Instant replay

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 In 1974, Bill Livingstone’s second-prize in the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal was rescinded after Lezlie Webster (nee Patterson) produced a tape recording of his tune, conclusively proving that Livingstone “went wrong” in his performance.

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

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

Fast-forward 40 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Keeping score

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

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

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

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

That is truly ridiculous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the grades

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each of the members of the grading committee must be:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double-dip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less is more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven realizations in 2013

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

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

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

Looking back, there were several things I realized:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Event-full

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

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

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

I’m both glad and sad that I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceol Competition Cam

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

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

All in good fun.

RIP Grade 2?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untied united

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

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

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

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

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

Treadmill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The market dictates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No auld baldy bastard dictates to us.

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

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

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.

Attack: stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Sheepish

Highland pipers and pipe band drummers owe so much to . . . sheep. And it’s high time we thanked them.

The bag: nothing beats a natural sheepskin under the oxter (or so say the purists, traditionalists, superstitious, discerning or  paranoid; take your pick). Flocks of pipe bags go in and out of makers such as Begg and Bowes, and even support a rather smelly fellsmongering industry in China.

The tunes: “Shepherd’s Crook,” “Ca’ the Ewes,” and “The Ewe wi’ the Crookit Horn” (not really about sheep at all, but the inspiration’s there). We used to commemorate sheep in one way or another, but we’ve been quiet recently. Call it a silence of the lambs. Here’s a call to the Armstrongs, Sauls and Greys of the world to pay homage to these blissfully ignorant creatures that make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of all of us.

Seasoning: did you know that Airtight Seasoning is made of mostly lanolin? What’s lanolin, you might ask? It’s a by-product of sheep and, strangely or obviously, depending on your perspective, absorbs moisture . . . or something . . . making it a perfect ingredient for soaking up slavers. Sheep stand out there in the rain, seemingly impervious to a soaking. It only makes sense that this animal, which does not demand an Inverness cape, should contain a substance that makes getting wet tolerable.

Drum skins: okay, so these are no longer made from super-stretched sheepskin, but they used to be. The poor old sheep made original pipe band drumming possible, and some purists (see pipe bag above) pine for the days of rope-tensioned drums with true “skins.”

The 20 pounds of wool we must wear: Pipers and drummers, unless they come from Brittany or Pakistan, in order to compete are almost always required to don a garment from head-to-toe made from the hair of at least a small family of sheep. This is a reasonable idea when lowing a lament in the horizontal rain in the north of Scotland, but quite absurd in 40-degree heat in July in Chicago or February in Sydney. All the same, thank you, sheep, for making us so colourfully uncomfortable.

Powder Horns: Donald Cameron famously had one, and the late, great John D. Burgess acquired and jauntily sported it, only after Donald MacLeod memorialized it in one of the greatest jigs ever written.

Trophies: some of the world’s greatest piping trophies are designed somewhat bizarrely using the curly horn of a ram that ended up mutton. The overall trophy at the Glenfiddich Invitational – perhaps the biggest award in the solo piping world – is an award for the horny, who are of course turned on by piping perfection.

Haggis: let’s not forget this staple of the serious piper and drummer’s diet. While it’s completely acceptable for regular people to consume putrid hotdogs and bio-engineered Chicken McNuggets, the mere mention of “haggis” sends punters into mock-convulsive retching, even though it’s made from all-organic innards and oats wrapped in an ex-sheep’s stomach.

So let’s all say, Thank you, sheep! You make our art all the more interesting and notorious.

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.

Lament for the union

Strength in numbers.Here’s a wildcat thought: piping and drumming associations are unions. Well, we all know they’re not, strictly speaking, but maybe it’s time we all thought of them that way. There could be great up-side if we did.

Every association I know contends that its central purpose is to promote, further, enhance . . . whatever the piping and drumming arts. If that’s true, then shouldn’t every piper and drummer get behind the greater group for the greater good? We all too often think of associations as a requirement to compete, a necessary step simply to take part in the events that are our primary performance platform.

In fact, we should want to be a member of an association primarily to further what we do – to promote our own arts in a long-range, big-picture perspective.

The trouble is, associations may claim that their fundamental mandate is to further our art, but they often lose sight of that objective. Too many associations think that they’re in the business of running competitions, like a kind of one-product company. They may run competitions exceedingly well, but is that really for the greater good of the art? Is it to an association’s long-term benefit to do little or nothing else but administer competitions?

Companies that have one product and don’t diversify are almost always doomed eventually to fail. Once the popularity of their one thing wanes, they’re left with nothing to sell. The corporate graveyard is filled with the ghosts of one-product companies that failed to diversify, leapfrog the competition or satisfy the expanding needs of their customers.

Associations therefore need to refocus and fulfill their core goal of furthering our arts in as many ways as possible. Pipers and drummers who don’t receive more in return on their investment than being part of a competition-running-machine will eventually look elsewhere. They won’t want to be part of a “union” that is a nothing more than a condition to compete.

If we think of associations as unions, and if associations deliver on their core promise, we can leverage strength-in-numbers. If we work like the unions of actors and musicians, eventually all events where pipers and drummers perform will be required to work through our associations.

But it has to start with the associations. They have to do more than administer competitions. They have to diversify their products, extend ROI for their members and be seen as the right thing for the art. If that happens, then card-carrying members will rally around the union, and solidarity will prevail.

Why not?

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?

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.

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?

The trouble with AGMs

I’ve always been miffed by pipe band associations’ annual general meetings. They’re of course a necessary thing. Every formal organization with bylaws and legalities and such-like are required to hold AGMs, but there’s something really out-of-whack with AGMs for many piping and drumming organizations.

For a start, it’s music. Music and politics are incompatible bedfellows, and politics pretty much are the source of all piping and drumming unhappiness, whether it’s alleged “political” decisions rendered by judges, or the “politics” within a pipe band, or simply the administrative side of organized competition. Most of us simply want to play or listen to music, and, for the most part, the political administration of piping and drumming associations is left to others.

As evidenced by the typical five per cent turnout of members at most AGMs, we dislike these things more than massed bands in a downpour. AGMs are held in the off-season, when the last thing we want to do is drive for miles on a Saturday when we’d rather be doing . . . anything else.

But AGMs can have a profound impact on our happiness as competitors and players. The problem is that every association I know of uses AGMs to vote on motions to change rules and policies – matters that frequently determine the structure of our events, what we play, how we play it, and how they’re judged. To say that association members are apathetic or lazy for not attending AGMs is unfair. We all care deeply; we choose instead to just cross our fingers and hope that whoever actually attends doesn’t do anything too stupid.

The difference today is we no longer expect to have to attend these meetings in-person. Since the 1990s, video conferencing and electronic voting have been easy and increasingly less expensive to set up, especially for fairly small organizations, which is what piping and drumming associations really are. Yet many associations are woefully behind when it comes to making use of technology and modern communications to reach out to members.

For today’s piping and drumming associations, here’s a checklist to improve participation in your AGMs:

  • Webcast – invest in a professional A-V company to assist with a broadcast of your event, so that members can log in with their membership number and password.
  • Communicate the agenda early and clearly – outline the motions put forward and allow members to ask questions in advance.
  • Create a formal process for executive nominations well in advance and allow candidates to campaign to membership – the business of spur-of-the-moment nominations for powerful positions often results in electing those who truly are not serious about the role.
  • Allow for proxy voting – members should not have to attend meetings in-person to cast their votes. Develop a system for online balloting.

Lastly – and this deserves to be separate from the bullets above – stop the practice of letting individual members invent rules and allowing them to push them through. Most associations comprise an Executive, a Board of Directors and a Music Committee. Just like a democracy, these three branches of elected and appointed experts are vested with the responsibility to monitor and adjust rules and policies. Just like your government, they make the laws, and they represent you. If you don’t like what they do, vote them out. But the idea of every rule-change being a membership referendum is, as we have seen many times, potentially dangerous. It allows personal agendas to be driven, as individuals, knowing that a small minority of members actually attend the AGM/referendum, can easily stack a vote by ensuring that a handful of cronies attend and vote with them.

Most piping and drumming associations pretty much operate the exact same way they did in 1947, 1964 or whatever long-ago-year they were started. Meanwhile membership numbers have exploded, revenues have grown, and the amount of time and money that pipers and drummers annually invest in this avocation beg for a more modern approach to government.

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.

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.

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