August 13, 2010

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.

August 10, 2009

It’s alive!

Livens it up.It’s hard to believe that Piping Live! is now in its sixth year. Those of us who are old enough will remember what it was like to travel to Glasgow to compete at the World’s before the preceding week was chock-a-block, as it is now, with entertaining and informative events.

Don’t misunderstand me, Glasgow is a wonderful city. It’s where my mother grew up and I was there many times as a kid. But back in the 1980s and ’90s non-UK bands would arrive, as they do today, a week before the contest. There would be the one or two band practices a day, and after that you pretty much had to invent your own fun. And to a large extent, that involved consuming massive quantities of costly beverages, often all day long. It was fun but monotonous, expensive, and not exactly conducive to good playing.

All you’d talk about at the pub was the contest: the judges, the draw, the weather, the other bands, the possible result, the chanters, the timing, the weather, the reeds, the draw, the drums, the weather, the stewards, the bags, the judges, the draw, the chanters, the other bands, the weather . . . ad infinitum. By the time the contest actually arrived you were one big ball of anxiety, and you most certainly didn’t sleep much the night before.

I’d imagine that continues now with some people, but it seems that Piping Live!, in addition to the world-class piping and drumming talent and information it provides to anyone who wants to take advantage of it, is a great social diversion for visiting players. It also helps to keep them out of the pub.

I played at the World’s last year, and the week was a completely different experience. Sure, it was a different band, but I found that the Festival provided so many pleasant distractions to take my mind off the Saturday that I didn’t feel stressed at all when the Big Event arrived. The week flew by.

This year I’m heading to Piping Live! again, arriving Wednesday morning, this time as a non-competitor. Those competing with bands may feel differently, but because the three weekdays that I’ll be there are so full of interesting and satisfying variety, the Saturday competition is almost secondary.

Younger visiting competitors today don’t know how good they have it this week.

February 13, 2009

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.

September 18, 2008

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.

August 17, 2008

That’s the spirit

It was 2005 when I was last in Glasgow for the World’s, and 10 years since I was there as a competitor. 1997 was the last year before the Qualifier system was introduced. I stopped playing with pipe bands with not a little disappointment with the whole process that competitors must endure if they want a chance to succeed: the conditions, the lack of transparency, the back-biting that often took place between rival bands and even within them.

Since then much has changed. The biggest improvement is not with the contest itself – although the RSPBA has made it massively better. No, the best upgrade with the whole experience is the Piping Live! festival. Not only does the week-long event provide visitors with forums to learn and have fun, but it allows competitors to socialize and get to know each other. Where 10 years ago it was standard to look at the opposition with suspicion and distrust, often presuming that the enemies you don’t know must be people of misery and deceit, today, mainly due to the Piping Live! events, you end up having pints with members of other bands, getting to know your counterparts and learning that that guy in the band that might beat you on Saturday actually doesn’t have horns and a tail.

The week of the World’s has become a place of camaraderie and fellowship, similar to that of the solo piping scene, where competitors (well, most, anyway) lend support and genuinely wish each other well.

It’s interesting to me that Piping Live! is managed mainly by people heavily involved with that more egalitarian solo piping scene. It can be said that the whole festival was prompted then by a non-bandsman, Willie McCallum, who is of course one of the great solo pipers in history, after seeing the Todd Bar near his University of Strathclyde office become for a week the centre of the piping universe. With so many “overseas” bands staying at the uni, the central pub was a place where competitors could lighten up, relax a little and actually let down their guard. They could visit other bands’ practices, have a drink together, and see that, gee, those are guys pretty much like us.

So Willie’s brainchild was the Todd Bar Recital Challenge, an event that integrates the audience with the players, placing camaraderie before competition.

And it followed, I think, that Willie’s friend and competition rival Roddy MacLeod would extend that concept and build the Piping Live! festival. I can only detect positive comradeship and community in all of the Piping Live! events. At least with those who have embraced the festival, there’s none of the bitterness and back-biting that may have existed a decade ago.

The sniping times are officially a thing of the past. The festival injects into the pipe band world the solo piping world’s communal support system – and it succeeds. It’s funny what can happen when you work with people rather than against them, and it’s no surprise that that spirit extends right through the National Piping Centre.

After five days of Piping Live! the actual World’s seems now a much more congenial place. Of course, everyone wants to win, but I don’t see many people taking pleasure from seeing the rival band lose, as may often have been the case pre-Piping Live!

Back on the park as a competitor once again, it was great fun trying to win in competition with a bunch of friends with whom I really wanted to play. That’s no different, I guess, than any other healthy band, but I enjoyed feeling like Glasgow Green was more like the solo scene I love than the old band scene I grew to dislike and ultimately leave (as a competitor, anyway) for 10 years.

Of Piping Lives!’s many accomplishments – the workshops, the recitals, the lectures, the launches, the lunches, the panels, the exhibits, the café, the creative contests, the parties – indirectly improving the entire atmosphere of the pipe band world and the World’s itself is perhaps its biggest.


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