A predictable shafting?

Four firsts, four lasts or four of the same of any placing from judges are rare in a contest of more than 12, especially in Grade 1. In fact, at RSPBA majors it’s happened exactly six times in the top grade in the last three years. That’s six times in about 325 opportunities (number of events times number of competitors), or a miniscule 1.7 per cent of the time. For all purposes, it’s exceedingly unlikely to happen to any band, especially one that is well established and proven to be making the grade.

The Toronto Police Pipe Band had four last places in the Medley event in the Final of the World Pipe Band Championships. Most people know that this band likes to push musical boundaries when it comes to the competition medley, which has no stipulations in the UK beyond starting with two three-pace rolls, lasting between five and seven minutes, and playing with minimum section numbers. Aside from those, a band is free to do musically whatever it wishes.

There are as many personal musical preferences as there are people. One person’s favourite tune is another’s hateful noise. That’s true in pipe bands. We often chalk up our variable judging or unusual results to the “subjective” nature of music.

But there are some very objective qualities that must be assessed and upon which we pretty much are all agreed: Is it in tune? Is it together? Is it well executed? Were there any technical mistakes? How much stress judges put on each of these objective aspects also varies greatly, making four consistent placings even more unlikely.

For example, I don’t much like Duncan Johnstone’s “Farewell to Nigg,” and I find it odd that other people love it. But if I were judging and a pipe band played it would I put them last just because I didn’t prefer the tune? Of course not. I would assess them first on how they expressed it, the quality of their unison and technical accuracy, and the tone and tuning of the performance. I would recognize and respect the merits of Johnstone’s composition in terms of construction. No matter how much I disliked the music, I would give them a fair shake and ensure that the more objective qualities of the performance were duly critiqued.

A pipe band competition is first and foremost a test of accuracy. A band might receive a huge ovation from the crowd, but, relative to the competition, if the performance was not well tuned, not in unison and full of mistakes it should not be first.

Conversely, a band may perform content that all four judges feel is pure dreck, but – again relative to the competition – if it is well tuned, in unison and mistake-free, then it does not deserve to be last.

With the objective qualities in mind, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Toronto Police’s medley at the 2012 World’s deserved to be not last in piping. There were at least four pipe sections that were clearly not nearly as good on those technical, objective elements. (RSPBA adjudicator Bob Worrall appeared to agree in his BBC commentary.) Some judges might have had Toronto Police higher; some lower; but for every judge to put them dead last is truly incredible. Did they really dislike their variations on the ancient Gaelic song “Cutting Bracken” so much that they could throw tuning and playing accuracy out of the equation?

Why is rearranging “Cutting Bracken” (as Toronto Police did) any worse than rearranging “Glasgow Police Pipers” (as Boghall did), or “Alick C. MacGregor” (Inveraray) or any number of bands that went with the current trend of taking the familiar and reinventing it? What would have happened if a piping judge could not tolerate what ScottishPower did with Donald MacLeod’s classic 4/4 “The Battle of Waterloo,” ignored their sound and unison, and put them last? Answer: it would be that judge’s final contest.

Make no mistake, musical content should have some bearing on assessment. But the total assessment? That would not be fair.

It would be an unfortunate day for the pipe band world if even one band is judged strictly for what they played, ignoring how they played it.

You can create music or you can mimic music. Sadly, it would appear that competing pipe bands will be more successful simply repeating the past.

Spirited & lively

Scott MacAulay, 2008.Once or twice each year of judging, something indelibly memorable occurs. Yes, there are good performances that stand out at almost every contest, but I’m thinking here about events that transcend the music, when circumstances converge to make a perfectly magical merger.

I was enjoying a morning of solo competitions this June at the Summerside Highland Gathering at the idyllic Prince Edward Island when one such event was conjured.

The College of Piping is always associated with its first director, the late Scott MacAulay. Scott was a good piping friend and a wonderful piper. His personality was larger-than-life. He found the party and upside in everything, it seemed, and when his life was cut down by cancer it was a huge loss for the scene. We will always miss him.

Scott discovered piobaireachd later than most. In the 1980s, when he was into his late twenties, he found ceol mor or, rather, ceol mor found him. A product of Lewis-born parents, and someone who seemed to enjoy things Hebridean and Gaelic way more than most, even as a teenager it seemed odd to me that Scott focused only on light music and pipe bands. But in the early-1980s he dived head-long into piobaireachd.

After, say, age 18, “discovering” piobaireachd is a difficult thing to do, not because the music can’t be learned, but because your fellow competitors and adjudicators might not take you seriously. Back then, anyway, a certain amount of ceol mor capital had to be banked before the prizes would be paid in dividends.

Scott was as smart a person as you could ever meet. A canny man, one might call him. He could size up a person or an entire room in a second, and work his way in with his incredible wit and charm. One could even say that he charmed his way into piobaireachd. Within a few years he had learned enough tunes and put his musical smarts and technical skills to work his way into the prizes.

He set his sights on winning a Silver Medal, which he did at the Northern Meeting in 1985 just a few years after taking on the big music. He learned up four Silver Medal tunes, and had particular success with “Queen Anne’s Lament.” Going around the Scottish games with him that summer, that tune seemed always to be picked – so often, in fact, that we started to refer to him jokingly as “Queen Anne,” which I remember him laughing at with his unique cackle.

But back to Summerside. Not wanting to lug my piobaireachd books to PEI, I managed to borrow a complete bound Piobaireachd Society Collection from the College. It turned out, though, that the big book had belonged to Scott, with his name custom-embossed on the front and spine in Scott’s typical spare-no-expense style. There were relatively few solo competitors, and some time between each, so I decided to browse through Scott’s old book to check out a few of the tunes I remembered he had played: “Sir James MacDonald of the Isles,” “The Company’s Lament,” and, of course, “Queen Anne’s.”

And then, in the Grade 1 Amateur Piobaireachd event, young Sarah Simpson of Cavendish, PEI, submitted her three tunes. “Queen Anne’s Lament” was one. So, here’s that special confluence of serendipity: College of Piping, misty day, Scott’s book, Scott’s tune. It had to be.

As she built the tune, I found myself rooting for her to see it through, for the pipe and nerves to hold. With a terrific instrument that featured a perfectly tuned and blown high-G, Sarah Simpson delivered a spectacularly musical and almost technically flawless rendition of Scott’s best tune.

Scott MacAulay was all spirit. For 10 minutes or so on that day, on that field, at that time, with that tune, his spirit happily returned.

For the parents

The world of piping and drumming can be a strange and unusual place for the non-piping/drumming parents of young kids becoming involved with the art. As a child of a mother and father who knew nothing about the mysterious and exclusive club before allowing their boy to become involved, I recognize now how difficult it can be, even more so after teaching young pipers who are plunging into our pool of competition, decorum and tradition.

So, here are a few tips especially for the parents of young pipers and drummers who might be struggling with the decision as to whether to allow their boy or girl to continue with what will become a life-long involvement.

Piping/drumming prepares them for life. Your son or daughter will be surrounded by adults from every background, every profession, every ability. They will learn to conduct themselves in a mature way, and have the benefit of weekly interaction with very smart people. Religion or social status does not exist in piping and drumming. The music is the great equalizer. Your boy or girl is more likely to appreciate people for their skills and character, rather than discriminate or prejudge.

Piping/drumming creates lifelong friendships. Your child will meet other kids his/her age within the band, at competitions and at summer schools. These friendships will last forever. And wherever your son or daughter goes, he/she will find instant friends in the piping community.

Your child will always be “the piper” or “the pipe band drummer.” Do not underestimate the value of being in this exclusive club. It will help your kid stand apart from all of the other mundane hobbyists. Listing “bagpipes” on a university application or resume will be noticed and remembered, and virtually everyone has some sort of positive piping-related connection. It’s an immediate common-bond.

If all else fails, there’s always piping/drumming. Once your child becomes good at his/her art, it is a constant safety net. Your kid can always find paid gigs or teach beginners either part-time or even professionally. Piping at ceremonies is increasingly popular. And once your child learns rudiment-based pipe band drumming, other drumming will be easy in comparison.

Your child will learn to fail. Sounds strange, but it’s a great skill to possess. I’ve said before that even Willie McCallum or Jim Kilpatrick – winningest competitors who they may be – have had far more non-first-prizes. In our competition-based world, your boy or girl will learn to accept defeat, learn from mistakes, and work harder to be better next time. Unlike junior’s football team or dance group, there are no medals in piping/drumming for those who don’t earn a prize.

Competition is preparation for real-life pressure. Standing solo before a wizened judge can be a knee-shaking thing. Delivering when your band-mates are counting on you is even more nerve-racking. At the beginning, you might consider this unnecessary pressure for your child, but understand that each time he/she competes and improves with each event is practice for that university interview, the class presentation, the job interview or the seminar for colleagues. Once you’ve stood at the trigger at the World Pipe Band Championships, or climbed the boards at a big solo event, that real-life stuff is cake.

It’s music. Because of the competition-driven nature of what we do, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that your child is making music. It’s art from nothingness. Like fireworks, it’s beautiful for a second, and then it’s gone forever. And your kid is creating it to the best of his or her ability. Don’t ever forget that that is a true miracle more valuable than anything above.

So, I hope these points are of use to parents of young pipers or drummers delving into our little world that, once seen in a bigger view, is full of benefits for life in general.

On the beat

Buddy Rich was a master of playing 'in the pocket.'I’m often intrigued when a pipe band is first from a drumming judge, but far back in ensemble. One of the adjudicators must be wrong and, call me presumptuous, but it’s usually the drumming judge.

To me, the very first function of a pipe band drum corps is to play in time with the pipe section. That is, on the beat. Not slightly at the front or the back of where the pipe section’s tempo is, but absolutely with it. A drum section can be insanely impressively technically complicated, inventive and together, but if doesn’t play on the beat that the pipe section establishes, it is missing its first essential function as an ensemble instrument within the band as a whole.

Playing on the beat would seem to be an easy task, but it is in fact extremely difficult. Even the world’s greatest pipe bands suffer from tempo drift, as they try to keep 20-odd pipers, eight or so bass section players, and upwards of 10 snare drummers together. The complexities of centering the beat from the pipe-major, to the leading drummer, to the bass drummer, to the leading tenor, back and forth with each other, and then across their respective sections is a study in focused concentration. A slight deviation from the beat set by the pipe-major creates an immediate cascading effect throughout the band, and that previously toe-tapping tune suddenly and mysteriously feels oddly scattered.

I come from the piping side of things, but I assure you that when I assess ensemble, my focus is almost always on the drum section. First order of business: is it one the beat? Second, is it enhancing, neutral to, or hindering the melody? Third, is the drum corps supplying the dynamics inherently lacking in pipe music, and are the tones of the drums complementary to the piping and each other?

Drumming judges who lose sight of the ensemble nature of a drum section lose sight of its fundamental role within the band. I have spoken with many drumming judges who support this concept, and actually can’t think of a drumming judge who would refute it. But when it comes time actually to judge the drumming, they often seem to forget their “ensemble ear,” and simply assess each corps in isolation from the balance of the band. Perhaps they worry that if they don’t reward the technically superior, they will fall out of favour with the drumming tradition. The consequence often is the drumming prize going to a band that received a poor market from the ensemble judge.

The Kingston Scottish Festival in Ontario has for several years now had each of the four pipe band adjudicators judge ensemble. The post-event consultation is always illuminating, and inevitably the discussion with each certified ensemble adjudicator – whether he or she has a piping or drumming background – begins with how well the band as a whole was knitted to the beat. There have been many times when the drumming judge has said that the drum section that was technical superior did not in fact help the band much, and gave the nod to a band with a relatively inferior technical corps. The consultation process (which Ontario continues to conduct to very positive effect, I might add), is a respectful, educational dialog that informs the decision in a purely constructive way, and there’s hardly any commentary on the minutiae of blemishes within the three sections, but rather an open discourse of the “big picture” of the band as a whole.

A drumming prize awarded to a section that does not play in time with the piping is a prize awarded incorrectly. It all starts with a single beat.

Put a golf tee in it

Just shut it.pipes|drums is all about creating constructive conversation and dialog, and I like to think that over the years many sensitive topics have seen sunlight after having been swept under the rug for ages. We’re getting there.

Reviews are always done by those who have the right combination of objectivity, detachment, respect and expertise to make their words count. People who sell the product or compete with the item or have some other vested interest – real or perceived – are avoided. It’s often difficult to find the right match, and sometimes the best potential reviewers have to decline because they’re too busy or just feel uncomfortable about the task. I like it when they say no, rather than deliver something that disappoints or is well past the product’s sell-by-date.

Increasingly, RSPBA judges are declining the invitation to review products or events. It’s not because they feel they’re biased, it’s because the association allegedly requires  that they get permission in advance to write or speak about anything to do with piping or drumming. So, some of our best and brightest apparently are afraid to share their insights with the piping and drumming world, and don’t want the hassle of requesting advance consent from the association.

What a shame.

In 2007 I wrote about pipe bands veering towards that wrong-headed tack. Fortunately most of them have lightened up a great deal since then, as they’ve realized the communications potential of  Facebook and Twitter and other means to share insights. When an organization disallows members from speaking about their passion, and using their common sense when doing so, they undermine trust. The band or association views it from a strictly negative perspective, cynically thinking that their member will somehow embarrass the group, rather than indirectly vaunting it with their intelligence.

Granted, no organization should have members go out and speak for the organization, but, when it comes to a musical art, all they have to do is tell them to stick strictly to talking about music. Then trust them to do so.

As I understand it from RSPBA judges, they might not be allowed to post anything related to piping or drumming on Facebook, on which most of them have an account. They allegedly shouldn’t post any videos or anecdotes or comment about any band performance anywhere without prior consent, or do any interviews without prior approval. Should they just keep their mouths shut and their fingers off their keyboard? If they play a recital they shouldn’t speak to the audience without clearing things first with 45 Washington Street? Put tape right across your entire hole?

Are their only unapproved comments those that they put down on score sheets?

It’s a case study in how to get the least from your best.

Lessons earned

Ethical dilemmae.There’s a hardly a person out there who has not at one time won a prize when their teacher was judging, and I would be willing to bet that of the 99 per cent of pipers and drummers who have been rewarded by their instructor, nearly all of them felt a bit regretful.

I know I have.

1984. I had been living in Scotland, spending my third year of college at the University of Stirling. I had the extreme good fortune to be taken on as a regular pupil by someone of prodigious knowledge and renown strictly for piobaireachd, and another even more renowned person for light music. (Why I didn’t occasionally seek one for the other music, I don’t know, but that’s another story.) I also was lucky enough to access the prodigious knowledge of another prominent person for a few weekends in the fall of 1983.

I had been preparing all year for the Silver Medal. The event in 1984 called for contestants to submit six of their own choice of tunes. I keenly learned up the tunes set for the Gold Medal contests, since it was all good. I got all of these from my main piobaireachd teacher. I’d been playing well enough over the summer to pick up prizes around the games.

But then the judges for the Silver Medal were revealed in July. At the time I was extremely excited to learn that not one, not two, but all three of my teachers would be on the Silver Medal bench at Inverness. Since I believed that the teacher/pupil/judge connection was an acceptable part of the game, I figured that I had hit the jackpot. What great luck!

After getting nothing at Oban, Inverness came around. I was the first to play after the lunch break. I thought that I played as well as I possibly could, which is all you can hope to do. The result was announced, and I was first. All three of them told me later that their decision was unanimous.

While I felt that I deserved the prize, I also felt awkward at the time and ever since about the award. I knew then as I know now that many prizes big and small have been won with teachers judging their students. As far as I know, there’s no rule anywhere against the practice, and only “policies” with some organizations that asks teachers to avoid judging their pupils.

I’ve written before that the practice of teachers judging their students is inevitable, since the best teachers make the most knowledgeable judges and vice-versa. Maybe tellingly, I came up with that thesis when I was actively competing. People often find ways to reconcile such dilemmas in ways that suit us at the time.

I’ve since changed my mind. Teachers judging pupils can and should be avoided. If for nothing else, a teacher should avoid the practice for this fundamental reason: it’s not fair to the pupil. It’s not fair because the student may well have deserved the prize, and probably did, but his or her peers – every one of them – will have at least a shade of doubt.

I don’t for a second think that back in 1984 my teachers were anything but ethical and honest, and my sense of ethics may differ substantially from others. I respect other opinions. I also think that the ethical sense of players, teachers and judges have changed over the last three decades.

But all too often I sense teachers accept judging pupils for what appears to be a selfish reason: to further their own reputation as a teacher via the success of their student. The better the pupil does, the better the instructor appears.

Some players dodge the issue by saying that a judge who’s judging them isn’t really an “instructor” because they see them only periodically, or receive only casual feedback. That may be so, but, as a friend recently pointed out, the player is quick to list the very same person as a “teacher” in their autobiographical sketches.

Some judges dodge the issue with the well-worn contention that, if you prohibit teachers from judging their pupils, there won’t be enough judges to go around. I don’t believe that. It just takes adroit planning and full disclosure. Judges need to tell organizers who they’re teaching, and then let them organize events accordingly.

Competitions are about the competitors, not the judges. Teachers should not put their students in such compromising situations. Ironically, prizes won by students of judges are an injustice to the pupil who needs to be seen to earn prizes fairly, strictly on his or her own merits.

And declining to judge pupils in contests could be one of the most important lessons an instructor can teach.

Judgment and sorrow

It’s too soon to try to put the death of Alasdair Gillies into any words or perspective. It’s a sad, sad loss for his family and friends. Anyone who knew Alasdair couldn’t help but to like him.

I’ve written about this before: the hardest decision as a journalist aspiring to professional standards is to know when it is appropriate to report news. Our community of pipers and drummers is a far cry from a tabloid paper or even a more respectable broadsheet for a mainstream audience. Several years ago I made a bad judgment call on reporting too quickly on a prominent piper’s death and will regret it forever. But I learned from the mistake of trying to be “first” at the cost of human sensitivity. Our news is different and it takes finesse and sensitivity when the worst sort of information hits you right in the guts.

My guts were hit crossing the Minch. I was on a CalMac ferry back from one of the small isles, where there had been no mobile signal. I will always remember my phone suddenly buzzing alive in my jacket pocket for the first time in two weeks. I opened the phone to see three messages, each with “Alasdair Gillies” in the subject line.

The connection was very slow, so it took several minutes for the body of the messages to come through and, if I were a person of prayer, I would have prayed for something, anything besides the ominous news that I always dread when I see a subject line with only a person’s name.

And then it hit. In that bright sunlit Hebridean morning of August 27, 2011, my worst fear became real, and I exhaled after holding my breath for that agonizingly long wait. My only emotion was pure sadness, and my only thought was with his family and for Alasdair as the extraordinary musician and gentle soul he was.

I can’t say that I knew Alasdair well, but I had the extreme honour of playing alongside him in a pipe band a few years ago and sharing a few exceptional, fleeting moments at the World’s. I will always remember several of his extraordinary Silver Star performances at Eden Court when he was in top form and, just as memorable, the extraordinary hush that fell on the packed hall when he approached the stage, several hundred passionate pipers bracing to be once again dazzled by his virtuosity with a Highland bagpipe – and the ovation explosion when he finished.

pipes|drums will mark Alasdair’s passing in due course, when the time is appropriate. For now, we lament the loss of one of our greatest, and hope that his family and loved ones – for he was clearly loved by many – may eventually find peace.

Great Big Bug

Like this.Solo pipers in outdoor contests have to contend with all manner of things. The bouncy castles, midges and starter’s pistols of Scotland. Oblivious passers-by wandering in between you and the judge at Ontario events. The odd mid-2/4 march dust-devil in the Midwest. They’re all a test of either our concentration or sanity or both. We shake our heads and carry on.

By far the most memorable thing to happen to me was at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville, Ontario. Anyone who has been to Maxville knows that it’s in the middle of farm country. In fact, many of the solo events back up onto fields, often bone-dry in the latter part of the hot and humid summer.

It was when I was playing a piobaireachd contest. The venerable Reay Mackay was judging. The tune was some dreary thing set for the Gold Medal competitions in Scotland, which I always played all summer, convincing myself that I liked some of the dreckiest pieces of dreck ever composed for the Highland pipe. This particular instance I think had me playing “The Rout of the MacPhees,” which isn’t exactly a toe-tapping melody, even in the hands of the world’s elite pipers.

But the tune was going quite well, I thought. Back then the Open Piobaireachd was invariably put out in the open, sun blazing down. I got to the first variation of the thing and the biggest freaking bug known to Glengarry County landed on my arm. As soon as this giant cicada or extraterrestrial grasshopper or flying kitten plunked itself on my bare left forearm I jumped about two feet, hands flailing off the chanter (shaddup!), drones in a heap.

“%*&% !!”

“What happened?!” Reay shouts.

“It was a Great Big Bug! A Great Big Bug landed on me! It was a Great Big Bug!” I said breathlessly.

“A Great Big Bug?! Really?” Reay says. “Here, just go off and collect yourself and we’ll let you play again.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course,” kindly Reay confirms. “I’ve never seen that happen when a Great Big Bug upsets a tune like that. Sure, I’ll tell the steward you can play later.”

Which is what happened. I went away, recollected myself, tried to get the vision and feel of the Great Big Bug out of my head, and hoped that I’d also get a chance to play a tune that bugged me less. (Not so; Reay Mackay said I had to play the same thing.)

I felt a bit sheepish about it, and a few fellow competitors told me it wasn’t fair. (Then go talk to Reay, I told them.) But being on the other side of the table, I can understand why a judge would do that. You tend to make a lot of non-piping judgment calls during the day, often about what a competitor’s intentions might be. I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt, and I try to do that with others when I think they deserve it.

The name of the game is fair play, Great Big Bugs included. What extraordinary circumstances have you encountered in your competition experiences?

Living salute

We pipers and drummers all too often pay tribute to those who contribute only after the person’s left us and we realize that it’s too late to show him or her the appreciation we have for the life-long contribution to the art. That’s not something unique to the piping and drumming world, of course, but perhaps we’re too caught up too often in our own competitive concerns to acknowledge the work of others.



The Georgetown Highland Games in Georgetown, Ontario, on June 11, 2011, was a rare exception. One of the games organizers had the good idea to pay tribute to Bill Livingstone and his nearly 50 years of work and accomplishment in the art. A few folks put the word out only a few days before the event, asking anyone who might be at the event who had played under Bill over the years to participate in a tribute at the massed bands ceremony at the end of the day.

A good number of folks gladly stepped up, and, led by new 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe-Major, Doug MacRae, played a mass rendition of “Lord Lovat’s Lament” and “The Mason’s Apron,” two tunes closely identified with Livingstone.

It was one of the nicer gestures I can remember seeing by the piping and drumming community. There are life memberships and posthumous tributes and trophies and things, but I would think an actual playing tribute is about as meaningful as it gets for someone who’s committed most of his life to the art, and, better yet, is around to hear it, still living strong.

Stewards, chiefly

The passing of the esteemed piper, leader and organizer Robert Stewart of Inveraray in May was a sad loss for piping. I can’t say that I knew him, but those who did had all-good things to say, and talked of him with reverence and respect and admiration.

My encounters with him were limited to competing at the Inveraray Games 10 or so years ago. I was impressed with the way he handled the large number of competitors as both the piping convener and steward for the competitions. I remember thinking that, without such an adept hand, the whole thing would be chaos instead of the fun and smooth-running event it was.

Stewarding takes a deft touch. It’s true that once pipers and drumming gain experience, they essentially know the drill and look after themselves. But good stewarding can turn a decent competition into one a soloist will return to again and again.

The best stewards are often those who played the game themselves. Former competitors have been there and understand how to improve a piper or drummer’s overall experience, while simultaneously looking after the necessities of the event itself.

Until about 1986, the Edinburgh City/Lothian & Border Police Pipe Band used to organize a popular indoor solo competition. It was popular with competitors, in large part, because the band’s members did the stewarding. They kept the events moving, but also were true to the definition of “steward”: one who manages and assists.

I would add empathy to that description. Too often piping and drumming stewards don’t fully appreciate their role and, instead of being empathetic with the competitors, are almost unfeeling by not first giving the soloist the benefit of the doubt, or deferring to the piper or drummer’s experience when they themselves haven’t walked the boards. Although stewards at times need to get tough, stewarding shouldn’t be considered a position of authority.

I understand that competitions can’t all have a fleet of Robert Stewarts managing events. We all do the best we can, and are always grateful to volunteers who step up and who strive to do a good job. Often, though, volunteer stewards aren’t aware of what they can do to make an event better for the competitor.

So here are a few tips for stewards:

– Get a briefing. If you’re new to stewarding, a run-down of dos and don’ts from the organizers is essential. Also, ask the judge how he/she likes to operate before the event starts.
– Talk to competitors. Introduce yourself and help them to feel at ease. These people have put a gazillion hours into preparing for the event you’re stewarding, and part of your role is to, if not keep them calm, not let them get any more anxious.
– Don’t just sit there. Some stewards are evidently told that their only task is to check off competitors on their list as they report to them. You need to get up and about and even ask competitors and other stewards if someone entered but not checked in is in fact present. Walk around keep competitors informed on what’s going on.
– The idea is participation. We want pipers and drummers to compete and enjoy their day, not to be unnecessarily DQed. Find ways to solve misunderstandings. Not permitting someone to compete should always be a last resort, only when it’s out of fairness to other competitors.
– Ask for feedback. After the event, ask the judge and a few competitors how you did, and ways you might improve.

Stewarding can differentiate a competition and a good steward improves “customer service” for the event and the association. What do you see as the most important aspects of stewarding?


The USPF’s decision to make its solo piping championship solely for North American pipers could turn out to be an important moment in piping and drumming history. I don’t know if organizer Maclean MacLeod’s move was in direct response to the Glenfiddich no longer including the USPF as a qualifier for their event but, if it isn’t, it’s a remarkable coincidence.

For the record, I don’t care one way or another if an independent competition makes its own rules. Limiting a piping contest to regional competitors is a long-established tradition in Scotland, especially for junior events limited to “locals.” Go ahead; fill your ghillies.

I also don’t feel one way or another about the Glenfiddich’s qualifying process. It’s a privately run event, and if they feel a contest isn’t up to snuff, then that is their prerogative. I hope they explained to the USPF folks exactly why they made their decision and outlined the things they might do to return to the qualifier fold.

But ignoring the specifics of the Glenfiddich’s decision  (which I didn’t consider to be a big deal), what may be most interesting is that the USPF’s apparent counter-move may be the first time that a non-Scottish event retaliated in a significant way to a perceived slight. Associations, events and competitors from outside of Scotland are used to being pushed around. “Overseas” band gradings not honoured by the RSPBA. World’s qualifying contests held only the UK. Non-UK competitors being tacitly made to compete at little Scottish games that often feature iffy judging, non-standard events, no formally accredited judges and always with no accountability for results – to establish a “track record” to have the honour of being accepted to the Argyllshire Gathering or Northern Meeting. The list goes on.

Normally, non-UK folks just lump it. You dare not retaliate or even gently rock the boat, for fear of making your own situation even worse. To some, it’s the definition of bullying.

Last week, though, the tide may have finally started to change. The USPF’s change seemed to upset a number of prominent folks based in Scotland, who were in high dudgeon that they were suddenly being treated in a manner similar to what non-UK pipers and drummers put up with all the time. Perhaps they got a little sample of the disrespect that Americans, Australians, Bretons, Canadians, Kiwis and all other pipers not living in Scotland are told is just “part of the game.”

I’m not a fan of knee-jerk reaction to problems. I’d rather discuss, find common ground and move forward with clarity. Tit-for-tat behavior usually just makes things worse.

But bullies aren’t generally big on diplomacy, so sometimes the only way to deal with them is to fight back and let actions speak louder.

10 words that should never appear on score sheets, but do

Competition score sheets, or “crit sheets,” are the primary way that a judge accounts for his or her result. They should provide feedback in a clear, constructive and, perhaps most important, respectful manner. Some judges are better than others at writing score sheets.

Constructing a good sheet takes an ability to multi-task (writing while listening takes practice and skill), and finding the right words with originality and specificity for at times dozens of performances over a day is far more exhausting than competing. Judging with constructive accountability is a hard, hard job.

But what isn’t hard is respecting the competitor. There’s something of a tradition in some quarters, particularly in pipe band judging, of being disrespectful to competitors. It’s like a Simon Cowell approach to “judging,” where the main objective seems to be to put artists in their place, reminding them who’s boss. It’s an old-fashioned and ignorant style of judging that, sadly, still happens today.

It often comes down to single words that can be so demeaning that even using them could be cause for suspension from a panel, reinstatement only after sensitivity training and/or completion of high school English. Alarmingly, the use of a few of these is actually encouraged in some quarters.

Here are 10 destructive words that I’ve seen on actual score sheets. In this day and age they should be banned from further use – the words and the judges.

“Vacuous” – imagine telling a band or soloist that their performance was “mindless” and “lacking in thought or intelligence.” This is what vacuous means. Has a judge stepped into a beer-tent and called a pipe-major “mindless” to his/her face? Didn’t think so.

“Dispassionate” – this $100 word is doing the rounds. It means “emotionally detached” and, perhaps ironically, is used in non-piping/drumming terms to describe someone rational or impartial. Is there a piping, drumming or pipe band competitor who is not passionate about their music? Seriously? How incredibly insulting.

An “exercise” – this seems to be a word that some judges use when they don’t personally prefer or understand a particular rhythm or melody. In this era of Rhythmic Fingerwork exercises does anyone really practice without attempting to be rhythmical?

“Devoid,” “insipid” – can you be more hurtful than telling someone passionate about their music that it’s devoid of something positive? I’m pretty sure judges who use either word don’t really know what they mean but, regardless, they can say the same thing using constructive language.

“Tuneless,” “unmusical” – these are cop-out words by judges who can’t constructively explain why they didn’t prefer a particular score or interpretation. They throw these destructive words with the intention, really, of saying, “Don’t ask me what I mean, it just was, and I know better, so shut up.”

“Mumbo-jumbo” – really? We know you’re tired and full of yourself and all, but you need to resist the temptation to sink to this sort of insulting language.

“Jungle-drumming” – this hyphenation is used by some judges who don’t like certain styles of bass-section drumming. J.K. McAllister I’m pretty sure coined the term “jungle-drumming,” or at least made it famous. Not only is it demeaning, it smacks of racism.

“Ignorant” – the only thing ignorant when it comes to this word being used on a crit-sheet is the judge, who is apparently ignorant of tact and respect and has apparently completely forgotten what it was like to be a competitor. A judge who uses this word may find his/her picture if they look up the definition.

Those are 10 words that seem to be in use by actual piping/drumming/pipe band judges. I hope that you haven’t been the victim of this stuff appearing on score sheets. And if in the future you receive one of these bombs I recommend that you send a copy of the sheet to your association to be sure that they are aware of it and deal with the offender.

When judges use this sort of language they’re really just bullying their way out of facing the truth: they’re not an effective judge of modern piping and drumming music, so they try to block its evolution by putting it down with insulting and demeaning language. Sometimes they might not even know the true meaning of the words they use. They don’t bother to look it up, just as they don’t bother to understand what today’s pipe bands are attempting to accomplish musically.

What other $100 words of judging destruction have you encountered?

Sage advice

In piping and drumming, you never stop learning and realizing new perspectives, and my eyes were opened once again last November in a casual conversation with the great soloist, teacher, bagpipe-maker and reed craftsman, Murray Henderson. It was just a passing comment that he made regarding the Gold Medal success of his daughter, Faye, last August. He told me that he told her:

“If you are lucky enough to win a major event, always remember, you are still the same player as you drive home from the competition as you were going to it.”

After all of these years, that one comment rang true with me. Murray said that he tells all of his students this before a big event, and it’s such smart and clear advice that it’s hard to believe so many people don’t automatically understand it without being reminded.

To a fault, many competitive pipers and drummers almost incessantly chase prizes. On one hand, trying to win big events is motivation to practice. But over the centuries there have been not a few competitors who have quickly gained one big prize and then rapidly parlayed that success into a teaching and judging career.

A big win will open a door of opportunity with the piping and drumming masses who make the mistake of automatically assuming that being awarded a major prize is not just a stamp of approval of their technical skill, but also of their overall understanding of the art. It’s not so automatic.

The same mistake can be made in any art or sport that involves competition. The famously successful person who collects major accolades often does not understand exactly why he or she is so good. There are those extraordinary people in all walks of life who are supernaturally talented. They don’t seem to have to work as hard for prizes, or they blunder into awards one way or another.

So often the best teachers are those who have worked the hardest, striving to reach the top, learning and trying every angle or technique to put them over the edge. They make a life’s work of studying their art or sport as a student. So often, these people – not the big prizewinners – are the best teachers.

The truth is that in any Gold Medal competition probably 20 competitors have a realistic shot of winning the event on the day. There are those who are fortunate enough to win it seemingly without much effort or with a great deal of luck, and there are those who come back year after year after year working like dogs to learn all they are able to get that final edge. They acquire vast amounts of knowledge along the way.

“If you are lucky enough to win a major event, always remember, you are still the same player as you drive home from the competition as you were going to it.”

Sage advice from Murray Henderson. What piping/drumming words of wisdom have stuck with you?

Tapadh leat

Just about all of the recent Grade 1 pipe band comings and goings have been much better communicated to the outside world by the bands and people directly affected. Without going into private and tawdry details, they have been clear and honest with a direct eye to the future. And most have a common element: saying thanks.

I’d imagine that some view these statements of thanks as being insincerely politically correct. Wrong. Plain and simple, saying thanks shows good manners and common sense.

Traditionally, pipers and drummers are often pitifully poor at thanking people. Ours is generally a volunteer-driven hobby, reliant on the skills of those who step forward to commit their talents to some common goal and good – in their spare time. It’s all very well when helpful and talented pipers, drummers, judges, administrators, executives and stewards provide their time, but when they decide to step aside or retire, we so often forget the simple act of saying thank you.

I have noticed that associations are often particularly poor at saying thank you. Often piping and drumming societies and associations are so busy just focusing on the here-and-now that they forget about how they got to the here-and-now – through the voluntary efforts of committed folk.

I have often said that the competition-laden culture of Highland piping and pipe band drumming teaches us to suspect the worst in one another. We often tend to view most things rather cynically: suspecting ulterior motives in others even when they don’t exist. At the heart of what competing pipers and drummers do is simply music and fun. They want to enjoy a tune and hang out with others who desire to do the same. That’s pretty easy to understand.

What’s a more difficult leap is understanding that those who serve with associations as stewards, judges, committee members and executives are doing so because they want to make things better, because they want to contribute to a common good. We mistakenly think they’re volunteering their time for some perceived personal gain, rather than the common truth: that they’re working for you.

Often when I write something like this a few people (ironically cynical, here) ask, “Who are you talking about?” With this I can say that I’m thinking of no one or no organization in particular, but the worldwide culture of piping and drumming as a whole. The general view of those who volunteer is often jaded, even within the associations themselves. It’s no wonder that those who volunteer for association roles are few, since they’re all too often simply cast aside and forgotten without even acknowledgment – let alone thanks – when they’re done.

So, we should all take a cue from the more genteel trend that seems to be happening within pipe bands, that simply saying, “Thanks for all your contributions, your commitment and your time,” goes a long, long way.

Gold Medals and Scottish society

The unfairer sex.That we’re even talking about how remarkable it is that a female piper has finally won a Gold Medal at Oban or Inverness is more interesting to me than the milestone itself. Faye Henderson by all accounts deserved to win and was a popular choice among her fellow competitors and, to any solo piper I know, that’s crucial to satisfying one’s sense of accomplishment, and that’s really all that should matter.

But the traditions and mores of Scottish piping are long-held and, to those not part of their culture, it can be difficult to understand. Generally and relatively speaking, change is often slower to be accepted there.

Henderson’s win has resurrected the discussion about the Royal Scottish Pipers Society voting in 2008 to continue its tradition of being a men-only club. There are plenty of men-only and women-only and whatever-only clubs in every walk of life. By definition a “club” is restrictive and exclusionary. The complication, of course, is that members of this club of male “amateur” (read: not very good) pipers still judge top-level competitions, and so have a controlling stake in the UK solo piping scene.

Whether or not these RSPS judges are fit to pass accurate judgment on pipers who can play circles around them is perhaps less galling than is the perception that they might be predisposed towards male competitors. They’re part of a club that rejects female members, so making that leap isn’t so huge.

While women have competed in piping competitions forever, they’ve been allowed to participate in the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering only since 1975. These events are connected with “societies” – that is, upper-crust clubs for those of a certain pedigree, vocation or income-bracket similar to the Jolly Boys that comprise the RSPS. I don’t know much about the Highland Society of London beyond its Wikipedia listing, but I note that it’s made up of “Highland gentlemen resident in London,” and perhaps this sponsorship and tradition also had or has something to do with no woman winning their coveted prize until now.

We all like to think that the prize lists are fair. At least in associations outside of the UK there are sophisticated judging accreditation and accountability systems designed to create a degree of assurance that the competitions will be well assessed. If there’s a question of fairness, there’s a mechanism for addressing it.

But how many female pipers over the years have played well enough to earn a Gold Medal, only to have it denied because they didn’t get the benefit of the doubt? And we all know that, when it comes to the top piping, drumming and band competitions, the benefit of the doubt – splitting hairs based on personal preference or predilection – can be the difference between first and fifth.

Perhaps now everyone can just get on with it and once and for all stop pigeon-holing competitors as male or female, Scottish or not, white or not-white, military or civilian, rich or poor, Catholic or Protestant, Mason or not, and assess the music only with fairness, competence and objectivity.

In art, only hate itself should be hated

The only thing I really hate is hatred. When people say that they “hate” piobaireachd, a new pipe band medley, or, for that matter, any form of music or art, it bothers me. You can prefer one style more than another, or love a certain sound or sight, but why would anyone hate something as truly harmless as art?

You hear people in piping and drumming use the hate word frequently. “I hate that tune.” “I really hate what bass-sections are doing these days.” “I hate that band’s music.” It’s a word that, unfortunately, seems to be part of the piping and drumming tradition, perhaps borne of spite and envy and the ever-present need people seem to feel to compete on any level.

Some like to try to get a competitive edge by tearing down or belittling things they’re threatened by. Rather than minding only what they do themselves, they take a negative tack and discredit different approaches by using hateful language.

The other day I thought about different types of music. Like anyone else, I prefer some music more than others. But I can’t think of any music – whether classical, jazz, hip-hop or whatever – that I wouldn’t listen to and try to appreciate, if not enjoy.

My musical preferences run from hard rock to country to punk to bubblegum pop, even, and when it comes to music, I have many guilty pleasures. I was ridiculed mercilessly in the 1980s for admitting that I liked Debbie Gibson’s “Only In My Dreams” (which I maintain to this day is an intoxicating melody).

There is a sordid custom in piping to tear down that which threatens us. Dr. William Donaldson’s The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society is a seminal study of just such an example, in which piobaireachd was standardized by a group that set out to control the music in part by denigrating its history. The irony of ironies was that, when Donaldson’s book emerged, there was a strong and vocal attempt to – what else? – discredit his research, not to mention his training as a piper, each of which are impeccable.

There are those who are completely stuck in a hateful rut and, sadly, these folks all too often end up in positions of power. They try to eliminate things that threaten them by spreading hateful ideas, discrediting and belittling anything that is a challenge to their past and their status. They fancy themselves the protectors of some faith that really cannot exist in any art that wants to live in the present and future.

When it comes to art, the only thing to hate is hate itself.

No ask; no tell

Not Bob Nicol.The late great golf teacher, Harvey Penick, used to say something like, “Don’t give advice unless you’re asked.” Of course he was talking about golf, and the habit of some hacks who aren’t much better – or even far worse – than their playing partner of telling them what they’re doing “wrong.” Try moving your feet apart. Your grip looks bad. You’re taking your eye off the ball . . .

We face these irritating people in piping and drumming all the time. You’ll have finished your competition performance and some know-it-all will come up and start telling you what’s wrong and what you should do to fix it. Often these officious folks will be rank amateurs who couldn’t play their way out of the proverbial paper bag. Sometimes it will be busy-body professionals or judges, and they’re just as annoying.

The rule of thumb in piping, drumming and pipe bands should be: don’t offer your opinion or advice unless you’re invited to do so by the performer. If you break that rule, no matter who you might be or how good you are, you’re really just a dink.

I remember coming off the boards at the piobaireachd at Crieff games one year and practically being accosted by a famous teacher-judge-Claspy-piobaireachd-guy. He was almost breathless he was so anxious to tell me everything that I did “wrong” in my performance. I bit my tongue and let him bloviate at me, but I really wasn’t listening, much less interested, in his opinion. “Who the *%&# asked you?” was all that I was thinking.

There’s a famous story of a young Bill Livingstone who was similarly confronted at a Scottish games in the 1970s by Bob Nicol, half of the Balmoral Bobs. Nicol apparently ranted on at him about how dreadfully unmusical and “wrong” his tune was. Nicol, who was perhaps accustomed to Scottish pipers just politely accepting his unwelcomed counsel, was reportedly stunned and mystified by Livingstone’s response: “Well, that just fries my ass!

Judges are asked to provide their opinion of a performance via a scoresheet and/or the final result. Beyond that, they have no real business arrogantly lording unsolicited advice at competitors. No matter who you, it lacks tact.

It’s simple: Unless you’re asked, keep your advice to yourself.

10 tips to get judges

Working on a verdict.At least in North America, it seems that securing accredited judges is often a challenge for piping and drumming competition organizers. I’d assume the same might be said of Australia and other areas where either the number of judges is scarce and/or the geography is vast.

I don’t want to come across as presumptuous, and I’m always honoured to be asked to adjudicate anywhere, but following are a few tips that might help contests get more confirmations from the judges whom they invite to their event. Chances are you’re not involved with organizing any competitions, but if you compete and note that some events have a hard time attracting different or even enough judges, these may be a few of the reasons for that. 

  1. Compensate appropriately. There are far worse things to do than listen to piping/drumming all day and spout off your opinion, but organizers should understand that adjudicating is both hard work and time-consuming. Often, judges have to take a day off of work to get to your event. A day of vacation can be precious. If you want excellent judges, compensate accordingly, and be clear at the outset about fees and expenses.
  2. Don’t nickel-and-dime with small stuff. Unless he/she happen to be a close friend, most judges dislike being billeted at a volunteer’s house. Spend that relatively small amount on a decent hotel. Ask judges about other expenses they incurred – e.g., airport food, taxis – and cover those reasonable costs.
  3. Communicate. With your judges in place, make sure that they know the whats, wheres and whens of the weekend. Don’t assume that they’ll just figure it out. Inform them of all travel arrangements to and from the airport, the hotel, the contest and any planned events. And make certain that each judge understands your competition rules and policies, and has a reference sheet to refer to, if needed.
  4. Organize meals. Make sure that judges are fed and watered. Doesn’t have to be five-star dining, but arranging breakfast and sandwiches on the day with enough time to consume them in a relaxed manner goes a long way. Offer optional organized dinners on the Friday and Saturday for those who wish to attend.
  5. Beverages. A coffee or tea in the morning and soft drinks in the afternoon. Simple, but often forgotten.
  6. Get enough judges. You should never try to squeeze another event into a judge’s already full schedule. Rushing through competitors can make a miserable day for the judges and not great service for competitors either. If your contest is popular with competitors, make sure you plan accordingly. And understand that judges need a pee just like the next person (see “Beverages” above), so ensure that breaks are scheduled.
  7. A beer or two. After standing judging a score or more of bands, most judges are gasping for a pint by the end of the day. Getting off the field only to find a massive line for beer tickets or a stowed-out tent is a drag. Providing each judge with a few tickets in advance, or welcoming him/her to a hospitality area with a cold one in hand is a great touch.
  8. Settle before leaving. When judges are told, “Your cheque is in the mail,” they inevitably wonder if they’ll ever see it. Judges occasionally get stiffed, so make sure you deliver an envelope to them no later than noon. Judges talk, and if you’re late with payment, word will get around.
  9. Say thank you. Yes, judges should always thank you, but expressing your appreciation goes a long way for the future. Follow up a few days later with a card, or at least an e-mail message.
  10. Ask for feedback. Chances are, experienced piping and drumming judges have seen a lot more competitions than you ever will. Tap them for their thoughts on what you did right and areas that could be improved. It’s free, expert advice that most judges won’t offer unless asked. 

I realize that all of this may sound just a bit precious. Believe me, these tips are only intended to help, since some competitions might not realize or appreciate the work involved with adjudicating. It’s enjoyable work, for sure, but it is work, so looking after these fairly simple details can help make your event even more popular with adjudicators and competitors alike.

Perfect pitch

Outta there!Referees, umpires and judges can make mistakes. Every competition that requires an element of human officiating is subject to human error.

The technically “perfect” game (for non-baseball fans this is a game in which one side never reaches first-base; it’s happened only 20 times in the 130-year history of Major League Baseball) pitched by Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers the other night was nullified by a mistake in judgment by highly-respected veteran umpire, Jim Joyce. On what should have been the final, 27th-straight batter grounding out, Joyce ruled the batter safe at first, thus spoiling the rare perfect game and the no-hitter.

Baseball fans immediately wondered whether the umpire’s decision would be overturned by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, by overwhelming video evidence that the umpire erred, but Bud Selig decided against that. He contended that “the human element” is an integral part of the game, so the decision would stand, even though he, the umpire, Galarraga and everyone even remotely interested knows that it was in fact the twenty-first perfect game. What a shame.

The age of instant recording has also affected piping and drumming competitions. It probably started in 1974 when Bill Livingstone famously had his second-prize revoked in the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting when a listener in the audience cannily produced a tape recording showing that he had made some note mistakes. After the results were announced, upon hearing the recorded evidence the judges convened and decided to alter their list. Much hue and cry ensued, but it probably helped to put a spotlight on Bill, who went on, as we all know, to greater things.

Today instant replay is more than ever a factor. Video from pipe band competitions is available within hours of even the least significant of contests. More than once, there have been some visual things – blown attacks, hitched bags, dropped sticks – that seemed to have not been noticed by the judges.

There’s a school of thought with many judges that it’s only what’s heard that ultimately matters. Who cares about false fingering if you can’t hear it? A piper might not “get up,” but if it didn’t affect the sound, then what difference does it make? Didn’t that bass drummer play just fine with one mallet? The bagpipe sounded great without a middle-tenor going, so why get all worked up?

There are other judges who feel that these technical “errors” should be punishable. If you can see the mistake, then it should be duly assessed. The assumption is that if you detect it with your eyes, there must be some negative impact on the sound.

The Sunday morning quarterbacking that now goes on on YouTube is bigger than ever. This is the pipe band world’s version of instant replay, and perhaps it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that results can be altered by the officials, if the oversight is grievous enough. But that’s unrealistic.

What is realistic is a post-event conversation between judges before each submits his/her final result. In effect, this is as close as we should come to reviewing the recording to share notes to increase the likelihood of a fair result being rendered. The consultative judging process acknowledges that our competitions are subject to the human element, that mistakes might be made and that no one is perfect.


Ungraded.The Montreal games’ decision to forgo piping and drumming competitions due to the expense is telling. Like everyone else, I’m disappointed. But I also understand the economic challenges of holding a full slate of band and solo piping and drumming contests, and I can’t fault them for deciding not to go ahead with them this year.

Rather than pay a lot more to have the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario mobilize their turnkey operation of contests, with standardized judges, stewards and rules, Montreal is reportedly spending about half as much money simply to hire four or five top grade bands to perform a mini-concert on the day. I’ve been told that each invited band will receive a flat-fee of between $4,000 and $5,000 for their musical stint, which, I also have been told, would last no more than an hour. That’s a festival of pipe band music.

And that’s pretty good going for the fortunate few bands and the paying customers. It’s Pipebandpalooza. As a listener I’d want to attend Montreal to hear this festival of pipe banding, even more so than the usual full day of competition. Montreal can do this for that fairly inexpensive rate because the bands involved will be competing the day before at the North American Championships, a few hours’ drive away, in Maxville, Ontario. I’d think that other events without performers essentially already there would have trouble getting so many bands without paying a lot more for travel, but they could probably get two bands at double the fee.

So, this is the new quandary that I think we will see more and more of around the world. Highland games really only want the sound of pipes and drums. They don’t necessarily desire the peculiar cultural phenomenon of our little competition club, which is, as I’ve said many times before, not exactly attractive to the non-playing punter. The stuff we play for competition is technically demanding, tailored for clearer critical analysis, but it’s just not interesting to the large majority of those who don’t have a vested stake in it.

The reality is, if I were organizing a Highland games I think I’d be tempted to do what Montreal has done. I’d put on a pipe band show that’s accessible to and fun for non-players – the ticket-buying public who I need to be a viable operation.

But there’s still plenty of room for piping and drumming competitions as we know them. After all, pipers and drummers have repeatedly confirmed that they like these events, and don’t necessarily want to compromise or corrupt what we do to become a show for non-players. As a result, I’m seeing more Highland games opt out of the whole massive competition thing, but I’m also noticing more self-sustaining piping and drumming contests, held on their own, without the trappings of heavy events, dancing, sheepdog trials and a sanctioning pipe band association. The two formats are gradually going their separate ways.

As far as I can see, the World’s is the most successful example of the self-sustaining event. Anecdotal evidence and observation tells me that there are very few listeners at the World’s who don’t have a vested interest in the competition. The competitors alone attract about 7,000 people, and their friends and family bring attendance way up. As a result, it’s basically self-sustaining, provided it remains popular with competitors. Either way, events that are based purely on piping and drumming competition are scalable – they can expand and contract with the entry. (Note the May 29th Kingston, Ontario, event.) Just find a field, park or parking lot, tell everyone in your organization that there’s a competition, gather start-up funding, and charge everyone for admission, entry-fees and parking. Bob’s yer uncle.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that the familiar competition format is in danger of collapse. I do think, though, that, if we continue to reject the notion of changing our system radically, then we’ll just go our separate ways. There will the self-sustaining, competition-only events, and there will be the Highland games that hire guest bands to entertain the crowds. Montreal’s Pipebandpalooza (and they can pay me later for the name) is just a first radical start to the inevitable change.

Let er dangle

The Livingstone Sr. Invitational assembled the usual excellent piping talent with the usual small crowd of solo piping devotees, familiar handful of young learner-pipers and the customary consternation by older pipers (me included) as to why, oh, why more enthusiasts and learners don’t bother to attend these state-of-the-art demonstrations of musical excellence.

Nevermind. Of note was a relatively older roster of competitors. Of the eight, I believe all but a few were younger than 30, and most were older than 35. That the winner, Bruce Gandy (age 39) may have been (marginally) the oldest may say something, too, about the current condition of top-drawer solo piping in North America – or at least those who want to travel to this contest.

By far the youngest of the lot was Gordon Conn of Calgary. I’m not certain of his age, but I’d say he’s probably 19 or 20. Gandy, Grey, Troy et al.’s performances were all excellent, but I would say that the most memorable playing for me on the night was the hornpipe and jig that young Gordon threw down.

Kids today seem to set as the solo piping light music benchmark not what might win a Silver Star (although I’m sure that’s important, too), but what guys like Stuart Liddell and Fred Morrison can do with their hands. While most competitors in this own-choice light music event went with tried-and-true hornpipes and jigs (e.g., “The Man From Skye,” “Allan MacPherson,” “Donald Cameron’s Powder-Horn”) , taking a calculated conservative strategy, Conn chose tunes that would allow him to – as the late, great Scott MacAulay would have said – “Let ‘er dangle.”

That Conn’s hornpipe (“Mr. and Mrs. J. Duncan’s Golden Wedding”) and jig (“Karen Nuttall”) were composed, respectively, by Gordon Duncan and Scott MacAulay, pipers who left us far too early, I know carried some additional meaning to not a few people attending.

I liked that Gordon Conn executed the tunes in an edgy, seat-of-the-pants style – exactly the way the composers of the tunes would have done it themselves. They were pipers who lived on the edge of the moment, and objective number-one was always fun.

Damn the prize. Scott and Gordon I’m certain would have loved to see Gordon Conn, a young piper with a huge career ahead of him, do what he did.

Gridlock at the top

Beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah.Peculiar traditions in competitive piping and drumming aren’t limited to pipe bands. The world of solo piping is prone to idiosyncratic and contradictory developments. The recent decision by the Glenfiddich Invitational to no longer allow the annual United States Piping Foundation’s competition as a qualifier is one of those things that’s both reasonable and surprising.

It’s reasonable because the winner’s not guaranteed to be of a standard good enough to match that of the elite players who populate the Glenfiddich; it’s surprising because the USPF was the only remaining non-UK event on the Glenfiddich’s list of qualifying contests. The Glenfiddich used to kind-of sort-of somewhat acknowledge the aggregate winner of the Piobaireachd Society Gold Medal (Canada) (or is that Piobaireachd Society [Canada] Gold Medal? Can never get that straight) events at Maxville as second- or third-tier qualifier, but that seemed to vapourize a number of years ago, perhaps when Bill Livingstone stopped competing at it.

Sacking the USPF comes at a time when more UK pipers than ever are travelling to the US to compete in events offering major prize-money and workshops. Perhaps one of those ritzy contests in New Jersey, San Francisco, San Diego or Kansas City might be under consideration as a Glenfiddich qualifier.

The gridlock of bands that traditionally exists at the top of Grade 1 is symptomatic of solo piping, too. In fact, it’s almost the same scenario: The top competitors generally avoid risking being beaten by non-elites at smaller events simply by not attending. And without regular opportunities to beat the top competitors, it’s extremely difficult for bands and soloists to break in to the top-tier.

When it’s only the biggest contests (RSPBA championships for bands; invitationals for solo piping) that the top-tier competitors play at, it’s almost impossible for those not in the elite category to establish a consistent trend of success. If a band or soloist who isn’t in the top-tier manages to win a prize against the elite, it’s often considered a fluke, and judges might be suspected of a rogue decision. So the judges, too, are reluctant to stick their neck out and award prizes to the non-elites. That’s why competitive gridlock happens.

It apparently got so bad in the Scottish solo scene in the early 1980s that Hugh MacCallum, John MacDougall, Iain MacFadyen and Gavin Stoddart collectively agreed to retire together, to make way for a new generation of elites. That might be apocryphal, but the fact is they did retire almost en masse, and, if they hadn’t, then quite possibly we wouldn’t have seen Angus MacColl, Roddy MacLeod, Willie McCallum and Gordon Walker rise to the top so quickly. Who knows? One or more of those great players may have quit in frustration.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the top-tier elite band and solo competitors are amazing musicians and competitors. The public wants to hear them, and that’s why they’re invited back and showcased time and again. They’re safe bets for a superb contest, so you can hardly fault them for going with the big names. I wouldn’t suggest any of them retire before they’re good and ready on their own terms.

But some way, somehow, competitors need to have a chance to break in to the top-tiers and the elite. More big contests should find news ways to shake things up and allow new names to rise up.

Raising the chances

Shophie had to make a choice.Most solo piping competitors I think have a strategy when it comes to the tunes they choose and how they submit them. Of course, I’m talking about the higher levels of competition, where competitors have to put in more than one tune, and not thinking so much of submitting tunes that suit one’s hands or that the piper enjoys playing. Those are givens.

I’m thinking about the strategy involved with getting the tune you want to play chosen by the judge. When you submit four or more tunes, there are always one or two that you would hope to be picked, or, perhaps, one or two you hope aren’t picked. Consequently, pipers have their personal strategies for increasing/decreasing the odds.

Most would never admit it, though. If asked what you’re hoping to play, the standard answer has bravado: “Oh, I have no preference.” That’s supposed to communicate a combination of readiness and humility. It’s a subliminal warning-shot to a fellow competitor that you’re well-practiced, confident and ready for anything, while also trying to trick your own mind that you’ll accept what comes.

In piping and drumming, getting one’s hopes up – whether expecting a certain prize, favourable treatment from a judge or having a preferred tune picked – is ill-advised, and only sets you up for certain disappointment. A good rule of thumb for competing is, Expect the worst.

But you might be able to improve the odds. Here are some of the things that I either did as a competitor or as a judge notice others doing, attempting to get preferred tune(s) chosen from a list:

  • Name your preferred tune first. When you tell the judge your tunes, the first one should be the one that you want to play. It often gets chosen for the simple reason that the judge remembers it because he/she’s thinking about it as you rhyme off the rest of the list. And, as we all know, many judges have ADD or frequently simply lose the plot.
  • Increase the odds by including obscure stuff. Most judges pick stuff they know, mainly because they don’t want to be caught out. When two of the four tunes in your list are little-known and seldom-heard, chances are the judge won’t choose them. I used to submit a really good but obscure tune by G.S. McLennan called “Castle Toward.” I can’t remember it ever being picked.
  • Conveniently “forget” the names of the ones you don’t want to play. This happens a lot. A competitor just can’t remember the third or fourth tune in his/her list. They stammer and stall, and then it suddenly comes to them. Most judges are kind, so will probably not pick it because they assume you don’t want to play the tune or don’t actually know it.
  • Be cute. For example, if your last name is “MacDonald,” it might be a good idea to put in “The MacDonalds Are Simple,” or “John MacDonald of Glencoe,” or something else with “MacDonald” in the title. You see this quaint humour all the time. Judges think they’re funny and casual when they tell competitor Trixie McDonald, “Oh, well, we’ll just have to have ‘Mrs. MacDonald of Dunach,’ now, won’t we, haw, haw.”
  • Look for connections. Since there aren’t many competition tunes with “Berthoff” in the title, in addition to it being a fantasic tune I used to submit “Edinburgh City Police” in my marches, because judges often knew that my father-in-law played with that band for 25 years. As a competitor, I remember more than one nod-and-wink on the boards. You might want to choose tunes that relate to your hometown, band, teacher or some other connection.

Those are a few strategies that I’ve noticed and/or used myself. They might work for you but, then again, they might not – never count on anything in competitive piping and drumming.

Wait, a second

Looks pretty good to everyone else . . .Second is the hardest prize; you win gold and lose silver; always a bridesmaid . . . Watching the Winter Olympics there’s been a lot of talk about the heartbreak of not-quite-winning, and the fractional seconds and centimeters between glory and “defeat.”

We pipers and drummers are of course used to all that. The greater the competition’s stature, the less satisfactory any prize but first can be. Kids take gleeful pride in their third- and fourth-prizes in amateur and junior competitions. Grade 4 bands relish even a mention in the list. But, when it comes to the Professional Solo or Grade 1 band events, there’s often more disappointment than joy with the competitors who placed, but didn’t “win.”

As the Olympics remind us, that’s not right. Just qualifying to be good enough to compete at the highest level of athletic sport or piping/drumming competition is a massive accomplishment on its own. The competitors who don’t meet that lofty standard – probably 99 per cent of people who compete in the sport or art – are envious of just the achievement of competing at the top tier. They’d covet just being good enough to play in a Grade 1 band or at the Professional solo level, and any prize, to them, would be dreamy cake-icing.

It’s a bitter reality: the better you become, the more disappointing competition can be. Part of the reason why there’s disappointment is the pathological competitive drive required to reach the top tier. You keep pushing and pushing to be better and better, so, of course second-prize even at the loftiest level is tantamount to losing. It’s a necessary competitive mindset.

But the overall piping and drumming culture mistakenly and unhealthily plays in to that first-or-lost attitude.

It doesn’t help when we continually tear down our own. The sordid and spiteful tradition of ripping everyone but the winner continues in some fusty, old-think places. That sort of Sunday Morning Quarterback analysis is at least useless, if not downright mean. We should celebrate the winners, but we should also continually vaunt our best and brightest.

It’s interesting to me that, during these Olympics (which granted are receiving far more attention in Canada than anywhere else), it’s the favoured competitors who didn’t quite rise to the top who usually take things the hardest. While the disappointed athletes have on occasion sobbed inconsolably over their “loss,” the public cheers them on, proud of their achievements and their extraordinary dedication, commitment and talent.

We pipers and drummers can learn from that.


Use when needed.Because pipes|drums is non-profit, funds from subscriptions and sponsors that remain after site development and hosting costs are taken care of go to other worthy, non-profit piping/drumming causes. The other day the pipe-major of a Grade 3 band asked if a few subscriptions might be donated to a silent auction to help the group get to Scotland. Of course! Happy to help, and it’s good for pipes|drums, too, since almost all subscribers re-up year after year.

That’s not a monetary donation, of course, but it got me thinking about donations to piping/drumming causes in general, and then about what more associations could offer for sale to members beyond membership itself.

I think folks are looking for ways to create new and interesting approaches to competitions. There’s the “Pipe-Majors’ Wheel of Fortune” in the Edinburgh area that is extremely clever. I haven’t been to it, but I understand it’s great fun, with competitors spinning the wheel to see what they have to play – or even if they have to tell a joke.

What if a group put on a competition / fundraiser where competitors could purchase vouchers as part of the event? There could be “Play Again” cards that pipers and drummers could purchase to use if they cocked up the first attempt, sort of like Monopoly’s “Get out of Jail Free” card.

Or how about purchasing a loan of some great player’s pipes or drum for the event? Imagine being able to use someone like Bruce Gandy’s pipes for a day. Or maybe buying a voucher that you can use to have the judge tune your drum or drones. Or buy the right to move up a place or two in the prizes, should you make the list.

The fun fundraising possibilities are endless.


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