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.


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.


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.


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.

A fine thing, chance

I remember 20 years ago doing the annual pilgrimage to Glasgow for the usual, compelling World’s self-flagellation. We all snickered at a rival band, as word got out that they had engaged a sports-psychologist to help them prepare and focus for the big event.

Rumours were widespread that this band was prohibited from consuming even a drop of alcohol, and when it became known that each of the rival band’s members was issued a large bottle of Evian water to keep them hydrated on the flight, well, it was all just too much.

This was not what pipe bands were about! It was taking things far too seriously. Hydration?! A sports shrink?! They were sapping the fun from the annual Glasgow week in humbug.

Our laughter was fueled by many pints and self-satisfaction that we were having a much more fun time than those guys.

That is, until we had our sporrans handed to us on a platter at the competition, and the focused, sober, fun-sapped band marched off to a night of boozy celebration with a high prize. No fun. At that point I’m sure every member of my band would have gladly traded all the pints and mockery for a guaranteed prize, but nothing much changed the next year, and nor did I necessarily want it to.

How things have changed. Today’s most respected pipe bands are the ones that run like musical machines. Every one of them is looking for a competitive edge, whether it’s hiring a sports-psychologist, abstaining from booze, or simply eating and sleeping properly before the contest.

Sure, there are still some old-world good-time-Charlies whose idea of a good pipe band is an under-achieving social group of partiers. But ask up-and-coming pipers and drummers what bands they dream of playing with, and they’ll almost always list the bands with the highest degree of musical and competitive discipline and focus. Fun, to them, is musical commitment through competition or concert success or, ideally, a combination of both.

The culture of competing pipe bands has changed irrevocably since 1990, and I think it actually started on that specific trip. Some may pine for the old days – and I may actually be one who does – but the reality is that, today, nothing is left to chance.

A list

By the right, check, mark.So pipes|drums readers feel that the greatest pipe-major of all time – at least for competition-oriented bands – is Richard Parkes of Field Marshal Montgomery, followed closely by Iain MacLellan, Glasgow/Strathclyde Police and, also close, SFU’s Terry Lee. All great choices, and the entire list is a who’s-who of legendary names, each making a great mark on our history.

Of course, if military pipe-majors were included, then one would have to consider the likes of Willie Ross, G.S., Donald MacLeod, John MacDonald (Inverness), Angus MacDonald, John A. MacLellan, Jock McLellan (Dunoon), Willie Lawrie . . . and on and on.

But sticking to those who focused on the competition racket, the poll I think captured all of those who had won a World’s, and the hope was that readers would consider other merits.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a proponent of constructive change for the better. So, a pipe-major’s impact and legacy beyond winning a bunch of prizes would play a heavy role in my choices. Here are my personal picks for the top five competition-oriented pipe-majors of all time:

1. Tom McAllister Sr. – this may surprise readers, but to me Tom Sr. is the George Washington, John A. MacDonald or Sir Robert Walpole of the modern pipe band world. I mean, McAllister Sr. was the one who came up with the two-three-paced-rolls-and-an-E introduction, revolutionizing the way pipe bands played together. He is the founding father of the pipe band as it is defined today.

2. Donald Shaw Ramsay – DSR was the man with the vision to expand the pipe band repertoire. Before he came along, it was stuff played over and over, and Ramsay was the first to suggest that pipe bands could actually do more than march along the street or compete with an MSR – bands could actually put on a show for non-pipers / drummers, complete with things in – gasp! – compound time.

3. Bill Livingstone – while Ramsay prompted a change to adopt a soloist’s expanded repertoire, Bill Livingstone in the 1970s and ’80s sent pipe bands into completely uncharted waters. “Deadrock” pushed musical boundaries and buttons, adapting content from Ireland, England and Hebridean Scotland, while expanding the notion that top bands should introduce completely original content. A great leader also looks to the greatness of those around him, and Livingstone’s ability to embrace the ideas within his bands is a leadership quality that is often overlooked. Add to that the first non-Scottish band to win, and the virtual invention of the pipe band concert format that bands imitate today, and he makes my top-three.

4. Iain MacLellan – of course there are the 13 World Championship wins, likely never to be equaled, but to me Iain MacLellan was the Donald MacPherson of the pipe band world. He elevated the idea of tone to a completely new level with his Glasgow/Strathclyde Police bands with a clarity unrivaled for more than a decade. He was the first to make precision tuning a science, literally blowing bands off the park. MacLellan not only set the new standard for sound, he raised it to a level that wouldn’t be matched until, arguably, the Victoria Police in 1998.

5. Iain McLeod – I was surprised that McLeod garnered only 2 per cent of votes, leaving him near the bottom in the results. McLeod’s Edinburgh City Police was the first true superstar pipe band, touring the world throughout the 1960s and ’70s, with the first pipe section comprising all elite players. McLeod picked up Ramsay’s trend towards expanded repertoire, and set the stage for the modern pipe band concert format. Five World titles are nothing to sneeze at, either.

So, those are my top-five pipe-majors. It was difficult to choose, and by no means should the accomplishments of the rest be minimized. I might change my mind in a year, or tomorrow and would have no trouble respecting anyone else’s preferences and reasoning. They’re all great pipe-majors, and may well make your list, which you are of course encouraged to submit.

Dumb luck

Call me the tumbling dice.“Good luck,” we pipers and drummers say to each other as we go off to compete. But should luck have anything to do with it? Shouldn’t luck be at least minimized as much as possible when it comes to trying to establish an equitable competition where all performers compete under the same conditions?

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), luck is a traditional element in what we do. The concept of good fortune, serendipity or old-fashioned superstition pervades everyday human life. But, when we can, we humans try to mitigate the risk of bad luck by making the right choice.

I got to thinking about the luck factor while at this year’s World’s. As is habit, I figured that the bands competing in the unpredictable Glasgow rain were simply unlucky. One of the five or so Grade 1 bands that were soaked managed to survive and get through to the Final, but the rest I guess had to chalk up at least part of the outcome to bad luck.

Similarly, competitors will talk about having “good luck” with who’s judging or, more accurately, who’s not judging. Whether a band or a solo player, some judges are seen to have a bias for or against some competitors. You’re “lucky” if you have no perceived adversaries with a clipboard or on a bench.

Then there’s the luck of the draw. Playing later is preferred by most competitors, unless there’s a group of favourites clumped early-on. Then it’s lucky to compete along with them. Maybe if Field Marshal Montgomery had the luck of being drawn later – as was SFU’s good luck – the result might have been different. Maybe.

It seems to me that the role of luck should be controlled, if at all possible. By-and-large, competitors dislike leaving things to chance, so why not work to reduce the risk, especially for big competitions? If judges are seen to have biases, why not poll the competitors – as the CPA did about 10 years ago – to find out who they consider to be the fairest and most knowledgeable adjudicators? If playing later is considered advantageous, shouldn’t a seeding system be implemented? If weather is a factor, then maybe consider moving a stratospherically high-stakes event like the Grade 1 World Championship to an indoor or covered venue.

The next few weeks will see the Gold Medal, Clasp and Silver Star solo piping competitions at Oban and Inverness. These events used to be held outside, often in freezing, lashing rain. For decades now they’ve been held in indoor facilities, where at least that element of luck has been eliminated. While the Argyllshire Gathering still subjects Thursday A- and B-Grade competitors to the weather, the bouncy castle and the bad-luck pop of a starter’s pistol, the top solo piping and drumming contests are all indoors. These events are also working to ensure that only judges from a preferred list with no teaching or family perceived conflicts arising.

While “luck” is simply part of life, we try to control things that can be controlled. It’s what we humans do. Tradition should give way to common sense.

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.

It’s alive!

Livens it up.It’s hard to believe that Piping Live! is now in its sixth year. Those of us who are old enough will remember what it was like to travel to Glasgow to compete at the World’s before the preceding week was chock-a-block, as it is now, with entertaining and informative events.

Don’t misunderstand me, Glasgow is a wonderful city. It’s where my mother grew up and I was there many times as a kid. But back in the 1980s and ’90s non-UK bands would arrive, as they do today, a week before the contest. There would be the one or two band practices a day, and after that you pretty much had to invent your own fun. And to a large extent, that involved consuming massive quantities of costly beverages, often all day long. It was fun but monotonous, expensive, and not exactly conducive to good playing.

All you’d talk about at the pub was the contest: the judges, the draw, the weather, the other bands, the possible result, the chanters, the timing, the weather, the reeds, the draw, the drums, the weather, the stewards, the bags, the judges, the draw, the chanters, the other bands, the weather . . . ad infinitum. By the time the contest actually arrived you were one big ball of anxiety, and you most certainly didn’t sleep much the night before.

I’d imagine that continues now with some people, but it seems that Piping Live!, in addition to the world-class piping and drumming talent and information it provides to anyone who wants to take advantage of it, is a great social diversion for visiting players. It also helps to keep them out of the pub.

I played at the World’s last year, and the week was a completely different experience. Sure, it was a different band, but I found that the Festival provided so many pleasant distractions to take my mind off the Saturday that I didn’t feel stressed at all when the Big Event arrived. The week flew by.

This year I’m heading to Piping Live! again, arriving Wednesday morning, this time as a non-competitor. Those competing with bands may feel differently, but because the three weekdays that I’ll be there are so full of interesting and satisfying variety, the Saturday competition is almost secondary.

Younger visiting competitors today don’t know how good they have it this week.

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.

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.


Redbird Express

Is there a more physical musical instrument than the Highland bagpipe? The “fit” of the pipe is so important to the player’s ability to perform well, and I can’t think of an instrument that conforms to the body as closely as the pipes.

When the instrument is going well, with a bag that’s perfectly sized, stocks positioned the way you want them, blowpipe just right, reed-strength and vibrancy adjusted exactly, the pipes can feel like they’re part of the player’s body. I’d think that most experienced pipers have enjoyed times – rare for most – when the pipes feel like they’re not even there. And, considering how relatively heavy the instrument is, that’s remarkable.

Such a feeling I had playing in the Medley event with Spirit of Scotland at the World’s last year. It was one of those transcending, out-of-body experiences when the pipes and music seemed just right – no nerves that I can remember, just enjoying the ephemeral moment that is music’s great allure.

In a band it can actually be a dangerous thing, enjoying one’s self so much while competing. Hopefully going on autopilot (or shifting to glide as the song with one of the worst lyrics ever says: “Hey little Donna, still wanna; You said to ring you up if I was in Toranna”) doesn’t cause such daydreaming as to forget tone, but I’d think that a sudden tonal lapse would snap you out of the trance.

I wrote before about riding a fixed-gear bike, which is what I’ve done almost daily for more than three years. I really enjoy the connection with the rig, since you have to keep peddling and use resistance on the pedals to help stop. Like a good-going well-set-up pipe, a fixed gear bike almost becomes part of your body, and when the there’s a tail-wind on a warm spring day with a glittering Great Lake on one side and a shiny set of skyscrapers on the other, the effect is, like a good-going World’s medley, transcendental.

Learning to lose

Quit yer greetin', ya wee wean!I have always thought that one of the biggest ancillary benefits of being a competitive piper since age 12 is learning to perform before an audience. Similar to solo piping, I’m not the best in the world at business presentations, but I do know how to handle the pressure and deliver a reasonable performance. In that way piping / drumming competition helps to prepare you for the real world.

Maybe 15 years ago, when I was still new to the public relations profession, I worked on Microsoft as a client. Less than two years into my new career I found myself managing a news conference for Bill Gates. It was to occur the week after the World Pipe Band Championships, and I remember thinking to myself, “What’s the big deal? If I can stand at the line with a contending Grade 1 band with a World Championship on the line, then I can certainly get through a thing with Bill Gates.”

Keeping that in the back of my mind helped, and everything went fine. He didn’t have one of his celebrated meltdowns on me, and – just like a World’s tune-up and performance – the whole thing was over in a flash.

But I think that competition piping / drumming prepares you for the real world in another important way: it prepares you to lose. Even the greatest pipers and bands place not-first many, many more than they win an event. We pipers and drummers learn to lose graciously and I don’t know of a single player who assumes he/she will win every time out.

I believe John MacFadyen said something to the effect of, “Take the boards feeling you can’t be beaten, but leave assuming that it wasn’t good enough to win.” It’s a philosophy or psychology or technique that I have carried into my work life in new business presentations, speaking at conferences or seminars with colleagues.

No matter how good you are, you’ll come in second or third or fourth far more often than first. Being able to deal with and learn from everyday losing is something that our kind of piping and drumming prepares you for in “real” life.

Turn and face the strain

The pipes|drums Polls have been going on for more than a decade now, and they’re all archived here. It’s sometimes a challenge to think of something new, and readers have saved my mind-blank more than once with a good suggestion. I always look forward to seeing the results. Even though the poll isn’t scientific, I’m pretty sure that the results are at least reflective of the overall opinion of the world’s pipers and drummers.

The recent one that asked “How many times should a person by allowed to change bands in a year?” brought another surprising result, with some 56 per cent of people saying that they feel that pipers and drummers should be permitted to switch bands only once in a year.

Time was when changing bands was a fairly major event. As is the case in major team sports, it’s now rare in the pipe band world to find people who spend their entire career with one band. But over the last decade especially the idea of competing in the off-season with a band in the other hemisphere has taken hold with some. Pipers and drummers from New Zealand or Australia might compete with a UK or Canadian band at the World’s, just as folks from the northern hemisphere might hook up with an Antipodean band for their championship, as was the case at least week’s New Zealand Nationals.

It’s all perfectly within the rules. I’ve played with bands that have benefited from such guest players, and I have no particular stand on the issue. But, it appears that a majority of pipers and drummers do. By limiting a person to only one transfer in the year, it means that the back-and-forth approach would be difficult to manage. Once a player changed bands, that would be it for the next 12 months.

If such a rule were enacted, I wonder how it might change things. Would it make the pipe band world more loyal or less fun?

The people’s band

Hands off.Maybe it was all the bad news mounting. Maybe the pipe band world had had just about enough, thank you, and this was just too much. But public reaction to the apparent threat to the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band was nothing short of phenomenal. The members of the band have been under pressure for the last few years, with new police management seemingly giving them stick for committing too much time to being great musicians, and too much devotion to ensuring the band was a symbol of excellence that was representative of the excellence of the Strathclyde Police force itself.

Friends of the band worked the media to communicate the story of the band’s threatened status, and when news of the dire situation hit on pipes|drums and then the Glasgow Herald the piping and drumming world reacted with a 24-hour PR wildfire. I’ve never seen anything like it. Before Facebook group petitions were even a day old the force had reacted and quelled the angry mob, publicly assuring us that it’s status quo with the band, at least for now. We will hold them to that.

Sponsorships start and stop. Bands come and go. When established top-grade bands go under the response is generally a few days of disappointment and sadness by most, but the issue is generally quickly put out of mind, as other bands become the beneficiaries of the suddenly available talent.

But why was the Strathclyde Police situation different? Perhaps it’s this: Apart from the fact that the band is more than 120 years old and the winner of dozens of championships, the Strathclyde Police more than any other top band is a band that belongs to the people.

Certainly the people of Scotland’s Strathclyde region pay taxes that go to the funding of the police and thus the band, but anyone who has visited Glasgow also has a financial stake in the band. Those who have gone to the World’s or Piping Live! or Celtic Connections or just a visit to see auld auntie Senga in Knightswood have helped to sponsor the band. They may not realize it, but the Polis are truly a band of the people. We all help to fund it.

So when our band is threatened, it’s reasonable that we all get our collective back up and set about the folk messing with our investment. We’ll give you what for.

I saw somewhere online a suggestion that each person employed by the Strathclyde Police force could just give another pound each year to go towards the band. In truth, all of us who have spent any money in Glasgow have helped to sponsor this band. Our vested interest. Our band.

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.


Burn, baby, burn.

This is a lengthier post, but I hope you still read it.

There has been some hand-wringing in Ontario and other parts of North America lately over apparent declining interest in our “product.” While some Ontario Highland games, like Maxville and Fergus, are thriving with bigger-than-ever crowds, others, like Chatham and Sarnia, have recently closed shop.

Jim McGillivray recently described it as “Rome burning,” which might be over-stating things a shade. For the last 10 years, he and others have called out for a reinvigoration or even reinvention of our product – the thing that we sell to Highland games organizers.

The RSPBA and the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario sell a turn-key product to events. For a flat fee, these associations will come in and run all of the piping, drumming and band competitions, and stage the massed band or march-past spectacles. As anyone who has been to several RSPBA or PPBSO events can attest, they’re pretty much the same format from contest to contest.

Most other associations have a different model. They will “sanction” designated competitions that agree to allow them to coordinate the judging and advise on competition formats and some recruitment of competitors. In essence, they ensure that competitions are of a certain quality. But games organizers can much more easily stage creative and different events, so variety from contest to contest is greater. It’s a more competitive and capitalistic approach. Over time, competitors gravitate to the events that are run the best and are the most fun to attend.

But what about the idea of our “product”? What actually is the product that we have to sell?

Here’s a fact we should all face: ultimately, the general, non-playing public does not much like bagpipe music. Let’s accept it. The average person is not drawn to our music for more than a few minutes because, in its usual style, it’s not very accessible or understandable or, dare I say it, enjoyable. This has always been so.

Our musical product has not seriously changed in 100 years. Medleys are more adventurous, but the large crowds that listen to the top-grade competitions at the World’s and Maxville do not comprise the general public; they are the same competitive pipers and drummers and friends and family who have always listened. It’s a captive audience that has grown over many decades. The more competitors a competition can attract, the bigger the crowds listening to the competitions.

The large general public that attends Fergus and Maxville doesn’t much pay attention to the competitions. They come out for the Highland dancing, the caber tossing, the sheepdogs and the grand spectacle of the massed bands. We can, and probably should, add 15-minute freestyle Grade 1 band events in concert formation, but I still think that the general public won’t really care. Performing facing the audience makes sense, but droves of punters aren’t suddenly going to appear because of it.

New competition formats could freshen things for pipers and drummers, however, the competition music will still be relatively inaccessible, because it will inevitably at least compromise when it comes to arguments about “Scottish idiom” and technical complexity that we identify as necessary in order to have a serious competition. At the end of the day, no competitive pipers and drummers want to do away with competition. It’s what they do. Most of us are competitors and get off on winning. Relatively few of us are frustrated artists.

I think that our non-competition “product” for the games still works. It can be tweaked to offer more variety and showmanship, but, if so, that product inevitably will have to leave out many of the lower-grade bands, and allow the more practiced and accomplished higher-grade bands to do the work, and they will want compensation.

The people who cry out for a sweeping change invariably are those who have been around the longest. They’re bored because they have heard and done it all before, hundreds of times.

But I don’t hear competitors younger than 30 express the same desire for sweeping change, because, just as it was for the now jaundiced veterans 30-odd years ago, our competition format is addictive and alluring to a certain type of piper and drummer who spends years getting it. (I also have never heard anyone from the UK suggest that their Rome is burning, but maybe that’s a different story.)

It’s a quandary. Do we accept that the music we play is arcane and boring to the vast majority of non-players and alter it so dramatically (I’m picturing other instruments, marching formations, electronica, light shows . . .) to attract a big general-public crowd? Or do we continue along the same course, mainly pleasing ourselves and our friends and family?

And, if it’s the latter, why not hold our own competitions that subsist on our own dues and entry-fees, holding them in parking lots and fallow farmers’ fields? Why can’t associations therefore move away from being competition machines and instead become event promoters?

I’ve never been to Rome, but I understand that today it’s an awesome place that respects the old while celebrating the new. Perhaps our Rome needs to burn for us to get better.

Shiny, happy tenors

Seriously fun stuff.Okay, this is the last thing on tenor drummers for a while. I promise.

But has anyone noticed that, while pipers and snare drummers look like they’re in the midst of a battle – or a funeral, depending on how the band is playing – tenor-drummers are often smiling and even laughing during the competition?

I thought about it before, but was reminded when viewing the World’s DVD. There are many shots of flourishing tenor players who look like they’re at a theme park instead of an Every-Little-Mistake-Could-Ruin-It-For-The-Whole-Band World Championship.

Having fun is the name of the game, of course, but I wonder why tenor-drummers are so happy in the heat of competition while the rest of the band looks like they’re in complete misery.

Big MAP attack II

Cutty Sark was spirited and lively.I understand that the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association has decided to adopt the RSPBA’s Musical Appreciation and Presentation, or “MAP,” system for its lower grade band competitions. I’ve thought a lot about MAP, and wrote about it last year, saying, among other things, that it’s a crock.

I’m not sure if I have changed my mind, but here’s what I think now: it might make sense for the UK, but it makes no sense for non-UK associations. This is why:

MAP is supposed to improve musicality in lower-grade bands. The RSPBA identified a decline in standards so, by foisting traditional (and some really hackneyed) set tunes and scores and all-ensemble judging on the lower grades, the thinking three years ago was that these bands would improve, and quality would trickle up the grades.

The UK pipe band scene, however, is very, very different from elsewhere. Solo piping and band piping are two drastically different worlds in Scotland. Bandsmen do their thing and soloists theirs, and the two hardly ever converge. Competitions are almost always at separate venues. There are pipe band-only judges and there are solo piping-only judges. A select few judge both domains. There may be the odd piper in a UK band who “goes in” for the solos, but they too are few.

In the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and actually, I think, everywhere outside of the UK, band and solo scenes are intertwined. The majority of pipers in bands at some point work hard on their solo stuff, and many, if not most, for their entire lives. They spend a lot of time studying the nuances of phrasing, technique and overall musicality. Pipe-majors of non-UK bands are almost always accomplished soloists. They understand what constitutes quality pipe-music, and as a result they work to instill that in the band.

On the other hand, many UK bands, and especially those in the lower grades, are led by pure bandsmen. These leaders more often than not have not dedicated any time to dissecting the intricacies of phrasing, of how to make a 2/4 march “spirited and lively” – at least in a solo way. They may know how to get a sound, but probably have no idea how to make a march swing. I dare say that this lack of musicality can be heard in some top-grade UK bands that are led by pipers who never rose to any heights as soloists.

Further, judges at non-UK band events almost always are also accredited solo piping judges, and, consequently, the musical standards that non-UK pipe band judges measure competitors against are taken straight from solo benchmarks. On the other hand, the preponderance of band-only judges in the UK might have something to do with the fact that in the UK a band that has a good sound but lacks musicality more often than not does well.

Three years after MAP, I see no evidence that it’s making much, if any, difference to the quality of lower-grade UK bands. In fact, I see the standard of North American Grade 4 and Grade 3 bands rising, perhaps due mainly to the advent of Grade 5. Case in point: the Grade 5 Paris/Port Dover band from Ontario competed in Grade 4B at the 2008 World’s and finished second against 48 other bands. Seattle’s Keith Highlanders placed third overall after winning their qualifying heat. The Keith Highlanders are no doubt a fine band, but they were a distant third in overall Grade 4 contests run by their home association, the British Columbia Pipers Society.

These are just a few examples, but they indicate to me that the North American standard has risen, while the UK standard has not. I can detect no evidence that MAP is working. If it were, then wouldn’t non-UK lower-grade bands competing at the World’s be trounced by those bands that have been competing under the system since 2006?

With the UK’s separation of bands and solos, MAP may make some sense for Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, but adopting it elsewhere is a step backward.

Boom-boom – on goes the light

Yes we can.When Craig Colquhoun and Scott Currie approached pipes|drums a few months ago about having the 2008 World Champion Bass-Section winner decided by the magazine’s poll, I was a little reluctant. Is this right? Should the world’s pipers and drummers determine what Grade 1 band’s mid-section should receive the award? Don’t all pipe band-related prizes have to be decided by accredited judges?

To be honest, I forgot about it until Hoss raised the idea again last week. My immediate response was, Yes, why not?

Why have the award decided this way? Well, for a start, the RSPBA decided to eliminate the prize so certified judges can’t award it in any official way any longer.

Second, we all know that, sadly, the Best Bass-Section prize when it is given out, it’s often in a relatively informal manner. There are no specific bass and tenor judges at pipe band contests, and the prize is usually determined by the ensemble and/or drumming judges, both of whom are either snare drummers or pipers. To my knowledge, there are no RSPBA judges who have specific expertise in modern bass- or tenor-drumming either as players or arrangers. Today’s mid-sections are captained by a player within the section itself, and the band’s leading-drummer and pipe-major pretty well just sign off on the arrangements that they compose and choreograph.

Third, the BBC and the RSPBA kindly put out a lovely (albeit out-of-sync and possibly illegal) DVD of the World’s Grade 1 Final. We can all see and hear first-hand every one of these mid-sections without actually having to be there.

Lastly, the trophy is the Hosbilt Cup and was donated by Colquhoun’s company with the expressed agreement that it be awarded to the best Grade 1 bass-section at the World’s. Since the RSPBA’s prize no longer exists, and since the association clearly doesn’t want to award it, then the trophy should be returned. If Craig wants to award the prize this way, then fine, we’re happy to help.

PPBSO and RSPBA judge Ken Eller has already questioned the relatively harmless method of determining the prize. Why should anyone feel threatened by an award being determined not as an after-thought by accredited judges with piping and snare drumming backgrounds, but a by fair, popular vote of all of the world’s competitive pipers and drummers – including bass- and tenor-drummers, the people who care and know about this the most?

Leading lights from the strong-voiced community of mid-section players consider this popular-vote method a good way to do it for the year (at least) when there appears to be no other way. Why should anyone feel anything but good for bass and tenor players and the bands in which they play?


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