Easy prizes, or challenging fun?

Play easy and boring music well, or play harder and interesting stuff and have more fun?

It’s an age-old quandary for lower grade pipers and pipe bands. Almost every judge would say (over and over again), play tunes that your hands or your pipers and drummers can manage better.

For time immemorial, judges will sit or stand there at virtually every competition and wonder, usually several times throughout the day, why oh why that piper or pipe band is throwing away the competition trying to play a tune or tunes that they simply can’t manage. Or, perhaps more accurately, wondering why they don’t play far easier stuff to get better results.

You would think that after a hundred-odd-years of competition, competitors would learn that playing easier stuff better would more likely produce better results. So why is it that season after season pipers, drummers and pipe bands come out playing stuff that’s too difficult?

The answer: it’s more fun.

It’s more fun because it’s a bigger musical challenge. I would venture to bet that many lower-grade bands recognize that if they were to play easy tunes all year long, they’d lose their members’ interest. Practices would become monotonous, and bored members would pressure the pipe-major to make things more interesting by engaging members with more challenging stuff.

But, but . . . the name of the game is to win, right? Why risk sacrificing winning for the sake of a few musical challenges?

It’s counter-intuitive, but that kind of sacrifice (the prize for the musical experience) is exactly what we need more of – pipe bands most of all. Producing engaging and interesting music – even if it’s not played to the competitor’s potential – is better for the art than interminably cranking out boring, repetitive tunes that no one, but no one, really wants to hear again.

The choice of playing easy tunes for better results or harder tunes for more fun is one of the great strategies of our competitive game. Allowing pipers, drummers and bands the freedom to make that choice adds spice and variety to our contests. Associations might think they’re practicing tough love by prescribing tunes for lower grade competitors, but they’re not.

When I was a kid, one of the first four-part 2/4 marches I was given to play was “Abercairney Highlanders.” The late Gordon Speirs said I would get far more out of that technical challenge than playing some boring, easier thing that would lose my interest. Yes, I wouldn’t make a great job of it, but it would help my hands and give me an opportunity to expand my horizons. And, I think it worked.

After years of the RSPBA’s MAP restrictions for lower-grade bands, the dividends, if in fact there are any, are difficult to see. Lower-grade “overseas” bands still regularly come to the World’s and do well. Requiring kids to play “Corriechoille” ad infinitum for a year I suggest drives more of them away than retains their interest in the art.

And, I will say it again: requiring contestants to play certain tunes is far less about the art and learning than it is about making judging easier. And that is no good for anyone, except of course the judges.

Pipers, drummers and pipe bands need to learn to challenge themselves, expand their horizons, take musical chances, and understand that there are things far more important than winning. “Play simple better” might work in competition, but, in reality, it goes only so far.

Toeing a fine line

Pressuring bands to compete only in sanctioned contests makes some sense. The RSPBA’s most recent alleged request – some use the word “bullying” – that bands not compete at the new Spring Gatherin’ has brought the topic to the fore. Should bands toe the line for their association by competing only in events that adhere completely to the association’s rules and regulations?

My answer: it depends.

It depends on whether an association is truly looking out for its members’ wishes, by demonstrating a willingness to bend when it makes sense. An association that summarily rejects any event that wants to try something new for the enjoyment and benefit of the competitors and the audience will rub most member-bands the wrong way. And when the association’s rationale isn’t communicated to members, it causes further ill-will. Silence is always met with contempt.

Associations today face many quandaries. Chief among them is the dilemma of representing both the interests of their members and adapting to the interests of the events that they want to sanction. A pipe band association is, to some degree, a union. They are unions of pipers and drummers so that their interests are represented; so that they can expect to attend contests and not be blindsided by unfair rules or unqualified judges; so that there is continuity from contest to contest.

But there is a big difference between solidarity and protectionism. Associations need to tread very carefully when they are faced with events hoping to do things a little differently, but with the cooperation of and supervision (to some degree) by the association. Non-standard contests certainly want meaningful and equitable competitions that pipers and drummers take seriously, but not at the cost of diluting the attractively different nature of what they’re trying to do.

The RSPBA isn’t the only association that apparently pressures or even requires members to compete at only sanctioned competitions. The Western United States Pipe Band Association is said to have it in their rules of membership. The Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario has been heavily criticized by some of its members for not getting together with events that refuse to play by their rules. The PPBSO has not pressured, much less suspended, any bands for participating in these events, but the inference is there that, every time a member band competes at one it weakens the union and slackens the association’s leverage to negotiate. I get that.

There’s no clear solution. The hard line is disliked by most members, and the softer approach makes members wonder why these non-standard events can’t be fully sanctioned for aggregate points. The current pipes|drums Poll shows that about 90% of readers agree that pipe bands anywhere have the right to compete anywhere without threat of suspension by their home association.

The key is partnership and patience. Summarily rejecting with no explanation contests that try new things is certainly the wrong approach. Associations have to maintain an element of partnership, working with people – most of all their own members – rather than being perceived to be obstinately unwilling to change.

In short, every association must somehow always represent the wishes of its members, and never be considered wagging an authoritative finger at them, telling them that the association knows best. Intransigence and inflexibility have no place in the modern piping and drumming world, which risks burning down completely if it doesn’t adapt and change.

Associations are the pipers and drummers. The church is the congregation; not the preacher or the elders or the building. If an association loses sight of that truth, and is seen to act only in the interests of its leaders and officials, it’s in big trouble.

Shake up or shut up

The grand old Crieff Highland Games deciding, at least this year, to drop solo piping competitions from its day in August is certainly a shame for piping tradition, but it’s  emblematic of the challenges facing event organizers — and us.

I wrote about this very threat nine years ago. We pipers and drummers like our competitions. And the large majority of us like our competitions to be just so: piobaireachd, MSR, five-seven-minute medleys, and so forth. We like our assembly-line of contestants. We dislike any more muss or fuss than the predictable: judges and stewards, no fanfare, nothing but closed backs-to-the-audience circles, no inquisitive outsiders who are not part of the club daring to ask just what the heck we’re doing.

Despite occasional attempts by associations to be more audience-accommodating, such suggestions, motions or trials, with rare exceptions, have been historically shut down. Just keep doing what we’ve always done, and screw the rest.

It’s the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

We rely on events like Crieff to supply us with a place to compete. And when places like Crieff make the tough decision to drop events that are, to non-pipers and drummers, rigid, mysterious, repetitious and, let’s be honest, boring, we act surprised, as if we are somehow owed something.

Well, we are entertainers of sorts who are willing to perform for free, but, in truth, we are owed nothing.

Highland games and Scottish festivals are businesses. They might be for-profit and nonprofit, but they are businesses at least looking to break even. To do that, like every business, they must offer a product that people like. If solo piping and pipe band competitions are not attractive products, why on earth would a business offer them? Because they owe us something? Give your head a shake.

It’s simple. We can increasingly continue to hold our own events that are supported by the competitors themselves via membership dues and entry fees, or we can help Highland games to offer a better product. For the former, we can play “Blair Drummond” ad infinitum, and all will be good. For the latter, we have to be flexible and creative; we need to be prepared to entertain non-pipers and drummers better and work creatively with Highland games to break down that wall of mystery between our wee club of pipers and drummers and the general public. They might be interested and like the music, just not hours and hours of what, to them, becomes the Same. Damned. Thing.

I’m all for both kinds of events. We can continue to hold our anachronistic competitions for ourselves. But for our “public” events, we have to help ourselves by creating a better product.

And if we’re unwilling to create a more sellable product for the games, we have only ourselves to blame when they drop piping, drumming and pipe band competitions.

If we don’t help ourselves by trying to help them, they owe us nothing.