More Observations on the British Pipe Band Championships

St James Playing Fields, Paisley, Saturday, May 21

By Alistair Aitken OBE, former
senior adjudicator for the RSPBA

This was a new venue for the first major championship of the year and my first impression was the amount of space which was available.  The Playing Fields were flat and firm despite the rain earlier in the day.  However, they were also rather open to the elements with a chilly wind blowing at times between warm sunny spells.  No doubt the varying temperature would not help the tuning.

The forecast rain thankfully stayed away for all but a 10-minute period during which the Spirit of Scotland Pipe Band and bands playing at the same time in the other competing circles were rather unfairly swamped; and without doubt it affected their performances to an extent – not quite the ‘spirit’ expected!  Surely that cannot happen to these bands again.

My only other comments about the venue were that the available space would have allowed the competing ring perimeters to have been expanded a bit wider to avoid overlapping sounds.  For example, Ring 1 was affected by the microphone announcements from Ring 4 and vice versa.  The same applied to Rings 2 and 3.  The sound of aircraft taking off from the nearby Glasgow Airport also impacted on band performances at times.  I was also surprised to see some large tents and very large umbrellas around the arenas, which illustrated that some people had the foresight to anticipate bad weather and no doubt their occupants were kept dry and comfortable, but at the same time they blocked the view of other spectators and, during the deluge, directed even more of the water in their direction.  Thankfully that was only for a very short period.

My only other comment is that, having spent so many years as an adjudicator within the actual competition arenas, I had not fully appreciated the difficulty from a spectator perspective of trying to listen to specific bands in the different grades when there are four competition rings in operation at the same time.

I had hoped to hear all the bands in the Juvenile grade but did not manage to do so.  Those I did hear produced a very high standard which is great for the future of the pipe band movement, but the downside is that there are still only six bands at this level at major championships, apart from the Worlds.  Hopefully the increasing teaching of piping and pipe band drumming in schools will result in a significant number of bands progressing from Novice Juvenile, which presently has a strong number of entrants in both Novice Juvenile ‘A’ and Novice Juvenile ‘B’ categories.  These are grades where young people can serve their apprenticeship, learn many skills and gain experience and confidence, before progressing to higher level bands.

The Police Service of Northern ireland on their way to victory in Grade 2 albeit on ensemble preference
The Police Service of Northern Ireland on their way to victory in Grade 2 albeit on ensemble preference

I also managed to listen to some of the early performers in Grade 2.  I was impressed with the eventual winners, the Pipes and Drums of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (pictured top during their performance) but noted that their win was on ensemble preference from Buchan Peterson, whose performance I unfortunately did not hear as they appeared later in the programme.  I did hear Lomond and Clyde’s solid performance and was impressed by the drum corps (again reflected in the final results).

I did, however, manage to listen to the whole of the Grade 1 competition as I was able to find a suitable vantage point where I could hear the performances from an ensemble perspective, which decided me to stay put.  I am reluctant to reveal what my own ranking order would have been but I did think that the outstanding performance of the day was from Inveraray and District [pictured celebrating up top].  For me the performance displayed tonal balance (as a collective ‘pipe band’), spirited playing, clarity of execution, innovative medley composition using traditional tunes, and very effective musical interpretation – to which the drummers made a significant contribution in terms of technical ability, subtlety and use of varied dynamics.  The presentation of the slow air and of John Morrison of Assynt House were particularly effective.

The good crowd and umbrellas sometimes made it difficult to listen at Paisley. The band performing here are Boghall Juveniles
The good crowd and umbrellas sometimes made it difficult to listen at Paisley. The band performing here are Boghall Juveniles

That is not to say that there were no other strong contenders.  Field Marshal Montgomery played first and set a standard which was very difficult to beat in terms of immaculate piping, tonal balance and musical presentation.  Another very good musical performance for me was from Boghall and Bathgate, a band I was surprised not to see in the prize list.  I felt deeply sorry for the Spirit of Scotland and the players did very well in coping with the cloud burst which hit them.  It would be unfair to even try to provide any meaningful comment on the performance from where I was standing as what I was hearing was distorted by the sound of the heavy rain hitting the many umbrellas surrounding me.

Other piping performances which stood out for me were Scottish Power and Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia in terms of both their clarity of playing and distinctive sound.  In some of the bands I thought there were imbalances between the piping and drumming sounds, and in some cases, the clarity of the snare drums was not projecting clearly through the pipes.  I wonder how many band leaders think about that when setting up the instruments as, when the drums do not project through clearly, it is difficult to get a true picture at the head of the band of the musical influence of the drumming; and that is where the ensemble adjudicator is usually positioned.

In the results across all the grades there were some wide differences between adjudicators, which is not unusual although difficult for the general public to understand.  Numerous attempts have been made over the years to overcome this problem and I am not sure that the adjudicator consultation trials taking place this year will provide the solution.  It may produce more consistent placings, but many bands will feel that the problem is simply being hidden or the results are being influenced by those adjudicators with strong personalities (as was the complaint with the previous consultation system).

Many people may have forgotten that the introduction of two piping adjudicators to championship teams was originally to achieve a balance of views rather than the same result.  As I have suggested more than once before, my personal preference would be for a trial with all the adjudicators standing or sitting in the same place (preferably in a raised platform) so that they are all hearing the same sound projection.  It still might not provide the complete solution but must be at least worth a trial!

All in all I enjoyed my day, met many people I knew and discovered that as ever pipe band ‘politics’ are still very much to the fore!  We would probably complain if it was otherwise.

• Read more on Paisley here.