The Scottish Championships behind us, there's only the Worlds to go - and the pundits are circling.
Around this time of year, I always try to look back at what I wrote at an equivalent point in the year previous. However, last year I wasn't able to post at this point and my reflections after the event simply referred back to the year before!
In fact, the situation at the moment probably differs only slightly from where it has been for the last few years.
Field Marshal Montgomery is still the Band to beat at the piping end. That is despite receiving a relatively lowly 4,2 from the judges at the weekend just past. What has changed is that the judges seem prepared to go past them - and even to drop them as low as 4th! They certainly can't be guaranteed 1,1 or even 1,2 as would have been the case only a few years ago. More than that, it seems that when the ones and twos leave the Northern Ireland band, they seem to be destined for IDPB. Combined with the fact that Inveraray's drummers would be (almost unanimously) recognised as a better corps that FM and there appears to be an inevitability about the results come August 12th.
Or is there?
I'm not sure if the judging panel has been released for the Worlds as yet - and I'm almost scared to look. There is no doubt that personal preferences on the part of judges play a large part in the destination of the trophies. I would point out that this is expressly not a suggestion of improper bias. Rather it is the simple observation that judging is a subjective activity. Get two judges to stand in exactly the same spot on the same day and it is perhaps more surprising when they agree completely than when they have at least a little difference between them. This is perhaps even more the case in Grade One, where the judge will likely not have any cause to note a mistake or poor blowing. Phrasing and style are more to the fore - and those are clearly subjective matters.
Of course the conspiracy theorists would point to family ties and cry foul.They could be right, but these are accusations easily made and hard to substantiate. In fact, peculiarities in the judging are more noticeable in where judges place their less favoured bands, rather than where they land the number one. At this stage, it looks like the Grade One title is destined either for FM or Inveraray. Across the season thus far they have been the only winners. Yet in the Scottish we have a 4 for FM in piping and a 3 for IDPB in drumming (with FM snagging a handy 2). Those would be unexpected figures on all fronts, but let's give the judges the benefit of the doubt - they were standing in the circle and I certainly wasn't.
Overall, let's not get too excited. Even at Dumbarton, the gap between first and second was only 2 points. FMMPB won the ensemble. They are still there or thereabouts.
I stand by my earlier thoughts. With the results at the Scottish, the stars seem to be aligning for Inveraray to lift the top prize at Glasgow Green. There is perhaps a little more doubt as to the destiny of the Drummer's Sash - although a couple of years ago most people would have thought IDPB would lift that prize before annexing the Overall title. My guess for it is that it will be between SLOT and IDPB - perhaps with a split across the Medley and MSR.
Who knows? We don't have long to wait until we all will.....
So, here we are. Around the half way point in the pipe band season and what do we know?
Inveraray & District sit precariously at the top of the pile, with Field Marshal nipping at their heels. Two wins to the good, but with their durmmers perhaps not showing the dominance that one might have expected.
In the opening Major of the year, Inveraray managed to annex the overall and a second spot in drumming (with a 1 & 2 in piping and a 2 in ensemble to boot). However, FM finished only one point behind and their much maligned drum corps sneaked a third place and they placed first in ensemble.
By the time the United Kingdom Championships came round, Field Marshal appeared to have consolidated again and they completed the clean sweep of piping (1,2), ensemble and drumming. The gap this time was three points back to Inveraray and it could have been considered a signal that we were going to have another season of "business as usual" for the Ulster band.
Then came the Europeans. The order had reversed again, with the Scots coming out on top again. This time we saw an even split in piping, FM won the ensemble, with IDPB in second but crucially the Field Marshal drummers placed only fifth, with Inveraray lifting the first prize.
So, what does that all tell us?
Essentially, it looks like we will have the tightest season in a long time. The Worlds should be more interesting than ever. The drum corps placings will likely be the focus of much of the discussion. Inveraray's drummers have been placed 2,2,1 in the first three Majors. Field Marshal, in contrast, have been 3,1,5.
It looks likely that the two bands will be splitting the first and second spots in piping between them in both the MSR and Medley sections of the Worlds. If the cards fall absolutely evenly, then this would place them each with 6 points from piping (1,2,1,2) in the final. The ensemble judges are again likely to split the spoils but even if one band secures first spot in both disciplines, that would only give them a two point advantage (ie (2+2)-(1+1)=2).
And so it comes down to the drummers.
Across the first three contests, the total drum corps score for IDPB has been 5. The equivalent figure for FM has been 9. In other words, the average score for IDPB has been 1.67 and for FM it has been 3. Repeated across the required two performances at the Worlds, that gives Inveraray a 2.67 advantage. Since fractions of points aren't awarded and factoring the possible ensemble differential back in, it's clearly much too close to call.
It's often said in pipe band circles that a band has to win the Worlds the year before it is awarded the prize. For Inveraray, the last two years have been characterised by medleys which captured the public imagination. The Hector the Hero medley practically had Bob Worrall in tears in his commentary and the follow up with the Ceilidh Lines/She Moved through the Fair was similarly applauded. It has seemed that Field Marshal's admiring comments have been more limited to "Technically brilliant" rather than "innovative and energetic". In my view, that is probably unfair - but the FM tune choices have perhaps been less inspirational than they appeared 5 or more years ago.
Maybe that has changed this year with the "Hard Drive" medley, which certainly set feet tapping the tuning park at the United Kingdom Championships.
Anyhow, back to the drummers.
The FM win in Belfast feels like the outlier. In the increased field at the World Championships, third would be an exceptional result for them. Fifth wouldn't be bad at all. Most observers would likely see IDPB being no lower than second in either MSR or medley, even with the Canadians (who seem slightly off the pace now) entering the fray. If that is right, then Inveraray could be lifting the spike come August.
Perhaps the most unpredictable factors are the other bands. Scottish Power, Fife, SLOT and even Boghall can mix it (a little) with the big boys and even the Vale (or at least their drummers) are making a bid for the top of the pile again.
This gives judges the option of favouring their preferred band by slipping a few of the second tier outfits in between the two front runners. In other words, hand the top spot to one of the big two, follow that with, for example, Fife and SLOT and then the other of the favourites. After all, the couple of extra points to the Band ahead would likely be enough to hand them the victory. This seems more likely at the back end of the Bands. It would likely produce howls of derision should there be significant disparities in the piping scores (unless one band has a clearly disastrous run).
It is mid-July as I type this. The next Major (and the last one before the Worlds) is the Scottish Championships in Dumbarton on 29 July. I would wager that if Inveraray can collect first place (and particularly should they pick up the drumming award) then they are in pole position for the World title. If a winner emerges from left field, with Inveraray third or below (and no drumming prize) then I doubt this will be their year. Should Field Marshal win and be no lower than third in drumming, then it could well be another title for Richard Parkes come August.
Of course, that leaves a question as to what I might predict should FM win, with Inveraray second and winning drumming. I rather hoped you wouldn't ask me that.....
For all sorts of reasons, I have taken my time to think back over the World Pipe Band Championships 2016 before posting my traditional round up blog.
The main explanation was that this was the first year in a long time when I was attending in Glasgow as a player, rather than simply an observer. There is no doubt that this casts the whole event in a different light. One significant difference is the response to the Finale. Over past years, I have most often located an abandoned seating area at one of the other arenas from which to listen to the announcements of the prize winners. This year I was standing in the queue to enter the arena for an age, dandering past the podium and then loitering in the centre of the Green, occasionally waving randomly at the cameras to see if we could appear on the big screen (which we did - a lot).
It broke up the boredom a little. Just a little. For a bandsman, the finale is not enjoyable - and that's despite the fact that we collected a prize, thanks for asking.
For the average spectator, it is interminable. This year it seemed to drag even worse than usual. The whole thing ran on until the light was going, leading to calls for floodlights to be installed before next year's event!
This can't go on. Bandsmen and spectators spend the guts of (at least) two days on their feet and frankly, once the finale comes round, just want to sit down. A couple of hours of hanging about in the gloom isn't exactly a fitting end to the showpiece of the competition year.
Of course, the problem is easy to identify - the solution less so. It is a well known fact that a sizeable proportion of the competing crowd hits the bar after playing. This may well make them less easy to marshal. I suspect that the notion (which I have read elsewhere) of attempting to corral them into groups of massed bands and then cattle-prodding those groups into the arena simply wouldn't work. In the knowledge that their own band's poor attendance wouldn't be immediately apparent, squads of players would simply stay in the bar! "Give me a call when our Grade is being called, so I can listen in". You know it would happen. You might even do it yourself!
Maybe the thing to do is to simply nominate about twenty to thirty bands to take part in the formal march past and let other players join in the massed band if they want to. Left to their own devices, a decent proportion of players would likely amble down towards the front as the prizes were about to be announced. If any band particularly wants to be a part of the march past, they would not be stopped.
I started to write this post last year and then lost interest half way through (I think). I'm posting it anyway as I have just located the draft. I have no idea what else I was going to add, but doubtless it was a lot of stuff about the Grade One results. I'm guessing I'll get the chance to do the same thing in about a month's time....
In truth I haven't even been bothered to check, but I'm pretty sure that every year at about this time I post something on here to say "here we go again" or some such. I post it because it's true. I post it repeatedly because it is repeatedly true.
Worlds Week - or Piping Live, as we should now call it - is pretty much the same thing year on year. The favourites may change from time to time. The price of the Glasgow hotels climbs inexorably, and without justification. The weather may be good, or more likely bad, but at the heels of the hunt, it's the same old thing every time.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Piping Live has hit upon a winning formula. The town seems at least as busy as ever and although the George Square site seems to have diminished slightly in size, the crowds are healthy there throughout the day. The inclement weather is a problem this year - pipes and drums are notoriously easily upset by the damp and a few of the bands have balked at carrying out engagements in the murk. New Zealand Police caused a bit of a scrum at the George Square location by shunning the piazza for the dry of the tent. It didn't seem clear that they had permission or agreement to do so but the move was entirely sensible with only a couple of days before their qualifying heat.
I missed them at Moira but was front and centre for the tented recital and can report they are greatly improved on last year and much more worthy of their Grade One status - whether they will make the final is, of course, and entirely different question. I have also been greatly impressed by their antipodean cousins in Manawatu Scottish. Musical and showing plenty of drive, they may fall victim to the big guns in Grade One - but I would love them to have the chance to show off both of their medleys - they are well worth a listen. I captured their full practice at the National Piping Centre yesterday and got more of them today at the Todd, so there will at least be a video record of this top notch outfit.
I'm not sure that I have either the energy or the inclination to ponder the Grade One results. Go back and read the blog from last year when I predicted what would befall Field Marshal Montgomery almost precisely. They still have the same issues. The drum corps will be well down the final reckoning, whereas the pipers still stand above any other band. The additional problem this year is that Inveraray & District has been catching up and if they can garner three or four "2"s across the performances from the piping judges together with, say, a 1 and a 2 in ensemble, they should comfortably lift the crown. It's hard to see their drum corps slipping lower than second or third - if judged fairly. All we can do is listen intently and then dissect the results forensically when they emerge.
With my own Band coming to Glasgow for the first time in many years my video efforts on Saturday will be truncated in favour of playing, but that will hopefully pay off at some point later in the day, after the 300 hour long finale.
In the meantime, my incredibly slow hotel internet connection has foiled my plan to upload as I go, so I'll have to start firing clips up once I get home. Whether there is much, even from Friday, will again depend on whether the RSPBA decides to enforce the ban on video - shame on them if they do. I will look forward to watching stewards or security men wrestling mobile phones from the hands of infants who are "Facebook Live-ing" with their mates at home.
I'll wait and see what happens in that regard but would be surprised if this doesn't raise again the issue of who owns the performances of the top bands. Many will recall the discussions that used to abound over the fact that the Worlds CDs (remember those?) used to make a tidy profit for the Association but not one penny for the performing artists. Surely the same issues surround the broadcast rights? No bands, no contest, no money. Share the wealth, guys!
Anyhow, my hotel has free Sky Movies and this James Bond thing won't watch itself...
It always ends like this.
The trudge back to the airport. The sterile check in area. Security. Any liquids, sir? Spotting the faces of yesterday's competitors, either deflated or elated, as they manhandle drums cases and pipe boxes off coaches. This time I also rather enjoyed the spectacle of the be-turban-ed Malaysian Sikh band queued to check in.
Waiting in an airport coffee shop gives time to think back on the week and the lessons learned. Personally, the main one would be to wear thicker socks as the street pounding round Glasgow has left me with the hobble of a much older gentleman....
Piping Live continues to be a glorious festival of all that is great about piping and drumming. The ache in my feet would suggest that the various venues across Glasgow may be spread too far apart. Although I always end up spending a lot of enjoyable time at the National Piping Centre, the venue is much too cramped. I wonder whether, given the enormous expanse of Glasgow Green, a tented village could be created there to serve as a hub through the week. The George Square performance area would need to be preserved and "Bands on Buchanan Street" has proved a successful initiative, but the relocation of events currently staged at the Piping Centre and the College of Piping to marquees on the Green would allow for a true "festival" atmosphere to develop. Although I have written before that I find it almost inconceivable that the Worlds will venture outside Glasgow again, the "tented village" concept would almost certainly have to be employed if it did.
My highlight of the week was attendance at the Inveraray practices at the Todd. It was a privilege to watch them work. A particular high point was the chanter practice behind the bar. The harmonies in the Hector the Hero Medley are somehow even more haunting when played more quietly and without drones. Spellbinding.
The Two Day Worlds looks set to stay. Two days of almost entirely dry weather brought crowds back to the Green - although Day One is still quite poorly attended. Inflated prices from food vendors and the usual Finale That Wouldn't Die™ remain bugbears but at least the finale is more tolerable when you aren't getting rained on. The new feature for this year was the removal of an adequate public address system. They seemed to be using one of those speakers you can plug into your mobile phone to annoy passersby. Either that or the entire crowd had gone suddenly and simultaneously deaf. Well done, RSPBA. Nobody saw that coming. And if they did, they certainly didn't hear it coming.
On the playing front, we have likely witnessed the end of an era. This season has seen quite a number of bands get up into the heady atmosphere previously occupied alone by Field Marshal.
I doubt, however, that this will now be an era of dominance by Shotts - or indeed any band. I think what we will see now is the Majors being shared out between four or five outfits over the year. The Jubilee trophy could well find itself jumping from one trophy cabinet to another year on year.
Whether it will make its way back to Ulster is less certain. In the short term at least. Personally, I don't accept that the FM drummers are as bad as they are being painted. Perhaps I'm too willing to actually listen and THEN form an opinion...
However, playing against the Kilpatrick, McWhirter or Creighton outfits will always lead to unfavourable comparisons. We are certainly spoiled for great back lines - and it will become harder and harder to separate them as well. The styles of playing of each of the leading drummers are reflected in their corps and it appears to me that any observer will tend to select their champion based on the type of drumming they prefer, rather than an objective standard of near perfection.
Every so often, someone suggests that we should do away with piping and drumming judges and just have multiple ensemble judges - after all, the test should be for "best band" which is often more than the mathematical sum of its parts. That may not be the answer but right now it looks like the incredibly high standards may require a different approach to judging when trying to separate the wheat from the even better wheat...
If there was one band on the day that I could have listened to all day, it was Inveraray. Even though I had heard them on two other occasions over the week, I kept being drawn back for a little more. If there was a judge tasked with ruling on Medley composition they would have been in a class of their own.
One annoyance on the day was the constant supply of drivel via social media. The advent of the live stream has been a superb innovation, but it is no substitute for being there. And even being there isn't all it is cracked up to be. Whether huddled around the arena, or even in the sparsely occupied stand, you are a long way back from the bands. It was a windy day and with each gust, sound was either blown towards the listener of whisked away. The limitations of broadcast technology and home speakers will always result in imperfect transmission. To be the judge, you need to BE the judge. By way of example, when listening to Shotts walk in to the MSR, I could have sworn they had an issue with their rolls, but I now put it down to the wind affecting what I could hear.
Yet still, after each band played, we were treated to "*insert name of band here* won it out of the park". To my mind, the only sensible approach was to accept that the contest was incredibly close, quietly pick your own favourite, hope the judging would be fair and await the result.
So, was the judging fair? Hard to say. As usual, I spent most of my time in the tuning park. As a result, my opinions were based more on what bands were going well rather than the crucial performance in the arena. I could have accepted victories from any of about five bands as being within what was possible. Shotts was one of those outfits.
The only disquiet I feel is about the FM drumming scores. I accept that they could be fair enough, but I can't help feeling that 7 & 8 happens to be about as low as a judge could get away with putting them. The drummers who beat them could potentially have done so. The ones below couldn't. That has a slight whiff of set-up. You know? The sort of "it's not your year, fellas" thing that people chat about in beer tents. That makes me a little uncomfortable.
Having said that, look at the bands that beat them. Shotts, SLOT, Inveraray. Reasonable enough that each of those bands would deserve a top three spot? Absolutely. Fair enough then.
Squinting at the Master sheets night wasn't a desperately scientific exercise, but I'm happy enough that the top six were all good value for it. It might be a little revealing that there isn't anything like the same chat about the judging this morning as there was at this time last August. Although that may be due to the post Worlds collective hangover. I'd give it a day or two.
My flight has been delayed but there's only so long that a person can nurse a cup of tea in Glasgow airport before café staff start to grumble, so I'll wrap it up there and make for the gate. Same time next year then?
So that's it then.
Another World Championships over and another set of winners and losers. Well done to all the bands who survived the ordeal and special congratulations to the prize winners.
The day brought with it the usual smattering of surprises up and down the grades with Major Sinclair edging out Marlacoo being a particular shock. Closkelt will also have been disappointed when they had been touted as hot favorites. Bleary would have imagined that they were nailed on for the win when their oft maligned drummers picked up the title but it was not to be....
Naturally, the greater number of oohs and aahs was reserved for the Grade One decider. Standing close to a bunch of boisterous SLOT fans was an interesting experience. Once they had been called as lifting all the drumming gongs, their supporters had already started to fill in their programmes with SLOT getting the spike - only to have their hopes dashed as Shotts got the nod.
Although this blog records that I had predicted the possibility of FM sliding much further than second, it still seemed surreal to see such a gifted outfit relegated to fourth. It was less than edifying to hear so little applause when the band was called. They may be the band that everyone wants to beat, but competitors should note that grace is required in victory as well as defeat. With a total of 15 from drumming across the two final performances the former champions faced an impossible task. Take a look at the Qualifiers though. First and fourth in drumming in their section. Having listened to their MSR performance in the Qualifier those scores were well deserved. Is there a danger that certain judges are now simply convinced that FM's drummers are sub-par? No matter how they actually play?
No one "won it out of the park". Grade One has not been this competitive in my memory. I absolutely adore the Inveraray Hector the Hero Medley. Given my choice, I would have given them the title just for the genius of the construction of the harmonies in the air and the glory of the reprise to finish. It was great to see them right up at the top after a season where they appeared to have fallen out of favour for whatever reason. The sheer talent in that band will see them lift the ultimate prize sooner rather than later.
SLOT is a better band now than when it won the World title, but it needs to be. Things have moved on and they are progressing nicely. The drum corps is lauded for its dynamic range, which is surely the best in the Grade. However, for me, the playing in Inveraray almost matches them for light and shade but bests them in musical expression and technique. Greater Glasgow Police also impressed me, but I think their sets in the Qualifiers actually suited the corps better with some really subtle playing.
In terms of sound and technique, I think FM is still the clear class of the field for piping. Drumming is where the contest is tighter. In truth, any one of about five outfits could have received the drumming prize and little could have been said about it. Of course, this is why we need to be confident that judges are trying to separate the various squads based on some objective standard, rather than just playing favourites, or trying to knock others out. Let their conscience be their guide.
In other matters, the second day was graced by fine weather with only a couple of brief showers. Very pleasant. The prices of tea and coffee were generally extortionate - aside from Dinky Donuts & Rachel's who admirably stuck to their £1 a cup and should be lauded for it.
The finale was abysmally long. PLEASE sort it out.
The Association had clearly skimped on the PA which meant the results appeared to be being whispered by a man troubled with laryngitis.
All standard stuff. And so to bed....
Grade Novice Juvenile
George Watson's College
Drums George Watson's College
Drums McDonald Memorial
Major Sinclair Memorial
Drums Dollar Academy
Drums Prestonpans RBL
Drums Bleary & District
That's one day done and one to go.
The World Championships of 2015 kicked off under grey skies in Glasgow with the threat of showers to spoil the party. Thankfully, they never materialized and conditions were largely identical for the succession of Grade One outfits vying for a spot in tomorrow's final.
It's well known that Grade One now splits clearly into the Premier League and the First Division. For the premiership bands (FM Montgomery, Inveraray, Shotts et al) the risk today was only of a slip up - and there wasn't one. As a result, the usual suspects all eased through. For the rest, qualification would be a result in itself.
This year's likely also rans in the final will be the Halifax Citadel variant of the 78th Frasers and Canterbury Caledonian. Well done to both. However, looking at the calibre of bands they will face, it seems likely they will both be striving not to be last in the final.
I don't think that I spoke to a single soul in the park who had their mind changed by what they heard on the day. Smart money still seems split between FM, Shotts, Inveraray and SLOT. All seem to be going well, but FM in particular sounded sublime today - and the drummers were sharp and sympathetic to the magnificent pipe corps.
The crowd seemed slightly improved on last year's day one, but the hour and a half it took to sort out the results of only 22 bands did seem a little ridiculous.
The forecast tomorrow looks fine, with a risk of drizzle in the afternoon which could interfere with the Medley performances but all in all things are simmering nicely for the tightest Grade One title in many years....