IN the US the Midwest Pipe Band Association report that at the recent Chicago Highland Games they trialled a ‘concert formation’ for the Grade 2 and 3 Medley contests (see picture above). The feedback from bands and audience has been very positive, so much so that the organisers plan to use the same arrangement in 2016. All I can say to that is well done to all concerned.
Here’s what they did in Chicago: Competing Grade 2 and Grade 3 bands played the Medley event in ‘concert formation’ after their MSR, and Grade 4 and Grade 5 bands competed in the traditional circle. For the concert layout, a large rectangle shape was painted on the ground and the bands were allowed to form up in whatever manner they chose within the space. Judges were stationary at a table at the front of the bands, with piping adjudicators on the outside, and drumming and ensemble judges in the middle.
The closed circle formation of bands has been a bugbear of mine for many years and the column inches I’ve expended in the cause of a more audience and judge-friendly set up is considerable. The pipe band remains the only musical ensemble in the world, in the world, that turns its back on its listeners. That may be hard to believe but it is the ridiculous situation that we are in – and have been in since the SPBA was formed back in the 1930s. In all that time the military-based idea of competing in a circle has never changed. Every other aspect of pipe band presentation has been radically altered: dress, tune requirements, grading, bass and tenor section, leading drummer’s playing position have moved with the times. Not so the way our bands compete for the most important championships in the calendar.
The disadvantages of the circle are many. From the spectators point of view they get a kilted backside to study as they listen. They hear a muted sound with all chanters and drums pointing inwards, protected by a line of bodies. They would never dream of having this set up in a concert setting, so why in competition?
The pipe band world is notoriously traditional. Bands get comfort from being able to eyeball the pipe-major; I accept that. But pipers and drummers are musicians first and foremost or they are nothing. They play for the prize yes, but isn’t the audience important too? Can’t we devise a system that satisfies all the demands of public performance? If bands want to be treated like professional musicians then they need to start behaving like them when it come to performance. And anyone who says the consideration of the audience is not important is talking through a hole in their pipe bag. If the audience is not important then don’t charge them entrance money.
From the judging perspective the circle makes absolutely no sense whatsoever either. Who judges the balance of a bagpipe from behind? Yet that is what our adjudicators do week in, week out. At present they have only the march in from start line to circle, usually 20 or 30 seconds, on which to base a correct assessment of the instruments; thereafter, it’s drones first to the ear and that’s it. We never see pipe majors testing chanters from behind do we?, and if in the solo world a piper was to play his strathspey and reel with his back to the judges and audience it would be considered very bad form, the true sound and glory of the instrument lost on the listener.
To begin the change all we need is a rule that allows a band to play in open formation should they wish to do so. I firmly believe that after a short while it would become the norm. Sound projection, audience reaction, professional presentation, would all produce the sort of response that would make the bands opt for the new, not the old. Judges could be given the option of walking/standing and/or sitting.
Now to finish, here’s a report from Mr Sim himself: ‘We were looking for ways to make the pipe band contest more appealing to the crowd. We always have had a good contest but were looking for ways to make it more appealing to non-real pipe band enthusiasts. We had a normal MSR contest for the diehards. We then had the Grade 2 and 3 bands play their medleys in the concert formation of their choice. We moved the crowd ropes so the crowd could get closer. Many of the spectators were able to get behind the bands as well if they liked. The band as well as crowd response was better than we expected. All of the bands really enjoyed it. The crowd really loved it and it was our largest crowd ever to watch and listen to it. We have already announced that we will be doing it again next year. We may expand the concert formation to more Games next year as well. The Adjudicators also liked the event. It really gave them a complete musical presentation to the performance.’ Jim Sim, President, Midwest Pipe Band Association www.MWPBA.org
If this doesn’t say it all then I don’t know what does. So my message today to all pipe band associations and contest promoters is this, why not follow the lead given by Chicago? In terms of presentation it would bring piping and drumming into line with other ensembles, it would please the photographers and the tv camera crews, it would please the audience and I do believe it would please the judges and the bands themselves. In the meantime a hearty well done to Mr Sim and his board; they realised things had to change and had the courage to make it happen.
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