October 26, 2013


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

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

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

I’m both glad and sad that I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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


    1. Three years ago, when I was still with the PPBSO Music Committee, I put together a fairly comprehensive plan for a province-wide teaching program that the organization could implement. It was a decent draft that went to the PPBSO’s board, and there it rotted, despite my constant requests for feedback and direction. About a year ago, I was informed that the program would be managed by Ed Neigh, with no explanation given. I was miffed, but at least it was some movement finally. But there has been nothing more about it, and I wonder if any progress has been made. It could have been rolled out two years ago.

  1. In the short period of time that I played in competition bands I “lifted my game” far more than in any other period in my piping history. No doubt solo competition has the same affect. Why does that happen? Because of our old friends, pressure and stress. Having to “get it off” and “get it right” have a high motivating effect to a developing piper or drummer.
    Thus I can see big value in competition as a vehicle to improve the level of piping among its constituents. So it’s not competition per se that is the villain in this particular blog. It’s a matter of how much.
    I do agree that is seems to have gone fractal and needs to be pulled back and reorganized somewhat. Category mitosis continues to split and re split the levels. But doesn’t this also indicate a larger number of participants taking part, and doesn’t that indicate an expanding interest in our craft?
    As you cross the field of play, shielding you instrument from damage, just remind yourself that we may have to accept the milling about and cacophony and tell yourself “Jeez, there’re a lot of people interested in piping these day.”

  2. I find the idea of a playoff and the creation of more events to be overkill. It just costs us, the competitors, more money. I like the idea of limiting the size of grade 1 (or any other for that matter) to that which can be run in a single heat (move players in and out of the grade as necessary).

    I also agree that there must be a limit to how much the society can offer, they don’t just provide these services for free. Everything costs money, and ultimately that money comes from the competitors or the spectators, neither of which serves the advancement of quality.

    1. Having a playoff in the grade one solos has the potential to improve the standard of our best upcoming players and was something our society trialed back in the 80s. The prizes were fewer but more meaningful, and there were no additional fees for those competing in the final. Adding events like the G3 jig could entice certain promising young players into trying out the solos. Once hooked, they could very well compete in other events and potentially end up as one of our future star players. The G5 piobaireachd event would cater to those young players ( whose parents drive hundreds of miles to attend the games) an opportunity to compete in one additional event. It would also introduce them to our great music sooner and offer them the opportunity to get professional feedback on their progress.

  3. For the competitor, the PPBSO’s circuit is the most expensive in the world by a good margin. (See pipes|drums feature.) in 2013 I paid nearly $500 all-in to be a member and compete in four events at each of five competitions. True, no one forced me, but it’s the current price of participation. There’s no big resistance that I can detect within organizations to adding more events. Do more events really please members and games committees and the paying public, or are they really cash cows for associations that have lost site of what they’re supposed to be about? I don’t know. No one ever seems to be accountable for fees and costs and the value of what we do.

  4. Reading the posts by those immediately involved in the piping scene here in Ontario I can only accept and respect their views. However my view from the sidelines has been that piping and drumming seem to be growing and attracting more participants and from my narrow point of view I have considered that a good thing. I therefore stand wisened and corrected but somehow less that happy about it.

  5. I, too, was a bit confused by the critique involving phrases like ‘catering to far too little ability, and those that can merely scratch out a tune’ that did not feel particularly mellifluous to my soul. But I get the point that even as a judge’s highly paid but sensitive ears are assaulted by Grade 5 piobaireachd, maybe the furtherance of the art is not happening. It is a fine line to provide encouraging and fostering contests in this endless search for self improvement, while not dropping the ball as to what might constitute said improvement. Organizations are driven by such programs (increasing the number of contests + zero spectators) with ‘accountable’ catch phrases that superficially achieve their corporate vision and mission statements. Graham Brown spoke in Scotland of Andrew M’s fine return to the game this year, and congrats to him for following up with the Nicol-Brown. I was at a similar age and stage (young family, career) when I went after self instructed piobaireachd – and my first Grade 1 Judge, a likely jaded Scott MacAulay (I suspect I tuned up with a slow air), thought my presentation a “bit square”. So it is a learning curve, and ideally, good tuition truly enhances the musical art.

    I was struck by Michael’s comment, and I think it is culture rather than vision that some might feel is missing in Ontario. Sir Paul/Linda intersected with the culture in Kintyre and it allowed the GHB one of its most notable popular successes, thx in part to Ian McKerral (who played on the mega hit’s release) and others in that tradition. James MacMillan brought a piece of the Kintyre culture very productively to Vancouver. A parallel situation in Ontario with another John Wilson (not of Kintyre) paid many dividends over those decades as well. I don’t think the fringist subculture of GHB can ever achieve a really prominent place in the mainstream North American melting pot such as RnB or Country Pop, but Celtic music in general is doing well. Now that the Ontario teachers of my generation have become more retiring, perhaps current educational practitioners like Patricia and Glenna can further modernize and extend the older practices of the “Piping College Green Tutor” school. Jim was able to expensively hire instructors like my son for the Private School setting of St. Andrews, but some of that was not always resonating with rich Mexican pupils and the like. The native setting in Scotland is quite different (albeit, still some over indulged kids with parents footing the bill, oft enough) and the “vision” of their Education Boards has enabled current success stories such as in the ‘sort of nearby’ Inveraray, which arguably is led by a Kintyre tradition in Piping. Scotland’s current resurgence and vibrant scene is largely thanks to the boost of that widespread, world class instruction from the youngest age. Cultural resonance is the key, and it takes more than mere vision to achieve it. But that’s just my read, so good luck in Ontario.

  6. Andrew, your comments about expense brought back a thought……I’m not in the know on the PPBSO’s finances, but I do know there are many more competitors, both solo and band at the lower levels….they are the ones who often keep associations solvent. Just saying. Besides, one needs to cast a large net to find talent, you never know where that spark will come from……or at what age for that matter…..Doc

  7. I too Andrew, received my postmarked envelope in the mail yesterday and had a look inside. I can agree with your catering to the masses idea about having many small events “just for the sake of having them”…more massed confusion on a Saturday morning.
    When I started off piping at the age of 18, there were contests around where the only Gr 4 events were the standard 2/4 March and entry level piob’d contests had Ground and First Variation. Seriously, if someone can memorize a Ground, then what’s an extra few minutes for the first variation? Or the person waits and when they are ready, they enter the contest that has 1 full piobaireachd for submission.
    On another note, here’s a great thing I read in that said envelope: I believe it was a motion from the Ottawa Branch of the PPBSO to look at implementing the CPA Gradings (or something like that) at the Professional Solo Piping level. If it happens on the other side of the pond, then why shouldn’t we adopt a similiar system in our own association? Food for discussion at the upcoming AGM.

    1. Thanks, Bill. The motion to apply CPA-like A, B, and C grades to the system in Ontario might seem to make sense, but it’s not at all transferable. Remember, the UK has no consistent amateur solo system around their games. If you are older than 18 you compete against Stuart Liddell, regardless of your ability. As a result, the vast majority of pipers stop competing in solo events. Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe not. Anyway, a piper graded C by the CPA generally would compete in Amateur Grade 1 or even Grade 2 in North America. In fact, there have been instances of amateur pipers older than 18 who want to compete in Scotland, so they join the CPA, get a C grading, and then return here and proclaim themselves “Professional.” It’s not transferable to the standard. And recognizing and upholding standards in each grade is some of the most important work an association can do. If there are competitors not making or exceeding the standard in the grade in which they compete, then the association should assign them to the right grade. With a comprehensive amateur system in place, the solution is not to split grades into A and B. The UK does that because it has no consistent amateur system for adults.

      1. The “CPA” motion from Ottawa Branch stems from the situation this year in Ontario where the large number of solo professionals caused scheduling headeaches at games. If you keep a single event through the entire day then some professionals with a late draw have to scratch so they can go play with their band in the afternoon. Alternately, you split it into separate events, which is an issue for competitors establishing their credentials for overseas events and who need to show how they stack up against the top players, which is tough if they’re in a separate event. The Branch motion offers one possible option for addressing this by dividing the open category in a structured way rather than an arbitrary or random way.

        1. I agree with splitting Open into two, but why tie it to the CPA? No disrespect to the CPA or anyone wanting to join and play in it, but not everybody wants to or can afford to compete in Scotland due to finance and time.
          Scotland and Ontario are two different worlds. There is no parallel in the grading structures. Even if there was, the grading here would not likely be respected there, given historical events past.
          Split the grade? Yes, but leave the CPA out of it. Maybe try “Open” and “Former Winners”?

  8. I’d like to see pipe band associations do more to foster performance outside of the competition milieu. The associations exist to further our art form, not just to adjudicate contests.

  9. Well said, Dan Bell. While the competition circuit always seems to have been the Society’s raison d’etre, I don’t believe it has to be so. The fact that an organization called the “Pipers’ and Pipe Band Society of Ontario” couldn’t even begin to tell you how many pipers or pipe bands exist in this province suggests that maybe its mandate was never fulfilled from the start. Many of the ideas in this article and thread were put forth nearly 20 years ago and promptly shelved. That seems to be a repeating theme.

  10. Interesting

    What about peer judging in non-core competitions? Essentially get rid of the judging bench and have competitors grade each other’s performances, highest score wins!

    Then the association would only have to coordinate the entries pipers could rate each other via secure online system.



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