A Look Back at the London Championship 2017 and a Review of the B Grade Piobaireachd

By Robert Wallace

I read the comment on yesterday’s results post  with a little concern. Organisers and stewards giving of their free time and effort can take these things cruelly. However I do feel the London contest needs a bit of pruning if it is to maintain its mojo.
Prizemoney looked modest and the number of prizes could do with an increase. Any more than 12 entrants and there needs to be a minimum of four places. Is there really room here for a full set of ‘C’ Grade contests and all the amateur events?
I don’t know;  the organisers will want to let as many as possible play at what is a high point in the piping calendar. But it may a be a case of less is more and certainly a cap of 25 on all piobaireachd events is an urgent necessity. Having said all that, the SPSL and their stewards (and the judges!) coped brilliantly with the exigencies of the day: 100+ pipers an a’ an a’.
Alison receives a well deserved bouquet of flowers

Everything concluded at a reasonable time circa 7pm, with President Andrew Hall efficiently getting through the prizes and raffle with a minimum of fuss. It was a pity some of the prizewinners had to leave early to catch flights. Andrew was right to praise the work of London committee member Alison Gilmour. Talk about efficiency. If anyone kept the day rolling along it was this tireless lady. Alison is also helping out with the Shotts Juniors later this month so no problems there despite their record entry.
But back to London. My weekend began with the Train Journey South in the company of many of my fellow judges. The patter was epic. Here was true fellowship, comradely banter, piping history from those who knew it first hand. Five hours to Euston never raced by so quickly. Those colleagues with a tendency to mire the judging cadre in a slough of controversy should have been with us – they’d have learned a thing or two.
To the hotel where luckily I was sharing with my ex-214 BB mucker Archie Maclean. Apart from being a respected piping adjudicator, Archie is an expert on Renaissance art (he was married in Florence) and has a keen interest in military history, particularly that of WW2, his father John surviving battle after battle from Normandy to Lüneburg Heath. So you see there was never a lack of stimulating conversation to add to the piping discussion.



Friday evening and a judges’ meeting where we were allocated our duties for the following day, myself and Logan Tannock to the B Piobaireachd. Readers will know of my distaste for any impediment, direct or indirect, which is placed in the way of teaching. Into this latter category comes last year’s draconian ruling by the Solo Piping Adjudicators’ Association to apply the jackboot to any member caught presiding over a contest in which a ‘pupil’ was playing.
I looked around the London meeting room to gauge the number of regularly active teachers – dashed few and even fewer at the very highest level. This SPJA ruling is already paying a negative dividend and the longer it is allowed to continue the more piping will suffer, mark my words. Had anyone sat through the marathon eight and a half hour ‘B’ Piobaireachd they would know what I am talking about. There is a distinct lack of knowledge at this Silver Medal level. You can tell when someone knows how to present their music but is having an off day – and you can tell when they, well, just don’t know what they are doing.

‘A’ Piobaireachd winner Peter McCalister receives his trophy from Chelsea pensioner Davy MacIntyre. Picture courtesy Billy Wardrope

Not in this category was the winner Edward Gaul. His Groat was subtly nuanced, well fingered and thus musically presented. Also ticking these boxes, but less so, was second placed Ben McClamrock from the US with his Red Speckled Bull. My main grouse with Ben was his continual cutting of the B third beat in the ground and early variations. Another good Groat from Gavin Ferguson (rich-toned pipe and clear finger) earned him his third prize, though he was behind Edward in expressive finesse.
Fourth was Steven Leask with the Battle of Bealach nam Brog. Some erratic rhythms in the second line of the urlar doubling, clipped low Gs in the T singling and an out of kilter doubling shoved this fine young player down the reckoning. Sarah Muir was fifth with one of this year’s Silver Medal offerings, Rev Norman MacLeod’s Lament, from Book 16 in the PS collection. Sarah is too good a piper to keep out of any list but here her adherence to the PS’s edited score, rather than to the original as the composer gave us it, meant a loss of melodic impact.
Mentions in dispatches for the following: Peter Skae for bravely submitting Donald MacPhee’s Salute to P/M Richard Parkes MBE, or the ‘Salute to Dickie P’ as Peter called it. This is a melodic new piece in the mould of P/M Donald MacLeod’s ceol mor. It is a fine tribute to the legendary pipe major and maybe we’ll hear his band play part of it in the next FMM concert. Steven Gray had a manful King’s Taxes but the high G was a tad flat and I think he knew it; consequently the concentration seemed wandered at times.
Jig winner Andrew Donlon entertaining at the informal ceilidh

Alistair Murray had the music and pipe for Captain MacDougall but left dare and his crunluath back in Pittsburgh. Matt Pantaleoni had the right idea with Lady Margaret MacDonald’s Salute but the pipe was the poorest we’d heard it for some time. Ross Cowan started well in Hail to My Country but slowed in the taorluath and then the crunluath let him down.
Thirty-two entered and 30 played. The result:
1 Edward Gaul
2 Ben McClamrock
3 Gavin Ferguson
4 Steven Leask
5 Sarah Muir
After the prizes and some pictures it was out into the busy streets and some refreshment. I’m told there was a ceilidh in the hotel bar sustained mainly by the overseas visitors so well done to them for that.
Sunday and the Train Journey North from Hell. Twelve and a half hours door to door standing all the way from King’s Cross to Newcastle. Ah, the joys of judging.
The Scottish Piping Society of London’s annual competition was held on November 4 at the Kensington Conference Centre. Get full results here and CLASP amateur results here.


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5 thoughts on “A Look Back at the London Championship 2017 and a Review of the B Grade Piobaireachd

  1. It might of interest to Dr Hester if he reads the article by Chris Terry in regards to the competitions at Oban and Inverness He wrote of lack of phrasing etc and that was relevant to the Gold Medal level and the Clasp Level of competition. Chris clearly wrote his article based on what he was taught and learned and played well. With the exception of this year, I have attended The Northern Meeting as an audience member for the last 15 years and have heard the most of the Gold Medal and Clasp Competitions and in that time the content of his article has more than a ring of truth to it, which I agree with. Good well played tunes do occur but not as often as one might expect at that competitions.
    Of course it cannot all be leveled at the SPJA or the CPA, but their pursuit is inhibiting people who take part in judging in respect that they should not offer guidance which may be seen to amount to teaching. This goes through all levels of the competition scene and the welfare of the music, particularly piobaireachd is clearly in danger. I believe that the SPJA and CPA should be moving heaven and earth to improve teaching rather than putting in place any policies which may inhibit teaching or even discussion between those who are engaged to judge and the persons they are judging. Teaching is essential in all branches of music and anything that inhibits this is indefensible.
    It might be of interest. I was present when an aspiring player in the B grade of competition who was having a measure of success asked a senior judge if he could have lessons from the senior judge. The senior judge responded saying he preferred to judge competitions rather than teach and if he agreed to teach the chap, he would be unable to judge at certain games and B graded competitions.
    That senior judge had vast competitive experience and there is a loss when people like that feel they cannot pass on information that they have gleaned from their teachers who did take part in judging and treated their pupils in as an objective way as possible.

    1. Mr Watson – as usual, a very well argued point. Thoughtful. Respectful. With the kind of concern and passion for pibroch that gets to the heart of the matter – can we ensure pibroch not only survives, but thrives in the future. While the question of judging and competitions is a vexing one, esp. if it means some would rather judge than teach, I don’t know if the solution needs to be focused solely on this context. One thing that seems so odd to me is: musical competitions in other fields are a means to an ends – those ends being the professional development of a player who will then enter an orchestra, or be signed to a recording deal, or become one of the elite soloists traveling the world. For pipers, the competitions ARE the ends. And their constraints may be threatening the musical art form itself. Pibroch was played for real occasions of everyday importance: weddings, funerals, battles, entertainments, gatherings of auspicious persons, commemorations, rowing out to sea, and so on. The stuff of everyday life. That’s where it thrived. We “saved” it after its context was torn apart by transplanting it into competitions. Very early on those competitions were entertainments, meant (once again) to entertain and delight audiences. But they have become events where only a very few people bother to show up at all, many of whom are or were competitors themselves. The result has become a dying echo-chamber of nearly identical performance styles, once informed by deeply musical people, now being handed off to a generation of young competitors who often only seem interested in learning a formula for success, not aspire to understand the musical art. This is a tough one, and you make very clear points. Because of which, those in conversation about the modern pibroch scene are that much more edified and thankful. Thank you.

  2. Rab –
    “ Had anyone sat through the marathon eight and a half hour ‘B’ Piobaireachd they would know what I am talking about. There is a distinct lack of knowledge at this Silver Medal level. You can tell when someone knows how to present their music but is having an off day – and you can tell when they, well, just don’t know what they are doing. “
    With this one comment you insulted a wide swath of performers and their instructors.
    I’m not sure if that was very prudent. Might I suggest that the commitment you have to overturning the SPJA rule may be blinding you to the harm you unintentionally inflict on those you want to help?

    1. Okay David 500 words please on how you would improve the knowledge base among Silver Medal candidates or maybe you think they know enough already in which case 500 words on how you arrive at that conclusion. RW

      1. Setting aside the question of whether and to what degree your critique may be accurate, and the degree to which its generalization insulted a number of people: you do not make the case that it is because of the SPJA decision that this is so. What does the quality of performance have to do with whether their instructors are judging them or not? And what does “active teaching” have to do with judging? Must one teach to know when a performance is well played? All of this is unclear.
        In less than 500 words I would say that the way to improve the knowledge base of the Silver Medal Candidates: (1) learn canntaireachd and play from the Campbell settings directly, (2) immerse yourself in the primary source material and learn to read from them directly, (3) perform from as many sources as you can and avoid the secondary source material, (4) literally find the Gaelic song tradition behind the tune whenever possible, (5) stop thinking that you are “supposed to sound like everyone else, only better” and act like a musician who plays from the heart, (6) explore more opportunities for performance beyond competitions, (7) find more and different sources of instruction, (8) in every case, ask yourself just what, exactly, it is you are trying to communicate when you perform a piece (after all – you ARE communicating: what are you trying to say? that you are cautious? that you are careful? that you want to win? or maybe that you want to move and delight, inspire, bring someone on a journey of discovery?)
        That’s a good start, I would think.

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