March 26, 2010

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.


  1. Well when faced with the situation in the picture, there are choices and options. You can just join the queue and hope to get there eventually, though granted a lot later than if there wasn’t anything in the way. You could decide not to make the journey at all. You could find some way through side streets that not many people know about. You could hitch a lift from somebody at the front of the queue. You could set off a lot earlier to get ahead before the queue even forms. You could decide not to make that journey but make a different one where there isn’t such gridlock. You could make the same journey but in another mode of transport. You could mess yourself up feeling bitter about the gridlock and the helpless feeling that nothing can be done about it. Or you could wait behind, do another couple of hours practice, and then come sailing up the hard shoulder and pass the lot to collect your trophy. Gridlock isn’t too bad a thing imho. It perhaps separates the truly determined from the half hearted, and the truly creative from the lacking in imagination. Having said that, in organisations for example,there’s nothing worse than road hogs, holding on to their spot long after the sell-by-date, and preventing other people from bringing fresh energy to the scene. But a well operated system would have in-built safeguards to stop that situation arising. Now where’s that route planner?

  2. It is too bad that there are not more chances for bands to challenge the big guns. As foir solo piping I think there are plenty of opportuinities to rise to the top but agree that judges don’t always allow it to happen.

  3. “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.”

    WOW! You heard it here first!…not really, but the candor is appreciated.



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