Really cauld bum.Every contest is interesting, but the one recently at Kingston, Ontario, was particularly remarkable. The growing event is still relatively small, with 16 bands competing, and it’s independently run – that is, not sanctioned by an association like the PPBSO. That means it’s free to do what it wishes in terms of events, playing criteria and judging.

Never averse to trying new things, I like shaking things up, particularly in the fairly same-old-same-old pipe band world. Scott Bell, the chief organizer at Kingston, decided they’d try something new with pipe band judging.

They would have only three judges: two pipers and one drummer, but each of the judges would judge only from the perspective of ensemble. That is, no focusing solely on sections, and instead the ears would be trained on the band as a whole. I understand that the competitors were aware of the concept when they entered. I certainly hope so!

Most experienced pipe band adjudicators I know will admit that judging ensemble is far more difficult than judging piping or drumming. To concentrate on the whole band is surprisingly harder, since distractions are inevitable and all around. The tone of the chanters, blowing, intra-section unison, mistakes, robotic tenor-drummers . . . all such aspects can distract from concentrating on the band’s music as a sum total.

The judges were of course allowed to consult with one another at the end of each event, and it was interesting to hear our differing perspectives. There were a few instances of a band with clearly the best pipe section or drum corps, but not the best overall integration of the two – and vice-versa.

So, there were occasional dilemmas about what constituted a better pipe band. Should the emphasis be on the pipe or on the band? Is it possible to be the best band while being the third- or fourth- or even fifth-best pipe section? Is that right? I’m pretty sure that a few bands did much better/worse under the all-ensemble-judging approach, and whether that’s right or wrong I’m still undecided.

But I am leaning towards a more balanced approach, in which every judge considers the band as a whole – ensemble – as well the specific element that he/she is judging. So, perhaps do away with the ensemble-only judge altogether, and instead have everyone assess ensemble as maybe half of the overall score, with piping, snare-drumming and mid-section specifics as the other 50 per cent of the mark from each of the judges.

I also think it’s important to hold occasional events that try new things, unencumbered by association rules and tradition. It’s quite possible that this seemingly little event in small-town Kingston, Ontario, made a giant leap for band-kind.

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.

Worth a song

Copy that.A friend of mine the other day said that at his daughter’s solo singing competitions every competitor is required to present to the judges original scores of the song he/she is to perform. That is, not photocopies or handwritten things, but actual published and purchased sheet-music.

Here’s a rule of a vocal competition that I found:

Upon arrival at the festival, two copies of performance selections must be provided for the clinicians. The use of photocopies is forbidden. Photocopies of permanently out of print material must be accompanied by a letter of permission from the publisher (or legal copyright holder).

Solo light music piping competitions are generally assessed from memory, and occasionally someone will provide sheet music of an obscure tune. But I would say that, at least in my experience, there are four or five competitors in every light music event who play something questionable, leaving me wondering whether the piper got it wrong or is just playing a different version.

Providing scores might avoid those doubts, but, perhaps more importantly, it would help our own publishing industry if competitors, as with serious vocal competitions, were required to present actual purchased published manuscripts in order to participate. It would mean that all pipers would have to purchase collections, and not rely on photocopies and scans.

If it’s good enough for serious singing contests, shouldn’t it be good enough for us?