August 19, 2008


Honestly, they're playing facing you.Never under-estimate the value of canny marketing. Some pipe bands get it, and two bands used actual competition performances to draw attention not only to the band itself, but to issues of competing and musical presentation.

The first, of course, is the Toronto Police and its very different “medley.” I discussed it after the band performed the medley for the first time at Georgetown back in June. TPPB didn’t qualify for the Final at the World’s, and I’m quite sure they had every intention to play it there, even if it may have meant disqualification. I was hoping that they would get through.

The latest competition statement to be made was from House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead in the Medley event of the World’s Final. With about 30 seconds of the medley left, the pipe section turned outward to face the audience and the judges. Knowing the value of surprise, I understand that P-M Robert Mathieson kept this plan from even his own band members until the morning of the contest . Listening to the BBC recording of the performance, the pipe-section sound when they turn gets noticeably clearer, even if there’s a slight loss of unison.

Like TPPB after Georgetown, the Shotts turn was the talk of the day. I heard more about that from people than I did about how Field Marshal or the eventual World Champions SFU played. One can say that 2008 has been a year when the first-prize-winners had their thunder completely stolen.

The TPPB and HOESAD examples show what can be done simply by acting differently. I’m pretty sure that both bands saw 2008 as something of a building year, so perhaps winning was not the number-one objective for either. Would either band have done what they did if they thought that they were favourites to win the World’s? I don’t know. But I think that, without that win-at-any-cost mentality that guides a band that seriously thinks it can win, these bands made the most of the situation and decided to make very large musical statements.

Rab Mathieson calls for World’s reform in his pipes|drums Interview, even wondering why pipe bands don’t face the audience like any other serious musician would. Last Saturday he made a simple yet bold statement, risking losing the prize, but becoming the talk of the park while putting the spotlight directly on the important issue of what we are all are as musicians.


  1. Good on them for daring to be different and challenging the system. I can’t help but think that, at least in the case of Shotts, who you are counts. Doing something out of the ordinary unless you have a profile and reputation can be fraught with danger.

    Many years ago the drum corps of which I was a member played a cut-down snare – essentially just a top head assembly and not much more – at a national championship. This was a properly engineered after-market solution pre-dating the solution Toronto Police (no surprise there?) ‘dare’ to use by years. It caused a stir, even from our own pipe corps who tried to block the ‘radical’ move before that season, throughout which we used the snares. At the championships we were the centre of attention. We were of the opinion that it made our playing sharper, with less room for error, such was the clarity of the instrument. Ultimately it raised the profile of our band, but was a bit much for many adjudicators, apparently. Perhaps we didn’t have the profile to make a bigger splash with our innovation at that time?

    Good luck to those bands; especially at the top level, where they can perhaps make a lasting difference. Our music has improved in leaps and bounds across the grades through the application of new technologies and the efforts of those ‘who dare’ to try new things. I think it has been shown that we can keep the best traditional aspects of what we do, but innovate and invigorate.

    Best of luck to the trailblazers, no matter who or where they are!

  2. I know for a fact Shotts were running through this at practises before the worlds so the players were most definitely not told on the Saturday morning.

  3. You put your new Premiers in, You take the the old Premiers out; You put a new pipe corp in, and doubling shakes all about; You do something really hokey and you turn yourself around and thats what its all about????? (Sorry Joel, I was really bored up here missing last week)

  4. Oh dear. A band turning out to face the audience/judges with about 8 bars left in their medley becomes the most exciting and talked-about event of the day…?

    Fair play to Shotts. Why not? However, this ‘radical gamble’ didn’t proceed without an in-depth precusory study of the rules. I’m sure the rules don’t state anywhere you can’t march in backwards, so the door is also open there too folks! Any takers…?

    We really have a long way to go with regards to the presentation of our art form, don’t we.

    The circle is dead. Long live the circle! Form them up on a stage, do it properly and then we can move ahead. Stunts like this are probably designed to highlight how far behind we are. I think there is method in Rab’s baby-stepped madness here. Reading between the lines of his interview, this was being flagged.

    I recall Polkemmet (1991) having a drumming reprise at the end of their medley (after the pipes had cut out). Did that catch on…?

    Go to Lorient to see how it should be done.

  5. I am not sure about the RSPBA rules, and whether the drum corps has to stand in a circle as they do usually. If it IS a rule, HOESAD would or should have been disqualified. But it seems that Mr. Matheson was pretty sure he could do that and, wanted for some unknown reason stress that he doesn’t care for the RSPBA rules or even winning at all.

    So why face the audience when it is all about competition, especially at the world’s? A band can do what they want, in concert or at Highland Games, but not during the World Championships. You must not bow to the judges, but at least don’t make their job more difficult that it already is. And why BOYcot the whole wonderful event in such a selfish way, and degrading other bands’ efforts and fun.

  6. It goes much beyond the TPPB or HOESAD … listening carefully this year one heard many bands adding very different drum combinations and harmonies from the pipes.

    The problem is that those who argue to protect the “Scottish Idiom” forget the obvious … drums that play in a more supportive style and pipes that play in often strident harmonies are actually more traditional then the sanitized MSR based on a few not-so-old tunes.

    Afterall, is the “pipe band” not Canadian in origin? It was the British Military that banned the playing of the pipes in ensemble, banned the playing of the drums in Scottish style, only relieved by Queen Victoria who allowed a maximum of 5 pipers to play together. Fortunately those in the Colonies did not always follow the requirements of the monarch … just ask Wolfe … and therefore the pipe band.

    True traditions have more in common with the Bagad, Swiss Drum Rudiments and the Pibroach then they do with “Scotland the Brave” or worse, “Amazing Grace.” The sounds that started to creep into the idiom this year are perhaps more in keeping with the true roots of traditional playing and the true scottish idiom then any version of “Wings” could ever claim.

    It is at times like this that I remember that “Danny Boy” was written around 1910 by an American housewife and and English lawyer … neither of whom had ever been to Ireland. How much more traditional can you get?

  7. I believe this is called “stage craft” in music theatre and other similar fields. However, in a world pipe band championship context, it is somewhat more like thumbing one’s nose at the establishment.

    It was pointless, but no doubt the various (and very sad) forums out there will be buzzing with excitement and blabbering away! (Yawn…..)

    Love them or hate them, the RSPBA has, in no small way, given you a platform to find and enjoy notoriety and kudos, Mr Mathieson. I’m not sure a 10 second stunt, clearly designed to stir the pot, will achieve the desired effect of getting your host and facilitator to change overnight.

    Most sensible people know that it is only a matter of WHEN a Lorient-like presentation format eventuates (stage). It seems here as though someone wants to be known as the man who swam against the tide and made it all happen. Kind of fits with the profile of the ego in question really…..

    Rab, you don’t have to like the current format. Many people don’t. If thats the case then push hard off the field for change, and show respect to the organisers and your fellow competitiors (some who spend the equivalent of about 30,000 pounds) whilst on the field. Cheap and brief/half-baked little stunts (is it possible that it was a tantrum…?), that add absolutely nothing to the musical presentation, will not affect change or win the organisers over.

    The circle is for the chop one day, so just be patient….and be grateful the Worlds are just up the road each year. 😉

  8. There seems to be a thread coming through here that bands have to do something radical in order to get the RSPBA to change the rules. However, this is far from the truth. The RSPBA canvassed grade 1 bands early in 2007 to get their views on making changes to the medley at the 2007 Worlds. The outcome was that the majority didn’t want change at that time. Two articles appeared on this site in relation to the matter…

  9. Jamie, I think if you read Part III of a certain interview that is currently on this website, you’ll see that someone is certainly not happy with the constraints of the current format.

    I think he’s also latched on to the possible exposure that the BBC will give this. There is an agenda at play here, make no mistake, and the BBC, these sorts of forums, the DVD etc will fire the bullets he’s loading. He knows the game he’s in – one of the best at it!

  10. I’m sure this has already been said but it seems like this shouldn’t even be a discussion the whole thing barely blipped on my radar as a stunt because I mean everyone always says it’s kind of ridiculous how bands face each other instead of the judges/crowd and so someone finally does it and people are putting it up there with TPPB’s variations’ medley (which was awesome by the way), they’re in completely different leagues in my book. Shotts did an awesome job and hopefully by doing this more bands willl realize it didn’t hurt there chances of doing well.

  11. What’s the big deal and why get upset about a guy that just doesn’t like the system and has a little power and confidence to make a slight alteration. He didn’t change the music, he changed the presentation. Maybe he was looking for a leg up but maybe he was looking for the best venue possible with the most witnesses to make a point that he thought the rules were too stringent.
    Perhaps, he just thought that this was a better way to bring the sound closer to the audience and figured that if he waited for the RSPBA to make a change, he’s be six feet under before that ever happened. If nobody experiments on the platform, nothing will ever happen. It’s his risk so who cares. I have been putting my own compositions into the former winner MSR at Oban and Inverness for years. Almost every year goes by and the judges will not pick it either because they are not familiar with the tune or it’s “not traditional enough” for them. That’s my risk, not anyone elses and I either get to air a new tune before a big crowd or I don’t, plain and simple. Rab tried to just start to tweek the presentation on his band’s medley and good on him for the effort. So, if you like it , great and if not, what does it matter. I doubt the RSPBA is going to say “in 2009 ALL BANDS MUST FACE THE AUDIENCE WITH THEIR BACKS INTO THE CIRCLE” it will be a choice, and that’s all the bands really want isn’t it?

    Bruce Gandy

  12. I also really doubt that they will invoke a rule that states “ALL BAND MEMBERS MUST RIDE ELEPHANTS WHILE FORMING AND PLAYING IN A CIRCLE DURING COMPETITIONS.” I mean really, think about the smell and the cleanup afterwords. Also, the elephants might trumpet during the performance thus taking away from the sound…or maybe enhansing it. Then there is also the problem of the larger cometition circle to say nothing of the transportations costs (flights grom Australia, etc). Also, would a band get disqualified for riding Indian elephants instead of African ones? And I guess that it raises the point of whether the elephants should face the crowd or face inward in a circle, or even whether they should stand in concert formation……….

  13. If the majority wants to make a clownesque event out of the World Championships – go ahead, they will succeed, with the balloon-piper as proud leading icon.

  14. I don’t think everyone is getting the message here. In some cultures it is the ultimate insult to turn your back on the listener or in this case the audience. Do you really think that the television want the performers to face away from the camera. Imagine if the pipe majors at the worlds conducted their after performance interviews with the BBC by turning their back on the camera in true traditional pipe band style. In actual fact a bagpipe sounds much better facing the listener if you don’t think so try it out by turning away from the judge the next time you play in a solo contest.

    Its not so much about bringing on the dancing elephants. Its more about saying goodbye to the dinasaurs. If nothing else Shotts have made us look at ourselves.

  15. No mention of the air tube into the tenor drum? That is the most interesting aspect of it from my perspective – the musical adventure. On the marching, perhaps the top 14 should all march into semi-circles instead of circles to see if the RSPBA would disqualify all 14 bands. Sadly, that may be the only way to affect some change since the RSPBA does not appear to acknowledge the performers otherwise.

    Glenfiddich sponsors a piping contest, why not a band concert event as part of Piping Live!

  16. Duncan makes a good point. If you can’t get the RSPBA to put on the kind of band contest you want, then find somebody who will. Bands could do a 10 minute concert in George Square for the contest. And maybe the organizers could then implement a more firmly applied rule that disallows judges with a commercial interest.

  17. It seems that we have a few options here.

    1) Propose rule changes at the various pipe band organization AGMs’ in 2009 that allow for different formations and startings. The changes can then be voted on and accepted/rejected per majority vote.

    2) Hold a separate contest where different formations are legal and accepted. Maybe call it the Pipe Band “Masters Of The Universe” contest.

    3) Continue as is and “Suck it up, troop!”

    4) Move the Worlds to India where it is easier to find elephants.

  18. A quick search of UK legislation would suggest to me that there is nothing that indicates it is only lawful for RSPBA events to be held; feel free to check yourself at

    There is no legislation with “pipe bands”, “bagpipes”, “pipe band competition”, or “RSPBA”, hence i would hazzard a guess that no such legislation exists.

    Perhaps the confussion may in that the RSPBA is sanctioning events, but that doesn’t mean the RSPBA holds any jurisdictional power vis-a-vis an official piece of legislation.

  19. Pipe band recordings do sound better when the current circle is formed, in my opinion. It brings the drones more to the fore and adds a better overall balance.

    Not crowd friendly, I must concede. A half circle or stage setting would suffice.

    The alternative to the worlds has been looked at many times, and never got off the ground. Glasgow is the heartland, like it or not. Scottish bands do not generally have a culture of having to raise enormous sums of money per year, and would be absent. ‘Stiff cheese’ some might say…? But then is it really what we’d want it to be, or would therebe a truck load of UK based bands sitting back saying ‘it’s nothing without us’…?

    I think if this thread has shown anything, it has highlighted how conservative the whole thing is. Not one of us on here believes (based on what I have read) that we can reasonably expect the RSPBA to switch to a new format overnight. In fact, it might take years for even a half-circle to be approved, if ever, much less a stage configuration. That is really sad and is a poor reflection on the controlling bodies.

    Shotts pulled a stunt, a 10 second stunt, that got everyone talking. I think that shows the level of frustration and resignation out there.

    Lorient have the right idea.

  20. Andrew (not Andrew Berthoff) I don’t disagree with you (August 20th comments) and indeed, I don’t disagree with the actions of Shotts. The point I was trying to make was in regards to other comments in this thread which seemed to be saying that the RSPBA were resistant to change in the medley format. However, as they (the RSPBA) sent out letters over a year ago asking grade 1 bands if they wanted change, how can it be said that the RSPBA are against it?

  21. Not so sure that “we” and “they’ (RSPBA) is relevant here. We ARE the RSPBA and if the majority want change then it should happen. If it doesn’t vote off your national councilor and music board rep.


  22. There is no law. Just the RSPBA will chuck out any band that competes in a non-RSPBA competition (a rule brought in after the Cowal debacle).

    Let’s not get our knickers in a twist over a bit of show-boating from the king of cheese.

  23. We were hoping we’d get through, too, thanks, Andrew (the one who signs his full and real name) … whle we were sure, had we played, that we were respectful of the current RSPBA rules we were all set for a trip to Dairy Queen.

    I tried to sell the “turned-out-circle” thing this past winter to TPPB – with no luck [plug: ] … one step at a time, I guess. Michael Grey, TPPB

  24. People can comment, complain all they want or start petitions, but nothing gets changed until it gets voted on at an AGM.

    Simple enough to submit a motion, then you the membership decides if they want it or not! If you want real change, go to your AGM!!!!!

  25. And what, JohnMitchell, do you suggest people from jurisdictions outside of the RSPBA do? Ontario, for instance, already (on paper) allows free-form artistic expression of pipe band music. It may be a world championships in Scotland but the non RSPBA bands have F-A input or influence in the matter.

    Congratulations, again, btw, to SFU on their win! Bunty

  26. Well Bunty, see my posting from August 21st at 5:42 PM.
    Perhaps one of our lawyer or English professor types could use this forum to draft wording for two separate motions on both subjects (formations and musical format) to be presented at the various worldwide AGM’s and voted on.
    Who knows, with some luck we can all turn the pipe band world upside down in 2009 by playing eccentiically weird music in various freaky formations!
    In any event, the answer lies with the AGM motion process.
    Meanwhile, feel free to rant……

  27. I don’t see “The Turn” as a stunt. It was a shot across the bow. So is the new Toronto medley. First steps toward doing something that make perfect sense. Make our artfrom more accessible and interesting to a non-piping and non-drumming audience. You want major sponsorships? Spnosors pay for the opportunity to show their product or trademark to a LARGE audience. You want serious recognition? Give the masses something they recognize.

    We have plenty of tradition. I hope we never lose it. I wouldn’t touch the MSR. But until D.S. Ramsay came along and throw some hornpipes and jigs into the mix, the medleys were nothing like what we hear today. So, maybe it’s time to add to the visual element a bit, and open up a few more avenues of creativity.

    And a hearty, “Aaaaaaargh, matey!”, to front-running pirates like Bob Mathieson and Michael Grey.



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