June 26, 2015

Haves and have-nots

There are those pipe bands that have and those that have not. And increasingly there are competitions and Highland games that have and have not. The size and success of bands and competitions are linked.

June 23rd was one of the more ironic and remarkable days of piping and drumming news that I can remember. Within hours of one another, the Virginia Tattoo folks proudly announced that two “have” bands – Inveraray & District and ScottishPower – would be flown in to the April 2016 event in Norfolk. Big, successful, wonderful bands that are having all expenses paid to the sunny and warm southeast USA to play in the first annual big extravaganza.

Nice news. What’s not to like?

An hour or so later came a rather different message from the good people who organize the 150-year-old competition in northern California, referred to fondly as “Pleasanton.” This somewhat dire announcement outlined that hoping for top-grade bands to get to their event, each bringing upwards of 40 members, has become unrealistic for the bands to pay for, and impossible for the contest to underwrite. So, Pleasanton’s solution is to reset their own rules. Three invited Grade 1 bands would be limited to competing with no more than eight pipers and seven drummers total.

Interesting, but not a little sad.

Thanks to the proliferation of the numbers game – not just in Grade 1, but really across all grades – larger bands have to be far more selective about where they travel. If their way is paid, as with Inveraray and ScottishPower, or the event is a must-attend, many  simply can’t get to most events. Unless a competition like the World’s or Maxville has built up its stature, events have to find the money to attract bands with prizes or travel subsidies or both to get them out.

The irony is that when bands have size enough to be competitive, they can no longer get to events to do what they want to do: compete.

John Biggar, with the cooperation of the Western United States Pipe Band Association, has created a new event: the small band competition, which is pretty much a step back to 1975 or so when bands of eight, three, two and one were not only acceptable, they were common.

Pleasanton used to have it all, attracting full-sized Grade 1 bands to finish their season in northern California. Today, this very successful event is left having to not just reinvent itself but reinvent pipe band rules to continue its success.

It’s a ridiculous state of affairs, but that’s what it has come to.

Because so many bands prepare for the World Championships, it will take the RSPBA to evoke positive change. Otherwise, we will see competitions like Pleasanton take things into their own hands by creating events that more bands can attend, that the event itself can afford. But those events will need to work with associations to bend their rules, and, as we saw in Northern Ireland with the Spring Gatherin’, that’s not always possible, or even likely.

I’ve written over the last 15 years (for example, here, here, here, here, here) about the dangers of allowing band sizes to expand unchecked. For sure, large bands make for interesting sounds and sights, but it invites situations like we’re seeing now, where there are not only have and have-not bands, but there are have and have-not competitions.

Twenty years ago, most Scottish pipe bands would compete at about 15 contests a year. Now most get out to maybe eight, five of those the major championships. The larger size of bands makes it difficult to get to an event with a full complement of players, so they pick and choose. I see top-grade bands scraping for players to boost numbers, bringing in pipers 15 years retired, fielding kids with experience no higher than Grade 4, pressured to feature at least seven across the front at virtually any cost.

I think the majority of bands would support reasonable limits of section sizes — not tiny bands of eight, four and one, but maybe 18, eight, four and one for Grade 1; 15, seven, four and one for Grade 2; and so on. There would be better quality bands. There would be more bands. There would be more bands to attend competitions. Bands could afford to get to more competitions.

Other than hurting a few feelings for a few days when lesser players are cut loose (to become better players in other bands), I can’t really think of a single good reason not to limit section sizes.

The situation is capitalistic. Survival of the fittest and all that. But, to me, the piping and drumming world needs a more social approach. We need to level the playing field by putting a reasonable limit on numbers across all grades, so that we can continue doing what we do and make the business of competition sustainable.



  1. I can remember back in the 60’s in Ontario where there were about 8 grade one bands and most played less than 12 players. Now there are about only 4 bands but the size (20 plus pipers,9 and ten snares, 5 and 6 tenor, and a bass. More like 2 bands in one compared to the 60’s.

  2. You are so right here. The RSPBA could do something truly good for all bands and scenes world wide be leading here. It’s reaching crisis level with some contests and many even in the RSPBA’s back garden. Every one loves big bands but the pressure placed on every band in all grades to field bigger bands is way too big. The big bands cannot get to competitions because they cant afford it or they cant get every one out. Smaller bands cant compete. Do something good RSPBA. For once LEAD !!!!!

  3. This is a financial issue that requires an ‘out of the square thinking’ financial solution. We are operating in a worldwide movement and maybe we need a worldwide solution. Limiting numbers locally and creating new bands might sound reasonable but that will only create competition for the already limited funds available locally and so the vicious financial cycle continues. There is also a whole other argument here in Australia and that’s the quality and quantity of teaching. We are not replennishing our stocks of musicians quickly enough but that’s for another time but it’s equally important.

  4. Limits? OMG, Socialism! Tyranny!

    Absolutely, let’s please make this happen. The pursuit of The Worlds by ever-expanding giant bands filled with distance (often intercontinental) players has had some definite negative impacts. Reasonable limits are long overdue.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly. While the spectacle of massive bands has appeal to the audience, it does no good for piping and pipe bands in the long run, for all the reasons stated above. Let’s stop the nonsense. If audiences get too used to seeing huge bands, more reasonable-sized bands may be seen as a disappointment, affecting spectator turnout.

  6. I agree that large band sizes is a problem as it relates to said bands being able to afford traveling out of their home area and Scottish Games and Festivals being able to afford bringing them in. I don’ t necessarily agree that capping band numbers will create a lot of new bands. It will create some. As far as the have and have nots go it boils down to money. A lot of bands do not have money to travel reguardless of band size. The economy is not great. Prize money at games and festivals is not great. Bands have a hard time keeping numbers up, and some bands don’ t compete because of the pressure. As long as the above remains true there is always going to be have nots unfortunately.

  7. Interestingly provocative again, Andrew, and such controversialism is always brave – as such, it should be welcomed to keep creative solutions flowing. I do find the panning of the World’s mania a bit incongruous, however. In the sense that your own website places a lot of hoopla and effort into the now institutionalized Piping Live Week, all leading up to the big Band contest event(s). I can hardly imagine swimming upstream against that trend and promoting the popularity of Contest Results on the UK rota, whilst you and Harry single-mindedly undermine the cherishing (or are they coveting?) of the Big Prizes these tremendously hard working groups pursue. Incongruous in the sense that you perennially promote excellence in improving one’s grasp and acumen in pipe music of all sorts, plus branding and taking pride in one’s name and organization. Perhaps you are now regretting the unstoppable flow of funds and corporate direction of such fiscal successes, but that trend seemed in accord with your own business/publicity ethos over the years. The first item on many of those tacit Mission Statements is to devotedly pursue those big prizes like so many have from North America, one assumes, and that’s where excellence stems from and retains its vigour. Turning back a clock in any pursuit, is not particularly productive usually, and involves great efforts. Energy usually justified by necessity not “one’s druthers”.

    Your proposed, ideal maximal numbers for Grade 1 are again being approached by many top Bands over there in all sections except the tenor midsection. Eastern North American piping leaders seemed very slow to acknowledge the key changing role adopted by Tenors as they seemed to lay the stage for more encompassing voicing, and the harmonies you refer to. Ergo the larger recent Band sizes to fill out that orchestral thrust and initiative. I have heard accomplished North American drummers being quite critical of those piping leaders just not getting the ensemble thing, whereas the drummers were much quicker studies at adapting different ideas. Unfortunate, as the Bands in your area were a bit slow out of the gates with Tenor diversity and Band enhancement. It seems odd considering such fine International Judges like Ken Eller and Bob Worrall are quite conversant in where that trend has taken the modern Band, and very capable of articulating the finer points, as Bob does repeatedly in his commentary at the Big Event.

    There are still conservative Judges attempting to unnecessarily interfere in creative tune selections, especially 2/4 Marches promoted by great soloist-led Bands like IDPB and the resurging Power. Such attempts to steer musical expression is unfortunate, but very much part of the Game. One suspects the recent building of Shotts and IDPB with geographical and logistical restrictions on numbers gave a pause for the Big Bands to reconsider that numbers’ daze, when IDPB (particularly) showed the benefits of tightness of playing + economy of setup issues on the day with some 18 high quality pipers. I would hate to see International Bands surrender the highly technical ground of pipe corps’ setup in frustration with prizes at the Big ‘Un. Albeit, international traveling may change very quickly with more pressing global carbon concerns as the Pacific heats up here, and the World’s end may assume a quite different connotation.

    1. When I hear people in the piping /drumming who express reasonable opinions called “brave,” I’m always surprised, or saddened. I’ll always remember George Campbell saying to me, “Brave stuff you’re doing there” in a complimentary way back around 1990. I never thought of it that way then and still don’t. Ask questions; get answers. Simple. Not that it stopped me before, but being independent from any association helps to be agnostic, perceived or real. And the fact that pipes|drums does not have a shop attached and plows back proceeds from ads and subs into the publication itself and donates anything left over to good piping/drumming causes, is another bravery factor.
      I agree that World’s attention might seem incongruous with personal opinion. But I work hard to separate the news from my own views. The World’s is what it is and I think the coverage in p|d is commensurate. I also think that the coverage p|d has given to the World’s and Piping Live! have helped with the awareness of these events considerably. My personal issue with the World’s is that, due to its appeal to bands worldwide, what happens there dictates what happens worldwide. Attempts to change the music or the format or the size of bands outside of Scotland are futile because, well, if it’s not done at the World’s it won’t help bands to prepare for the World’s so it can’t happen. This is a controlling factor that I’m not sure the RSPBA appreciates or cares about (they won’t say), so the music and structure of pipe bands — which I feel could evolve for the better much more quickly — are beholden to the World’s. That frustrates me greatly, even though the World’s is absolutely no question about it a wonderful event as it is.

  8. Glad you clarified your 3 public personas under the p|d umbrella, Andrew. You are also a very active PPBSO judge, and past affiliations with SoS and the Ontario Music Board are more hats in the closet. Most of us wrestle with 3 hats also – an impish, red devil proffering temptation in one ear and an angelic pollyanna whispering in the other providing “reasonable” alternatives to merely following our instinct 😉 But what is deemed reasonable will clearly vary with the individual and organization. Many people openly admit their panic/terror of speaking in front of a crowd. We in the pipe band world embrace public exposure, but non-soloist bandsfolk may not cherish undue personal playing scrutiny, however exhibitionist you feel our subculture is. Not all thrive in such performance anxiety moments but you entered this editing role at a tender and confidently young age. I have seen many a fine player wilt under (even unwarranted) pressure from teachers and PMs, plus vying fellow band players. Sometimes a change in setting and personnel can rekindle that player’s fine talents and lend sufficient confidence.

    So most people react in varying degrees of sensitivity to others’ regard and input. Life is not easy on this planet, however affluently ensconced you and I may have been from professional, middle class homes. Granted such a firm pedestal we had many enticing choices to select from, but such is not the lot of a huge majority of denizens around the planet. Alphas may elect to impress their own agendas on others and many a beta asks no questions, due to this type of fear of some sort of retribution – such as you historically reminded recently with Muirheads June 12, 1973 suspension by the then SPBA due to their complaints over JK McAlister’s judging. Other forms of top down control are a bit more subtle – the stare, the shrug, the rolling of the eyes, the supercilious once over etc and words exchanged, shouted and public derision. Not all live in fear, and many a water cooler conversation is spiced by the antics and disasters visited upon the ruling alphas, unfortunately a major, riveting centre of attention. I have spoken of the Adjudicators’ bullying effect (examining by a teacher, no less) and how unconsciously it can lead unintentionally to over 50% of all Grade 1 Bands submitting Highland Wedding or John Morrison type tunes for MSRs, say. Such Judges react to a tune like Knightswood Ceilidh submitted Band-wise since it is (for good enough reasons) deemed solo, and that’s the Judge’s experience set with it. Bias and former impressions interfere with a fairer, current hearing. Getting this negative, prize losing feedback, the Band falls back on a big Band Choon like Donald Cameron, Balmoral, Pretty Marion and the formerly lovely Susan MacLeod or whatever. Luster lost and damage done. We cannot humanly avoid such affects nor should we be artificially twisted on trying to rule out all such inequities. We can respond to the issues of the moment, however, and act like the historically, equally interfering Piobaireachd Society and Set such tunes off the list for the next 5 years.

    The canny folks on Glasgow Council and your friends at RSPBA have bigger fish to fry now, and have not moved much despite your asking simple questions. We have all created a monster of leviathan proportions, but a mass of bandsfolk and affiliates pay out of pocket to see that Piping Live !! as well as hear what and HOW the crème de la crème perform renditions well known, and otherwise. Creativity lost – you bet. The Big Boys’ clubs with varying agendas fight out the battle of the tartans, and we lesser mortals (have nots) accept the consequences. Ever thus, but we are different in sensitivity/makeup and in accepting inferiority complexes from top down etc. Marketing has its own agendas (many of which I distrust) and Mum ‘n Pop operations of yore now support many livelihoods for folks we know within the pipe band world, but the pipe dream of a larger market share for our passion with the music continues. Good luck in Glasgow where Band Concerts are great despite the huge efforts expended. I’m off bicycling to the beach for a considerably warmed swim and snorkel.

  9. I was only talking about this very scenario last week.
    Bands with 28-30 pipers 14 side drummers etc is all well and good but its my honest opinion that we should be limited in all grades to say a maximum of 18 pipers to compete with 20 allowed to be registered with the band
    This would mean the surplus 5-10 that are not chosen within the 29man squad would have to find a band to play with!

    Surely this would mean a better standard of piping throughout the whole system?

    We have bands now competing in grade1 with say 14 pipers, up agAinst say 25, now wether we want to admit it or not the bigger band has more scope, a smaller band can not achieve at the same pitch as a larger band as they will lack volume etc, this will mark them down on the judges score cards!
    Limiting the amount of registered players means we will all have to find bands to play with and work hard to keep your place!
    I would suggest every season each band has to submit a retained list, and if there are spaces available in the squad, then there should be a set time limit to fill these!

    The same can be done in the drum corp!

    For me this would allow a fairer opportunity for bands to attract players! Why have 30 pipers and 5/6 of them dont get a game? They could be supporting and helping another band!

    I think personally this will mean stronger bands, stronger players and a fair playing field, because as it stands now a band can have as many players as they want and the rest will suffer

  10. One thing that always gets left out of this discussion is leadership. Part of what’s increased the band sizes is people gravitating toward bands with great (and successful) leadership. Even if you cap the size of existing bands that doesn’t guarantee that there are respected, willing leaders (both musical and adminstrative) around whom new bands will form.
    I suspect limiting band sizes would mostly result in a lot more people hanging around the beer tent at the worlds moaning about how they’d have been playing for a top band if not for the unfair size limit.
    That said, I still agree that it’s a good idea.



Forgotten Password?