Hounds and foxes

I'll show you early E!It’s too bad that World’s Week coincided with the first half of the Olympics. Not that I watched or followed the second week that much, but I didn’t see any of the first week except for the awesomely staged opening ceremonies.

I did note quite a bit of commentary about the Olympic events that are subjectively judged. Diving, judo, synchronized swimming and the like are all subjective sports; that is, you don’t score goals or race against a stopwatch. There even seemed to be calls to get rid of these judged events, since uneducated viewers can’t easily determine what’s a good triple-spin-double-loop-hold-the-toes-no-splishy-splash dive and what isn’t. These events are also fraught with allegations of bias and corruption.

Sound familiar?

It all got out of control when a Cuban tae kwon do competitor took out his frustration on one of the judges and delivered a flying wheel-kick to his chin, putting the judge in the hospital, resulting in the Cuban’s probable ban for life from competing.

Pipe band judges over the years have rarely been the victim of an actual physical assault by a competitor, but every year there are tales of band members having a verbal go at a judge for the decision they rendered. Usually, it goes like this: after the contest competitors meet at the beer tent or a popular pub for one two or 20 pints. After tense competition there are those few who are celebrating a win, but the majority is probably disappointed. Emotions run high, and alcohol fuels the mood. Someone decides to ask a judge a question about the result. The answer’s not satisfactory. An argument starts. People get pulled apart. Complaints are filed. No one wins.

A few judges make the chronic mistake of trying to share in the socializing with the competitors. Instead of doing their own thing, or simply going home, far from the madding crowd, they instead try to take part in the competitors’ party. In an ideal world there’s no reason why a judge should not be allowed to socialize with competitors, and one would wish that everyone could just get along. But that’s just not realistic.

After a significant event, it’s best for a pipe band judge to make him- or herself scarce. As tempting as it might be to hit the beer-tent, it’s not advisable. There will always be disappointed competitors and those who read their score sheets with incredulity and make a B-line for the judge for an explanation. Add a few drinks to the mix and you’re just asking for trouble.

Judging can be rather lonely. By necessity, it should not be about socializing with competitors before, during or after the event. That’s not to say that a judge should not be approachable and not welcome reasonable, sober questions. Far from it. But that can happen a day or days after the contest, when heads have cooled, recordings have been assessed, and hangovers have been beaten.

An adjudicator who insists on hanging out with those he just judged does so at his peril.


As Harry Tung alluded to recently, the decision to put Oran Mor into Grade 2 at the World’s has received a lot of post-contest discussion. Promoted to Grade 1 by its home organization, the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association, Oran Mor was subsequently asked to compete in the penultimate grade by the RSPBA, which the band then gamely accepted.

Oran Mor went on to gain a fourth prize in Grade 2 at Glasgow Green. Some people seem to think that this is confirmation that the band is in fact Grade 2 standard and the RSPBA made the right call. It’s not.

I didn’t hear Oran Mor or, for that matter, any of the Grade 2 bands at the 2008 World’s. But I do know that it’s not uncommon that the bottom two, three or even four bands in a larger band or solo competition would not gain a prize in the next grade down. Conversely, the top two, three or four bands in a big contest often would easily meet the standard in the next higher grade. That’s why grading committees go not only by the results they see, but also by the sound they hear.

I heard the Grade 5 band contest at Maxville this year and thought that the Paris/Port Dover band on that day actually met the Grade 4 standard. A few weeks later, the band finished second in Grade 4B at the World’s. Similarly, I heard one or two UK-based Grade 1 bands at the World’s and thought that they might not win a Grade 2 contest in Ontario.

But the issue at hand is not the grade-standard that the band meets; the issue is that of reciprocity between organizations. If one of those bottom-tier UK-based Grade 1 bands decided to make a trip to compete at the 2009 North American Championships, then (assuming it’s still in Grade 1 next year) I am certain that their entry would be accepted unconditionally. There would be absolutely no question as to their proper grade: it’s the one assigned to them by their home association, in this case, the RSPBA. End of story.

When Oran Mor entered Maxville there was never a question as to the grade the band would compete in. It was Grade 1, the grade assigned to them by the EUSPBA, and the grade the band entered. It was well known that Oran Mor would be competing in Grade 2 at the World’s and that it would be competing against very successful Grade 1 bands at Maxville. It did not matter.

Oran Mor finished last in Grade 1 at Maxville, but it still won’t matter in 2009 if a Grade 1 Oran Mor enters Grade 1 at Maxville. Their entry should be accepted.  Likewise, if Cap Caval, Ravara or Torphichen – the bands that finished ahead of Oran Mor at the World’s – come to Maxville in 2009 and enter to compete in Grade 2, then that is the grade they would compete in, provided they were assigned to Grade 2 by their home association.

I’ve read the arguments for and against the decision to put Oran Mor into Grade 2 at the World’s. What I haven’t heard, so far, is the reaction of Bagad Brieg and Buchan – the bands that finished, respectively, fifth and sixth, or, for that matter, Dumfries & Galloway Constabulary, which would have gained a prize had this Grade 1 graded band not bumped them from the list.

Who would really care if Oran Mor had competed in Grade 1 at the World’s? If they didn’t qualify for the final, then that’s their problem. If they did qualify, then the other bands would at least be able to say that they were beaten by a band legitimately graded Grade 1 by its home association.

The same cannot be said by the Grade 2 bands that finished behind Oran Mor at the World’s.


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.