Hands across the water

Take note.Now that Inveraray & District has completed its sweep of all five Grade 2 RSPBA championships with a win of Cowal, the band’s coronation to Grade 1 in 2010 is assured – not that it wasn’t before. The band powered through the season with 13 firsts from a possible 20 across the majors, leaving some wondering if the band should have been put in Grade 1 instead of Grade 2 when it moved from Juvenile after 2008.

Considering that Inveraray only started to compete in 2005 as a new Juvenile band makes this one of the great pipe band success stories of all time. Not since Boghall & Bathgate, Dysart & Dundonald or maybe Vale of Atholl in the 1970s has an organization risen to the top with remotely comparable speed, even though those three bands didn’t come close to Juvenile-to-Grade-1 in only four full seasons.

Hat’s off to Inveraray’s leadership and to the whole organization’s commitment to success. The band is led by Pipe-Major Stuart Liddell and Lead-Drummer Steven McWhirter, who both are stars at the top of the solo piping and drumming trees. But they both have something else in common – something probably far more important to Inveraray’s success.

Both Liddell and McWhirter for the better part of the last decade were members of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band. It’s clear that neither were simply hanging out at SFU only so they could enjoy winning a few World Championships; they were there to learn SFU’s style of band-craft and take it back with them to Scotland, where they have deployed their knowledge to the hilt in Inveraray’s first season in Grade 2.

Since the 2009 World’s not a few folks have noted that only one Scotland-based band – House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead – in the last decade has managed to win the big award, while the other seven times it’s gone to SFU of Canada or Field Marshal Montgomery of Northern Ireland. I’ve also heard comments from Scotland bemoaning that so many talented Scottish pipers and drummers are playing in bands not based in their homeland, insinuating that these traitors should stay home to fight for their own country.

It’s interesting to note that in the 1970s, Canadians started to travel to Scotland to play in and learn from top bands, and then bring their knowledge back home. This produced results seen in the likes of Clan MacFarlane (Scott MacAulay – Muirheads), Triumph Street (Hal Senyk – Muirheads), Toronto & District (John Elliott – Muirheads), City of Victoria (John Fisher – Shotts) and others. Rather than moaning that Canadian bands couldn’t match the Scottish standard, these folks committed themselves to going there to learn how it’s done. Pipers and drummers from all over the world continue to travel to Scotland to gain experience with top bands, although the practice continues to diminish.

Now, it seems that the tide has turned, with UK-based pipers and drummers learning from top bands in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. To be sure, some of the world’s greatest pipe bands are still in Scotland – tremendous talent is still there. But, now, it appears that things have come full circle, where the recipe for one kind of success is an ocean away – in the other direction.

Dumb luck

Call me the tumbling dice.“Good luck,” we pipers and drummers say to each other as we go off to compete. But should luck have anything to do with it? Shouldn’t luck be at least minimized as much as possible when it comes to trying to establish an equitable competition where all performers compete under the same conditions?

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), luck is a traditional element in what we do. The concept of good fortune, serendipity or old-fashioned superstition pervades everyday human life. But, when we can, we humans try to mitigate the risk of bad luck by making the right choice.

I got to thinking about the luck factor while at this year’s World’s. As is habit, I figured that the bands competing in the unpredictable Glasgow rain were simply unlucky. One of the five or so Grade 1 bands that were soaked managed to survive and get through to the Final, but the rest I guess had to chalk up at least part of the outcome to bad luck.

Similarly, competitors will talk about having “good luck” with who’s judging or, more accurately, who’s not judging. Whether a band or a solo player, some judges are seen to have a bias for or against some competitors. You’re “lucky” if you have no perceived adversaries with a clipboard or on a bench.

Then there’s the luck of the draw. Playing later is preferred by most competitors, unless there’s a group of favourites clumped early-on. Then it’s lucky to compete along with them. Maybe if Field Marshal Montgomery had the luck of being drawn later – as was SFU’s good luck – the result might have been different. Maybe.

It seems to me that the role of luck should be controlled, if at all possible. By-and-large, competitors dislike leaving things to chance, so why not work to reduce the risk, especially for big competitions? If judges are seen to have biases, why not poll the competitors – as the CPA did about 10 years ago – to find out who they consider to be the fairest and most knowledgeable adjudicators? If playing later is considered advantageous, shouldn’t a seeding system be implemented? If weather is a factor, then maybe consider moving a stratospherically high-stakes event like the Grade 1 World Championship to an indoor or covered venue.

The next few weeks will see the Gold Medal, Clasp and Silver Star solo piping competitions at Oban and Inverness. These events used to be held outside, often in freezing, lashing rain. For decades now they’ve been held in indoor facilities, where at least that element of luck has been eliminated. While the Argyllshire Gathering still subjects Thursday A- and B-Grade competitors to the weather, the bouncy castle and the bad-luck pop of a starter’s pistol, the top solo piping and drumming contests are all indoors. These events are also working to ensure that only judges from a preferred list with no teaching or family perceived conflicts arising.

While “luck” is simply part of life, we try to control things that can be controlled. It’s what we humans do. Tradition should give way to common sense.

Other worldly

GlobularThe 2009 World’s is done and dusted, and all that’s left is the celebrating by a relative few and the crying by most competitors. Competition notwithstanding, everyone who was there – physically or virtually – should be able to remember the event fondly. It is an extraordinary thing, and every year it seems to improve incrementally.

I’ve been on the administration and planning side of large events, and can appreciate just how much work goes in to them. Much of that effort comes from unappreciated volunteers, and that this year’s World’s again ran like clockwork is a true credit to the contest-running machine that is the RSPBA. I don’t envy any organizers who take it upon themselves to stage a big-time event for anxious and naturally contentious competitors. It’s inevitable that they’ll have to take far more stick for minor inconsistencies than kudos for the majority of achievements. So here’s my big congratulations to them, and you perhaps might want to do the same.

A few thoughts post-event:

Internet streaming: While straining to hear the Grade 1 bands (even from on of the best vantage-points there was), and wondering whether that mistake I detected was real or just the whistling wind or rain, I couldn’t help but think that listening to the BBC’s live webcast at home through a high-speed connection in high-definition on a 55-inch plasma TV with surround-sound speakers would be altogether better. While this high-quality access is a great step ahead and a boon to everyone, it’s probably not in the RSPBA’s best interests. They’re essentially freely giving away their most valuable product – the one many paid $50 all-told to hear live. I heard about not a few competitors even watching the webcast from their bus instead of fighting the crowds to hear. Pay-per-view makes sense, but by law the BBC can’t do that. Thanks to funding by UK taxpayers, the Beeb is commercial- and income-free. The BBC has played an integral role for years in the recording and broadcast of the World’s, and changing this to a private, revenue-based company that could then coordinate pay-per-view is a daunting thought. It will be interesting to see what happens.

The Qualifier. Get rid of it. I know that the Q was essentially something that the competitors originally demanded more than a decade ago. But 10 years back there were maybe 12 bands that had almost no chance to get a prize, so the Q was an easy way to weed them out. Now, though, I would say that the number of certain also-rans is maybe down to five Grade 1 bands. With that, it’s time to have every band go through a one-day medley qualifier for a final the next day. That means a two-day World’s, at least for Grade 1. But it would make the playing field more level, ensuring no band in the final has to compete three times – a massive disadvantage.

Bring it inside: Assuming Internet streaming will continue, why not bring the Grade 1 competition indoors? The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall seats 2,500. The Scottish Exhibition Centre even more. Sell tickets for a premium price, and put the bands, judges and audience in a warm, controlled, acoustically excellent environment.

The 78th Fraser Highlanders. Along the lines of the above points, aside from the actual final result, that the 78FH did not qualify was probably the biggest news of the day. Based on what I heard, I don’t think they deserved to go through. That said, bands competing in the heavy rain before 10 am were at a massive disadvantage. To think that this band finished fourth in the World’s Final only two years earlier, and two weeks before played well enough to win the North American Championship. The weather is luck-of-the-draw, for sure, but what sort of music competition hoses down a few random competitors with ice-water while they’re playing? It’s reminiscent of a scene from Wipeout.

The  Medley: Expand it. Five-to-seven minutes is too short. I don’t think Scottish-style bands are ready for the 15-miunute Breton approach, but they are certainly ready for 10 minutes. Unless they adopt a Toronto Police-style suite (and so far that methodology clearly isn’t being emulated by other bands), a seven-minute cap invites limited ability to expand creatively. As is, bands are essentially restricted to chopping and changing tunes with a degree of sameness, and several medleys that I heard seemed to be just getting started when they had to end. An additional 40 per cent of time will promote creativity and allow the pipe band art to evolve musically.

Repeat medleys: I can understand why bands will be tempted to play the same medley year-after-year (and year-after-year-after-year in a few cases), but it’s a let-down when they do. The top bands set musical trends, and same-old, same-old – while perhaps played to perfection – seems just a bit irresponsible and not a little lazy. Music fans look forward to the next release by their favourite artist. The top bands have their followers whom they shouldn’t disappoint. Maybe there should be a rule requiring bands to submit an altogether different medley every year.

Bass-sections: It’s time to get serious about how this increasingly important element of the band is judged. Ensemble and drumming judges need to be fundamentally trained to understand how bass-sections work, and then one or both of them need to be required to assess them, or else there needs to be a separate bass-section judge. As it stands, I tend to think that bass-sections are simply ignored by too many judges. Or perhaps judges don’t know what to listen for. While much of it is tastefully musically wonderful, some of the stuff going on with upper-level Grade 1 bands’ bass-sections is questionable, unmusical and even comical.

Judges: The criteria for who becomes a judge at the top level needs to be improved. That prerequisite needs to include a minimum number of years played at the Grade 1 level. I would suggest using the PPBSO’s stipulation of a minimum of 10 years to be eligible to be an A-level adjudicator (i.e., to be allowed to judge Grade 1 or Grade 2). Juried competition is only as good as the judges, and the adjudicators must have the respect of the competitors. In our game, that respect comes from having done it on the field and not just talking it in a lower-grade band hall. I’m certain that those who don’t fit the minimum experience level are very nice people. It’s nothing personal. It is, though, something essential.

Some may instantly read all this as a dump on the RSPBA. It’s not. The RSPBA and all associations aren’t about a bunch of executives and administrators. Associations are the members. It’s up to the members to demand changes, to raise motions at branch meetings and AGMs and have the courage to make what we do – and by virtue what the associations do – better. It’s up to us.