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.