I was at a small competition awhile ago and there were maybe four bands in the Grade 4 event. All of the bands played well and did their best, for sure, but the one that won the contest was streets ahead.
So many times I’ve spoken with prominent judges who have returned from a far-off judging trip, reporting back with effusive praise about such-and-such a band being in top-form at a small contest, and how they are sure to crack the top six at the World’s. Then the World’s comes and that band doesn’t even make the final. I’ve learned to take reports like these with a dose of sodium.
Context can be a funny thing when it comes to subjective competitions like ours. The competitive standard of any pipe band grade is wide-ranging. In any category, the quality range between the best bands and the worst bands is big. When only a few bands are in a contest, the one that plays substantially better than the rest can seem like a world-beater, even though they may only be excellent in the context of that specific contest.
It’s difficult to maintain a mental image of a musical “standard” for a grade. Our perception of quality is made up of so many things. A decent Grade 2 band playing on the day among Grade 3 and Grade 4 bands can seem like FMM incarnate.
It’s amazing to me how bands that function without any other bands in their grade for many hundreds or even thousands of miles can turn up at the World’s and do well. I’m thinking of bands like SFU, Alberta Caledonia, and the 78th Highlanders (Halifax). The greatest example was the Victoria Police in the 1990s. Not only did they have basically no other Grade 1 bands in Australia back then, but they competed at the World’s – and won the damn thing – in their off-season. Uncanny.
I think that the good Grade 4 band that I heard recently will do well when they compete at the World’s in August. I’ll be interested to hear how they ultimately do, and wonder if my mental image of a good standard was accurate.