This summary review of the performances in the Grade 1 Finals at the 2018 World Pipe Band Championships (WPBC) is based on what I heard from my seat in the main arena stand. As already reported this was the 71st WPBC under the auspices of the RSPBA and the 70th anniversary of the first time the event was held in Glasgow. Overall the Championships attracted a total of 214 pipe band entries (slightly down from last year). 158 of the bands were from the UK and 56 were from other countries (Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, USA, Zimbabwe, Switzerland, Denmark, France and Oman – an increase from 49 in 2017). Many of the bands, including some of those from overseas, had taken the opportunity the previous weekend to have a run out at the local competitions at North Berwick, Dundonald, Rothesay, Portrush (Northern Ireland) and Perth. North Berwick proved to be one of the best attended local competitions this year.
Firstly I must congratulate the winners of all the nine different grades of competition, but in particular the Grade 1 winners, Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band from Northern Ireland. Pipe Major Richard Parkes MBE created history by taking the title for the 12th time to equal the record of legendary Pipe Major Ian McLellan BEM of Strathclyde Police, a record which many people thought could never be equalled. It could still be broken and only time will tell! Many congratulations to Richard, Leading Drummer Keith Orr and the members of the band for two outstanding performances. The outcome means that since 1947, when the then Scottish Pipe Band Association first assumed responsibility for the World Championships, the statistics remain unchanged by this year’s result in that only 14 pipe bands have ever won the title and only 21 Pipe Majors (some having been in charge of the same bands at different times).
Secondly congratulations must also go to the RSPBA for the organisation of the Championships. Friday was restricted to the qualifying heats of the Grade 1 competition but Saturday was a massive organisational undertaking with eight separate competition rings in operation mostly simultaneously. This was only possible due to the efforts of RSPBA officials, adjudicators and many volunteers, and not forgetting employees of the City of Glasgow Council. In total, taking into account qualifying heats, there were almost 300 individual band performances.
There are often criticisms of the RSPBA about playing times, the late finish and the weather to mention only a few. It is difficult to envisage how anything other than minor improvements would be possible without a fundamental change to the format unless someone could miraculously produce a covered venue in Scotland which could accommodate the same number of bands. We just have to accept it all and continue moaning about it as is our tradition! The weather this year was particularly unkind on both days as it was cold and occasionally wet and windy, making it a major challenge for the players, instrument tuning and the spectators. Even sitting in the stand presented an endurance test of its own.
Reaching the Grade 1 Finals is a major achievement by anyone’s standards. Those bands which managed it this year found it to be strongly contested as three of them, other than the eventual winners, had already been successful at the four other major championships run by the RSPBA earlier in the year: Scottish Power, St Laurence O’Toole and Inveraray & District. The outcome of the Worlds is always also difficult to predict as the playing requirements are much more stringent than at other championships, each of the 12 finalists having to play a march, strathspey and reel in the morning followed later in the day by a medley, each competition assessed by a separate team of four adjudicators. The varying weather conditions added to the challenge.
I fully accept that my comments may differ from those of the adjudicators who are standing or moving around in different positions at ground level and are consequently hearing different sound projections. I have commented in the past on my preference of having all four adjudicators seated on a raised platform at the head of the band circle so that they are hearing the performances closer to what is heard on the BBC recordings (which reflect microphones located around the bands, all recording simultaneously). For what they are worth the following summarise my thoughts from an ensemble perspective from my position seated midway up the main stand. The RSPBA actual adjudicator placings are shown in brackets after each band name in the order: Piping 1, Piping 2, Drumming and Ensemble.
Johnstone Pipe Band (10/10/12/11) The balance of the band sound in my view was affected by a rather harsh snare drum tone. The march was lively and the impression was that the tempo was being forced by the drummers. I also detected some chanter distortion at times with the tonal quality deteriorating slightly as the performance progressed. The strathspey also lacked clear rhythmic flow as a collective band. The reel was much more rhythmic and musical but the integration between pipes and drums was a little suspect towards the end. At one stage a drummer either broke or lost a stick, not surprising in the weather conditions.
St Laurence O’Toole (7/6/3/4) Overall for me a solid performance and a strong contender. Nice sweet, clear and balanced piping sound but the snare drums had a ‘hard’ tone which affected the overall band sound balance slightly. I would have preferred a softer sound with more snare response. The bass and tenors projected very well. The march was lively, well integrated and well interpreted. The strathspey idiom came through well, ably assisted by the hallmark style and musical interpretation of the drum corps. The reel was also well interpreted and very fluent.
Simon Fraser University (4/4/7/3) Another very strong contender with an excellent sound balance between pipes and drums. The musical influence from the drum corps was very good and the whole performance fluent and rhythmic. I particularly liked the dance rhythm of the strathspey and the reel was also bright and musical. The nicely balanced bass section also contributed effectively.
Police Scotland Fife (3/3/4/7) Firstly it was good to see Leading Drummer Mick O’Neil playing following his recent health scare, reflecting his commitment to the band. This was another strong band performance. My minor criticisms were that the introductory drum rolls came through rather forced and a little pulsy. The snare drum sound was also a little harsh in relation to the piping pitch. At times the drumming also came through rather forced and intense with some over-emphasised accents, and slightly edging on the pipers at times. The piping generally was very clear and well phrased, the sound held well and the musical interpretation as a band was very good.
Inveraray and District (5/2/1/2) My only criticisms of this performance were that the piping sound did not seem to be quite as clear as normal from where I was sitting and the snare drums came through a little harsh. The playing as a band was lively, rhythmic, well interpreted and musical. The break into the reel did, however, seem a little rushed. The clarity of the piping and drumming was excellent. Being first for drumming was well deserved. The musical influence of the corps was very subtle and influential.
Boghall and Bathgate Caledonia (8/11/6/8) For me this was one of the best balanced band sounds of the competition as the blend between piping and drum corps was excellent. The pitch and snare response from the snare drums stood out in comparison to most of the other bands. Overall the execution of piping and drumming came through very clearly with good musical interpretation and execution of each of the time signatures. The interpretation from the drum corps of this band is always effective with its distinctive relaxed and fluent style. For some reason the band has not been getting the recognition it deserves this year as Ross Harvey has done a very good job since he took over as Pipe Major.
78th Fraser Highlanders (9/9/10/9) Another example of the snare drum sound being a little harsh in relation to the piping sound. In general the piping was clear and positive. At one stage in the march I thought the drummers were a little ahead of the pipers and at times the drumming came through rather forced with scope for more subtlety. The piping tone seemed to deteriorate slightly in the reel and from where I was sitting the drumming was indistinct in the first part of the reel.
Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia (2/5/11/5) The piping sound and execution of this band was excellent, with clarity and resonant drone balance. The snare drum sound came through a little harsh for optimum balance with the pipes. The drumming was also a little laboured and dominant at times but even so the 11th placing for drumming seemed to me rather harsh.
Vale of Atholl (11/8/8/10) Overall the balance between pipes and drums was affected by a rather heavy and dominant drum corps. The performance was lively and well integrated between pipes and drums. The piping tone seemed to deteriorate towards the end with some top chanter register distortion evident. The reel was best in terms of fluency and rhythmic flow.
Field Marshal Montgomery (1/1/2/1) For me a clear winner at this stage of the competition and a band never to be underestimated despite the results from earlier this year. An excellent balance of sound between pipes and drums, underpinned by the trademark deep drone sound. The whole performance was bright and well interpreted with a relaxed, fluent and authentic presentation of each time signature. Overall, a very professional performance.
Scottish Power (6/7/5/6) In my book this was another strong contender. The balance of sounds and sound clarity were excellent. The integration between pipes and drums was very good with effective musical interpretation. The strathspey had a nice dance rhythm and my only criticism was that the second part briefly seemed to become slightly laboured. In direct comparison to Field Marshal Montgomery the drone sound from the pipes did not quite have the same intensity but was still a good balance.
Dowco Triumph Street (12/12/9/12) The introductory drums rolls came through rather forced and pulsy. The drumming in general projected through rather heavy and, although the precision of piping and drumming was good, the overall band sound did not quite balance. More variation of weight of playing from the drummers in the march and strathspey would have helped the musical interpretation. The reel, as a collective band, was much more fluent and rhythmic.
• To be continued. Follow Piping Press’s unparalleled coverage of the Worlds starting with the results here. Check our interview with P/M Richard Parkes of Champions Field Marshal Montgomery here. Got a comment? Please add your thoughts below.