Bully for you

When will we stop bullying each other? When will we stand up to bullies? Or, at least, when will we treat each other with basic courtesy? The publication of the third Scots Guards Collection is just another example of our tradition of skirting not only the law, but common decency, when it comes to the rights of composers.

We keep falling back on the “there’s no money in it” excuse, as if to say that it’s not worth the bother to respect one another unless there’s serious poundage involved. That the British Army and a well-established music publishing company puts out the biggest single collection of light music since, well, since Scots Guards II, and doesn’t even ask many rights-holding composers for permission to reprint their works, is inexcusable.

It’s another example of bullying that the piping and drumming world has endured and practiced itself since the beginning. The attitude and MO has been, Don’t bother with legalities, formalities and common decency – they can’t and won’t do anything about it, anyway, so let’s just keep the poor composers and performers down.

Whether it’s a major broadcaster, a publishing company, or our very own associations, they know that they won’t be challenged. Not only is there too much political risk in terms of competition repercussions, but, if you actually complain, you will simply be left out of the CD, the DVD, the TV show, the book, the streaming – all the places in which they know we crave and cherish inclusion.

It’s an insidious practice, and, by accepting it, we teach every new generation of pipers and drummers that it’s acceptable behavior. Young players just grow up thinking, Well, that’s just how it’s done. Don’t ask questions. Don’t stand up to the bully; it will just make things worse. Live in fear and maybe the bully will lose interest.

And then there’s the reasoning that we should be grateful for people actually reproducing our performances and copyright works. Don’t complain, or else they might not do it, as if they’re all nonprofits.

Again, the truth is that they produce these products because they make money. They claim that they are making no money from these illegal works, and they won’t open their books, so we have to take their claims at face value. Scots Guards III is priced at about $75 retail – great value because of its great content. Dealers would purchase it from the publisher for about $40, probably less. The publisher has a deal with the British Army, probably about $20 of each sale to retailers going to the military.

In addition to my professional life, I can use my own publishing experiences as a guide. I published a collection of music some years back, and within a month I had broken even. Everything after that was profit, which I plowed into other nonprofit piping projects. Similarly, without making a strong-sell on advertising and subscriptions, pipes|drums operates in the black. How? We develop the content that we think people are willing to pay for, which builds an audience that advertisers want to reach.

If it were not for the quality content, the product does not work. As a nonprofit, it allows us to cover costs and donate and sponsor other worthwhile and nonprofit things. And part of our costs is paying for quality content. Every solicited writer is offered compensation for their work. The content has value, and those who produce the content should be remunerated for it.

If it were a cash drain, pipes|drums would not happen. It simply would not exist because it would not make any sense. And this is true of CDs, DVDs, broadcasts, books and other products. If you have the content quality, then you have the quality product. And those who provide the content must agree to the terms of the deal, whether cash or licensing or simply a, “Sure, the exposure is enough of a return for me.”

Schoolyard bullying is in the news a lot these days. Kids are being coached on it. Parents are wising up to it. Isn’t it time that pipers and drummers stopped bullying each other, and started facing up to and exposing those who bully us?

Personality crisis

I’m pretty sure I know the main reason why competitive pipers and drummers are so often in disagreement about our avocation: it’s about a clash of two distinct types of personalities: it’s the creative versus the analytical.

The current pipes|drums Poll asks, “What do you like most about piping/drumming?” and readers can answer one of either “The creativity,” or “The competition.” It’s an admittedly unscientific attempt to determine how many of us are drawn to the artistic or the analytical sides of what we do. And polling shows that we’re 50/50. (Actually, about 52% chose “the competition,” but chances are the creative types are bending the polling rules, while the analyticals rigidly stick to them, because that’s what they do.)

We are involved in competition that uses art as sport and this has forever caused friction. We attempt to create “rules” to more equitably assess what piper or drummer or band wins a purely subjective event.

Take for example the recent stramash over Bagad Brieg’s six-second time overrun in their medley in the Grade 2 qualifying round at this year’s World’s. The error was either missed altogether or intentionally overlooked, and the band went on to compete in the Final, finishing third and winning the drumming.

In the ensuing discussion on the matter (during which,notably, both Brieg and the RSPBA have been deathly silent), opinions seemed to be split along 50/50 arty vs. anal divides. Those drawn to the artistic side more than likely couldn’t care less about such a perceived impropriety. “Six seconds? Who cares? They deserve the prize.”

The analytical folks who are drawn first to the competition side of our thing, are spitting with outrage that a band could be allowed to get away with such an infraction. “Even it were one-second – throw them out!”

It’s a fascinating case study in the tension we face at every competition, due much to different essential personality types. The artistic creators are in need of a platform for their art, and often settle for the competition stage. The serious composers more often than not become worn down eventually by competition and rules being placed on their creations. They might continue to compete, but in their hearts they probably don’t much care about the result.

The competitive analytical types just want to compete and get a result based on “the rules.” They don’t care much about what they play, only playing it well enough to win. They struggle with a judge liking something for purely subjective “musical” reasons, seeming to ignore pseudo-objective criteria like tone, attacks and time.

And inartistic analyticals seem to gravitate to bureaucracy. They love joining associations and gaining power so that they can create and uphold rigid rules. They’re often not even pipers or drummers, and instead are enthusiasts drawn in by sons or daughters doing the playing.

As with everything, there are exceptions. I admit that these are generalizations. But I think there’s something to this essential struggle of personality types. Look around and see what the rule-sticklers do for a living. More often than not they’re in professions that involve numbers and black-and-white yes/no options. The artistic types are usually in jobs that require flexible creativity. And if each type is unhappy about their work, it’s often because they’re doing something that doesn’t match their personality.

Arty readers will likely see this as an interesting take on our struggle, even if they don’t agree. The analyticals probably enjoyed the stats in the second paragraph but never got past the third.

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.

A comment on comments

Much talk over the last few weeks about social media comments, and the situation with the venerable Shotts & Dykehead. In case you’ve been locked up in Barlinnie, here’s the basic story:

  • A few members of the band apparently posted rather pointed comments on Facebook about the drumming judging at the British Pipe Band Championships.
  • The comments were seen by many, and were subsequently removed by those who posted them.
  • The band and/or the members allegedly were served warning by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association about their concern with what was posted.
  • The band or the members were allegedly threatened with suspension.
  • The band held a meeting, the result of which was the Pipe-Major resigning.
  • The band did not compete at the European Championships and don’t yet appear to have appointed a replacement leader.

What a sorry state of affairs that really didn’t need to happen. Yes, the comments need not have been posted. But it brings in to question the idea of what is and isn’t fair comment in the pipe band world. Here’s my take:

So, a judge’s decision might be questioned? So what? Provided it’s fair and not personally libelous then what on earth is the big deal? It might not be politically astute to do such a thing, but is it the stuff of suspension? No way.

Criticizing judging decisions in any form of competition is simply part of the fun. Certainly in the pipe band world, it’s nothing new. What is relatively new is that someone actually had the courage to put their name to their opinions, however strong they might be. This is far better than the back-biting trolls that incessantly whinge on platforms that allow unfiltered anonymous comments without any moderation. (Comments to pipes|drums articles and this blog are moderated.)

When you agree to judge a piping, drumming or pipe band contest you implicitly agree to subject yourself to criticism. If you’re not ready to accept that, then don’t do it. Suck it up, buttercup.

There is some similarly wrong precedent here. The great Muirhead & Sons Pipe Band in the 1970s worked to get a petition going against the judge John K. McAllister after what the band felt were continued judging injustices. The Scottish Pipe Band Association threatened to suspend the band for the rest of the year. The great Pipe-Major, Bob Hardie, then backed down, apologizing profusely, and the band was allowed to compete. It was an example of an association forgetting the interests of its competing members, which should always come first.

In the 2012 example, I have absolutely no reason to believe that the judge in question even knew about the alleged situation, much less read the comments posted on Facebook. This, by all accounts, was an apparent association decision to threaten severe action against the band or individuals. Provided the comments were not libelous, then threatening sanction – if that is what indeed happened – was wrong.

I don’t know of any association that has a rule that members can’t be critical of each other. Isn’t fair criticism what competition is about in the first place? If such a policy or rule were in effect, the whole scene, first, would not be fun, and second, would have about 10 good Samaritans left as members.

It was simply because a few people put their name to strong opinion on the record on a social media platform that this sad circumstance has happened. Again, not politically canny, but fair criticism is simply part of the judging gig, and associations need to be in tune with the real world.

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.

Tips for the World’s

Every year the World’s comes around and every year there are things I forget to remember. Like these:

  • The RSPBA runs like a Swiss watch. If the program says a band is to play at 10:57, almost without fail the band is brought on to the park at 10:57. It’s to the point where watching the RSPBA’s stewards is more amazing than watching the bands themselves. These guys are like the secret service, decked out in ear pieces, communicating across the park, the oil in the machine. It really is uncanny.
  • Best bands always win.The results are almost always right. Say what we will about ranking spreads, perceptions of conflict and other problems (and they are problems), but the right result is almost always delivered at the end of the day. When was the last time that someone had a major, major problem with the results at the World’s, especially the first prizes? It all comes out in the wash.
  • The best place to be is at the World’s. The live streaming on the BBC could ultimately become a case of the RSPBA cutting of its nose to spite its face, and for sheer listening pleasure there’s nothing better than watching the contest from your 7.1 surround sound 55-inch plasma system at home, but nothing beats actually being there. The atmosphere on the park is irreplaceable.
  • It’s still a closed shop. Everyone around Glasgow seems to be aware of the World’s going on, but still only pipers and drummers appear to actually go to the event. Taxi drivers and barmen and customs officers know the event is happening, but I have yet to happen upon someone not directly connected with a band or piping/drumming paying to attend the contest. I’m sure they’re there, but they’re as scarce as a band with brown brogues and balmorals.
  • You’re increasingly spoiled for choice. It gets more difficult every year to do everything that you want to do at Piping Live! and the World’s. Piping Live! now has three, even four things happening at the same time every hour of every day, leaving you strangely disappointed. The World’s has always been that way, but at least now with the BBC’s coverage you can reasonably skip the Grade 1 and have a listen to other excellent events, or soak up (or get soaked at) the beer tent.
  • Just in case, bring sunscreen. Yes, that’s right. Everyone brings rain gear, but this year the sun emerged in full-force for about an hour. And there’s nothing like the intensity of pure Scottish sun to get a burn. I got absolutely baked in the beer tent, as it were, in the unexpected sunshine. I looked like the burn-victim I was for two solid weeks.

I’ll keep these tips on hand for 2012 so that I’ll not forget to remember.

Recharging

Eilean ChanaighAnother World’s is in the books, and I’d have to say it was the best yet. I think I say that every year, but this one seemed to run spectacularly well. Say what you will about the RSPBA, but these people know how to run some of the most complex events on the pipe band calendar.

After a fun and exhausting week in Glasgow, I’m off to a little island in the Hebrides to create a few altogether different life memories with my girls. Access to the Internet (not to mention my desire to access it) could be scant or even nonexistent, so things could be relatively quiet around these pages for a spell. As always, we’ll try to do our best.

I do hope that you enjoyed the coverage from Piping Live! and the World’s. We’re all indebted to great writers like Pete Aumonier, Michael Grey, Iain MacDonald and Meaghan Proudfoot and many others behind-the-scenes for their pith and insight.

For now, I’m on the West Highland Line to Mallaig, camera and mind trained on things other than pipers and drummers.

Well, at least some of time . . .

Tit-for-tat

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.

Creative break

Massive challenges ahead.North American pipe band associations have to change. For the last 60 years they have coordinated familiar solo and band competitions that are modeled after Scotland’s traditional Highland games. These events resonate mostly with first-generation post-war immigrant Scots. But in 2011, many North American Highland games – at least as we know them – are on the wane as they struggle to compete for attention from a less-Scottish and more demanding public.

Associations are going to have to reinvent themselves – and quick.

There always will be opportunity to supply the usual turnkey piping and drumming events. Reactively sanctioning competitions under association rules at the request of Highland games put on by other organizations won’t be abandoned, but they are abandoning us. Consequently, associations increasingly will need to proactively create their own platforms for their members to perform. Waiting around for the phone to ring with a Highland games on the line, ready to contract the piping and drumming won’t cut it any longer.

More creativity and more entrepreneurialism are needed if associations are to continue to serve their membership. Risks will have to be taken, and some mistakes will inevitably be made along the way. But the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward can be.

North American associations have faced a quandary for a long time: how to push the boundaries of the art while maintaining the competition desires of members and still respect the ethnic musical “idiom” of the Highland pipe. The fallback has almost always been a cookie-cutter approach to events, with conventional competition formats and requirements. The unchanging competitions are very often almost completely ignored by the general public, who really only want the pipes as background music for their day, culminating in a massed bands spectacle.

The irony is that, in general, the public is indifferent to the competitions but love the massed bands, while pipers and drummers love the competition but dislike the massed bands.

Which begs the question: why don’t associations simply create their own events and stop relying so heavily on Highland games? Perhaps associations should give up on the fantasy that piping and drumming events alone will one day attract the respect and interest of the public, and embrace the challenge of staging their own competitions mainly for their membership. In essence, expand the concept applied to existing indoor events to outdoor venues.

Associations and their branches already are expected to be entrepreneurial and creative. See the Metro Cup. See the Livingstone Invitational. See the BC Indoor Gathering. See the Toronto Indoor Games. See the success of unsanctioned events like Winter Storm, the Dan Reid and Mastery of Scottish Arts. All of these events put piping and drumming first and operate on their own. They’re not a Highland games afterthought; the centerpiece is piping and drumming itself.

Scotland will never have this problem because Highland games and pipe band competitions are not an ethnic oddity, they’re a cultural occurrence. The decline in interest in ethnic Highland games is perhaps more pronounced in Canada than it is in the United States. But the two countries, which once had massive first-generation Scottish immigrant populations, are now dramatically more ethnically diverse. I’m not sure if Australia, New Zealand or other countries are facing the same thing.

North American associations need to adapt to a changed population, halt the erosion of the familiar and alter their traditional approach to meeting the needs of their membership with creativity and entrepreneurialism – before it’s too late.

Degrading

Associations have no business re-grading non-members. In fact, doing so is counterproductive and throws a proverbial spanner into the delicate works of piping and drumming protocol.

The only association that I know that does this is the RSPBA, and every time it happens it results in needless confusion and ill-will. Some in the pipe band world have come to accept that the World Pipe Band Championships are the RSPBA’s “sandbox,” so they are free to do what they want. That is very true – except when it comes to re-grading bands.

The pipe band outside of Scotland world has become pretty sophisticated. The 10 North American associations and those in New Zealand and Australia have a clear grading system administered by those who monitor world standards and make recommendations based on their considerable knowledge. North American, Kiwi and Ozzie competitors who are members of one association often travel to events sanctioned by neighboring associations. Their grade at home is their grade on the road. As a guest, they must adhere to any different rules and policies, but they are accepted with a respectful understanding that they meet the minimum standard required to compete in the event.

There is reciprocity in grading across North America and, I am pretty sure, the antipodean associations. These groups have worked for the better part of the last 20 years to ensure commonality in standards and grading, as well as adjudication and rules. There are constant adjustments, and re-gradings are made using a map of the season as a whole, and never on just a single competition.

Re-grading a non-member guest competitor who played at just one event, without consulting the competitor’s home association, immediately undermines and belittles the association. It implies that the association’s sense of the standard is incorrect – a serious charge in today’s piping and drumming world.

If an association has a problem with a guest competitor that it deems is playing in the wrong grade, then it should work directly with the competitor’s home association first. If it is thought – after careful review – that a piper, drummer or band exceeded or didn’t meet the standard of the grade, then the competitor’s home association should be contacted. By simply expressing the concern of the association’s music board that a band or soloist competed in a grade that was above or below their ability, it allows for a more considered review and a lot less aggravation and acrimony.

The association and competitor can then consider their situation, take measures to correct or explain problems and then, in an equally diplomatic manner, report back to the association that expressed concern — should the competitor wish to return.

Ultimately, associations should deal directly only with their own members or the officials from other associations. To do otherwise is not only meddlesome and confusing, it’s disrespectful.

I don’t buy it

The commercial recordings of the World Pipe Band Championships are now being sold, and, as always, the performers don’t get a red pence for their work. Not a penny, dollar, punt, pound or centime for their efforts. pipes|drums has discussed the legalities of this at length, and brought the issue to the fore several years ago but, sadly, no progress has been made. Not a single word of explanation from either the RSPBA or the record company.

So, it’s time for individuals to stop buying the products and instead rip copies from a single source, and it’s time that the CD and DVD dealers stop purchasing from the record company and distributor. The reality is that every time we purchase these products we in effect take money out of the pockets of the artists who deserve – by law – their fair share. It’s simply not right.

It’s most remarkable to me that we all perpetuate the problem by turning a blind eye. Every off-season there’s some hue and cry from the bands that the practice ignores performers’ legal right to negotiate compensation, but as the days creep closer to the summer and the World’s itself the protests dwindle for fear of rocking a competition boat.

So I figure the only way to trigger change is not to purchase the products. If you’re desperate to hear these recordings, invest instead in software that will allow you to record the BBC’s streamed video so that you can play that original content again and again. (At least the BBC doesn’t charge anyone for the content.) Or, if you buy a copy of the CD, upload the content to a music file sharing site for all to take freely.

Once and for all, let’s stop buying these for-profit products until a legal agreement is reached with the performers. Until then, we’re just adding to the problem.

Jottings from Glasgow

Roddy MacLeod addresses the gathering at the Glasgow City Chambers.A few stand-out memories and observations from a chock-a-block week in Glasgow. There are hundreds more, but these came to mind first when thinking back on the week. They’re in no particular order.

Bagad Brieg

After almost 30 years of attending the World’s I realized that I had not once listened to anything but Grade 1. So, this year, I decided to will myself away from the Grade 1 Medley Final, and take a look at the Grade 2 final. There were 12 bands in the event, and several performances would have stood up well in Grade 1. But the medley that caught my ear was that of Bagad Brieg from Brittany. I was glad that they finished third overall, because I wondered if their more creative selection might alienate potentially traditionalist judges. Brieg’s finish included an impressive delivery of Gordon Duncan’s “Pressed for Time,” an ingenious and difficult composition that few bands would tackle. Brieg to me stood out from the fairly predictable fare of some of its competition, and I won’t be surprised if they are the next Breton band approved for Grade 1 by the RSPBA.

Armagh Pipers Club

I heard a lot from this band of uillean pipes, whistles, banjo and bodhran during Piping Live! They play an eclectic variety of Celtic stuff in a very acoustic and unplugged manner. They were the background entertainment at a reception at the Glasgow City Chambers put on by the city’s Lord Provost (read: mayor) for people connected with Piping Live! pipes|drums is once again a media partner with the festival, so I scored an invitation. The Armagh Pipers Club played away at the corner of the room, and it was splendid.

Glasgow City Chambers

Over the years I’ve been within yards of the Glasgow City Chambers (read: city hall) thousands of times, but I’d never actually gone inside. What a building. The deep red Italian Carrara marble is everywhere and it is stunning. The building was made in 1888 and, I was told, Glaswegians complained about its cost. But they must have stopped complaining once they saw the completed building. I kept thinking of The Simpsons “Stonecutters” episode. I highly recommend you have a look next time you’re in Glasgow. They don’t make them like this no more.

Roddy MacLeod practicing

The redoubtable Helen Wilkinson of the National Piping Centre kindly allowed me to plug in to their Internet connection throughout the week. While all the action was happening outside, behind the scenes the NPC’s offices were inhabited by employees and volunteers keeping things running. There’s probably not a busier person in Glasgow than Piping Live! and National Piping Centre Director Roddy MacLeod. But one day when I was posting a news story, a somewhat frazzled Roddy came into the offices, and disappeared into a back room where he proceeded to . . . practice. He managed to squeeze in about 15 minutes of his own solo playing before being interrupted with the latest crisis. I continued to do my thing, but couldn’t help but enjoy the loveliness of his playing and pipe. How Roddy manages the NPC and Piping Live! while staying at the top of the solo game is beyond me. MBE indeed.

The RSPBA machine

I compared the band competition times in my program with the actual times the bands came on. There was never more than a minute either way. There may have been one or two lapses on the day, but the RSPBA is unbelievably good at executing events of this size. And it’s not just 230-odd bands; it’s more than 350 (by my count) actual band performances. The RSPBA is mind-bogglingly good at running the World’s like a Swiss watch.

Elderly humming Highlanders

I was reminded about the peculiar habit that old Scottish men have when a solo piper plays a Gaelic air or piobaireachd: they hum along, usually off-pitch, in this sort of murmuring style. You’ll be sitting there enjoying a recital by Angus MacColl or Willie McCallum or some other great, and when the player starts an air or urlar there emerges this weird sound from the audience. And usually, you can’t tell who it is who’s humming, but rest assured it’s one of the elderly Highland-looking dudes. Shut it!

Inert judges

Some ensemble judges feel it’s acceptable to assess each band as a whole from one spot. I’ve heard Bob Shepherd’s thoughts on being “static.” Fair enough. But I noticed in several circles at the World’s piping judges pretty much staying in one place. One judge in an event I listened to never ventured past the half-way mark at the top of the band on one side of the circle – for the entire contest. Another time I noticed all three – two piping and ensemble – listening for a good minute in a clump. With the size of today’s bands, this makes no sense. The piping judges should make an effort to stay away from one another to ensure variances on each side of the circle are heard. Mobility may be a factor with a few judges being relative stagnant, but I would think that the competitors deserve a more comprehensive listen. If judges are having a hard time getting around, perhaps they should retire – or at least use one of those electric carts.

Drinks vouchers

“Beer tickets” are standard at North American piping and drumming events. It’s a way to balance the revenues against sold product and safeguard against theft. The World’s was the first Scottish event that I’d seen the use of the system, and the “drinks vouchers” setup made getting served a breeze. The bed-sheet-size paper vouchers were a bit much, though. Could this be the first time ever that the RSPBA has adopted an idea from another country?

All told, it was a great week, and, as always, your observations are welcome.

Dump the Qualifier

Is there any band, judge or listener who actually likes the World’s Grade 1 Qualifying system? If there is, I haven’t met him or her. In Glasgow this week it seems like every other person involved with a Grade 1 band has nothing good to say about the round of playing that allows five bands to join those that managed to bypass the process.

Five years ago I wrote about how dreary and interminable all those MSRs are. Last year the first four or five bands played in cold, driving rain, and the other 10 played in relative warmth. This year 16 bands will do the same, so 11 of them, and most of those from places other than Scotland, will head to the beer tent having gone out after four minutes of playing.

The Qualifier has got to go.

There is a definite sense, too, that the Qualifier – as it is now – will indeed go. Band members seem to be optimistic that some sort of new approach will replace the current system, trusting that the RSPBA’s recent survey concluded that no one really likes the unfair scheme currently in place.

And why an MSR? The old saw contending that an MSR “separates the men from the boys” is so unbelievably dated it hardly merits discussion. Today’s bands commit probably at least twice as much creative thought and energy to their medleys, perhaps knowing that they could go out there with phrasing like Angus MacColl only to have it fly right over the heads of most judges, who seem to listen for only tone and mistakes when it comes to the sets.

So eleven bands with sophisticated and often elaborately musical medleys will go home without the opportunity to play them for the judges or the crowd, the majority of whom clearly prefer to listen to selections (just compare YouTube views of MSRs against medleys).

It’s not really clear to anyone I’ve spoken to exactly why the system is the way it is. Whatever reasoning 10 years ago for creating the MSR Qualifier is now forgotten, leaving people to wonder why there’s time to break those 60 Grade 4B bands into three sections for a final competition, and there’s not enough time to have 26 Grade 1 bands each play twice. What’s up with that?

The discussion can’t really be drawn by national boundaries. I’ve heard as much dissension about the Qualifier system from Northern Irish and Scottish bands as I have from pipers and drummers in “overseas” bands. If there’s a good reason for the MSR Qualifier I don’t remember hearing it. If you have one, please comment.

Saying “If you don’t like it, don’t play,” doesn’t wash. The World’s is the World’s. Bands hold out hope that some way somehow they will get through the Qualifier, and then go on to some rather unlikely glory. Meanwhile every year they hope for some better solution, like a two-day World’s, or returning to a system whereby all bands have to qualify for a final, as was the case in the late-1970s and early-1980s, or perhaps even a pre-qualifying system in other countries that allows non-UK bands to have an equitable chance.

Whatever the alternative, the Qualifier as it currently exists has got to go.

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.

Pipeband-palooza

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.

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.

Just talk

You first.Sometime in the last decade, I made an offer to the then executive officer of the RSPBA to develop a public relations plan. No charge. Perhaps ironically, he never responded, much less took me up on the proposal. It frustrated me then, as it does now, to see piping and drumming associations make fundamental communications mistakes. While these mistakes have incited a lot of news content – some of it quite extraordinary – over the years to any media outlet with enough courage to report it, many of the errors could have been avoided by doing just a few things differently.

I’ve worked in public relations for almost 20 years. I’ve done okay in the profession, working with one of North America’s top agencies, currently as a senior-vice-president. My company has gained more PR industry awards than any agency in Canada. I don’t intend to brag; it’s just to say that others seem to think I often know what I’m doing when it comes to communications.

To be sure, the RSPBA’s communications problems aren’t unique. In fact, they exist with most, if not all, piping and drumming organizations that largely rely on passionate unpaid volunteers to make the right decisions and make the time to implement them. There’s no denying that effective communications take expertise, experience and time. Those elements aside, most of it comes down to plain old common sense.

So, again, in good faith, here are a few essential tips for communicating effectively. Maybe a few piping and drumming organizations – associations, committees, bands, clubs, panels – will find them useful.

1. Silence is treated with suspicion and eventually contempt. In today’s instant messaging world, people expect open, honest, transparent dialog. When nothing is said the inference is that something’s being hidden. When questions go unanswered, contempt is created.

2. Mistakes happen; own up to them, apologize, learn from them and become better. No organization is perfect. We all make mistakes. But an association that doesn’t acknowledge or attempts to obfuscate its errors inevitably damages its reputation. The truth will out, so get in front of it. Don’t sit back and hope no one notices. The practice of sweeping problems under the rug thinking that they’ll just go away doesn’t hold up any more. It may be out of sight and out of mind, but it will continue to get smellier and stinkier and eventually become a suffocating stench when it’s uncovered.

3. Trust people. Last time I checked, piping/drumming was still music, enjoyed by those with a passion for it. It’s all good. Suspecting everyone of having some ulterior motive or a hidden agenda is counter-productive. Trust is returned with trust.

4. Earn trust. Members need to be confident that their opinions will not result in political repercussions. With unhealthy associations, open criticism is rare because members are afraid that some corrupt judge or executive will retaliate on the contest field. An environment of constant constructive dialog must be nurtured. It will take years to change, in some cases, the decades-old tradition of fear, but it can and must happen if you’re going to lead. Clamp down on conflict-of-interest and communicate that it will not be tolerated in any shape – real or perceived.

5. The “association” is the members, not its executive, music board or judges. Like a church, the “church” is not the preacher or the cathedral, it’s the congregation. An organization that loses touch with its members is destined to fail, or, like leaders of political parties, will be overthrown by the will of constituents. Always act in the best interests of the members. If you don’t know what their collective best interests are, refer to point 4.

6. Be accessible and responsive. Customer service is for many of today’s businesses the only real differentiator. There’s always an option to do something else. An association’s customers are its members. Treat them like a customer: with respect, good manners and appreciation. Viewing the membership as a giant headache or insinuating that they’re always wrong – as some associations seem to these days – will alienate them. You might be the only Wal-Mart in town, but if you neglect your customers they’ll eventually go shopping elsewhere.

7. Communicate your good news. Piping and drumming organizations do far more things right than wrong. They sometimes wonder why no one acknowledges their accomplishments. The reason is simple: you didn’t bother to tell anyone, and/or you didn’t respond to inquiries. Talk. (See point 1.)

8. Take criticism seriously. Organizations should welcome and even invite criticism. Ask members for their feedback, and consider all of it. You will identify trends, and you can prioritize what needs to be fixed first. (See point 2.)

9. Measure your “brand.” Do you know what your organization represents to members? To outsiders? To the people you want to reach? Are you even recognized for anything? Ask a cross-section of various audiences to describe your organization or band in three words. You’ll be amazed at what you discover, positive and negative – or even that they’ve never even heard of you. Only by listening, knowing and accepting can you improve.

10. Embrace change. A stubborn, obstinate organization that is unwilling to adapt to changing times or the desires of its members will eventually become a dinosaur. Associations often mistakenly think that their job is to protect the past, to control the music by rejecting suggestions to do things differently. In fact, any organization with vitality needs to face and embrace the future.

Perhaps these points will help a few foundering piping and drumming organizations whose problems often are a result of poor communication. As a member, contemplate how well your association, band or group manages these points.

It’s a different world today, and the piping and drumming traditions of the 1900s – ignoring and denying problems, sweeping troubles under the rug, silence and contempt – are unacceptable in 2010.

Other worldly

GlobularThe 2009 World’s is done and dusted, and all that’s left is the celebrating by a relative few and the crying by most competitors. Competition notwithstanding, everyone who was there – physically or virtually – should be able to remember the event fondly. It is an extraordinary thing, and every year it seems to improve incrementally.

I’ve been on the administration and planning side of large events, and can appreciate just how much work goes in to them. Much of that effort comes from unappreciated volunteers, and that this year’s World’s again ran like clockwork is a true credit to the contest-running machine that is the RSPBA. I don’t envy any organizers who take it upon themselves to stage a big-time event for anxious and naturally contentious competitors. It’s inevitable that they’ll have to take far more stick for minor inconsistencies than kudos for the majority of achievements. So here’s my big congratulations to them, and you perhaps might want to do the same.

A few thoughts post-event:

Internet streaming: While straining to hear the Grade 1 bands (even from on of the best vantage-points there was), and wondering whether that mistake I detected was real or just the whistling wind or rain, I couldn’t help but think that listening to the BBC’s live webcast at home through a high-speed connection in high-definition on a 55-inch plasma TV with surround-sound speakers would be altogether better. While this high-quality access is a great step ahead and a boon to everyone, it’s probably not in the RSPBA’s best interests. They’re essentially freely giving away their most valuable product – the one many paid $50 all-told to hear live. I heard about not a few competitors even watching the webcast from their bus instead of fighting the crowds to hear. Pay-per-view makes sense, but by law the BBC can’t do that. Thanks to funding by UK taxpayers, the Beeb is commercial- and income-free. The BBC has played an integral role for years in the recording and broadcast of the World’s, and changing this to a private, revenue-based company that could then coordinate pay-per-view is a daunting thought. It will be interesting to see what happens.

The Qualifier. Get rid of it. I know that the Q was essentially something that the competitors originally demanded more than a decade ago. But 10 years back there were maybe 12 bands that had almost no chance to get a prize, so the Q was an easy way to weed them out. Now, though, I would say that the number of certain also-rans is maybe down to five Grade 1 bands. With that, it’s time to have every band go through a one-day medley qualifier for a final the next day. That means a two-day World’s, at least for Grade 1. But it would make the playing field more level, ensuring no band in the final has to compete three times – a massive disadvantage.

Bring it inside: Assuming Internet streaming will continue, why not bring the Grade 1 competition indoors? The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall seats 2,500. The Scottish Exhibition Centre even more. Sell tickets for a premium price, and put the bands, judges and audience in a warm, controlled, acoustically excellent environment.

The 78th Fraser Highlanders. Along the lines of the above points, aside from the actual final result, that the 78FH did not qualify was probably the biggest news of the day. Based on what I heard, I don’t think they deserved to go through. That said, bands competing in the heavy rain before 10 am were at a massive disadvantage. To think that this band finished fourth in the World’s Final only two years earlier, and two weeks before played well enough to win the North American Championship. The weather is luck-of-the-draw, for sure, but what sort of music competition hoses down a few random competitors with ice-water while they’re playing? It’s reminiscent of a scene from Wipeout.

The  Medley: Expand it. Five-to-seven minutes is too short. I don’t think Scottish-style bands are ready for the 15-miunute Breton approach, but they are certainly ready for 10 minutes. Unless they adopt a Toronto Police-style suite (and so far that methodology clearly isn’t being emulated by other bands), a seven-minute cap invites limited ability to expand creatively. As is, bands are essentially restricted to chopping and changing tunes with a degree of sameness, and several medleys that I heard seemed to be just getting started when they had to end. An additional 40 per cent of time will promote creativity and allow the pipe band art to evolve musically.

Repeat medleys: I can understand why bands will be tempted to play the same medley year-after-year (and year-after-year-after-year in a few cases), but it’s a let-down when they do. The top bands set musical trends, and same-old, same-old – while perhaps played to perfection – seems just a bit irresponsible and not a little lazy. Music fans look forward to the next release by their favourite artist. The top bands have their followers whom they shouldn’t disappoint. Maybe there should be a rule requiring bands to submit an altogether different medley every year.

Bass-sections: It’s time to get serious about how this increasingly important element of the band is judged. Ensemble and drumming judges need to be fundamentally trained to understand how bass-sections work, and then one or both of them need to be required to assess them, or else there needs to be a separate bass-section judge. As it stands, I tend to think that bass-sections are simply ignored by too many judges. Or perhaps judges don’t know what to listen for. While much of it is tastefully musically wonderful, some of the stuff going on with upper-level Grade 1 bands’ bass-sections is questionable, unmusical and even comical.

Judges: The criteria for who becomes a judge at the top level needs to be improved. That prerequisite needs to include a minimum number of years played at the Grade 1 level. I would suggest using the PPBSO’s stipulation of a minimum of 10 years to be eligible to be an A-level adjudicator (i.e., to be allowed to judge Grade 1 or Grade 2). Juried competition is only as good as the judges, and the adjudicators must have the respect of the competitors. In our game, that respect comes from having done it on the field and not just talking it in a lower-grade band hall. I’m certain that those who don’t fit the minimum experience level are very nice people. It’s nothing personal. It is, though, something essential.

Some may instantly read all this as a dump on the RSPBA. It’s not. The RSPBA and all associations aren’t about a bunch of executives and administrators. Associations are the members. It’s up to the members to demand changes, to raise motions at branch meetings and AGMs and have the courage to make what we do – and by virtue what the associations do – better. It’s up to us.

From a frenzied Maxville Friday

Maxed out.Even when assessing about 90 performances over eight hours, as was the case last Friday on “Amateur Day” at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville, one can’t help but think of a few things in between players:

1. The RSPBA is seen by everyone – and rightly so – as a master organizer of pipe band events. They set the standard, and it’s a very high one indeed. But the PPBSO must be given huge credit for efficiently coordinating close to 300 solo competitors in a single day across about 50 events. This is a staggering amount of work, and the behind-the-scenes preparation and scheduling is as complex as it gets. The work of the judges is nothing compared with that of the administrators and stewards. If you were there and forgot to thank a few people, you may want to start with thank-you messages to PPBSO President Bob Allen and Administrator Sharon Duthart, who can then forward your thanks to Chief Steward Andy Donachie, Barb MacRae, Lloyd Dicker, your contest stewards and any others who deserve the praise.

2. When, oh, when will all solo pipers and drummers respect their fellow competing colleagues (and the judges) and tune up at least 50 metres away? The number of pipers – even a few in the Professional grade – who have to be told to move further away always amazes me. Sure, there are a lot of players, but there’s also a massive area. Please, find out from the steward who’s before you, tell the steward that you will be at that tree way over there, keep an eye on the contest, and mosey on over when the person before you is done. It’s simple!

3. Enough of the saluting business. I know it’s force-of-habit with some, but unless you’re in the military and the judge is an officer, the custom of saluting the judge is over. At ease!

4. Tell the judge your name and remember the names of your tunes. Most judges know many or most of the competitors, but, unless you’re certain the judge knows you, it would help if you said who you are. And then have the names of your tunes ready. Write them down if your memory fails when you’re nervous. Standing there tapping your forehead trying to recall the other march while your instrument is going flat doesn’t do you any good.

5. If the judge is still writing the previous competitor’s scoresheet, don’t just stand there! Feel free to keep your pipes warm and play something pleasant (but never anything you might play in the competition), all the time keeping an eye on the judge for when he/she is ready for you. This actually reduces your tuning time and increases your chances that your instrument will stay in tune . . . provided it once was.

6. Start only when your pipes are in tune. As long as you haven’t been screwing at your drones for more than five minutes, it’s okay to take a few more seconds to get them right. But don’t start tuning them until at least 20 seconds after you’ve started. But if five minutes have passed and you still can’t get them right, just get on with it. That dog just ain’t gonna sit.

7. It’s music; enjoy it. I know it’s easier said than done, but it kills me to see young kids so nervous about competing that they seem to forget that it’s music they’re playing. It’s a musical instrument. It’s art. Concentrate on enjoying the music that you are creating, and just do the best you can. Think of why you first took up the instrument. It was the music, right? There’s no such thing as a flawless performance, so you might as well accept that and have fun.

Just a few thoughts from the busiest day of solo piping and drumming yet known to humankind.

The noble prize

Fair dues..‘The Gathering’ was a solo piping competition held recently at the National Piping Centre Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. Sponsored by Homecoming Scotland, which is, according to its website, “an events programme celebrating Scotland’s great contributions to the world.” The initiative seems to be doing many things that tie-in with piping and drumming, including the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ August concert in Stornoway, Lewis, and the various Road to the World’s events to draw attention to The Big One at Glasgow Green that every single reader of pipes|drums knows about all too well.

The Gathering solo competition apparently offered substantial (for solo piping, anyway) prize money. Someone doing well at the contest stood to come away with more than £1,500, or about $3,000. That’s right up there with, if not better than, the most prominent invitational events.

Quite right. The pipers in that competition are the very best in the world, our elite musicians. Stuart Liddell, Willie McCallum, Angus MacColl, Greg Wilson, Gordon Walker, Euan MacCrimmon, Niall Stewart and Bruce Gandy I’m sure rose to the occasion before a good-sized crowd of a hundred or so enthusiasts.

But compare that event with the biggest pipe band contests. The 2008 World Champion received £1,000. The first-prize in Grade 1 at Maxville isn’t too much more than that.

I’ve never heard any band once say anything terribly negative about either the World or the North American Championships’ prize-money. No band goes to those events to become rich on the day.

But, considering the overall strides that the solo piping world has made when it comes to prize money and judges’ compensation at its more prestigious contests, something is just not right when the top pipe band competitions lag behind. After all, the big band contests draw crowds and CD sales of tens-of-thousands, and many bands invest tens-of-thousands just to get there.

Overall, the solo piping world is rapidly outpacing the pipe band world when it comes to organization and compensation. Why that is, I’m not sure, but would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Tying a bridle

Woa there, little dawgie.Is it time to create a new competition event for pipe bands? Blogpipe and pipes|drums readers will be well versed in the debate, controversy and, unfortunately, occasional invective about the Toronto Police Pipe Band’s two “medleys.” (I won’t recap what they’re all about, but, if you’re not sure, just poke around the site for awhile and you’ll begin to understand.)

Pipe band people are almost equally divided between liking or disliking it, and many have a hard time juxtaposing something so musically different against the familiar idea of a pipe band “medley.” Judges have admitted that it is a difficult challenge to compare them and thus judge accurately, if such a notion is possible in trying to adjudicate any subjective art.

So, is it time to start a whole new pipe band event? Or, perhaps more accurately, is it time to put musical requirements on the “traditional medley” so as to better allow the existing anything-goes medley to thrive?

Non-UK associations have been challenged to expand musically, simply because of the pressure that the World Pipe Band Championships exerts on their bands. Bands resist most rule changes that may prevent them from preparing for their August Glasgow experience. If it doesn’t happen in the RSPBA, it tends to be rejected everywhere else.

But it seems to me that we can work around this roadblock. At the Grade 1 level, playing requirements could still be two MSRs. Associations that call for bands to submit two medleys, could reduce that to one. Then, a new event could be brought in: the “Freestyle Medley.” It could be an anything-goes piece that lasts maybe up to 10 minutes, with any instruments, provided at least some of them are Highland bagpipes and drums. Bands could assemble however they please.

But how, then, to ensure that “traditional” medley event is preserved? This would be difficult, if not impossible, since there’s nothing much traditional about the structure of non-Toronto Police medleys. Perhaps bands would be required to play only tunes from the familiar Highland piping categories. Maybe an RSPBA-like rule to start with certain tune-types? Perhaps providing a set list of tunes that could be played?

The challenge is more about what a band can’t do, than what it can.

In the 1970s there was resistance when the medley was introduced. But look at what it has done for the art. As the medley evolved bands were pressured to be different and innovative. Where once they feared not having original material, most bands now have budding composers within their ranks itching to create new stuff. Had it not been for the pipe band medley, today’s most famous tune-makers might be unknown and untapped talent. By allowing and encouraiging a freestyle / anything-goes category, a whole new level of creativity would certainly emerge, and that’s good for the livelihood of the art.

Personally, I’m against the idea of formally creating a third band competition category. I have no trouble with keeping the current medley format anything-goes. But it’s clear that not everyone feels the same way.

Perhaps it’s time to seriously consider opening things up, while simultaneously tying things down.

Bloomsday scenario

It’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, after the Georgetown games and the latest musical-envelope-pusher from the Toronto Police. Just like last year when the band came out with it’s “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions,” the comments are again flying around about the band’s “Idiomatica” entry.

I hesitate to call it a medley, since a musical medley, by Webster’s definition, is “a musical composition made up of a series of songs or short pieces,” rather than a cohesive single composition, which I believe “Idiomatica” is meant to be. You can’t call it a “selection” either, as that also involves, I think, selecting various existing tunes, much like a musical medley. Call it a piece, an opus or even an oeuvre.

Semantics aside, it’s bloody difficult to compare what the Toronto Police played against the more familiar formats of other bands in the contest. The pipe band “medley” has evolved more or less on its own, usually by bands dipping one timid toe at a time in the musical froth, trying a “different” tune here, an unusual rhythm there. Heaven forfend that a judge might react negatively.

There are actually very few musical requirements placed on a band in the rules of the world’s pipe band associations. The RSPBA has by far the most strictures, forcing bands to start with a “quick-march” at a certain minimum tempo and with the familiar three-paced rolls and a mandatory E.

The only musical requirement that I know for a Grade 1 pipe band medley under PPBSO rules is that it must be between five and eight minutes long. There are no stipulations as to what should be played or how many of the band’s pipers and drummers (or other instrumentalists, for that matter) can play at one time. In fact, there’s nothing to say that the band couldn’t just stand there, tacit, for five minutes, in homage to Chares Ives or something.

If the Toronto Police didn’t have the musical clean-slate that the PPBSO membership prefers, perhaps they wouldn’t compete with their new pieces, unless it were to make a one-time, “Thelma and Louise”-like statement. I gather they were fully prepared to go down in a blaze of glorious disqualification had they been able to play in the Final at last year’s World’s.

I like that bands are free to push musical buttons and boundaries. I can also appreciate those who feel that it shouldn’t be allowed, that such challenges to the familiar are too much of an affront to our musical “tradition,” whatever that is. It’s a healthy, difficult debate.

After all the talk of the Toronto Police’s “Good Intentions” piece, I was eager to see how many bands might follow suit with their own brave attempts to explore their own new musical limits. So far, I haven’t heard or heard of any other bands anywhere in the world making such an attempt. (Please let me know if there are.) In fact, I’m noticing the direct opposite: bands harking back to material, styles and structures of the 1970s and ’80s, particularly the once-hackneyed-now-retro seamless transition from strathspey-to-jig or jig-to-strathspey.

I might be wrong, but while a lone band is aggressively blazing new musical ground, others seem to be retreating into the past, with the old being new again. Whether that’s a conscious rejection, or just plain happenstance, again, I don’t know.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Grandest finale

Flock-truckerMassed bands and march-pasts are necessary penance for those who play in pipe bands. After a day of anxious competition, relaxing over a drink or two is all everyone really wants, and to be pulled out of the beer tent for the grand finale (for spectators, anyway) is an inevitable duty.

I haven’t played regularly in a pipe band for some time now, but I can’t remember many awards ceremonies at which the result wasn’t fairly well known, including last year’s World’s. Leaks happen, and the well connected will have their sources.

Memorable prizes and celebrations aside, funny things often occur at massed bands and march-pasts. I’ll never forget in the 1980s at Cowal on a bright, sunny day, as the bands filed on interminably long, a few bandsmen who’d had one or two pints before going back on the park couldn’t hold it any longer so executed the canny one-knee-on-the-ground maneuvre, shielded on one side by the bass drum and empathetic bandsmen on the other to get some relief right on the parched Dunoon ground. I posted something about it last year, actually.

Another memorable time was maybe 1989 at the World’s. The prizes were being announced in the usual tedious manner. They came to Grade 3, and went in order. I could hear a Scottish band just behind us clearly disappointed not being announced first, with some groans after anxiously awaiting the announcement.

And when they learned that they weren’t first-runners-up either there was more grumbling, which grew a bit louder when they weren’t even third, and even more contentious when they weren’t fourth or fifth. A few oaths were murmured from their ranks.

But when the Grade 3 band wasn’t even sixth – out of the list entirely when they thought they might even have won the thing – it really took the cake and someone from the group just couldn’t take it any longer and let out an almighty scream at the announcer. It can’t be printed here, but, let’s just say sounded something like, “Truck my flock!!!”

Yes, fond memories of some of our grandest finales and finest moments.

Saner heads

His beak can hold more than his belly can.Several years ago I judged a band competition in Ontario and was faced with a situation that most adjudicators dread. In fact, it was the first contest in which I was on ensemble, having gone through the accreditation process the previous spring.

It was the Grade 1 competition, which consisted of three bands. All of the bands played well. It was a medley event, and Ontario rules state that bands must submit two selections, and draw at the line with the ensemble judge present for the one they should play.

One of the bands came to the line, clearly wanting to get on with it because it was a scorching day. The pipe-major reached into the bag, and pulled out the #1 chip. In Ontario, the content of the selections is printed on each score sheet, the tunes being provided by the band with its entry. But because of a database glitch, the selections were reversed on the score sheet for each band, so the one that the band thought is #1 was printed as #2, however bands were made aware of the issue. So, the content of the #1 selection was really printed on the score sheet as the #2 entry. In essence, a band drawing #1 would have to play #2.

As the ensemble judge, I reminded each pipe-major at the line of that discrepancy. But this one band’s pipe-major was clearly in a hurry, and turned to start his group without realizing the reversal and that I was pointing out the other medley on the score sheet. Strictly speaking, the band played the wrong selection and thus a rule was broken . . . sort of.

Immediately after the band played, the judges got together, and we discovered that we all had noticed the band’s “error.” What to do?

We quickly agreed that we would go ahead and judge the entire contest as we would if there were no problem. We also agreed that, after that, we would alert the head of the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario about what occurred, since, ultimately, any penalty would be an Executive decision.

As judges, we made a recommendation to the President, which was to tell all of the bands what had happened, and allow the competitors to decide what they’d prefer to do. If the band at fault wanted to give up its prize, then they could do that; if the other two bands preferred not to move up a place for such a shallow reason (a move that we thought was likely), then that was fine, too. But it had the potential to be an ungodly embarrassment for everyone involved. Was it really worth it?

To my surprise at the time, the PPBSO president decided not to do anything. He was willing to let sleeping dogs lie, feeling that, even though a rule was broken, it made little sense to us to crack down on it. It just wasn’t worth the certain ill will. The band that made the mistake didn’t appear to do it intentionally. The PPBSO was also at least partly to blame because of the database problem, swapping the medleys on the score sheets.

I’m reminded of that situation because of the current issue with the RSPBA’s “international” judges being suspended. Just like any organization, the RSPBA has a right to enforce its rules strictly. If the rule is that sample score sheets must be provided from a judge’s home association, then so be it.

But, like the situation I described above, is it worth it? Ultimately, does it make sense to doggedly follow a rule that was broken due to any number of faults – chief among them, perhaps, resting with the association itself? Yes, an organization’s role is to enforce the rules, but leadership’s role is to determine when exceptions are warranted.

Some will no doubt feel that the band should have been disqualified, just as some will think that the RSPBA did the right thing. But I learned from that awkward circumstance at that competition that, every so often, punishing people for breaking a rule can in the broader scheme of things do more harm than good.

Sometimes, those who suffer the most when rules are rigidly enforced are the competitors and the art, and it’s better to quietly sort things out behind the scenes and just get on with it for the good of all concerned.

Digging a hole where the rain gets in . . .

I buried Paul!The current news of the RSPBA’s handling of “international” judges has captured the interest of pipes|drums readers. And why not? The competitive pipe band world (at least the non-Breton one) has been built on the Scottish model.

Over its history, the World Pipe Band Championships (Cowal pre-1947 included) were pretty much the same thing for more than 50 years. There was little growth and change in size or playing standards. Probably at least 95 per cent of the entrants were from Scotland. The rise in pipe band standards in the Commonwealth countries just happened to coincide with the availability of relatively cheap jet travel, so non-UK bands gradually gravitated to Scotland to test their mettle.

There is little argument that the expansion of the World’s is due to the influx of “overseas” bands.

I still think that the RSPBA – even three decades in to this crazy expansion – still doesn’t know what’s hit them. They have not adapted well to this change, and, some would say, have even tried to resist it, even by putting it down.

The City of Glasgow has figured it out. The National Piping Centre has figured it out. Piping Live! has figured it out. Why the RSPBA hasn’t is difficult for many to fathom. Thousands of people are saying, “Here, please take our money. All that we ask in return is a fair shake.”

Even when things have not been perceived as fair (e.g., recording rights, judging representation, threats of suspension to top overseas bands and judges), non-UK bands have still come, hoping that maybe, just maybe, this year things will be different. I wonder if the latest action – or inaction, as the case may be – is the final straw. One senses a groundswell. There’s a very angry mob that might have had just quite enough.

But I think that there is an element who feels, “Fine, stay home if you don’t like it. It’s our contest, so you’ll play under our rules, and we will set those rules as we see fit.” It’s as if they would be perfectly happy to return to 1965.

The current pipes|drums Poll is revealing. At the moment a total of 14 per cent have said Yes to the question “By suspending international judges, has the RSPBA done the right thing?” Of course, 86 per cent feel that the RSPBA made the wrong decision. If we look at the data behind the entries, countries of origin can be counted.

Responses from Canada are a tiny 3 per cent saying Yes. Those from the USA are higher, at 8 per cent. Australia is in line with the average, with 14 per cent responding Yes.

But, the UK response is a very different story. Some 35 per cent of responses from the UK support the RSPBA’s decision. While that’s far short of majority, it’s way above the average and miles more than the Canadian opinion.

There’s a massive divide that may not be possible to bridge. Could this be the end-of-the-tether for many bands? Will the RSPBA be able to dig itself from the hole that it’s dug? The next few months will tell the tale.

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