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.


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