This contest, run by the Northern Ireland Piping Society, was held in the ballroom at the Adair Arms Hotel in Ballymena, and despite a hum from the cooler behind the bar, it proved an ideal venue for a piping competition; plenty of floor space, plenty of audience space and a draughtless ambience. There were very few listeners in for the piobaireachd in the afternoon (not unusual, even in Scotland) but the crowd grew substantially after tea for the ceol beag.
First, some thoughts on the piobaireachd. The general standard continues to improve in Northern Ireland, and, I’m told, in the south too. There were no breakdowns and only one wrong note from the eleven competitors the whole afternoon. Own choice has an important bearing on this of course, but it should be noted that winners in a given year are not allowed to submit a winning tune in a subsequent year, a rule also introduced by the Piobaireachd Society Music Committee for their Archie Kenneth Quaich contest, and a sound one.
Sound too is the NIPS rule that no one can be awarded the Piper of the Year title unless they have competed in the piobaireachd. I am sure that the first time I judged this contest about 20 years ago, pre rule change, there only a handful of pipers playing the classical music.
Anyway, to the tunes. The winner was Graham Drummond from Bathgate, great nephew of Colin, and a personable young man as well as a fine player. His tune was Lament for the Viscount of Dundee and he played it on a solid, full, instrument. Only niggles were a hesitancy on C in chelalho and an overdwelling on the connecting notes in variation 2 singling. A worthy winner.
Second was Ross Hume, a junior competitor. He too had a solid instrument and very good hands. He plotted his way through the Battle of Auldearn No. 2 very carefully – a little too carefully – flow interrupted as a consequence. He also lacked pointing in the taorluath and crunluath (T &C). Overall an impressive performance from one so young.
Third prize went to last year’s ‘Piper of the Year’ Ashley McMichael. He raced into Corrienessan’s Salute and this had to be taken into account in the final analysis. Forcing this plangent melody on like this really detracts from the music. Ashley admitted to nerves afterwards and this was probably the cause. Pipes and hands first rate. This is a quality performer.
There were no further prizes, but mention should be made of Alastair Donaghy and his Massacre of Glencoe. Again another junior piper who played out of his skin. A little more expression in the ground and he will make an even better impression. Kris Coyle had a very good pipe and fingers but needs to use these vital requisites to express his music more. His MacLeod of Raasay was flat lined and the T&C decidedly round and shapeless. John McElmurray shows promise but the incessant buzz from his drones proved just too much for this listener. He also had chokes possibly caused by his noisy, ball-joint blowstick. Ben Greeves had a beautifully set pipe but over extended the phrase endings in Lady MacDonald’s Salute. Three quarters of Emmet Conway’s Corrienessan was right out of the top drawer but then he went to bits, hanging on at the end, with chokes and other nonsense prevailing. Cullybackey’s new P/M, Richard McGrath, pointed the doubling of Variation 1 in Captain MacDougall to the middle note rather than the grip – and he too struggled at the end. The Kiss of the King’s Hand was going along great guns until James Fraser started to miss in the crunluath. A very promising piobaireachd piper. Scott Barr must get the practice chanter out and get his memory going before the next contest, and he should also try to calm down his slightly raucous drones. Overall an enjoyable afternoon of ceol mor and thanks to chief steward Michael McBride for keeping things flowing so smoothly and to Michael Egan, all the way north from Limerick, for following the scores.
Sustenance taken care of, it was on with the light music and I was joined on the bench by Len Brown lead instructor for RAF pipe bands and based in England. A native of Northern Ireland, Lenny led the Graham Memorial Pipe Band to the Worlds Grade 2 title a number of years ago.
Outstanding here was Ashley McMichael. Good pipe, neat fingers, fine phrasing: first prize; his hornpipe and jig not just so good, with tempo variation in the Judge’s Dilemma. Second in the MSR, and winner of the H&J, was Graham Drummond, the latter outstanding, especially his jig Eileen MacDonald I think it’s called; the MSR safe and sure. In a good third place came Sid Moore who missed out on the piobaireachd thanks to a hospital appointment. Sid held back on the nerves and didn’t miss a thing despite a tendency to push on a little hastily. Well worth his MSR prize. Fourth went to Kris Coyle who carefully played his way through his set without setting the heather ablaze – a slight weakness in the birl – but without any major error. Of the others, Alastair Donaghy again deserves mention as he beat some of the bigger names to take second in the H&J. This boy is one to watch: timing, finger, good blowing – it’s all there.
Whilst the administrators made up the final results the audience endured a short recital from myself and I then said a few words about the overall standard of play. I emphasised the need for consistency in fingerwork and the need to sustain concentration levels right to the end of a performance.