Reflections on the Pipe Band Competition Season So Far – Part 2

Pipe band authority Alistair Aitken concludes his look at the season so far….

The final event I would like to mention in particular is the local competition held in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh on Sunday 24 June.  It is pleasing to see that this Lothian & Borders Branch competition (now in its second year) has been resurrected in Scotland’s capital city, as Princes Street Gardens for many years during the 1960s and 70s was the venue for the Scottish Pipe Band Championships now held in Dumbarton in July each year. 

It might be difficult for some younger readers to imagine, but in these days there was a massive hive of pipe band activity in Edinburgh city centre with bands having the opportunity to play along Princes Street before the contest in front of thousands of locals and tourists. The different grades of competition all took place within parts of West Princes Street Gardens, all overseen by the imposing Edinburgh Castle. Bus parking was achieved by closing King’s Stables Road leading to the Grassmarket. 

Band entries were as high as they are now and it all came together successfully. Band supporters even had the opportunity to go on shopping sprees within walking distance of the band competitions.  Grade 1 bands, and some of the other grades, performed in front of the Ross Bandstand on the paved concrete surface which is great to play on and also provides excellent sound clarity for the adjudicators and spectators.  It was also where I had my first experience of judging above the bands (on the stage of the Ross Bandstand), when I was able to appreciate the benefits of how the combined band playing and sound projects upwards more clearly. 

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Before and after the Scottish Championships moved westwards there was also a local competition in Princes Street Gardens, until around the year 2000, normally on the day after Cowal. At one time there was also a local competition in the Commonwealth Stadium at Meadowbank and there was a small pipe band competition as part of the annual Miner’s Gala held in the Meadows and later in the Queen’s Park at Holyrood. Sadly the contest in Princes Street Gardens on 24 June is the only Branch contest now held in Edinburgh or its immediate vicinity.

The interesting fact about the Edinburgh contest this year is that all the bands again performed in a semi-circle formation in front of the Ross Bandstand stage with the four adjudicators seated in front of them. This type of competition formation was trialled by the RSPBA during the 1990s but was never implemented substantively as it attracted much criticism. 

Glasgow Skye in concert formation with the four judges seated in front

One of the difficulties at the time was that no guidance was given by the Association on the positioning of the drummers in relation to the pipers. As a consequence the bands were left to their own devices and some drum corps positioned themselves behind the pipers, some had pipers either side, and bass sections also positioned themselves in different places. [polldaddy poll=10029688]

All of this resulted in different sound projections and it was difficult to position the adjudicators where they could assess the performances consistently. I am conscious that the semi-circle formation is still favoured by many people, including the spectators.  At the Edinburgh contest there was more consistently in the formations than experienced during the earlier trial but some of the problems associated with the positioning of the drum corps were still evident. Listening from the front, admittedly sitting a few rows up among the spectators compared to where the adjudicators were seated, there were variations in the sound projection and sound balance. [wds id=”19″]

For me, in the Grade 1 contest for example, the best sound projection in terms of clarity and balance between piping and drumming was Peoples Ford Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia [pictured top] with the bass drummer positioned to the left of the band and behind the pipers. The Pipe Major was also to the left of the pipers but still within the semi-circle.  In the case of Glasgow Skye Association the bass drummer was in the same position but the Pipe Major stood with his back to the adjudicators and spectators in the form of a playing conductor role. The drummers – snare, bass and tenors – seemed to play heavier to compensate for the fact that they were positioned behind the pipers, noticeably affecting the balance of the band sound. 

Denny & Dunipace

The heavy playing of the drummers also seemed to be added to by echoes and ricochets from the canopy at the front of the Ross Bandstand. Denny & Dunipace Gleneagles on the other hand had the bass drummer to the right behind the pipers and the Pipe Major also facing the pipers with his back to the adjudicators. The sound balance of the band was better but the snare drums did not project through the pipes clearly. In all cases the diminished drone sound was apparent in comparison with the normal circle format as the drone sound is projecting away from the listener. 

I fully accept that from the spectator perspective these differences are probably not apparent. For those charged with deciding the contest results the positioning of the players within the semi-circle formation do have a bearing on the accuracy of the assessment. My preference would also have been to at least a trial of having the adjudicators seated on the stage of the Ross Bandstand. I appreciate, however, that these views will not be universal but may be worthy of further debate.

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