The Barriers to Good Pipe Band Adjudication

Former RSPBA Adjudicator Alistair Aitken OBE continues with his detailed look at the judging of pipe bands and how it can be improved. Read his first instalment here.

What are the common barriers to effective pipe band adjudication?  Firstly, there is no doubt that the location and layout of a pipe band competition can be factors.  Contests can of course be held indoors or outdoors.  Indoor competitions can be easier to judge as the conditions are normally better, though the accoustics may not always ensure optimum sound projection. 

An important point to also bear in mind is that indoors, the pipe band formation (i.e. the position of the players) normally has to be different, so that in turn can alter the sound projection.

By Alistair Aitken OBE

At indoor competitions the adjudicators are normally seated in front of the pipe band and there are fewer barriers to the sound projection. But it will differ from outdoors in that there will be greater pipe chanter volume if the players are facing the adjudicators. 

If possible the adjudicators ideally should themselves try to test out the best hearing position before the competition commences, but that is not always possible.  At solo drumming competitions, where possible, I normally always asked a player to rattle a drum before the start of the competition to identify the best projection position.  I found that most players were willing to volunteer as it was in their own interests to be heard clearly.



As most pipe band competitions are held outdoors, however, there can be a wide range of factors which can impact on a judge’s concentration and consequently the effectiveness of the adjudication.  These include:

  • Weather conditions can vary and adjudicators must be prepared for the good and the bad (i.e. warm, cold, wind and rain).  These conditions can also seriously affect band technique and sound quality – and bear in mind that these conditions can vary during the contest. Coping with all the relevant forms, critique sheets, personal record, programme, writing equipment and appropriate clothing is not easy at the best of times, even more difficult if the weather suddenly changes and it becomes wet and windy.
One of the competition rings at Bathgate Highland Games in May 2013
  • The size of performance areas can vary significantly, some being in confined locations close to spectators. This can add to the pressure on the adjudicators and can mean that they can sometimes get too close to the bands to hear the collective effect properly.  This is not the fault of the adjudicators; there is little they can do about it after an arena has been set up.
  • Band performances can often be affected by sounds coming from a variety of other sources: closely located competition rings; stalls selling merchandise; other musical groups in close proximity (such as ceilidh bands in tents at some events); compressors and generators etc. being used by stall holders; noise from traffic, trains and aeroplanes in close proximity; and spectator noise.  Loudspeakers can be a particular problem with overlapping announcements from other competition rings in close proximity. 
  • Adjudicators need to concentrate and avoid distractions.  Perception is particuarly important.  Did you actually hear or see something during a performance that you are confident enough to note down; or did you imagine it?  That is why active rather than passive listening and observation are so important for adjudicators.  You need to retain in your mind what you hear and see.
Aircraft noise at the British Pipe Band CHanmpionships, Paisley, doesn’t help
  • Interruptions and interference from officials and spectators can be a problem.  It should not happen, but it does.  To avoid potential accusations of bias, we always advised during training that adjudicators should not be seen to speak to spectators from the competition arena, either before or during a competition, but that happens also.
  • There can be potential hazards within the competing area: tripping over the restraining ropes attached to adjudicator tents, cables for cameras of recording companies, microphones for BBC recording equipment at the World Championships etc.
The competition venue at Dunbar is close to the main East Coast railway line, with trains passing very 5 minutes
  • Time is very limited, so there is a need to listen, observe and write simultaneously (a skill which can be learned, but has to be practiced and gradually developed).  It is possible to hold the critique sheet on a clipboard in a way that you can see over it using your peripheral vision, and also write and listen at the same time.
  • Managing time effectively is essential in order to listen, observe and at the same time write a constructive critique which makes sense.  How long it takes to walk to the adjudicator tent before completing the critique sheet is even a factor in maximising the time (including walking back out again to be ready for the next band).
  • Maintaining total concentration and treating all band performances consistently the same way is an essential requirement, but also difficult to achieve if there are distractions.
  • To be continued

1 thought on “The Barriers to Good Pipe Band Adjudication

  1. A very good summary of some basic pitfalls which can get in the way of bands, spectators and of course adjudicators enjoying the optimum of all that’s on offer on the pipe band contest day. Arena set-up is the responsibility of the event organiser, with the assistance of the RSPBA and usually this is good. However, it needs to be said that a few locations, particularly at local level, leave a lot to be desired.
    The circle formation, which has been the usual requirement for bands in outdoor competitions, is again coming under question. Spectator seating or standing needs to be considered along with any new formation determined for bands. Most performers do not turn their backs on the audience so why not give the paying customer value for money. As for the adjudicators’ position, a fixed(no, not chained) designated area placed for optimum viewing and hearing of the performance is of the utmost importance..

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