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Monthly Archives: August 2010

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Once again, a stunning lack of variety

I made a post the other day about the repetition of tunes in the final round MSR at the World Pipe Band Championship, and I sat down this morning and compiled a tune list from the qualifying event in the morning. There were 18 bands in the qualifying round, and here’s the breakdown.

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Piobaireachd: Go long, or go home

This post is a few months behind the times, but I felt I should get my opinion on the topic out there. When this rule change was announced by the EUSPBA, there was quite an uproar, and at the moment there are seven pages worth of discussions on it at the Bob Dunsire forums.

So here’s the scoop: on April 29, the EUSPBA made this announcement on their website:

Grade 4 solo, Jr. and Sr.  Piobaireachd, requirements found on page 8 of the existing Rule Book will change.  The option for ground only to be sanctioned will be removed.  Effective January 1, 2011, only the full tune event will be sanctioned by the EUSPBA.

In other words, starting next year, there will be no ground only piobaireachd competitions. All competitors, including those in grade 4, must play the whole tune. Read More

Shaking up the MSR

I recently posted my analysis of the tune selection in the final round MSR of the World Pipe Band Championship, and my conclusion was that, once again, there were entirely too many tunes repeated.

The tunes that are often played in these band contests are excellent tunes: Highland Wedding, Clan MacRae Society, Lord Alexander Kennedy; Susan MacLeod, Blair Drummond, Maggie Cameron; Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran, John Morrison of Assynt House, MacAllister’s Dirk. They are all classics, difficult to play, and any band that can play them well certainly deserves to win a contest at the top level.

But I don’t want to hear every band play them.

Partly I think it sets a bad example for bands in the lower grades, encouraging them to pick tunes that might be too hard for them. This never ends well. More importantly though, I don’t want to hear the same tunes all throughout the competition.

Offered here is my humble suggestion for encouraging some variety in the tune selection without discarding the classic tunes altogether.

For these MSR competitions, the band must submit two sets, and they do this when they register for the competition. When the band comes to the line, a random draw from the chief steward determines which set they are required to play. I suggest that one submitted set from each band must not contain any of the most popular tunes for the last five years.

So a band is welcome to submit Set #1 as Highland Wedding, Susan MacLeod, and John Morrison of Assynt House, but Set #2 can’t have any of those more popular tunes; let’s try something like John MacDonald of Glencoe, The Shepherd’s Crook, and Major David Manson.

If we require that each band’s Set #2 have none of these more popular tunes, probability says that half of the sets we’d hear would have the tunes that aren’t heard as often, but we’d still have a chance to hear these popular tunes. That’s my thought. Any other suggestions?

More variety in the MSR, but still not enough

I’ve posted before about how little variety there is among the MSR sets submitted by the top level bands. That particular post was just after the World Pipe Band Championships last year, and this year was about the same. I just went through the recordings posted on the BBC website of the 14 bands in the final MSR, and determined the following:


  • The march was where there was the most variety, with nine different tunes.
  • The most popular march was Pipe Major Tom MacAllister (4 times), with Balmoral Highlanders and The Clan MacRae Society being played twice each. These were the only tunes that were repeated.
  • Usual favorites Highland Wedding, Donald Cameron, and Lord Alexander Kennedy only made one appearance each.


  • Eight different strathspeys were played, with Susan MacLeod being played most often (4 times). Maggie Cameron and Atholl Cummers were each repeated twice, as was The Islay Ball, which hasn’t been very popular in years past.
  • Perennial favorite Dora MacLeod was only played by one band, as was Tulloch Castle.


  • There were only six different reels played, showing the least diversity
  • John Morrison of Assynt House was the most popular (4 times), with MacAllister’s Dirk next (3 times) and two appearances each of Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran, John MacKechnie, and Charlie’s Welcome.
  • Pretty Marion was only played once, and it was the only reel not repeated.

So there’s still an appalling lack of variety in the MSR tune selection, but there seems to be a bit more variety than last year. What can be done to shake things up a bit? Well, I have an idea that might appear here sometime in the next few days.

Piping is for the birds

I’m always amazed at some of the questions that people ask when I’m at a highland games or something. One that pops up from time to time is “I didn’t know they let women play the pipes.”

First, who is this “they” that regulates who can and cannot play pipes?

Second, just take a glance at any massed bands and you’ll find that women are certainly not prohibited from playing the pipes. When I played with Macdonald Pipe Band in Pittsburgh, my four best friends in the band were all women. In pipe bands these days women are certainly welcome, and make an important contribution to the band circle.

There are a number of women who are successful solo competitors as well: in 2010 there are six female judges on the EUSPBA’s judges panel, and four more in the PPBSO. Those who are able to pass adjudication exams and be on the panel must know something, regardless of which restroom they use.

Women have passed a milestone at the top levels of solo competitions as well. There was a big controversy about women playing in the gold medal events, and in 1974 two women were finally allowed to compete in the gold medal piobaireachd events at the Argyllshire Gathering and Northern Meeting.

Yesterday, Faye Henderson (whose mother was one of those first two women to play at these events), won the gold medal at the Argyllshire Gathering, becoming the first woman to ever be at the top of that prize list. She also won the medal the first time she played in the contest, and at 18 years old is one of the youngest to win.

This marks a great milestone for women in piping, and I’m sure there will be many others. I’m sure there are some crotchety old men sitting around and grumbling that women can’t play pipes as well as men, but this seems like a pretty solid proof to the contrary.

There’s one unfortunate thing about Faye’s win, which is that she won’t be able to win both gold medals in the same year. Due to a smaller number of players allowed in the contests, she’ll be playing in the silver medal competition at the Northern Meeting. I’m sure there aren’t many who have won a gold medal and silver medal in the same year, so she’ll have a chance to add her name to that list as well.

Perseverance of Pipers

A few years back I competed in a highland games in Kentucky, and I’m still on the email list for the competitions. I received an email a few days ago from the Central Kentucky Highland Games in which it was announced that the solo and band competitions were canceled because a low number of entries didn’t justify the expense of the contest.

I received another email yesterday from the coordinator, saying the competitions were back on, but with a twist: they would be unsanctioned. The judges (or more accurately the judges’ travel expenses) are the most expensive part of a competition, so they’re using local grade 1 pipers and drummers as the judges, and they’re still offering all of the events originally planned.

It’s easy to forget that competitions aren’t about placings, medals, trophies, or points: they’re about bagpipes, and the people who play them. Pipers compete for a number of reasons, and getting points is only one of them.

There could be some reasons for not allowing unapproved amateurs to judge since they haven’t gone through the training workshop required to be on the panel, but there’s one thing I’m going to say about that: the musical qualifications are in place in people who have moved up as high as grade 1. I don’t know what goes on in those judging workshops, but everyone who goes in already knows how to play their instrument, and play it well.

If it’s the difference between offering an unsanctioned competition and no competition at all, I say let them play.

The Worlds goes global

Try to think about what life was like before the internet. It’s hard, I know. The net is the first place I look for news, weather, and things I used to look up in the yellow pages. I also contend that Wikipedia is one of the greatest inventions in the history of humanity. Information and interactive content has filtered down to nearly every part of the globe, involving nearly every aspect of every culture.

The bagpipe world has been involved in this as well. I can list a dozen pipers who have blogs and YouTube channels, and there are hundreds of others out there. Videos of band competitions, especially the ones involving the top bands, appear on YouTube within a few hours of the contest, offering people half a world away the chance to be armchair judges.

And speaking of armchair judging, I spent Saturday morning doing just that. Courtesy of the BBC, live coverage of the World Pipe Band Championship was available to anyone in the world with an internet connection. Being unable to make it to Scotland is no longer an excuse for not catching the performances.

Coverage included the entire grade 1 contest, starting with the qualifying round. I’ll admit that I’m not hardy enough to catch the qualifying round (it started at 4 am here on the east coast of the U.S., but I do know people who got up to watch it), but I did see the entirety of both the MSR and medley rounds of the finals.

This also suggests a great party event: “Hey, let’s get together and watch the Worlds!” The BBC recognized this would happen and asked people to submit photos of their Worlds parties.

The really nifty thing is that all of the videos from the day are still available at the BBC website. Even being busy on the day of the Worlds is no longer a valid excuse for not catching the performances. Videos from 2009 are actually still up on the web, so you can go back and compare.

Oh, and in case you’ve had your head in a bucket for the last 36 hours, it was the St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band that came out on the top in grade 1, winning the Worlds for the first time in their history.