Pipe Major Comments on Recent Discussion on Low Attendance of Bands at Minor Contests

P/M Barry Donaldson

Some observations on Andy Donaldson’s recent correspondence based on my experiences with lower grade and youth bands post my time with Strathclyde Police Pipe Band.

I agree with Andrew, however I believe there are additional factors that need to be considered and these may help to widen the debate. The area I have chosen to focus on concerns what Andrew describes as ‘semi-professional’ juvenile bands and how they may now be discouraging ‘adult’ bands from competing.

It’s generally understood that Novice and Juvenile grades provide an appropriate competition platform for children, with the common precept that performance standards of youth bands would fall below that of most adult bands. Consequently Nov/Juv bands compete on an ‘even playing field’ providing greater opportunity of success than there would have been if they were competing in adult grades.

Unfortunately I believe the state of play has altered to such an extent that there are now important ramifications for both bands and contests. This, I believe, is a consequence of the significantly high performance standard of some youth bands particularly in the Juvenile grade. The RSPBA considers the performance standard of Nov/Juv appropriate for Grades 4 and 3 respectively (grades they perform in if there is no confined event at minor competitions).[polldaddy poll=9462566]

The bands now setting such high performance standards within Novice and Juvenile are from the private school sector (a relatively modern phenomena). The current World Champions Juvenile and Novice Juvenile – Dollar Academy and George Watson’s High School –  epitomise this. They have professional teaching staff of the highest calibre, are extremely well resourced and financed and consistently produce bands whose performance standard is way beyond that of Grades 4 and 3, and indeed Dollar would not be out of place competing in even higher grades. Band practices within these schools can, and will, be facilitated most days of the week as necessary, and particularly during summer term. This level of commitment/resource is impossible for community and state school bands to achieve..

This has a knock-on effect as it creates a disincentive for children who regularly do not make the prize list and are oblivious as to why they are unable to successfully compete alongside such bands. The child can lose faith in his/her own ability. The child within private school is equally unaware of factors which improve their opportunity. There are a number of youth and school bands which have now opted out of Novice and Juvenile grades. Most notable are Kintyre Schools whose senior section are now competing in Grade 3a whilst in 2015 they were in Juvenile. Vale of Atholl Youth pipe band no longer compete in the Novice and Juvenile sections preferring to develop youngsters in Grades 4 and 3 (ref. – RSPBA data). There is a list too numerous to detail in this correspondence.

The Juvenile grade is the smallest with only six bands competing at this year’s Worlds. In contrast there are 31 Novice Juvenile bands – which suggests there is a gulf in performance standard between the two grades. Interestingly, there are no Juvenile competitions in Northern Ireland, the young piper or drummer obviously learning through his association with an ‘adult’ band. (Is this reflected in the high standards traditionally produced by Irish bands in all grades?)

Getting back to Andrew’s point, the most devastating effect on the moral of an adult band is to suffer defeat by a Novice or Juvenile band – particularly before a major championship. This is a regular occurrence in Grades 3 and 2 and is happening to bands that are championship prize winners in these grades. No doubt bands will wish to avoid this and will therefore look for competitions least likely to attract such opposition, or indeed decide not to compete as appears to be the case.

Drummer Andy Donaldson, the man who first highlighted the problem at the minor contests
Drummer Andy Donaldson, the man who first highlighted the problem at the minor contests

I also believe that if competitions wish to attract Grade 1 bands there is a need to ensure Grade 2 bands are not discouraged from entering. Bands will look closely at prospective events to ensure they are competing on a level playing field. If it appears not, then don’t be surprised if the competition is avoided.

In conclusion, my comments should not be seen as being critical of any band or instructor, or of the RSPBA. I have the highest regard for all who teach children, irrespective of the school. This is a difficult area to resolve, but I do believe it is an issue which has ramifications well beyond the current debate.

• Read the original article by Andrew Donaldson here. There are also some very interesting comments attached to the story, in particular those from Stewart Gardiner, Wallacestone Pipe Band, Andy Donaldson himself and Steven McQuillan formerly of Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia Pipe Band. Further comments can be made below. Readers can add to the debate in another way by taking part in our poll above.