June 29, 2008

Sound decisions

A weighty subjectThe, ahem, peculiar circumstances of the Grade 1 contest at the British Championships bring to mind a number of thoughts. I remember competing at Markinch a few decades ago when a piper in my band had a stock come loose from his bag. At the attack there was no response from his pipes, so he made a quick right turn before crossing the line, never making a sound. There were only two competitors, and the other band was clearly well behind. Coincidentally, Peter Snadden was a piping judge that day, too, and he allegedly had us first but then was told to change his mark. We weren’t disqualified, as I recall, but we were second, or last, and the whole thing was a bit of a fiasco.

I don’t know the full details of what happened to Field Marshal Montgomery yesterday, but I do think this: a judge should not on his or her own decide to DQ a band, which is essentially what Tony Sloan did. My feeling is that a judge must only go by what is heard, not what is seen. If a judge sees a piper hitch up his/her bag then that alone isn’t cause for criticism. But if the hitching causes the tone to drop or a cut-out to be audible, then it impacts the sound negatively and the judge should act as he or she sees fit.

But, assuming Richard Parkes did not even start his drones, how could his ducking out affect the band’s sound? If Snadden put them first, then clearly the sound of their pipe corps rated highly, so a true last in piping – based strictly on sound – is undeserved. Fourth? Okay. Seventh? Maybe. But last? Can’t fathom it.

A few years ago I judged a championship Grade 1 contest in Ontario. As the ensemble judge, I witnessed all of the bands draw for the selection that they would play. The last band on picked their number-one medley, but then proceeded to play the other selection. I and the other two piping judges recognized the error immediately.

We quickly discussed it, and then decided that we would mark the band according to what we heard, and then pass it to the association’s Executive and Music Board representatives to decide what to do. It wasn’t our place as judges to do anything but assess what we heard the band play, whether it was the selection they drew or not.

The RSPBA clearly did not disqualify FMM, but nonetheless allowed Sloan’s mark to stand. The band finished sixth, and still would not have won had Sloan placed them first. However, that sixth could well come in to play in a major way at the end of the year when the Champion of Champions tables are tabulated.

Perhaps Sloan indeed called it like he heard it. He and Snadden of course are reputable and fair judges, and there’s no reason to think that either did anything but try to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, none of the judges at the British appeared to notice (based on the results that the RSPBA posted) that the Vale played the wrong stuff, and, quite rightly, simply judged the band only based on what they heard, and correctly left it to the administration to deal with matters of rules.

So far this year there have been a number of new dilemmas presented to judges at pipe band contests: FMM, the Vale and the Toronto Police. In each, it is a reminder to judges that they are not there to do anything but assess what they hear, and then leave the interpretation of the the rules to the administers.


  1. The rules should be more definitive as it leaves too much room for interpretation for people who have to make a dicision, but are not present to see the infraction.

    A few years back, a band was DQ’d on a very small marching technicality that was more of a play on words that cost the band a first prize.

    Every game has rules, please let us know what they are so mistakes like this can be avoided in future as it hurts everyone involved?

  2. Similar situations have occured with me on more than one occasion while I was judging. One time a piper was stung in the neck by a bee in the middle of the competition (true story). He immediately left the circle. I found out later he was allergic to bee stings. Unfortunately, it rattled his fellow bandsmen and the performance ended on a rather sour and unfortunate note. On another occasion, a band competed with the MINIMUM required number of pipers. One of them was NOT playing. In the first instance, each judge scored the band based on what was heard. In the second instance, I scored the band based on what I heard and THEN notified the games contest committee of the rule violation. I did not confer with my fellow judges for fear of biasing their scoring.
    I hope this is chaulked up as a learning experience as well as put on every judges seminar agenda for discussion. Mr. Mitchell raises a valid point about interpretation of rules. ALL judges to be crystal clear on their duties insofar as scoring/penalizing/reporting a rule infraction is concerned.

  3. I too wondered about the situation at the British Championships, and have been following Andrew Bethoff’s comments regarding adjudicator accreditation and contest judging anomalies. As an adjudicator myself, and having now a reasonable amount of experience under my belt, I too wonder about such situations from the point of view of facing them myself.

    I agree with Andrew’s perspective that an adjudicator must work on what he or she hears and leave the technical decisions regarding disqualification to those responsible for administering the rules. Sure, if I became aware of something during a performance that might have wider ramifications, I’d pass on the information, but I wouldn’t take action myself if it was outside my purview (ie, drumming adjudication – and hopefully in the near future, ensemble).

    Al McMullin’s bee sting story is also interesting from another perspective; that is, events or mishaps completely outside the control of the player. A couple of years ago I was playing in our corps – and over several years we had not, and have not been headed – and on this occasion, our lead’s top head popped (or rather blew) in the middle of one element. Beforehand there was not untoward head wear, no signs that it might go. The lead kept playing without interruption, on the remnant of the head that remained tensioned. I feel confident that our performance that day was every bit as good as our other element (which we won) and other contests where we were placed first – bar the dull sound from the lead. But on this occasion, we were dropped down by the drumming adjudicator. This, to me, is like the bee sting. My own conclusion was that in the judge’s hotseat, I’d have made some “bad luck, but you did well to…” comment, avoiding the rather obvious comment that might be made on ‘tone’. I would not have let such an incident influence my ranking of the performance.

    As I’m not a piper, I can’t really say if Richard Parkes’ stock malfunction does fall into the same category. Is this more the equivalent of a drummer not insuring/noticing a bottom head is, for example, properly tensioned up, that is, the problem was foreseeable? Someone might be able to enlighten me here.

    Either way, I think adjudicators should exercise common sense. Where something during a performance is apparently random, it should not impact upon a band/corps’ ranking. Where a problem is observed but falls outside a particular adjudicator’s area of responsibility, it should be referred on to the contest stewards. The greater issue of how the adjudicator-on-the-spot reacts to something unusual is a matter that could be part of the ongoing professional development about which Andrew Berthoff has also written recently in this blog, as well as having clear, unambiguous rules.

  4. All good comments, and certainly no point in hammering the judges.

    This gives cause to analyse the purpose of judging – what are the parameters and where, if any, are they set?

    I wonder if such extreme examples are covered in training/examination/quality control of judges? It would appear not if you look at the placings FMM got. There couldn’t have been more opposing views than the ones that eventuated.

    An extreme event like PM Parkes losing a stock ‘off the line’ (can it get more extreme??) has resulted in extreme opposites with the two judges. What is the clear and definitive position on such things? Clearly there isn’t one. Such incidents are not new to contests – it has happened and it will happen again.

    Considering the tens of thousands of dollars that, for example, many non-scot bands spend to attend the worlds (also other majors), is it good enough, or acceptable, to have any ambiguity on such matters? Should an individual carry all the guilt and stigma over an incident that could not have been reasonably foreseen and/or mitigated, especially if the band’s performance remained unaffected?

    People still won’t let go of Jim Kilpatrick’s broken drum head from almost 20 years ago. But what if a concert pianist suffered a broken wire in competition..? Does he or she automatically get DQ’d..? Do they keep playing, or do they just stand up, take a bow and then head for the green room bar and accept that all their hard work can be snuffed out by an unforeseen blow-up??

    A part of me wants to say that there is no such thing as an accident, and that due diligence and preparation should prevent most equipment failures, and that a penalty should exist for tardy maintenance etc….but then there is also genuine and unforeseen/circumstantial bad luck, and the knowledge it could happen to anyone regardless of how meticulously they prepare their pipes or drum.

    As much as some would like to target the judges in this instance, I think the system of how they are brought along needs to be looked at. Where are the parameters, if there are any?

    Where does this debate end? If the judges are instructed that equipment failure warrants instant DQ, could we have a case where, for example, a drone reed maker gets sued because a bridle breaks, or a bag maker is sued because their product ‘failed’, or a percussion company because a head breaks or a tuning rod gives out…?

    There is bigger money in this game now than there ever has been.

    One thing is for sure – there will be 20-odd sets of pipes at FMM being checked, checked and checked again before their next outing!

  5. Andrew, in turn, makes some further good points. Makes me think about how often I truly check my equipment before heading out to the circle. I’m no piper, but I have wondered if the P/M Parkes ‘stock malfunction’ was foreseeable; perhaps someone might enlighten me? Can it be the same as a drummer’s stick randomly cracking/breaking as they sometimes do?

    I agree again that the issue needs to be looked at in terms of adjudicator training. Guidelines should be there, possible scenarios canvassed and prepared for, I believe. My own opinion remains that if a player’s inability to complete a performance does not impact upon the requirement for minimum player numbers, then it shouldn’t matter. I seriously doubt that bands will resort to sending out ‘dummy’ players to make a band look bigger, or intentionally engineer ‘malfunctions’ to get a suspect player out onto the park and not be heard.

    Having said this, it has made me think back to my first trip across the ditch to watch/compete at the New Zealand and South Pacific Championships in Invercargill in 2005. I had honestly never encountered this before, but as I watched one band’s performance. This large Grade 2 band (now Grade 1) had a large ‘mid-section’, and I did wonder about balance issues (5 tenors, I believe). I was watching their work intently and noticed that two tenors did not strike their respective drums at all. I’m not just talking about tuned tenors that play infrequent, selected notes to suit the tune’s melody; they did not play their instrument – not even during the rolls.

    I approached one of the tenors afterwards and asked (in the nicest possible way) if they actually hit their drums at all. “Oh no” came the response, “We are flourishers!” Admittedly, in my near 30 years of playing, and more lately adjudicating, I can honestly say I’d never heard of such a thing. But coming back to the point; here is a case where a did band did send out ‘non-playing players’ (as opposed to drum majors who have a specific role) to simply be visual.

    So perhaps my earlier point that surely bands “… sending out ‘dummy’ players…” is not so accurate after all? No doubt the Kiwi band in question had a purpose in mind for these two extra tenors, but where do we draw the line? How far can/should a band go in a contest in terms of ‘performers’ and what they are doing? Do we send out a troupe of highland dancers to add a bit more colour and movement to the dance tunes in a medley? A joke, to be sure, but then…

    I know this issue is separate to mishaps on the line or in the circle, but there might be those who have other instances or opinions of such practices. How are adjudicators to deal with issues such as the ‘flourishers’? I know I’ve made comments regarding tenors “not adding tonally to the performance” through poor tuning or simply not hitting the drum hard enough to be heard (intentionally?), but to my knowledge, I’ve never encountered musicians who where never meant to be heard in competition in the first place. Thoughts?

  6. I realy feel it is time that the introduction of a referee would be an exelent idea.As in the case of many bands that get a huge variable points difference 2nd and 14th for example,the appointed “ombudsman” could then be approached and he would ask the judges why .their reasons could be discussed[one noticed that a piper was not playing etc.]while the other had faild to see this .Then the placings could be adjusted accordingly.instead of a lot of bitter feeling and bands going home thinking they had been hard done by.



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