Last Saturday at Georgetown, listening to the various bands in various grades, I was conscious of pipe-section sizes. You couldn’t help but be aware of the issue. The 78th Frasers played with 21 pipers, while City of Washington had, I believe, 13, and the Toronto and Peel police bands had numbers in between. In Grade 3, the Hamilton Police band’s section was, I think, 18, playing against bands considerably smaller.
Comparisons are difficult, since sound qualities and texture are radically different. There’s an unmistakable broadness that comes from a band with more than 18 pipers, while a band of 10-to-14 often will come across with a tightness of tone – provided both sections are decently tuned, which almost all bands from Grade 3 upwards are today.
A judge by necessity these days has to remind him or herself that it’s not a numbers game. It’s easy to be impressed or swayed by a larger section because the initial impact is almost always more substantial, even if it isn’t always more refined. The Manawatu band last year at the World’s didn’t necessarily have the largest pipe section, but it had a purity and clarity of chanter sound that is so hard to achieve with even a smaller section. But I’m sure that judges at the World’s had a hard time assessing Manawatu in relation to some of the bands playing with 18, 19, 20 pipers, and it would take a courageous judge to rate a smaller sound with impeccable unison over a massive section with stellar drones and powerful chanter tone.
While I like hearing a variety of sounds, I am a proponent of putting a limit on section sizes to level the field a bit. Competition in any form needs to have as level a playing-field as possible to be as successful and equitable as possible. If Grade 1 pipe section sizes were capped at, say, 18 it would help to put an end to the dilemmas that judges find themselves in, and perhaps mitigate a bit of chagrin. (I stress that I have not heard of any chagrinning from Georgetown.)
And if all Grade X bands continually meet maximum numbers, then the number can be raised accordingly, allowing the requirement and standard to rise as a whole, rather than risk leaving some bands behind in a survival-of-the-biggest struggle.