It's not that far away, you know.
August will come round soon enough and it will be upon us - this bold new experiment. The RSPBA has decided in its "wisdom" to attempt a doubling of the World Championship duration - gone is the frenetic single day, to be replaced by a languorous two day wallow in all things piping.
The truth is that the World Championships have been expanding for years. The old "Worlds Week" has been replaced with the spectacular Piping Live festival - complete with several concerts rather than the Glasgow Skye promoted Royal Concert Hall one (this year fronted by Inveraray & District). For that full week in August, Glasgow becomes a paradise for pipers (and drummers). We have Drumming for Drinks, we have almost constant entertainment in George Square and Pipes|Drums publishes a schedule of the practice times and locations for the Grade One outfits if the promoted shows aren't enough to sate your appetite.
It's more than enough for anyone.
And that's the point.
There is already more than enough going on. Aside from a few overseas bands, most travellers will make it to Glasgow with a couple of days at most to fill before the Saturday competition. The overseas boys and girls generally have jet lag to contend with - and are often booked to take part in some of the concerts or other performances. Throw in a few practices and it already looks like a congested programme.
Why then did the RSPBA see fit to add Sunday to the Worlds format?
The conventional wisdom seems to be that it is all done to money. This could well be true. Glasgow City Council pumps a lot of money into the event(s) and the RSPBA clearly sees the Worlds as quite the cash-cow. Looking round the expanse of Glasgow Green, there have been many improvements in the mechanics of the Worlds in recent years. The site perhaps does not lend itself to an ideal layout - and the gourmet catering village is certainly much too far from the action, whilst the multitude of burger and coffee vans clearly interfere with the practice areas for bands warming up. Overall, though, the experience is not bad. There is better branding, better ticket availability pre-contest (the gate leaves a lot to be desired) and the streaming via the BBC has made the event easier to witness for overseas aficionados.
So why change it?
Or rather, why this change?
The problem that the two day contest will supposedly address is one which is peculiar to Grade One alone. Remember, the lower grades will compete almost exactly as before. There will be qualifying and finals for the Grades which need it. The contest will kick off at about the same (ungodly) hour. The major difference is that not all those lower grades will take place on Saturday. This is causing problems itself. Many bandsmen are unhappy at the prospect of having to compete on a Sunday and this will undoubtedly lead to rows within bands and depleted ranks for some of those who do compete. It also remains unclear as to whether a “bandsman” pass will entitle you to entry to the Green on both days, or just on the day you compete. A further issue for those who will be in action on the Sunday is that many competitors would traditionally have travelled on the Friday evening, competed on the Saturday, stayed in Glasgow that night and travelled home on Sunday to be in work on Monday morning. That will no longer be possible. For a Sunday competitor, it will be a stampede to get home, or an extra day off work. If you play on the Saturday, you run the risk of having to miss the results if you still want to be home on Sunday night.
The reality is that the powers that be don’t seem concerned with this.
Apparently, the problem has been that Grade One (particularly overseas) bands have been showing up on a miserable Saturday morning, with almost no spectators present, playing an MSR to muted applause from the few occupants of the stand, and then heading for home, tails between collective kilt-hose, after failing to qualify for the final.
The new system will mean that all Grade One outfits will be required to play MSR and Medley sets on Saturday and then the finalists will play their alternative MSR and Medleys on the Sunday, in similar fashion to the existing final.
Firstly, the reason why some of the bands don’t qualify is that they aren’t good enough. For years the standard is Grade One has been very wide. It is fair to say that most of the UK bands which currently inhabit Grade One deserve to be there. Bands undergoing changes in leadership and personnel sometimes seem to be given a period of grace and a couple of bands perhaps seem destined to be trapped in a “too good for Grade 2, not good for Grade 1” loop, but the UK (and Ireland) bands seem properly graded.
Move overseas and the picture is much less settled. In Canada, no-one would argue that SFU is a solid Grade 1 outfit, but it is hard to see any of the other Canadian ensembles challenging for a title. The 78th was a great band in 1987 when they scooped to top prize but nowadays it is perhaps more a question of whether they will qualify for the final. In the USA, Oran Mor simply doesn’t sound like a Grade 1 band at all. A good Grade 2 outfit, but that’s all. The Australia and New Zealand contingent again produce dubious entries these days. I heard Auckland & District in George Square (2 years ago, I think) and could not believe that was a Grade One band. If someone had told me they were Grade Three, I think I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Let’s be clear, they are all much better players than me. Every man jack of them. I’m not saying they are rubbish - they self-evidently aren’t. They just don’t belong in Grade One.
Even before the season has started, I would be shocked if the winners of the World title this year were not drawn from the select pool of FM Montgomery, SFU, Scottish Power, Boghall, Inveraray and possibly SLOT, Shotts or Strathclyde. Anyone care to argue?
The new system will just mean that we have the chance to hear more of Grade One bands who don’t stand a chance themselves. I’m not sure that I’m all that interested in that prospect. Should we really be saying that the World Championships is about taking part, rather than winning?
The new format is also likely to distort the finals and the musical selections we hear.
Let me pick two examples. Firstly, FM Montgomery. Frankly, it is hard to see anyway that they could play badly enough in the qualifiers to get through to the final. So what will they do? They will pick their “weaker” MSR and medley sets and coast through, leaving them playing at their absolute best in the final and setting themselves up for a real run at the title.
Next, consider Vale. A good band, but not one which would be assured of a finals spot. What do they do? Well, if you’re not in it, you can’t win it, so they will be forced to play their number one MSR and medley in the qualifiers, just to give the best chance to get through. However, that leaves them playing their weaker sets if they do qualify. They will have left their “A” game on the Saturday. Surely we want to see the best bands playing their best music on the Sunday? Isn’t that sort of the point?
So what is the answer?
Well, I blogged about it last year. It’s regrading.
The RSPBA needs to have a good look at the formation of a Premier Grade. Assessors could select the top 16 or 20 bands across the globe (I suspect we could name them now) and they would play for the World Title. The contest would start mid-morning with each band playing twice and the winners would be given the best chance to shine.
Realistically, the bulk of these bands would be UK based, so overseas bands like SFU would be permitted to compete domestically in Grade One. Indeed, it may be the case that outside Scotland all Premier Bands would end up competing in Grade One.
The reconstituted Grade One would maintain the current playing requirements but with the absence of the “big hitters” from that Grade at the Worlds some of the second tier bands would be given a shot at a title, providing much needed motivation. The smaller size of the new “second tier” Grade One would allow each of those bands to play twice on the Saturday, thereby quelling any concerns about overseas competitors travelling for days to play for just a few minutes.
This new system would need careful scrutiny in the first few years. There would need to be more consideration given to promotion and relegation. Harsh though it may be, bands would have to drop out of the Premiership in the same way as football teams do from their leagues. After all, we are talking about selection of the very best from the best. There is no place for charity or ego in that calculation.
There is enough space in Glasgow Green for an additional ring and it seems to me that the most obvious downside to this system would be the need for additional adjudicators to service an extra grade. I can’t see that this is insurmountable - and amounts to a much less drastic change than moving to the 2 day experiment.
Obviously, the ball is rolling for this year’s World Championships and the two day format is going to be tried. I have yet to speak to anyone who is in favour of it - but that may be in part due to the fact that I don’t reall hang about with Grade One players. In the lower grades and amongst non-playing spectators the reaction seems solidly one of annoyance and irritation.
I suspect that resistance to re-grading would be strong amongst bands who wouldn’t want to lose their top-flight status, but I guess that the prospect of competing for silverware in the new Grade One might be seen to make up for the ignominy of failing to make it on to the CD of the Worlds Qualifiers (who buys that anyway?)
The details are slowly becoming available on the Worlds Website.
So, what do you think? Two days good, one day bad? Vice versa? Let me know...