Gridlock at the top
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.