The View from the 4th Grade Via the Slighly Jaundiced Eye of a Pipe Major

We are grateful to Alistair Aitken OBE, former RSPBA adjudicator for drawing our attention to this humorous piece which first appeared in the RSPBA’s Pipe Band magazine several years ago. Says Alistair: ‘The article is quite funny but also very realistic. I remember going to Cowal under similar circumstances to compete in Grade 4 with Colinton & Currie Pipe Band [above] in the 1960s. 4.30am start so that we could play up the street and then at least 2am before getting back home again….’

THE Fourth Grade. The very sound of it sounds bad (maybe because it sounds so much like fourth rate, I suppose. God knows how it’ll sound if we get six grades). It seems somehow shabby, tawdry, like someone from a back street music hall show. For ‘Fourth Grade Pipe Band’ read ‘Lowest of the Low, Scum of the Earth’, not even worthy of mention, why do they bother, etc. etc. etc.

At least that’s how it seems to me. Let me try to give you a flavour of what it’s like. The pipe major has been busy teaching learners for the past two years and at last they seem ready to swell the ranks of the band with some hopes of com­petent performance levels. There have been disappointments, of course, par­ticularly about the other eight learners who started but fell by the wayside for one reason or another.

However, despite all the ups and downs, when progress seemed imperceptibly slow, when chickenpox stopped practice dead for a fortnight, when wee Johnny flitted to the other end of town and couldn’t get along, when wee Jimmy fell off his bike and had his arm in stookie for six weeks, at last every­thing seemed to be coming good. Wait a minute. This is Grade Four we’re talking about, remember.

Within a year, wee Johnny has flitted again, this time to a town fifty miles away. We’ve heard however that the local Fourth Grade band has welcomed him with open arms. Oh, good! Then wee Jimmy hands back his kit (which had to be specially bought for him, the little … ). No reason, just giving up, no longer interested, sorry. We hear later he’s becoming pretty good at karate. Pleased for him too, really.

The worst scenario of all. Wee Alex, the wee-est, but potentially the best player of the three, who has been steadily improving over the months, is ‘poached’ by the Second Grade band on the other side of town. What a satisfaction to see someone you’ve taught and nurtured for so long progressing on to bigger and better things. We swell with pride. You can believe that if you like. Never mind, there’s another two laddies on practice chanter this year that could turn out to be good wee players …

The G4 Leapoughs Pipe Band, G4 World Champions in 1989

Then there’s competitions. The band members, with an extraordinary and unusual burst of enthusi­asm, have agreed to take part in a mini-bands contest on the other side of Scotland. The pipe major and secretary post off the entry with pounding hearts and set about organising the transport.

Only as the great day approaches does it become dear to the chosen participants that they are going to have to set off at the unearthly hour of 6am in order to get to the venue in time for the draw and the start of the contest.

There is much grumbling at the pipey about this (not that it’s his fault, of course, but he’s handy), but on the appointed day the five adults and three laddies that make up the mini-band haul themselves into the minibus that’s been cadged for the occasion and set off, adults bleary-eyed from the effects of the night before’s boozing, all grumpy and still complaining at the pipey, who is doing the driving as well, by the way.

British Columbia’s Robert Malcolm Memorial in G4 in 2010

When they reach Backabeyond Academy, the school chosen for the event, having got lost twice in blizzards on the way (more moans at the pipey) they pay their money, then find they’ve just missed the draw, but anyway are play­ing 23rd in a field of 41.

They wait an hour before starting to tune up, then suddenly find out they’re not 23rd at all, but 16th, due to umpteen bands scratching. They are still five minutes short of being ready when the steward calls them to their performance, and after a few heated exchanges with that most worthy and indis­pensable member of the pipe band fraternity, the lack of preparedness unfor­tunately comes through as they play before the judges (sorry, adjudicators – … more about THEM later.)

After a swift post mortem, and one or two mild recriminations, it is notice­able that the wind, hail, rain, sleet and snow are now getting appreciably worse, and since they reckon the chances of being in the top four are about as likely as a loan of a fiver in Aberdeen on a Monday, the intrepid squad decides to leave at the back of lunchtime to get home safely.

Good plan, but it’s thwarted somewhat by the arrival of the First Grade bands’ luxury, central-heated, air-conditioned, driven-by-somebody-else. coaches, all six of which are fifty seaters with about 24 people on each, and all trying to take the impossible turn into the playground one after the other, while the occupants gaze out with the sort of quiet, superior air you expect of royalty at least.

RAF Lossiemouth plaing in the Grade 4 MSR at Banchory 2016

This delay of course means there’s time for another heated discussion among the denizens of the Fourth Grade. Why, they demand of the pipey (who knows as little about it as they do), when 41 bands enter for the Fourth Grade contests and only six for the First Grade (meaning the lower grade bands have paid nearly seven times in entry fees what the top teams have paid), why don’t the Fourth Graders get more consideration as to start times?

It’s a good question. This pipey has no answer. By the time we get home, weary, bleary, cold and nearly snow blind, we know the answer to one question at least. We know why we don’t take part in even more contests!

I promised a word or two about adjudicators. See if you recognise any of these comments: ‘Not a full-blown E. Pay more attention to note values. Chanters quite nicely set, but intonation problems spoiling overall melodic effect. Drones out from the start. Slack bottom hand work.’

What about, ‘Rolls not together in endings. Good enough material but lacking in light and shade.’ Light and shade? We’re in the Fourth Grade for Heaven’s sake! What do you expect? Do we have a bass section? Oh, yes, here they are right at the bottom.

‘Bass too dominant. Bass too resonant. Bass too flat.’ Funny that. It’s the same drum and we rarely alter it. Do we have tenors? Can’t have; there’s no men­tion of them at all.

These are extracts from the legible ones. The unreadable variety certainly aren’t worth straining one’s eyes over. Do we ever read, ‘Nice try from a young band’? ‘Keep up the practice, lads’? Well, yes we do. But only once in a blue moon. I have those crit sheets gilt-framed and hung on the wall.

Then there are contest stewards – those gentlemen whose war-cry, oft expressed in this magazine, is ‘Gi’es a brek, lads!’ Some of their other utterings too may be open to interpretation, according, it seems, to which grade you compete in.

Take the seemingly innocuous, ‘Right. Pipe Major, get your band formed up and let’s go,’ for example. If you’re in the Fourth Grade this may be roughly translated as. ‘Right pal, nothing you do now is gonna improve your rotten sound anyway, so if you’re not on the line in two minutes just head for your bus!’

The combined G3 & G4 bands of Coalburn IOR pictured at Shotts in 2013

I had this translation personally from a National Council member who was stewarding at the Worlds some years ago, and ever since have tried to get close enough to First Grade bands to see and hear what passes as these demi­gods are called to compete.

For them the phrase seems to take on a slightly different nuance of mean­ing – something along the lines of, ‘Not ready yet, pipey? That’s okay, take another couple of minutes and I’ll ask you politely again.’ Presumably there are further shades of meaning as you proceed through the grades from one extreme to the other. It’s a funny old language, English! So, come on, you stewards, gi’e us Fourth Grades a brek too, eh?

And the moral of this tale of gripes and quibbles? Simply this. Isn’t it about time we in the lower grades stood up to be counted a bit more? Isn’t it time our views were taken into consideration rather than those of the ‘prima don­nas’ at the top of the pipe band pyramid? Of course it is.

All it needs is for one or two of us to take the lead. So on you go, fellow Fourth Graders. Lead on. Speak up. Me? I’ll be right behind you all the way. If you don”t mind, though, just for now, until our campaign gets properly under way, I’ll just keep my identity a wee secret.

  • Does your band play in the lower grades? Is the above still relevant today? Share your story with the world pipe band community via Piping Press. Send your thoughts to the usual address or use our Comments section.

1 thought on “The View from the 4th Grade Via the Slighly Jaundiced Eye of a Pipe Major

  1. Over the decades the lower grade bands have, by virtue of consistently outnumbering the Grade 1 s, contributed ‘most’ yet have always settled for ‘least’. Why???
    Surely the representatives of the Grade 4 s need to take take a long look in the mirror as the RSPBA management or the sponsors of various competitive events can’t be held responsible for inconvenience or unfair treatment after all.
    And now, who cares if pipe bands continue to disappear like snow off a ditch.(Answers on a postage stamp if you will.)

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