August 03, 2016

March pastiche

This summer I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting a part of that UK pipe band scene tradition at competitions called the “march past.”

For those who might not know, the march past is essentially this: at the end of the day of competitions, the six Grade 1 or Grade 2 bands that competed first in the draw take position about 20 yards from a “reviewing stand” in the middle of the park. Each band takes turns playing a set of 6/8 marches, while every other competing band in every other grade separately marches in step to the 6/8s.

When each band goes by the reviewing stand, the drum-major or pipe-major does a quasi-military salute to a designated “chieftain of the day,” usually a local dignitary or minor celebrity. The D-M or P-M shouts or, in some cases, shrieks, “Band! Eyes . . . right!” and all members of their band are then supposed to look lovingly to their right at the chieftain, while the D-M or P-M does his/her best Benny Hill-style open-hand British military salute. Each band looks at the chieftain for a few bars of the tune, and then looks forward as they indeed march past.

After you see 50 or so bands do this, it starts to get comical. I believe that every band that competes has to do it, or faces disqualification. Centre bands are not compensated for their extra time, musical performance or, since most of them have come straight from the beer tent after quaffing several pints in rapid succession, strained bladders.

At major championships in the UK, where there can be more than 200 bands, the march past ceremony can take literally hours. It is, in a word, interminable, particularly for the unfortunate centre bands, who are standing there for the entire parade, and then for the eventual announcement of prizes, which on its own can take an hour, with comments from the honoured chieftain, announcements of all manner of drum-major awards and at least nine grades of pipe band results.

During the two-plus hours of the march past some desperate pipers and drummers sneak off the field for a pee. They’re apparently not supposed to do this, but it’s better than the old kilted kneel-down to let it go in a puddle right there and then behind the bass drum while band mates stand shotty (something I have only heard about), so officials seem to look away from the ignominious parade of pishing.

One could die of exposure or boredom or muscle atrophy from these things. You don’t know what will come first: the end of the march past or the end of the world. It is mental and physical torture, worse by many magnitudes than any massed bands event, which are familiar to those in North America.

Massed bands are certainly no great hell, but at least there is some entertainment value in them for the non-playing public, who are often attracted to the grand finale spectacle of thousands of pipers and drummers playing “Amazing Grace” and counter-marching up and down the field en masse to “Scotland the Brave” or some other musical potboiler. What’s more, bands in North America understand that it is the massed bands more than the competitions themselves that please the paying public. If a band does not participate in massed bands it forfeits its travel allowance. There is a decent correlation between massed bands, the paying public and compensation for performers.

The massed bands ceremony of course could be improved, but it is miles better than the march past. I’ve participated so far in three march pasts at three championships in 2016, two as a member of one of the centre bands. I hadn’t done that since the 1980s, and nothing had changed. They were exactly the same somnambulant torment as ever, with the same crowd of confounded or dozing grannies on the sidelines who, by the thirtieth band, could not care less about the next Grade Whatever ranks of disinterested players doing their best (or worst) imitations of soldiers or Benny.

I recognize that the march past is a tradition borne of an era when pipe bands were either of the military itself or populated with veterans. Back then, the march past actually meant something and looked impressive and – maybe most importantly – in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s would comprise a small fraction of the number of bands a major championship boasts these days.

Today, pipe bands have grown well beyond their honourable military roots. Bands and march pasts have nothing to do with the military, and is there any other musical hobby where civilians pretend to be soldiers?

If the lengthy march past was originally a way to buy time while administrators tabulated results, that too is history, since a database or spreadsheet today completes the task in a microsecond.

A march past is a pastiche, like a crazy nightmare, band after band inexorably coming at you, seemingly never-ending. It’s a zombie apocalypse. A trail of tears. A death march. Night of the Kilted Dead.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But can’t the custom be replaced with something else? For the pleasure of the paying public, the organizers of competition can provide better value. If not for the improved sanity of pipers and drummers, then there must be something else that will reduce the number of urinary tract infections caused by straining to hold it three hours after swilling multiple pints in the beer tent.

As with many questionable traditions, all it takes sometimes is someone to ask a simple and constructive question in order to evoke positive change.

So, here it is: Is the march past a relic that can be replaced with something more satisfying to all?

Right? Aye?

Aye’s right.



  1. Massed March on in large Groups of bands is the way to go. The ‘March Past’ takes minutes and at the worlds this can be grouped into Countries or branches for ease, that way you will still get the interest Wow as Italians and Indians come on in groups of one (is one a group??) You get the idea though, much much larger groups March on Salute the Chiefy and take their place as prescribed by someone (a National Councillor or Senior DM etc.) Dont need a hollow square and dont need centre bands and the Salute to the Chiefy can be played as normal. NO need for anything else 😉

  2. At about 1hr 30 mins in at yesterday’s march past, having been one of the earlier bands to take the field, I was reminded of Flann O’Brien’s novel ‘The Third Policeman’ where his vision of hell was to relive the same day endlessly. Now, I don’t go to the Worlds every year, but I had that overwhelming deja vu feeling that nothing had improved or even moved on, apart from the length of time taken to complete the task. Is this really what the public want, or is this what the TV/BBC really want?
    I’d love to see a Massed band form up at the top of the hill and then descend on the arena en masse, with maybe another cohort coming in from the west side where all the stalls are; that would be more spectacular than being drip-fed bands one at a time. OK, so the RSPBA/BBC can’t then touch on the’ internationalness’ of pipe bands, but by the time the last band came on last night, it was getting cold and the results had still to be gone through.
    And why do drummers need to take their drums when they’re not required to play them?
    Yes it needs fixing and I don’t know the answer.

  3. I actually enjoy this part of the show. I believe if you are going to wear a uniform and be proud of the band you play in that you should wear it proudly and properly. The pipes have always been associated with war and military to some extent. I also believe these civilian bands need to be trained in proper drill though. I always enjoy watching bands like FMM, (neat, tidy, in step, classy) If you go back and watch the past few worlds watch FMM and some of the other Grade 1 bands. It is crazy that anyone would want this to change. Steven.



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