Engendering news

A weighty issue.This is the time of year when piping and drumming news is at a premium. After this weekend’s London competition, results will be scarce and many pipers and drummers and bands will nearly shut down. But every time I think that, something newsworthy pops up.

And so, the news of the vote by the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society to accept female members was leaked last week. Those who care, and many who don’t, know that the RSPS is a male-only organization, and that is as much a part of their tradition as is the requirement that members are “amateur” pipers with some “society” standing. That is, they don’t accept prize-money and, as one famous RSPS member said once in a thick English accent, “You must be a lahnd-oowner – and by that I doon’t mean a bahck gahhhhrden.”

Honestly, at the time, I just thought the males-only vote was another quirky and quaint holdover from Scotland’s deep-rooted piping tradition that pipers from other countries have a hard time understanding.

I have been critical in the past of the fact that some RSPS members are invited to judge important solo piping competitions. My criticism centred only on the fact that these folks, fine and jolly gentlemen that they are, have never demonstrated their playing ability in any ongoing public way, and that many competitors don’t really take their judging decisions seriously. Yet they remain on the approved list of UK judges, as assembled by Scotland’s Joint Committee – the closest thing there is in that country to a formal accreditation process, something that just about every one of the world’s piping associations has had in place for decades.

It was in fact the very first comment to the pipes|drums news story that opened my eyes to the obvious: that female competitors might perceive an element of bias when competing before these judges. Truly, I had never thought of that before, and that was the issue that the Times, Scotsman, Daily Express and other UK newspapers picked up on when they followed pipes|drums’ lead.

The Scotsman‘s blurb has received some interesting comments as well, and this one from “Girl Piper” succinctly summarizes the concern particularly well:

“To me the argument is simple. The club is a private society, but is also used to impartially adjudicate important piping competitions outside their own society. Adjudication requires firstly skill and knowledge, and secondly the ability to remain completely impartial. It is easy for anyone to draw the very logical connection between a group voting out women in their own organisation, and that same group being deemed impartial when judging both men and women against each other in an external competition. This is a clear conflict of interest. It’s logic, not spite, which is at the core of this conclusion. Add this to a musical tradition which has already been historically sexist and you’ll understand why there is a problem.”

It’s interesting to me that any of the world’s piping and drumming associations – including the RSPBA, which has in the past dealt swiftly with matters of perceived racial bias – would have addressed the issue on behalf of its members. On the other hand, the UK, because there is no real unifying governing body for solo piping competitions, can’t really do anything. Competitions and competitors are left to decide for themselves what, if anything, they want to do.

And I expect more winter news eventually to trickle out as people make up their minds how they will address such dilemmas.

Idiomic

Not one of us, I'm afraid . . .When I first went to Scotland as a competitor around the games and at Inverness and Oban in the early-1980s I was struck by many things, most of them very, very good.

The number of non-Scottish pipers back then was relatively few; the only other regular American competitors were Mike Cusack and Jim Stack, both of whom had spent time in Scotland learning the craft from people like John MacFadyen and John A. MacLellan.

But one thing that opened my eyes was the way a few of the locals would talk about piobaireachd or, more specifically, how outsiders played piobaireachd. Some seemed to have this idea that, if you weren’t Scottish, you automatically didn’t have the requisite musicality in your nature. As a result, some non-Scots players were deemed innately unmusical. They just didn’t have “the piobaireachd” and they never would.

Similarly, there were Scottish players from the Highlands who were said to have a kind of inborn ability to play piobaireachd better than those from Glasgow. And the few players who spoke Gaelic were treated by some as having a sort of magical musical gift, despite the fact that their pipes were never in tune and they couldn’t play a decent crunluath.

I thought then that it was a crock and I still think it’s a crock.

I was reminded of this when a few weeks ago I was told about yet another pipe band judge accusing a band of “not playing in the Scottish idiom.” In this instance, it was the Toronto Police playing in the MSR in the World’s Qualifier. Michael Grey mentioned it in a recent post on his blog.

Never mind the fact that his band is led by Ian K. MacDonald, one of the best MSR players on the planet; what eventually got me most about this familiar “lacking Scottish idiom” comment was when I realized that this score-sheet remark as far as I know is only thrown at non-Scottish bands by Scottish judges. Has a Scottish-based Grade 1 band ever been accused of “not playing in the Scottish idiom”? I doubt it.

The way I see it, such a sweeping and unfounded pejorative is more about where you come from than about the music you actually play.

The blanket “Scottish idiom” attack is an easy out for a judge. I suppose if a band played a traditional Chinese song in its medley it might be acceptable for an adjudicator to criticize a band for playing outside of “the idiom,” but an MSR? How can any Grade 1 band be accused of not playing a traditional Scottish MSR within the musical “idiom”? It boggles the mind.

Twenty-five years ago I noted that, regardless of how well they played and imitated traditional styles, some were made to feel like musical outsiders. It’s pathetic indeed that this sort of apparent discrimination still exists.

Taken aback

That MSR was a bit cabaret . . .Colin MacLellan, in the Tip of the Day a few days ago, said that performers should never turn their back to the audience. We’ve already discussed at length the issue of the inward-facing pipe band circle, and I think Colin was referring mainly to solo performers.

You often see at big solo competitions the judges’ bench located at the rear of the stage, the judges facing the audience, putting the competitors in an awkward situation. Do they play to the audience? Do they face the bench? Do they stand to the side of the stage and face neither?

Some of the most amusing things I’ve seen at big events like the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering have been when the judges are at a table at the middle of the stage. The judges, and not the pipers, became the performers. They seemed to be conscious that the audience was watching them more than the competitors, whom they’re there to listen to, primarily, so they affected lots of histrionics, chief of them being of course the synchronized pen-diving when a competitor dropped a gracenote. Before indoor air was cleaned up, John Burgess’s displays of elegant smoking techniques were legend.

All competition organizers should remember to put the competitors and the audience first, and the judges second. The judges don’t matter to the audience, so they should be positioned, Pop/American Idol-like, so that the performers can face both them and the crowd.

Pushing the parameters

Attack!Back in June I speculated that the traditional pipe band attack might be becoming less important than it used to be. After listening to Grade 1 performances at the 2008 World’s, I’m convinced that it’s true.

Ten years ago bands would set aside large lots of practice time to perfect their attack. Punching the E’s in perfect unison was thought to be critical to success. While just about every band that I’ve heard so far had an audibly okay attack, I don’t think I’ve heard any that, as they say, flattened the grass.

There were also several instances of trailing drones that didn’t seem to impact a band’s result terribly much.

When it comes to competition, most bands will concentrate on the things that they think are most important to success. These days, those things seem to be tone and music. Bands focus on these areas because they feel that excellence in these areas will being the biggest return from the judges, so they invest the most time and effort in them.

The trend and the talk seem more and more toward MSRs being judged with an ear to technical precision, and medleys being less about accuracy and more about the overall musical effect.

Further evidence of that trend is that the musicality of MSRs often seems to be completely ignored. The tenets of excellence that a great solo player strives for aren’t heard much by most bands, and, when they are evident, it seems most judges either don’t recognize them or simply don’t care.

Perhaps it’s time for two sets of parameters – one for medleys; another for sets – to be spelled out to judges in detail.

Hounds and foxes

I'll show you early E!It’s too bad that World’s Week coincided with the first half of the Olympics. Not that I watched or followed the second week that much, but I didn’t see any of the first week except for the awesomely staged opening ceremonies.

I did note quite a bit of commentary about the Olympic events that are subjectively judged. Diving, judo, synchronized swimming and the like are all subjective sports; that is, you don’t score goals or race against a stopwatch. There even seemed to be calls to get rid of these judged events, since uneducated viewers can’t easily determine what’s a good triple-spin-double-loop-hold-the-toes-no-splishy-splash dive and what isn’t. These events are also fraught with allegations of bias and corruption.

Sound familiar?

It all got out of control when a Cuban tae kwon do competitor took out his frustration on one of the judges and delivered a flying wheel-kick to his chin, putting the judge in the hospital, resulting in the Cuban’s probable ban for life from competing.

Pipe band judges over the years have rarely been the victim of an actual physical assault by a competitor, but every year there are tales of band members having a verbal go at a judge for the decision they rendered. Usually, it goes like this: after the contest competitors meet at the beer tent or a popular pub for one two or 20 pints. After tense competition there are those few who are celebrating a win, but the majority is probably disappointed. Emotions run high, and alcohol fuels the mood. Someone decides to ask a judge a question about the result. The answer’s not satisfactory. An argument starts. People get pulled apart. Complaints are filed. No one wins.

A few judges make the chronic mistake of trying to share in the socializing with the competitors. Instead of doing their own thing, or simply going home, far from the madding crowd, they instead try to take part in the competitors’ party. In an ideal world there’s no reason why a judge should not be allowed to socialize with competitors, and one would wish that everyone could just get along. But that’s just not realistic.

After a significant event, it’s best for a pipe band judge to make him- or herself scarce. As tempting as it might be to hit the beer-tent, it’s not advisable. There will always be disappointed competitors and those who read their score sheets with incredulity and make a B-line for the judge for an explanation. Add a few drinks to the mix and you’re just asking for trouble.

Judging can be rather lonely. By necessity, it should not be about socializing with competitors before, during or after the event. That’s not to say that a judge should not be approachable and not welcome reasonable, sober questions. Far from it. But that can happen a day or days after the contest, when heads have cooled, recordings have been assessed, and hangovers have been beaten.

An adjudicator who insists on hanging out with those he just judged does so at his peril.

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.

A crazy salad with their meat

You don't often see salad bars these days . . .The last week has seen a ton of debate about not only the Toronto Police’s adventurous new “medley,” but what actually constitutes a pipe band medley. Someone raised the salient point that a medley should be a combination of different tunes and argued that, because what TPPB played wasn’t a selection of tunes, it’s not really a medley.
 
By that token, if a band came out and played, say, the short piobaireachd, “Salute on the Birth of Rory Mor MacLeod,” as its “medley,” should it be allowed? It’s a single tune, after all, but certainly a medley of variations. Then again, all pipe tunes are built on variations, or parts, so is each tune a micro-medley?
 
“The Megantic Outlaw” (the brain-child of Michael Grey who wrote it with Bill Livingstone and Bruce Gandy), which I discussed in the previous blog, was clearly both a combination of distinct tunes, but also variations built on a common theme, each variation having a name. I recall some bands using one or two of those “Megantic” theme/variations within their own medleys. The introductory 12/8 march by Bill seemed to be the most popular.
 
The results of the p|d Poll were interesting and raised another point. Sixty-three per cent of poll-voters said Yes to the question, “Should pipe band competition music always have some familiar element of the Celtic idiom?” Some would debate that there’s nothing Celticly familiar in the TPPB’s medley.
 
It’s all subjective interpretation. What’s “familiar” and “Celtic” to one may not be to another. What’s a “tune” to one is a “variation” to another.” And the subjectivity of judging art is the age-old quandary of things like juried art shows, dance competitions, and pipe band contests.
 
I am involved with the PPBSO’s Music Board and already several judges are requesting that guidelines be established and guidance given to adjudicators. They don’t want to be caught off-guard by such musical nuances, which seemingly happened at the Georgetown games, not only in the Grade 1 event but in the Grade 3 band contest in which Alex Lifeson‘s power-chords were adapted for the Highland pipe, but surrounded by very “familiar Celtic content.”
 
This quandary will not be solved easily, or ever, and nor should it be. The role of the modern pipe band judge is not solely to identify good tone and point out blooters; it’s also to render musical judgment based on their years of experience and proven ability in the art.
 
As discussed in another Blogpipe post, the attack, blooters, tone and unison-playing are accepted objective competition criteria. The grey area, as it were, is music, and no one has the right to state definitively what is “good” or “bad” music. But we all agree that, on the day, the judges’ definition of good and bad music is what counts in the prizes. As long as there are judges judging subjective music, the healthy debate will rage.

Greetin’s

Mother Superior jumped the gunI’ve seen a few comments about bands that did well in Grade 1 at the Scottish Championships last week even though they might have had an early chanter at the attack and/or a trailer at the cut-off. Time was that I band with an early E might as well keep marching across the circle and straight to the beer tent to commence the commiserations. The judges would have put a quick end to their chances of winning.

Things are a bit different these days. Many band judges will see past a blip of two if a performance is otherwise excellent. I don’t care what 24 pipers you put out there; at least one is going to make a slip somewhere in that five-to-seven minute performance.

It used to be that judges would use such a blatant blooter to take the easy way to calling the contest. No one could argue that it happened, and unconfident judges, who have a hard time deciding what good or bad music is, would latch on to the mistakes that any dunderhead could hear.

We’re a bit more sophisticated now. By and large, judges are, in a word, better. I think that new attitude of music appreciation started with piobaireachd judging, actually. It’s far more common now that a player who made a note-error can still get in the prize-list. As Andrew Wright said, “I’d rather give the prize to someone who went off the tune than to someone who was never on it.”

A few weeks ago, at my real job, I interviewed someone for a vacant position. I went out to meet her, and said, “Hi Judy.”

She stuck out her hand confidently and said, “Nice to meet you, Adam.”

Adam? Adam?! I thought, Who’s Adam?! She immediately recognized her mistake and apologized profusely.

The rest of her interview went really well after her mistake. Her bad start was unfortunate, but I was willing to look past it and appreciate what she might be able to bring to my company. But I have to admit that I have already told the story to a few people, so it has stuck with me. Her bad attack didn’t do her any good, but it didn’t ruin her either.

To me, blips and blooters count the most when I can’t otherwise make up my mind. If two or three bands have excellent musical and tonal performances and there’s little to separate them, then an early chanter will become a deal-breaker. Otherwise, it’s just not that big a deal in the greater scheme of things.

Greener pastures

Going for the GreenI wasn’t at the Scottish Pipe Band Championships, but I have heard nothing to suggest that St. Laurence O’Toole was a worthy and popular winner. More than 80 per cent of voters on the current p|d Poll say the result was “Great for SLOT!” and you would be hard-pressed to find a more likable and talented band anywhere.

Things have come a long way in the UK when it comes to pipe band politics, and a very long way since the 1970s when Northern Ireland’s Grade 1 St. Patrick’s Donaghmore won the piping at the World Championships, only to have the ensemble judge relegate them to near-last, bumping them way down the list.

To add insult, the same ensemble judge allegedly (but this story has been relayed to me by many people over the years who say they witnessed it) saw Donaghmore off by giving the completely demoralized band the two-fingers-up salute as they drove out of the park.

For those pipers and drummers who live outside of the UK, SLOT’s win may not seem that important. But for those in the UK and Ireland who have witnessed first-hand the political and quasi-religious idiocy that has gone on decades before, it’s a true milestone.

To be sure, to be sure, that idiocy hasn’t much existed for at least the last 20 years, and all bands have had to play well enough to win, but SLOT finally doing so officially closes the door on some bad, lingering memories.

The road rises up.

Upkeep

O judge, where art thou?Bob Worrall, who everyone on the piping planet seems to know, made an interested comment at the recent PPBSO Adjudicators’ Seminar. He remarked that judges often bemoan the fact that young players are infrequently seen at the major competitions, but those same carping judges rarely even more infrequently attend events that they’re not involved with themselves.

I never thought of that before. It’s clear that today’s competitors expect judges to practice professional development. Most associations put on seminars for their accredited judges, and many are fully expecting, if not requiring, their judges to attend them in order to maintain their good standing on the active panel. But I agree with Bob’s point that a good way for judges to stay current is to frequent competitions and recitals in a non-judging or non-playing capacity.

During the crushingly boring incessant tuning by some players at the Livingstone Invitational last Saturday, I made note of how many accredited judges were in the crowd. The number was very small, and those who were there were those who usually attend events.

I don’t know. If I were a competitor I might be even more troubled by the lack of interest shown by judges than judges are concerned about the apathy of young players.

Accreditation negation

Nudge, nudge, wink, winkI’ve been thinking again about judging accreditation. Several associations in North America have had sophisticated adjudication examination programs for solo judges for years. I know that Ontario established its system in 1988, and the EUSPBA started its own process around the same time. These and other associations have worked to improve their accreditation programs and the requirements for consideration are stringent.

At all sanctioned events in North America, solo judges need to have formal accreditation. In fact, the 10 organizations that comprise the Alliance of North American Pipe Band Associations collectively agreed that accreditation is a requirement to judge.

There is a unified acceptance that accreditation is good for the competitions, and what’s good for the competitions is good for the competitors. Competitors want to know that they are been assessed by not just a competent former-competitor who has done the business for the required length of time, but by someone who has proven that he or she has the necessary skills to be a good judge.

As John-Angus Smith discussed in his recent 10 Questions With . . . interview, there is no formal accreditation process that solo judges have to go through in the UK. There it’s pretty much a grandfathering tradition. If you’ve won a sack-load of prizes (or have a membership with the Royal Scottish Pipers Society and talk a good piobaireachd), seem to be a good person and are interested and available to commit a day in return for some tea, a sandwich, a chocky-bick, and a few pounds, then you’re eligible to judge. Further, there aren’t even score sheets or even formal feedback to competitors.

So why, then, do North American associations happily invite unaccredited pipers and drummers from the UK to judge their sanctioned events? Doesn’t it contravene agreed policy and undermine the accreditation process? If demonstrating officially that one is not only a good player but a good judge is essential, then why do we give some accomplished players a bye and others not?

Perhaps non-UK associations are still enamored with pipers and drummers with Scottish accents. Or maybe ANAPBA organizations really don’t take accreditation that seriously. But every time an unaccredited “guest” piper or drummer is brought in to judge, doesn’t it contradict 20 years of diligent effort to establish and adhere to the entire examination process?

I ask you.

Accreditation negation

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.I’ve been thinking again about judging accreditation.
Several associations in North America have had sophisticated
adjudication examination programs for solo judges for years. I know
that Ontario established its system in 1988, and the EUSPBA started
its own process around the same time. These and other associations
have worked to improve their accreditation programs and the
requirements for consideration are stringent.

At all sanctioned events in North America, solo judges need to have
formal accreditation. In fact, the 10 organizations that comprise
the Alliance of North American Pipe Band Associations collectively
agreed that accreditation is a requirement to judge.

There is a unified acceptance that accreditation is good for the
competitions, and what’s good for the competitions is good for the
competitors. Competitors want to know that they are been assessed
by not just a competent former-competitor who has done the business
for the required length of time, but by someone who has proven that
he or she has the necessary skills to be a good judge.

As John-Angus Smith discussed in his recent 10 Questions With . . . interview,
there is no formal accreditation process that solo judges have to
go through in the UK. There it’s pretty much a grandfathering
tradition. If you’ve won a sack-load of prizes (or have a
membership with the Royal Scottish Pipers Society and talk a good
piobaireachd), seem to be a good person and are interested and
available to commit a day in return for some tea, a sandwich, a
chocky-bick, and a few pounds, then you’re eligible to judge.
Further, there aren’t even score sheets or even formal feedback to
competitors.

So why, then, do North American associations happily invite
unaccredited pipers and drummers from the UK to judge their
sanctioned events? Doesn’t it contravene agreed policy and
undermine the accreditation process? If demonstrating officially
that one is not only a good player but a good judge is essential,
then why do we give some accomplished players a bye and others
not?

Perhaps non-UK associations are still enamored with pipers and
drummers with Scottish accents. Or maybe ANAPBA organizations
really don’t take accreditation that seriously. But every time an
unaccredited “guest” piper or drummer is brought in to judge,
doesn’t it contradict 20 years of diligent effort to establish and
adhere to the entire examination process?

I ask you.

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