May 26, 2009


Really cauld bum.Every contest is interesting, but the one recently at Kingston, Ontario, was particularly remarkable. The growing event is still relatively small, with 16 bands competing, and it’s independently run – that is, not sanctioned by an association like the PPBSO. That means it’s free to do what it wishes in terms of events, playing criteria and judging.

Never averse to trying new things, I like shaking things up, particularly in the fairly same-old-same-old pipe band world. Scott Bell, the chief organizer at Kingston, decided they’d try something new with pipe band judging.

They would have only three judges: two pipers and one drummer, but each of the judges would judge only from the perspective of ensemble. That is, no focusing solely on sections, and instead the ears would be trained on the band as a whole. I understand that the competitors were aware of the concept when they entered. I certainly hope so!

Most experienced pipe band adjudicators I know will admit that judging ensemble is far more difficult than judging piping or drumming. To concentrate on the whole band is surprisingly harder, since distractions are inevitable and all around. The tone of the chanters, blowing, intra-section unison, mistakes, robotic tenor-drummers . . . all such aspects can distract from concentrating on the band’s music as a sum total.

The judges were of course allowed to consult with one another at the end of each event, and it was interesting to hear our differing perspectives. There were a few instances of a band with clearly the best pipe section or drum corps, but not the best overall integration of the two – and vice-versa.

So, there were occasional dilemmas about what constituted a better pipe band. Should the emphasis be on the pipe or on the band? Is it possible to be the best band while being the third- or fourth- or even fifth-best pipe section? Is that right? I’m pretty sure that a few bands did much better/worse under the all-ensemble-judging approach, and whether that’s right or wrong I’m still undecided.

But I am leaning towards a more balanced approach, in which every judge considers the band as a whole – ensemble – as well the specific element that he/she is judging. So, perhaps do away with the ensemble-only judge altogether, and instead have everyone assess ensemble as maybe half of the overall score, with piping, snare-drumming and mid-section specifics as the other 50 per cent of the mark from each of the judges.

I also think it’s important to hold occasional events that try new things, unencumbered by association rules and tradition. It’s quite possible that this seemingly little event in small-town Kingston, Ontario, made a giant leap for band-kind.


  1. What was that old saying?
    There are three things that will help to win a pipe band contest…tone, tone and tone.
    Strangely there is no mention of the mid rift section in there…….

  2. I’d hate to see what happens to playing technique if ensemble became the sole measure of a band. Most musicians of the more traditional ilk claim that playing rock n roll is easy. To me, it’s my favorite genre. I don’t care that few rock n rollers could win a prize in a technical contest. So the question becomes…are these contests or performances and where is the distinction between the two.

  3. p|d: How did you feel about what you were asked to do?

    AB: Fine. Seemed like an interesting experiment and, as long as the bands were okay with it, I was keen to help.

    p|d: Can you describe the experience?

    AB: Hard work, but fun. Contrary to what I presumed, I found the lower grades easier to assess than grades 3 and 2.

    p|d: Why was that?

    AB: Well, often ensemble in the lower grades is more difficult to judge because many – or even all – bands have trouble playing together. But most of the grade 4 and 5 bands were actually pretty well integrated. Grade 2 and 3 bands played as a whole quite nicely, but most featured one section that was far better than another. They may have played in time, but what they played and its quality were perhaps questionable.

    p|d: Would you do it again?

    AB: Sure, but, as I mentioned in the blog, perhaps tweaking it so that each judge assesses half ensemble and half the specific section on its own. I think that could be the right combination to ensure that the best BANDs do well, while also making sure that the technical and tonal qualities of the music are recognized.

    p|d: Thanks for your time.

    AB: You’re welcome. It was no trouble at all!

  4. I’m looking forward to the day when we get 6 or 8 ordinal scores and comment sheets from 4 judges 1 or 2 piping, 1 snare drumming, 1 midsection, and an ensemble from each!

  5. Small town Kingston, Ontario, is not small minded then, and was able to open up the thinking a bit, and try something different. It seems to have been a step in the direction of judging a MUSIC competition, and that’s a great thing imho.



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