By Alistair Aitken OBE, former RSPBA adjudicator
Following a winter and spring with a fairly limited number of indoor pipe band competitions, the 2019 outdoor competition season in the UK commenced over the weekend 11th and 12th May with five competitions, all reportedly encountering favourable weather. These competitions took place at Dunbar in East Lothian and Ards in Northern Ireland on Saturday 11 May; and Sunday 12 May saw competitions at Gourock, Dundee City and Banchory.
Individually the number of band entries was not vast at each contest but collectively a substantial number of bands took the opportunity of a run out in advance of the British Pipe Band Championships at Paisley on Saturday 18 May. It will be interesting to see how these bands fare during the outdoor season.
On the Grade 1 scene Field Marshal Montgomery took the honours at Ards, Police Scotland Fife at Dunbar and Scottish Power at Gourock, the latter being the only contest with more than two entries in the Grade. St Laurence O’Toole, Inveraray & District and Lomond and Clyde, however, chose not to take the opportunity to compete in advance of the Championships at Paisley. That proved to be a wise decision for both St Laurence O’Toole and Inveraray & District as they took first and third places respectively at Paisley last Saturday.
The British Championships at Paisley represented the fourth year the event has been held at the St James’s Park location. Unfortunately, after a week of unusually warm weather in Scotland, the day proved to be cold, with light rain on and off during the day. The conditions certainly were anything but ideal for the competing pipe bands.
St James’s Park offers plenty space and is well placed for travel by air, road or train. Entry and parking are also free. The downside is the proximity to the M8 motorway and Glasgow Airport, with noise from aircraft in particular disturbing some of the band performances in previous years. This year proved to be much better as the weather conditions meant that the planes were taking off from a different direction, so the noise did not present the same problem (apart from a lone helicopter hovering above the field at one stage).
The contest competing circles were also spread out much better this year which avoided overlapping band sounds. In actual fact the local Council and the RSPBA are to be congratulated on how the whole arena was laid out to avoid distractions to the bands. It was just unfortunate that the weather conditions probably contributed to there being fewer spectators than normal. The more hardy pipe band followers, however, are well used to these conditions at pipe band contests in Scotland and come equipped to cope with them!!
The first RSPBA (then SPBA) British Pipe Band Championships were actually held in Renfrew on 26 June 1948. Some of the records after that date are no longer available but, as reported previously, these Championships have seen nine different venues over the past 17 years, including 2019 – Pitlochry (twice), Turriff, Tain, Ballymena (Northern Ireland), Birmingham, Banbridge (Northern Ireland), Annan (three times), Bathgate (three times) and then Paisley (now four times).
This year congratulations must go the Pipe Major Alen Tully and Leading Drummer Stephen Creighton of St Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band (below) in taking first place in both the Grade 1 band competition and the drumming. Grade 1, as always, was fiercely contested. I have no wish challenge or comment on any of the results as I am well aware of how difficult the adjudication process is.
My personal and very brief observations on each of the performances from an “Ensemble” perspective in the order in which the bands played (and heard from a position just behind the spectator barrier at the front of the competition circle) are as follows. I fully accept that these views will not be shared by everyone.
Field Marshal Montgomery: Few, if any, bands like to play first but FMM set the benchmark for the others to beat on the day with a solid performance of a lively MSR. The band’s traditionally strong and distinctive piping sound and the excellent clarity of execution of piping and drumming were clearly evident. The musical interpretation as a band was very good and my only slight criticism from my listening position was that the bass drum sounded rather heavy and “boomy”. The sound did not quite project through the pipes and drums as it normally does to contribute to the band’s “stereo” effect.
St Laurence O’Toole: SLOT left the starting line to produce a spirited performance obviously designed to make its mark. I felt that the tempos were right on the edge but the overall musical effect and clarity of playing were excellent. At times in the strathspey the snare drummers seemed to me to be just marginally ahead of the melody in some phrases. The piping sound was very clear. The musical interpretation from the drum corps was very good, with a nice subtle effect from the bass and tenors. The corps sound projected well through the pipes but, for me, the sound from the snare drums seemed “hard” with little noticeable snare response; but that might have been different when listening from the rear of the corps.
Scottish Power: Another very strong performance as a collective band, building on their win at Gourock the previous week. The piping sound was very clear and robust; and the balance between pipes and drums was right on the mark. The interpretation of the melodies by the drummers was subtle and musical, even though less dynamic than the previous two bands. Jake Jorgenson has now developed his own personality into the drum corps and I am sure the band will be a strong contender during the year.
Police Scotland Fife: This was another strong performance with good rhythmic flow. The pipes were pitched very high and, as the performance progressed, I thought the top register almost reached the stage of distorting slightly. A couple of what seemed to be note errors possibly contributed to that. The drumming projected through the band well but perhaps was not quite as expressive as normal.
PSNI: In the Police Service of Northern Ireland band performance the clarity of piping was a little suspect at times and the drum corps lacked depth in projecting through the pipes. I thought the strathspey was rather controlled, almost laboured, and the drummers could have improved the rhythmic effect with more variety of expression.
Johnstone: An early chanter was clearly evident. The band had a strong and balanced sound. The march came across well but the strathspey was a little laboured, with the drumming coming through as a rather staccato effect. The pipers and drummers seemed to be phrasing the tune in slightly different ways.
Lomond and Clyde: This would be the band’s first competition following a significant change in personnel. The second introductory roll ending was not precise but the band sound was strong and well balanced, and the piping clarity was good. The snare drumming projected through well but from my listening position the bass and tenors could have been more subtle in their interpretation. The drumming overall in the strathspey also came through a shade laboured and deliberate.
Peoples Ford Boghall & Bathgate: This was another very strong performance building on the result at Gourock the previous week. The band sound had excellent balance and clarity. As always the drum corps strongly supported the band’s musical interpretation with its relaxed and fluent style. It is good to see Ross Harvey now getting recognition after, unfairly in my view, failing to make the top six at at least two of the Major Championships last year.
Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia: Another top band with a new Pipe Major. The band sound was strong and well balanced with the drummers, although at times the bass drum was a shade too dominant. At times the drumming projected through a little laboured and staccato in both the strathspey and reel.
Inveraray & District: An early “chirp” was evident from a chanter in the introduction. The band sounds between pipes and drums were very good with excellent balance. The drum corps, including the bass and tenor drummers, contributed very well to the musical interpretation and generally the accuracy of the playing across all sections of the band was very good. Another very strong contender.
Glasgow Police: The band sounds were well balanced but my impression was that the march became rather controlled as it progressed. The piping came though clearly but the integration between pipes and drums was suspect in the early stages of the strathspey. At times the tenor drummers also seemed to be out of sync, which disturbed the rhythmic effect. The integration between pipes and drums was also a little suspect at times in the reel.
Glasgow Skye Association: Arguably, at least from where I was standing, the band had the most dominant drum corps of the 12 bands in the contest. More variety of weight of playing from the drummers would have helped the musical effect and the band balance. The strathspey seemed a little over-controlled and at times the tenor drummers seemed to disturb the rhythmic effect. The clarity of the piping was also suspect at times.
More generally, I was also able to listen earlier in the day to all the performances in Novice Juvenile A. The standard of playing and musical effect of all of them was very high which reflects the quality of teaching of piping and pipe band drumming in these bands and in many schools throughout Scotland.
I would also have liked to have listened to a number of the performances in Grade 2 and Grade 3A but unfortunately these grades were running simultaneously with Grade 1. Bearing in mind that there was a long break in activities between 12 noon and 1.30pm perhaps more thought could have been given to varying the times of some of the competitions to help the spectator experience.
As always there were some wide differences between individual adjudicators across all the grades which I am sure many band personnel and spectators must find difficult to comprehend, but there always have been, and always will be, differences of opinion as music affects the emotions of everyone in different ways.
Many attempts made over the years to improve this have achieved little success. During my time as an RSPBA adjudicator I was one of those responsible for monitoring on behalf of the adjudicators’ panel the results of all the competitions for anomalies, as these were always highlighted as part of adjudicator training and adjudicator development.
I took some encouragement from the results of the competition at Dundee City on 12 May just over a week ago where, for the first time ever as far as I can remember for a competition with a significant number of bands, the placings of the two piping adjudicators were exactly the same across all the grades. That did not last, however, when I looked at the results of the Grade 2 competition at the British Championships on Saturday. I leave it to others to ponder on what could be the reasons!!