Editor’s Notebook: The Never Decreasing Circle/ Develop the Worlds Medley/ Bob McFie/ Miscellany

The pipe band circle … mired in the 1930s

For all the detailed, cogent explanation given by Alistair Aitken for judging inconsistency in pipe band competition the main culprit, in my view, is the circle formation used virtually unchanged by the RSPBA for not far off 100 years.

I’ve droned on about this long and weary, but with judges wandering about the playing area seemingly at random, different walking patterns for every band, is it any wonder there’s a lack uniformity?

Adjudicators should be seated in front of a front-facing band thus eliminating this variable and reducing judging anomaly.

But we all must accept that it is never going to change, the main reason being that pipe bands are not professional ensembles.

They don’t need to please the crowd, only themselves and the judges. The technique is immaculate, the tone riveting. They play to decidedly professional standards – but their presentation is decidedly amateur.

The audience behind the band in this picture hears very little of the playing

The audience is the least and last of their worries. Those seated in the stands at the Worlds hear a stirring intro only to lose a third of the volume once the players face inwards. Those standing on the south side of the arena hear next to nothing at all, at least nothing that can be commented on with any certainty.

The best music at Glasgow Green is to be had when following the front rank of the winning Grade One band as they leave the field on their victory parade: consistent pipe balance, drums heard in the background.

The lack of professional presentation is in evidence every year at the Worlds Week concert too. Of course the on stage semi-circle formation is ideal and the playing consistently brilliant. But the musical death rattle sounds when that concert hall shudders to the overwhelming predominance of the snare. Such is the turn off that we all sit waiting for the no-drummer numbers.

(Only two bands, as far as I remember, have ever made any attempt at cooling the drum volume: SLOT and Shotts under Jim Kilpatrick.)

Yes, this year like every year, the auditorium will be packed as our community comes out to support what is an annual must-see event. But if this was the bread and butter of pipe band existence this concert would change rapidly.

St Laurence O’Toole on stage in Glasgow

A musical director would be appointed, an acoustic balance achieved and huffy drummers told that, well, you simply cannot belt out your beatings indoors the way you do outside. Heavens, if an orchestra at full pelt (much louder than a pipe band) can survive with one side drummer and a couple of timps……….

I finish my plea for change with this. The Medley. After 50+ years it is surely time for something new. This section of the G1 Worlds should be developed into a ‘concert band’ performance run in tandem with the vitally important MSR (preference in any tie).

Copy Breton bagads. Set up a stage/ canopy in front of the Green stands. Concert formation. Judges seated in front. Allow bands two additional instruments, keyboard, guitar? Play for 10 minutes. Lorient has 15 bands competing – no problems. Result: Great music professionally delivered, audience front and centre literally and metaphorically, tickets gold dust.

John Nevans reports: Ex-member of the Glasgow Shepherds Pipe Band and former President of the Veterans Pipers Association Bob McFie has celebrated his 96th birthday.

On a Friday afternoon, when no one else is looking, a venerable array of people gather in the depths of the National Piping Centre to exercise their ability on the bagpipe.  The Veteran Pipers Association, formed originally at the College of Piping, has met regularly for many decades.

Veteran Bob and cake

The President in those days was the notable Mr Bob McFie, pupil of Peter McLeod Snr., SQA examiner, piper, teacher and tunesmith.  Bob’s vision then was to create an arena for the ‘well-seasoned’ piper to continue exercising his or her talents to a welcoming audience of like-minded people. This is still the raison d’etre of the group and it works well, as does Bob.

In last week’s session proceedings were, fittingly, interrupted by a cake, a dram and then some tunes. As someone who has been an acquaintance and friend of Bob’s since 1988, it cheers me no end to see him so well disposed to life and full of vitality as always. 

My favourite anecdote regarding Bob… I called him at his home to ask how he was.

‘Not too hellish John. When I wake up in the morning I perform the ‘wood test’.

‘What’s that Bob?’

‘Lying on my back I bring my arms up in front of me then push my elbows out as hard as I can. If I don’t hit wood I know I’m still here and can get up!’ 

I am sure everyone who knows Bob and has benefited from his unique teaching style will join me in wishing him many happy returns.

  • The Piobaireachd Society website is now back on air after being down for most of yesterday due to a technical hitch.
  • The funeral of Scottish Highland Games stalwart Patricia Grant will be held at Tomintoul Parish Church on Wednesday the 9th of March at 12 noon and internment thereafter at Tomintoul Cemetery. All friends are respectfully invited and donations, if desired, to Diabetes UK.
  • Traditional group Dàimh are holding their popular music school April 1-3 at the Arisaig Hotel and Bunkhouse. Spaces are limited so early booking is advised. Click here.

3 thoughts on “Editor’s Notebook: The Never Decreasing Circle/ Develop the Worlds Medley/ Bob McFie/ Miscellany

  1. Thanks to John Nevans for the update on Bob McFie on having celebrated his 96th birthday. Listening to the Grade 1 bands at the Scottish Championship in Dumbarton in 2019 in the company of Robert Wallace, Jim Semple and Alistair Aitken, I enquired if anyone had recently seen Bob McFie. Jim Semple volunteered his last encounter, which had not been at all recent, so Jim, It’s only taken another 2 1/2 years to get a true update. Happy 96th Bob.

  2. > Allow bands two additional instruments

    I am not the first to observe that the rules as they stand do not prohibit bands bringing on any and every instrument that they so choose, as long as they can march from the line into the circle with it!

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