September 01, 2008


Make up your mind!I believe that the RSPBA and the PPBSO are the only two associations that require bands to do the pipes down / pipes up drill at the starting line. The Scottish association has done it forever, while the Ontario one introduced it in the 1990s, dropped it for a few years, then brought it back again maybe seven years ago. The maneuvre is a hold-over from the military roots of pipe bands, and the commands from the pipe-major – who rarely has any military background – are supposed to go something like this:

– Band: atten . . . shun!
– Band: pipes ready! [pipers gather up chanter and blowstick; drummers put their sticks under their armpit]
– Band: pipes down! [pipers put instrument in the crook of their left elbow; drummers turn drums to the side; both keep their right hands on their instrument]
– Hup! [right arms down to the side]
– Band: at ease! Stand easy! [why this is said twice I don’t know, but players move their left foot out and are supposed to stand in a more relaxed way, with their right arms behind their back]

The pipe-major then talks with the steward and/or ensemble judge for maybe 15 seconds, then turns to the band and says:

– Band: atten . . . shun! [players move their left foot back in, their right arm to their side, and stick their chest out]
– Band: ready! [players put their instruments to the front]
– Hup! [pipes moved to shoulder, drums to the front, right arm remaining on the instrument]
– Hup! [players put their right arm to their side]
– Band: get ready! [pipers carefully bring their chanter down; drummers’ sticks in playing position]

Essentially, when all of this finally concludes the band is back to what it looked like when they arrived to the line, provided a poorly maintained tenor drone-top hasn’t slipped off its tuning pin, or a chanter reed hasn’t fallen in, or a stock hasn’t come loose from the bag.

(There’s a famous story of a pipe-major of a Grade 1 Ontario band who, at the band’s first competition in Scotland, was unaware of the RSPBA’s pipes down/up rule, arrived at the line with his band ready to play, only to have the steward kindly remind him, “Pipes down, pipe-major.” A bit rattled, he followed the steward’s direction and had his pipers put their instruments down, only to be told by the steward, “Pipes up, pipe-major.” Thoroughly confused, the pipe-major said, “Would you make up your %&^&ing mind?!”)

I actually clocked that pipes down/up drill a few times this summer, and it takes anywhere from 40 to 190 seconds. During that time, the judges are pretty much standing their doing nothing, the crowd is daydreaming, and, most significant of all, the instruments are going flat.

In a 20-band competition, with each pipes up / ready / down / hup / pipes up, etc. routine lasting an average of, say, one-minute, all of that adds 20 minutes to the event.

I’m not sure what the reason for the drill is, but I gather it’s to make bands look regimented and smart. But I have never known a crowd to be wowed by it, a band judge to let it sway their opinion, or a band to be anything but miffed that they have to jostle around instruments that they just spent an hour fine-tuning.

In this age when march-pasts and massed bands push larger competitions into the night and associations scramble to compile results in time, it makes little sense to add the extra time to competitions for virtually no return.

Time to scrap this antiquated tradition.


  1. Absolutely. Tradition is great, but you can take it too far. If it MUST be left in, leave it with the MSR. Time to drop it for the Medley, and open the Medley up to band formations that are better suited to the music and to presenting the music to an audience.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Pith helmets would keep the sun off the players’ heads and simply represent a different era of military history.
    Modern competitive pipe bands are far more akin to concert orchestras than to military Pipes & Drums. They serve two completely different purposes and perform for two completely different audiences. I also wonder about the business of forcing people to wear military headdress when they as a rule wear nothing on their heads at all. As a civilian piper I only wear my old military glengarry when performing at military funerals or regimental gatherings, along with my small rack of medals and regimental drone ribbons…for the rest of the jobs I do I wear a kilt ensemble and no hat at all, just as I don’t wear a hat during the rest of my day.

    PM Hugh Macpherson

  3. I couldn’t agree more. Pith helmets would keep the sun off the players’ heads and simply represent a different era of military history.
    Modern competitive pipe bands are far more akin to concert orchestras than to military Pipes & Drums. They serve two completely different purposes and perform for two completely different audiences. I also wonder about the business of forcing people to wear military headdress when they as a rule wear nothing on their heads at all. As a civilian piper I only wear my old military glengarry when performing at military funerals or regimental gatherings, along with my small rack of medals and regimental drone ribbons…for the rest of the jobs I do I wear a kilt ensemble and no hat at all, just as I don’t wear a hat during the rest of my day.

    PM Hugh Macpherson

  4. I couldn’t agree more. Pith helmets would keep the sun off the players’ heads and simply represent a different era of military history.
    Modern competitive pipe bands are far more akin to concert orchestras than to military Pipes & Drums. They serve two completely different purposes and perform for two completely different audiences. I also wonder about the business of forcing people to wear military headdress when they as a rule wear nothing on their heads at all. As a civilian piper I only wear my old military glengarry when performing at military funerals or regimental gatherings, along with my small rack of medals and regimental drone ribbons…for the rest of the jobs I do I wear a kilt ensemble and no hat at all, just as I don’t wear a hat during the rest of my day.

    PM Hugh Macpherson

  5. Oh come on. I suppose next you’ll be suggesting that pipe chanter manufacturers shouldn’t be judging, or that siblings shouldn’t judge each other, or that bands should be paid royalties, or at least have a say on how their performances are marketed.

  6. It is amazing that such obviously good ideas do not get adopted. I remember back in 1984 the worlds was almost cancelled because a band from South Africa was going to compete and this was against the park’s rules (due to Apartheid), but the RSPA could not force them to withdraw (it was a long time ago, some the details may be a bit off). It is hard to imagine that so much has changed in South Africa, but the same foolish competition piping rules go on. I wish someone would start an online petition to get rid of the drill part of the contest.

  7. Dumbest thing we do. Save it for the military. PM MacPherson brings up a good point about the head dress as well. Do I need to wear a glen to play in massed bands when it’s 100 and humid or to play in a solo contest? Hmmm – surely there must be other silly things we do… 🙂

  8. Yes, agreed, get rid of it. Serves no purpose whatsoever.

    The hat thing also is ridiculous. A hat protects the head against the elements – because of some ancient pseudo – military tradition we have crowds of pipers who woudn’t dare step on a competition platform indoors without being bonneted. As if it’s going to rain on the stage of the Eden Court Theatre!

    And jackets – at least Oban has had the forsight to recognise these days that it should not be mandatory for pipers to wear a garment which significantly impedes some from performing properly or to their ability. Time for ALL this military stuff to be expunged!!!!

  9. The funny thing is that the Pipes down/Pipes up routine doesn’t even count for Marching and Deportment. Since band ajudication doesn’t start until the band marches off the line. So why bother.

    Come to think of it, M&D should also just be dropped as a similar anachronism to those mentioned above. I would suggest the RSPBA drop M&D and reinstate the Best Bass Section awards. At least the BBS award is musical.

    I don’t have as much of a problem with Glengarrys and Balmorals. It’s part of the kit, just like the sporran. Also, it’s not like head cover is out of favor, it’s just the type of head cover that has become a bit problematic. Just look at all the ball caps, including the ones the RSPBA markets at the games! The problem with glens and balmorals, as I see it, is that they are useless to keep the rain off and equally useless to keep the sun off.


  10. But Colin, it has always been my dream to win the ‘dress and deportment (civilian)’ award at Inverness! I’ve been shinning my brogues for years, in preparation for the opportunity to earn the aforementioned honour!

  11. Another problem with the “pipes up – pipes down” routine is that it looks like crap !
    99% of the bands don’t even do the movements with a stitch of unison. (PIPES DOWN, one-two-three, one-two-three, one )
    The problem being, most are more worried about the potential disaster caused from slinging pipes up and down than about making sure the arm snaps to the side at the position of ‘shun ! (and rightly so )

    Leave this stuff for military bands on parade, and lets get on with our show. Which is all about the music.

  12. I love wearing the kilt and accesories when piping, but here in the southern US it gets HOT and humid in the summer. We do this series of solo contests all over the region and often play outdoors in places like Baton Rouge, Dallas, and here Batesville in over 90 degree weather and high humidity where wearing ANY kind of wool makes no sense, and could in fact be a health risk. Last year at the EUSPBA AGM we put forward a suggestion for a rule change that when there is no massed bands involved, or when it’s a less formal situation, that the Highland attire be at the discretion of the competitor and let them wear shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops if they want to. Didn’t fly at all. Hehe. Wait until they hear what we have on the burner for this year.

  13. Colin, yeah I’ve got a beautiful fedora that I wear every chance I get! LOL!

    Ken’s comments are well taken. I was at a local games in Tucson, AZ several years ago when one of the guys that does reenacting of the 19th century Gordon Highlanders, colapsed and died on the field. At least, we’ve made some progress with the switch to more civilian garb that is a lot more amenable to modification for different climactic conditions. Even waiscoats with short sleeved shirts!! Much to Andrew’s perpetual mortification!

    Actually, I think the best reason of all to ditch the bonnets is that it’s the most comonly forgotten item. I don’t know about anyone elses’ band, but we’ve always got someone freaking out about a misplaced glen.


  14. Doc — I’ll have you know that I proudly donned a short-sleeved shirt and waistcoat at the World’s, but the jacket stayed on so it didn’t matter The Style Guy I understand was relieved that there was no waist-belt, thanks to the supreme coordination of good-fitting kilts by the amazing Lesley Shaw (not to mention that it was one less accoutrement to rent). I don’t mind wearing a hat outdoors, but being required to wear one inside I think is even against military protocol, so why some events require it is beyond me. The more we can let go of these ersatz military hold-overs, the sooner we can concentrate more on music.

  15. In the military, (Canadian) those performing official duties are required to wear headdress.
    Be it a piper marching in the head table, or the duty officer “removing” me from the mess.
    Also, if you ever see the Sgt Major walk into the mess with his headdress on, hide. As he is probably looking for volunteers !

    But, as this topic goes… Leave the military stuff to the military.

  16. Kent, are you sure the poor soul with the Gordon Highlanders wasn’t hit by lightning? I understand there’s been a bit of that silliness going around as well….:)

  17. 1. Glengarrys/balmorals are not hats I can’t believe that wasn’t addressed.
    2. Be proud of your Celtic heritage, personally I wish I could wear mine all the time. If this grumbling continues next thing you know we’ll be wearing Utili-kilts/mini-kilts and T-shirts by the end of the year and be completely transitioned and wearing “Full American Dress” by the next.

  18. The RSPBA is doing a great job and I wish everyone would stop bashing them.

    Are they approachable? Obviously! How else would a member of a grade one band be threatened with the disqualification of his entire band for approaching the RSPBA with petty intellectual property concerns?

    Are they flexible? You bet! Instead of going to a multiple day event, the RSPBA has 220+ bands play on one day, rain or shine. You can’t get much more flexible than that!

    Are they modern? Absolutely! The results are sometimes posted online faster than they are read in the march past.

  19. I don’t normally wear a purse or fannypack when I run to the corner shop, so we shouldn’t wear sporrans either.
    Usually my socks don’t go much past the top of my ankle, so hose are also a bad idea.
    I think next competition I’ll leave my sgian dubh at home, because a swiss army knife is much more useful, what with the little tweezers and the can opener.
    Generally speaking, when I go out, I usually cover my bottom half with something that has legs, I was never one for a dress or skirt, so I think this year I’ll just pipe in plaid pajama pants. They’re close enough.

    Now do you see how mad the case against a headdress is?
    It’s part of the uniform. The uniform is what we wear. Therefore, a headdress is what we wear.
    Personal preference is absolutely irrelevant.
    When I see a piper playing for an audience without a glengarry/balmoral/whatever, I’m compelled to believe that he or she does not take piping seriously enough to look the part.
    A tuxedo is not the most comfortable outfit, but when the invite says “Black Tie” you wear one. If you show up without it on, you look like an utter moron and might not be allowed in. Need I elaborate?

  20. On the point of “Marching (with pipes) UP and DOWN the parade SQUARE!” (say it in your head with a heavy Yorkshire accent, similar to the ubiquidous Seant Major), I would agree that it is time to get rid of the non functional military aspects of the game.
    Playing up to the line looks, and sounds, much better and has the advantage of enhansing the sound of the band, which ultimately adds to the overall musical experience.
    On the point of polyforms (they are only UNIiforms if everyone within the band wears the same thing. EG they don’t have their own special diced hat or bag cover, but I digress..), people should be allowed to wear garb that is appropriate for the local climatic conditions. For example, only “Mad Dogs and Englishmen, er I mean English Persons, or whatever, would wear full dress in the Australian outback or a kilt and short sleeved shirt at Arbroath when the seas are a’blowin o’er the field at a balmy 9 degrees celcius during August. Dress appropriately for your health.
    On the subject of Glengarries and Balmorals, the only thing wrong with them (as of late) is their UV rating. For those of us competing in areas other than the British & Irish Isles, this could be a problem. Pith helmets or Australian outback style fedoras might actually be a good idea due to their added UV protection for the neck, face and ears. Better yet, Imperial Japanese Army style headgear with the towel draping over the ears and neck may be a welcomed addition, at least in terms of skin cancer prevention.
    Ummm quite…..
    Jolly good then!
    Do carry on…….

  21. Leave the “pipes up and pipes down” in.
    I also think that you should have a drum major doing tricks in the middle of the circle. (bass, can stand back with the sides)

    because, its not about the music. Its about the show. And, enough with the lead piper dude tapping his foot. So, unprofessional !

  22. I would agree with ditching the pipes up/pipes down drill. But let’s remember that most of the people in the audience have come to see a traditional scottish event and all the panoply surrounding this. Hats may be uncomfortable, pointless, etc. to us but I believe we should keep wearing these out of respect towards the paying public who are expecting this. I would think it’s the equivalent of a symphony orchestra wearing white tie and tails. Let’s not lose our heads, er, hats over the issue.

  23. In South Africa we are also required to do the “pipes down & up” story on the line. I was told (and this is not official) that the reason for the rule had nothing to do with military but to stop the bands from playing up to the line and doing a “rolling start”, thereby keeping tone.

  24. If you’ve tuned for an hour or more, and your pipe corps can lose significant tone, or your stock can come out, or your reed can fall in, or your drone can slip, in a window of little more than one minute, then the pipes up/pipes down rule is not the greatest of your band’s concerns. Either there are some maintenance issues that need to be addressed, or more simply, the gods are against you and it’s just not your day to win. I mean, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that a well tuned and maintained bagpipe can handle being put in the pipes down position every now and then.
    Sure the rule isn’t the most convenient thing that’s ever happened to piping, but neither are shoes with 3 feet of laces.

  25. The instrument was ideal for war times and strongly associated with the Military. I think Pipe bands and Pipers should hang on to this heritage. It would be awesome if the Pipe Bands played at the Worlds with Full Dress (Edinburgh City Police). That would sell DVD’s for sure. Look at Gordon Walker, I can’t think of any time he played in public that he wasn’t winning Best Dress and Deportment.

    You have to look good to play good. I think Ian K told me that a long time ago.

  26. All of this is great stuff. Love the comedy, which we really beg for by doing all these things. My major argument for dropping the pipes-down-up drill is to save time. It’s a non-musical requirement. At a time when the RSPBA is clearly looking for ways to finish larger contests sooner, it makes sense to me to start with something like this, rather than musical matters, like, dare I say it, Best Bass Section awards.

  27. I think that the Worlds now more than ever is about making money, DVD’s, CD’s. If you want to make money on this you have to please the crowd. I don’t think people will buy DVD’s if it is just blow up and play. they need to have somthing to watch. Pipes Up/Pipes Down is just as important to the majority of the spectators, they are not all Pipers, its almost like everytime you go out to perform somebody asks you to play Scotland the Brave, you would get more reaction out of playing that than playing Fiddlers Rally perfectly and followed by thunderstuck.

    If the contests are too lengthy why not get rid of the Qualifier. I am sure there are other ways to ensure a top of the line Grade One Final during the year rather than trying to determine this in one day.

    Just a thought.

  28. The Worlds DVD skips the pipes up/down component of the competition. Just starts off with the PM calling the attack before each band, so it definitely isn’t included for the “common” man’s enjoyment.

    On the topic of the hat, if you read any “etiquette” guide it will tell you to remove your headwear when entering any establishment, so wouldn’t wearing it really just be plain bad etiquette?

  29. I agree 100%. Pipes up/down adds nothing but time and the potential for problems, and does not add to the visual “spectacle” since none of the bands do it any kind of regimented drill team manner – nor should they.

    Common sense says not to wear thick wool on your head in 90+ degree heat – so why do we still do it? I agree that headgear is a must for a band for uniformity’s sake but does it always need to be wool? We need one of the top bands to be on the cutting edge with some hot weather headgear, then we’ll all be allowed to jump on the bandwagon!

  30. Are we trying to pretend that we’re high precision military guys! LOL

    So you want to entertain the masses, here’s how you do it!

    Commands from the PM:

    – Pipe band……Attention
    – Prepare for Attack!
    – Pipes ready……..Pipes Up.
    – Fix Bayonettes
    – By the right….. Quick………. ATTACK!!!!!!!!!

    After the bloody slaughter, the clan chief would stand up and give the thumbs up or down to finish off the remaining survivors.

    Now that would be entertainment for the Mobs, but I have a suspician that most people just go to a pipe band competition to hear the music.

    Think some of you are confusing a piping contest with a Military Tattoo?

    Dump the monkey routine, it’s not needed!

  31. I don’t beleive change is always for the better, but I get what your saying about the Military Tattoo. I just don’t see the big deal with the Pipes Up/ Pipes Down, SFU sounded alright to me and they did it, Field Marshall did it, no complaints there.

    Perhaps we should focus on more important aspects of the worlds rather than petty things like pipes up/ pipes down or what head gear to wear.

    How about changing the location??

  32. Again, my central point was supposed to be the collective time the civilian-soldier drill takes. By my calculation, getting rid of it at the World’s would have shaved at least an hour off of the day, which would have meant more very valuable time for post-event refreshments. If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will.

  33. Alright, so in the interest of saving time, the pipes up/pipes down rule ought to be waived when it comes to an event like the World’s, where time is of the essence and where so many bands compete that the time taken putting pipes down and up amounts to something significant. But I think that for any other, smaller competition it’s simply not worth the effort to change it.
    Further, the rule being reminiscent of Military Tattoos isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As has been previously pointed out, piping has been heavily influenced by and linked with the Military, so I see nothing wrong with remaining in touch with these roots.
    In fact, perhaps bands ought to spend just a half-hour every now and then at practice working on their pipes up/pipes down unison. Sure it may seem silly and there probably are more musically useful things the band could be doing but honestly, how much could it hurt?
    My first Pipe Major was an old ex-48th Highlander, and in accordance with his roots, he made sure that the band was able to take pride in their drill-work and their uniform.
    We practiced just marching around without our pipes.
    We did drills with feather bonnets on so we would know how to look to the left while the wind was blowing. (Yeah, we wore full dress).
    And yes, we spent who knows how long perfecting the pipes up/pipes down thing.
    Anyway, the point of the story is that uniformity will never go out of style, and there’s no shame or vice in looking like you know what you’re doing.

  34. OK, I’m totally with my old pal Art (Irvine)….”Does anybody NOT want to march up and down the square all day?!!” “Well, actually, there’s a book I’d like to read…” “Right – well, then, off with you.”

    Seriously, the day we practice marching without our instruments….I’ve got a couple dozen books to read and I’m off to find another Grade 1 PIPE band to PLAY with. I gave up marching band when I got into college…:) But I kid, I kid!

    MacNeil, remember when MacNish Distilliery won March, Dress and Deportment (NOT in #1 dress) in ’87 that one games when we were all hammered from the night before and felt like a dog’s breakfast? Oh, wait, that could have been any of them…but it’s not how you feel, it’s how you look….and we looked mahvelous.

  35. Joel, you must be dreaming, you guys defined the Dog’s Breakfast Look!

    In 99, Niagara Police won the D&D Award at the Worlds!
    Only problem was, Moir had on a red Kilt which blended well with our Blue kilts.

    We were unable to defend our title the next year as we all had matching uniforms! LOL

  36. How about speaking to Ralph and Beulagh via your Glen right at the start line? I’m not sure that was what the Glen was originally intended for! And I’m sure that the dog wasn’t too interested in that particular breakfast….
    Or sprinting off the field after the roll offs?
    Ahh, the good ol’ days……..

  37. Aaahh, 1987, the year we (MacNish Distillery) invented the the “MacNish Shuffle”. At some Yacht Club, we played after a PM Angus recital (Still remember that 93rd at Modder River he played). Played into the hall to form a very tight circle wearing full dress. Only to realize the drum corp had its backs to the crowd dominating the volumne in the hall. We tried to march counter-clockwise in the circle to re-position ourself. With full dress and no room to move, it felt like it took 10 minutes to move 20 feet. PM Angus said it was one of the funnest things he’d ever seen…..Of coarse that “pipes up, pipes down” thing is one of the most ridiculous things we have to do in our little musical world.

  38. If the major concern with doing away with the pipes up / down is the spectators enjoyments and prestanding military traditions why then is it that the vast majority of World’s DVDs and CDs are mainly sold within the piping / drumming community. Really, think about it, last time I went to Blockbuster i couldn’t find a single copy of the Worlds DVD, yet last band party there were at least 5-10 guys who had copies. So really when we are the only ones buying them you can’t really argue that the end consumer is driving the need. Really the only reason we do this is because we have always done it before.

  39. It’s now up to the RSPBA members and any other associations that have this rule to submit a proposal for change at the respective AGMs. There really isn’t anything more, short of supportive petitions, that we non RSPBA members can do about it.

  40. This is one of those posts where you realise that not everyone in this world has completely lost the plot.

    Every point made in this article makes sense. I reckon if there is anyone watching these competitions that gets particularly excited and emotional about the good old regimented pipes down/up BS, then they are probably the same kind of people that have absolutely no appreciation of how far piping has come forward since those days where it probably was appreciated.

    When you talk about keeping traditions I don’t think this should really apply to what we are doing purely from how much its affecting the time taken between finishing tuning and walking into the circle. I think there are plenty of traditions that are kept and appreciated to warrant eliminating something so completely irrelevant.

    I challenge anyone to give me a justifiable reason to still have this rule in place……..even if it was reduced to a simple “stand at ease” to hear what you have to play and then “attention!!” to begin.

  41. You win, I give up, get rid of it. The first time I ever had to go through the Pipes up/ Pipes down drill was my first time at the worlds I thought it was great and separated the World Pipe Band Championships from any other contest I ever competed in. I appreciated them hanging on to this old drill. I also appreciate how far piping has come and have played in and attended numerous concerts where we explore and enjoy modern piping. I dont believe that because I personally like the old drill means that I do not appreciate where piping is going, I just also like where it came from as well.

    Now I am going to get back to work, no head dress, just a tie.

  42. Pingback: Cap’s on «
  43. funny story, kind of related, in this years worlds final tuning circle
    for the medley Terry Lee turned to the sweaty folks in
    the band as the sun came out and the temperature shot up
    quite a bit and said “were going to go without jackets”.

    this was greeted with a cheer from the guys/gals in
    the band and even some banging on the bass and tenor
    drums. now i’m not saying that’s why they won or that
    any of them ever got the right jacket back out of that
    massive pile in the tuning area. but 5 minutes later they rocked
    it straight up…and took home the big prize….sans jacket.
    and i highly doubt the judges even noticed.



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