February 26, 2016

No middleman

One of the worst traditions in solo piping (and occasionally solo drumming) is the idea of a “senior” or more esteemed middle judge on a bench of three.

Many will know what I’m talking about, but in case you don’t it goes like this: the judge who sits in the middle is often deemed to be loftier or more important. It’s often predicated on age or experience, but it can also be by having won bigger prizes in competition or being seen to know more than the others.

Sometimes it’s none of that and one judge simply has a massive ego that the other two can’t be bothered battling over.

Whatever it is, the practice should be stopped.

Why? Because it tends to put a false sense of importance or priority into the minds of the competitors and judges, and that should never be true. Every judge has an equal say, so has equal importance, and the perception of a “senior” judge communicates the wrong thing.

I’m not easily intimidated, but I cannot remember judging on a solo bench of three when I felt that all three weren’t equal, and have been fortunate to work with folks whose egos don’t get the best of themselves, much less try to throw around their “senior” weight. I have been on benches (none recently) when I and/or another judge have, attempting to be polite and respectful, offered the middle spot to the older fellow. I have served on benches when that gesture of politeness has been declined, and my esteem for those people rose even higher. Sometimes placement of judges is pure happenstance.

The last two times I served as a judge for the George Sherriff Amateur Invitational something excellent happened: there were three events, so we swapped places for each, one of us taking a turn in the middle. It helped to communicate to all that no one judge’s opinion counted any more or less than another’s.

I’m not sure how the tradition started, but I would guess that it’s another holdover from the age of “society” folks like “Kilberry” or “Rothiemurchus” lording their opinions as near-non-players over accomplished competing pipers whose playing ability they could only dream of matching. It was probably the guy with the most money or titles or letters or land who got the position of “authority” in the middle. The richer they were, the more power they had, even when they couldn’t tell a darado from their own flatulence.

We’re so past that sort of thinking today it’s not funny. All competitors are considered equals before, during and after an event, and the judges should be equals, too. Yes, on an odd-numbered bench someone has to be in the middle, but it’s time to stop assuming that that person is “senior.”

The new rule to follow for benches: alphabetical by last name, left-to-right as the competitors face them.




  1. Well said Andrew! I believe there is a slightly more progressive mood afoot in the piping world and we will see some changes in this regard happening in the near future.
    The benches result should be the collective opinion of the adjudicators and there have been thoughts raised on how best to achieve just that. This speaks directly to your article…the “how best to” will be interesting to watch in the months to come.

  2. Starting 2017 the Metro Cup will have assigned seats for the judges.
    They will be drawn at random when we select the order of play.
    I have always found the ceremony of seat selection a bit amusing. I doubt this will change some judges from trying to dominate a panel. It’s why we always have three judges. If we had the budget I would have a different set of judges for each event.

  3. I’ve often switched seats on a three-panel bench. Only reason I prefer sitting in the middle is I’ve got two guys to chat with all day! I’ve never been a big fan of being the Grandpa Judge.

  4. Huh; I didn’t realize this was an issue! Then again, I’m not competing in the upper echelon of piping where there are multiple judges for an event.

    What about the purpose of a senior judge for educating/training judges that are newer to the practice? Perhaps it just doesn’t need to be a tradition that a senior judge sitting on the bench for an event be in the middle of the bench.

  5. David Samson, I didn’t know it was an issue either…

    One occasion where I was truly awe-struck was when I went to play in the piobaireachd event at the Lochearnhead games in 2014. Judges for that event were Malcolm MacRae and Andrew Wright…I was super surprised that both of these gentlemen were there judging and it was a joy to play to an equally-weighted bench, in my opinion 🙂



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