It's Qualifiers Eve

The musical preamble of Worlds Week is drawing to a close and the business end of the operation is on the horizon. One more sleep until the World Championships starts with the Grade One Qualifier.

No one has been able to explain to me why the Association has stuck with this broad format - albeit that the structure from last year was infinitely better than the 2013 Ghost Town. Since the issues clearly surround Grade One alone, restructuring the Grade One and Two option remains available - or maybe the possibility of a single final for Grade One bands, spread over two days (MSR on Friday, Medley on Saturday) would be less controversial

Clearly, that won't be in place for tomorrow, so we plough ahead with what we have.

And what have we learnt over the last few days about who might end up on top?

Precious little.

Too close to call is probably the most apt of the truisms currently circulating. FM Montgomery have a pipe corps with enviable musical chops but Ryan Canning has Shotts humming and Alen Tully has lifted his first Major this season with SLOT. SFU is a band riding high after their very well received concert and Inveraray is still the favourite of many a punter.

Although most of the aficionados in Glasgow have their own theories, one common thread is that only the drumming can sort out the final result. You can read my last post to see what my view is on the arithmetic, but there is no doubt that the drummers will be center stage like seldom before. The FM corps has been slated on social media - but often by those who choose to ignore the track record of Keith Orr's charges at the Worlds - they can certainly play with (most) of the big boys. Don't rule them out for strong performances when it matters.

My predictions? It will be a belter. I wouldn't want to have to pick an outright winner but having heard both Shotts and Inveraray at length over the last couple of days, either outfit could be winners. I'll never rule FM out completely, but they'll need to be at their imperious best to lift the silver chanter.

As for the Qualifiers, I think there will be at least one upset. The first group is full of big names and I have an inkling that Triumph Street could struggle - even though they are going fairly well. The real issue is that standards have become so high amongst the top flight that even great bands constantly need to bring their A game.

With the forecast looking a little drizzly, let's hope the weather doesn't dash any hopes...

If you are playing tomorrow, have a good tune. If not, listen intently and stroke your chin occasionally whilst muttering about blowing issues....

It's that time again...

If you close your eyes and clear your mind you can even smell it. The unmistakable odour of damp kilt that tends to accompany the World Pipe Band Championships every year. We are a week away from the start of Piping Live and in just two short weeks the whole shebang will be receding into the distance once again.

More and more the World Championships form only a small part of the spectacle of Piping Live (or the event previously known as "Worlds Week"). Personally, I experienced a tangible excitement when a copy of this year's programme was thrust into my hand. Roddy McLeod should be cheered from the rooftops for turning the ad hoc events into a structured festival of piping and drumming which has become the highlight of the worldwide piping scene.

Of course, one of the side-effects of the success of Piping Live is that it has effectively secured the World Pipe Band Championships at their Glasgow venue in perpetuity. Several years ago I had a slight involvement in the project whereby Belfast submitted a bid to stage the Worlds. At the time it has seemed like a reasonable enough notion and the City Council certainly ensured that the appropriate shoulders were applied to the relevant wheels. However for various reasons (some perhaps questionable at the time) the bid was not successful and I have no doubt that this turned out to be a good thing.

Since that time, the Piping Live programme has expanded in a way that nowhere outside Glasgow could match. The range of venues, including the National Piping Centre and College of Piping and the sheer concentration of major piping and drumming figures nearby means that other locations really can't compete.

So, secure in the notion that I will be shovelling money into the gouging pockets of Glasgow's tourist industry for many years to come, what of this year's competition?

After all, the Worlds themselves still feature as the jewel in the Crown...

Well, things should be a lot more interesting this year than they have been for some time.

In the past handful of years the Grade One title as been loosely in the grasp of Field Marshal Montgomery. Richard Parkes' fingers have not been so tightly around the trophy as to make it a foregone conclusion but the title has been more than likely to return to Northern Ireland year on year.

Not so in 2015.

Although FM Montgomery is still the band to beat, recent results have shown that it is certainly possible to do so.

The three way tie at the Forres and the SLOT victory in Dumbarton have thoroughly pierced the shroud of nigh on invincibility which had surrounded the NI front runners for a while.

More than that, a few bands which have been operating slightly below for a couple of years have rebuilt and come back stronger than ever. Shotts anyone?

The North American scene seems to be warming up again and the UK contingent will likely be watching performances from SFU, Triumph Street, the 78th Fraser Highlanders and even the Halifax Citadel with more interest than they have had for quite some time.

Scottish Power seem to be on road back again - and bear in mind that they placed 2nd only two years ago. A few experiments with numbers in the pipe corps didn't go well at all but the change of leading drummer looks to have been a success and anyone who rules out a musician of the calibre of Chris Armstrong is a fool.

Frankly, the field is wide open.

Looking at the current title-holders, it seems that the weakness in the band is at the back end. The drum corps sits someway behind the pipers in the standings and the 8th place for Keith Orr's charges in Dumbarton ultimately made the difference. If they lie as far back in the Worlds they need to rely on other pipe corps having really bad days to allow them to slip in.

For example, imagine that FM achieve 1,2,,1 across the piping and ensemble judges in each of the MSR and medley runs. However, place them mid-table in the drumming - say 5 and 7 - and you have a total of 20 for the final. Next, pick your likely contender band of choice - let's say Shotts for the sake of argument. It is entirely possible for them to take 1,2,3 in the piping and ensemble combined with 1,2 in the drumming - a total of 15. Say hello to the new World Champions. The other bands likely to place well in the drumming have now lifted their pipers to such an extent that they can nip at the Ulstermens' heels. The drumming will make the difference.

Although Inveraray & District had seemed like "the next big thing" for the last couple of years, their results this year have disappointed. Perhaps the establishment enjoyed the story of their meteoric rise, but then decided that they would need to do their time in the Grade One atmosphere before getting their hands on the big one? Nevertheless with the current superstar of World drumming at the back end and another inspirational musician guiding the pipers, would you really want to bet against them? Certainly, their drummers are likely to place better than FM Montgomery, so the only question is where the pipers can get to....

All in all, it makes for what could well be the most hotly contested Grade One contest in years.

Bring it on. 

World Pipe Band Championships 2014 - Reflections

The day after the Worlds can often seem a little flat. So much piping and drumming takes place in the Worlds Week - now rebranded as Piping Live - that the cold turkey on Sunday can be hard to stomach.

Funnily enough, in my experience, the two day championships have largely put paid to that feeling. I'm not saying that I'm sick of it all - I just feel like I have had my fill. Walking through Glasgow this morning, the husks of bandsmen clambering onto buses would seem to agree.

It is maybe too early yet for a proper post mortem on the results. Facebook is awash with the usual fan boys shouting loudly that their favourites were harshly dealt with. The more considered analysis is someway off. I did see one post mentioning the family tie in the medley judging. A Field Marshal loyalist quickly replied that they could have been 5th in the drums and still won. Whether that maths is technically correct or not, it fails to appreciate that the issue is less the placing than the gap between any given band and its closest competitors.

Anyone listening to FM this past year would find it hard to place the drummers in second place in any contest. Look lower in the results - at the bands with pipe corps capable of approaching the Parkes gold standard - and where do we find their drummers in the medley? Well out of it. Inveraray 6th? Power 5th? Boghall's pipers have slipped a fraction, so it was safe enough to have them 1st. Shotts are not yet the complete package, so 4th was okay. SLOT in third was probably the biggest risk to FM overall, but that powerful corps would look ridiculous much lower.

Granted, FM played their more comfortable medley in the final, but the high drumming place will raise a few eyebrows. Either that, it the low position of 7 for the drummers in the MSR will do likewise. Indeed, looking across the FM drumming performances for qualifying and final it reads 3,2,7,2. The seven is the outlier.

The reason that the medley will draw attention is the family connection. When considering bias, it is well known that the appearance of bias can be corrosive, even if no actual bias exists. Most bandsmen will know that certain judges are felt to favour certain outfits. It is probably inevitable that they will do - prejudices about playing style or tune selection will always out. When a judge at the top level level happens to be the brother of one of the key competitors the eyebrows will start well raised - before a note is played. Whether it had any impact on the results, it shouldn't be allowed to happen again.

Away from the playing, my personal jury remains out on the two day experiment. I wouldn't applaud the Association for partially fixing a problem which they created themselves last year. Akin to the man seeking praise for stopping beating his wife - they shouldn't have done it in the first place. "Better than last year" - that's my damning with faint praise. The solution? Deal with the Grade 2 bands wrongly placed in Grade 1. Split Grade 2. Shorten the finale. Speed up the results. Simple.

Still, the whole event will provide conversation in band halls for the next week - and we will return next year to do it all again...

World Pipe Band Championships 2014 - Day 2

Another day older and another Worlds safely out of the way.

Aside from the residual tiredness caused by Friday's tramping about the Green, today felt much more like a "traditional" championships. Almost all competing bands were kilted up and in attendance, apart from the occasional forlorn figure of a grade one non-qualifier who would drift, purposeless, around the field.

The day was dominated by the weather. In truth, it was reminiscent of the day one washout last year. Capes and other waterproofs were the order of the day, despite the sun peeping out once or twice. A couple of bands suffered through downpours whilst performing but I heard no one suggest that results would be compromised.

Grade One seemed to buzz past at quite a clip. With only 12 bands in the final, the contest was perhaps a little brief. Another couple of competitors would have done no harm but would likely have only filled the ranks of the also-rans. The brevity of the grade allowed the Grade 2 bands to take over the main arena for their final. Although this was quite the coup for those playing in the second tier, it seemed somehow wrong to have the premier event over before grade two got properly underway. It might be better to consider slipping the Grade 2 final in between the MSR and Medley performances of the big bands - if the Association wants to keep them in the Arena 1.

The crowds were much better everywhere - except in the stand around Grade 1. Maybe it was the weather, or maybe the pricing needs looked at - but the stand was certainly sparsely populated.

Grade 3 took an age to finish and frankly a lot of people clearly opted to head home for results on the internet. The finale was the usual shambles. The contest was always likely to run late but, given the increasing nip in the evening air, something should have been done to speed it up. Individual grade results were further delayed by the (now traditional) mugging for the camera which goes on with every prize recipient. Meanwhile, the paying public quietly freezes to death...

The results in Grade One seemed fair enough. I think that I'll steer clear of what will likely become controversial in coming days, but I will say that a careful scrutiny of the Medley results will provide ammunition for those who query the factors in the judges' minds. Sometimes the allocation of places can less about putting a band into the prizes than about keeping another band out of them...

The second year of the two day experiment was undoubtedly an improvement on the first but it illustrated quite clearly that the need for the second day is only in relation to Grade 1. The more radical solution (and the more logical one) would be to relegate the bottom 25% of Grade 1 into Grade 2 and then split the lower grade into an A and B. I have yet to hear a convincing counter argument. I can understand that the Association wants a sizeable premier grade, spread worldwide, but the gulf within Grade 1 is now so pronounced that this is no longer viable. I'll not hold my breath.

Anyhow, it's all over for another year. Return to your practice chanters and pads. Next year it could be you...

World Pipe Band Championships 2014 - The Results

Despite the best endeavours of the weather, the contest has run to conclusion and the results are in.

Now is the time for recriminations.

Novice Juvenile
George Watson's College
Drums George Heriot

Grade 4B
Burntisland
Drums Burntisland

Grade 4A
2622 Highland Squadron RAF
Drums 2622 Highland Squadron RAF

Juvenile
Dollar Academy
Drums George Watson's College

Grade 3B
Thiepval
Drums Annan

Grade 3A
Johnstone
Drums Johnstone

Grade 2
Brieg
Bleary & District
Buchan
Lomond & Clyde
McKenzie Caledonian
St Thomas Alumni
CC Bleary & District (Drums Buchan)
Drums Buchan

Grade 1
Drums
Shotts & Dykehead
MSR Shotts
Medley Boghall

MSR
Inveraray
Medley
FM Montgomery

Overall
FM Montgomery
Inveraray & District
SLOT
Boghall
Shotts
Scottish Power
CC FM Montgomery Drums SLOT

World Pipe Band Championships 2014 - Day 1

After the undoubtedly poor reaction to the 2013 two day experiment, the RSPBA had a rethink for this year and came up with another 2 day plan- but this time substituting the Sunday for a Friday.

Not exactly an Earth shattering change, but one welcomed by most critics. Attendees can still make it home for work on Monday morning and the format of the Saturday remains recognizably that of the "traditional" Worlds.

It's hard to say whether the move to a Friday start has had much of an effect on travel plans, but my initial observation, having been here since Wednesday, is that there was a peculiar lack of Grade One bands in the usual practice haunts.

The Lord Todd bar at the university is normally heaving with big bands from the middle of the week but they were strangely absent this year.

Most seemed to have opted to stay out of central Glasgow - and the Scottish outfits appear to have decided not to bother coming to town until Friday itself.

It's hard to know whether this is due to the format change, a change in strategy, or a reaction to the continued price gouging by Glasgow hoteliers, but it made for a rather quiet town. Of course Kelvingrove still seemed busy and the parade of bands up and down Buchanan Street livened the place up, but it will be interesting to see if the pattern persists next year.

Piping Live looks to be in rude health, but not without issues. With a giant Commonwealth tent occupying George Square, the festival lacks a city center hub. The tarmac carpark at Candleriggs really doesn't hit the spot and relegates the event to the status of a car boot sale. The National Piping Centre remains a good meeting point but the site isn't big enough - even with the addition of the tents out front. The obvious answer is a return to George Square for the hub, but perhaps the event at the Piping Centre (save those in the auditorium) need to move there too. The outdoor practices for Triumph Street and Lomond & Clyde were impressive but playing spread across steps at different levels is fairly silly.

So, what of the Worlds itself - thus far?

Well, the crowds were pretty dismal. In anticipation of this, the RSPBA only opened half the site. Consequently there was little choice of food and almost no trade stands or other distractions.

Splitting the grade into two simultaneous heats may be the only solution for a Grade One of this size, but it leads to talk headaches if you want to see bands in both heats. I was told a story of a man who complained that he had bought a grandstand seat and was horrified to learn this only entitled him to see half of the bands.

The qualifiers were perhaps largely predictable. The 78th will be pleased to have had something of a return to former glory - and they were playing with more drive than I have seen in several years. Triumph Street have a confidence in their presentation that could well be rewarded with a top six spot - I certainly expect them to be the pick of the Canadians. SFU is a band which seems to have lost momentum and their playing today seemed somehow lacklustre.

For those that may not have heard, the qualifying bands (in playing order) are:

78th Fraser Highlanders
Scottish Power
Greater Glasgow Police
FM Montgomery
Canterbury Caledonian
SLOT
Cullybackey
Shotts
Triumph Street
SFU
Boghall
IDPB

Tomorrow will be an interesting day, with about 6 bands capable of getting into the top three, were that not a mathematical impossibility. FM Montgomery still appear unbeatable in the piping, but their drumming remains suspect - the question will be whether the drummers will drag them out of the top spot. Predictions as to winners are foolish, but I will predict that, whoever wins, the decisions of particular judges will be scrutinised as never before come the prize giving...

The Worlds - Day 2 Recap

Day Two done and it's all over for another year. 

What to make of it all?

Well, I was clearly pretty skeptical after Day One, but I set out to the Green with determination to keep an open mind. A spectacular Sunday would perhaps consign the Saturday reservations to the scrap heap. 

As I approached the park, one thing which puzzled me was the way I was feeling. Usually, on the day after the Worlds, I am itching for more. More pipes, more drums, more haggis, neaps and tatties. But not today. I wasn't sure what I was feeling, but it wasn't the normal anticipation the Worlds provides. It could have beeb the weather from yesterday; it might have been pure tiredness; but whatever it was, it was a feeling I wasn't accustomed to. 

I got to the Green as the Grade One MSR contest was about to begin. In contrast to Saturday, the skies were blue and the big bands were strutting their stuff. I raced round the tuning park, videoing all manner of warm up routines. 

Again, the crowd levels were immediately noticeable. Normally, the art of the tuning park videographer requires a great deal of guile. One must try to anticipate the next move of any given Pipe Major, one must acquire a skill of predicting when a "take five minutes guys" break will conclude and the drums will be slung back on. The alternative is to find yourself at the back of a 10-deep mob, struggling to get any shot at all. 

Not so this year. The more prolific winners were still attracting decent numbers but it was nonetheless possible to saunter up to even Field Marshal and SFU without having to elbow any other spectators in the ribs. 

And that was before the rain came. 

Saturday was a worse day consistently but Sunday was vicious. High winds meant that torrential downpours were arriving unpredictably but with ferocity. Some bands lucked it and avoided the worst but others had incredibly fragmented tuning - running for cover and darting out when a patch of blue sky appeared.  The performances probably suffered for some bands and then was at least one literal casualty. A drummer from Triumph Street failed to dodge a flying sign which had blown off a food stall. For the rest of the day he sported a nasty looking gash to the side of his left eye. I also saw an RSPBA sign hit the deck - but a few metres from any spectators. 

After the MSR competition was concluded, I took advantage of the lull and made for the food stalls. Again, they were quiet - not as bad as Saturday, but quiet. 

Indeed, the whole park was pretty quiet. With half the competition done the day before and many bands already heading home. It was possible for the whole place to descend into silence. That's not a feature of the one day event. 

Returning for the Medley performances, it was more of the same. If anything, the showers were more frequent, but perhaps lighter. This didn't help with the tuning, as neurotic Pipe Majors headed for the tents at the first spit - fearing another deluge. 

As is my wont, I spent my day in the tuning park and skipped the ring. It is hard to hear from distance and frankly is probably better observed from the comfort of a sofa on the live stream.

It is no real predictor of performance in the ring, but I liked Greater Glasgow Police, Triumph Street and Boghall. The Boggies seemed to have very little collective practice before going on and Ryan Canning appears to have adopted the Patented Parkes Preparation Method - keep tuning and play in sixty second bursts to keep things going. Speaking of Shotts, the drum corps seems reinvigorated. They are tighter and more musical than I have heard them in years. I'm not sure whether Jim's well-documented troubles last year have energised him, but something seems to be working. 

The Grade One contest concluded with Triumph Street and there began the wait. The Finale was the usual turgid affair. The intense cold and the threat of further rain led to more grumbles than ever about the length of time it was all taking. The truth is that the spectacle delivered by the Finale is not worth the delay it creates. Thankfully, it was briefer than usual due to the absence of the Saturday contingent of players. 

The results were the usual mixed bag. Perhaps unusually, the Grade One winners seemed to meet with universal approval. Field Marshal have been so good of late that no one seemed to begrudge them the victory. The drum corps finally captured the World Title - worthy winners too. 

Interestingly, during the finale, just after Grade One had been called someone left a mic open amongst the officials. It was faint, but there seemed to be a conversation about the crowd level. If I picked it up correctly, they seemed to be commenting on the respectable crowd on this hill but wondering "where they all came from". 

Certainly, the crowd was better than it had been but it fell far short of the usual Saturday crush on the hill. The reason for the swelling in numbers at the end was, I suspect, due to the bars closing and the traders frantically dismantling their stalls whilst the bands assembled. 

I spoke to a few traders and didn't get any positive response to the Two Day format. One said she had been busy but emphatically stated she didn't want the two day experiment to be any more than that. Food traders seemed badly hit. I saw several stands where staff far outnumbered customers. Taking into account the pitch prices, I suspect quite a number will have gone home much the poorer for the whole thing.

In my conversations with all and sundry, I couldn't find a single soul who liked the new arrangement. A word which has entered my head as I strode into Glasgow Green in the morning was "flat" - and the same word was independently used by quite a number of others, entirely unprompted. The atmosphere was lacking and that could be for any number of reasons. Bad weather is a risk at any contest and the Worlds has no special immunity. It doesn't usually harm the feel of the place. More likely the stretch in the events and the splitting of the contest diminished the crowd to a degree which wasn't anticipated. I suspect that the Association believed Saturday players would return as spectators on Sunday, but they didn't. They left - and they took family and friends with them. This resulted in a colossal hole in the crowd. 

During the Finale it was announced that there will be a vote in September to decide the format going forward. It will be interesting to see if anyone speaks in favour of two days, and if so, why. 

For the sake of balance, I happily identify one positive feature. The chance to hear the non-qualifying Grade One outfits run out MSRs and Medleys on Day One made for a pleasant change. As everyone probably knows, the old system, complete with bands pre-qualifying, resulted in the Bands forced to play for their place early on a Saturday in front of no-one. If unsuccessful, a Grade One band could effectively be done for the day by 9.15am - and never have a chance to air their medley at all. Of course, many of the lower grade bands can still be done after a poor qualifying run early in the morning and the decision to run qualifying and finals for other grades entirely in the space of either the Saturday or Sunday has made no real change to the Worlds experience for many of those bands (save for the fact that some bands now have their Saturday on a Sunday, if you know what I mean).

I'll not labour the point, but I still think that the answer is to shift back to the one day format in tandem with a re-grading exercise. The resultant smaller Grade One would allow for a two round "final" featuring around 16 Bands to take place within the space of the single day, eliminating the need for qualifying entirely. It would also return a number of the lesser Grade One outfits to Grade Two, where they might actually trouble the Judges.

So what did you think?