Engendering news

A weighty issue.This is the time of year when piping and drumming news is at a premium. After this weekend’s London competition, results will be scarce and many pipers and drummers and bands will nearly shut down. But every time I think that, something newsworthy pops up.

And so, the news of the vote by the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society to accept female members was leaked last week. Those who care, and many who don’t,¬†know that the RSPS is a male-only organization, and that is as much a part of their tradition as is the requirement that members are “amateur” pipers with some “society” standing. That is, they don’t accept prize-money and, as one famous RSPS member said once in a thick English accent, “You must be a lahnd-oowner – and by that I doon’t mean a bahck gahhhhrden.”

Honestly, at the time, I just thought the males-only vote was another quirky and quaint holdover from Scotland’s deep-rooted piping tradition that pipers from other countries have a hard time understanding.

I have been critical in the past of the fact that some RSPS members are invited to judge important solo piping competitions. My criticism centred only on the fact that these folks, fine and jolly gentlemen that they are, have never demonstrated their playing ability in any ongoing public way, and that many competitors don’t really take their judging decisions seriously. Yet they remain on the approved list of UK judges, as assembled by Scotland’s Joint Committee – the closest thing there is in that country to a formal accreditation process, something that just about every one of the world’s piping associations has had in place for decades.

It was in fact the very first comment to the pipes|drums news story that opened my eyes to the obvious: that female competitors might perceive an element of bias when competing before these judges. Truly, I had never thought of that before, and that was the issue that the Times, Scotsman, Daily Express and other UK newspapers picked up on when they followed pipes|drums’ lead.

The Scotsman‘s blurb has received some interesting comments as well, and this one from “Girl Piper” succinctly summarizes the concern particularly well:

“To me the argument is simple. The club is a private society, but is also used to impartially adjudicate important piping competitions outside their own society. Adjudication requires firstly skill and knowledge, and secondly the ability to remain completely impartial. It is easy for anyone to draw the very logical connection between a group voting out women in their own organisation, and that same group being deemed impartial when judging both men and women against each other in an external competition. This is a clear conflict of interest. It’s logic, not spite, which is at the core of this conclusion. Add this to a musical tradition which has already been historically sexist and you’ll understand why there is a problem.”

It’s interesting to me that any of the world’s piping and drumming associations – including the RSPBA, which has in the past dealt swiftly with matters of perceived racial bias – would have addressed the issue on behalf of its members. On the other hand, the UK, because there is no real unifying governing body for solo piping competitions, can’t really do anything. Competitions and competitors are left to decide for themselves what, if anything, they want to do.

And I expect more winter news eventually to trickle out as people make up their minds how they will address such dilemmas.


Not one of us, I'm afraid . . .When I first went to Scotland as a competitor around the games and at Inverness and Oban in the early-1980s I was struck by many things, most of them very, very good.

The number of non-Scottish pipers back then was relatively few; the only other regular American competitors were Mike Cusack and Jim Stack, both of whom had spent time in Scotland learning the craft from people like John MacFadyen and John A. MacLellan.

But one thing that opened my eyes was the way a few of the locals would talk about piobaireachd or, more specifically, how outsiders played piobaireachd. Some seemed to have this idea that, if you weren’t Scottish, you automatically didn’t have the requisite musicality in your nature. As a result, some non-Scots players were deemed innately unmusical. They just didn’t have “the piobaireachd” and they never would.

Similarly, there were Scottish players from the Highlands who were said to have a kind of inborn ability to play piobaireachd better than those from Glasgow. And the few players who spoke Gaelic were treated by some as having a sort of magical musical gift, despite the fact that their pipes were never in tune and they couldn’t play a decent crunluath.

I thought then that it was a crock and I still think it’s a crock.

I was reminded of this when a few weeks ago I was told about yet another pipe band judge accusing a band of “not playing in the Scottish idiom.” In this instance, it was the Toronto Police playing in the MSR in the World’s Qualifier. Michael Grey mentioned it in a recent post on his blog.

Never mind the fact that his band is led by Ian K. MacDonald, one of the best MSR players on the planet; what eventually got me most about this familiar “lacking Scottish idiom” comment was when I realized that this score-sheet remark as far as I know is only thrown at non-Scottish bands by Scottish judges. Has a Scottish-based Grade 1 band ever been accused of “not playing in the Scottish idiom”? I doubt it.

The way I see it, such a sweeping and unfounded pejorative is more about where you come from than about the music you actually play.

The blanket “Scottish idiom” attack is an easy out for a judge. I suppose if a band played a traditional Chinese song in its medley it might be acceptable for an adjudicator to criticize a band for playing outside of “the idiom,” but an MSR? How can any Grade 1 band be accused of not playing a traditional Scottish MSR within the musical “idiom”? It boggles the mind.

Twenty-five years ago I noted that, regardless of how well they played and imitated traditional styles, some were made to feel like musical outsiders. It’s pathetic indeed that this sort of apparent discrimination still exists.

Taken aback

That MSR was a bit cabaret . . .Colin MacLellan, in the Tip of the Day a few days ago, said that performers should never turn their back to the audience. We’ve already discussed at length the issue of the inward-facing pipe band circle, and I think Colin was referring mainly to solo performers.

You often see at big solo competitions the judges’ bench located at the rear of the stage, the judges facing the audience, putting the competitors in an awkward situation. Do they play to the audience? Do they face the bench? Do they stand to the side of the stage and face neither?

Some of the most amusing things I’ve seen at big events like the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering have been when the judges are at a table at the middle of the stage. The judges, and not the pipers, became the performers. They seemed to be conscious that the audience was watching them more than the competitors, whom they’re there to listen to, primarily, so they affected lots of histrionics, chief of them being of course the synchronized pen-diving when a competitor dropped a gracenote. Before indoor air was cleaned up, John Burgess’s displays of elegant smoking techniques were legend.

All competition organizers should remember to put the competitors and the audience first, and the judges second. The judges don’t matter to the audience, so they should be positioned, Pop/American Idol-like, so that the performers can face both them and the crowd.