Walking the planks
I’ve commented before on the continuing separation between “band piping” and “solo piping.” It used to be that a pipe section’s ultimate goal would be to play MSRs like a top soloist, and top soloists like John MacFadyen, Seumas MacNeill and John MacLellan would judge band contests, even though they had never played with a World Champion-calibre – or even any – band in their lives.
I think the music continues to drift apart. You don’t hear much in common with the playing at the Silver Star and that at the World Pipe Band Championships. Medleys and drums sections have created a chasm between the two styles, and, to be honest, solo piping has pretty much been stagnant, while band piping has evolved.
And a lot of that also has to do with band judging in the UK. If my count is correct, there are only three piping judges based in the UK – Iain MacLellan, John Wilson and Andrew Wright – on the senior RSPBA panel who have also stomped the boards for a good long time at the level required of the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting. The rest are pipers raised almost entirely on pipe bands.
This is perhaps understandable for the UK scene where bands and solos events are, with rare exceptions, separate things. It follows that many pipe band judges will be bandsmen, who don’t have the demonstrated skill and appreciation for the solo style. There are many top soloists playing in top bands now – Peter Hunt, Donald MacPhee, Alastair Dunn, and of course the entire roster of the Spirit of Scotland – but my hunch is that those UK-based guys when they retire from competing will focus on solo judging, if they even want to adjudicate.
In North America, where band and solo events almost always happen at the same competition, it’s much easier for a piper to be both a top soloist and a member of a top band. Young pipers start with the amateur grades and, if they have the goods and the will, progress to Professional. All the solo events are there, so why not play in them? Consequently, non-UK pipe band judges tend to be top-class solo players, too. It’s very hard to do that in Scotland.
That’s evidenced by the RSPBA’s 2005 approval of “international” judges like Jim McGillivray and James Troy to its panel, which already included Bob Worrall – all guys who proved that they can knit together top-drawer solo music, and of course recognize it.
I’ve also said that – for better or worse – so much of what happens in the piping world is dictated by what goes on in Scotland. If the goal is to win the World’s, then non-UK bands tend to do what the RSPBA judges want to hear. And if those judges are mostly bandsmen, then the band style – whatever it might be – will be heard and promoted.
But if anyone wonders why a band plays pipe music in such a dramatically different style from a solo piper, they need look no further than the RSPBA’s judging panel for a possible reason.