More from the Worlds: Juvenile and Grade 1

By Alistair Aitken OBE
By Alistair Aitken OBE

Thankfully the sun shone through occasionally on the Saturday of the World Championships and we avoided rain apart from some drizzle during the morning, but in general it was rather cold and not the ideal conditions for tuning and playing.

Compared to the Friday, the difference in the atmosphere within Glasgow Green was quite dramatic with the buzz from all the bands and spectators, and a gradual build-up of people in the main stand as soon as the Grade 1 MSR competition started.  Unfortunately there was not the same public support in the main stand for the Juvenile competition which started the proceedings off at 9am.  They missed high standard performances which demonstrated the solid foundation being set for the future.  There may have been only six Juvenile pipe bands in the competition but they could all have given many bands in higher grades a run for their money.

The following comments on the performances I heard in the main arena are again from a ‘pipe band’ or ensemble perspective.  In no way are they intended to be critical of the bands or the adjudicators.  They are very much first impressions and I fully appreciate that others may have widely different views.  The standard of performance was very high and it has to be recognised that making the Finals of the Grade 1 contest, the premier event of the RSPBA’s competition programme, is a major achievement.  On this occasion I was sitting halfway up the main stand facing the bands as they entered the arena.  I have found from previous experience that this is the best place to hear the ‘combined pipe band’ performance with the drumming projecting through the pipes.  On Friday I sat in the stand opposite the starting line, from where the sound projection was different with the drumming tending to be more dominant.

Juvenile Competition

Unfortunately the Juvenile event this year involved only six pipe bands, all of which were from Scotland.  It was unusual not to have strong contenders from other parts of the world.  For me, two bands stood out – Dollar Academy and George Watson’s College.  The latter proved to be the winner but I would not have argued either way.  Dollar Academy produced excellent clarity and orchestration, well-balanced pipes and drums, and very effective musical interpretation.  George Watson’s College was equally well integrated and presented, but overall I thought on the day its band sound had marginally more carrying power.

George Heriot’s School was first to play and set the benchmark with a spirited, well integrated and musical performance.  My only comment of significance was that the final tune appeared to become a little laboured.  People’s Ford Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia produced another solid and lively performance, but some of the playing in the latter stages came through a little deliberate and a drum roll seemed to me to be overplayed in the final tune.  Preston Lodge High School had another competent performance, marred only by some slight integration problems (or lack of clarity) and a lighter drumming sound which did not project as clearly through the pipes.  West Lothian Schools produced a very powerful band sound and good integration, but arguably the musical effect could have been improved with more subtlety of playing from the drummers.  All six bands should be well pleased with their efforts.

It is in the longer term interests of the pipe band community to have more bands in the Juvenile category and I hope that the increasing activity in teaching piping and drumming in schools will help achieve this.  Hopefully a few bands will also progress from Novice Juvenile ‘A’ for the 2017 season.

Grade 1 Finals

All 12 Grade 1 finalists competed in the main arena, the MSR competition in the morning and the Medley in the afternoon.  My observations are in the order in which the bands competed.

MSR Final
Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia set the benchmark with a nicely balanced band sound and very precise playing.  From this performance it was difficult to envisage that the band had virtually no drum corps less than a year ago.  My only comments of significance were a slightly hesitant break to the strathspey, and both the strathspey and reel being a little too controlled.  I had anticipated a more lively presentation but nevertheless it was a strong contender.  Inveraray and District then raised the bar for everyone with a spirited and very impressive performance, and an excellent balanced collective band sound.  The performance reflected technique, confidence and professionalism at their best, and what struck me personally was the musical influence from the subtle interpretation by the drum corps.

New Zealand Police
New Zealand Police……snares indistinct

New Zealand Police was another band with a rather controlled and careful performance and there were a few minor lapses in integration.  The overall band sound came across rather light and the snare drum sound projection through the pipes seemed to me a little indistinct.  The Simon Fraser University performance produced excellent clarity of piping sound.  The snare drums projected well through the pipes but seemed a little flat in pitch in relation to the pipes.  Generally the playing was clear and well integrated as a band, with effective musical interpretation by the drummers.  I thought this band was also a strong contender for a top six place.

Police Scotland Fife was another strong contender with a lively presentation and excellent clarity of playing.  The projection of the snare drums was clear but projected through a little flat in relation to the piping pitch.  The drummers also dominated a little at times, and the final two bars of the reel seemed a little untidy.  Given its short existence, it was a tremendous achievement for the Spirit of Scotland to reach this stage of the competition albeit that it comprised many of the world’s top players.  For me the piping sound did not quite have the same depth as some of the others and the drums were a little harsh in relation to the pipes.  The integration between pipes and drums was generally good apart from a slight lapse in the early stages of the reel.

Greater Glasgow Police Scotland projected a snare drum sound which appeared to lack snare response, affecting the balance with the pipes.  The piping had good clarity but integration between pipes and drums was a little suspect in both the strathspey and reel, and the end of the reel seemed a little untidy.  Overall the band perhaps lacked a little in terms of dynamic effect.  St Laurence O’Toole produced a lively and very musical presentation, with excellent clarity of playing from all sections of the band.  The drummers were very expressive and dynamic.  My only downside was that the snare drums projected a flattish sound in relation to the pipes.  For me a crisper drum sound would have enhanced the overall band balance.  The snare drummers also had a tendency to rush very slightly the open work of the part endings in the march The Highland Wedding.

Into the Grade 1 arena come the 78th Frasers from Canada
Into the Grade 1 arena come the 78th Frasers from Canada

The introductory rolls of the 78th Fraser Highlanders projected through a little uneven and pulsy.  The overall band sound seemed to lack the depth of the others.  The drummers demonstrated good musical influence and there were no obvious integration problems.  The rhythmic flow could probably have been improved by raising the tempos slightly.  Manawatu Scottish produced a fluent and rhythmic performance with a nicely balanced band sound.  Overall the integration was very good as was the musical effect, but there was still scope for more dynamics from the snare drummers.

New Zealand's Manawatu impressed everyone who heard them
New Zealand’s Manawatu impressed everyone who heard them

I had earlier thought that it would be difficult to improve on the Inveraray performance but, for me, the performance of the MSR competition came from Field Marshal Montgomery.  This was FMM at its very best with a performance which was vibrant, precise, well integrated, dynamic and musical.  It reflected confidence and composure, with first class harmonics.  The band seems to be able to raise its game when it really matters.  The final performance was from Scottish Power.  It proved to be another strong contender with an excellently balanced band sound, precise playing and effective musical interpretation from the drummers.  I particularly liked the lift and dance rhythm effect achieved in the strathspey.

worlds-bannerGrade 1 Medley Final
Bands maintained the same order as the MSR Final.  Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia performance was bright, rhythmic and musical.  The band sound was well-balanced, the playing was clear and precise and there were no obvious integration problems.  Inveraray and District then produced another dynamic musical performance worthy of winning any pipe band competition.  The performance reflected innovative medley construction at its best, effective interpretation of traditional tunes and musicianship of the highest level.  It was difficult to find any fault.

New Zealand Police again lacked a little in depth of sound but in general the band integration was very good.  The drumming would have benefitted from more expression as the snare drumming in particularly did not project through the piping clearly.  Simon Fraser University produced another strong performance but this time the drumming came through more dominant, with not quite the same finesse as in the MSR.  Police Scotland Fife started with a poor introduction in the first drum roll.  The band sound was clear and balanced and an obvious contender, but I wondered about the merits of the long transition into the jigs.

Nice bass section from Greater Glasgow Police
Nice bass section from Greater Glasgow Police

The Spirit of Scotland performance was in the main clear and integrated but at times the drumming was a little dominant affecting the balance of the band.  I thought there were also some variations of phrasing between piping and drumming which affected the strathspey rhythm.  In general some impressive piping and drumming technique was on display.  Greater Glasgow Police Scotland I thought produced its best performance of the weekend in the Medley final.  It reflected more relaxed and melodic playing with a Gaelic theme, but the snare drum sound again affected the band balance.  I liked the effect from the bass section.

St Laurence O’Toole produced another vibrant musical performance with an excellent piping sound and subtle drumming accompaniment.  Again the flattish sound projecting forward from the snare drums affected the balance of the band sound.  The overall effect from the 78th Fraser Highlanders for me was a little deliberate at times and the band sound was not quite balanced.  A more lively presentation would have been more effective.  Manawatu Scottish again produced a well-integrated performance.  I liked the musical effect in the slow air and strathspeys but there was scope for more dynamics from the drum corps in other tunes.

P/M Richard Parkes leading his band Field Marshal Montgomery to two superb performances at the 2016 Worlds
P/M Richard Parkes leading his band, Field Marshal Montgomery, to two superb performances at the 2016 Worlds

Once again the highlight of this competition came from Field Marshal Montgomery with another performance which seemed faultless.  With the excellent performance from Inveraray in mind, for me FMM raised the bar yet again with a composed, musical and highly professional presentation.  The sound balance had everything – clarity, trademark drone sound, harmonics and matching drum sounds.  The drum corps of the band is often criticised and it may not be the most technical. Listen carefully to how the corps influences the phrasing and musical interpretation in support of the pipers.  The final performance once again was from Scottish Power.  This time the introductory rolls projected through a little uneven but overall the performance represented a well-constructed Medley, good integration, clarity of execution and good musical effect.  Another very strong contender in my view.

I have no reason to dispute the final results.  As I know from personal experience adjudication is not an easy task, probably more so when you are in full view across the world as the event is being streamed live.  The two-stage Final represents a major challenge for the Grade 1 bands following the qualifiers the previous day.  All the bands responded to that challenge with very high quality performances and all are to be highly commended.

More generally, I have personal reservations about continuance of the two-day format.  Throughout the day there were gaps in the timing of the events in the main arena, so there is no compelling reason why the Grade 1 competition could not be run without the qualifying heats.  It is not unreasonable to have a competition with 21 bands, allowing all the bands the same opportunity.  I recall judging 27 Grade 1 bands in the past at the World Championships, but I accept that number was too many.  Separate MSR and Medley competitions could again be run, with the bands progressing from one to the other (allowing an appropriate time gap for re-tuning).  That format previously represented another type of challenge.  Having said all that, I also fully appreciate the logistical nightmare the RSPBA has in organising the Championships with over 230 pipe bands involved and so many grades and qualifying heats to accommodate.  Everyone involved has to be commended for the part they play in the organisation, many on a voluntary basis.

I think it is also time to consider a change to the format of adjudication.  None of the adjudicators in the main arena can hear the bands in the same way as the BBC recordings which have nine microphones round the competing circle picking up everything simultaneously.  Each adjudicator only hears the projection from the proximity of where they are standing, so they are all hearing different things unless they are standing together.  As I have suggested on a number of occasions previously, my personal preference would be to have the adjudicators sitting on a raised platform projecting out from the main stand at the front of the competing circle.  In that way the adjudicators would all hear the same sound projecting upwards and less affected by the positioning of the players.  However, that is a matter for the RSPBA but it seems to me at least worth a trial.

I also find it strange that both adjudicator teams involved in the Grade 1 Qualifiers judge half the bands in MSR and the other half in Medleys.  That seems to me unfair to the bands.  Surely it would be fairer to have one team judging all the MSRs and the other all the Medleys.  There may be some logic in the current arrangement that I am missing!

I also feel it is perhaps time to dispense with the drumming prize which, even unconsciously, may cause some drum corps to think more about trying to impress technically rather than musically also.  The editor of Piping Press suggested fairly recently that there may be a case for two drumming adjudicators – one for technical assessment and one for musical assessment.  There is no doubt that the role of the drumming adjudicator is to assess both aspects but they need to be located in an appropriate position to be able to do so.  I have to admit that in my early years of adjudication I was guilty of this myself, but it really is very difficult to assess the musical impact of the drumming on the piping melodies from a static position behind the drum corps.  You are in effect listening to the piping coming through the drumming rather than the other way round as I think it should be.

I hope these comments are seen as constructive.

Alistair Aitken is a former RSPBA senior adjudicator for drumming and for ensemble. Highly respected in the pipe band world, he was instrumental in establishing the PIping & Drumming Qualifications Board and also new, innovative training programmes for pipe band adjudicators.