August 16, 2009

Other worldly

GlobularThe 2009 World’s is done and dusted, and all that’s left is the celebrating by a relative few and the crying by most competitors. Competition notwithstanding, everyone who was there – physically or virtually – should be able to remember the event fondly. It is an extraordinary thing, and every year it seems to improve incrementally.

I’ve been on the administration and planning side of large events, and can appreciate just how much work goes in to them. Much of that effort comes from unappreciated volunteers, and that this year’s World’s again ran like clockwork is a true credit to the contest-running machine that is the RSPBA. I don’t envy any organizers who take it upon themselves to stage a big-time event for anxious and naturally contentious competitors. It’s inevitable that they’ll have to take far more stick for minor inconsistencies than kudos for the majority of achievements. So here’s my big congratulations to them, and you perhaps might want to do the same.

A few thoughts post-event:

Internet streaming: While straining to hear the Grade 1 bands (even from on of the best vantage-points there was), and wondering whether that mistake I detected was real or just the whistling wind or rain, I couldn’t help but think that listening to the BBC’s live webcast at home through a high-speed connection in high-definition on a 55-inch plasma TV with surround-sound speakers would be altogether better. While this high-quality access is a great step ahead and a boon to everyone, it’s probably not in the RSPBA’s best interests. They’re essentially freely giving away their most valuable product – the one many paid $50 all-told to hear live. I heard about not a few competitors even watching the webcast from their bus instead of fighting the crowds to hear. Pay-per-view makes sense, but by law the BBC can’t do that. Thanks to funding by UK taxpayers, the Beeb is commercial- and income-free. The BBC has played an integral role for years in the recording and broadcast of the World’s, and changing this to a private, revenue-based company that could then coordinate pay-per-view is a daunting thought. It will be interesting to see what happens.

The Qualifier. Get rid of it. I know that the Q was essentially something that the competitors originally demanded more than a decade ago. But 10 years back there were maybe 12 bands that had almost no chance to get a prize, so the Q was an easy way to weed them out. Now, though, I would say that the number of certain also-rans is maybe down to five Grade 1 bands. With that, it’s time to have every band go through a one-day medley qualifier for a final the next day. That means a two-day World’s, at least for Grade 1. But it would make the playing field more level, ensuring no band in the final has to compete three times – a massive disadvantage.

Bring it inside: Assuming Internet streaming will continue, why not bring the Grade 1 competition indoors? The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall seats 2,500. The Scottish Exhibition Centre even more. Sell tickets for a premium price, and put the bands, judges and audience in a warm, controlled, acoustically excellent environment.

The 78th Fraser Highlanders. Along the lines of the above points, aside from the actual final result, that the 78FH did not qualify was probably the biggest news of the day. Based on what I heard, I don’t think they deserved to go through. That said, bands competing in the heavy rain before 10 am were at a massive disadvantage. To think that this band finished fourth in the World’s Final only two years earlier, and two weeks before played well enough to win the North American Championship. The weather is luck-of-the-draw, for sure, but what sort of music competition hoses down a few random competitors with ice-water while they’re playing? It’s reminiscent of a scene from Wipeout.

The  Medley: Expand it. Five-to-seven minutes is too short. I don’t think Scottish-style bands are ready for the 15-miunute Breton approach, but they are certainly ready for 10 minutes. Unless they adopt a Toronto Police-style suite (and so far that methodology clearly isn’t being emulated by other bands), a seven-minute cap invites limited ability to expand creatively. As is, bands are essentially restricted to chopping and changing tunes with a degree of sameness, and several medleys that I heard seemed to be just getting started when they had to end. An additional 40 per cent of time will promote creativity and allow the pipe band art to evolve musically.

Repeat medleys: I can understand why bands will be tempted to play the same medley year-after-year (and year-after-year-after-year in a few cases), but it’s a let-down when they do. The top bands set musical trends, and same-old, same-old – while perhaps played to perfection – seems just a bit irresponsible and not a little lazy. Music fans look forward to the next release by their favourite artist. The top bands have their followers whom they shouldn’t disappoint. Maybe there should be a rule requiring bands to submit an altogether different medley every year.

Bass-sections: It’s time to get serious about how this increasingly important element of the band is judged. Ensemble and drumming judges need to be fundamentally trained to understand how bass-sections work, and then one or both of them need to be required to assess them, or else there needs to be a separate bass-section judge. As it stands, I tend to think that bass-sections are simply ignored by too many judges. Or perhaps judges don’t know what to listen for. While much of it is tastefully musically wonderful, some of the stuff going on with upper-level Grade 1 bands’ bass-sections is questionable, unmusical and even comical.

Judges: The criteria for who becomes a judge at the top level needs to be improved. That prerequisite needs to include a minimum number of years played at the Grade 1 level. I would suggest using the PPBSO’s stipulation of a minimum of 10 years to be eligible to be an A-level adjudicator (i.e., to be allowed to judge Grade 1 or Grade 2). Juried competition is only as good as the judges, and the adjudicators must have the respect of the competitors. In our game, that respect comes from having done it on the field and not just talking it in a lower-grade band hall. I’m certain that those who don’t fit the minimum experience level are very nice people. It’s nothing personal. It is, though, something essential.

Some may instantly read all this as a dump on the RSPBA. It’s not. The RSPBA and all associations aren’t about a bunch of executives and administrators. Associations are the members. It’s up to the members to demand changes, to raise motions at branch meetings and AGMs and have the courage to make what we do – and by virtue what the associations do – better. It’s up to us.


  1. Well put Andrew, and I agree with most of it. The whole streaming thing was fantastic, except that in this part of the world we had to stay up all night ;-). I loved your, and other, tweets/facebook contributions as the contest progressed- it really added to the flavour of the whole thing – good information without some bore giving their verbal opinion when trying to listen to the performance. I wouldn’t complain about the RSPBA giving away their most valuable asset. Their main role is to promote the music, and they sell themselves on the basis that they are the ‘heart of the pipe band world’. Streaming the contest free was the best possible way of promoting the cause. Having said that, I’d happily pay for it. Even with the best audio visual gear in the world, I’d still rather have been there!

  2. My goodness, a big topic area here! I’ll keep it brief,

    1) Not sure from a business/cost perspective that pay-per-view is practical, but a good idea non-the-less.
    2) Have the qualifier rounds on Saturday (all grades) beginning at a sensible time to reduce the impact of the horrible morning weather and the final playoffs on Sunday at a reasonable time as well (say noonish) to give everyone a half decent chance.
    3) Won’t happen….
    4) They are not the same band as two years ago. However, the weather and time of day most definitely played a factor for the 78th and all of the other bands in the qualifier.
    5) Good idea, but would only work with a 2 day format due to time constraints.
    6) Yes. Eliminate repeat Medleys and while we’re at it, submit two!
    7) Ensemble needs to be addressed. And Mid-Section should be included as part of the ensemble score.
    8 In time, this will most likely happen anyway…

  3. Oh, and one more thing. Get rid of the March Past at the end and replace it with a NA style massed bands announcing the prizes in reverse order for suspense purposes. This would at the very least speed things up and be more suitable for selling or offering a live stream format.

  4. Bring it inside? Premium price? Pay-per-view? When are we ever going to stop thinking up new ways to make our music more inaccessible?

    Five-to-seven minute medleys are fine. If a band can’t get their medley “started” within that time then it’s their own problem, not that of the contest format. Nobody respects that Toronto Police-style-watch-me-watch-me-I’m-being-non-conformist B.S. anyway.

    Repeat medleys are fine also. If a band is playing last year’s medley well, don’t be a tosser and make them play something else. It’s a contest, not a concert. That’s what Piping Live! is for.

  5. I’m not sure free webcasting is giving away the main product. The webcast is not unlike any other type of promotion, whetting appetites and expanding the audience for paying customers. All told I think most would still like to have been there in person (including me), and those same folks will still buy the CDs, but the webcast exposes the event to those who may never get there, as well as those who may now make next year their first trip of many. And yes, it is time for the event to move indoors. There are few major championships of any stripe that leave themselves open to poor weather conditions. It’s insane. I mean, what’s the total dollar tally in outfit and instrument per band, and they should allow it all to be ruined by rain? At least put up a big circus tent.

  6. Yes, it was great to hear the bands in the comfort of one’s own living room or in my case in my friend’s living room. I understand that “They’re essentially freely giving away their most valuable product”. However, It is worth keeping in mind that all the musicians, in these bands, that performed in the Qualifier and Finals were also “essentially freely giving away their most valuable product”. Their performances, arrangements, music, scores etc. I hope that at some point in the future these musicians will be compensated for their work when it is recorded and broadcast etc. Hopefully it will happen sooner than later.


    Rob Gardner

  7. Interesting. There’s no doubt about it, the Internet Streaming by the BBC was a first rate success. It felt like having a better-than-ring-side seat with Bob Worrall at your side saying just enough to keep you rivetted, for the entire day. Warm and dry. I suppose the fact that my £20 ticket was sitting on top of the computer, made me feel I’d supported the event, but had I not already bought one, PAYING for the priviledge would have been perfectly ok by me. Our UK licences do cost a lot, and many of us don’t watch much on TV, so if people across the world got a look for free, I for one am happy they got some use of our licence fees.
    Qualifier – it indeed does seem unfair that some bands play three times on the one day, and given that the instruments themselves, perhaps more than many others, react and respond so sensitively to over use and weather conditions, moisture etc, it makes the competition uneven.
    Inside venue would make SO MUCH SENSE – charge more for the tickets, fill the concert hall or the SECC and let’s have a fair, level, real, music competition, on a par with the great competitions held for other instruments in the great concert halls of the world.
    78th Frasers – just highlights the problem magnificently. If all bands had been hosed down with ice cold water while playing, what would the results have been. Apart from that, what a way to treat visitors. Musicians travelling and spending massive amounts to take part, need to be shown respect, offered a roof over their heads to perform in, and given every material condition possible to enable them to do what they’ve been rehearsing for all year to the best level they possibly can.
    Medleys. There’s an awful ‘sameness’ about many of them. I agree longer would be better. Whatever other problems arose, Shotts’ Bolero stood out for me, because it was something DIFFERENT. If there was a longer time allowed, maybe there would be time to slow down a bit and let us hear the MUSIC, instead of a waterfall of cascades of notes, relentlessly tripping off the fingers. I do wonder if some of the anxiety and even ‘panic’ about medleys, gets into the composition of them. We all tend to want to ‘do’ things when anxious – harder to hold back, take time, let music speak, and
    let a bit of space in.
    Repeat medleys. With competition and exam systems, its safe and comfortable to trot out the same few things all the time. But I certainly remember the people who trotted out the same Bach Prelude and Fugue, Mozart Sonata, and one modern piece, were much less accomplished musicians than the ones who truly studied the whole repertoire and could pick from it confidently, putting together varied and interesting programmes of music. They were the real musicians. So I’m all for developing and building on, and expanding repertoire, with fresh Medley content each year.
    Bass sections – don’t know enough to comment.
    Judges. Yes, And maybe importantly, ten years experience in a MODERN-DAY Grade 1 pipe band – surely standards and competencies have changed and moved on a lot from the Grade 1 bands of yester-year??
    Very interesting points made in the article, and hot-off -the-press in terms of it only being the day or so after the event.

  8. If it’s going to be indoors, don’t have it at the SECC – the accoustics in that place are like playing in a huge wheelie bin. Not that I’ve played in a huge wheelie bin..but you get the picture!

  9. You can’t blame the RSPBA for the rain, but as a piper in the the qualifier that was soaked to the skin, had wet feet and played in front of empty seats I have to say its time to do something about that qualifier. However, interestingly, Ballycoan seemed to cope (don’t play with them!) but by and large it was a real trial for the first 7 or 8 bands. Lets face it if G1 is the premier event then lets give it the premier treatment. By 10:30 on saturday a good number of the top 25 bands in the world had been soaked and played to half empty (if lucky) stands. Why would ACal or LA or the 78th put resources into coming to Glasgow for 4 minutes and that sort of treatment. G1 is shrinking, and with some possible Scottish casualties to come due to police funding its going to shrink even more. We have to treat the quality product as quality and the format has to change to accomodate both the spectators and the competitors. Imagine Usain Bolt running his heat to an empty stadium just after breakfast…..

  10. I agree; the format of “The Worlds,” needs a major shake up, as Andrew describes in his article.
    While the spectacle is perhaps enjoyable for some as a variety of outdoor ‘sporting competition’, it lacks depth of musical imagination, and presentational style.
    Eliminating Grade one bands from the competition at such an early stage, after playing only three (some might say, ‘hackneyed’) tunes, with frozen piper’s fingers, in a gale, in the rain, in a muddy field, is a waste of resources and everyone’s time and effort. I wonder how the bands so eliminated are going to raise funds and persuade their super talented musicians to return and play these same three tunes next year?
    Bands these days travel round the world to attend; the current format treats even grade one bands as if they have arrived in Glasgow, from no further than Edinburgh and can be dismissed with no great financial, or motivational consequence.

    The highlights of the ‘Piping Live’, week for me were the piobaireachd recitals at the College of Piping, ‘The Silver Cap’ competition at the College of Piping, the Quartets competition, and the SFU concert. As others say, there were many others events of equal merit to choose from throughout the week. “The Worlds”, was a relatively poor musical relation to these events, even if it satisfied the crowd pleasing spectacle.

    Is it time to get an indoor venue for the grade one bands?
    Where bands could face the audience so we can all see and hear them properly and (young[er]?) judges could encourage and reward music, presentation, invention, imagination and perhaps a little risk taking in musical composition?
    While admiring and supporting Andrew’s commentary, nothing will change without an action plan to lobby and influence the powers that be, to adopt change. Without this ‘The Worlds’, is at some risk of becoming, a nostalgic anachronism, at the end of a superb, up to date, free format and lively ‘Piping Live’, week’.

  11. Excellent blog.

    I played in the qualifier though was lucky to miss the rain. I have practiced 3 sometimes 4 times a week this last month or so for this event and we didn’t qualify. Fair enough we weren’t good enough on the day. But all that time and effort to play an MSR at the most prestigious pipe band event of the year and then ……. that’s it. No chance to play the medley we have practiced – nothing. I’m old enough to remember the days of old when there were no qualifiers in Grade 1. Bring those days back. A two day event it would appear is now necessary as the Worlds has grown and is growing year on year so it’s time to really make it an occasion.

    I’m a piper but I too agree it’s perhaps time to introduce a “Bass section” adjudicator – especially in Grade1 and perhaps 2 initially on a trial period and if successful introduce through all the grades.

    And finally, as for medleys – I had to learn 2 new medleys this year and it’s tough going. So for these top winning bands to play the same medley year on year with the odd wee tweak definitely puts them at an advantage …. but a true reflection of how good they are would be to have them come out with a new and fresh medley each season.

    As for indoors – it’s a difficult one – finding the right venue accoustically would be the problem but I agree, it’s something that may need to be looked at in the future. You can’t beat playing outdoors on a lovely day however – but unfortunately, we can give no guarantees for nice weather in Bonnie Scotland.

    Roll on the Worlds 2010 🙂

  12. Re. bringing the grade 1 contest indoors, I don’t agree that this should happen. Fair enough the weather is the luck of the draw, however is also part of the test. If your instrument (or yourself) disintegrates in the rain then there is something wrong somewhere. Also, what would message give to the lower grade bands? “You guys all slog it out on the green and we’ll cosy up in the concert hall in perfect conditions”??. All grade 1 players have come up through the grades in one way or other and those in the lower grades need to see the grade 1 contest there too to strive to achieve it.

  13. Lets just call it the X-games and first have all the bands run thru a sprinkler system, then a frigid room, then a wind tunnel and their final minute of the medley in front of a blast furnace.

    Keep the same conditions for all, and there should be a performer’s discount at the beertent too. (not gonna happen)

    Over all, it’s a good fun day, we enjoyed the challenge and will be back next year too!

    Just wish it was easier to get a closer listen to all the bands.
    Why are the barriers set so far from the circles?

    J Mitchell
    LA Scots

  14. OK. Then let’s have the qualifier on Friday or Saturday afternoon under more favourable temperatures and start the Grade 1 final at 8:30 AM on Saturday or Sunday respectively, seeing as the weather, etc is part of the test. In fact, let’s move the contest to a nice wind blown foggy coastal area for added effect. It would also allow 3 or 4 hours for the March Past ceremony at the end, seeing as the contest would be over by, say, 2:00 PM. Wouldn’t that be fun?……

  15. Let’s leave it alone and stop trying to reinvent the wheel – I’ve never heard so much whining over a bit of rain – As if it doesn’t rain in Ontario or British Columbia and everywhere else in between. The world’s isn’t all about grade one pipe bands but it comes across as just that. The world’s is a one day event, if the sun was beating down, we would probably have an outcry for more tents.

  16. Keep it accessible. Indoor events in concert halls, pay-per-view etc has the potential to put this great event out of reach for some people. It also pushes the whole art form into a realm that greatly increases the potential for ongoing copyright, royalties etc debates and issues.

    If I had the choice between judging a 40-plus member pipe band from my seat in a concert hall, or outside on grass, with the ability to move around and take in the various ‘pockets’ of the band, I know what I’d be choosing.

    Repeat medleys? While it would be nice to see fresh material every year, I fully understand why its not the case. The worlds is a contest, not a concert. SFU put on a big show at the concert hall and their workload was therefore well up on what it normally would be. Having done the pre-worlds concert myself, I was very grateful the only contest set change that year was our medley opener. What a lot of people don’t see is all the tunes that get tabled, learnt and then binned in the process of putting together a concert program, plus the time it chews up. It is made even harder by bigger band numbers these days.

    The qualifier can be dangerous and unfair for some when the weather is a factor. I feel for the 78ths but they were below par and would probably be the first to say it, plus there was an enormous howler in the march. A bit of rain isn’t going to cause that, but their sound did suffer in the conditions. The only thing stopping the Q being shifted to another day is $$. Simple as that. Some bands need to realise it is musical expression, phrase and good tempos that will get them through the Q, not simply a clean and cautious technical display. Just go for it!!

  17. Excellent points Andrew and agree with many, if not all. Regarding the medley point – was I the only one left with feeling slightly deflated once the medleys were done?
    The SFU medley for me is fantastic, well put together, musically creative and challenging BUT it was just the same as last year! You knew exactly what was coming. And although there were many new arrangements from other bands, everything was the same old tried and tested formula. Opener, Straths, air, jigs, reel etc etc. Was a real shame that no-one progressed from Shotts’ ‘statement’ last year.

    The fact that its streaming to goodness knows how many live is surely a wonderful avenue to take the medley approach a step further, open it into concert presentation and really let bands go for gold – rather than waiting for a band be “controversial” in the name of progress. You will also find out quite quickly which bands actually want to progress away from the security blanket of the traditional medley structure. Not everyone will want the same but I know what I would rather watch, listen and take part in! (Incidentally I would say a No to an indoor event – the Glasgow worlds spirit is phenomenal, rain or shine, could that be recreated on the indoor stage? there is a danger there of the main performances becoming an exclusive, rather than inclusive event – however there must be a case for an emergency wet weather location for extreme circumstances!)

  18. For the Worlds platform now that it’s been broadcast live to a real world audience, how about we do away with the MSR contest as there’s enough of them elsewhere, and the Qualifier should be scrapped too. Instead all gr1 bands play a free style 10 minute show and let the bands really play their best music!!!!

    BTW, Up the judging panel to 3 piping, 2 enemble and 2 drumming!
    It’s time the single judge calling the contest for each category be put to an end.
    The bands invest a great deal of time and money into this contest, the contest organizers should start to invest in the bands.

    Oh and that scheme to eliminate overseas judges, nobody bought it.
    Rather childish really!!!!

    If it really is to be a world class event, do something different other than the same old show from week to week.

  19. Scuttlebut has it that the real plot behind eliminating the overseas judges was to make sure that Bob was available to MC the livestream………

  20. It seems from the poll on the main page that the majority want an outdoor event. Going by the poll a wee while back about the medley format as well, it seems the majority also don’t want a longer medley. On another point – John’s point about the overseas judges made me think about the comments that flew around from the conspiracy theorists at the time, stating how it was being done to stop overseas bands winning. Do they eat their words now that the results show the highest place Scottish band being in 4th place?

  21. Andrew, I know you’ve not always been the RSPBA biggest fan, but nice to see you give some credit where it’s due.

    This event ran like clockwork, and regarding the streaming, I don’t think that would ever stop me being there and paying for my Grade 1 seat. It’s not just about seeing it for me, it’s about the banter, meeting friends, enjoying a beer and catching up.

    Of course for the overseas people, it’s brilliant.

    I think the RSPBA will be looking for a Global sponsor for the event next year with this sort of coverage, hence pulling in serious money which hopefully will find some of it’s way to the bands.

    The RSPBA is there to promote pipe bands and what better way than streaming the content of the premium event, the RSPBA is not a money making exercise in reality.

    Finally, I have noticed this year that the overseas contingent have across the forums are not complaining about which bands didn’t make the final. I think the streaming and availability of performances afterwards helped everyone realise the results were not far away in both qualifiers and final.

    Can you imagine for one minute the revolt of the 78’s result in the qualifer had thousands not heard it for themselves online. Incidently they were struggling all week for a sound.

    Heres hoping the RSPBA get a sponsor, increase the prize money, and continue to work with the BBC to produce the event as they did. For those that cannot make it this will be brilliant, my personally, I’ll be there in 2010

    Perhaps Glasgow City Council by that time will have worked out how the seat numbers work in the Grade 1 arena.

  22. Luck = hard work + preparation + opportunity

    oh yeah decent weather helps too. All of these bands are consumate professionals, but NO one can perform well in a down pour. Especially when competing against other bands that were dealt more fotunate weather circumstances.



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