August 25, 2014

Keeping score

Scoresheets or crit-sheets have never been a regular thing at UK solo piping competitions. I remember arriving at Montrose Games in 1983, an awestruck 19-year-old from St. Louis playing at the “senior” solo competition on a brilliant, sunny day at the links.

My bass drone stopped while tuning for the Strathspey & Reel (cane, sheep, wet, overplayed), so I slunk off, too frightened to take it out and flick it in front of Old Jimmy MacGregor, who might have been too, um, under the weather to notice. Never mind. I thought that I played pretty well in the March, and keenly waited around for the result.

Nothing for naïve me. But I remember being surprised that, not only was there no ranking order of finish past third, there weren’t even scoresheets. I was told that such things weren’t done in Scotland. I eventually got used to it, but always had a sense of miff as to what I did right or wrong, or why I was in or, more often than not, not in the prizes.

Thirty-one years later and, but for a few experiments with CPA B- and C-Grade events, there is no system of feedback for solo competitors in the UK.

That is truly ridiculous.

As with pipe bands, every solo competitor deserves to know how an adjudicator accounted for his or her decision. They don’t need or even want a “lesson,” or to be given helpful hints for the next time, as I have heard scoresheets reasoned away by many UK judges. Instead, competitors should at least come away from an event knowing that each judge’s decision was more than arbitrary.

The lack of feedback and accountability in the UK has at times propped up truly shallow, and even nonexistent, piping pedigrees from not a few adjudicators over the last century who, if they had to account for their decisions by providing constructive and informed criticism, would have been exposed as the frauds they were. The aristocratic “society” types who didn’t or wouldn’t know a phrase from a pheasant could simply draw up a prize list and go home.

Today, even, the best a competing solo piper in the UK can do is ask and hope for feedback from the judges. I once did that after I got nothing for what I fancied was a really good tune at the Northern Meeting. Days after the event I emailed one of the judges (who was someone who had never competed himself), and he responded with comments about how my taorluaths from D weren’t good. That might well have been the case – with another piper. The tune I actually played had no taorluaths from D.

In every other piping jurisdiction, not only are scoresheets mandatory, but judges only become judges after amassing a long history of competition success, learning feedback techniques, and proving that they can produce accurate and constructive scoresheets. It works. And if a judge were to write on a scoresheet criticisms about technique that didn’t even exist in the performance, he or she would be held to account.

Over the next few weeks many of the world’s greatest solo pipers will converge on Oban and Inverness. Some will come away with a prize or two. Most will get nothing. But the majority of those competing will receive no accounting for the result from the adjudicators.

The old world of piping should join the new world order, where formal feedback and accountability aren’t just nice to have, they’re essential aspects of a well-run and fair competition.

And not only do they account for judge’s decisions, scoresheets weed out the judging imposters.


  1. Well said! This year I went to Soctland for competitions (and just went back my home town). A 19 years old boy, spent 2000 British Pounds, flew 10000 miles from my home, first time visiting Scotland for solo competitions. I’m not expected to win, but it’s ridiculous to get no comments back! I spent a lot of time and money to do competitions in Scotland is not for just showing up and playing on the field without getting a comments or ‘lessons’…
    I can get experience from competing in highland games, but the essential thing is the score sheets, which with the most effective comments to help you improve…

    Sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but if competitions in the UK don’t think about the score sheet, I prefer go to compete in North America…

  2. Ah yes – Argyllshire day. Last year I saw many fine performances in the Open Piob in challenging conditions, with the cool air conditioning of that spacious hall. Shame to hear the very savvied Panel did not provide written feedback directly to the world class players, as I distantly heard snatches of some interesting discussion from them. I can see you have some very strong invested feelings there, Andrew, but impostors?

    After leisurely looking at so many natural creatures these past years, I am beginning to believe we are almost only driven by feedback. Steering our movements with whatever motivation to govern our actions. Oddly cybernetic = gubernatorial = governing via Latin/Greek roots and it is the feedback that provides the data to determine our reactions. I believe those impostors are also subject to their own possibly ‘big old boys’ club’ peer pressure, but transparency and accountability will open up the old world system and importantly lend useful indicators to all players in attempting to steer their own course.

    In teaching I was very much concerned with how the examining process followed traditions intuitively, whereas my analytic approach wanted to spell out conscious criteria to act as steering indicators for other teachers to more fairly come up with a fine set of tests and exams. Your own experiences on the Music Board in Ontario will have also wrestled and stumbled around with the same considerations. I question if “it works” that effectively that it cannot improve in all schools and piping associations. But yes – let’s have an open system (like open source code) where varied contributors can input and add, as well as draw, on modern day improvements based on feedback from the participants.

    As per my last message in your previous Post Worlds’ exposé blog of judging, human frailties can scarcely escape obvious biases. However – the transparency and control of accountability will steer poor judgement on the examiners’ part so “it works” better. Gone will be the automatic knee jerk, visceral, global assessments to be replaced with such criteria as the tone/tuning, deportment, execution etc points’ breakdown of my youth. As was seen then, the alphas can still manipulate such systems to come up with their desired result, but yes- they do need to account for it, on paper and in theory, at least. The past 15 years Ontario schools have demanded their testing reflect more equitably the curriculum criteria of categories to more faithfully reflect time spent on things like knowledge/understanding, thinking, application and communication. Although these were mandated, practicing teachers were at extreme variance as to what sort of questions fit into those broad categories, but at least the self awareness of the examination/evaluation process itself improved as well as how students received valuable feedback to improve their learning – the ultimate goal. Good luck dragging the ancient venerable ways of tribal boys’ clubs kicking and screaming into the current millennium, where keeping old scores are less appreciated.

  3. Good thoughts, as always, Robin. Yes, imposters. Anyone who has competed around the games and, even more sadly, at the major gatherings, has played in front of adjudicators who would not meet the minimum requirements for becoming an accredited judge of even amateur piping for associations around the world. Grade 3 amateur pipers would play circles around them. So, they might in their mind have deluded themselves into thinking that they belong on a bench, or, perhaps more accurately, are *entitled* to judge, but they are, in reality, imposters. Nice people, though.

  4. I could not agree more Andrew. Having competed in solos in Inverness and actually being told by one of the three judges there was a “split decision” and the other two judges were not prepared to give first to “an American” I think the scope of judge accountability goes way beyond the “imposters.” I would also even go so far as to believe legitimate questionable results are not limited to the “old world.”
    Score sheets are a small step and it truly is “ridiculous” competitors in Scotland are not thrown that little crumb. However, I don’t think a score sheet would have addressed my experience or, I suspect, the varied experiences, both real and imagined of countless competitors.
    As a judge with 25 years experience I will insist there has got to be a better way to monitor ALL judges. This would be very tough to do for many reasons both justified and not. Still any attempt to achieve a higher level of transparency and accountability would be a good thing.



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