July 07, 2013

RIP Grade 2?

Grade 2 is on life support. The number of pipe bands competing in the grade around the world is dropping so fast that they could be declared an endangered species.

Ten – 10 – Grade 2 bands competed at the European Championships at Forres, Scotland, last week. Granted, the event was (in the minds of UK-based bands, anyway) hard to get to. But there were only 13 competing at the British at Bathgate in May.

In Ontario where only several years ago there were at least six in Grade 2, there are now two. The BCPA has two. There are four Grade 2 bands in the EUSPBA; the WUSPBA and MWPBA have none. The grade is becoming superfluous.

I wrote about this a few years back in a two-part feature piece about how the World Pipe Band Championships are in fact ironically damaging pipe band scenes around the world. The pressure on Grade 1 bands to maintain and grow ever-expanding pipe-, snare- and bass-sections has resulted in players jumping from Grade 3 and even Grade 4 bands right into Grade 1. They leave the organizations that are trying to rise through the grades in favour of faster perceived glory in Grade 1.

The larger pipe band organizations with an organized training system and feeder bands more often than not have a policy about associated bands not reaching Grade 2, and, if they are allowed to reach Grade 2, then they are not allowed to go any further.

In Ontario, watching the 18-piper Ottawa Police compete against the seven-piper 400 Squadron is strange. All credit to Ottawa for building a world-class Grade 2 band by merging with the now-defunct Glengarry Grade 2 band a few years ago, but it’s an embarrassment of riches. And full credit goes to 400 Squadron for sticking in there, and regularly producing a very well-set sound with tight unison, which is, after all, the first order of business, whatever the size of the band. It’s not a competition to see who can be loudest or visually most impressive.

But who wants to judge that? Do you go for a well set and clean sound of seven pipes, or a rich and fulsome presence of 18? I honestly do not know which I would pick, and I’m glad I didn’t have to. Both bands are playing within the rules, but juxtaposing a band of almost 30 with one of 14 is borderline comical.

I have said several times over the last 10 years that the RSPBA needs to implement maximum numbers for sections. The RSPBA has to do it, because, with the all-out infatuation with competing at the World’s in just about every grade, no other association will place such numbers restrictions on their member bands. So, everyone else has to wait for the RSPBA to make a move and cap the numbers.

The great Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe-Major Richard Parkes said in his 2007 interview that a pipe section of 20 was “a good number.” SFU P-M Terry Lee 10 years ago cited 17 as “the magical number.” We all know what has happened.

To be sure, the best bands are producing wonderful sounds with pipe sections larger than 24 and snare and bass sections bigger than 10 and seven. But would they be that less wonderful if they had to compete with no more than 20 pipes, eight snares and six in the bass section? I don’t think so, and, besides, I’d be willing to make the sacrifice in return for the dividends it will pay to the world’s pipe band scenes overall.

Capping pipe sections at 20 in Grade 1, and, say, 17 in Grade 2, 15 in Grade 3 and so on, would immediately create dozens of new pipe bands around the world. Grade 2 most of all would be reinvigorated, as players released from Grade 1 bands would reorganize into altogether new bands or join existing Grade 2 bands.

A cap on numbers would also virtually eliminate the ridiculous situations of judges trying to compare a band of 18 pipers with a band of seven. It would create a fairer playing field for Grade 2 bands in more remote areas that simply can’t field large numbers. It would also create several new Grade 1 bands.

Failing section-size caps, a significant adjustment of Grade 1 and a broad relegation of bands back to Grade 2 is the other solution. Cut Grade 1 in half and make it a truly elite level of maybe 12 bands worldwide.

But a recalibration of Grade 1, and thus Grade 2 (and Grade 3, for that matter), is unlikely to happen. A member-driven association would have a hard time telling a good 20 per cent of its members that they’re going back to Grade 2, and the organizers of the competitions it runs that they will have fewer Grade 1 bands.

So, let’s watch the 2013 World’s and the massive bands in Grade 1 one last time, and ask that this fall the RSPBA does the right thing for everyone – including their own UK scene – and place reasonable maximum numbers on competing sections and rosters.

We can then watch the dividends pay off for the good of our art.


  1. the grade 2 scene in ireland ( north and south) apart from bleary,psni and cullen is not upto scratch as other years. apart from the 3 bands above mentioned, i see the others struggle to qualify for the worlds.

  2. It’s worth adding that I would bet that a cap on numbers would result in MORE Grade 1 bands, not fewer. It might not happen right away, but players let go from existing Grade 1 bands would work to stay in the grade. It’s not unreasonable also to think that those released from the likes of FMM and SFU would be solid additions to other Grade 1 bands that perhaps are not quite as good. That would raise the standard throughout the grade once things settle out.

  3. As an avid pipe band contest follower I have to say that I agree with the sentiments however I think that the cap should be all the way through the grades and perhaps on a ‘no less than and no more than’ basis reducing down the grades.
    As far as I can see Very few pipers are coming out of Grade 1 bands here in NI at least to take on their own bands .
    It used to be , here in NI at any rate, that players from Grade 1 bands having got a few years experience would take on a grade 3 or 2 band and try to bring them up the grades. One of the greatest examples of this here in NI would have been the Belfast based Robert Armstrong Memorial which produced a number of excellent pipe majors from their ranks although unfortunately the majority of them were not Belfast players.
    Also I would be just a little concerned about the creation of ‘new bands’ except in areas where none exists [here in NI that would be Belfast which has the biggest population] rather I would prefer to see existing bands which have a solid base from which to provide the administrative support.
    One of the observations I have made [mind you this goes for many types of team activities] is that there are plenty of technically gifted pipe majors nowadays but they are not all ‘good managers’ which is a completely different aspect.
    Ranting and raving is not a good approach and neither is a totally laid back approach. In addition to all the tuition the Associations should also give aspiring ‘pipe majors’ some sound advice on managing their bands and its members’

  4. The other problem we have on our hands is grade1 bands hogging players that dont even get a game. Theres grade 1 bands sitting with people that are never getting to play and this is also why bands are no creating the numbers, thus why bands are struggling to get out and compete wich is tottaly wrong but then nobody can make a player leave and go to another band but these people that are not getting a game should have a brain in the head to say “im off somewhere im actually going to play” its a shame but I dont think theres very much we can do about it!

  5. I think this idea that capping numbers is a magic bullet needs to be very carefully thought through.

    For example, the argument that players will go to other bands. I agree some will, but Andrew, you’ve played at the highest level, under some of the best pipe majors in the world – do you really think that people who are good enough to play for Richard Parkes will want to play in some lesser band? I’ve done the mid-table grade one band thing and it. Is. Not. Fun. I can’t even imagine coming in from playing with FM or whoever and slogging your guts out for seventh, eighth, ninth.

    The rise in numbers is a fairly simple consequence of the improvement in technical standards – in short, it’s now easier than ever before to put twenty or thirty tuned pipers on the contest field when a generation ago you couldn’t achieve half that. It still has its limits – as the Power proved at Bathgate – and it always will.

    The other thing you’ll know from your band days, Andrew is that a band is made by its leadership and precious little else. My contention is, and has always been, that the pipe band scene suffers, really suffers, from poor leadership. Sometimes it’s man management, sometimes technical skills, usually a combination of these, but frankly any reasonably committed bunch of players if well taught and led should be able to turn out a performance to a mid grade two standard. We’ve seen it time and again in the pipe band world, the Vale, Boghall, Inverary, and many more. All came from nothing because of their leadership.

    Sort out the leadership problem, and you’ll have more grade one and two bands than you can shake a stick at.

    Oh, and Ottawa – honking Ds and not playing together. Give it to 400. Easy stuff, this judging lark.

  6. Maybe a look should also be made at bands that have dropped down from Grade 2 to Grade 3 in recent years stating (ie… lack of players being the reason) requesting to play in Grade 3, then seem to form up again almost as a replicas of the pre-existing Grade 2 band. Also, a question should be put forth as to how long a band should be allowed to continue to compete in their grade who consistently place 1, 2 & 3 in their grade. The Grade 3 competition section should continuously
    be feeding the Grade 2 section as well. If there is a lack of Grade 2 quantity bands competing then the problem also lies with the system that is not promoting the continued growth of bands in each of the grades. All areas should be looked at, not just a numbers cap.

    I would also like to say, quantity of numbers does not by no means constitute ‘fulsome sound’. Let’s hope judging presents itself as looking FOR ALL…a well clean set encompassing a rich and full presence of sound despite the number of players entering the competition circle. A sound that is generated from the quality of playing by all musicians and their well tuned instruments. After all, we are all there to listen for….’the sound’…not to watch the number of participants entering onto the field in any given band in their competing grade.

  7. This would certainly begin to address the pipe band pirate mentality – going from one band to the next, playing in 2 or 3 bands in a season. While these players out pillaging and plundering the home based programs suffer; then again who wants a pirate in their band….argh!

  8. While I tend to agree with you Andrew, this time I have to respectfully disagree.

    The way I see it, most of the people who feel there is a need to put a cap on numbers are those who- for whatever reason- are having a problem retaining players.

    Is it fair for a PM or Leading Drummer of a top grade 1 band to refuse a quality player in his/her corps simply because the numbers are full? No, I don’t think it’s fair at all. In fact, I think this would end up lowering the standard of play all around because said player would then have limited opportunity to advance his/her band playing ability. Having been there myself, when you’re around players who are better than you and have put in the effort to earn the respect they have, you automatically have to up your game.

    Frankly, who doesn’t want to have a shot at the glory of winning Worlds?

    Perhaps the bands that are having trouble retaining players need to pinpoint why they are having that type of problem and put a plan in place to try to solve them. Yes, players- especially the younger, up-and-coming ones- will come and go for a multitude of reasons and that simply cannot be helped. Pinning the blame on The Worlds and top-tier bands simply will not help a lower grade band solve its retention problem. If the band can’t solve it’s problem(s) and they split up, so be it, but they don’t have the right to blame it on Worlds or the top bands.

    1. My experience running the middle band in a system that has bands in 3 grades suggests that lower-grade bands have trouble retaining talent BECAUSE they’re lower grade bands. Piping society awards status based on rankings and achievements and people who can move up usually want to. Having players sitting on the sidelines at a higher level isn’t helping anyone. They could be big-time contributors in some other band if they were actually on the field somewhere.

      Every trend flows down from the higher grades. Today, even a grade 4 band that fields 6-8 pipers doesn’t get seriously listened to when the rest of the field is going out with 12, 14, 16, etc.

  9. I absolutely agree that the RSPBA should be capping the number of players in a band! I have said this for years. I am a member of Kirkintilloch Pipe Band who has struggled for years to just keepthe band together!. It is our bands 125thAnniversary and we were one of the five bands who first became members of the RSPBA a great achievement! However unfortunately we can’compete because of numbers! come on RSPBA save ourbands! x

  10. We are all slaves to fads and trends. Everyone knows that numbers should not matter, but we hear with our eyes these days. Sadly, bands that are a seen (not heard) as being a bit ‘smaller’ aren’t in the hunt. It is as ridiculous as it sounds for this to be even be seen as a factor in a music contest. Look at Shotts at Forres (and I mean look, like some obviously did). Probably one of the best runs on the day but not in the prizes? Do a head count and you might have your answer. Sad. If someones was to shut their eyes and tell me if they’re hearing 22 or 30 pipers, the truth is they could only guess. We all hear the comments that bands/PMs make about putting bigger numbers on the park to LOOK impressive. I never hear comments like ‘going from 22 pipers to 30 will make us sound better’. It is also a well known fact that many bands subscribe to the “if we have them, they don’t!” mentality, in a bid to monopolise players who may or may not make the cut. The whole thing is getting a bit out of hand and is not actually progressing the music, or the piping scene in general.

    1. Perhaps we could blind-fold the judges. And create a new deportment category for adjudicators-only – judged then by the bandies. mmunro Maxville, ON

  11. Excellent piece and completely agree with it. Look at Grade 2 even in the Lothian and Borders Branch of the RSPBA that produced these Champion bands in recent years:

    Boghall and Bathgate (Grade 2 not Grade 1)
    Drambuie Kirkliston
    Torphichen and Bathgate
    Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

    Only Torphichen still exists competing in Grade 1.

    From a UK perspective, where did these bands go, who remembers some of these names:

    The Clan Gregor Society (Grade 1 then defunct)
    The Chivas Regal
    Ballinderry Bridge (Grade 1 then defunct)
    52nd Lowland Regiment
    Drambuie Kirkliston (Grade 1 then defunct)
    Tayside Police (Grade 1 then defunct)

    There will be many more, Grade 2 though has been a dying Grade for many years now. I really hope that someone sits up and takes note.

  12. If they do cap numbers, band will send in “b” band at the same grade, for example williamwood grade 2a band & and williamwood grade2b band as well as having there lower grade bands competingo

  13. I have read the article and the comments and found it all very interesting as I have said for a while that the numbers should be capped in the various sections.
    Can I add to the already stated arguments that financially it makes sense? How many bands have adequate funding? This was highlighted once more at Forres this year when many could not afford B&B for their large bands. Larger buses are also required. Band uniforms for 40/50 instead of 20/30 persons. Pipe chanters, reeds, bags and drums for many more. Larger practice halls with resultant costs.
    Managing bigger numbers of volatile people. Here may I suggest that my friends in Canada have that right with Band Managers taking the load from the PM so that he concentrates on music.
    Signing excessive numbers of players without a formal selection process where the band officials will look at all aspects of the candidate including his playing ability and associated talents such as eg blowing, care of instrument, team player, commitment to regular practice etc Matters that can prevent this person from being a useful band member should be identified and if found wanting should help everyone from wasting time and expense.
    Despite what another writer has stated I do feel that the people, who cannot join the initial band of their choice, will benefit another band and there will be more bands that are cheaper to run with manageable numbers.
    And dare I comment that perhaps we should be looking at making music as well as the all-consuming goal of first at the Worlds?

    1. I have been discussing this issue with other people around Ontario for some time now. I believe in a cap, but not exactly as has been described so far. It is fair to say that our particular art form has evolved to being championship driven. Whether you are a soloist, or a band, the enthusiast’s community tends to judge you based on your pedigree and what you have manged to win. This being the case, if we want our art form to survive, and more importantly grow, then we have to look at what will expand the competition arena in the same way that professional athletic teams have done in recent history. Since the vast majority of us are not being paid to do this, the salary cap option is out. That really only leaves a cap on numbers.
      The trend in recent years has been to see the dwindling number of Grade 1 bands in Ontario have a large number of players that get cut “on the day”. In the interest of competition (and thus the art form) It is reasonable for a band, and its management, to have the right to set the number of people that they wish to play within reason. It is not reasonable that the system allow a quantity of good quality players that could be playing in lower grades, or other Gr 1 bands, sit on the bench. It would be like a sports team hiring up all of the best players around, and then only fielding an elite team while starving the rest of the league of elite athletes. As we all know in sports, if you don’t make the lineup (which has a couple of players as spare to cover injury) you get sent down to the minors, thus supporting a whole level of competition just below the majors. Cap the bands’ “competing” rosters: 28 pipers, 12 snares, 8 tenors and bass (as an example for all grades). If the PM wants to play them all, more power to him or her. If a few have the flu, or a wedding, or a date in court… the band can still field the type of numbers we are currently seeing. All the rest of the registered players will need to find a new competing home, which means that either existing band rosters will grow, or new bands will form. Either way, this raises the breadth of the competition, thus ensuring the future of our art form.
      “Well managed” bands at every level will still be able to grow quite large and field whatever number that they can within these limits.

      Let’s all face it here, the precipitous decline in the number of Grade 2 bands isn’t because the human race has evolved to the point where players’ talent just jumps from Grade 3 to Grade 1. All of the players that should be playing in Grade 2 are simply playing (or sitting on the sidelines) at some other level. It isn’t good for them, it isn’t good for talent development, it isn’t good for the health of the competitions, and it isn’t good for the art form.

  14. Evidenced by the lively discussions here and on associated Facebook pages, it is clearly time for the RSPBA to address the matter, unless we want to hasten our continued demise. I addressed the matter here in 2010 (http://blogpipe.wpengine.com/the-hardest-grade-is-2/) and several times in the online magazine (search the archives). As said repeatedly, the rest of the pipe band world, because of its obsession with the World’s, is at the mercy of the RSPBA to act.

  15. I still find myself torn, of two minds about this controversy. It is so very sad to see hard working, long established units fold up their tent for lack of players; but also a marvel to see the highly accomplished, premier mega Bands of world class status today. It is all about the sound, since visual flash does not win RSPBA Judges [edited]. As pipers, we are perhaps slowly twigging onto the movement of the idiom with new direction in mid section voicing and large Band harmonics etc that has altered the game.

    History can add perspective sometimes. Looking at the past half century of Shotts saw a bevy of my generation’s legends pass through that “system” only to spread it in turn to various, distant organizations. Just as so many big and successful Bands do in their respective areas. Not that all bandsfolk want to necessarily play with SFU out West or the 78ths in Ontario, but when they do, it pays dividends in turn – spilling out to lower Grade Bands around them. I’m not sure how many aspiring players will hang around and be carried by even the largest Bands on the sidelines. And there are still fine success stories in Grade 2, even in a ‘slow’ year with the cream stripped off to graduate upwards this year. This too can change – as it cyclically has before, aided by less promotion and more relegations etc.

    Consider Bobby Rea the recently late and great drummer, heart of a generation (or 2 !!) and instructor of highly successful NI drummers. Ones still very dominant on the scene. He ended his years with a Grade 2 outfit who again find themselves in a perhaps frustrating and rarefied Grade 1 atmosphere. There are reasons of family, career, geography and even health that preclude playing with the very top outfits. A Band that also made it on their own in a “remote”, separated location away from the Central Belt, Inveraray (with SFU ‘graduates’ at the helm), appeared to have at least a piper or 2 less than Shotts (PM from the FM school no less) at Forres but it has not hurt their successes this season – albeit they aren`t beating Field Marshal. Yet. Sound will remain the ultimate arbiter but these Bands add a huge wealth of learning and new traditions to be passed down through the pipe band world, of which we are all the beneficiaries. Many “inactive” Band players act as the finest of teachers in geographically scattered locales to inspire and deftly instruct the next generation of stellar competitors. So I believe we need to be careful about what we wish for. If someone had placed caps back in 1986 when a solid corps of NI`s 8 Graham Memorial`s pipers put out a robust sound (a top 6 finish in Medleys which got them on the BBC recording, I believe), and Strathclyde and the 78th Frasers could win with 11 – 12 pipers what would today’s outcome have been? Me – I just want to hear the best. Call me hedonic, but artificially imposed rulings from above can sometimes only hamper and deflect energies from a natural progression that will be self limiting and regulating in any case. Enjoy your pipe bands.

  16. in my opinion what would really be great -and pay dividends for the art would be for the many fickle folks who sit on the sidelines year after year to put
    down the keyboards, pick up an instrument and make their way
    down to the local band. no matter what grade or time commitment
    they care to offer.

    the more people who are out there- the more there will be to go around.

  17. Not in favor of capping rosters. Just cap the competition circle.
    You want to carry 30 pipers in your grade 1 band great but you can only field 24. Like in baseball only 9 guys take the field.

  18. I’ve witnessed this decline on a couple of levels this year. I had plans months in the making to join a Scottish Grade 2 band this summer after completing my job in Portugal, and had been happily learning and practising the tunes ready for the season. Unfortunately, a few weeks ago the Pipe Major informed me that there was no longer a band for me to go out with, as they felt they didn’t have enough players or money to realistically go up against the likes of Lomond & Clyde and the Glasgow Skye Association, who are fielding something in the region of 20 pipers this season.

    The All-Irelands this past weekend were further proof that the lower end of Grade 2 is struggling. In contrast to a superb 3a competition, full of healthy-looking and great-sounding bands, almost all of the Grade 2 bands were fielding ten or even nine pipers, with the notable exception of PSNI, who are clearly riding the promotion wave with great success. Most of these bands are still very good (Cullen played exceptionally well with fantastic pipe tone and were unlucky to finish as low as fourth), but Grade 2 bands should certainly not be smaller on average than their counterparts down a grade.

    I agree that many of the top end Grade 1 bands are much larger than necessary (poor Seven Towers looked positively tiny with 14 pipers and six snares – surely a healthy size by any reasonable standards), but the phenomenon is also spreading to Grade 2, with “super bands” aiming for promotion drawing too many players and killing the competition.

  19. “It’s not a competition to see who can be loudest or visually most impressive.”
    I hope I am not the only reader who thinks this sentence sums up the key discussion point for the future of pipe bands, regardless of grade.
    Symphony orchestras don’t have maximum numbers for their various sections such as flute, first violin, second violin, trumpet, etc. And let’s not forget the “grade 1/premier” orchestras consist of well trained, paid, full time musicians.
    The larger orchestral “sections” such as first or second violins max out at 16 or 18. What makes anyone think 25 or 30 part time, unpaid pipers can surpass or even equal the clarity and preciseness of 16 or 18?
    For better or worse, standards in our idiom are set by judges, not associations. Judges need to weigh the relative value of “well set, clean sound” versus “rich and fulsome presence” as they ponder their placings.
    As a piping judge, I think “rich” and “fulsome” are not easily achievable musical standards for the VAST majority of competing pipe bands. In my opinion, well set, clean sound will produce better inter and intra section music. The result will be a remarkable raising of the standard of music across all grades. And the “numbers” issue will take care of itself.

  20. Has to be a restructure of grade 1, I mean how many are “of the premier grade” anyway? top 10 to 12 the premier league and restructure the rest of the grades all those new capped bands are the championship grade and then first division etc, like the footie in england

  21. Why is it that we think that the solution to dwindling grade 2 bands is due to the size of bands, in particular grade 1 bands? If a player is good enough to play in a grade 1 band based on the opinion of the pipe major (PM) and lead drummer (LD) then should that not be enough? If a player is not up to a grade 1 standard it is unlikely that he/she would get a run on the park, that is not to say that they are not part of the team and not putting in the work. No doubt these players are playing at practices and learning every week so as they can get a game. Many of these players on the so called “wings” are there because they choose to be apart of the team, they aspire to play with the band for one reason or another. I can see this as only a good thing, this shows that the managers of the band are doing something that attracts the player to join the band, be it the music, quality, friendship and/or leadership. I can not see if you restrict people from making their own decisions that they will embrace you with open arms. All the practice and sacrifices players make to get to the top would be lost as they would not be given the chance to learn from the best. I would imagine many of the players that would be forced to leave an already established band, would choose to play with another band because they were forced to do so. How do up and coming players aspire to play with the best, if the best are already full and can not take on extras? To imagine that youngsters would spend the time and effort to play the instrument knowing that they will never reach the top is delusional. I would say that many of these players would look at focusing their hard work onto other interests outside the pipeband world. All these top bands have a style and technique that needs to be learnt and i would imagine that takes time to master. Under a capping rule, how does a player get the opportunity to play with bands and/or players that inspire them to take up the instrument if they never get the opportunity.

    As for Grade 1, It’s grade 1 and I for one would prefer to allow the likes of Richard Parkes, Chris Armstrong, Terry Lee and Terry Tully to put on a show that they want to put on and not one that is dictated by a set of rules aimed at trying to share the limited talent we already have. I’m sure these gentlemen don’t go around stealing players from bands or taking on players so that other bands just can’t have them.

    Does not the problem lie with the quality of available players? I have noticed over time that more and more lower grade bands are occupying the mass band arena. If you look at the bands that competed at the British Championships from this year, over 60 bands competed in grades 3-4 and only 31 in grade 1-2. Is it not education that is the problem? Should we not be focusing more on getting bands from grade 3 to grade 2 and not taking players from higher grades to fill the voids in lower grade bands. If you restrict the players within the higher grade bands will this not have a negative knock on effect? Would we not see less high quality players in the pool. I noticed at the All Irelands on the weekend that several of the top bands like, FMM, SLOT and Power all had players competing with lower grade bands. I applaud these players for taking the time and effort to promote playing. I would like to see the RSPBA take a more active role in this area then trying to solve the shortage of grade 2 bands. I see capping as just another step towards destroying the hard work that many have already done, this includes, PM, LD, and the players themselves, for what i see as only a short term fix. We should be focusing our efforts on promoting quality players, then focusing on trying to restrict players and bands from doing what they want? After all it’s a hobby.

  22. At least in North America, a Grade 1 or Grade 2 band travelling to Glasgow to compete at the World’s is often a drawing-card for members. Even if they don’t have a hope in Hades of making the prize-list (and, if we are being honest, about 12 of them don’t), if a band does not commit to that trip every year they will lose members. Once again, over a barrel. The RSPBA and Events Glasgow really do have a great thing going and full credit to them for capitalizing on it.

  23. I think that particularly in the lower grades (where ALL of the bands will have significant issues) it’s particularly difficult for a judge to compare a band that has, say, 7 pipers to a band that’s playing 14. Both are well above minimum numbers, but the difference in sound is enormous. Other competitive musical idioms (for example, DCI drum corps) have upper limits as well as minimum numbers.

  24. I don’t really buy into the baseball analogy mentioned above as I find that type of thinking to be very limiting musically. If a band can find a way to achieve a better sound with more players than their competitors are capable of using, then it’s a positive development for all of us.

    I’d sooner say that the number of people a band has on its roster that don’t play on the day should be limited. If you want to carry 10 pipes, that’s fine. But you’ll have to field at least 8. If you want to carry 30, that’s fine too. But you’ll have to field 28 of them no matter what. This leaves a bit of room for the one or two people who may have an off day or an instrument malfunction but doesn’t allow an upper-grade band to cling to members who will not see the contest field. I think it’s the happy medium that would encourage bands in grades 2 and 3 without lowering the standard in grade 1.

  25. I am trying to imagine how impressed or unaffected a judge could be, on seeing a forty members pipe band arriving, knowing it is fifty they carry, and from overseas. If I where a judge I would be biased. Should I be more impressed by their committment and effort and shrink at the thought how they contribute to the glamour of the Event, or would I be a bit annoyed about their imperativity? Good that I am no judge.

  26. Anyone recall Terry Lee stating in an interview (here on PD) that 17 was the tipping point, over which the laws of diminishing return kicked in…….?

    Let’s face it, at the ‘pointy end’ of what we do, it’s all about ego. It’s about being the best, being a part of the best, being seen in the pub with the T-shirt on, mutual worship etc. Being the ‘biggest band on the park’ is something that some can’t resist and it is now a part of the game. I found it interesting to hear some feedback from a band mate who travels to the UK to play with an elite band. First thing he said to me about the band’s run at the British was that all 29 pipers got to the line. Ok, that’s good…? Aside from that, the band in question has come back to the field since last year. But I guess the lure of going to the line, 10 abreast, is too much for some to pass up and maybe finish higher.

    It’s not for the RSPBA to intervene, it is for a particular PM of note to go on with 20 pipers and blitz bands that are much bigger than his. Then watch them all fall into line shortly afterwards….and probably secretly breathe a sigh of relief that someone bucked the trend!

    1. Andy – the link to Terry Lee’s 10 Q’s interview was in the original post – http://www.pipesdrums.com/ViewObject.aspx?sys-Portal=57&sys-Class=Article&sys-ID=2258

      The fear of failure and change is endemic in pipe banding. Richard Parkes would need to run a communications program before FMM played with “only” 20 to mitigate the risk of people thinking his band was suddenly in dire straits. And then he’d have to pray that the judges are wise enough not to unduly hammer them with a kneejerk reaction. As with numbers ebbing up each year, they will need to ebb down. It’s like hoping chanter pitch will suddenly be back to 475. Very unlikely. The point is, this isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about fair play for all and levelling the playing field (fundamental roles of every association), common sense and the health of what we do worldwide.

      1. Interesting that you 2 bring these issues up, but they are the focus of modern Bands, as we now know them. From Richard Parkes’ several interviews, I see his abiding concern with raising the chanter pitch when Vic sort of knocked their socks off tonewise – later 90’s. It apparently made a huge impact on him, and with good reason. I played in a Band that I think was the first to consistently consistently play in the 480s in temperate North America or the UK some 30 years ago. When I later played with Peel, P/Sgt. Duncan Pringle spoke of Toronto Caledonia’s improvement in sound through the later 80’s and how PM John Elliott’s Muirhead training finally got a handle on Band tone. By raising the pitch. I increasingly believe that the rise in pitch, and possibly dispensing with some richness in harmonics as a result (huge topic), has allowed a clarity that certainly facilitates Band unison. A highly sought, somewhat peculiar and idiosyncratic obsession increasingly in the Pipe Band world – “because we can”. Perhaps we are taken with a jungle-like beating of our chests in as loud a fashion as possible, but most enjoy the variety of the show. I don’t think Stuart is playing sub 20s in the pipe corps just because he wants to. I may be wrong but the quality of those (circa 20) pipers is phenomenal, and totally noticed.

        I do now think the clarity has allowed the mushrooming of today’s Band sizes and made such growth possible. It may be reaching current physiological and physical limits but voicing and harmonies has huge potential with the larger Bands, and is being exploited richly. When Terry said 17 was a fulcrum point, that may have been true, but we are progressing here. And you will note they are playing mid 20s (pipers) consistently these days and are the quintessential modern unit with all its advantages of big Band presentation in the 3 sections. And for each of them tuning is cardinal – contributing to the clarity that maintains the cohesion and tightness impossible until recent years with such size.

        Judges are an extremely conservative force, the ‘Éminences grises’ or Patres Familias who arbitrate and temper any silly diversions in Band evolution and also keep things in check. Which is why FM won’t play Royal Scottish Piper’s Society or SFU Colin Thomson these days – they get hammered by some Judge’s more usual solo experience of the tune, and it’s not worth that risk.However, the advantage of global competition is that risk takers always arise, like Vic did, to take off in a new direction. Perhaps the Power’s Bathgate attempt failed for now, but we all benefitted from this recent experiment. I for one like to see the boundaries constantly pushed, resulting in more creative excursions and delectable music! I believe today’s overall Band scene is healthier than ever at essentially all levels. Onwards and upwards until it tumbles.

        1. Robin, well said. Terry Lee’s 17 pipers ‘tipping point’ theory was used to highlight how opinions change over time, and via necessity. We are in unsurpassed times as far as standards go across the board in Gr1. But this has nothing to do with the size of bands. The arguments that judges might prefer the bigger bands due to the more ‘orchestral sound’ that is generated is barely a musical one. In fact, I would wager bands would be better, as would the contests themselves, if numbers were capped.

          The thrust of this blog, however, is about the demise of Gr2 that results from the ‘growth spurt’ in Gr1. Add the shrinking world factor to this, with more mobilised ‘global’ pipers and drummers than ever before, willing and able to travel back and forth, and Gr2 consequently struggles to get into first gear at the majors and also around the globe at the height of each season. The swell of players into Gr1 doesn’t come from Gr4, where the majority rests. I don’t think capping numbers is draconian or unfair. It might actually improve standards across the board with better distributions of quality players across probably 2 grades. Maybe even more Gr1 bands might need to be formed. The reality is that people nearly fainted when Polkemmet dared to play 16-18 some 30 years ago. That is now seen as ‘small’ and you’re simply not in the game. Vale played 18 at Falkirk back in ’93 and people were blown away. Now 25-30 appears de rigueur. Anything less and you are somehow considered to not be worthy of winning??? What absolute rubbish. What’s to say it stops at 30, based on the trajectory we’re on? Is 40 beyond the realms, and how will the worlds be justified when only 6 bands can compete with ‘viable numbers’?

          We need to stop and think about this, as we might actually be on a runaway train that will decimate the traditional training grounds. Something should be done, as we are perhaps all failing to see what lies ahead as we continue to associate ‘big’ with better/progress. A handful of contests in Scotland each year might slowly prove to be terminal for bands and perhaps associations around the globe. I know of many pipers who, after being taught and practising hard, simply sit the whole year out in their home scene and indulge only themselves each year in Scotland. Perhaps some would argue this is a rite of passage. I’d argue this is a departure from the model that got them to where they are. In many cases, people like this are not ‘giving back’ to their local scene, as has been not only the tradition but the absolute fundamental to our longevity and success for decades. It’s far easier to say ‘this is nothing like Scotland’. Well, duh!! They have decided it is all about them and they’ll just work through the ‘bucket list’ of bands. Meanwhile, their local bands fundraise for a uniform for these people. A uniform that will sit in the cupboard for the majority of the year. In some sense, good luck to them for being that dedicated. In another, just ask if it will ultimately prove a loss and a gap…?

          Case in point. Shotts at Forres turned out one of the best sounds on the day. I will argue they pipped everyone bar FMM. They’re drumming can never be considered ‘off pace’ and the playing (bar some minor slips and looseness in the Air) was excellent. The sound held throughout and the ensemble was bang-on. What’s not to like?? Do a head count and it all points towards that. So, why bother turning up at all if it’s a foregone conclusion? The politics is bad enough without further handicaps that are out of your control. Why should one band start ahead of another, based on numbers alone? This seems to be a factor, which is utterly ridiculous and has nothing to do with the music. If this keeps up, and the same handful of bands attract all the players, how long is it before other bands start padding bands with ‘dummies’ in a bid to stay in contention because they can’t do it on music alone….? Think, people. Think. Might be time for a cull, before extinction becomes a threat.

  27. Nail, meet head. Well said, Andrew and others.

    Middle-aged, no longer in the full-time piping life … but having a blast in Grade 3 these days and enjoying my resurrected IT career.

    I’d love to see more commitment to “home” bands, and less of the mad scramble to sign on for a Worlds trip with whatever band is heading over. If you’re loaded up with supplemental players from far and wide that are only there for the trip, is it really that satisfying?

  28. I agree that some sort of cap needs to be placed on corps size. I doubt it will happen anytime soon. The numbers game has created a vaccuum in many smaller piping scenes. One band does well in competition and goes to Scotland a fair amount so they end up recruiting most of the local talent which puts other bands at a great disadvantage. I understand it’s human nature to want to play on the winning team. Limiting the amout of players across the board will limit the amount of damage these vaccuums create in smaller pipe band scenes by taking some of the pressure off bands to emulate grade one. This might give other bands a chance to recruit some much needed players. Many bands in my area struggle to maintain the minimum numbers which allows them to compete. Losing a snare drummer can ruin a band for a season or more if you aren’t able to replace them.

  29. Great discussion guys. For me the big question is WHY? Why do pipe majors and leading drummers of most of the top bands in Grade 1 feel the need to field bands of huge proportions [edited].

    The answer I feel is two fold. Firstly the fear factor. Fear that if you put a band out of say 18 or 20 pipers and your closest rivals sport 30 or so somehow, no matter how good your band sounds, the perception will be that the bigger band must be stronger or at least on a par. As someone earlier commented, looks do count for a lot especially in the minds of some of our less able judges!!
    With the standard of bands at the top of Grade 1 reaching the level it is now and the difficulty in separating them, as in the worlds final last year, any slight perception of weakness whether it be smaller numbers, less grandiose PR on the Internet etc etc will always result in Pipe Majors jumping aboard the runway train as it were, for fear of being left behind. Lets be honest, favourable results are everything at that level and when a good result is coupled with a good performance,well that’s a bonus.
    I don’t blame Pipe Majors for this numbers nonsense, nothing in the rules, at the moment, say you can’t, so they will.

    Secondly, top bands can attract additional personnel because of their undoubted pulling power. It would be a very brave or silly man playing in say a Grade 2 or lower Grade1 band struggling to keep up in the numbers game, to pass up an invite from messers Parks, Lee etc etc to join their ever expanding divisions. So slowly life is sucked out of perfectly good and established bands unable or unwilling to get aboard the train. Ballycoan springs to mind. A very good band in its own right however suffered years of talent loss to its more illustrious and ever expanding neighbours FMM. Not blaming FMM in the slightest for the demise of Ballycoan because the rules, or lack of them forced FMM into the numbers game to compete with the likes of SFU. Maybe, just maybe, had there been some limit to the size of these bludgeoning giants Ballycoan and similar bands would be with us today.

    So where are we going with all this and given there must be a limit to the pool of talent worldwide. In a few years time maybe 12 Grade 1 super-bands at the worlds with 40 or so pipers!! Even less Grade 2 bands.

    I agree with Alan Hamilton on the financial aspect of this. There must come a point when it becomes financially impossible especially for overseas bands to have funding in place for 50 to 60 members to come to the worlds.

    For me a cap of 23 pipers signed with a band with a max of 20 actually competing and say 10 snare drummers. Share the talent for the long term good of the Pipe Band scene. Cheers.

  30. Some bands have become brands. These superbands have one probelm: They grew with success and great committment, and now as an organization they have a responisbility towards their alumni and their feeder bands. There is hardly a way back to “normal”. There are two chances in my view: Either they go on stretching the limits, or they become heroes and try to outdo the competitors by relying on quality, not quantity, and renounce to the ever increasing power game. This would mean a rope dance between self aggrandisment on one side, and self reliance on the other, accepting that it might go very wrong, what could result in a catastrophy for the carreer of more than just the capitaining band. Setting an example of renounciation is not in the concept of an army, and without a bit of the army concept animating the bands even they would not subsist! Again, armies follow rules by someone who is in charge. As long as there is no number limit set from the RSPBA, they are right to do what they think best. And it is fascinating for dead crazy fans like me, to see what comes next in terms of competition. It adds a lot to the thrill of the World’s. With one of the few unregulated things in our days, to see really deserving bands enjoy their luck and financial freedom is a relieve!

  31. The power to change this growth, is in all the judges hands. Their pens. Stop giving prizes to the biggest circle, and start giving the prize to the band that deserves the prize… the best band. As soon as a smaller band starts getting the prize, all the other larger bands will trim down to the best of their best to win back the prize. Problem solved.

  32. I think the answer of why Grade 2 is becoming an endangered species can be found in most of the replies to Andrew’s blog — notice how many replies are about Grade 1? Therein lies one of the issues. Nobody knows about Grade 2 bands (unless you play in one and compete against others). How many times do we read results on this website (and some others) which only include Grade 1 bands and professional solos? Notice the Police Band trivia question on the PD homepage? Notice any mention of anything other than Grade 1 Police Bands? There are dozens and dozens of Police Bands throughout the world, even some who don’t compete.
    Not saying that the size of Grade 1 bands hasn’t impacted the survivabliltiy of Grade 2, but sometimes a little “press” wouldn’t have gone amiss.

  33. Angus — It’s the fault of the piping and drumming media? That’s like saying the lack of coverage of minor league baseball teams in major newspapares is hurting major league teams. Besides, you’re not looking hard enough for Grade 2 results on pipes|drums. We include them when readers are interested enough to send them and we always get them for the more significant contests. The reality is, like big league baseball teams, the vast majority of pipers and drummers are most interested in what happens in the top grades. Just a few years ago we diligently shot and shared video of the entire Grade 2 Final at the World Pipe Band Championships, skipping Grade 1 entirely. http://www.pipesdrums.com/ViewObject.aspx?sys-Portal=57&sys-Class=Article&sys-ID=18311 Enjoy. Off topic.

  34. (I missed a lithle of the post since my phone blocked it out with the video, but nevertheless)
    As a piper-turned-bass-drummer who has played in almost every grade, I agree that the huge number of players in some of these bands is taking away from others which could, with the number of players, be brilliant bands.
    A huge band, regardless of sound, does look more impressive, and I have no doubt the size of some of these bands does affect the results from at least some of our judges – it is hard not to since its an ingrained attitude that most of us don’t realise we have is that the bigger the band the better and fuller the sound, which is not always true.
    One thing I’ve found is that, while the overall sound may not be as good in a huge band, it may be less easy to spot mistakes. From experience,in smaller bands, as I stood on bass in the centre, not only could you hear mistakes, it was also possible to tell WHO had made them, but the bigger the bands got, while the mistakes were still made, it got harder to hear them in the often echo-ey practice halls and harder still to know who was making them, especially when people were too proud to admit it was them. But that also makes them more difficult for judges to hear, since they’re often covered up by the din of the majority. Which I guess works in the favour of the band, so I can’t really blame them for wanting the mega-bands you see today. One thing I’ve noticed, and probably a few of you have too, is that the sound to us in the crowd sometimes seems to be a world away from what the judges are apparently hearing. Some of you mentioned Shotts already (which I personally didnt like the drumming for, but which technically was spot on – musical preference i guess) But while I do think that sometimes has a little to do with the judges, I have also noticed the huge difference in sound in being close to these bands and being just that little bit further away. Up close, it sounds impressive and full, whilst at the crowds distance (especially in the stands at the worlds) it can sound not so great. I think part of this is trying to get the thirty-odd players all bang on in tune on the line together, especially in temperamental scottish weather. Even with all the technology, that is difficult at best, impossible at worst. I have found myself feeling these last couple of years that musicality and tone is sometimes being traded for impressiveness and size, and I have to admit, I miss the clear sound of good players in a smaller band. (Mind you, I also miss the days when side drums weren’t quite so sharp, but I guess they’ve to keep up with the increasing pitch of the pipers) I always found a clear, together sound to be much nicer than the often slightly-off duller sound that comes from too many players heard slightly further away. I feel that both band numbers in the other Grade 1 and grade 2 bands, and the tonal quality of those bands with the numbers are suffering greatly. It’s just my opinion, of course.
    Im not sure judges are entirely blameless either. I have not played for a couple of years now, which has more than anything, given me a chance to listen to all the grade 1 bands more than a few times. I always find it odd seeing the judging scores, and seeing weird results, most often between the two piping judges at the first major of the season. Just look at SLOT and Glasgow Police at the Europeans – both 3rd and 7th, or one of my favourites: Howard memorial (grade 2) in 2010, 3rd and 17th for piping. The first one I really noticed was Drambuie Kirkliston getting 6th and 1st at the Europeans in their penultimate year, and I found similar results most years.
    I think the band competitions might benefit from a similar approach to the bagad competitions in Brittany, maybe not with as many judges but having enough that you can discard a top and bottom out-of-the-norm results and use an average of the rest to give a more accurate result. At these competitions judges give a crit and mark, which they hand in after each band and cannot change. They also don’t speak to each other until the scores are in.
    I’m getting off topic here. I don’t have anything against judges – I would just like to see less discrepancy over results.

    Back to the numbers cap, I think it is also very difficult for many bands to support themselves since it costs a huge amount of money to support this number of people playing. But its also to do with the lack of circulating money going into bands. Not to mention all the bands which have essentially evaporated when their sponsorship did. After all, that’s what happened with Drambuie, to name but one. I watch with interest now that the Vale’s sponsorship deal has ended. I’m hoping they can get another sponsorship, since nowadays its extremely difficult to keep up a band to Grade 1 standard without some form of sponsor, and sponsors have proved to be hard to come by in recent years since the recession. In that sense, its not just the numbers that is destroying bands – its lack of money going into bands. That said, people are unlikely to want to sponsor a band when half their players leave to go power-hunting (something I have seen in many cases most often with younger people looking for quick prizes rather than putting the work in to bring a band with good potential up the ranks). So many band are literally losing players mid-season to bigger bands, even when their own band was just starting to work their way up. People seem to be more interested in getting quick prizes than working their way to the top. Many people even skip whole grades, and I have noticed a real lack of certain knowledge, drill and band skills in these people. Sure, you can learn these in Grade 1, but there is no time. To illustrate my point, when I was watching at the Europeans, only around 3 of the grade 1 bands could do a Wheel-turn properly, without half-crab-walking sideways out of line. The case was only mildly better in the Grade 2 bands at the British last year. Some of the Grade 3B bands actually had better drill than some of the grade 1s, which is awful. This is basic knowledge that I learned all those years ago in Novice Juvenile and further in Grade 3, that gets missed when people only care about technicality, and the culmination of years of that has resulted in absolutely awful drill in many of the grade 1 and 2 bands. A band that looks good sends a good first impression to the judges, just like a good start off the line, in the lower grades, that can make enough difference for someone to notice them and really listen, which makes them more likely to earn a prize. In Grade 1, still and deportment is sometimes simply not there, because they don’t have the time to teach all their thirty-odd players how to dress and march properly. You’re expected to know before you get there, but nowadays that knowledge on dress, deportment and drill is hugely lacking. It’s not just that either there’s plenty of other things that I don’t even realise others don’t know until we come across an issue at practice or even on the competition field.
    Not only are numbers, power-hunting and money availability killing bands, but I feel it also reduces tonal quality and the vital knowledge that isn’t being passed on to the next generation. That applies to both Grade 1 and 2, I think.

  35. The article is only common sense. Cap the maximum number on the field, with a few more on the roster. For example, 16 and 20; or 20 and 24. All sorts of good reasons which I don’t need to recap here.



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