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.

Digging a hole where the rain gets in . . .

I buried Paul!The current news of the RSPBA’s handling of “international” judges has captured the interest of pipes|drums readers. And why not? The competitive pipe band world (at least the non-Breton one) has been built on the Scottish model.

Over its history, the World Pipe Band Championships (Cowal pre-1947 included) were pretty much the same thing for more than 50 years. There was little growth and change in size or playing standards. Probably at least 95 per cent of the entrants were from Scotland. The rise in pipe band standards in the Commonwealth countries just happened to coincide with the availability of relatively cheap jet travel, so non-UK bands gradually gravitated to Scotland to test their mettle.

There is little argument that the expansion of the World’s is due to the influx of “overseas” bands.

I still think that the RSPBA – even three decades in to this crazy expansion – still doesn’t know what’s hit them. They have not adapted well to this change, and, some would say, have even tried to resist it, even by putting it down.

The City of Glasgow has figured it out. The National Piping Centre has figured it out. Piping Live! has figured it out. Why the RSPBA hasn’t is difficult for many to fathom. Thousands of people are saying, “Here, please take our money. All that we ask in return is a fair shake.”

Even when things have not been perceived as fair (e.g., recording rights, judging representation, threats of suspension to top overseas bands and judges), non-UK bands have still come, hoping that maybe, just maybe, this year things will be different. I wonder if the latest action – or inaction, as the case may be – is the final straw. One senses a groundswell. There’s a very angry mob that might have had just quite enough.

But I think that there is an element who feels, “Fine, stay home if you don’t like it. It’s our contest, so you’ll play under our rules, and we will set those rules as we see fit.” It’s as if they would be perfectly happy to return to 1965.

The current pipes|drums Poll is revealing. At the moment a total of 14 per cent have said Yes to the question “By suspending international judges, has the RSPBA done the right thing?” Of course, 86 per cent feel that the RSPBA made the wrong decision. If we look at the data behind the entries, countries of origin can be counted.

Responses from Canada are a tiny 3 per cent saying Yes. Those from the USA are higher, at 8 per cent. Australia is in line with the average, with 14 per cent responding Yes.

But, the UK response is a very different story. Some 35 per cent of responses from the UK support the RSPBA’s decision. While that’s far short of majority, it’s way above the average and miles more than the Canadian opinion.

There’s a massive divide that may not be possible to bridge. Could this be the end-of-the-tether for many bands? Will the RSPBA be able to dig itself from the hole that it’s dug? The next few months will tell the tale.


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.

Big MAP attack II

Cutty Sark was spirited and lively.I understand that the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association has decided to adopt the RSPBA’s Musical Appreciation and Presentation, or “MAP,” system for its lower grade band competitions. I’ve thought a lot about MAP, and wrote about it last year, saying, among other things, that it’s a crock.

I’m not sure if I have changed my mind, but here’s what I think now: it might make sense for the UK, but it makes no sense for non-UK associations. This is why:

MAP is supposed to improve musicality in lower-grade bands. The RSPBA identified a decline in standards so, by foisting traditional (and some really hackneyed) set tunes and scores and all-ensemble judging on the lower grades, the thinking three years ago was that these bands would improve, and quality would trickle up the grades.

The UK pipe band scene, however, is very, very different from elsewhere. Solo piping and band piping are two drastically different worlds in Scotland. Bandsmen do their thing and soloists theirs, and the two hardly ever converge. Competitions are almost always at separate venues. There are pipe band-only judges and there are solo piping-only judges. A select few judge both domains. There may be the odd piper in a UK band who “goes in” for the solos, but they too are few.

In the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and actually, I think, everywhere outside of the UK, band and solo scenes are intertwined. The majority of pipers in bands at some point work hard on their solo stuff, and many, if not most, for their entire lives. They spend a lot of time studying the nuances of phrasing, technique and overall musicality. Pipe-majors of non-UK bands are almost always accomplished soloists. They understand what constitutes quality pipe-music, and as a result they work to instill that in the band.

On the other hand, many UK bands, and especially those in the lower grades, are led by pure bandsmen. These leaders more often than not have not dedicated any time to dissecting the intricacies of phrasing, of how to make a 2/4 march “spirited and lively” – at least in a solo way. They may know how to get a sound, but probably have no idea how to make a march swing. I dare say that this lack of musicality can be heard in some top-grade UK bands that are led by pipers who never rose to any heights as soloists.

Further, judges at non-UK band events almost always are also accredited solo piping judges, and, consequently, the musical standards that non-UK pipe band judges measure competitors against are taken straight from solo benchmarks. On the other hand, the preponderance of band-only judges in the UK might have something to do with the fact that in the UK a band that has a good sound but lacks musicality more often than not does well.

Three years after MAP, I see no evidence that it’s making much, if any, difference to the quality of lower-grade UK bands. In fact, I see the standard of North American Grade 4 and Grade 3 bands rising, perhaps due mainly to the advent of Grade 5. Case in point: the Grade 5 Paris/Port Dover band from Ontario competed in Grade 4B at the 2008 World’s and finished second against 48 other bands. Seattle’s Keith Highlanders placed third overall after winning their qualifying heat. The Keith Highlanders are no doubt a fine band, but they were a distant third in overall Grade 4 contests run by their home association, the British Columbia Pipers Society.

These are just a few examples, but they indicate to me that the North American standard has risen, while the UK standard has not. I can detect no evidence that MAP is working. If it were, then wouldn’t non-UK lower-grade bands competing at the World’s be trounced by those bands that have been competing under the system since 2006?

With the UK’s separation of bands and solos, MAP may make some sense for Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, but adopting it elsewhere is a step backward.

Boom-boom – on goes the light

Yes we can.When Craig Colquhoun and Scott Currie approached pipes|drums a few months ago about having the 2008 World Champion Bass-Section winner decided by the magazine’s poll, I was a little reluctant. Is this right? Should the world’s pipers and drummers determine what Grade 1 band’s mid-section should receive the award? Don’t all pipe band-related prizes have to be decided by accredited judges?

To be honest, I forgot about it until Hoss raised the idea again last week. My immediate response was, Yes, why not?

Why have the award decided this way? Well, for a start, the RSPBA decided to eliminate the prize so certified judges can’t award it in any official way any longer.

Second, we all know that, sadly, the Best Bass-Section prize when it is given out, it’s often in a relatively informal manner. There are no specific bass and tenor judges at pipe band contests, and the prize is usually determined by the ensemble and/or drumming judges, both of whom are either snare drummers or pipers. To my knowledge, there are no RSPBA judges who have specific expertise in modern bass- or tenor-drumming either as players or arrangers. Today’s mid-sections are captained by a player within the section itself, and the band’s leading-drummer and pipe-major pretty well just sign off on the arrangements that they compose and choreograph.

Third, the BBC and the RSPBA kindly put out a lovely (albeit out-of-sync and possibly illegal) DVD of the World’s Grade 1 Final. We can all see and hear first-hand every one of these mid-sections without actually having to be there.

Lastly, the trophy is the Hosbilt Cup and was donated by Colquhoun’s company with the expressed agreement that it be awarded to the best Grade 1 bass-section at the World’s. Since the RSPBA’s prize no longer exists, and since the association clearly doesn’t want to award it, then the trophy should be returned. If Craig wants to award the prize this way, then fine, we’re happy to help.

PPBSO and RSPBA judge Ken Eller has already questioned the relatively harmless method of determining the prize. Why should anyone feel threatened by an award being determined not as an after-thought by accredited judges with piping and snare drumming backgrounds, but a by fair, popular vote of all of the world’s competitive pipers and drummers – including bass- and tenor-drummers, the people who care and know about this the most?

Leading lights from the strong-voiced community of mid-section players consider this popular-vote method a good way to do it for the year (at least) when there appears to be no other way. Why should anyone feel anything but good for bass and tenor players and the bands in which they play?


As Harry Tung alluded to recently, the decision to put Oran Mor into Grade 2 at the World’s has received a lot of post-contest discussion. Promoted to Grade 1 by its home organization, the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association, Oran Mor was subsequently asked to compete in the penultimate grade by the RSPBA, which the band then gamely accepted.

Oran Mor went on to gain a fourth prize in Grade 2 at Glasgow Green. Some people seem to think that this is confirmation that the band is in fact Grade 2 standard and the RSPBA made the right call. It’s not.

I didn’t hear Oran Mor or, for that matter, any of the Grade 2 bands at the 2008 World’s. But I do know that it’s not uncommon that the bottom two, three or even four bands in a larger band or solo competition would not gain a prize in the next grade down. Conversely, the top two, three or four bands in a big contest often would easily meet the standard in the next higher grade. That’s why grading committees go not only by the results they see, but also by the sound they hear.

I heard the Grade 5 band contest at Maxville this year and thought that the Paris/Port Dover band on that day actually met the Grade 4 standard. A few weeks later, the band finished second in Grade 4B at the World’s. Similarly, I heard one or two UK-based Grade 1 bands at the World’s and thought that they might not win a Grade 2 contest in Ontario.

But the issue at hand is not the grade-standard that the band meets; the issue is that of reciprocity between organizations. If one of those bottom-tier UK-based Grade 1 bands decided to make a trip to compete at the 2009 North American Championships, then (assuming it’s still in Grade 1 next year) I am certain that their entry would be accepted unconditionally. There would be absolutely no question as to their proper grade: it’s the one assigned to them by their home association, in this case, the RSPBA. End of story.

When Oran Mor entered Maxville there was never a question as to the grade the band would compete in. It was Grade 1, the grade assigned to them by the EUSPBA, and the grade the band entered. It was well known that Oran Mor would be competing in Grade 2 at the World’s and that it would be competing against very successful Grade 1 bands at Maxville. It did not matter.

Oran Mor finished last in Grade 1 at Maxville, but it still won’t matter in 2009 if a Grade 1 Oran Mor enters Grade 1 at Maxville. Their entry should be accepted.  Likewise, if Cap Caval, Ravara or Torphichen – the bands that finished ahead of Oran Mor at the World’s – come to Maxville in 2009 and enter to compete in Grade 2, then that is the grade they would compete in, provided they were assigned to Grade 2 by their home association.

I’ve read the arguments for and against the decision to put Oran Mor into Grade 2 at the World’s. What I haven’t heard, so far, is the reaction of Bagad Brieg and Buchan – the bands that finished, respectively, fifth and sixth, or, for that matter, Dumfries & Galloway Constabulary, which would have gained a prize had this Grade 1 graded band not bumped them from the list.

Who would really care if Oran Mor had competed in Grade 1 at the World’s? If they didn’t qualify for the final, then that’s their problem. If they did qualify, then the other bands would at least be able to say that they were beaten by a band legitimately graded Grade 1 by its home association.

The same cannot be said by the Grade 2 bands that finished behind Oran Mor at the World’s.

Walking the planks

Board-walkeringI’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.


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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