What Pipe Band Adjudicators Are Looking For

Several weeks ago someone, in responding to Piping Press, asked if the magazine had any information about pipe band adjudication. For many years I was involved in adjudicator training for the RSPBA and at the time I recalled a couple of articles I had prepared for Pipe Band magazine.

I have since amalgamated them into a single file and added a little too. It may be that what I write no longer reflects RSPBA policy but it could be of interest to bands, judges and pipe band followers.

By Alistair Aitken OBE

The pipe band world is no different from many areas of endeavour where there are numerous individuals who consider themselves to be experts irrespective of whether they have given any serious thought to the official expectations of the adjudicator. 

In reality it is likely that few people really understand the complexity of pipe band adjudication unless they have experienced the demanding training which the RSPBA requires all aspirant Adjudicators to undertake.  It is relatively easy to make valued judgements when standing or sitting in the crowd.  It is a rather different experience when faced with:

  • the pressure of assessing consistently large numbers of bands one after the other (often for three or more hours at a time);
  • the need to write a constructive critique for each performance;
  • the need to rank the performances in an order of preference; and
  • the need to do all this whilst coping with the pressures of varying weather conditions, rigid timetables and external forces from spectators, officials and other ongoing activities.


So what does the process of adjudication really entail? In simplistic terms the key requirements of an adjudicator are the ability to listen consistently to performances, analyse them, evaluate them and then rank them in an order of preference.  To do this effectively an Adjudicator needs to:

  • be musically qualified and have a good musical ear;
  • have credibility as a performer, either previously or currently;
  • be aware of the standards expected;
  • have an analytical mind;
  • be alert, committed and consistent in assessing all the performances;
  • be able to write comments constructively and provide advice;
  • have the ability to rank performances accurately;
  • have a high perception of fairness; and
  • have high integrity


A common impression of adjudication is that it is only concerned with aspects such as note errors, execution faults, poor integration and tone.  Many people also consider these aspects in isolation in the context of the individual disciplines of piping or drumming within the pipe band.

Perhaps the fault lies with the adjudicators themselves since over the years comments in their critique sheets have tended to concentrate on these issues.  How many people, in assessing the technical aspects of their respective discipline, also consider the pipe corps or the drum corps in the context of the overall ‘pipe band’ musical effect? 

RSPBA Adjudicators Donald McPhee, Gordon Lawrie, Sandy Steele and William Garrett

To what extent, if any, do they consider the impact of the drum corps on the piping performance or vice versa?  Arguably the broader interpretation should have a significant bearing on their assessment.  They are after all judging a ‘pipe band’ competition.

Most people would agree that the main purpose of participants in a pipe band competition is to achieve high standards of musical performance consistent with good technique and technical ability, operating as a collective team. 


Get help for your band from the RSPBA’s fund – click on pic

The aspiration of most pipe bands is to be the best and to win consistently.  Obviously the capabilities of the players are also a significant factor which of course is reflected in the fact that the RSPBA grades pipe bands at different levels of competence. 

There are also strong grounds for arguing that pipe band competitions are a means of measuring and testing whether the educational and instructional programmes of the individual bands and of the RSPBA in general are working effectively.  Meaningful adjudication is, therefore, a fundamental requirement to realising these objectives.

Accepting that the primary focus of the pipe band competitive environment is on musical performance, it is, therefore, reasonable for the RSPBA to expect adjudicators to assess band performances against the three main constituents of music  –  Rhythm, Melody and Harmony. 

As a matter of course this approach takes account of fundamentals such as technique, basic rudiments, integration and tone.  However, it also focuses the mind on other important issues such as style and interpretation, musical balance and tonal balance. 

  • To be continued….

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1 thought on “What Pipe Band Adjudicators Are Looking For

  1. A very interesting and helpful article from Alistair, and I look forward to reading Part 2. If only the judges could adhere to his guidelines!! One additional requirement of a judge I would suggest is the ability to listen to a performance objectively, and put aside any personal preference or bias.

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