Pipe bands seem to have settled on a ‘no more than 25 pipers’ rule in the past couple of seasons. Before that we had showmen P/Ms turning out with nearer 30. Now they realise the difficulties this means for unison and control.
There was a time when the optimum size of a pipe band was considered to be 12 pipers, four side drummers, two tenors and a bass. Among the top bands in Grade 1 today we can double that number of pipers and triple the number of sides and tenors.
Many commentators, myself included, were worried things were getting out of control, but checks and balances, the actualité of performance, have kicked in and things have become more sensible. Increased size does give the bigger band increased volume – though this is exaggerated – and an amplified presence on the contest field. Seeing a huge battalion of pipers and drummers descending on the Worlds arena does bring a frisson of anticipation to the crowd, but I do not believe it has ever influenced our adjudicators. These wily individuals go about their forensic duties with the same intensity be they judging a band of 40 or 14.
There may have been a hope in the monster bands that minor slips and rough playing would be concealed among the bustling crowds of musicians, but judges have quickly adapted to the expanded circle (a performance nonsense anyway!) and by dividing their duties can now quickly ferret out the fumbles. Be assured, no matter how big the circumference, there ain’t no hiding place.
As I say, when you see the depleted ranks of a struggling band followed by the numerical power of a Shotts or a SLoT you can’t help but be impressed. But apart from this visual impact, there is no real advantage in having these juggernaut bands. Huge numbers of pipers make it all the more difficult to play with the required unison. Precision in technique suffers; it becomes woolly on the ear. The pipe major can lose control at breaks and in tempo change. Setting up and tuning becomes a lengthier undertaking.
I would be in favour of a cap of 20 pipers for all bands. Five ranks of four is plenty for any pipe major to be going on with and there are considerable benefits for the movement overall. Pipers on the periphery of a competing pool, unsure of getting a game at major championship, will lose interest and drift off to other organisations. It could lead to the formation of new bands or a boost for those at the bottom end of Grade 1, bands hungry for an influx of experienced, top-end, talent. Short on numbers and prospect of success, theirs is a sorry pursuit. Such a limit would help even things up and reduce the divide between top, middle and bottom.
If not a cap, then a Premier Grade for the top eight bands is imperative. I have written before about how this new grade would work: no more than four prizes and two going down each year and two coming up from the reduced Grade 1. The whole pipe band competing structure would be invigorated from the top down and I believe the bands would support it. It must be very dispiriting at the bottom end of Grade 1 to know that each competing day you have no chance of a prize – and when the young talent you have nurtured over many years is lost to the already burgeoning ranks of the big boys.
For newly promoted bands like Buchan Peterson and PSNI how much brighter would the prospect of 2017 be with Grade 1 seen as a manageable stepping stone to the Premier Grade? Without a cap on numbers such a grade is inevitable in the long run.
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