December 11, 2014

Why pipe sections are bigger

Why are pipe sections so big? It’s the great question of this particular era of pipers and drummers, and there’s no sign of the issue going away any time soon. It’s a quandary that virtually every competing band in every grade faces.

Be big or go home.

In 1993 I interviewed the great Iain MacLellan, former pipe-major of the Glasgow/Strathlcyde Police Pipe Band and owner of 12 World Championships. This was just before the dawn of plastic or fibre drone reeds, moisture systems and synthetic bags. Back then it was still all cane and sheepskin, and the number of serious options for chanter reeds was maybe three – McAllister, Shepherd and Warnock, and with all of those a piper needed to know how to work with them. Achieving a sound was an art.

While he certainly had excellent pipers during his tenure, in the interview MacLellan spoke about the requirement that his pipers over all else had to be able to create, manage and sustain tone. So, the guys in his bands had to have a combination of excellence in tone and technique.

Twenty-one years on, the tone challenge has been made immeasurably easier to meet through advancements in the instrument. Anyone who has listened to an amateur solo piping event or Grade 4 band competition hears tone that two decades ago was the stuff of at least two grades higher. Their quality of technical and musical playing is probably about the same but, by and large, the sound of almost every competition piper or pipe band today is relatively pleasant.

Today, for pipe bands, finding pipers with a good-sounding pipe is not the big deal it once was.

I also hear amateur solo pipers who play in top-grade bands who, technically, never would have got a game in Grade 1 in 1990. They wouldn’t have had the technical ability and musical finesse to be accepted. If they had the temerity to ask to join, they would have been kindly told the band was “full up.”

I’d venture to say that there’s hardly a competition band today that would turn away a player who’s within the broad technical scope required. Chances are, they have a pipe and tone that can meet the grade. There’s no longer such a thing as “full up.”

Smaller bands demand tighter unison. A quartet can’t afford a slip or anything but perfect sync. With every piper added, the needed precision wanes incrementally. Iain MacLellan’s pipe section of 12 or 14 demanded precision of playing.

A pipe section of 24, 25 or 30 is not nearly as stringent. Some bands at the top certainly appear to have wonderful unison, but there are still pipers in even the best bands who never would have made the cut in the same top-tier band 20 years ago.

So, it makes perfect sense for a modern band of any grade to build as large a pipe section as possible. Not only is it impressive, but it’s naturally more forgiving in terms of unison lapses and even mistakes. An added benefit is that large sections are built-in insurance against collapse. Two or three pipers leaving in 1990 would mean hard times for a band; for many bands today, it’s hardly a problem.

Advances in bagpipe “technology” have produced better sounding and steadier instruments, easier to tune and keep in tune, opening the doors to playing in grades two decades ago that would have been well above a piper’s ability. A bigger pipe section naturally covers up technical problems that would have been glaring in 1990.

That’s why pipe sections today are bigger.


  1. I think this is why I lean towards the PPBSO/RSPBA restricting band sizes. This has been up for discussion a few times, however I feel the bands will have to field their best pipers, forcing them to cut the guys that are more filler than pure skill. This will then fill up all the grades that are suffering number wise – Grade 2’s especially.

    At the end of the day you still have to be able to play technically sound, whether your pipe is on or not.

    Great read.

  2. In many ways, it’s an ironic dumbing-down of pipe bands. That can be a very good thing, since it’s more of a musical spectacle (if that makes sense) for all, and less of an exacting minutiae-rewarding test that very, very few people appreciate or understand. Compare the performances of a few years ago of the large Ottawa Police and the minimum-number 400 Squadron that I wrote about in 2013. ( 400 Squadron is necessarily precise and audibly detailed. Not that Ottawa wasn’t, but it’s a naturally broader effect and inevitably less precise. It doesn’t NEED to be because the pipe section is nearly twice as big. Old-school pipe bands would listen for the exactitude. Like cumpulsory figures in skating. Today, it’s the overall effect. Whether that is progress or not, is up for debate.

  3. Hi Andrew: Interesting article. I remember when I was in the 78th Frasers, we won the World’s in 1987 with only 11 pipers. A large band then would have been 14 pipers. I used to stay after the World’s for several years with my buddy Neil and the Poliss. Yes, Iain was diligent requiring weekly lessons with each of his players and demanding fine tone blowing and blending above all else. They were a great band and group of guys. Yes, we all at that time had to play pipes that were physically demanding (the MacAllister reed I say was two, two-by-fours wrapped around a sewer conduit). Let’s just say there was seldom an early attack (if there was your reed got changed). I think this size creep phenom’ is partly “keeping up with the Jonses” but is also at the same time decimating the lower grades. Also, accepting players who may have been considered marginal for the grade in the past, means they won’t be playing with a competing same-grade band. Some players who have joined a top level band but are “warming the pine” like to have the status of saying they are a member regardless of being played or not. Since my involvement in competition since the early ’60s players were expected to pay their dues and stayed in the lower grades until they were worthy of going higher. As well, they were taught and stayed together in the group and generally tied their fortunes to their local band for good or for ill. Well, times have changed but sometimes I like to think the former times, in many ways, were better and these are just the ramblings of an old fart. Cheers, Syd.

    1. I agree, Syd. Larger bands are not good for piping for several reasons: With the lowering of individuals’ playing ability, as stated in the blog, larger, more prestigious bands in the upper grades get even larger and the number of players in the lower bands will get less. Perhaps the lower grade bands will have to lower their standards in order to survive as bands. The number of bands will decline. Some bands will stop competing as it becomes evident that their numbers are too small to be competitive on the field. It also becomes more difficult to start a new pipe band, with the costs of outfitting such behemoths. We wouldn’t think a 100 pound boxer fighting a 200 pound opponent a fair fight, all other things being equal. A pipe band of 30 pipers competing against a band of 10 is also hardly “fair.” Let’s compare apples to apples and oranges to… know what I mean! Pipe bands of unlimited size will hurt piping in the long run!

  4. As a novice piper, who only recently was invited to pipe with our Grade 4 competition band, I am surprised to hear of the mechanics of Grade 1 band composition. I always assumed the most learned and accomplished individuals rose to the positions of pipe major and lead tip and it was their responsibility to assemble the most worthy pipers and drummers to form the competitive team. It was my assumption that one was invited to join, rather than applying or asking to become a part of the group. Upon proving your technical and musical skills you might be considered but otherwise you remained in the ranks of those “not quite ready yet”.
    Again I refer to my ignorance in the field, but assure you of my admiration and interest in quality bands and their performances as musicians and competitors. I take from the original article that you can put a good competitive performance together if you use technology to create tone and numbers to hide inaccurate fingering; if this is so, then this seems wrong. Society has already adopted a “good enough” approach to most of the things we care about in our lives; please don’t foster it in the arts. As a novice Piper I strive and work to become better, I would like to think the pipers in any Grade 1 band are doing the same and are much better at the process than I.
    The process of competition should result in selecting the best skilled and unified musicians rather than the group that can best manipulate the “smoke and mirrors”. As keepers of the craft, I hope PPBSO/RSPBA are aware of these disgressions and work toward rectification. We “not quite ready yets” look up to you guys to make it right.


  5. Andrew, if you and your readers can indulge a senior on his recollections once more, I’m curious of knowing how and when the size creep phenomenon really began? Was it with Bill and the 78th Frasers when they fielded, not so many years past, 21 pipers at the World’s (Bill was always a trend-setter)? And then I’m simply trying to differentiate cause from effect/implications and their pros and cons.. I recall in the ’60s and 70s there was a plethora of Grade A (and later Grade 1) bands geographically dispersed throughout the province but they would be less than half the size of current Grade ones. The powerhouse band then was, of course Clan MacFarlane, with the City of Toronto, and St. Thomas being at the forefront as well. St. Andrews/ Detroit were promoted in ’67 to A Grade but seldom won anything after their undefeated B grade run in ’66. (The A grade would become the kiss of death for many of those promoted from the B grade). Later in Grade 1 came General Motors, Guelph, Windsor Scottish Society, Erskine to name some I remember and can’t forget the military bands who competed such as the 48th Highlanders, Toronto Scottish, RCAF Rockcliffe, and RCAF Downsview (400 Squadron?). And back then, the Wooster Kilties from Massachusetts (I think imported ex-Shotts players) came up yearly to terrorize the premier grade at Maxville. B Grade bands (or Grade 2) were also well represented both in number and geography. There was a Highland Games competition every weekend (the majority in Ontario) but beginning with Alma Mich. and ending with Ligonier Penn. Early on we played just two events on the day: an MSR (just needed one) and Open Slow March and 6/8 competition (open to A and B grades). Medleys came about I believe about 1972. Now, not only is it Big Bands but Big Business with marketing/branding, CDs, accessorizing, Youtube, Facebook, concerts, etc. which certainly helps to create the attraction to the younger players to want to be playing in the Big Leagues as well as buttressing band’s coffers. In contrast, in my day, I think telephones had just been invented. So, I guess things have become more and more technologically sophisticated both in communications/brand images as well as the instrument, as you point out. Has there been inflation in quality? That’s hard to say. Now is all this a change for the better? Well, time will tell. Thanks once again for your forbearance. Cheers, and Merry Christmas, Syd

  6. I believe it was 2008 when the 78th Fraser Highlanders competed with 30 pipers. Bill Livingstone would be best to comment, but a point I might have made in the post is that technology, combined with pipe-majors delegating more tuning tasks, have also made bigger pipe sections feasible. Before tuners and more stable reeds, simply getting around more than 14 pipers was difficult. But it is interesting that, since 2008, no top-grade band that I know of has played with more than 25.

  7. First off, thanks for the history lesson Syd. I was at the worlds in 2007 in the stands when Bill played 30, what I recall was the incredible drone sound, that does not carry the same impact hearing the band from ground level – can’t get that sound with 12! I think the other impact that these mega pipe sections generate is the never ending ability to reach what appears to be an endless limit on harmonies, that for the most part generate very pleasing medleys – can’t really reach these plateaus with 12!
    I recall playing 16 on occasion with the Clan, but that was a rarity in those days, always seemed someone’s pipe would give in to the climate of the day. How many chanters went over the top an a hot dry day!
    Not sure when enough is enough, but it seems to me that a leveling off in the 22-26 range seems to be more the norm now, and as always this is a debatable subject with no end.
    Love the thoughts of all, and Merry Christmas to all

    1. You’re most welcome Peter. When you get old, absorbing information isn’t the problem: it’s 🙂 Interesting observations from both you and Andrew. In the day, we all played sheepskin and cane with all its challenges, and despite the more recent experimentation with synthetic bag materials and moisture-free systems and synthetic drone reeds, isn’t it interesting the resurgence in the Big Leagues back to sheepskin and cane? Must be a lot of masochists or traditionalists out there (and therein lies another controversy as to whether sheepskin and cane is the ultimate tonal setup). Yes, back when, the pipe major almost always was in charge of the sound and chanter and drone tuning which made for a long day for him or her and no doubt put a constraint on pipe corps size as you point out, Andrew. Anyway, Cheers, Syd

  8. I watched the Worlds on-line this year and with the few obvious exceptions at the top of grade 1 noticed a marked difference in the sound between Grade 1 and Grade 2 overall with Grade 2 bands actually sounding better in many instances. My first thought was that the generally smaller pipe corps in Grade 2 might be easier to tune – fewer moving parts – but Andrew’s observation of level of playing ability in some of the larger Grade 1 pipe corps might also be having an influence. Maybe the Grade 2 pipe sections are closer together in playing ability and this out of necessity: with fewer pipers there’s less room for tonal and technical errors and the lesser players are more likely to “ride the pine” on the day.



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