May 22, 2009

Touchy subjects

Not a few pipes|drums readers have contacted me about the recent p|d Poll question, “Should full-time bagpipe-makers be allowed to judge pipe band competitions?” Other versions of the bagpipe-makers-judging query have been posed before on the Poll over the years, and it’s of course a hot topic. Always has been; always will be – even if some sort of rule(s) were established to address the matter.

Several readers coyly wanted to know what prompted the question. That’s an easy answer, of course: the results of the Grade 2 competition at the 2009 Scottish Championships last week.

Bob Shepherd was the ensemble judge of the Grade 2 competition. He makes bagpipes and chanters. (I played one for several years and still play a Shepherd reed that’s been going strong for more than a decade.) Shepherd’s reputation as a judge, teacher, pipe-major and all-round remarkable person precedes him.

For the most part the two piping judges seemed to agree on the placings of bands. The band that won the contest, Inveraray & District, had two firsts in piping, a first in drumming, and an eighth in ensemble from Shepherd.

Now, I was not at the competition so I of course didn’t hear Inveraray. I also have no idea what make of chanters or bagpipes or drums or reeds the band plays. For all I know, the band did something horribly wrong with its ensemble. I don’t really care.

But thanks to the RSPBA’s publishing of all judges’ marks, we know that Inveraray received a 1,1 (piping), 1 (drumming) and 8 (ensemble) scoring. We can also see that Seven Towers had 8, 9, 9 and 1; MacKenzie Caledonia received 12, 19, 11 and 3; and Central Scotland Police got marks of 17, 16, 15 and 2.

So, the question was posed in the Poll, causing concern with a few people (several from bagpipe dealers), as if asking a simple, albeit sensitive, question were taboo in the world of piping and drumming. Many other tough questions also have been posed, and many new ones are still to come. Bring them on; let’s get things out in the open so that we can gain better understanding.

I suppose debating touchy subjects is still unthinkable with some old-school folks. There is something of a tradition in our art that prefers to sweep things under the rug rather than discuss them in the open. pipes|drums rejects that tradition. Only by asking questions will we ever get answers.

The reason that tough questions are traditionally not asked elsewhere may be because many people seem to have an interest in not asking them; sweep it under the rug and leave well enough alone. pipes|drums doesn’t sell anything but subscriptions and advertising, and those funds are plowed back into the publication or given to worthwhile not-for-profit causes, so I think we might be more free to evoke constructive conversation about sensitive issues that have been unaddressed for decades.

I’m interested to hear what others think about bringing sensitive matters that have existed for decades, even centuries, in piping and drumming out into the open.

(By the way, the last time I looked, the answer to that particular question from 74 per cent of respondents was “No.”)

A request: please keep any comments on the subject of discussing sensitive topics. Anything off-topic won’t be posted. Thanks.


  1. Bringing sensitive issues into the open, which have existed for decades, perhaps hundreds of years? Well of course its an important thing to do, and it’s why it was worth subscribing to pipes|drums. And anybody in a position of authority or responsibility in the piping and drumming world, will surely welcome sensitive issues being discussed here and elsewhere, as an aid to evaluating their own performance and professionalism as well as giving them invaluable insight into the things they might be missing but which others see.

  2. I agree 100% with Janette Montague. When one gets to the higher levels of pipe bands or solo piping/drumming for that matter, it is impossible to deny the influence of “personal preference.” I have always felt and will always continue to believe that those who judge MUST go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
    Not for one minute do I believe judges purposely “throw” a contest based on one’s interests in the manufacture of the instruments being played. However, I do believe it is unfair to put anyone in the position of subjectively choosing his/her product be it wooden or flesh (as in family member).
    There are a lot more people who have legitimately questioned the results based on the “looks” of things. Unfortunately, there are just as many people who question results for the wrong reasons.
    As a competitor, teacher and judge, I have heard as well as made comments, legitimate or not, about this subject far too many times. The sad thing is most people and bands are afraid to speak out for fear of future retribution. I don’t know how to fix this problem but commend pipes/drums for shining yet another light on the topic.

  3. By the same token, dealers should not be judging, nor teachers, nor relatives, nor former pipe majors in their own grades. [edited] It always seemed to me that the problem is not conflict of interest, it is with the various piping organizations being unable to fire bad judges, unable to say, “We have formal complaints about you, and your results are consistently out of line, so you are out.” Instead, a bunch of good people who can manage their self-interest are eliminated using a blanket rule because we’re all friends and nobody wants to fire the stinker. In an ideal world, conflict of interest rules make good sense. In our real and tiny world, there are barely enough good judges around as it is.

  4. One of the more touchy aspects of pursuing the truth surrounding touchy subjects is the possibility of resultant legal action, specifically libel and slander. I’m sure that on more than one occasion comments have been blocked or removed from this site for just that reason. Sadly, it is sometimes better just to “let it be” resulting in truth and justice taking a sabbatical.
    In order to avoid this type of situation, some people use pseudonyms and, as a defensive mechanism, never directly refer to any person or organization when offering criticism or insight on a particular subject or situation. Strange that they should be chastised for doing so.

  5. i just looked at the rspba site to see the results myself. there are certainly a couple of results with agreed placings between the judges, but there are several bands with results that are really inconsistent. i’ve wondered something similar since the 2009 qualifier for gr.1; what about piping judges who don’t award similar placings? at the scottish contest gr.2 alone, dumbarton got a 15 and a 4 from the piping judges, or grampian police which was awarded a 3rd and 11th. how is it that one judge can say one pipe core sounded like it was in the upper quartile, and another thought they, for want of a better phrase, had MUCH improvement to make? that’s a particular issue that i’ve had regarding individual placings from judges in bands and gross discrepancies between them

  6. One idea that pops into my head is this, and I think it may be happeneing already in other parts of the world already. The idea is to have miore judges, and then simplt throw out any suspicious markings. For example, if band X had a 1,2,4,3 and 15, the 15 would be thrown out. Another idea is to actually make the judge that gave that band the 15 accountable. Make them explain why they placed them that way. If they cannot or are not willing to do that, well they shouldn’t be out there in the first place.

  7. Let’s be fair and consider the other huge discrepancies relating to the Scottish grade two event. I’m confidant the two “piping” judges based their placings as honestly and as fairly perhaps as humanly possible but I also bring to you attention an equal concern and wonder why there has been little and in fact no comments made towards these two high profile gentlemen. For example: The band Ravara – the piping judges placed them 2-8 – Lomond & Clyde – 14-7 – Dumbarton – 15-4 – MacKenzie – 12-19 – Grampian Police – 3-11 – Lochgelly High School – 20-14 – Clydebank – 18-10 – Johnstone – 10-18. Eight bands just to name a few, whereby the judging was all over the board and I’m also confidant the bands in mentioned are equally not satisfied. The drumming judge in this instance gets a bit of relief because he has nobody to compete with i.e. another drumming judge.

  8. Great topic! It’s about policing the police. In the U.S., we own guns. In the history of the world, an armed citizenry has never suffered sustained oppression at the hands of its government. Topic debatable of course. Point is, no matter the judge’s background, their performance should speak for itself and be review annually. Too many tenured judges out there are failing to judge fairly due to alterior motives, diminishing skills, lack of interest, or that they were never really a good player or bandsman by today’s standards and are frankly unqualified. In piping, our gun is our dollar. This year’s ordeal with the RSPBA falls into the same category…spend your money elsewhere. Fergus perhaps? It will take a few years, but socieities and games organizers will get the message. Pipe band, inc has been sweeping this garbage under the rug forever. Especially over there. We are an enlightened world now. Change is due…it comes through accountability.

  9. Long ago, athletic events that require subjective interpretation eg diving, gymnastics, figure skating, etc, went to a system of multiple judges, where the highest and lowest scores are dropped. This “migratioin to the mean” approach, is statistically sound. One avoids the vagaries and excentricities of the statistical outliers, ie the East German judge, the Czech judge, the Chinese judge. This would help in the pipe band world avoid the vagaries of the Sinclair judge, the Andante judge, the Sheppard judge, the Pearl judge, the Naill judge the old judge, the young judge etc.

    The problem as I see it is getting enough “qualified” judges. There clearly are not enough domestic judges in the UK, so that “foreign” judges would be required to enlarge the RSPBA panel, and that’s a whole other bag of worms!

    Cheers, Kent Argubright “Doc”

  10. Some of us are old enough to have played in Scotland when the DID have extra judges and throw out the wild scores…I remember playing at the Scottish Championships in 1978 [Edinburgh Gardens] and that was the deal. A major championship in the UK today does not have enough qualified or available judges for that. [Especially with the non-UK judges out of the pack!] I think Jim McG is bang on: I know there are lots of adjudicators who sell stuff, including tuition, whose adjudications are a separate part of their interest in piping and drumming, and in no way would ever influence their results. Part of me thinks there would be ways to police/educate/re-assign judges, and part of me thinks “you pays your money and takes your chances,” “It is what it is,” and so on. The general piping public knows which judges are bent and which are bad [sadly, some are both], and I guess can judge results accordingly. As they say on Pipeline, “Enjoy your piping.”

  11. Perception is everything and since this subject was initiated by the comment “Conflict of Interest” then retail owners and their staff are no different from manufacturers. They generally make a larger profit than their manufacturers. They are also as guilty, for lack of a better word for the manner in which they promote their products and so this can often be construed with negativity, innuendo etc. This is particularly prevalent if they are also engaged in any sort of judging.

    Large companies always omit their employees participation re contests/draws etc in order to avoid this same dilemma and possible confrontation and bad press. It’s in the best interest of piping, drumming, highland dancing and all associations involved to ensure that this fine line is never crossed. Whether the comment is made that there is trust here or better yet that we are supposed to trust this one or that one or accept the suggestion that there are exceptions to the rule, is in itself a joke and irrelevant and holds no truth whatsoever.

    If we are going to make comments re one or two individuals, then we must draw the same conclusion for everyone and put everyone on a level playing field or otherwise back off and accept and appreciate that there is flaws in system and always will be. There are also great rewards, by having these capable men and women participate and offering their experience and at the same time not to be belittled when a decision doesn’t suit this one or that one or when personalities clash. However, the presumption or even accusation towards specific individuals becomes redundant when at the same time they condone and offer support to others who are also involved in a bagpipe, pipe band supply related business.

    I can recall playing in a grade one band in Scotland back in the very early seventies and at that time the adjudication system included a point system whereby “Tone” was allotted a maximum five points. My band was very consistent in this department and never received fewer than 4.5 points. On one occasion a piping judge gave us 3 points. He was approached and asked for his reasoning. His reply was that he suggested we try his pipe chanter reeds i.e. This judge was also a reedmaker. We did try them and then we returned them along with a polite response. Over the next few contests the band once again obtained between 4.5 and 5 points for tone. Until we were once again confronted by this same judge/reedmaker where we were given (2) points for tone. This is just one example where individuals involved in the manufacture, retail etc. should abstain, relieving themselves from any possible accusation of impropriety. It won’t happen but it’s a nice thought.



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