Crazy AGM Head

Let it all out.Paltry attendance by members at annual general meetings of associations seems to be a worldwide dilemma. Every year that I’ve been in piping and drumming I’ve seen, heard or read about people bemoaning the apparent apathy of members when a small percentage turns out for their AGM. (In fact, come to think of it, pipers and drummers don’t generally go to any piping and drumming events at which they aren’t actually a performer, which may tell you something about us.)

The recent PPBSO AGM was another case-in-point. Thirty-five of the association’s 1200-odd membership attended, or about three per cent. And, of those there, about half held an official role with the organization. It’s almost traditional for members not to attend these things.

I’ve made the PPBSO AGM now for 21 straight years, mainly because of my role either in publishing or with the Music Board. I have to admit, though, that it is one of my least favourite days of the year. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is, and I would suspect that that’s true of most who attend. They’re mostly there out of a sense of propriety or duty.

It’s odd to me that, with people so passionate about their piping/drumming avocation, they’re apparently so apathetic when it comes to meetings where significant rules and policies can often be determined and leadership is decided. Pipers and drummers inherently kvetch and moan their whole lives about judging and rules and results, but when it comes time to do something about them, they’d just as well stay home. Funny, that.

Maybe it’s the off-putting phenomenon of individuals who come out of the woodwork seemingly with the sole intent to make a fuss. There are always one or two people at AGMs who are very outspoken, but no one seems to know who they are or even recall seeing them before, never mind knowing if they’re even actually involved with piping and drumming. They make a scene at the AGM, then go away for 12 months. After a year or two, they go away for good.

At AGMs of publicly traded organization this occurs, too. As long as you own one share of a public company, you have the right to attend its AGM and have your views made known and your vote counted. You can stand up and make Steve Ballmer sleepless in Seattle if you own a bit of Microsoft.

There’s something about AGMs that tempts people – me included – into becoming argumentative and, at times, insensitive. Call it Crazy AGM Head. The affair this past Saturday was actually very congenial and relatively sedate, but I’ve seen meetings at which I swear folks came close to having a coronary right there, veins pulsing out of their forehead as they try to shout down one another. It’s probably the passion for the art kicking in, or maybe it’s a habitual need to perform. Whatever the case, after these meetings I’m sometimes a shade embarrassed of my conduct.

I understand why people wouldn’t want to dedicate a Saturday to such a thing. It’s not fun, and at times it can be downright difficult. But, ultimately, when measured against the big picture of a lifetime of commitment and dedication to piping and drumming, attending annual general meetings is relatively small pain for the greater good.

Bloomsday scenario

It’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, after the Georgetown games and the latest musical-envelope-pusher from the Toronto Police. Just like last year when the band came out with it’s “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions,” the comments are again flying around about the band’s “Idiomatica” entry.

I hesitate to call it a medley, since a musical medley, by Webster’s definition, is “a musical composition made up of a series of songs or short pieces,” rather than a cohesive single composition, which I believe “Idiomatica” is meant to be. You can’t call it a “selection” either, as that also involves, I think, selecting various existing tunes, much like a musical medley. Call it a piece, an opus or even an oeuvre.

Semantics aside, it’s bloody difficult to compare what the Toronto Police played against the more familiar formats of other bands in the contest. The pipe band “medley” has evolved more or less on its own, usually by bands dipping one timid toe at a time in the musical froth, trying a “different” tune here, an unusual rhythm there. Heaven forfend that a judge might react negatively.

There are actually very few musical requirements placed on a band in the rules of the world’s pipe band associations. The RSPBA has by far the most strictures, forcing bands to start with a “quick-march” at a certain minimum tempo and with the familiar three-paced rolls and a mandatory E.

The only musical requirement that I know for a Grade 1 pipe band medley under PPBSO rules is that it must be between five and eight minutes long. There are no stipulations as to what should be played or how many of the band’s pipers and drummers (or other instrumentalists, for that matter) can play at one time. In fact, there’s nothing to say that the band couldn’t just stand there, tacit, for five minutes, in homage to Chares Ives or something.

If the Toronto Police didn’t have the musical clean-slate that the PPBSO membership prefers, perhaps they wouldn’t compete with their new pieces, unless it were to make a one-time, “Thelma and Louise”-like statement. I gather they were fully prepared to go down in a blaze of glorious disqualification had they been able to play in the Final at last year’s World’s.

I like that bands are free to push musical buttons and boundaries. I can also appreciate those who feel that it shouldn’t be allowed, that such challenges to the familiar are too much of an affront to our musical “tradition,” whatever that is. It’s a healthy, difficult debate.

After all the talk of the Toronto Police’s “Good Intentions” piece, I was eager to see how many bands might follow suit with their own brave attempts to explore their own new musical limits. So far, I haven’t heard or heard of any other bands anywhere in the world making such an attempt. (Please let me know if there are.) In fact, I’m noticing the direct opposite: bands harking back to material, styles and structures of the 1970s and ’80s, particularly the once-hackneyed-now-retro seamless transition from strathspey-to-jig or jig-to-strathspey.

I might be wrong, but while a lone band is aggressively blazing new musical ground, others seem to be retreating into the past, with the old being new again. Whether that’s a conscious rejection, or just plain happenstance, again, I don’t know.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Saner heads

His beak can hold more than his belly can.Several years ago I judged a band competition in Ontario and was faced with a situation that most adjudicators dread. In fact, it was the first contest in which I was on ensemble, having gone through the accreditation process the previous spring.

It was the Grade 1 competition, which consisted of three bands. All of the bands played well. It was a medley event, and Ontario rules state that bands must submit two selections, and draw at the line with the ensemble judge present for the one they should play.

One of the bands came to the line, clearly wanting to get on with it because it was a scorching day. The pipe-major reached into the bag, and pulled out the #1 chip. In Ontario, the content of the selections is printed on each score sheet, the tunes being provided by the band with its entry. But because of a database glitch, the selections were reversed on the score sheet for each band, so the one that the band thought is #1 was printed as #2, however bands were made aware of the issue. So, the content of the #1 selection was really printed on the score sheet as the #2 entry. In essence, a band drawing #1 would have to play #2.

As the ensemble judge, I reminded each pipe-major at the line of that discrepancy. But this one band’s pipe-major was clearly in a hurry, and turned to start his group without realizing the reversal and that I was pointing out the other medley on the score sheet. Strictly speaking, the band played the wrong selection and thus a rule was broken . . . sort of.

Immediately after the band played, the judges got together, and we discovered that we all had noticed the band’s “error.” What to do?

We quickly agreed that we would go ahead and judge the entire contest as we would if there were no problem. We also agreed that, after that, we would alert the head of the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario about what occurred, since, ultimately, any penalty would be an Executive decision.

As judges, we made a recommendation to the President, which was to tell all of the bands what had happened, and allow the competitors to decide what they’d prefer to do. If the band at fault wanted to give up its prize, then they could do that; if the other two bands preferred not to move up a place for such a shallow reason (a move that we thought was likely), then that was fine, too. But it had the potential to be an ungodly embarrassment for everyone involved. Was it really worth it?

To my surprise at the time, the PPBSO president decided not to do anything. He was willing to let sleeping dogs lie, feeling that, even though a rule was broken, it made little sense to us to crack down on it. It just wasn’t worth the certain ill will. The band that made the mistake didn’t appear to do it intentionally. The PPBSO was also at least partly to blame because of the database problem, swapping the medleys on the score sheets.

I’m reminded of that situation because of the current issue with the RSPBA’s “international” judges being suspended. Just like any organization, the RSPBA has a right to enforce its rules strictly. If the rule is that sample score sheets must be provided from a judge’s home association, then so be it.

But, like the situation I described above, is it worth it? Ultimately, does it make sense to doggedly follow a rule that was broken due to any number of faults – chief among them, perhaps, resting with the association itself? Yes, an organization’s role is to enforce the rules, but leadership’s role is to determine when exceptions are warranted.

Some will no doubt feel that the band should have been disqualified, just as some will think that the RSPBA did the right thing. But I learned from that awkward circumstance at that competition that, every so often, punishing people for breaking a rule can in the broader scheme of things do more harm than good.

Sometimes, those who suffer the most when rules are rigidly enforced are the competitors and the art, and it’s better to quietly sort things out behind the scenes and just get on with it for the good of all concerned.


Burn, baby, burn.

This is a lengthier post, but I hope you still read it.

There has been some hand-wringing in Ontario and other parts of North America lately over apparent declining interest in our “product.” While some Ontario Highland games, like Maxville and Fergus, are thriving with bigger-than-ever crowds, others, like Chatham and Sarnia, have recently closed shop.

Jim McGillivray recently described it as “Rome burning,” which might be over-stating things a shade. For the last 10 years, he and others have called out for a reinvigoration or even reinvention of our product – the thing that we sell to Highland games organizers.

The RSPBA and the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario sell a turn-key product to events. For a flat fee, these associations will come in and run all of the piping, drumming and band competitions, and stage the massed band or march-past spectacles. As anyone who has been to several RSPBA or PPBSO events can attest, they’re pretty much the same format from contest to contest.

Most other associations have a different model. They will “sanction” designated competitions that agree to allow them to coordinate the judging and advise on competition formats and some recruitment of competitors. In essence, they ensure that competitions are of a certain quality. But games organizers can much more easily stage creative and different events, so variety from contest to contest is greater. It’s a more competitive and capitalistic approach. Over time, competitors gravitate to the events that are run the best and are the most fun to attend.

But what about the idea of our “product”? What actually is the product that we have to sell?

Here’s a fact we should all face: ultimately, the general, non-playing public does not much like bagpipe music. Let’s accept it. The average person is not drawn to our music for more than a few minutes because, in its usual style, it’s not very accessible or understandable or, dare I say it, enjoyable. This has always been so.

Our musical product has not seriously changed in 100 years. Medleys are more adventurous, but the large crowds that listen to the top-grade competitions at the World’s and Maxville do not comprise the general public; they are the same competitive pipers and drummers and friends and family who have always listened. It’s a captive audience that has grown over many decades. The more competitors a competition can attract, the bigger the crowds listening to the competitions.

The large general public that attends Fergus and Maxville doesn’t much pay attention to the competitions. They come out for the Highland dancing, the caber tossing, the sheepdogs and the grand spectacle of the massed bands. We can, and probably should, add 15-minute freestyle Grade 1 band events in concert formation, but I still think that the general public won’t really care. Performing facing the audience makes sense, but droves of punters aren’t suddenly going to appear because of it.

New competition formats could freshen things for pipers and drummers, however, the competition music will still be relatively inaccessible, because it will inevitably at least compromise when it comes to arguments about “Scottish idiom” and technical complexity that we identify as necessary in order to have a serious competition. At the end of the day, no competitive pipers and drummers want to do away with competition. It’s what they do. Most of us are competitors and get off on winning. Relatively few of us are frustrated artists.

I think that our non-competition “product” for the games still works. It can be tweaked to offer more variety and showmanship, but, if so, that product inevitably will have to leave out many of the lower-grade bands, and allow the more practiced and accomplished higher-grade bands to do the work, and they will want compensation.

The people who cry out for a sweeping change invariably are those who have been around the longest. They’re bored because they have heard and done it all before, hundreds of times.

But I don’t hear competitors younger than 30 express the same desire for sweeping change, because, just as it was for the now jaundiced veterans 30-odd years ago, our competition format is addictive and alluring to a certain type of piper and drummer who spends years getting it. (I also have never heard anyone from the UK suggest that their Rome is burning, but maybe that’s a different story.)

It’s a quandary. Do we accept that the music we play is arcane and boring to the vast majority of non-players and alter it so dramatically (I’m picturing other instruments, marching formations, electronica, light shows . . .) to attract a big general-public crowd? Or do we continue along the same course, mainly pleasing ourselves and our friends and family?

And, if it’s the latter, why not hold our own competitions that subsist on our own dues and entry-fees, holding them in parking lots and fallow farmers’ fields? Why can’t associations therefore move away from being competition machines and instead become event promoters?

I’ve never been to Rome, but I understand that today it’s an awesome place that respects the old while celebrating the new. Perhaps our Rome needs to burn for us to get better.


One medley for babies?Would it make sense to standardize competition rules worldwide at least at the top levels? Every year since the World Pipe Band Championships made the Grade 1 Final playing requirement submit two MSRs and one medley, there has been some hue and cry over the disparity between requirements leading up to the contest, with some alleging that some non-RSPBA bands have an advantage.

The RSPBA requires that bands submit two selections at all of its Grade 1 medley competitions. The Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario has the same rule. On the other hand, the British Columbia Pipers Association and other organizations call for Grade 1 bands to put in only one medley throughout their season.

The allegation by some is that bands that have only one selection to work on all summer enter the World’s with an edge.

I’m not sure what I think on the matter, but I do know that every association’s rules for solo competitions get progressively more stringent through the grades. In the Professional, or Open, grade, most associations require solo pipers to submit four of everything. Similarly, rules for bands get more and more difficult going up the grades, and it would seem logical to continue that increasing level of difficulty right through to the premier grade.

It makes sense to me that Grade 1 bands should have to prepare at least two MSRs and two medleys. In fact, in these days of most Grade 1 bands needing to have two hours of concert material at their fingertips, one would think that two of each is no bother at all.

But, then again, it also makes some sense that associations should follow the requirements set out by the RSPBA at the World’s, and allow their bands to hone their very best selection in the event that they need it on the big day.

Perhaps the solution is for the RSPBA to increase the requirement of the Grade 1 Final to two medleys. There are several advantages to this I think: more variety for the crowd; more variety year-to-year on the DVD and CD; more drama and excitement for the audience.

Sure, it’s more work and pressure for the bands (or at least as much when bands pre-1972 had to submit three MSRs) but, really, isn’t that what the Grade 1 Final all about?


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