Attack: stop

By most accounts, Pipe-Major Tom McAllister Sr. of Shotts adopted from military brass bands the rolls, drones, EEEE attack that pipe bands have used for about 75 years. Before then pipe bands apparently scrambled their way to eventually playing a recognizable melody. Thanks, Auld Tom.

For decades the “attack” and the clean cut-off were significant parts of an adjudicated performance. Blow the attack or the stop and chances were you’d blow the contest. They were easy pickings for judges who assessed things with a negative ear – that is, looking for technical cons rather than musical pros.

As this year’s World Championship has shown, a bad attack today is hardly death. The world’s greatest bands regularly survive an early E or a trailing drone, and even epic scrabbling at the bag and chanter has gone on to win major titles.

Quite right; it’s all relative. An early E by my calculation is about a half-second of a selection that lasts between three-and-a-half and seven minutes. That’s about 0.02% to 0.01% of the total performance, give or take a few hundredths of a percentage point. Further, the bad attack is usually by a solitary piper, not the entire band.

Unison, expression, tuning, musicality, creativity, originality, orchestration, balance – these are the far more important, all-encompassing, sustaining aspects of the overall pipe band performance. A perfectly blown and executed attack is a thing of beauty, and definitely creates a more positive first impression, but a perfect attack occurs about once in every 20 performances.

It’s good that we have perfection as a standard to strive for, but when it comes to the traditional pipe band attack, very good is now good enough, good is okay, and even poor isn’t the end of the world. I tend to think our more relaxed consideration of attacks and cut-offs is all about a new sense of enlightenment in pipe band performance and music: first, reward the good; then, tally up the bad.

As Andrew Wright famously said about piobaireachd, “I’d rather reward someone who went off the tune than someone who was never on it.” So, too, with the pipe band attack. Get going decently and move on to the good stuff.

A predictable shafting?

Four firsts, four lasts or four of the same of any placing from judges are rare in a contest of more than 12, especially in Grade 1. In fact, at RSPBA majors it’s happened exactly six times in the top grade in the last three years. That’s six times in about 325 opportunities (number of events times number of competitors), or a miniscule 1.7 per cent of the time. For all purposes, it’s exceedingly unlikely to happen to any band, especially one that is well established and proven to be making the grade.

The Toronto Police Pipe Band had four last places in the Medley event in the Final of the World Pipe Band Championships. Most people know that this band likes to push musical boundaries when it comes to the competition medley, which has no stipulations in the UK beyond starting with two three-pace rolls, lasting between five and seven minutes, and playing with minimum section numbers. Aside from those, a band is free to do musically whatever it wishes.

There are as many personal musical preferences as there are people. One person’s favourite tune is another’s hateful noise. That’s true in pipe bands. We often chalk up our variable judging or unusual results to the “subjective” nature of music.

But there are some very objective qualities that must be assessed and upon which we pretty much are all agreed: Is it in tune? Is it together? Is it well executed? Were there any technical mistakes? How much stress judges put on each of these objective aspects also varies greatly, making four consistent placings even more unlikely.

For example, I don’t much like Duncan Johnstone’s “Farewell to Nigg,” and I find it odd that other people love it. But if I were judging and a pipe band played it would I put them last just because I didn’t prefer the tune? Of course not. I would assess them first on how they expressed it, the quality of their unison and technical accuracy, and the tone and tuning of the performance. I would recognize and respect the merits of Johnstone’s composition in terms of construction. No matter how much I disliked the music, I would give them a fair shake and ensure that the more objective qualities of the performance were duly critiqued.

A pipe band competition is first and foremost a test of accuracy. A band might receive a huge ovation from the crowd, but, relative to the competition, if the performance was not well tuned, not in unison and full of mistakes it should not be first.

Conversely, a band may perform content that all four judges feel is pure dreck, but – again relative to the competition – if it is well tuned, in unison and mistake-free, then it does not deserve to be last.

With the objective qualities in mind, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Toronto Police’s medley at the 2012 World’s deserved to be not last in piping. There were at least four pipe sections that were clearly not nearly as good on those technical, objective elements. (RSPBA adjudicator Bob Worrall appeared to agree in his BBC commentary.) Some judges might have had Toronto Police higher; some lower; but for every judge to put them dead last is truly incredible. Did they really dislike their variations on the ancient Gaelic song “Cutting Bracken” so much that they could throw tuning and playing accuracy out of the equation?

Why is rearranging “Cutting Bracken” (as Toronto Police did) any worse than rearranging “Glasgow Police Pipers” (as Boghall did), or “Alick C. MacGregor” (Inveraray) or any number of bands that went with the current trend of taking the familiar and reinventing it? What would have happened if a piping judge could not tolerate what ScottishPower did with Donald MacLeod’s classic 4/4 “The Battle of Waterloo,” ignored their sound and unison, and put them last? Answer: it would be that judge’s final contest.

Make no mistake, musical content should have some bearing on assessment. But the total assessment? That would not be fair.

It would be an unfortunate day for the pipe band world if even one band is judged strictly for what they played, ignoring how they played it.

You can create music or you can mimic music. Sadly, it would appear that competing pipe bands will be more successful simply repeating the past.

A comment on comments

Much talk over the last few weeks about social media comments, and the situation with the venerable Shotts & Dykehead. In case you’ve been locked up in Barlinnie, here’s the basic story:

  • A few members of the band apparently posted rather pointed comments on Facebook about the drumming judging at the British Pipe Band Championships.
  • The comments were seen by many, and were subsequently removed by those who posted them.
  • The band and/or the members allegedly were served warning by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association about their concern with what was posted.
  • The band or the members were allegedly threatened with suspension.
  • The band held a meeting, the result of which was the Pipe-Major resigning.
  • The band did not compete at the European Championships and don’t yet appear to have appointed a replacement leader.

What a sorry state of affairs that really didn’t need to happen. Yes, the comments need not have been posted. But it brings in to question the idea of what is and isn’t fair comment in the pipe band world. Here’s my take:

So, a judge’s decision might be questioned? So what? Provided it’s fair and not personally libelous then what on earth is the big deal? It might not be politically astute to do such a thing, but is it the stuff of suspension? No way.

Criticizing judging decisions in any form of competition is simply part of the fun. Certainly in the pipe band world, it’s nothing new. What is relatively new is that someone actually had the courage to put their name to their opinions, however strong they might be. This is far better than the back-biting trolls that incessantly whinge on platforms that allow unfiltered anonymous comments without any moderation. (Comments to pipes|drums articles and this blog are moderated.)

When you agree to judge a piping, drumming or pipe band contest you implicitly agree to subject yourself to criticism. If you’re not ready to accept that, then don’t do it. Suck it up, buttercup.

There is some similarly wrong precedent here. The great Muirhead & Sons Pipe Band in the 1970s worked to get a petition going against the judge John K. McAllister after what the band felt were continued judging injustices. The Scottish Pipe Band Association threatened to suspend the band for the rest of the year. The great Pipe-Major, Bob Hardie, then backed down, apologizing profusely, and the band was allowed to compete. It was an example of an association forgetting the interests of its competing members, which should always come first.

In the 2012 example, I have absolutely no reason to believe that the judge in question even knew about the alleged situation, much less read the comments posted on Facebook. This, by all accounts, was an apparent association decision to threaten severe action against the band or individuals. Provided the comments were not libelous, then threatening sanction – if that is what indeed happened – was wrong.

I don’t know of any association that has a rule that members can’t be critical of each other. Isn’t fair criticism what competition is about in the first place? If such a policy or rule were in effect, the whole scene, first, would not be fun, and second, would have about 10 good Samaritans left as members.

It was simply because a few people put their name to strong opinion on the record on a social media platform that this sad circumstance has happened. Again, not politically canny, but fair criticism is simply part of the judging gig, and associations need to be in tune with the real world.