How We Won the Worlds by P/M Robert Mathieson

worlds trophyOne of the best pipe majors of the recent past was undoubtedly Robert Mathieson, firstly with Polkemmet Grorud and then House of Edgar Shotts & Dykehead.

His five World Grade 1 championships alone have earned him the right to break bread with the greats of the game. Now retired from competing, Robert is Secretary of the RSPBA’s Adjudicators’ Panel (recently in the news) and will be on duty judging throughout the forthcoming season.

No-one wins a world Grade 1 title without real ability and specialist knowledge of the pipe band art, and in order that everyone can benefit from Robert’s particular talent we are re-running an interview he gave to Pipe Band Magazine back in October 2000 following his third World Championship success.

The article was headed ‘How We Won the Worlds’ and it contains many guidelines and advice that will be of use to today’s bands as they prepare for the 2016 season :

‘I learned a great lesson at the Worlds last year. I usual­ly consider myself pretty well prepared, but in 1999 I was caught out. I hadn’t prepared for what happened; the torren­tial rain meant we had to stop playing and our whole routine was upset. All the preparation went out of the window. It has been haunting me ever since and I’ve been trying to work out what we should do if it hap­pened again.

‘To compete at the World Championship you are focussing on a five-minute spot one day in August. There are a lot of variables, not just with chanter, reeds and players. Weather is becoming a major variable. We seem to be getting either very good weath­er or heavy rain. Sometimes we get the four seasons in one day. It becomes very difficult therefore, to prepare your tone even when you know the time you are playing.

‘We didn’t get the severe weather this year but there were conditions that had to be dealt with. I was very impressed with
Victoria Police when they came over a couple of years ago. I watched them. Everyone was doing the same thing. They were using synthetic bags and they were ready for any situa­tion. They were up for it. They were ready for whatever problems the day threw at them and they were successful.

‘To win the Worlds a key element has to be preparation. There are six bands with the ability to win it and it is usually prepara­tion and presentation which decides who’s going to do so, not a differential in ability. We started playing synthetic bags this year so that we could regulate pipes and be able to make decisions and change things depending on the weather, and I think that helped us.

‘In the weeks leading up to the Worlds I like to have new reeds in the pipes at least two weeks before the event. We don’t necessarily put them all in on the same night, but we like to have new reeds in at about that time. It is unlikely anyone will be playing the reed they played at the British or European Championships at the Worlds. especially if these reeds have been exposed to bad weather such as we had at Ayr.

‘Even good reeds are just that wee bit duller when this happens. We like to go on with reeds that are of similar age, similar strength so that they all react the same to the conditions. Doing this had a major influence on how we performed at the Worlds.

‘We practice every night of the week leading up to the big day. There is more time spent on sound that week than anything else. By that time there is not much you can do to make the playing better. You should be ready by then.

‘A good tone will bring the playing up anyway; more so than a week on the practice chanter. So we try to get the instruments in order and if you are playing 17 pipers it can take the full week to get everyone ready. We don’t have any pipers in the band who do not play in competition. My job is to get everyone across the line. I don’t have any ideas about 14 or 15 being the magic number. If we have 17 pipers who are full members of the band, and I am happy with their playing, then that is what we go out with on the Saturday.

‘At the first practice on the Monday [of Worlds Week] I start just going through the pipes checking the reeds. We never change all the reeds at once. We try to keep a nucleus of the sound. The reeds we put in for the Worlds will do us for the second half of the season. There have been times when we have put new reeds in for the Worlds and have ended up getting a slightly better tone at Cowal, so this year we just edged them in a little earlier to get that sweetness developing when we needed it.

‘I select all the reeds myself and try to get the same sound out of everyone’s pipes whether they are a heavy blower or a light blower. We don’t have a sound man as some bands do – I’d like one mind you! This year we did, however, delegate the drone tuning to two members of the band and they did the necessary with the tuner.

Shouts & Dykehead are no strangers to success. Here is the band after winning the World Championship at Scotstoun Showgrounds , Glasgow, in 1948
Shouts & Dykehead are no strangers to success. Here is the band after winning the World Championship at Scotstoun Showgrounds , Glasgow, in 1948

‘The way I set the band up is that I set the drones and then set the chanters to the drones. If I’m happy with the first set of pipes we tune up, then we’ll take a drone reading on that. Then the band will play and we tune the drones to that reading. Then each piper will strike up indi­vidually and we’ll set the chanters to the drones. If the drones move, we check that with the tuner. But chanters move more than drones and I find the latter a much more stable benchmark than the chanters.

‘Sometimes a piper will strike up and you feel like moving the drones half an inch or whatever, but we don’t. We reset the chanter reed to go with the drones and nine times out of ten the chanters wiII be in with the drones when you do that. You could reset the drones and play two sets of pipes together and they wouldn’t sound too far apart, but the drones would be different. I felt this year that our pitch was a little higher than normal given the conditions.’

Have a listen to Shotts’ 2003 winning medley:

Article to be continued.