The hardest grade is 2

Published: April 19, 2010

Sticky.History demonstrates that the most difficult pipe band grade is Grade 2. I’m not talking about winning (although that’s hard, too); I’m talking about long-term survival.

This year – in North America, anyway – we’ve seen the demise or apparent demise of no fewer than three Grade 2 bands. Midlothian Scottish, Niagara Regional Police and, most recently, the Hamilton Police all seem to be belly-up. Also fairly recently we’ve seen Grade 2 bands exceed in the grade, get promoted to Grade 1, and then eventually crumble or recede back into Grade 2.

While many Grade 2 bands may have had a lengthy history before dissolving, their struggles to maintain and continue might be harder than bands in any other grade. If you consider that most pipers and drummers’ ultimate goal is to play with a successful Grade 1 band, the pressure on a Grade 2 band to hold on to personnel and keep things glued together is enormous.

And now with pressure on Grade 1 and 2 bands to field a pipe section of at least 15 quality players to have a fighting chance, it’s even harder. A Grade 2 band might have a feeder system, but often the best pipers from Grade 3 bands leapfrog Grade 2 to get to the premiership. And the days of sticking it out with a Grade 2 band, resolutely waiting for or dreaming for years about when the band might go to Grade 1, seem to be all but over. Grade 2 players increasingly just don’t have the patience or loyalty. (Those who do are to be admired, and eventually they will become known for their dedication, commitment and principles.)

There are exceptions, of course, and the obvious example is Inveraray & District. But there, too, time will tell if that band can withstand the pressures of Grade 1, especially when the group comprises so many young members, some of whom will inevitably go on to college and university or move away. But placing ahead of House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead in an event in your first competition is a very good start, as nothing maintains a band like winning.

And of course there are Grade 3 bands continually moving in to Grade 2 (see Aughintober, Howard Memorial, Killen, Linlithgow, Penatangore, Stuart Highlanders, Williamwood . . .) but they, too, will face the extraordinary pressures of the grade.

I’ve said before that Grade 2 is, perhaps ironically, the most entertaining and competitive grade. There bands have the ability to stretch out their creativity with a lot less risk, and generally there are far more bands than Grade 1 that have a realistic chance of winning the contest. Just my observation, but personnel in Grade 2 bands also seem to have more fun – maybe because they know it might not last.

The solution? There probably isn’t one. I think that perhaps limiting the roster numbers of Grade 1 bands would help the world pipe band scenes, but that’s unlikely to occur until the RSPBA does it first. Besides, the pressures of Grade 2 didn’t start when Grade 1 bands began fielding pipe sections of more than 20; but they did seem to get worse.

Today maybe the best way to survive as a Grade 2 band is not to be a Grade 2 band for long. The bands that can race through the grade in one, two or, at most, three years, and carry the winning momentum and enthusiasm into Grade 1 may ultimately be the only bands that endure.

5 thoughts on “The hardest grade is 2

  1. Part of the reason why Grade 2 has fallen apart all over the place these last few years is a lack of loyalty. Why it is Grade 2 and Grade 2 alone I cannot fathom. Certain individuals within the ranks of these bands look for certain things to happen (Such as high rankings) due to their high potential, but the first time bands will get close only to be turned away. Rather than stay to keep building on a good foundation, these individuals leave and go on to the “next best thing.” That’s not to say that the Aumoniers and Mr. Jenkins weren’t loyal, in fact, their departure likely prevented the band from further suffering. But, my point is it is those who left prior who caused the collapse. Having been through a band’s death and rebirth, I can speak very candidly on this matter.

    Another reason why Grade 2 is so thin is because many Grade 3 bands have become lazy. They get to a point where they are winning consistently and just stay there because they are comfortable. But other players disapprove and leave and the bands are back to square one. This is especially prevalent in U.S. organizations. When this happens, though, it is up to the PIPE BAND ASSOCIATIONS to keep these bands challenged and keep the association’s numbers healthy. According to my research, the current breakdown of Grade 2 bands in North America is as follows:

    East Canada: 4 (Fredricton Society of St. Andrew, Glengarry, Penatangore, Burnett’s & Struth)
    Middle Canada: 3 (St. Andrew’s Winnipeg, Rocky Mountain, City of Regina)
    West Canda: 2 (Chilliwick & District & New Westminister Police)
    East U.S.: 2 (Manchester, Stuart Highlanders)
    Middle U.S.: 1 (City of Chicago)
    Southern U.S.: 1 (St. Thomas Episcopal Alumni)
    Western U.S.: 1 (James J. Coyne Memorial)

    Considering that now there are currently five Grade 2 bands in the entire U.S. and that there were six in the Eastern U.S. alone just four short years ago, one can only wonder why the pipe band associations have been slow to react on this matter.

  2. It is indisputible fact that the growing ranks within grade I bands coincides directly with the inability of grade II bands to sustain. Despite larger numbers, there is still a vast divide in Grade I worldwide between the elite top 6 or 8 and everyone else. Thus, grade I has almost become two grades within itself. Sure, the names at the top vary slightly from year to year as one band falls out and a new one takes it’s place, but the desire for many players to check “playing at the worlds in a grade I band” off their bucket list has really hurt grade II, even if the grade I band has no chance of making it out of the qualifier. Nothing illustrates this better than seeing grade I bands in the worlds qualifier with 22 pipers sounding like a really good grade II band. Thus, grade II/III bands sit and wait until their hometown players get it out of their system. The short-sightedness is that if everyone stayed in their local/regional band, regional competitions would be so much more fierce and exciting. Far more interesting than the world’s anyway. The answer…roster limits and downgrading. I can rattle off a few grade I bands that are really playing at what was the N.American grade II standard just a few years ago. 25 pipers and 12 snares doesn’t automatically qualify you for perennial grade I status. Staying in Grade I should be earned year after year. The best band in a given society isn’t automatically a grade I band. Finally, I think challenge ups at non-major competitions are a good idea. They have unfortunately gone by the wayside. But what better way to really get a sense of where bands are? In the late 80’s early 90’s a grade II band I played with beat the EUSPBA grade I’s and a faltering Ontario Grade I in challenge-ups. Did it prove that we were worthy of grade I? No. It proved they weren’t worthy of grade I. And soon after they were all done or downgraded (and appropriately so).

  3. DanPizz,
    An addition to your list of current N.A. Grade 2 bands: as of last year Prince Charles Pipe Band is again competing in Grade 2 in WUSPBA (and doing quite well, I might add!)

  4. I hope I’m not speaking out-of-turn (and Andrew is recently qualified to comment, having heard ALL Australian Grade 2 bands one after the other only a few weeks ago)… but many of the Grade 2 bands in Australia really don’t see themselves as such.
    One state – mine – decided to throw all notion of ‘international grading’ out the window when upgrading the stronger Gr 4s, then the stronger Gr 3s as well on a local basis.
    My band had been in Gr 2 a decade ago (and was honestly outclassed then). The Grade 3 contests in my state had been ongoing three-way battles that could, and did often go any way amongst the competitors in overall standings. Three quarters of the Gr 3 bands in the one state, despite a degree of protest, were upgraded with the national championship on the horizon. Of the four other Gr 2 bands already in the country, one had been downgraded from Gr 1 not that long ago, and the other three had been Gr 2 competitors for many, many years. Seven bands in all.
    Three of the seven bands indulged in some use of the guest player rule to varying degrees, from Gr 1 in New Zealand. My band acquired one snare who intend playing with us as regularly as schedules allow, and we ‘supply’ a small number of drummers back the other way over the Tasman. I digress…
    Ultimately, one of the new (import-less) ‘upgrades’ won the overall championship, by virtue of it’s piping and ensemble. It has to be said that Gr 2 – until this championship – had been a fairly dull affair. Although it’s a more competitive grade, I don’t see it as a ‘world standard’ Gr 2, and I know many agree. There are certainly quality players in each of the bands, some of whom have, and do play in Gr 1 to satisfy that ‘thirst’ that has been mentioned here in other posts.
    The interesting thing is that the majority of these bands do appear to be stable Gr 2 ventures for the most part, though one might question the degree to which imported guest players prop up the standard for the occasion. True, and as mentioned by others, the standard is not knocking on the door of Gr 1, but it is competitive within itself (the same can be said on NZ Gr 2, which is also small).
    It’s interesting to sit back and contemplate the issues wrapped up in this one. It’s complex, but there are certainly certain globally common themes that recur.

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