August 24, 2009

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.


  1. While moving the event indoors will eliminate some of the variables, it would still leave the inherent advantage of the worlds being a local contest to some bands while others travel half way around the world. Maybe it’s my interest in American football, but I’d sooner support the worlds at a neutral, good weather site, than a shift indoors. Never mind Toronto, how about the old Orange Bowl in Miami in February.

  2. It’s a nice thought (moving pipe band contests indoors), but just not practical. There aren’t enough venues available to do this universally (Maxville? Cambndge? Cowal? etc.) that are large enough and accoustically suitable for todays megabands. Like it or not, we’re stuck outdoors. It’s just a matter of making the most of it. A new contest located in a more favourable climate would be the answer as the RSPBA will never move the worlds from the UK (Why would they? It’s their contest, not the “worlds”). Raise a large enough pot and they will come. How about California? Great climate!

  3. I love it. Bands – even “megabands” like SFU or SLOT – have been performing in concert halls for years, and yet we say it’s not feasible for our top contests to go indoors. What about a band-shell or an amphitheatre? If big contests can’t or won’t come in from the cold, maybe a happy medium could be found and at least allow them to compete without the rain drenching them.

  4. I thought about amphitheatres and concert halls, but again a few issues. How do you move 23 bands through them while providing adequate tuning facilities and tuning time? In the case of an amphitheatre, the bands would still be tuning outdoors, but playing on a sheltered stage. in the case of a concert hall, Its ok for a couple of bands a night as thera re a couple of tuning rooms available, but those rooms generally are not very good accoustically. Also, our traditional games sites don’t come equipped (as a rule) with these faciilities. In addition, there would only be facilities for one grade at a time.
    Perhaps an invitational contest of this typer could be held at the right location? Something new? Maybe record it?

  5. That assumes bands compete using the current musical requirement. In a new format, each band might have a half-hour to perform a 10-minute medley, an MSR and a free-form 10-minute selection. With 15 minutes between each band, that gives every band 45 minutes to tune before coming on. Only one tuning facility within the venue would be required.

  6. Interesting format. It could work, but the entry would probably need to be restricted. Based on 12 hours of total performance time at 45 minutes per cycle, 16 bands could compete in total. That’s barely enough for the entrants in the qualifier round for GR1 this year or for the final 14. Of course, the judges and audience would be sitting and listening for along time.
    An invitational contest restricted to 8 bands max would be the most practical way to do this.



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