October 28, 2016


The music you liked when you were younger is the music you will prefer for the rest of your life. That’s an oversimplification, and there are exceptions, but, by and large it’s true of most people.

And so, too, with pipe band judges.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by the lamentably slow pace of change in pipe band competition music and style, look no further than the relatively inflexible and stubborn judge. Just as that 50-plus-year-old guy or gal on the pen goes home after the contest, opens a can of Tartan Special and puts on that LP of Cliff Richard from 1980, they’re having a hard time getting their ears around your band’s “crazy” medley.

If they hear the latest song by Drake or The Weeknd they instantly flip the radio station (not streaming, of course) and tut-tut, “That’s nae music.” It’s a knee-jerk response, and to them there are no two ways about it. “Big Country! Now that was a band!” It is a truism of every generation: what was cool growing up carries forward as their definition of likable or acceptable music later in life.

Again, I generalize. There are exceptions. I have encountered a small number of judges my age or older who relish new music – both pop and pipe band. They have open and tolerant ears, and enjoy the surprise and delight of hearing new stuff. Sure, like me they still like the familiar music of their formative years, but they move on and treat every new song or tune as yet another fun possibility. Invariably, these people get bored quickly. They embrace change, optimistically considering it as continual improvement rather pessimistically seeing the threat of messing with a good thing. Leave well enough alone.

I like to count myself among the easily bored and change-welcoming. At age 53 I listen to new music all day as part of my job, but I have always loved hearing new music and discovering new artists. I get bored with piping when I hear or play the same things over and over and over again. Without question, I understand the competition conceit of playing familiar music flawlessly, and that can be intriguing and interesting. Striving for perfection in competition can salvage 10,000 maniacal airings of “Blair Drummond.” But, regarding the content itself, I would far prefer to hear the new than the old.

It seems to me that we need more judges with such a mindset. Perhaps pipe band accreditation exams should include a tolerance test of the unfamiliar. Not necessarily measure how much a prospective judge likes new music; just how much he or she  will  tolerate it. An intolerant judge is a bad judge, so test how open-minded they are. Hell, ask them to name a few of their favourite musicians or non-pipe bands. If they respond only with things like “The Beatles” or “The Stones” or “The Who” – great though they each might be – maybe they’re better to go rust away elsewhere than inflict their intransigence on us.

Mainly because of the judging, our art evolves more slowly than a lead zeppelin. Pipe bands want to win so they err on the side of caution, terrified that intractable adjudicators will put “new” music in its place as self-appointed gatekeepers of the craft and preservationists of an art and era that they grew up with.

If we’re going to move things forward, let’s make sure that our judges are musically open-eared and tolerant. It’s the right thing to do.



  1. Utter dribble, I see a bias towards criticising a narrow vision of the judging system. so many great judges which devote their time to pipebands, piping and drumming. My hat goes off to these people who come rain wind or shine stand and deliver the results.
    If the performance wasn’t good then the judge or judges just become the scapegoat

    1. I think you mean drivel, but I’ve been known to dribble. Yes, of course. Everything is “biased.” I tried to parse what you’re trying to say. I have no lack of appreciation for judges, especially those who stand in horizontal rain for 10 hours with a break for a cup of tea and sandwich for £75. But if a judge throws out a band for no other reasons than they played new or creative material that he/she can’t accept, then that judge should be blamed.

      1. No Andrew I meant dribble
        leaking opus amount of unwanted fluid.
        You are completely entitled to your opinion.
        which this passage on oldies demonstrates
        no debate to be honest it is pretty transparent and evident.

        1. Thanks for the permission, “John,” or should we call you Mrs. Malaprops? Still trying to parse what you’re saying. Let’s hope you never become a judge who has to write a score sheet. “This march was leaking opus fluid.” Seriously, some judges can’t accept “new” music. They reject it outright because it’s foreign to their ears. It also happens with pop music. And haircuts. The haircut you had when you were in your teens or early-20s is generally the haircut you’ll have for the rest of your life, that is, if you keep your hair, which you, John, seem to have a hard time keeping on. Not everything is bias. This is just an observation. Go ahead. Reject new music. I actually don’t care. If that’s the process and tradition that people like, then so be it.

  2. Even though I will always believe the greatest music (other than piping) occurred from about 1964 to roughly 1974, I “get” what you are saying.
    It seems to me bands have been pushing the envelope since the beginning of time. What was “cool” in the ’80’s would not be on anyone’s prize list today. Although I do consider myself to be fairly open minded, there have been a few things that caused me to wonder what “they” were thinking?
    Most of the time the craziness came from lower grade bands trying to emulate what they think they heard at a grade 1 contest. I suspect you were not addressing that can of worms. But it is worth noting since some lower grade bands will burst the envelope, receive a low placing and then blame the “old” judges for their low placing. And they will quote you…

    1. I am an auld heed been playing teaching pipe band music for 70yrs. Never been a judge a thankless, very difficult job, these guys should be admired, they do a great job.
      I loved my music when I was a youngster but I much prefer today`s pipe band music, far more musical MSR`s Selections etc. Today`s young musicians play some wonderful well thought out musical arrangements and compositions. J.McK



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