What Pipe Band Adjudicators are Looking For – Part 3

In this excerpt we explore in more detail some of the terminology the RSPBA expect its adjudicators to use in critique sheets which provide the feedback to pipe bands on competition performances.  The aim is to help pipe band personnel to better understand adjudicator comments and learn from the experience. Please be aware that these comments are from my time working on adjudicator training for the RSPBA and details and advice may have changed in the interval.

In the competition field critique sheets are the recognised official medium for communication between adjudicators and the pipe bands.  The critique sheet is expected to provide a reasonably comprehensive summary of the adjudicator’s assessment of the performance of the band.  It is an important document which adjudicators have a duty to complete carefully and meaningfully, as ideally it should provide information and advice to help bands maintain or improve their performance.  The comments on the critique sheet should also justify the placing awarded in the contest.  

By Alistair Aitken OBE

Critique sheets are often widely criticised for various reasons such as:

  • illegibility;
  • lack of constructive comment;
  • poor spelling;
  • comments which are difficult to understand;
  • comments which are predominantly negative;
  • concentration solely on execution faults and errors; and
  • no relationship between comments and placings.

Critique sheet comments will always be contentious as they reflect the opinion of one individual.  Recognising this, the RSPBA has over the years, through its Adjudicators’ Training Group, encouraged adjudicators’ to adopt a more sophisticated and constructive approach to the completion of critique sheets. 

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Although it still happens, these days critique sheets should not simply contain standard and brief comments such as “Good Intro”; “Good uptake to march”; “note error or roughness in 2nd part”; “Strathspey not so good”; “Reel could be better” etc.  The present day adjudicator is encouraged, and expected, to use correct and understandable terminology, covering a range of parameters such as:

  • quality of the Introduction;
  • tempo, phrasing and relative notes values;
  • execution, style & interpretation, integration, technique and time signatures;
  • rhythm, expression and dynamics;
  • musical balance and musical effect;
  • intonation and tonal balance;
  • the make-up of the actual selection of tunes; and
  • providing useful feedback and advice to competitors.

Pipe band competitions have a variety of objectives, one of the key ones of course being to improve standards of performance.  However, competitions are also an education process, being a means of testing whether the training systems used by individual players, bands and the RSPBA itself are effective and successful.  Viewed in this way adjudication is an important task and thus adjudicators have a duty to provide in the critique sheet the maximum useful feedback in the time available. 

‘Good voicing from the tenors, ‘digit dexterity deficit’, ‘lacked empathetic integration and tonal fulfilment’….. not guilty of such over-exuberant unintended obfuscation is judge Robert Mathieson pictured at this year’s Scottish

It has also to be borne in mind, however, that the adjudicator has only one opportunity and a limited time frame in which to hear each performance.  Given the complexities associated with the sizes of modern pipe bands, the time restrictions, varying weather conditions and other pressures, it is impossible for the adjudicator to comment on every aspect of the performance. 

The extent to which this is possible also varies between grades due to the different levels of performance.  Nevertheless it is possible to provide a comprehensive and meaningful assessment if the adjudicator adopts an objective and structured approach to considering the different parameters.

As well as using the English language properly and accurately in critique sheets, the adjudicator has also to ensure that words associated with musical vocabulary are used correctly.  He/she has also to bear in mind, however, that not all band personnel will necessarily have a sophisticated musical vocabulary. 

A judge, pencil and clipboard at the ready as Fife Police approach the circle

The basic principles associated with critique sheet writing should, therefore, include:

  • legibility;
  • simplicity;
  • brevity;
  • consistency between bands;
  • advisory;
  • understandable;
  • appropriate technical terminology; and
  • appropriate musical terminology

Most adjudicators will assess band performances under broad headings such as Introduction, Execution, Musical Performance and Intonation.  Under these 4 categories the critique sheet ideally should cover a reasonable range of the following, where appropriate to the specific discipline of piping, drumming or ensemble:

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  • quality and precision of the Introduction (with reference to specific faults such as drones/chanters not striking as one, consistency of roll pulsations, timing of bass drum and snare drummers not accurate etc)
  • integration between pipes and drums
  • balance between instruments
  • maintenance of tempo into opening tune

Music Performance:

  • rhythm, melody and harmony
  • technique and quality/precision of execution
  • integration
  • expression and dynamics
  • tempo
  • phrasing
  • time signatures
  • style and interpretation
  • musical effect
  • musical balance
  • breaks/arrangement of tunes
  • advice on any of these aspects

World Solo Drumming….click on pic for tickets


  • tone quality of chanters, drones, bass drum, tenor drums and snare drums
  • tonal balance (within pipe corps/drum corps/overall pipe band)
  • advice which might help remedy any specific faults

All these requirements of the effective adjudicator are covered in the extensive in initial training which applicants must complete successfully before becoming an approved member of the RSPBA’s adjudicators’ panel.

The development workshops which adjudicators are now required to attend on an annual basis are also used as a means of continually improving adjudication skills and re-emphasising the aspects of adjudication which should be covered.

  • To be concluded. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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1 thought on “What Pipe Band Adjudicators are Looking For – Part 3

  1. How many of us are practised at writing with a pen these days, and how feasible is it for every judge to be legible? Shouldn’t we be looking at alternatives to writing?

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