A shot of teachers

As I mentioned in the last post, I was in Alma this weekend past. Bob Worrall and I drove down together (well, Bob actually drove the whole way and back. I offered. Honest.), and over the course of the 10-plus hours of Michigan and Ontario there was, as you might expect, a lot of enlightening conversation. Bob is always great for really well considered opinion. He’s one of the smartest people I know in piping.

At one point we got to talking about the whole judging thing. Bob’s been judging regularly for some 25 years now, and does a lot more of it than me. He’s somewhere judging and/or conducting workshops and recitals probably three-quarters of the weekends every year. Other people who commit similar amounts of time, like Ken Eller, Ed Neigh and Reay Mackay, always have intrigued me. Sure, you’re paid, but the time commitment is massive, especially when you have a job and family.

Bob noted that, as a long-time high school teacher, judging might come more naturally to him. He’s professionally trained to provide constructive criticism to students, so applying that skill to piping and pipe band contests is almost second-nature.

And then came a realization: the common denominator with many really good judges is their ability to teach. The aforementioned folks are all professional teachers. The more skilled the teacher, the more skilled the judge. Those who can impart their knowledge in a critically constructive way are usually more effective at judging, which today goes far beyond – at least in North America – simply determining a prize-list. Accounting for that list, and ensuring that competitors know exactly how you arrived at the decision, is essential to a competition in which competitors leave knowing exactly where they stand, and what they need to work on to improve.

There are some judges who still feel that they are not there to give lessons. But the reality is that teaching, by providing constructive and informed criticism, is an important skill for every judge to have.

Alma matters

I’m heading to the Alma Highland Games this weekend, an event in central Michigan held on the grounds of one of several small liberal arts colleges in the US that tout their Scottishness. Monmouth College in Illinois, Lyon College in Arkansas and, where I went to school, Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, have similar Scottish set-ups.

I was last at Alma 11 years ago with a competing band. It was a fun trip, with a few events that were memorable and not a little weird. I won’t go into those.

But, as a kid from St. Louis, Alma used to be the event of the year. We’d drive 12 hours to get to it, because there were real Grade 1 bands competing. Back then the likes of McNish, Toronto & District, Erskine, Guelph and the dominating Clan MacFarlane would often attend. (Interestingly, none of those top-level bands are around now.) But as a 15-year-old from the Paris of the Prairies, it was a whole nuther level. Alma very much made me want to be a part of that, whatever that was.

I also remember one time competing there in the Grade 2 Piobaireachd or something. Major Archie Cairns was the judge. I was to play “Lament for Donald of Laggan.” I got to the end of the first line of the ground and played the second ending to the line, lost the plot and stopped. Not to miss an opportunity to learn, I nonetheless asked Major Cairns, in all seriousness, how the first line was. I remember him finding that humourous, so I of course laughed along, as if I were kidding the whole time.

Anyway, it’s always fun to return to a place like Alma where little seems to change except the perspective from which you’re now seeing it.

Spread em again

Ah, another UK championship, and another round of piping judges with ranking spreads stretching far and wide.

Thanks to the RSPBA’s exhaustive and timely online results spreadsheet, the punters can analyze and over-analyze every microcosm of soggy score sheet detail.

To be sure, credit goes to the Grade 1 piping judges, who were never more than three placings apart.

But in Grade 2, Torphichen & Bathgate must be wondering what’s in store for their season, with an alarming first and seventh in piping. And a second and a seventh to Glasgow-Skye must have that band shaking its collective head.

But the most intriguing must be Grade 3A, where some of the spreads are Grand Canyonesque. Take Kintyre Schools: a second and a thirteenth.

And then there’s most glaring one of the day, Pride of Murray with their eighteenth and second. That’s 15 places separating the judges in an 18-band contest. Is the pipe section pushing Grade 2 standard or are they looking at relegation? One has to wonder what the bus ride back to England was like.

Obviously, discrepancies arise in a subjective event. One judge’s fancy can be another’s pet peeve. But, really, what’s wrong with judges getting together to hear each other out and perhaps find some common ground? The benches at the world’s most important solo piping events have been doing that for centuries.