Pipe Band Workshop Part 1: The Pressure on Judges and What They are Looking For

As bands prepare for their first season in three years Piping Press will do everything it can help them refresh their knowledge and re-kindle their enthusiasm. This article, by former senior pipe band adjudicator and educator Alistair Aitken, first appeared in Pipe Band Magazine.

it is likely that few people really understand the complexity of pipe band adjudication until they have experienced the demanding training all aspirants need to undertake.  It is relatively easy to make 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
  • 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

By Alistair Aitken OBE

So what does the process of adjudication really entail? In simplistic terms the key requirements 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 judges need to:

  • be musically qualified and have a good 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
  • be able to write comments constructively and provide advice
  • have the ability to rank performances accurately
  • have a high perception of fairness
  • have high integrity

A common impression of adjudication is that it is only concerned with 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 in the past 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 band’s musical effect? 

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 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 band competition is to achieve high standards of musical performance consistent with good technique and technical ability, operating as a collective team. 

Massed bands in 2018….we can look forward to the first season in three years

The aspiration of most 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 bands at different levels of competence. 

There are also strong grounds for arguing that band competitions are a means of measuring and testing whether the educational and instructional programmes of 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 competitive environment is on musical performance, it is, therefore, reasonable to expect judges to assess 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 and tonal balance.  The effective pipe band adjudicator should, therefore, sub-consciously be taking the those aspects into account whilst listening, analysing and ranking different performances.

  • To be continued.

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