Dump the Qualifier

Is there any band, judge or listener who actually likes the World’s Grade 1 Qualifying system? If there is, I haven’t met him or her. In Glasgow this week it seems like every other person involved with a Grade 1 band has nothing good to say about the round of playing that allows five bands to join those that managed to bypass the process.

Five years ago I wrote about how dreary and interminable all those MSRs are. Last year the first four or five bands played in cold, driving rain, and the other 10 played in relative warmth. This year 16 bands will do the same, so 11 of them, and most of those from places other than Scotland, will head to the beer tent having gone out after four minutes of playing.

The Qualifier has got to go.

There is a definite sense, too, that the Qualifier – as it is now – will indeed go. Band members seem to be optimistic that some sort of new approach will replace the current system, trusting that the RSPBA’s recent survey concluded that no one really likes the unfair scheme currently in place.

And why an MSR? The old saw contending that an MSR “separates the men from the boys” is so unbelievably dated it hardly merits discussion. Today’s bands commit probably at least twice as much creative thought and energy to their medleys, perhaps knowing that they could go out there with phrasing like Angus MacColl only to have it fly right over the heads of most judges, who seem to listen for only tone and mistakes when it comes to the sets.

So eleven bands with sophisticated and often elaborately musical medleys will go home without the opportunity to play them for the judges or the crowd, the majority of whom clearly prefer to listen to selections (just compare YouTube views of MSRs against medleys).

It’s not really clear to anyone I’ve spoken to exactly why the system is the way it is. Whatever reasoning 10 years ago for creating the MSR Qualifier is now forgotten, leaving people to wonder why there’s time to break those 60 Grade 4B bands into three sections for a final competition, and there’s not enough time to have 26 Grade 1 bands each play twice. What’s up with that?

The discussion can’t really be drawn by national boundaries. I’ve heard as much dissension about the Qualifier system from Northern Irish and Scottish bands as I have from pipers and drummers in “overseas” bands. If there’s a good reason for the MSR Qualifier I don’t remember hearing it. If you have one, please comment.

Saying “If you don’t like it, don’t play,” doesn’t wash. The World’s is the World’s. Bands hold out hope that some way somehow they will get through the Qualifier, and then go on to some rather unlikely glory. Meanwhile every year they hope for some better solution, like a two-day World’s, or returning to a system whereby all bands have to qualify for a final, as was the case in the late-1970s and early-1980s, or perhaps even a pre-qualifying system in other countries that allows non-UK bands to have an equitable chance.

Whatever the alternative, the Qualifier as it currently exists has got to go.

Our drumming duty

The Black Bear, twice over, wot?It’s often the most obvious ideas that are the best and often not realized for decades. The introduction of a “duty piper” for Grade 5 solo drumming competitions is a notion so clear-cut that you have to wonder why it wasn’t always offered.

We pipers have always understood that competing in solo competition fosters involvement and skill, which are then transferred to pipe bands. Bands full of players who also compete in solo competition are inevitably better in terms of technical ability.

As long as I’ve been around pipe bands, I’ve known that all pipe bands could use more snare drummers. We’ve all seen bands fold because they don’t have enough snare drummers, and every year there are several bands that can’t compete due to a thin snare line.

Solo drumming competitions are not, of course, “solo” at all. They require a piper, since a major challenge is how well the competitor accompanies live music and all its spontaneous changes and nuances. Drummers are constantly challenged to find a piper willing to practice with the drummer and then hang about waiting for the competitor’s turn to come up. It’s a lot to ask of a piper, who often has other things to do, like his own solos or sleeping-in.

The obvious idea is to provide a piper, who is standing by ready to play a score to a number of set tunes. In time I think this approach could be something like that of Highland dancing, where a few pipers take turns playing for snare drummers, offering a repertoire of 10 or so set marches, strathspeys, reels, hornpipes and jigs.

My prediction: offering a piper for solo snare competitors will be adopted by many associations around the world, and the PPBSO will gradually apply it on up the grades. We can either sit around bemoaning the lack of available drummers for another decade, or we can do something about it. Encouraging and fostering snare drumming is not just smart, it’s our duty.

Bass-section or mid-section? A ruling

Percussion section is a good name when pipe bands aren't judged.The surge in popularity of pipe band tenor-drumming might well be the most talked about topic of the last 10 years in our world. There’s no denying that the change that has been brought to bands through the development and use of more tuned drums has been profound. Love it, hate it or ambivalent to it, this section’s importance is here and it’s not likely to diminish any time soon.

But, what to call this evolved aspect of pipe bands? Traditionally, the drums that weren’t the snares were referred to as the “bass-section.” I guess that was because that “section” always, at a minimum, included a bass-drum. Before 1995 or so there would be one, maybe two or, at most, three tenor-drummers, some often not even audibly playing the drum. Bands often competed with no tenors at all.

The bass back then was the undisputed focal point of the section. So “bass-section” made sense.

These days, tenor drums of various sizes and tones, while not yet required, are at least expected in a competing pipe band. Upper-grade bands bring out three, four, five and even as many as nine drums in these burgeoning sections.

So, it makes sense that the appropriate name for this part of the band is “mid-section.” That name is inclusive of all the instruments found in the section today, and leaves room for who-knows-what instruments will be added tomorrow. Further, the section doesn’t yet lead the band, and is in middle of it – at least in today’s typical formation – so the “mid” is descriptive of where they stand.

I’ve heard traditionalists who take umbrage at the use of “mid-section,” demanding that “bass-section” continue to be used. But the truth is these sections are a bunch of differently pitched drums in the middle of the band. Others make the apt point that the bass and tenors are simply part of the “drum-section,” so that term should be used. Ideally that would make sense, but, so far, anyway, pipe band drumming judges (who are always snare-drummers) don’t appear ready or, many contend, qualified to judge today’s tenor-drumming. Bass and tenors are clearly a separate-but-integrated aspect of pipe band competition, and thus deserve a separate descriptor.

So, at least here, “mid-section” it will be.

Shiny, happy tenors

Seriously fun stuff.Okay, this is the last thing on tenor drummers for a while. I promise.

But has anyone noticed that, while pipers and snare drummers look like they’re in the midst of a battle – or a funeral, depending on how the band is playing – tenor-drummers are often smiling and even laughing during the competition?

I thought about it before, but was reminded when viewing the World’s DVD. There are many shots of flourishing tenor players who look like they’re at a theme park instead of an Every-Little-Mistake-Could-Ruin-It-For-The-Whole-Band World Championship.

Having fun is the name of the game, of course, but I wonder why tenor-drummers are so happy in the heat of competition while the rest of the band looks like they’re in complete misery.


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.

So many partings

Lochaber no more.This post-Northern-Hemisphere-season is as active as any I can remember. Even before Cowal and Fergus – the contests after which band-members traditionally start bouncing around – changes were being orchestrated and announced.

Almost as soon as one Grade 1 band (Dysart) was resurrected, another (Clan Gregor) folded. I find it sad when any band anywhere folds, and it’s particularly sad when it’s a Grade 1 band. Why? Because that now-defunct band had reached the top grade, and (unless it’s rare exceptions like Fife Constabulary or Spirit of Scotland) took years and years of effort and diligence to get there only to have the whole thing crumble due to personnel changes.

The idea of pipe band dynasties is just about done. Nothing is sacred. To quote Paul McCartney (in what I consider to be the very worst lyric in the history of music), “In this ever-changing world in which we live in,” loyalty is a frail thing.

It seems that the Scottish bands are hurting the most. The country where competition pipe bands were invented is now down to nine in Grade 1, and that number may well sink to eight or even seven by the New Year, depending on grading decisions and/or further personnel changes.

Why is this? At a time when more people are playing pipes and drums better than ever, how can it be that some of Scotland’s greatest bands are collapsing or unable to field a competition-worthy unit? Even bands like the top-three Shotts after the 2007 season essentially had to rebuild both its pipe section and snare line.

I think one reason might be this: until about 10 years ago many Scottish bands filled out their rosters with overseas guest players. There was no shortage of talented foreign players who wanted a shot at the big-time and were willing to spend a summer in, or even move outright to, Scotland. To be sure, this still happens, but nowhere near to the degree it used to.

Non-Scottish players – and even many great pipers and drummers based in Scotland – I think are looking to non-Scottish bands for their ultimate piping and drumming Grade 1 experience. Instead, they’re going to British Columbia, to Ontario, to Northern Ireland, to Australia, to Ireland, to New Zealand. For many, Scotland is no longer the Mecca of the pipe band world.

I personally wish that weren’t so. I was one who grew up with a dream of playing with a Grade 1 Scottish band, and I did it and it had a lot to do with where I am today. I played with a Scottish-based Grade 1 band (albeit a very different one) last season. I love Scotland, my ancestral home.

But the reality is that, for many pipers and drummers who are looking for their ideal band, that band is no longer Scottish.


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