Pipe Band Formations – Transforming from the Circle Part 3

The pipe band circle…mired in the 1930s

As already mentioned the RSPBA previously undertook a number of trials of the semi-circle format in 1998.  I participated in the trial at Bathgate Highland Games. 

As far as I am aware no advice was given to the bands about how the pipers and drummers should form up in the semi-circle, so there were wide variations which resulted in different sound projections. 

By Alistair Aitken OBE,
former RSPBA Adjudicator

One band even had the drummers facing backwards to ensure a good sound projected through the pipes from the bottom of the drums; but the corps lost its ability to watch the Pipe Major. 

Another band had such a wide semi-circle due to the number of players that I could hear the Pipe Major and Pipe Sergeant on opposite sides as if they were not playing together. 

I was ensemble adjudicator that day and I could not get far enough from the front of the bands to listen to the collective band sounds before I reached the spectator barrier. 

No guidance was given to the adjudicators so they had to find their own vantage point.  No serious thought appeared to have been given to the proximity of the spectators from the bands either.  


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I also took part in an experiment at the Eastern United States Pipe Band Championships in 2003 when on the second day of the contest the bands were allowed to play on a stage. 

The piping and ensemble adjudicators were all seated at a bench at the front of the stage throughout each performance.  As the drumming adjudicator I was given the freedom to walk around and listen from any position, including from behind the stage. 

The pipers in each band invariably stood in a semi-circle formation facing the seated adjudicators. There were two raised levels on stage which allowed each drum corps to vary their position.  Some had the bass and tenors on the first tier and the snare drummers on the second. 

Some had the bass on one side and tenors on the other.  Some had the bass section on the highest tier.  With these variations I found it difficult to find a common position from where to listen to the drum corps as a complete unit as well as the effect of the drum corps on the overall band interpretation and sound. 

I also felt that with sections of the band at three different levels, this affected the combined sound projection, sometimes distorting the sounds slightly.  

It has also been mentioned that the semi-circle format was adopted in recent years by the Lothian & Borders Branch of the RSPBA for the local competition in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. 

I attended these contests as a spectator and the format seemed to work well with all four adjudicators sitting at a bench in front of the bands (but it did not provide for the possibility of inclement weather). 

I cannot speak for the adjudicators but again there was no consistency in the piper/drummer formations within the semi-circle which I thought did affect the sound projections slightly.  The sound clarity was slightly different in any event as the playing surface in front of the Ross Bandstand is solid rather than grass. 

There is also a slight problem as a large canopy extends outwards from the stage and, if bands form up under the canopy, there can be a tendency for the sounds to echo. 

There are similar problems at the World Championships with distracting sounds coming from generators behind the side of the main stand. I once judged a Princes Street Gardens competition sitting on the stage and found it an excellent place to hear the clarity with the sounds rising from the hard surface.

For all of these reasons it seems to me that there are many things to consider, which is why I think they would require to be fully thought through and clearly explained publicly.  Some RSPBA initiatives have failed in the past due to lack of understanding. 

Regular improvements and new ideas are, however, essential in view of the many developments which have taken place in pipe bands in recent years.  It remains to be seen if a change in competition formation will be one of them.

  • Read earlier parts of this study here and here.

2 thoughts on “Pipe Band Formations – Transforming from the Circle Part 3

  1. I keep reverting back to watching Shotts and Dykehead as they performed their selection at the 2008 worlds. Firstly the tenor drummers turn and face towards the crowd then as the pipe corps play the last tune they begin marching on the spot as they do a 180 degree turn and every piper faces the crowd whilst playing then ending to fantastic cheers and applause. Certainly a goosebumps moment.

  2. I recall taking my band to the Montreal games one year and they used a platform and concert formation for the contest. We had the pipes on the first tier and the drummers on the second tier behind us. But I do remember that our lead drummer said afterward that he had a difficult time hearing the pipes in this formation, as compared to the normal circle.

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