January 04, 2014

Less is more

In 2006 this blog first raised the growing issue of large pipe band section sizes being ultimately detrimental to the health of pipe bands themselves. Eight years have gone by, and the topic has been raised repeatedly, with another call in July for the RSPBA to do something to address the problem.

In 2011, I wrote and published a feature article on the World Pipe Band Championships’ anicillary negative effect on the pipe band world in general, a chief example being the growing size of pipe bands paradoxically diminishing the scene overall.

Last month, one of the great pipe band institutions, the former World Champion Dysart & Dundonald, decided, for all purposes, to cease to operate. It wasn’t the only reason, but the fact the band’s numbers were way down and the ability to build them up again to compete against the top tier in Grade 2 was unlikely in the near-term, informed their decision to release all of their players.

It’s not just Grade 1 and Grade 2. Larger bands in the lower grades are increasingly dominating, making judging comparisons ridiculous, as the formidable “presence” of a large, reasonably well tuned pipe band almost always trumping the clarity of technique and tone of a very-well-tuned small group with small numbers.

While pipe bands around the world continue to gaze longingly at being competitive at the World’s, they ever-increasingly look for quick-fix solutions to their numbers, such as recruiting even more players from afar and merging with the cross-town rivals. Bands are bigger; bands are fewer. Local Highland games suffer as they are no longer worth the logistical effort and cost to bring everyone together

Pipe bands today play at fewer events, simply because they have to be selective for financial reasons, or simply to save face because, even though they could compete with the minimum numbers from the local members, they don’t want to put out a group that does not reflect their full complement.

And the RSPBA, so far, has done nothing. It’s up to them because their rules influence every association, whether they pertain to music, format, judging, or section sizes.

As the World’s turns, so does the pipe band world.

Placing reasonable limits on rosters for the 2015 season through all grades will almost immediately reinvigorate the world pipe band scene. It will make almost all members of large bands do one of two things: practice all the harder to keep their spot, or, face the music, and join or form another band. There could be a very small minority who fall off completely because their interest in almost solely social, and they see competing as a necessary evil, but the world passed these folks by long ago anyway.

I’ve competed at the World’s with a band of 25 pipers, and it is a certain thrill. The energy created is terrific. I’ve also competed with a pipe section of 12 that won the MSR event at the World Championships. The precision and tone were similarly thrilling. I’ve also seen two bands that were inspirations to me when I was younger collapse in the last year. That’s not so thrilling.

There are reports that the RSPBA is in fact going to address the situation, and will try to put through roster / registration limits. If they finally do that, they will need to be prepared to fight the good fight, and do what’s best for the pipe band world. There will be dogged resistance by some of the most powerful and successful people and bands around.

But if the RSPBA takes a courageous stand they should know that bands will get even better. There will more of them. And they will be judged on a far more level field.

Or, they can waste another year of inaction at everyone’s peril. It’s time to lead.


  1. I agree 100%. I have thought for years that maximum numbers throughout the pipe band would bring the bottom up while not effecting the quality at the top. A simple solution might be 1 1/2 to 2 times minimum numbers. Along with this there would necessarily have to be a change in the adjudication structure. Increase the panel by some amount and drop the top and bottom scores in each discipline while eliminating ensemble entirely. Each judge would also comment on the general effect.

  2. This is an idea whose time has come. Pipe band competitions in the very beginning were set out with minimum and maximum numbers (see old Cowal rules) and it’s time to get this right. Ten pipers versus 24 is not a contest, any more than 24 rugby players vs 10 would be fair.

  3. Use the Major League Baseball rules… 25 man roster. However, it is an interesting point that has been brought to the attention of p|d readers. Andrew, possibly from my lack of reading other articles on the subject, what would you find to be an appropriate maximum number in the pipe, drum, and mid-sections?
    Overall, I think the reasoning behind limiting the number of players is fair. However, I see many pipe bands boosting their numbers in the off-season to see who can “make the cut” and by then it is too late for some of these let go players to find another band (lower grade or less quality) or they continue to try and make the big band.

    1. Kevin — years ago in the print magazine I put together an example of how numbers could work. Rather than limits to section sizes, the idea is to create an overall maximum for registered members. Grade 1 might be 30 on the total roster, from which a band can assemble a group any way they like, provided minimum numbers are met. Grade 2 might be 25, Grade 3, 20, and so on. Each year the rules could be reviewed and roster maximums could be raised or lowered according to the state of the pipe band scene overall. It should be fluid, changing with the times, but keeping the playing field much more level.

  4. one thing for sure, it would kill this pandemic that was mentioned in the previous blogpipe post about tenor drummers and the bass sections getting ahead of themselves.

    Cull away I say, might get to hear some pipes and snare drums now without the accompanying pop corn maker noises.

  5. I generally agree with your point of view Andrew. However, I am not sure if we (i.e. the piping world outside the UK) should look to or criticize the RSPBA for its inaction. Let’s face it, although most competitive pipe bands across ALL grades might have going to Glasgow Green on their “bucket list”, the vast majority never make it for various reasons. I would suggest we (those of us not under the jurisdiction of the RSPBA) attempt to do what we think might be best for our bands.
    For starters, judges set the standard. If, as you seem to suggest, judges might cave in to numbers instead of good music, the local pba music boards need to address this issue.
    Have we forgotten it was not that long ago when grade 4 and 3 bands used to attempt to play (usually poorly) segments of grade 1 medleys taken from the latest world’s cd? These bands were mimicking grade 1 bands poorly and did not get a high score.
    Now we have a large numbers controversy. It started with a few truly “world’s best” grade 1 bands. Again, the lower grade bands are following their example. These lower grade bands don’t have the expertise to handle large numbers. Yet some seem to have gotten a pass when their fuzzy and/or imprecise sound was factored into some judges’ results.
    For lower grade bands, I believe we (judges) need to provide more consistent guidance (heavy stress on “guidance”) on the score sheets. Do we give extra credit to a band based on numbers or clarity? If yes to either, compared to what standard or grade?
    Maybe the local pba’s need to define what their consistency expectations are? Let’s fix what we can fix and not worry about the RSPBA. If we did that, the “numbers” issue would disappear rather quickly.

    1. In an ideal world, you’re right, Al. Associations should recognize what’s best and act accordingly. From experience, though, adjusting rules that put bands at a disadvantage in Scotland is all but impossible. Picture an EUSPBA Grade 2 band that plans to compete at the World’s being allowed to have a maximum of, say, 25 members registered. Meanwhile, there is no limit to what RSPBA Grade 2 bands can have. They arrive at a disadvantage, perceived or real. With the betterment of the art in mind, there was a thought in Ontario to implement a free-form “concert” competition event several years ago. The idea was to allow top-tier bands to play whatever they wanted for up to 15 minutes – similar to Breton bagad events, perhaps. The notion was a non-starter simply because bands competing at the World’s wanted to prep for the big event, so rules had to be essentially in-sync — or at least not creating a disadvantage. As the World’s turns, so does the pipe band world. A remarkable exception is the RSPBA’s fairly stringent rules on registrations for their own bands, but they seem to turn a blind eye to the fast and loose registration rules (or lack of them) with other associations. While RSPBA rosters are fairly locked down, we see “overseas” bands loading up with fly-in players. It’s intriguing that the RSPBA doesn’t crack down on this. This is one example of RSPBA rules that place their own bands at a disadvantage. Anyway, the point is, I’m convinced that maximum numbers legislation won’t occur anywhere until the RSPBA does it first. They need to lead.

  6. I love this topic. Share the wealth is the way I see it. I love the baseball roster suggestion Kevin posted above. This will make the PM really sit down and carefully pick who they want on the field and what sort of balance they want between pipes/drums. Many players who know they are on the cut list will look for another band to play in. Possibly look to higher grade band to help out with.

  7. It is amazing these days to see how many pipers and drummers are happy to wear the uniform they’ve coveted…..and do nothing but carry capes and water bottles all season, and feel content about that. This is all with a faint hope of maybe getting a tune one day in the circle. They would be better served going elsewhere and evening-up the bigger picture.

    If the RSPBA entertained such an idea, I’d like to see total pipe corps contest numbers trimmed by 2 pipers per season for the next 3 years, starting at 28 and ending up at 22. That lessens the shock and allows everyone to adjust and accept what is going on in a more gradual process. Competition is overseen and facilitated by the Associations, so these bodies should not hold any fear or worries about enacting an intervention that will serve everyone well over the coming years. What are the exceptional/bigger bands going to do, boycott the only contests that they can enter? Of course they won’t, they’ll just go out and continue to do well (only with a regulated-sized band).

    Any bands fortunate enough to have more than the maximum allowable might manage to retain a couple of ‘spares’ each season. However, the idea is that if you’re not one of the two pipers who are next in line, you’ll quickly join the dots and move on. Theoretically speaking, as the maximum allowable contest corps number comes down, so to should the ‘bench players’ in a commensurate fashion. No point being piper #28 when the cap is 22, with 5 people in front of you.

    FM’s best 22 beats anyone, still. It won’t weaken the elite bands. It might actually make them more elite. If the rest moved elsewhere, they would probably be in the upper echelon of pipers in their new band. They also bring in a lot of ‘IP’ (intellectual property). Look at Shotts and what Ryan Canning has managed to do there in just one season – applying everything he learnt under PM Parkes. A migration of players to other bands would see a beneficial knock-on effect across the grades and maybe even the creation/resurrection of more bands.

    Drumming – I would just cap it at 10 sides. Tenor drums are still non-compulsory in a pipe band, according to the rules, so I don’t know that it matters all that much to cap them. The snare drummer cap might take care of tenors by default. The sooner they realise the only notes that matter for a tenor drum are the Low A, C and E, the sooner the numbers will come back to sensible and complimentary (with pipe tune) levels. The number of sides would cap it. I’ve also heard comments that capped snare numbers mean it’s not an even fight for volume between each corps due to engineering between drum brands. This is void because the same applies to the pipes, reeds, chanters etc. It’s a musical contest, not a screaming match.

    Capping numbers is essential for so many reasons. I can appreciate the arguments from the big bands against this. They have done nothing wrong but be a band of choice for a much bigger pool of musicians. However, the rule-makers and custodians of the competition format must see the bigger picture, and what is in the best interests of all competition bands both now and into the future. Don’t leave it to these super bands to decide what is best for everyone else. They’re too busy pushing boundaries in the exceptional grade while the rest worry more about surviving.

    Barring a few noteworthy exceptions, most Grade 1 bands do not teach kids and build their own players through a graduated programme. They are simply destinations for established players. They are the exception, not the rule. There is a gravitational pull all around these bands. They attract all the interest and there is also the cult of personality in a lot of cases. Some Pipe Majors in such bands send people away to play in other bands while they await a call-up, but I know of many that are happy to work to the ‘If we have them, they don’t’ mentality. Therefore a number of bands have people in holding patterns all season, doing nothing on the contest field and just being used as utility players here and there. As I’ve said before, don’t expect these bands to start knocking people back and bucking the trend.

    Grade 2 is slowly dying, as is the bottom of Grade 1. Outside the UK, Gr 1 bands really struggle to pull together bands that are seen to be big enough to be taken seriously. They are essentially composite bands, loaded to the gunwales with guest players. I’ve been on the end of these phone calls – the discussions are never about making the band sound more musical, it is ONLY about having enough numbers in order to be taken seriously. And this is before a note has even been played. ‘If we don’t have more than 20 pipers, there’s no point going at all’ is a commonly held belief. At no stage are any musical merits of this discussed during negotiations with additional players, just the express need to have more pipers and drummers.

    What are we doing to ourselves and our art form? If we stop to think about it, we are saying that a band of 20-plus pipers is already ahead of a band that has 13, before a note is played. Where is the musical merit in that? That is nothing more than a ‘music’ decision being made via a head count on the line. A complete nonsense.

    Sure, bigger bands have a broader sound palate etc., no disputes there. But that doesn’t mean it is better, musically speaking. It is simply one element. What about the phrasing, the ensemble, the unison, the technical execution, the tuning, the tonal quality, the tune selection, the tune arranging, the light-shade key changes, the medley structure etc…? Playing numbers factor in only some of these elements, but when was the last time a corps of 13 beat a corps of 20-plus….?

    1. Andy, I assume you are a piper… And while I agree with much of what you are saying, I think your piece on tenor drummers is extremely narrow minded. “The sooner they realise the only notes that matter for a tenor drum are the Low A, C and E…” I am glad you have the knowledge on how to build an effective tenor corps that properly compliments the pipe music. What was your reaction the last time a tenor drummer told you that you shouldn’t play High Gs, or toarluaths? I’m sure you have a great idea as to where you would tell them to go… I’m a piper and have had the opportunity to play in a top band or two in the last few years, and the last thing I would do to help my organization to be successful is tell another player in a different corps how to do their job. Let me know how it works out for you in your band.

      1. Hi Will. How’s the view from up there on the moral high ground? A, C & E. Even the switched-on drummers know that. It was tongue-in-cheek as much as it is what most do. 😉

  8. Culling Grade 1 down to the bare bones in band terms as has happened could backfire severely upon the powers that be should they decide to impose a roster ceiling. The decision to expel Dysart, Torphichen and Seven Towers in one fell swoop was ill-conceived and should the number of players issue be next on the agenda, I don’t imagine the top twelve or so bands in the world will capitulate and let a large chunk of the talent they have invested in walk out the door without resistance.

    Their cull has in fact placed considerable power in the hands of a small number of influential bands (who would be the inevitable first casualties of such a policy) which they; and perhaps the bands themselves, have yet to realise. These bands are not likely to receive the prospect of capping well and they hold way more cards in any ensuing debate than some may think. What if the small number of bands making up the line-up of likely victims felt strongly enough about protecting their own establishments that they collectively withdrew their ‘membership’ or withheld their entries from major championships to defend themselves? Or what if they collectively decided to create something new, like a pipe band super league? These few bands have the power to grind Grade 1 as we know it to a halt at the snap of a finger. How would any of those situations benefit the masses?

    Putting this debate into the context of the workplace, capping will inevitably have the same consequences as redundancies. Redundancies cause severe resentment amongst those who are the victims and also those who remain in their posts aggrieved at the loss of their colleagues, or perhaps even more aggrieved by the decision of bosses not to let others go who were more deserving to be fired in the eyes of some. Capping therefore holds the potential to turn stable and happy bands into chaos, the result of which will lead to more Dysarts. This is what I don’t think anyone has given any consideration towards and I just don’t see any pipe majors or leading drummers volunteering to play the roles of the cost cutting CEO or under pressure HR director.

    Implementing what would essentially be a retrospective cap in the present day and in the current circumstances of Grade 1 is extremely dangerous. The opportunity to deal with capping has long since passed and visiting it now is a potential Pandora’s Box that the organisation as a whole is not properly equipped to tackle should those affected decide to stand their ground and fight.

    As I said, a small number are holding very strong hands…

    1. Scott, with great respect, I think you’re deliberately putting the fear of God into people here. It is all speculation. The sky won’t fall in. There will be no revolution, or breakaway rebel movement, or even some negative effect on the whole of Gr1. People will just suck it up and get on with it.

      If people are motivated enough, they will go where they can get a game. If there’s no room in Gr1, they might have to go to Gr2, or simply get better and demand to be picked in Gr1, or maybe even start their own band. How is any of that a bad thing? This is not a dilution, this is a redistribution.

      As I said before, players who make the grade in the elite bands are already excellent players in a technical sense. The only ‘work’ put into them is to align them with the style required and the nuances of the sound the band is aiming for. That’s a totally different kind of teaching to what they lesser bands must do. Most of the work in the top bands rests with the individual members.

      I don’t think any of the bands you speak of have any such power or even an inkling to “grind” things to a halt with the ‘snap of a finger’. That is a nonsense. FMM are probably the poorest band in the world, totally funded by the individuals within and gifted uniforms and equipment via a band member. These sorts of bands are mostly full of people who just want to turn up and play. Administration, rules etc. is the last thing they wish to be bothered with. So, what would such bands do as an alternative – build their own circuit, with all the associated admin? Who would handle the running of the events, run this rebel organisation, find the sponsorship dollars, run the entries, and all general admin year-round etc….? These bands are full of people who are the least interested in such things. A breakaway movement would never happen.

      Andrew is right – get everyone in a room and thrash it out. There is good will there and anything can be agreed if it is the same for everyone. Bands will play as many as they like, can, or are allowed to. Nothing will stop them from turning up to compete, no matter what the prevailing rules are. We all know that. The smaller bands would LOVE to have to worry about a rule like this, let me assure you.

  9. Anyone who has been with a company that pared back employees know that it’s for one or two reasons: the business isn’t there and/or jobs are redundant – that is, no longer needed or duplicated by two or more employees. The comparison is good, though, in that a healthy company can and should make sensible employee reductions – painful as they might be – while keeping the company just as successful. More efficient and productive. The more talented and productive employees get the nod. Those let go who have talent and work hard eventually land on their feet.

    Pipe-Majors and Leading-Drummers make tough decisions all the time. They drop players when needed. If a piper or drummer isn’t cutting it, they’re gently shown the door for their and the band’s own good. Tough jobs, but good leaders do what’s best for the organization. I think that, as long as all bands are working with the same rules, then it’s fair and they would accept it. As it is, once a band is behind in numbers, the chance to catch up to be competitive is becoming harder every year. Increasingly, the only thing to do is dissolve the band, and release members, or merge with the competition. In Oran Mor’s case, they were absorbed by a lower-grade band (albeit a very good one) hundreds of miles away.

    I would be surprised if fair-minded people like Richard Parkes or Alan Bevan or Ross Walker or any number of leaders would be so selfish as to consciously get in the way of the future health of the entire pipe band world for the sake of their own short-term success. If they want to keep players for parades and concerts and what-not, then, like some police bands, they can have a competition band and a parade or concert band. And what a great opportunity to start or stock a feeder band with players who don’t quite make the cut. If the RSPBA is smart they assemble leaders from their most successful (and powerful) Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands for a summit, with the aim of agreeing in principle what must be done next year, in two years, in five years, and then get on with it. Amazing things happen when you take the time to talk to people, ask tough questions, seek answers and respect each other without fear of politics.

    And the RSPBA celebrates every time they break a record for bands entering the World’s. More bands = more entries, not just at the World’s, but at all competitions. “Andy” makes very good points, and it’s worth the read. Ease in the limits over time. Hardly the chaotic situation you imagine.

  10. The situations I presented were hypothetical unintended consequences of the implementation of a capping policy should the bands who will be affected decide to defend the status quo, which they would be entitled to do. No more hypothetical perhaps than projections that capping might instantly benefit smaller pipe bands and repair the greater pipe band community as a whole. I keep hearing conjecture emanating from the capping support camp suggesting that so called smaller bands cannot function because so called bigger bands have large rosters, but nobody has presented any evidence to prove this to be the case.

    I will refrain from bringing any names of individuals into my argument against capping, but I would anticipate the prime responsibility of any pipe major first and foremost is to protect the interests of his/her band and its members. I am surprised that anyone would think any pipe major could be convinced to surrender a considerable number of his/her players to a policy change without a struggle.

    As much as some of you might think none of what I say would happen, I don’t think what you are arguing in favour of will do anything positive to benefit the smaller, struggling bands you talk of. Capping might bring about the formation of a number of new bands comprising displaced players, but that would do nothing to improve the plight of bands already struggling for numbers.

    1. Some good points Scott, but this is more to do with what happens on the day of a contest. A redistribution of players and bolstering of the broader scene would be inevitable, but would take a few years to be realised, I would argue. A cap is more about removing the bias of perception – that many judges see a comparatively small band and feel it would be too difficult to argue that they were the better band on the day. It is almost like they might feel silly and would struggle to justify it, for no other reason than the band was ‘too small’. It is ridiculous but we all know it to be true. Size apparently matters more than anything now that we have these battalions going onto the park. It is wrong.

      As it currently stands, a two horse race at a smaller contest might see a band of 25 pipers pitted against a band of 16. Before a note has been played, the smaller band is at a disadvantage because of numbers, not music. We all know this to be true. It is the current trend. To deny this is real is to deny the earth is round. Even Pipe Majors are resigned to their fate if they are taking ‘only’ 16 pipers into a contest these days.

      It is not so much a simplistic ‘big is best’ mentality, it is more a feeling that the smaller band is somehow inadequate and not able/struggling to field ‘standard’ numbers. They are deemed to be uncompetitive for this reason alone. This to me is a complete nonsense.

      As I’ve said previously, this is not about what the lucky PM’s of these big ‘destination bands’ think, where they have people lined up down the street in the hope of getting a game. We know what they think already, and who can blame them? This issue is one for the rule-makers and custodians of the contest format, and the only place it will take off and then be followed by others is the RSPBA. Do they want to create a more standardised product, that removes the automatic disadvantage that smaller bands suffer, or are they happy to see their locals thrive in the bigger pool enjoyed in the UK…..?

      At some stage, Scott, the people who teach and churn out all these players in the lower grades for the battalions in the top grade will become fed up with doing all the work and then seeing their own bands fall apart. With the exception of Boghall and a couple of others outside the UK, Grade 1 bands do not teach, they finesse ready-made players. There’s a big difference. Maybe the revolt you’ve forecasted might come from someplace else….?

  11. Exactly right. It’s all hypothetical, of course. No one can predict the future. But the trend indicates that large section sizes overall have been detrimental to many bands in all grades trying to keep up. One can argue that a handful of bands flush with players create a glorious sound. But they were saying that about the relatively tiny Strathclyde Police throughout the 1980s. It’s all relative.

    I will always remember the injustice perpetrated on the Grade 1 City of Washington Pipe Band that courageously competed at the 2010 World’s with 10 pipers. They produced a steady, well-tuned and well-executed MSR that, by the rules, was well ahead of at least five other pipe sections. They were slated and, worst of all, relegated by the RSPBA to Grade 2 (which for some reason insists on meddling by grading bands that aren’t members of the organization). Since then, the band has never quite regained its footing.

    Then there was the two-band Grade 2 event in Ontario at Kincardine last year, with the miniscule 400 Squadron against the massive Ottawa Police. Each was playing by the rules, but the juxtaposition was laughable. A strong case could have been made for 400 Squadron’s piping getting the nod, but it would have taken a ballsy judge to do that.

    1. “Ballsy judge” says it all, Andrew. The general unspoken message from most of the responses is you have to have the big numbers to be given a fair listen. If there is any truth to that message, from a JUDGING perspective, what is the difference between that and the perceived chanter and/or reed maker judging controversies?
      In my opinion both perceived “biases” are unacceptable and should be addressed by society/association judges panels for review and clarification. If there is any ring of truth (or plain old speculation) to the COW and 400 Squadron examples you cited it is the result of pre-conceived judging notions, not administrative rules. (NOTE: I was not physically present at either cited contest and am not suggesting in any way whatsoever the judges concerned did anything other than give an unbiased, fair result.)
      It never hurts to remind judges in a friendly, non-accusatory manner that they are paid to call the contest as they “hear” it and not as they “see” it or, even worse, as others “expect” it..

  12. I have two points to make. One, if a small band is better than a big band then it should win and judges are the ones in a position to give effect to this. There’s no point blaming the big band. If the judges aren’t just overwaed by a sea of kilts then maybe big bands are, in fact, better?

    Secondly, I seriously doubt that players sacked from grade one bands will be happy to join in lower down the pecking order. Once you’ve worked under a top class pipe major putting up with someone else’s inadequacies is no fun. You’re more likely to see a situation where ayers sacked from the FMs and SFUs go to the Power and Boghall and those bands end up in a seriously unpleasant situation.

    1. Callum, players who are “sacked” from the likes of SFU and FM, as you have hypothesised, will not go to the likes of Boghall and Power because both have 30-plus pipers on their rosters. This has nothing to do with forcing bands to ‘sack’ members. The proposal is to cap numbers at contests, not cap rosters. If people wish to sit on a roster of 30-plus and get the odd game here and there, that is their choice. I’m arguing that, over time ( a few years), these people would redeploy and the general picture would look more healthy as a result. There would also be new generations of players coming up with different expectations, as opposed to sitting on a roster of 30-plus and biding your time.

      Strathclyde won 6 in-a-row with 11/12 pipers. In those days, it was not unusual for Polkemmet, 78ths and a few others to come on with ‘super-sized’ bands (for the day), often playing 16-20 pipers. Strathclyde Police prevailed almost every time at every contest. This was because they were marked on their music. The other bands were trying to get an edge with big numbers because they could not match Strathclyde technically or musically. Nowadays, the more technically-proficient and better-tuned bands are also the biggest bands. So there has been a quantum shift, aided by globalisation and more transient players.

      As good as they are, FMM would not dare put less than 20 pipers on the park in this current era. They know that numbers factor heavily on the judge’s sheet, no matter how good they sound and play on the day.

      So, we have a stalemate. We have bands at the top, blessed with lots of players lining up to taste glory, all paralysed with a fear of not matching the ‘new normal’. Plus we have a bunch of judges who are all conditioned to see big numbers at the pointy end – the exception – and thus are also either somewhat paralysed and/or unable to make a point because the top 10 are all big bands. This then ripples through the entire scene around the globe, and down through the grades. Big is seen as best without appreciating that we are allowing the exception, not the rule, to determine what the new ‘norm’ is.

      Anyone recall Terry Lee stating in a p/d interview (about 10 years ago now) that he saw 17 pipers as the limit due to logistical, tonal and unison concerns…? Well, he’s now playing well over 20 at every outing, so it just goes to show that it is not so much about what your own philosophies are, it is ALL about what the current trends are and the fear of being left behind. Unfortunately, not enough of us around the globe recognise that Gr1 in the UK is the exception, not the rule. As with ascending chanter pitch, a correction/ceiling will inevitably come along. I’m just worried that the ceiling will be set (as it has with chanters) by the very same bands that have rosters of 30 pipers (and regularly play 24-26 on the boards) without even having to ask anyone. It is unrealistic for bands that are not at the pointy end of Gr1 in the UK, yet it has an impact of the psyche of everyone everywhere else. Simple as that.

  13. Some very cogent points made, but a bit of “straw man” argument, perhaps, in that I feel this debate is venturing off course, based on some hobbled assumptions. My read.

    Andrew – you are consistent in persistently and emphatically advocating a smaller Band size for the benefit of the underdog Bands who do not have the “capital investment” of huge numbers available geographically. My take of the current lumbering dinosaur-sized corporation Multi-Nationals is that bigger is worse, and a return to a healthier cottage sized industry approach would benefit more individuals in society financially. I hope that Band leaders are not avaricious tycoons here and insist that their major investment trumps democratic fairness. But – Music and our a-muse-ment, not jobs as such?

    Scott may sound a bit of a lone voice in the wilderness of the discussion here, but I think he holds all the trump cards. Unlike the rest of us – he has been there recently and been on the forefront of mega Band evolution in Scotland’s Central Belt, particularly the outgrowth of the Mid-section of which he has been at the very vanguard of recent developments. It is ironic that PD`s New Year`s awards speak highly of Andrew Elliott and his pivotal role played there in the highly praised FM’s continuing domination. PD also currently displays Bob Worrall as a go to World`s expert on Band playing but seems to cast a somewhat deaf ear to his very incisive commentary on that changing midsection role, and all the voicing/harmonies that today`s comparatively massive corps orchestrate so competently. And Orchestral it has become. It is no coincidence that the World`s best Band players, leaders of the top 6 type of Bands, have steadily settled into a pattern recently that sees the likes of mid 20`s pipe corps, and some 45+ with maybe some 50 on the roster. As Scott and others point out – going back to a former Mom and Pop sort of Band downsized operation is not really an option. Chris Armstrong appeared to find out last Season that 30 Pipers is a bit too big and unwieldy, particularly as the speed of sound precipitates some amount of separation when the Band bulges too far outside of the inner 26′ competitive ring of the Contest arena. It seems our hearing allows for separation up to somewhere upwards of the 20-40 ms (milliseconds) range, by psycho-acoustical principles before the software in our head gets sufficiently discriminating to allow hearing the disconnection in a very dynamic ongoing performance. Movement of the notes’ progression is important to allow the physically present separation’s blending in our heads, I would guess, as tone etc becomes more of an issue when entering the Medley’s de rigeur Slow Air. Sound takes roughly 24 ms to cross that 26′ circle and beyond that, the disco-ordination of the larger orchestration begins manifesting. SFU and FMM etc appear to have settled on that mid 20’s Pipe corps size for strong reasons.

    Unlike the NHL or UEFA, where one can legislate varying Goal size to allow more scoring (or less, in the theme of the blog title for spectator interest), brow beating the RSPBA into mandating a poorer Band orchestra seems partly ill conceived. The equilibrium has been achieved, I am convinced, and Band size is now settling into a permanent playing limit for reasons I have touched on. The top Band leaders seem to get it, but most of us don’t. The Power had a bit of a learning curve this year and I was relieved to see them back on their game during World’s week. Their crystal clear chanters showed up separation with 30 pipers for a reason. The RSPBA has shown that the concerns of the Premium Grade are paramount in conducting their 200+ Band extravaganza and will listen very closely to those Leading Band players, as Scott has underlined. It is unfortunate for those aspiring to the rarefied, Top Tier but any progress must be done the old fashioned way – by getting good enough musically as IDPB is currently working on. One would not impose salary type caps in the Pipe Band world as to the monopoly of the quality of players (like the MBL or NHL do), so why should we ask for numbers’ caps when Physics is taking care of that equilibrium of size for us? PD made the recordings of 400 Squadron vs Ottawa available, and there was no real contest musically, regardless of the Judges. It is for those reasons of excellence that we cannot easily go back. Listeners will prefer the excellence. It is a-muse-ment, after all, and not just sport.

    1. Comparisons between businesses and pipe bands are really not apt. Good businesses add staff intelligently to build the business as they desire, or decide to limit size if they so choose.

      To be clear, I don’t “advocate” smaller bands, and I never have. I advocate leveling the playing field with limits on section sizes. These limits can rise or fall according to competitive conditions.

      Ten years ago leaders of prominent Grade 1 bands were saying that 18-19 were ideal numbers for a pipe section. Perhaps they were trying to influence other larger bands. If so, it didn’t work, so they had to grow, too. The idea of sound traveling and so forth is reminiscent of the old contention that “seconds” can’t be heard if notes are too short, so harmony is impractical in quicker tunes. Laughable.

      And those acknowledged in New Year’s Honours were recognized because of their achievements as seen by a group of experts. The idea of willfully shunning a tenor drummer or tenor drumming or anything because of personal opinion is the stuff of other publications, and not this publication’s style. Never will be. That’s off-topic, anyway.

  14. you know what is interesting, big bands and big organisations are being chastised for being successful, has any pipe band in the world forced anybody to go and be a glorified cape carrier? I doubt it.

    The real problem is NOT big bands, the question is, why do people leave other bands? so personell and leaders need to do some soul searching and ask themselves, have I done the best I can do? why are people leaving this environment to go to another, even further away at times?

    I tell you why I admire Terry Tully, even more than his winning 1 worlds (scant return really for all his efforts) is how he manages to manage all those egos and “characters” he has in the band (you know the type, the marmite personalities that people either love or hate)

    Name the bands that have the big rosters, and they all have one thing in common, and it is a good thing, not a bad thing, the leaders in the band know how to manage people.

    Hopefully all these people that go and learn from the greats, will eventually return and apply what they have learned to their local bands.

    (personally I left a band because it couldn’t be bothered by the typical idotic silver back creature that most bands have, the ones that have seen it all, but won little and go around with a chip on their shoulder and do all they can to resist change. I said told the pipe major to do something about it, and he didn’t. I just thought to myself, do I really need to be going along to this situation twice a week and be ultimatley unhappy? Course I don’t and left, and was too lazy to join another band further away. I reckon I did my bit by telling the PM what I thought, and when he did nothing I left. Some might say I should stand up to him too, but really for what? if they are happy in that world, leave then to it, and get on with stuff you’d rather do, and be around people that are actually happy to see you.

    And one other thing, if you are one of these silver backs reading this post (you know who you are) when new players come up and join a band, they owe you nothing! You should not think that they should be thanking you for being in a pipe band that they want to join, you should thank them for joining (you don’t even have to say it if you don’t want to) for they are the life line of any organisation, new blood. Then when you treat people in a terrible manner and they leave, you sit around looking at each other and wonder what is the problem? why did they go and join such and such band? The answer my sweaty arsed silver back friends is staring at you in the mirror.

    1. Bob – some good points, however I think you’re applying something to the elite bands that only really applies in the lower grades.

      The elite gr1 bands are destinations. If you’re lucky enough to be accepted, you toe the line, or you must leave. Simple as that. These bands work to formulas and there is absolutely no room for democracy. The “Silver Backs” you refer to don’t exist at this level. The people who run top flight bands know what they want, know how to get it, and they have no tolerance for people who wish to arrive and expect the red carpet treatment (as you have said should be the case) and stray from the plan.

      I’ve played in such a band. On day 1 I was sat down and told that I’d be given every chance to succeed but if I didn’t make it, I could only blame myself. And that is fair enough.

      In short, people leave these elite Gr1 bands because they have either retired, are not good enough, or have seriously transgressed. End of message. If they leave because they have inter-personal issues going on with leadership, then I would argue that is a good outcome for all concerned. There will at least be a handful of players wanting their spot. There is no time or need for group hugs and counselling sessions at this elite level. You earn your place and toe the line. Any variation on that ultimately fails, which is why such things are not tolerated.

      What you’ve described is indeed a problem in the lower grades, where quite often people’s insecurities lead to this “Silver back” mentality you write about. It is usually a front that hides a massive gap in expertise. They demand things be done ‘my way’ because they are incapable of changing (maybe for the better). Quite different to the top bands.

      1. Thanks Andy, comments noted, never played top grade grade 1, did play in an also ran grade 1 band, and that alpha male problem prevailed, explains now why they didn’t get to the top of the pile

  15. Interesting thought: if a limit were placed on the size of a band’s total registered competing roster, is it possible that the first cuts would be in the tenor section? I am not saying for an instant that that is right or wrong, but I wonder if it would have a direct impact on the trend towards larger bass sections, which, coincidentally, seems to approximately reflect the growth in pipe sections.

    1. Interesting question. It’d be interesting to see what happens, and to see what value leadership of some of the bigger bands place on bass sections.

      I remember back in 2005 (first year of the DVD/readily available video recordings) the average sized corps (tenor) was 4 or 5. The next year we saw the first sections play 6. Shotts kept pushing the number up and up, which resulted in the global community feeling eager to ‘belong’ or exist within the ‘standard’ that had been created – this eventually peaked with the two bass drum experiment. Boghall took it one step further by playing 8.

      Now, if you listen to medley recordings from the past 10 years (say 2004 to present) the quality of midsections has improved in all measurable categories – namely tuning and technical ability. HOWEVER, the implementation of different chord schemes, progressions and tuning fall on deaf ears. The unfortunate reality is that no one really cares – I’m not saying it’s right, but that is how it is.

      1. I tell you who cares, the wags and wains care, they love the band scene and all but heaven forbid having to learn a real instrument; such as the pipes or snare. Seems they’ll just have to pay their own way from now on.



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