piece about how the World Pipe Band Championships are in fact ironically damaging pipe band scenes around the world. The pressure on Grade 1 bands to maintain and grow ever-expanding pipe-, snare- and bass-sections has resulted in players jumping from Grade 3 and even Grade 4 bands right into Grade 1. They leave the organizations that are trying to rise through the grades in favour of faster perceived glory in Grade 1.

The larger pipe band organizations with an organized training system and feeder bands more often than not have a policy about associated bands not reaching Grade 2, and, if they are allowed to reach Grade 2, then they are not allowed to go any further.

In Ontario, watching the 18-piper Ottawa Police compete against the seven-piper 400 Squadron is strange. All credit to Ottawa for building a world-class Grade 2 band by merging with the now-defunct Glengarry Grade 2 band a few years ago, but it’s an embarrassment of riches. And full credit goes to 400 Squadron for sticking in there, and regularly producing a very well-set sound with tight unison, which is, after all, the first order of business, whatever the size of the band. It’s not a competition to see who can be loudest or visually most impressive.

But who wants to judge that? Do you go for a well set and clean sound of seven pipes, or a rich and fulsome presence of 18? I honestly do not know which I would pick, and I’m glad I didn’t have to. Both bands are playing within the rules, but juxtaposing a band of almost 30 with one of 14 is borderline comical.

I have said several times over the last 10 years that the RSPBA needs to implement maximum numbers for sections. The RSPBA has to do it, because, with the all-out infatuation with competing at the World’s in just about every grade, no other association will place such numbers restrictions on their member bands. So, everyone else has to wait for the RSPBA to make a move and cap the numbers.

The great Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe-Major Richard Parkes said in his 2007 interview that a pipe section of 20 was “a good number.” SFU P-M Terry Lee 10 years ago cited 17 as “the magical number.” We all know what has happened.

To be sure, the best bands are producing wonderful sounds with pipe sections larger than 24 and snare and bass sections bigger than 10 and seven. But would they be that less wonderful if they had to compete with no more than 20 pipes, eight snares and six in the bass section? I don’t think so, and, besides, I’d be willing to make the sacrifice in return for the dividends it will pay to the world’s pipe band scenes overall.

Capping pipe sections at 20 in Grade 1, and, say, 17 in Grade 2, 15 in Grade 3 and so on, would immediately create dozens of new pipe bands around the world. Grade 2 most of all would be reinvigorated, as players released from Grade 1 bands would reorganize into altogether new bands or join existing Grade 2 bands.

A cap on numbers would also virtually eliminate the ridiculous situations of judges trying to compare a band of 18 pipers with a band of seven. It would create a fairer playing field for Grade 2 bands in more remote areas that simply can’t field large numbers. It would also create several new Grade 1 bands.

Failing section-size caps, a significant adjustment of Grade 1 and a broad relegation of bands back to Grade 2 is the other solution. Cut Grade 1 in half and make it a truly elite level of maybe 12 bands worldwide.

But a recalibration of Grade 1, and thus Grade 2 (and Grade 3, for that matter), is unlikely to happen. A member-driven association would have a hard time telling a good 20 per cent of its members that they’re going back to Grade 2, and the organizers of the competitions it runs that they will have fewer Grade 1 bands.

So, let’s watch the 2013 World’s and the massive bands in Grade 1 one last time, and ask that this fall the RSPBA does the right thing for everyone – including their own UK scene – and place reasonable maximum numbers on competing sections and rosters.

We can then watch the dividends pay off for the good of our art.

Untied united

Who the hell decided that pipers and drummers should wear ties? Probably the same Victorian sadist who dressed us in a one-inch-thick tunic, plaid, cross-belt, spats and feather-bonnet.
I’m sure that The Style Guy would have something to say about it, but the necktie is completely restrictive to pipers and a nuisance to drummers. No tailoring in the world can accommodate a neck that gains three inches with every blow, like some giant comical bullfrog. (I bet most of you have witnessed at least once someone in the crowd point at a band and say, “Wow! Look at that guy’s neck!” as a piper overflows his collar with each puff.) The tie flaps around the chanter and sticks while playing. There is no practical reason for it. It is inconducive  to making good music.

I’m all in favour of getting rid of ties, or at least making it more acceptable not to wear them in competition. They’ve been doing it for ages in Australia. And just as kilt-jackets were shucked off a decade ago at the World’s, so too should pipes be unknotted. Some associations even have it in their antediluvian rules that a necktie is a mandatory part of “Highland” dress. Associations are supposed to promote the arts of piping and drumming. They can start by loosening stupid rules like the necktie.

All this said, because I was an inveterate collector of things, I used to accumulate pipe band ties. That was in an era when custom-made band ties were something special, and usually something only the top-grade bands could afford, or make a priority. I still have a decent collection, and I wonder if someone out there has the equivalent of a T206 Honus Wagner trading card – maybe a 1968 Muirheads, or a ’75 Edinburgh City Police.

Trading pipe band ties was always fun and usually happened over many pints. Quartermasters must have gone crazy after big contests when every other player would swap ties. Because custom ties are commonplace through all the grades throughout the world, I doubt tie-swapping occurs much anymore. Custom ties are a dime-a-dozen. Some bands seem to change designs every few years. There’s nothing much special about them.

So all the more reason to call it a day on requiring pipers and drummers to perform while wearing these nuisance nooses. Let us stand united and untie ourselves from the tie.

Treadmill

The annual lists of Set Tunes for the big piobaireachd competitions are important to maybe a hundred people in the world. When you’re not competing in the Gold or Silver medals or one of the dozen or so elite competitors in the Senior events, the Set Tunes are, if anything, just a curiosity. I doubt anyone not in the current crop of hard core contestants is on the edge of their pipe box anxiously wondering what will be the chosen few.

I’ve been back at playing regularly these past months with the intention to have a walk around the boards this summer – just for fun. And “fun” is the operative word. Between the ages 19 and 40 I spent maybe 15 of those years playing at the tunes set for either the Silver or Gold medals. There were the very occasional own-choice years, and rare seasons when the lists were populated completely by melodic classics. By and large, though, these set tune lists featured two or three piobaireachds that I enjoyed playing and obvious choices, and the rest informed a process of deciding which was the easiest to memorize, get through accurately, and then hope for better options in next year’s list.

I remember Captain John MacLellan at a lesson saying “Abercairney’s Salute” must have been written by a personal piper who thought, “Hmmm, Abercairney’s birthday is tomorrow, so I’d better write a piobaireachd.” I would try to convince myself that dreary things like “The MacRaes’ March” and “Sobieski’s Salute” were great pieces of music, for why else would an esteemed organization like the Piobaireachd Society prescribe them for the Gold Medal? But in my heart I knew they sucked.

It seemed inevitable that I’d have things like that picked for me on the big days, while the one or two great classics I submitted went to someone else. Despite trying to convince myself that I didn’t care what they picked, it was always deflating. I always did better with tunes that were actually good music. But many were the times when I’d be puffed up, awaiting to know what tune they’d picked, thinking along the lines of, “Please be ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament,’ please be ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament,’ please be . . .” only to be punctured with some obtuse “Weighing From Land” type of thing.

I suppose it’s all part of the test, musical or psychological or a combination of the two. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard pipers talk about “trying to make something musical” out of a set piece of dreck, and there’s a sense of celebration when someone popular deservedly wins big with a great tune.

Perhaps sadly, every piper I know would be perfectly happy playing “Stairway to Heaven” if it meant winning a Highland Society of London Gold Medal.

It’s all to say that now without (as the great Hugh MacCallum described it) “the treadmill” of the set tunes, playing only piobaireachd that I really like to play is a new and liberating experience. I find that with each practice session, rather than having a mental checklist of tunes I must run another lap around, I can pick from 10 or so piobaireachds currently on the go. And then I’ll think of another tune I’d like to brush up and have a go at that. It’s long-forgotten fun.

Sometimes the lists look like they were put together by a preservation society rather than a music organization. For sure the piper who wins a big prize with “The Battle of Bealach nam Brog” (or “The Beelin’ Brogues,” as a friend calls it) will convince him or herself that it’s a musical masterpiece beyond reproach.

It’s all part of the mind game we agree to play, and the “test” we create for ourselves to bring life to the monotonous, all for the thrill of victory.

The market dictates

The TyFry company’s introduction of new tenor mallets claiming to be patently aerodynamic, balanced and a “new dawn” for the instrument – and available in a spectrum of bright colours – sparked lively dialog, debate and not a little consternation.

Piping and drumming still struggles with marketing and product development. We are borne of custom and tradition, and not a little Scottish austerity when it comes to drawing attention to one’s self, or outwardly selling hard. Even before new-world-style assertive marketing and promotion entered the fray, pipers and drummers lived a life of irony: one shan’t be seen to be showing off, but one must wear an ostentatiously colourful Victorian Highland get-up while (not) doing it.

Self-promotion is still a fine line to walk as a competing piper, drummer or pipe band. Pipers seen to be lobbying their ability are still tacitly knocked down a notch or two in the estimation of their peers. The tradition is to let playing ability do the talking. If the product is good, the tradition goes, then the judges will buy it.

We struggle with our own globalization. Makers of piping and drumming products compete in an ever-more-crowded market. “Innovation” when it comes to our instruments, music and apparel comes in microscopic steps. Foist too much change too quickly on too many and many will take the knee-jerk traditional reaction and reject it, cutting it down a peg or four.

Piping and drumming is used to dictating the market. This is what you will buy. This is all that is available. This is the way we do it. Don’t ask questions. Just do it like we always do it.

But the market now dictates piping and drumming. Makers of instruments, garb and tunes now take risks. They push things. They need to rise above the crowd, whether with bright colours or wind-tunnel-tested efficiency or tiny little Allen keys to adjust a carbon-fibre bridle. Changes that were once glacial, now happen in a single season. We are warming to globalization.

Day-Glo pink tenor mallets? Great! Aqua snare sticks? Wonderful! Red ghillie brogue laces, powder horns and a rack of medals on the chest? Good enough for John MacColl and John D. Burgess; good enough for me.

I would think that chanters can be made in a plastic of any colour, and that kids might be more prone to practice with a bright blue chanter than that black thing that everyone else has. I love the look that Boghall & Bathgate created with their orange drums and tenor mallets. I would have no trouble with a band playing chanters of any colour, or even a rainbow array. Bring it on. If the market likes them, they will sell. Things that were once simply not available, even unimaginable, are now marketed. We have choices.

No auld baldy bastard dictates to us.

The tradition that is perhaps hardest to break in piping and drumming is the one that says we must do things in a certain way. The customary notion that a very, very few dictate the music, the look and the instruments is increasingly a thing of the past.

The market is us, and we will tell it what to do.

No thanks

Piping and drumming associations have a problem with manners. They struggle with the most important and basic politeness: saying thank you.

Over the years I’ve known dozens – no exaggeration – of good people who have given their time and energy and intelligence to their association – sometime many years of it. And when they finally decide to move on what thanks do they get? Absolutely nothing. Not a word of appreciation. Not a peep. Radio silence.

It’s no wonder that associations struggle to attract and keep good people. You’ve got to be mad to voluntarily agree to do this stuff with only an altruistic “giving back” M.O.

So, what happens? With too few exceptions, you get people volunteering for positions of power whose M.O. isn’t giving back at all. They too often volunteer by reason of something disturbingly self-motivated, whether it’s a competitive edge for them or their band or some convoluted means to make money.

I was speaking to someone the other day who served his organization on various committees and such like for almost 20 years. He finally gave it up to devote time to other things. It was by all accounts an amicable departure. The thanks he received? Zilch. What will he say if he’s asked to help again? No thanks.

You might guess where this is heading. I faithfully edited and published the quarterly print magazine for my association for nearly 20 years, and volunteered for its Music Board/Committee for 12, seven as chair. Not a word of thanks from any of the five different presidents I worked with over that time. I never did these things for the thanks or anything else, but it still miffs me when the only resolution is none. Radio silence.

Perhaps there are piping and drumming associations that remember their manners and do the right things. There might be an organization or two out there that puts a priority on thanking those who work to make it work. But if there is, I haven’t heard of it.

That’s all. Thanks.

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