March 07, 2015

Shake up or shut up

The grand old Crieff Highland Games deciding, at least this year, to drop solo piping competitions from its day in August is certainly a shame for piping tradition, but it’s  emblematic of the challenges facing event organizers — and us.

I wrote about this very threat nine years ago. We pipers and drummers like our competitions. And the large majority of us like our competitions to be just so: piobaireachd, MSR, five-seven-minute medleys, and so forth. We like our assembly-line of contestants. We dislike any more muss or fuss than the predictable: judges and stewards, no fanfare, nothing but closed backs-to-the-audience circles, no inquisitive outsiders who are not part of the club daring to ask just what the heck we’re doing.

Despite occasional attempts by associations to be more audience-accommodating, such suggestions, motions or trials, with rare exceptions, have been historically shut down. Just keep doing what we’ve always done, and screw the rest.

It’s the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

We rely on events like Crieff to supply us with a place to compete. And when places like Crieff make the tough decision to drop events that are, to non-pipers and drummers, rigid, mysterious, repetitious and, let’s be honest, boring, we act surprised, as if we are somehow owed something.

Well, we are entertainers of sorts who are willing to perform for free, but, in truth, we are owed nothing.

Highland games and Scottish festivals are businesses. They might be for-profit and nonprofit, but they are businesses at least looking to break even. To do that, like every business, they must offer a product that people like. If solo piping and pipe band competitions are not attractive products, why on earth would a business offer them? Because they owe us something? Give your head a shake.

It’s simple. We can increasingly continue to hold our own events that are supported by the competitors themselves via membership dues and entry fees, or we can help Highland games to offer a better product. For the former, we can play “Blair Drummond” ad infinitum, and all will be good. For the latter, we have to be flexible and creative; we need to be prepared to entertain non-pipers and drummers better and work creatively with Highland games to break down that wall of mystery between our wee club of pipers and drummers and the general public. They might be interested and like the music, just not hours and hours of what, to them, becomes the Same. Damned. Thing.

I’m all for both kinds of events. We can continue to hold our anachronistic competitions for ourselves. But for our “public” events, we have to help ourselves by creating a better product.

And if we’re unwilling to create a more sellable product for the games, we have only ourselves to blame when they drop piping, drumming and pipe band competitions.

If we don’t help ourselves by trying to help them, they owe us nothing.



  1. Great points Andrew. It would take a monumental upheaval to change things. I believe the only way it would stick is if the RSPBA made the first move. Too many bands enjoy that trip to Worlds and all Associations kow·tow to what they are doing. We as is competitors have little ability to make this happen. It’s the Associations who have the final say.

    1. Aren’t the associations the players? They should be. If they’re not, then that’s a serious problem. Pipers and drummers should always be in a position to determine their future. There’s no doubt that the World’s is a bright and shiny object that has the enamour of most of us. Associations might try to do what is right for piping, drumming and pipe bands. But, since they are member-driven, when the members decide they want it just so, then that’s that. The main point of the blog is that we pipers and drummers can’t have it both ways. When contests collapse because they’re uninteresting to the general public, we have no right to the usual hue and cry unless we work with games to provide a better product that also meets our own needs. If that’s not possible, then we have to create and be happy with our own self-sustaining events. These self-run competitions generally do pretty well.

  2. Barnaby Brown and I have been discussing this lately. With respect to pibroch in particular, we believe there may be much to be gained if we replaced the “single tune” rule with a “set-time” rule: each contestant has X minutes (let’s say 20 minutes). They may fill it with anything they like: warm-up and tuning, a very long pibroch, several short pibroch, or a combination of short and long with brief tuning period in between. Whatever they choose.

    We believe this would introduce a variety of long-neglect pibrochs into competition, as well as allow performers the opportunity to explore the different genre styles of pibroch.

    Will this bring in more of the public? Maybe not. Would this re-invigorate pibroch? Absolutely. The result? A future where pibroch may break out of its “lament” hegemony and begin to explore not only other genres, but thereby open up further opportunities to integrate pibroch in to the greater musical world.

    And THAT would bring in more people, don’t you think?



Forgotten Password?