September 18, 2008

Pushing the parameters

Attack!Back in June I speculated that the traditional pipe band attack might be becoming less important than it used to be. After listening to Grade 1 performances at the 2008 World’s, I’m convinced that it’s true.

Ten years ago bands would set aside large lots of practice time to perfect their attack. Punching the E’s in perfect unison was thought to be critical to success. While just about every band that I’ve heard so far had an audibly okay attack, I don’t think I’ve heard any that, as they say, flattened the grass.

There were also several instances of trailing drones that didn’t seem to impact a band’s result terribly much.

When it comes to competition, most bands will concentrate on the things that they think are most important to success. These days, those things seem to be tone and music. Bands focus on these areas because they feel that excellence in these areas will being the biggest return from the judges, so they invest the most time and effort in them.

The trend and the talk seem more and more toward MSRs being judged with an ear to technical precision, and medleys being less about accuracy and more about the overall musical effect.

Further evidence of that trend is that the musicality of MSRs often seems to be completely ignored. The tenets of excellence that a great solo player strives for aren’t heard much by most bands, and, when they are evident, it seems most judges either don’t recognize them or simply don’t care.

Perhaps it’s time for two sets of parameters – one for medleys; another for sets – to be spelled out to judges in detail.


  1. I agree that it seems to be the trend, and it also seems to be the trend that when people are approached about a squeak in the set or a trailing drone, it’s always “that wasn’t us, it was a band warming up near the circle” ANYWAY!!!! I don’t favor bands getting away from doing the simple things, in light of having better tone. Whats the point of even learning how to properly blow up the bag and hit E, if later on down the road, it isn’t important? The judges of course are to blame here as well. They seem to have let this standard slip by. Maybe it’s because too many bands are having the issue of cutting off (something we learn when we are 12), and when so many bands do it, maybe they just say “F” it, move on to the next criteria to figure out the winner. I thought last years top two placings at the worlds was spot on, for three reasons. 1. both bands had great attakcs, 2. neither FMM, or SFU had any audible squeaks in the stands, and 3. clean cut offs. It was pouring in 2007, it was understandible, but they managed. I don’t usually side with traditional ideas, but this should be kept a standard, especially at that level.

    I love it, when someone says they would’ve won an individual contest, but they had a choke, but they swear they played so much better. It’s all part of the game. You have to finish clean. Just like in sports like ice skating and gymnastics, there are certain tricks you must do, and do them well. other wise who cares. Close the eyes, and open the ears. Jamie

  2. Ice skating used to have Compulsory moves and then Free skating. I look at pipe band judging in a similar way but the two aspects are judged at the same time. You have to do the basics, then go on to the optional free for all. The biggest bone of contention seems to be how the judges should weight these different aspects.

    One thought is this…..all things being equal, if two bands are tied, the first tie breaker should be a blown attack or a blown cut-off. Then the second step of the tie-breaker should be ensemble. The reasoning behind this is that the band that properly executed the more basic performance aspect of a pipe band should get the nod. If both executed these basic aspects equally well, then and only then do you go on to the more technical aspect of ensemble.


  3. It occurs to me that when you sit and listen to the entire Grade 1 final at the Worlds, or at Maxville for that matter—even in the rain—that maybe we are barking up the wrong tree with the competition idea. There is so much great musicality, tone and performance.

    If it gets down to Kent’s idea, where the “big prize” is decided on the attack, then the “big prize” is even less valuable than it is. We all like to win it, and it drives a lot of people forward, but to hang the day’s result on arbitrary performance “elements” might be even more laughable than asking the guy who manufactured chanters to judge piping, or getting the P-M’s brother to judge the drumming, or… [add your own favourite bit here].

    At the end of the day, it’s satisfying when YOUR band wins, and if you don’t have one, if the band that seemed best on the day wins. But it’s not just about winning, either, or why would most of them even bother to show up? There has to be something better. I hope someone thinks it up soon.

  4. Iain, i actually think our thoughts are reasonably close. Right now, a blown attack or cut off “ends the day” for any band regardless of the wonderful music they actually play. My idea, probably poorly expressed, is that blown attacks and bad cutoffs shouldn’t be the first thing that knocks a band out but should be the last thing considered in a tie-breaker, everything else being equal between two band’s
    performances. I hope I’m making sense here.


  5. “Right now, a blown attack or cut off “ends the day” for any band regardless of the wonderful music they actually play.”

    I think one point of Andrew’s blog is that this is no longer the case. SLOT blew both their attacks at the Worlds and were 5th. Lots of bands below them had better attacks. SFU wasn’t 100% cleanly up in the medley, and won. I heard two bands at Maxville in Grade 2 have seriously marred attacks and still ended fairly high in the list.

    It should NEVER come down to which band had the best attack. There’s always something better to turn things on: style, content, technique, degree of difficulty, unison, harmonies…

    But I hear your point, and it sounds like we are on the same rail, with that exception. Wait a minute, are those my chanters? ; )

  6. I think Andrew’s observations in the blog post are interesting. Surely, if anyone is in a position to make informed observations in this area, he is (long-standing Grade 1 player, soloist, adjudicator, etc across a couple of continents). Times change, and with it, emphases in different aspects of our art. In the ‘old days’ dress and drill were more important due to the military heritage that most bands and their players shared. I suspect that Andrew, and some of the preceding posts’ ideas, are correct. Perhaps overall ‘musicality’ – especially in the medley – and tone, and even band size, are greater imperatives for the top bands these days than attacks and cut-outs? Do we just expect that people (at the top level) should know what they are doing and take care of these issues? As with many things, people in grades further down the ladder look to the top for leadership and inspiration, and do see what’s going on. Some of these players, let’s face it, can’t be expected to manage a decent attack or cut-out time after time, but will strive to make their medley as musically interesting as possible, taking the lead from above.
    To the point of where the attack/cut-out counts for the prizes, there is bound to be a difference of opinion and approach. As an adjudicator and an educator – and therefore, a professional assessor – I think the subjectiveness of it all plays a part as well. The idea of ‘officially’ using the attack/cut-out as a discriminator in a tie is problematic for a range of reasons; however, I would say that for many adjudicators this is taken on board as part of the mix. All other musical things being equal, if I am placing two bands and one band definitely had a better start/finish than the other, I would probably split them that way. That happens almost on a semi-conscious level for many people. How many times does one here even spectators after a performance they liked say “pity about the early E” or watch them wince or even hear an audible “ooohh” when a trailing drone or missed terminal roll occurs?
    I think I would agree that, in the larger scheme of things, there probably is less emphasis in this area. In the band of which I am a member, I reckon we spend less time on ‘drilling’ these things, though in this last week, we did the march up half a dozen times in a row because one or other of the pipers made a mess of the attack. Stop there… Pipe Major not happy… back to the line, over and over. Then again, a missed cut-out might not receive any more attention than a stern glance and a suitably embarrassed expression on the other end, or a “… let’s get it right people.”
    This is an interesting discussion. The perspectives are interesting to say the least.

  7. Taking this from another perspective, attacks and cutoffs should be easier than they were in the past 25 years due to the new bag and in-line valve technology available today, not to mention the strides in drone reed design. In a sense, there really is no excuse for a Grade I band of top notch calibre with open class players ruining the intro and ending with squealing and trailing drones or early chanters.
    Be that as it may, attacks and finishes should only decide a contest when all else is equal. After all, the goal is to produce music that is easy to listen to and being played well with finely tuned instruments. This should be the criteria that carries the most weight when it comes to judging, not the sloppy starts and stops.

  8. Well John,
    I had heard that there had been recent attempts to somehow resurrect dinosaurs. Looks like the piping world is making strides in that direction………
    No wonder the drone sound has been deteriorating in the last few years. Not to mention the overall chanter sound.
    Someone once said to me “You can’t fix stupid”
    Maybe I’m the dinosaur..

  9. I change my tune slightly now from my first comment on this board about being able to do the basics. Just got back from Loon Mt. and my bass drone screamed on the attack Saturday. I’ve been playing long enough, that it shouldn’t have happened, but as my PM told me, “I don’t think you did it on purpose” and then hit on all that music being wasted because of the first 10 seconds. After the first two bars the band settled in and we played quite well. But we where written off in the first 10 sec. The St. Thomas band also had a not so good attack, but not as bad. When you listen to the good recording of St. thomas and The City of Dunedin Grade 2,from Saturday, I thought there where many more glaring note mistakes from the young band (I’d like to say right now, that they were down some members, and we all know how good they are) but it seemed that with out the decent attack, that our music wasn’t even given a listen to. It was a shame. Sunday came with a good attack, and the same good music, and one judge had the piping 1st. So maybe lets not waste all these bands money by turning a back on them because of a small mistake in the start or the end. it should still be handled, and maybe used as a tie breaker.

  10. Jamie:

    Sorry about your luck. I know that feeling from personal experience.

    You don’t need to answer these questions, but it would be interesting to know.

    1) Do you use a traditional bag or a new high tech style?
    2) Do you use cane drone reeds or the newfangeled high tech type?
    3) Do you use an inverted style bass drone reed?
    4) Do you have in-line valves for regulating pressure pulsations installed?

    Just curious…

  11. I’ve only had one spoiled attack from a double toning bass, that was in 1980 with the Erskine Pipe band at Delco. Remember it like yesterday, that was with a Sheep and Cane setup too and can happen without notice and every piper gives it a micro second thought when striking in.

    No need for all the gizmos, just make sure your bass drone mid section is tuning about an inch from the Mount. The higher you tune up on the tuning pin, the better chance the drone will not strike in properly.

    Is there any official judge protocal on how to weigh technical errors of any sort?

  12. “…So maybe lets not waste all these bands money by turning a back on them because of a small mistake in the start or the end….”

    I’ve been reading Andrew’s posts for a while now and haven’t chirped in yet but Jamie’s comment above got my attention.

    If a person, as a competitor, be it in sport, music, business… whatever doesn’t have the wherewithal to handle and correctly carry out the basic functions of his trade then the person should not expect to do well. Like Jamie said in the first post attacks are something we all learn when we are about twelve.

    If as a competing piper in a band you can’t control your instrument correctly with whatever set-up you use then you aren’t ready to compete. To put it another way: it’s no good having fingers like lightening if you can’t blow steady.

    Anyone worth their salt would know their time is best spent taking care of the little things, then the big things will look after themselves. We all do this, or should do, when working on tunes with the practice chanter in that we don’t normally just batter through the tune once and say “That’s it! I know it now!”. We go over the parts of the music, phrases and embellishments, that may not be sounding clear or being controlled correctly time and time again until they are right and second nature to us.

    Why should basics like attacks and cut-offs be any different? If a band is at grade 1 and makes basic schoolboy errors should those mistakes really be swept under the carpet? Surely being at the top ability level of anything means you are masters of your craft. If this is the case, which is what grade 1 is all about, then maybe basic errors at this level should be amongst the highest criticized?

    I’m pretty sure that John’s experience of a double toning bass in the 80’s makes sure he and his instrument are always ready for performance so it won’t happen again.



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