August 18, 2010

Jottings from Glasgow

Roddy MacLeod addresses the gathering at the Glasgow City Chambers.A few stand-out memories and observations from a chock-a-block week in Glasgow. There are hundreds more, but these came to mind first when thinking back on the week. They’re in no particular order.

Bagad Brieg

After almost 30 years of attending the World’s I realized that I had not once listened to anything but Grade 1. So, this year, I decided to will myself away from the Grade 1 Medley Final, and take a look at the Grade 2 final. There were 12 bands in the event, and several performances would have stood up well in Grade 1. But the medley that caught my ear was that of Bagad Brieg from Brittany. I was glad that they finished third overall, because I wondered if their more creative selection might alienate potentially traditionalist judges. Brieg’s finish included an impressive delivery of Gordon Duncan’s “Pressed for Time,” an ingenious and difficult composition that few bands would tackle. Brieg to me stood out from the fairly predictable fare of some of its competition, and I won’t be surprised if they are the next Breton band approved for Grade 1 by the RSPBA.

Armagh Pipers Club

I heard a lot from this band of uillean pipes, whistles, banjo and bodhran during Piping Live! They play an eclectic variety of Celtic stuff in a very acoustic and unplugged manner. They were the background entertainment at a reception at the Glasgow City Chambers put on by the city’s Lord Provost (read: mayor) for people connected with Piping Live! pipes|drums is once again a media partner with the festival, so I scored an invitation. The Armagh Pipers Club played away at the corner of the room, and it was splendid.

Glasgow City Chambers

Over the years I’ve been within yards of the Glasgow City Chambers (read: city hall) thousands of times, but I’d never actually gone inside. What a building. The deep red Italian Carrara marble is everywhere and it is stunning. The building was made in 1888 and, I was told, Glaswegians complained about its cost. But they must have stopped complaining once they saw the completed building. I kept thinking of The Simpsons “Stonecutters” episode. I highly recommend you have a look next time you’re in Glasgow. They don’t make them like this no more.

Roddy MacLeod practicing

The redoubtable Helen Wilkinson of the National Piping Centre kindly allowed me to plug in to their Internet connection throughout the week. While all the action was happening outside, behind the scenes the NPC’s offices were inhabited by employees and volunteers keeping things running. There’s probably not a busier person in Glasgow than Piping Live! and National Piping Centre Director Roddy MacLeod. But one day when I was posting a news story, a somewhat frazzled Roddy came into the offices, and disappeared into a back room where he proceeded to . . . practice. He managed to squeeze in about 15 minutes of his own solo playing before being interrupted with the latest crisis. I continued to do my thing, but couldn’t help but enjoy the loveliness of his playing and pipe. How Roddy manages the NPC and Piping Live! while staying at the top of the solo game is beyond me. MBE indeed.

The RSPBA machine

I compared the band competition times in my program with the actual times the bands came on. There was never more than a minute either way. There may have been one or two lapses on the day, but the RSPBA is unbelievably good at executing events of this size. And it’s not just 230-odd bands; it’s more than 350 (by my count) actual band performances. The RSPBA is mind-bogglingly good at running the World’s like a Swiss watch.

Elderly humming Highlanders

I was reminded about the peculiar habit that old Scottish men have when a solo piper plays a Gaelic air or piobaireachd: they hum along, usually off-pitch, in this sort of murmuring style. You’ll be sitting there enjoying a recital by Angus MacColl or Willie McCallum or some other great, and when the player starts an air or urlar there emerges this weird sound from the audience. And usually, you can’t tell who it is who’s humming, but rest assured it’s one of the elderly Highland-looking dudes. Shut it!

Inert judges

Some ensemble judges feel it’s acceptable to assess each band as a whole from one spot. I’ve heard Bob Shepherd’s thoughts on being “static.” Fair enough. But I noticed in several circles at the World’s piping judges pretty much staying in one place. One judge in an event I listened to never ventured past the half-way mark at the top of the band on one side of the circle – for the entire contest. Another time I noticed all three – two piping and ensemble – listening for a good minute in a clump. With the size of today’s bands, this makes no sense. The piping judges should make an effort to stay away from one another to ensure variances on each side of the circle are heard. Mobility may be a factor with a few judges being relative stagnant, but I would think that the competitors deserve a more comprehensive listen. If judges are having a hard time getting around, perhaps they should retire – or at least use one of those electric carts.

Drinks vouchers

“Beer tickets” are standard at North American piping and drumming events. It’s a way to balance the revenues against sold product and safeguard against theft. The World’s was the first Scottish event that I’d seen the use of the system, and the “drinks vouchers” setup made getting served a breeze. The bed-sheet-size paper vouchers were a bit much, though. Could this be the first time ever that the RSPBA has adopted an idea from another country?

All told, it was a great week, and, as always, your observations are welcome.


  1. Reading through those recollections I was left wondering about the RSPBA electronic buggy bit and in particular, what the average age of an RSPBA judge is. I’ve often wanted to ask the question, but haven’t, for fear of it being seen as either a snipe at the RSPBA or an ageist comment. It’s neither, but rather a point of interest. In other music spheres I’m familiar with, I’d say the average age of adjudicators/examiners is 35–50. Now it might be that piping and drumming requires particularly experienced people to judge it who’ve been on the circuit for over forty years or something like that, but I don’t really see why this would be the case. It is VERY striking, when approaching the Worlds and surveying the scene, that the judges seem to be older, not very fit sometimes, and rather bent over their clipboards. Who decides when they should retire? They themselves? Seems to be a difficult decision to make for them. Again, I don’t mean any disrespect to the individuals concerned, but it seems to be having a detrimental effect on the development of piping and drumming, and that surely is contrary to the aims of the RSPBA. Having said that, if someone was 79 and sharp as a button, musically top notch and had kept up with developments, and through their work continued to show they were a valuable asset, for sure, great to have them soldiering on. Similarly if someone was all of the above but physically disabled, yes, put in place whatever’s needed to enable them to get round the circle a bit. But if someone’s stuck in the 1950s, not keeping up with current trends, struggling with all the new music, never mind getting around the field, maybe it’s time to let it go.

  2. Personally I think it’s rather rude to zero in on a judge i.e. rather bent over their clipboards. The person referred to is an outstanding judge and above everything else, a great man. A man who has all his faculties but due to a physical illness is being brought into question. I feel that this same man makes as much effort as anyone to perform his duty as a judge as any other on the circuit. Age is often a plus i.e. no substitute for experience. In many countries the retirement age has been increased due to the value and worth of age. Judges are often criticized when their score sheets show something different than the other judges i.e. when they are judging apart. They are again blamed for being biased. No thought or excuse is afforded them should a specific judge hear something the others didn’t and hence reflected in the score sheet and result. Judges can’t please everyone and they know that. Let’s stop stating the obvious and begin to accept what we have is the best at this time. Constructive criticism is fine but unnecessary slurs is inappropriate. If people/organizations have a concern re inert judges and the system, take it up with the R.S.P.B.A. directly



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