Counter-attack

What in the name of Tom McAllister Sr. has happened to the pipe band attack?

Goodness, at any top-grade competition of any size you’re almost guaranteed to hear at least two bands completely eff up what was once a benchmark of pipe band quality.

Early E’s. Early drones. Mushy intonation. Epic squeals. Roaring basses. False starts. Double- and even triple-dunts. Scrabbling hands searching for holes. And that’s just the piping. I’m no drumming expert, but I can hear the sloppy rolls and wandering tempos between bass and snare lines and pipers.

Why is this happening? In an age when pipe bands are playing more technically challenging material on more reliable instruments than ever, one would think that an excellent attack in Grade 1 and Grade 2 is a given. So what’s changed?

I’ve thought more about it over the four years since writing this Blogpipe post, which took a rather lenient view of the attack. Perhaps it contributed to the laissez-faire attitude towards attacks, but I’m prepared to make other guesses as to the reasons for sloppy openings.

  • Judges don’t care that much. Today’s typical pipe band judge is far more enlightened than he or she was 15 or 20 years ago. Judges now see the big picture. This is good. After all, the attack is a relative microcosm of the performance, and hitting a band hard for one piper’s mistake is probably unduly harsh. However . . . shouldn’t excellent bands be expected to execute an excellent attack? Seems to me that blowing one should be seen as a major error — certainly not a showstopper, but enough to determine an otherwise fairly close decision. A cause is also . . .
  • Easy instant reeds. Top-grade bands with 20-plus pipers no longer need every piper to have a high-impact chanter sound. Instead of that 1985 McAllister composed of two short planks strapped together that take weeks to blow in by large fellows, pipe sections today play reeds that go right away, which can be blown by any player of any age and size. With the easy reeds, just add a bit of adrenaline and early E disaster is sure to strike, especially for . . .
  • Inexperienced players. There is such pressure for bands to have large sections that playing standards and experience are inevitably compromised by all but a very few groups. In at least three-quarters of the world’s Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands there are players who never would have got a game 20 years ago. They’re ushered in to fill the ranks and essentially “core” with the rest. They have less control of their instrument and less experience, and . . . see adrenaline comment above and, importantly . . .
  • Attacks aren’t practiced. Every piper and drummer older than 40 can remember going up and down at the band hall or in the parking lot practicing attacks over and over and over. You knew exactly how to punch an E at full pitch. The pipe-major would stand in front of the pipers and listen like a judge, with the ranks taking turns at the front. If you blew an attack, the whole band would have to do 10 more flawlessly or you couldn’t go home.

A top-tier Grade 1 band at the 2016 UK Championships had no fewer than three pipers clearly, blatantly, visibly, audibly screw-up the attack. The band finished second. In the big picture, they might well have deserved their placing, and might have been first without the blown start, what with their otherwise sublime performance.

Then again, shouldn’t a band of such high calibre be expected to get the attack right? Is such a meltdown really excusable? Doesn’t such a multiplicity of basic mistakes warrant a hard penalty? It’s one thing having a blip in the fifth part of “John Morrison, Assynt House,” but quite another having at least three pipers wreck an attack that should be expectedly good in a Grade 3 contest.

Poor attacks are everywhere, though. In 1985 10-out-of-10 attacks in Grade 1 and Grade 2 were generally the case. An early E could essentially torpedo a band’s hopes of winning. I am glad that we’ve moved past that sort of judging, but it would be great to return general excellence in this impressive technical aspect of a pipe band.

Tom McAllister Sr. is credited with developing the two-threes-and-an-E pipe band attack from what military brass bands would do. Before his time in the 1930s and ’40s, pipe bands sort of eventually kinda-sorta got the tune going. With each passing year now pipe bands seem to be going back to those haphazard roots.

Are judges turning a deaf ear to crappy attacks?

 

Regarding regrading

It’s regrading time, and that means associations all over the northern hemisphere are considering results and making decisions as to who should go up and down the competitive ladder.

Some bands and soloists prefer to force the matter by proactively and publicly proclaiming their intention to move up to the next grade, seemingly daring their association not to respect their wishes, “stifling” their ambition.

Others are more discreet, making a case quietly to their association, thus allowing the competitor and the association to save face if it doesn’t happen. They want to let the grading committee know their ambition, but they’re not out to make a fuss.

Still other competitors stay silent, preferring and trusting that due process will take its course. If it happens, it happens, and they’ll deal with it if and when it does.

All too often we look only at competition results. We see a band that won an aggregate championship or was even undefeated in their grade and assume it’s an automatic upgrade. They won everything, so of course they should go up!

But it is not automatic or, rather, it shouldn’t be.

Prizes are ideally an indication of quality, but certainly not the only factors. Prizes are a guide, and regrading should be only about exceeding or not meeting a grade’s standard based on a much wider view.

We all know jurisdictions that are seen as having a better or lesser quality of competition. A band that is used to winning their grade within their association’s competitions goes to another association’s event and gets nothing. Why? Because the standard is higher. And of course the opposite is true, when a band that is used to getting nothing dominates on a trip elsewhere.

This is what often gives the RSPBA fits. A winning Grade 4 band from [insert country here] wants to compete in Grade 4A at the World’s. Ideally, the RSPBA would simply accept the entry, having faith that the other association administers the grade according to a world standard. But more often than not, the RSPBA hems and haws and gets recommendations from trusted sources, and then assigns the band to Grade 4B. The RSPBA should not need to do this, but unfortunately it often has to, and is then compelled to regrade bands that aren’t even their members.

And, worse, the non-RSPBA band that cleans up at home in Grade 4 winds up getting nothing in Grade 4B in Glasgow. But the band then goes back home and demands an upgrade to Grade 3 and it’s granted. Anomaly. Bad judging. Weather. It happens frequently.

I’ve written before about the need for grading committees to be good at much more than simply looking at spreadsheets of results. They should go beyond their region and know and have experienced and have a feel for a world standard. No amount of winning or losing should automatically mean that a competitor deserves to be regraded.

In fact, a re-calibration of a grade is required when an association’s standard is not commensurate on a world level. Do re-calibrate, an association must make the difficult and courageous decision not to upgrade anyone, despite their excellent competition year. Re-calibrating a grade might also mean sending a few contestants down. Associations need to understand that this sort of tough love is for the good of the scene, and not strictly about satisfying the band or soloist’s desire.

To be sure, not agreeing to an upgrade that a band or soloist has requested can be considered as stifling their desire. I can see that. But it is far worse to officially upgrade a band or soloist knowing full well that 1) the overall standard of the association’s existing grade does not meet a world standard, and 2) upgrading them dilutes the standard of the higher grade.

Upgrading bands and soloists when an association knows that its grade standards are not in sync with the rest of the world only compounds problems. If a band or solo player is disgruntled having to remain in a grade until they exceed a world standard, they’re just as or even more likely to be demoralized losing week in and week out in their new grade where their fellow competitors who do meet the grade wonder why the upgraded band or soloist is even in it.

By undeservedly moving up competitors, a grading committee might make everyone feel good for a short time but, in reality, they only making things worse for the band or soloist, the grade-standard and the association that they are supposed to serve.

When it comes to grading, sometimes tough love is best.

 

Memories

I was reminded to remember a topic I’d forgotten to write about: memory. Specifically, the unwritten rule or tradition that pipers and drummers must memorize music.

As far as I know, there is no specific rule with any association that competitors must play from memory. But I often wondered what might happen if I walked up at some piobaireachd competition, plopped down a music stand with the score of the tune, and proceeded to play from it.

Would I be disqualified? I don’t think so, since there’s no rule that says it’s not allowed, let alone that I could by rights be DQed. Would the judge mark me down for reading from music? Again, no rule so that’s questionable. But anyone who would try it no doubt wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

There were times in my solo competing piping life when I’d have 15 piobaireachds on the go, most of which were tunes that were set for competitions that I would never have learned otherwise, mainly because I thought they sucked. Every piper who’s had to learn four or six or eight tunes from a list in which maybe three are truly attractive compositions knows what I’m talking about.

It’s a particular battle of will to memorize music you don’t like when practice time is short and the memorable melody is scant. You have to will yourself on, tricking your mind into memorizing the notes and phrases that come next, using mental cues – a bit like schoolkids making up acronymical sentences to help memorize obscure facts that will be on the test, e.g., A-B-D-B, A-D-B-B – “Anyone But Donald Ban, Agony Donald Ban Ban.” I’ve played tuneless tunes at Inverness or Oban that I would have a hard time today telling you how they start. (Ahemsobieskissalute.)

I admit that there was the rare time when I had a piobaireachd picked where my memory was a bit sketchy. It would be one of those dreadful obscure tuneless tunes that the judge also didn’t know well, so he’d be watching the score closely with his head down, which was a perfect opportunity to take an upside-down peek at the manuscript on the table.

There. I said it. Was that cheating? Not by the rules as they are written, so I still sleep well.

I noticed in a few photos of the recent Live In Ireland In Scotland concert that the snare drummers had the manuscripts to the scores in front of them. At last, I thought, common sense prevails, and good for them for putting the audience and the show before, in this case, a rather useless tradition of being expected to memorize music. It’s a mountain of material for musicians to squeeze in among their own band’s stuff, so of course play from the scores. I’m surprised the pipers didn’t as well.

I’ve poked around the rules of other music events. The International Tchaikovsky Competitions require material to be played from memory. But I couldn’t find many or any other examples. Even Drum Corps International, as far as I can see, expects memorized performances, but there doesn’t seem to be a rule. “The memorization of music is usually a matter of pride for the marching band, however bands that regularly pull from expansive libraries and perform dozens of new works each season are more likely to utilize flip folders,” according to a the Wikipedia entry for marching bands.

As pipe band music becomes increasingly complex, and the demands on top solo pipers rise, the tacit expectation that all music will be played from memory comes into question. Is it necessary? Will the performance improve when the score is there for reference? The old reliable memory lapse as a means to knock out a competitor might go away, thus making the judge’s task harder, but so what?

If I remember correctly, it’s more about the music and less about the memory.