Promoters Under Pressure as New Judging Association Wields Its Power

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

It remains to be seen how the draconian ban on judges joining a bench when their pupils are playing, imposed last week by the Solo Piping Judges Association, will work in practice. It is up to the promoters affected – Oban, Inverness and London – to run with this dictat if they are so inclined. They would be wise to pause and draw breath.

It is already very difficult for them to ensure top quality benches without some crossover involving pupils. After all, it is stating the obvious that the most knowledgeable will be in most demand to teach and to judge. In our artistic village the odd conflict of interest is bound to happen. Agree to this latest injudicious ruling and promoters become shackled to one huge hostage to fortune. Moreover they should be aware that there is a considerable cadre of opposition to the latest ex cathedra from the SPJA committee. Remember, only 17 out of the association’s constituency of 52 were present when this ‘unanimous’ decision was taken.

Hypothetical yes, but when Hamish travels from the Highlands on his £400 round trip to London and discovers that a tutor is presiding, will the Competing Pipers Association insist that he doesn’t play, or will the SPJA judge be asked to pack away his pencil and spend the day admiring Big Ben? Assuming matters proceed as advertised in the programme, questions must follow, for there is no use having a law unless it is enforced, is there? Why was judge A on that bench when piper B was playing? Now judge A may not have known that piper B was going to enter, and piper B may not have known that judge A was on the bench. No matter, the investigation must proceed along with all the attendant brouhaha, the integrity of the individuals concerned called into question. Legal action may follow with a financial and adverse publicity risk and a consequent threat to sponsorship. Do promoters really want to be embroiled in all this? 

Looking again at practicalities, it will be incumbent on organisers to make their benches public as soon as possible, the better for pipers and the big brothers at the SPJA and the Competing Pipers Association to scrutinise exactly what is being planned: remember there’s real corruption out there and we must do all we can to stamp it out, goes the mantra. There should be pressure too on the CPA to produce early, and up to date, lists of all their members and who their teachers are. How else are the promoters to  compile their benches accurately and efficiently within the ‘law’? Furthermore, not all pipers are members of the CPA. How are they to be policed?

The whole atmosphere surrounding this situation smacks of the black days of the Association of Piping Adjudicators (APA) back in the early ‘90s, days which led to a boycott of the main contests by pipers and years of ill feeling in the aftermath. Yet the situation we find ourselves in today is all so unnecessary. The ‘declare an interest’ safeguard is already in place, the three-man bench an additional bulwark against individual partiality. Moreover judges have always had the option of accepting an invite to judge or not. What was wrong with leaving it to their own conscience?

So it will be interesting to see if the SPJA closed shop gains any traction. My advice to the piping committees and stewards of the Argyllshire Gathering, the Northern Meeting and the Scottish Piping Society of London would be to keep your own counsel; acknowledge concern over conflicts of interest and pledge to do what can be done to lessen areas of potential dispute. But sign up to this ill-conceived covenant? Promoters must retain the right to select who they see fit to judge their competitions. They are the ones who raise the money and give of their free time to put them on after all. Issue the invite; judge declines for whatever reason; fine, ask someone else. Judge accepts, then trust his/her integrity to fulfil the required duties in a professional manner.

When over in Pittsburgh last weekend I had a long chat with Canadian Bill Livingstone about the situation. Bill is one of our most respected senior adjudicators but has now resigned himself to no longer being asked to travel to Scotland to help with the judging at the major events. His crime? He gives a few lessons to pipers playing for Silver and Gold Medals and senior piobaireachd events. Here is a man rightly concerned with passing on his knowledge, yet now, in his 75th year, his top-level judging career is more or less over.  Isn’t this an indictment on the very association that is meant to represent his interests?

6 thoughts on “Promoters Under Pressure as New Judging Association Wields Its Power

  1. A long time ago my respected piobaireachd tutor announced he would be judging one of the gold medals. My response was I wouldn’t be playing. He judged the Silver medal year. Simplistic on my part some may say. Nothing on my conscience.

    A talented light music player, he never taught me light music yet I do remember comments when placed on the games circuit about that connection. Too many complaints about this over the years and perhaps too many years too late in tackling it.

  2. There are many angles to this. It is an unfortunate fact that solo piping is so focused on competitive piping. It is the reality Mr Hester compares the orchestral world to the world of piping and refers to the conduct of auditions and that the persons being auditioned are not seen be the assessors and vice versa. Undoubtedly we can all learn from each other and I would not dismiss ideas from other genres of music without thought. However, on the face of it Mr Hester is rather naive.
    The orchestral world is huge and in comparison the community of solo piping even though now is global is tiny in comparison.
    At solo piping competitions when pipers take to the platform they go through a tuning prelude. Sometimes it is arguably not actually necessary, but nevertheless they do this. Supposing judges were behind screens those judges particularly when so experienced as to be invited to judge at the likes of the Northern Meeting, they almost without fail would be able to identify who the performers are. Even without the prelude it is often easy to identify players by their characteristics of their finger technique. This is more prevalent at the higher level but is also the case in the lower grades.
    As the piping community is small and there are competitors and experienced judges doing the competition circuits, thus frequently coming in contact, it is not long before judges pick up on characteristics both negative and positive and can identify the players.
    Thus the suggestion of judges being screened from competitors in the hope that this is an answer to the perceived problem of conflict of interest re judges and pupils is just a naive thought. There may be times that the judges are not aware of who is on the other side of the screen, but they will have a good idea on most occasions.
    Mr Hester writes eloquently about piping matters and apparently he is a teacher of pupils to high standard and must be aware of this.
    There is in fact good reason for judges viewing competitors. I recall an incident which admittedly is rare when at one of those major competitions when I was in the audience, I was watching and hearing the competitor tuning his bagpipe which sounded rather good. However I did note that while he was deftly txuning his middle tenor, there was just no difference to tuning. The judges were having a chat with each other. After all this tuning process is not part of the competition.
    The competitor played and played well. I had my suspicions. Later in the bar with tongues loosened, I raised my suspicion with the competitor and he frankly admitted that just prior to going to play his middle tenor drone reed started to play up. and he just blocked it off rather than withdrawing He had done the practice, took time off work etc and was there to compete. He did query if the judges may have noticed and I was unaware of whether they picked up on his strategy or not. Wisely as it happens, the competitor did not broadcast his problem and surprise, surprise was in the prize list.
    Maybe because of this, when having the privilege to share a judging bench I try to keep an eye out for this sort of thing. It is not part of the competition, but would be an obvious element in a result if pipers were to engage in my friend’s strategy. Judges would be pilloried for missing this sort of thing at any level
    Comparing audition performances to competitive performances is not relevant in many cases. It obviously depends on the purpose of audition., Let me say I cannot play the piano and if I hear a good player and a very good player they may sound the same to me. If they are using the same instrument available at an audition venue and played the same classical piece, as I am not a pianist, I would not be able to assess the differences thus am unable to make assessment. As it happens I am engaged at a school at which orchestral music is the main theme. I am engaged teaching the bagpipe and the prospective students who are fairly young are expected to be above average obtain entry by audition. At the auditions, I attend along with persons from the orchestral world who are highly regarded in their fields. A decision has to be made as to the candidate’s suitability to be accepted. To assess this suitability I have to hear and indeed see what candidate is doing. This assessment requires me to listen to a piece prepared by the candidate and obviously apparent musical presentation is an aspect. He or she will hopefully have prepared well and their instructor will hopefully have honed the performance to as high a standard as possible. At that stage I might be impressed and agree to the suitability, but as Mr Hester will know there is more to this than that. If the candidate has a very good sounding bagpipe that is also a plus. However, I have to ask, has he tuned the instrument or was it his instructor? To test this the bagpipe is knocked out of tune and the candidate is asked to re tune the instrument. That is often difficult. It seems to be a black art and of course involves being able to listen and hear their own instrument as listeners and assessors do.
    Blowing technique can be an issue and indeed Mr Hester as a teacher of high standard players is probably aware of this. In a Youtube presentation of how to use a pressure gauge, he can bee seen demonstrating his instructions which he probably will impart to his students. It is worth watching even if the readers have no intention of purchasing the pressure gauge device..
    Bearing in mind that it is the major competitions held at Oban, Inverness and London which are specifically targetted. it should be acknowledged that those promoters predominately engage Judges from the Senior level.
    The long and short of all this in regards to the subject of judges who when on a bench of two or three and there is a pupil of one or maybe pupils of two or even three, that there is a tacit suggestion that those Senior judges ARE NOT CAPABLE OR INDEED HONEST ENOUGH of discussing among themselves in an objective fashion the merits of performances, having declared to their fellow bench members their involvement with the competitors.
    There is distrust being generated n all of this. The term ‘conflicts of interest’ is being bandied around as though it was confined to teachers/judges/pupils. It would be easy to add to this the term ‘commercial’ as there are judges who are heavily into commercial enterprises involving bagpipes and accessories, such as reeds etc. and the evidence is there to be seen in adverts on the internet. Those adverts sometimes contain details of the advertiser’s successes and identities of successful players at the major competitions who use their products. To ignore this as an obvious conflict of interest it is questionable.. Good luck to them hem and I hope they are comfortably off, but to cherry pick the conflicts of interest to suit their agendas is a doubtful ploy.
    This started out as a comment and I apologise about the length of this. However, when raising subjects which would involve conflicts of interest, within the solo bagpipe World, is is no exaggeration that a book could be filled with such detail.
    We surely do not want to go down that route.
    Those who of course do want to continue this are entitled to their thoughts.and expressions but should at times examine their own positions.

  3. I completely endorse Rab’s comments, and made my views known to the SPJA. I believe that Rab himself let them know his views and I believe as well that Malcolm Macrae and Duncan Watson held and made known their own similar views. In my submission to the SPJA I pointed out that very soon, the top soloists will be retiring from competition and likely assume the mantle of judging. Several of these men are engaged in the manufacture and sale of bagpipes, reeds, chanters and the like. I fear that this uneccessary rule will open the door to a challenge to these people based upon what is a real conflict of duty and pecuniary self interest. And we can’t afford not to have these masters judging.

    My life in the law taught me that when new rules are promulgated, it is mandatory that the “mischief” (wonderful archaic word) that is intended to be addressed had better be carefully identified as being a real and present problem. I can see no sign that the promulgators of this rule have any real evidence of a problem, merely a perceived possibility.
    Furthermore, a lifetime of litigating cases makes very clear that unless there is a clear and compelling reason to make new regulations, the new rules actually CAUSE more problems than they solve. Simply put, the greater the regulatory setting, the more breaches of it, regardless of merit, will appear.

  4. I am finding the rhetoric here borderline insulting: from “draconian” to “lunatics”. Breathe, people.

    This is a reasonable change that both assures against the insinuation of favoritism, and stirs up the insular pot.

    Perhaps there will be unintended consequences. There usually are.

    But whatever your own self interests may be in this matter the requirements are neither unreasonable, nor unwarranted, nor unprecedented.

    Heck, in the orchestral world when auditioning judges and competitors literally do not SEE each other.

    If I recall correctly, that is how the very first piping competiton was run. Maybe we should get back to our roots?

  5. Had to respond to this Rab, as with this latest dictat it appears the lunatics have been let out the assylum.
    The 3 person bench was designed to address the problem of conflicts of interest, and to my knowledge has worked well.

    It appears that certain characters in our community don’t trust it and seek to malign the integrity of the judges involved.
    This makes me angry as I know personally most of the judges involved

    There are many nowadays who take competition far too seriously, seek the Holy Grail of a Gold Medal at all costs and use unfair judging as an excuse when they fall short.

    Myself, I have always been quite happy to compete with a one man bench, even when a judges’ pupil has been playing too. Like I alluded to, I trust in the integrity of our judges.
    I fear that piping is in danger of disappearing up its’ own arse!

  6. There seems to be a thought that an advantage is gained by a piper playing for a judge who has given him tuition. My experience is very much the opposite.

Comments are closed.