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.