February 20, 2011

Creative break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. What I don’t like about associations is that there is little benefit to bands who are geographically isolated and could only attempt to attend a competition maybe once a year. The cost to register really far outweighs any benefit unless your band competes many times.

  2. This is the single most important issue facing organizations like the PPBSO. I have said for many years, mostly to deaf ears, that unless we find a way to make traditional highland games much different and better (as in more fun and entertainment for, god help me, “the Family”) we will have no place in which to engage in, and present our love of pipe bands. The evidence has been mounting for years. Poorly attended games, and those that do attract an audience, feature friends, family, spouses etc of the musicians, and damn few of those. The proof of the pudding is in the eating….we now have what, 7 contests in Ontario, as compared with 12-13 some years ago?

    Many years ago, the Frasers declared a boycott of Georgetown games…not ’cause it’s horrible, but ’cause it’s so much the cookie cutter model. At the end of the day, many tired and cranky pipers and drummers tramping up and down a hot field, with no-one except friends family and spouses watching. All the real paying folks have gone home. This was not some dilletantish stunt…it was an attempt to bring to the attention of the PPBSO, the serious trouble we were/are in.

    If I were to go to one of these conventional contests with a family group, I would feel very much short changed. There ain’t no fun. The truth is that no-one gives a rat’s pattootie about pipe bands except the few of us who are entrenched in our wierd little world…mom and dad and the kids want to see some birds of prey, a bouncy castle, sheep dogs, highland weaving, shetland ponies, highland cattle, a stage show with some nonsensical celtic rock band (just to say it is to make you shudder)….and so on.

    So….the folks who are making money at this stuff, do all of that. And for colour they hire a few lower quality bands who will give the bagpipe sonar backgound….good? they and the audience don’t care….just get some Scottish ambience/bagpipe noise and all’s well.

    So here’s the challenge….we figure this out, or we lose any opportunity to engage in our love of piping/drumming/pipe bands. If these games disappear, so do we. No venue, no contest, and the art lost.

    Sounds gloomy? Damn right. It IS gloomy, and until our various associations come to grips with it, we are a dying bunch.

    Ask this….why would any games organization want to pay the big price tag for a sanctioned contest when they can fill the park with cows and dogs and birds and Irish dancers and a couple of poor pipe bands and so and so on….we need to figure this out people, or our hobby will disappear…ask Uxbridge how and why they do what they do

    And one last thing….every highland games gets to look and sound exactly the same as the others….no individual character at all…exception….Kincardine….for which I say goodonya….and this is a direct result of the PPBSO approach to the “turnkey” operation.

  3. Some interesting comments…I guess it depends on one’s perspective re: pointing fingers at games, associations, etc.
    My experience with the EUSPBA is very few games know what they are doing. They would LOVE to get some advice but sometimes don’t know who to ask.
    I don’t see many EUSPBA sanctioned games making a lot of money and those that do could easily be wiped out on a rainy and/or cold day.
    Although there is a sanctioning “package” the EUSPBA pretty much allows the games to pick and choose which events to offer and I am not sure if games understand that. Of course the danger is why would any games offer a contest above “street level” grade when I would agree for the most part games want the “sound/noise” of bagpipes in the background. I have also heard, games complain that the higher graded bands demaning too much…(ask the games if you don’t believe me)
    The bottom line is someone needs to come up with some strategies to get the better bands on the field and playing/competing. We need to make it fun for the higher graded bands but those bands need to understand there is not a lot of money out there and it is very difficult justifying the extra expense for grade 1 or 2 prize money.
    I also think the higher graded bands in the EUSPBA (2 grade 1’s and 2 grade 2’s) need to work with those of us who are interested in giving them more places to play. Just this past weekend I asked one of the players from one of the bands in question if they would be willing to travel to either Ligonier or Ohio and he said “no”…
    If we are not careful and if we don’t move quickly to get all the players (games, bands & affected association) at the table to work on this 21st century, North American problem, we could very well end up watching contests on YouTube from some unpronouncable country…

  4. I’m not too sure that I agree with “PipeFuzz.” I flew back last night from the ANAPBA Summit in Salt Lake City, where member associations collaborated on a variety of issues. North American associations are very concerned about the viability of highland games and are investigating means of supporting games, including making pipe band events more “audience friendly.”

    Last year, a lot of time when into precisely that in the preparations for the Las Vegas Invitational Championship (which the rug pulled out from under it by a Las Vegas committee which didn’t understand pipe band competitions) and, at the Summit, those resultant competition guidelines were adjusted to fit an event sanctioned and/or sponsored by the various local associations. (Think “concert arc competition”.) Whether member associations use them, time will tell.

    As for associations putting on stand-alone events, the Northern Branch of WUSPBA for a few years now has put on events for the sole purpose of piping and drumming competitions. For example, the Mt. Tamalpais Piping and Drumming Competition (no games, no crowds) even saw pipe band competitions for the first time last year, in addition to their typical solos. I’m sure prize money was minimal or non-existent, but the bands could compete. (And eight bands within a 90 minute drive did.)

    If associations are going to put on pipe band competitions outside of a games (that is, little or no gate revenue), travel funds and prize money will reflect the finances involved . . . associations have never been rolling in money. Covering the Grade I band expenses of flying in players from other continents could become very problematic. If bands want the money of a games drawing the large crowds of the general public, they better do their best to see to it that these games survive. Here in Northern California, the Campbell Games is seeking to resurrect itself and bands (and a few judges) have offered to participate in 2011 sans travel/prize money and/or payment.

    In the end, we’ll do what is necessary as pipers and drummers to provide ourselves with a place to play.

  5. I will observe that every aspect of piping and pipe bands, along with everything pipe bands do, need to always be examined. Never mind the Pipe Band Associations: are WE still relevant?

    When I took my band to Scotland in 2000, we went to the Perth Highland Games the day after the Worlds. Since I’m also a Games organizer in Colorado, I was able to talk to the Games Chairman there; I asked him why they had all the carnival rides (exactly like what you see at various shopping center parking lots in the summer here in Colorado), when they had nearly three dozen pipe bands, including five Grade I bands? (…which is a small contest in Scotland.) Wasn’t that enough?

    He gave me a momentary look of disappointment that a teacher gives a student who opens his big mouth to say something stupid, and he said: “We have to attract the young families with young children, or this won’t last another generation.” How true that is. They “get it” in Scotland. So they have bungee jumping, bicycle races, and vendors who would be right at home at the Mile High Flea Market. The message: you’ve got to hook the audience by making your event accessible to them.

    So, the challenge is to blend doing something new with keeping the old somehow fresh. This is a tall order, certainly. So, it’s just not about competitions. Really, it’s what happens both before and after a pipe band performs at all. I think that there is a barrier that often exists between pipe bands and the casual listener. There’s seldom anyone who “works the crowd” explaining what a pipe band is doing when it’s tuning, or answering questions. This is about US being accessible. We have to tell the stories, play the tunes (sometimes in a new way), then go and meet our audience and thank them for their support. We have to grow our audience, educate our audience, and thank our audience.

    In the Highland Games format, there’s no question that a pipe band competition has limited appeal, but most games make the audience work hard to watch it, in my opinion. For instance, here in Colorado, the Estes Park festival has finally done right by pipe bands by bringing the competition down to the Main Stage area instead of on the tennis courts way up the hill. I generally have a high regard for the Colorado Irish Festival, but they’ve done badly by having the pipe bands on the far side of a hot hillside (at least in 2009), remote from the other festival events. People had to hunt the bands out to find them. And there is no festival (in Colorado) that regularly announces the tunes ahead of time…just a bunch of “dead-air” space in between each band’s performance. Why should anyone care about what’s going on?

    While I have some criticisms about the way our pipe band association (WUSPBA) has evolved, it’s run by people like us, who are doing their best, often without much support from the rest of us, frankly. We’re a bunch of complainers, generally.

    Ultimately, a pipe band association is really a competition-based model. It’s the only thing we do together that we have to have some agreed-upon guidelines. So, it isn’t up to them. It’s up to us and the Festivals. We’re the front line, not the pipe band associations. I think we need to change the way we do things.

    For instance, I would wish that the pipe bands weren’t on the “north forty”…remote from the spectators. I think every band should have a spot in the midst of other Highland Games attractions. Essentially, every pipe band should be a combination of vendor, clan, and, say, living history camp: every band should have it’s merchandise table and a hospitality area that invites the public into the band’s area, along with some sort of display and some giveaway information brochure (how to learn pipes and drums, what upcoming performances the band has, the history of the band…). Again, we should have someone with a small speaker system explaining how we’re tuning, etc. We make everything a mystery…as in: don’t mess with us, we’re tuning. They have no idea. This is an opportunity lost.

  6. It is interesting to note that 13-14 years ago, you made of fun of Highland Games in the United States as 3- Ring circuses. Now, the Highland Games that ARE 3-Ring circuses are the ones that are surviving. I spoke with Derek Davidson, Director of the New Hampshire Highland Games (very profitable, very expensive to enter, lots and lots of people) and made it clear that they operate with 2 separate minds—The Festival and The Highland Games. The Festival (bands and beer) bring in the money. Now every Highland Games does not have the ability to be a NHHG. Why then would games on the outer edges of the EUSPBA want our Sanctioning? (Which by the way we have too much to handle)

    Because the EUSPBA, for better or worse, does not force an All or Nothing package down the organizers throats, it provides a panel of judges who have been certified through a legitimate process, and consistently communicates results in a timely fashion. They know that the sanctioning will attract pipers and drummers and bands. These games do this all the while paying not only the judges fee but travel/hotel/meals if necessary. And they can offer whatever they want—–Grade 4 & 3–no problem….Grades 1 & 2 & 3—no problem…….All levels of bands but only Solos Grade 4 & 3—-no problem.

    We don’t need the games to have a contest but there are many many many Highland Games that want to offer Piping and Drumming events and are willing to make their support and this should not be overlooked

    If these games don’t offer the upper level bands then the bands need to help make that happen with or without their association. Often the Grade 1 & 2 bands have the fewest opportunities to compete and in the end travel long distances for a lot of money. Sounds just like the isolated band in rural area—-well that’s the way things are. There are other hobbies that cost a lot more money than piping and drumming.

    I would encourage those associations that have the All or Nothing approach to look for a different method or else those games will drop the piping and drumming events that we crave OR GOD FORBID ask the EUSPBA for Sanctioning…………………….a little humor for a Tuesday morning

  7. Huge issue here. It’s reaffirming to see that Mr. Livingstone’s comments are in line with what we sense in the lower grades. I think it’s a warranted challenge to the associations, which by default are “us”. No fingers pointed.

    I don’t think there’s a magic bullet. I think there will have to be a lot of them. Massed bands can be part of the revenue stream in Pleasanton, but it won’t be at a small games who’s host town’s population is smaller than the attendance at Pleasanton.

    I think we as bands and members of the associations need to look at the games/competitions we attend and attempt to come up with ways to offer value specific to the event. There’s no reason to boilerplate our role at these events. Unfortunately, this is way easier said than done. Yet, it likely won’t happen unless we generate the ideas.

    At the very least, we need to be vocal to our associations about what (if any) we’re willing to forgo in lieu of opportunity. I know there’d be a lot of debate about specifics, but that’s what for the associations to settle out.

    I know the MWPBA is not unaware of all this. They’ve requested this kind of info from us. I’m just not sure we’ve generated enough magic bullets.

  8. Maxville is still the shining star of pipe band contests in NA. I think so because they make no excuses, it is a championship and it exists primarily for the competitive reality of crowning a champion. The best contests are the ones that attract the best/most bands in the upper grades. The atmosphere of high-level, well-run competition is contagious and the spectator picks-up on it, knowingly or not. Put everything else secondary and feature the competition. Re-build with that concept in mind and the contests and idiom will likely recover to past lustre. The ONLY reason I started playing and continue to play today is band competition. It is a sport and a battle. Engage the spectator in the war.

  9. Maureen — I’m pretty sure I didn’t “make fun” of Highland games with bouncy castles and the like. It wasn’t my intention, anyway. I’ll have to dig out that particular editorial, but I recall it being more about observations on the different formats, and the fact that the US is about tow generations behind, mainly because it’s not a Commonwealth country that had Scottish regimental piping/drumming programs from WWi and then WWII to act as a ready-made infrastructure for success. The US success that we see now stems almost entirely from civilian efforts.

    But the primary point of this Blogpipe post is that perhaps creating events that put piping/drumming first is what’s needed. That may mean foregoing things like travel allowance, but, if events are successful, they could grow to something unexepectedly good, even profitable. Whatever the case, I think associations need to think positively, and at least try.

  10. The highland festival in Estes Park Colorado is very much of the nature that has been described. It is a huge festival of all types of English, Scottish, Irish, Re-enactors, family fun etc. I have played there twice so far with different bands.

    On both occasions I was struck by the scale and commercialism of the whole enterprise. There are two huge tents of vendors selling all manner of Scottish/Irish accessories.

    There is a separate tent for big name Celtic Rock bands for the teenagers and twenty somethings.

    There are animals and activities and fast food and cannons blowing bowling balls into the lake, catapults doing the same, dueling knights in armor and dogs of the British Isles.

    There is a huge clan tent.

    However I have also noticed that a highland games is not the main reason for the festival. It is held outside of the park boundaries as is the Irish (not Scottish) dancing. There are a smattering of interested audience members to see the bands play and dancers dance.

    This festival seems to be bigger and better every time I go down there to play and is clearly financially successful. So there is something to your argument.

  11. well it seems the comments maybe a bit off topic to your blog? i think your right, we do need our organizations to step up and create more innovative piping and pipe band events outside of the highland games. (i sometimes feel we elect our association leaders to agree on whats been the same since 1970’s?) we seem to rely heavily on the games (which for me are still fun to attend) but wouldnt it be amazing to see a pipe band championships not at a highland games? i just watched a small portion of the Breton championships today, and there was no festival attached to it, and it was televised, it was intriguing and i can guarantee that it wasnt just pipe band enthusiats watching…well maybe who knows, but why cant ontario have indoor pipe band championships setup such as that, televised and setup to entertain, we seem to stick to the norm, we cant bring out the innovative brainstorming and move our art forward,
    the games in the US are more successful as they provide more entertainment value then canadian games, compare Loon Mountain to an Ontario games?
    look at the success of Metro cup, and winter storm, (look at those who compete at those contests!!! when did Ontario hold a contest that included some of the worlds top pipers? when did ontario host the likes of the top 6 bands in the world? i think the US is definitly getting the idea, we need to step up.
    hmmmm, Piping Live Toronto? International pipe band Championships live at Roy Thompson hall?
    i can only dream i suppose


  12. The general public doesn’t know the difference between Field Marshall Montgomery and Marshall Dillon. They want to see a show and be entertained. That doesn’t mean they can’t tell the difference between a good band and a bad band, they can. But the don’t care if you’re Grade 1 or Grade 5 as long as the music sounds good and there is a lot of pageantry, color, movement, and all that goes on in a massed band. That’s why THAT is the part they like at a Highland games, and why there are rarely large volumes of spectators over at the Open solo competition area. And band competition are not much more entertaining than solos. Band march from a line, form a circle with their backs to the audience, and play a bunch of tunes few of the audience know, and then march off.

    I suggested last year to the EUSPBA that we change the format of the medley so that it doesn’t have to begin with a three-paced roll, that not all pipers have to play continuously, and that the band could form up in whatever way the PM felt is most conducive to the presentation of the music. Everybody looked at me like I had grown an arm out of my forehead. “We can’t do that”. Well, guess what! Sure you can. You can do whatever you want to. Take a clue off of DCI, who fill football stadiums with audiences all over the country all summer through their competition season. The days of everything in piping having to be based on military tradition are OVER. The associations just don’t realize it. Tradition is important, and needs to be preserved, so use the old MSR to continue to do things traditionally, but open your associative minds to the fact that piping competition doesn’t pay the bills at Highland games, and in it’s current form is not interesting enough to a general public to sustain itself. Yes, The Metro Cup and Winter Storm do very well, but who is the audience? Pipers and drummers. We need to find ways to make our art accessible to pie-makers and plumbers. I don’t hear The Chieftans griping about not being able to fill a venue. Because they are not only great musicians, but entertaining as well. Associations – clue-get one.



Forgotten Password?