Reflections on the Worlds 2022

Where to begin?

Probably the best place would be with congratulations to Field Marshal Montgomery on a well-deserved victory. Increasingly it feels like any one of about five bands could lift the Grade One title and it is therefore hard for even a die-hard fan of any particular band to claim " we wuz robbed" - although I suspect that such people can still be located.

If the response of the crowd on the day was anything to go by, it seems that the victory was well-received and the march off seemed more hectic than ever with hordes of well-wishers wanting to express pleasure at the result.

What about the contest itself? Well, the two day format seemed even more ridiculous than it already was. Day One was sparsely attended, but poor planning led to stupidly long waits to get onto the Green. Once on, we were again treated to half the site closed off, no food village and a tremendous sense of anti-climax as the day completed. The absence of any "closing" event means that Day One is always going to have that element of "was that it?" about it. Perhaps they should have looked at doing to Seventies tribute thing at the end of Friday, rather than on Saturday when I think no one really cared about it.

Clearly, there was no need for the two day format. But was there ever?

When it was being sold to the community, we were told that it was to give all the Grade One outfits a chance to play two sets - that was when it was still the "qualifying" for Saturday. That left the non-qualifiers out of the "Worlds" day itself, which lessened the event. Then it was a matter of "keeping the Bands honest" by ensuring that each Grade One Band had to play both of their MSR and Medley sets. That's fair enough, but I'm not sure that we really need a complete second day for that. In every other Grade (unless qualification is required) each Band plays once - but in Grade One, they play FOUR times. That seems odd. If the other grades all had to play both MSR and medley sets in their finals, I think the Grade One system would be more justifiable.

There is also a risk that one bad performance (or some suspect judging in one set) might knock an otherwise clear winner out. Are we not in danger of handing the crown to a band based on consistency, rather than brilliance? As a World Champion, I don't think that one would want to be remembered as "the most consistent over four performances that year". Let's be honest, most people will recall a World title win on the basis of a stunning medley - not the MSR and not the "B" medley. I have no doubt that this would draw howls of derision from the MSR purists, but there you go - I am happy to be shouted out for being right...

The fact that this two day format has remained for a number of years without any apparent improvement and without any great fondness for it does not reflect well on the organisers.

Next- the weather. Bonkers. Glasgow has never been that warm. I was there from Tuesday and aside from some light mist that burnt off early on Saturday, all I saw was glorious and intense sunshine. I don't think there was much that anyone could do about it, but it drives home the fact that the Green is very exposed. Usually the element we are seeking shelter from is the rain, so we shouldn't complain when the greater risk is sunstroke.

I heard some suggestions that the reason for almost empty stands around the main arena was the weather. By all means, tell yourself that if it makes you feel better. The reality is that the crowd levels were considerably lower than in previous years and the prices were too high. Those of us who run businesses know only too well the financial strains placed on us by government action under cover of the health scares, but they really needed to keep prices down and encourage people back to normal activity.

Certainly the stands would not have been hospitable places in the heat, but they are equally unpleasant in hail. Whatever the weather, they are too dear. I heard some more grumbles about whether they are even a good place to listen from anyway. The Grade One arena, stuck in the corner, seems set up to facilitate the broadcasters and VIPs, but not the enthusiasts. Listeners are much too far away to hear reliably and this in turn encourages many to stay away. As my YouTube videos attest, I have always been a fan of the tuning park, but if I wanted to play at judging, then I would be better sitting at home in front of the telly than fighting through a crowd of chattering bystanders.

Given a clean sheet, I think that shifting the arena away from that corner and allowing a fully circular crowd to develop would be much preferable. Perhaps something like the way they organise crowds at golf would be the answer. They manage to get large numbers relatively close round each green and combine standing spectators and those in stands. Of course the other thing we could learn from them is the need for quiet during performances. I will never understand why people will fight their way to the front of the crowd only to ignore whatever band is playing in favour of gossiping with their pals. There is a beer tent (and a city centre) for that. Please go away.

That's the complaining mostly done - what about the Bands?

I'm not going to start pontificating on the finer points of the performances. No matter what they say, most of that is wildly subjective, so my thoughts are no more valid than any other punter. What I will say is that I thought the standard was perhaps not quite what it had been two years ago. It's hard to say exactly what it was, but it seemed there was a little ring-rustiness or a "looseness" to some of the bands.

The top outfits were still massively impressive but some of the "lower half" sounded like they were maybe three months off where they would like to be. This is still quite the feat bearing in mind the disruption that the past couple of years brought, so I really am not complaining. It was great to once again be close to a collection of some of the finest musicians on the planet and an honour to be able to record them. Personnel changes were evident and I hope that the missing faces are still playing somewhere - but I fear more than a few may have stepped away.

Gordon Brown's retirement was a talking point and the choice of Kerr McQuillan as his replacement will be interesting to watch. Honestly it is nice to see a new Grade One leading drummer as it sometimes feels like musical chairs with the same faces popping up in different bands.

The winners? Field Marshal were extremely strong and Richard Parkes has lost none of his attention to detail in the break. Actually, they were probably the closest to having picked up where they left off. Inveraray seemed a little off the boil - although I wondered if they had taken on a little much with the pre-Worlds concert. Typically the concert seems to help the performing band, but this was a strange year and it would not be ridiculous to think that this might have been unwelcome strain after the hiatus. Don't get me wrong, they were great - but the players seemed somehow more serious and less joyful than they had been. Maybe we're all just getting older and grumpier? I know I am.

As usual, I spent much of my time amongst the Grade One outfits as they readied for battle. It was great to be back in that environment and to feel the music in my chest again. The lower grades got little attention from me, but I was conscious that the numbers were low. A glance at the programme made it clear that a lot of Bands simply didn't show up. Whether this is a post 2020 blip, we won't know until next year. I hope that it is. I fear that we have lost more bands for good. Two years of stagnation can't have had a positive effect and getting out of the weekly practice routine will inevitably have led to people replacing band night with other things.

I have spoken to some people who were missing from the Green this year who expect to be back next year. We should not under-estimate the extent to which the global government scare tactics employed over two years were off-putting for people considering going to crowded events. With luck, and with common sense hopefully now prevailing, those missing persons should be back.

Glasgow looked well in the sunshine and it was hard not to feel that the city was smiling on the bandsmen as it welcomed them back. We will always have 2022 to look back on when we next stand in hailstones, wondering why we do this...

A Lot to Catch Up On...

Where to start?

Since my last post was prior to the Worlds in 2019, it seems that the appropriate place would be with that results from what is, bizarrely, still the most recent World Championships.

The crowd seemed appreciative of the second Inveraray win and I don't think that many in the crowd would seriously have argued with the top six. For some reason, the contest itself seemed a little "flat" and it is certainly getting harder to split the difference at the top of Grade One. The predictions post that I put up before the contest was largely on point when it came to the results, but I can't help feeling that the distance between first and sixth is getting smaller every year - perhaps more and more a matter of personal preference rather than substantive differences in performance and technique.

That sort of theorizing inevitably leads to suggestion of "set tunes" and other alterations to format, but I suspect that what has followed in this past twelve months will put paid to anything very much changing over the next few years.

So, 2020 - what a disaster.

We have lost the competition season almost everywhere - although I think there have been some "down under" meetings to keep the pipes playing - but of course almost no-one from outside the immediate region can go there.

Piping in the UK has been decimated. Woodwind instruments remain verboten at this point - and there seems to be very little intent on the part of government to return to anything approaching normal. As now seems to be widely accepted, what we are dealing with is a reasonable infectious strain of the flu which can cause greater than average problems for specific classes of person - mostly the elderly and the vulnerable. Despite that increased understanding of the problem, we seem to have been locked into the notion that we must accept a "new normal" rather than a return to what we would all have recognised as just "normal".

Bands aren't meeting - even school bands are not practising. Although there may have been some initial enthusiasm for "Zoom practices", that has largely waned and pipes and sticks languish in boxes and bags.

I fear that it is inevitable that when (if?) we return to normality, we will have lost quite a number of players. Some will have decided that they can no longer spare the time for Band; some will have lost incomes that mean they can no longer afford to travel and compete; and some will have decided that they can't face the work required to knock the rust off and return to competition.

It is hard to see an upside to this situation. I simply don't believe that we have hundreds of musicians sitting in their houses working away at new tunes like fury, either playing or composing. Big bands with "fly-in" players may not see them again for several years, if at all. Competitions are going to be much smaller affairs when (if?) they come back. Local Councils and other sponsors are likely not to have funds to spare and therefore we will have to look at contests being self-funding. Is that realistic?

I would be massively surprised to see the Two Day Worlds format survive this reset. Overseas Grade One Bands are unlikely to travel and I suspect that Pipe Majors will be keen to limit the amount of work they have to undertake to get their outfits back on the grass. Of course, it is now looking increasingly likely that the return will not be until 2022 - I can't see anyone from outside the UK taking a punt on booking travel for this coming August when there is no contest actually planned at this point.

What is there on the positive side?

Honestly, not much.

If we want to save our hobby, we need to exert what pressure we can on government to release the shackles placed on the general population and allow a return to actual normality. I am not for one moment suggesting that this involves sneezing on eachother at Band practice - but did we ever do that?

Take care of elderly band members, maintain hygiene in your practice halls, don't come to practice when you are sick. That's all common sense - and what we should have been doing anyway. With a modicum of care we could be back on the grass sooner rather than later - but we need to tell government that we aren't prepared to put up with these restrictions indefinitely...

Pre-Worlds Pontificating

As usual, I start my pre-Worlds post with apologies about neglecting the Blog and excuses about other things getting in the way. Clearly, I also include the traditional promises to post more often and to treat my massive audience of about three people much better. At this point it should be clear that I don't mean a word of it...

Anyway, on to the business in hand. What have we got in store at the World Pipe Band Championships this year. It would be impossible to start any discussion without referring to the format. Over the years I have written several times on my view as to how the contest ought to be improved. The focus has been on two major issues - the two day format and the Finale.

It seems clear to even the most casual observer that the two day format has not been working. From the start, when you may recall the contest was more comprehensively split across the two days, it received mixed reviews at best. Following minor uproar, the other Grades were allowed to return to the Saturday fold but the Grade One Qualifiers remained in splendid isolation in their Friday doldrum.

All sorts of justifications had been provided, but the main one seemed to be that the Grade One Bands resented the fact that the old system had meant that, if they didn't make it to the final, they could end up playing their MSR to a crowd of about five people at 9am on Saturday morning and then pack and go home. The costs of getting to the Worlds (particularly for the overseas contingent) meant that this was something which understandably dampened enthusiasm for returning year on year.

However, the crowds voted with their feet. The pattern for the last few years has been that the Friday is sparsely attended. The traders don't want to pay for the two day "pitches", so the food and merchandise options are limited. For a videographer, there are advantages. I can get much closer to even the most popular outfits, as there is little competition. But I can't imagine that the RSPBA had me in mind when they set out the calendar. Pipes|Drums conducted a survey amongst (most) of the Grade One bands and although I can't vouch for its authenticity, it revealed that a significant (almost overwhelming) majority favoured reversion to the single day format.

Combine that feeling with the fact that the entry this year has been so small that there is no need for a Qualifier and it is hard to imagine why the RSPBA is sticking to the unpopular two day event. One can only presume that the reason is a commercial one. Even with the Friday having a "ghost town" ambiance, more Scottish Pound Notes must be gathered with a two day event. Of course the Worlds itself is really run by an events company, with the RSPBA only running and regulating the contest, so perhaps the commercial pressure is from outwith the pipe band fraternity, but it seems a poor call nonetheless.

So, what are we left with? A two day affair where each Grade One band will play BOTH their Medley and MSR sets and the entire total across the two days will count towards the title. No more qualifiers, no more heats. I'll return to that.

In the meantime, what else hasn't changed? The Finale. Last year the event seemed to run on until about midnight. It didn't. It just felt like it. The weather wasn't great and it was starting to get cold. The results were eventually called out into the gloom where the officials presumed the Bands were still standing. Luckily my cameras are pretty good in low light, but if you look at the end of my Saturday vlog post here, you will see a fairly close approximation to the conditions we were dealing with at prize time. 

All this was notwithstanding the fact that the Grade One contest had concluded many hours before. The timetabling of the minor Grades needs to be brought forward, with less of a gap between qualifiers and finals to allow the Finale to start earlier. They should also canvass the Bands as to whether they actually want to take part in a formal march past. I'm sure that many of the overseas Bands relish their moment in front of the stands and the cameras, but a lot of the local would likely forgo that for an earlier home-time.

Returning then to the format and the results for Grade One. Looking first at last years results, it can be hard to get a feel for what might have happened had we had the new format then. The fact that the Qualifiers involved two heats (obviously) means that we can't exactly work out what would have happened had they been combined into one. The result is a more accurate predictor if we presume that the two heats were evenly split in terms of the ability of the Bands. We have to discount the Bands who didn't make it to the Final as they only have a single set of results.

Let's look at some tables:

The above should be fairly self-explanatory, but it is comprised of the results from both the qualifiers and the final for all the Bands who made it through (less the two dearly-departed) combined to give a global total.

As you can see the winners stay the same, but as high as third place, we have a switch. Scottish Power nip into third, displacing St Laurence O'Toole and Shotts also leapfrog Fife to claim the last place in the top six. SLOT and SFU would be fighting it out on ensemble preference, but my patience for ploughing through figures doesn't extend that far. In any event, starting to discuss ensemble preference in a clearly hypothetical case would be utterly redundant.

What does that tell us? Probably just that Field Marshal and Inveraray would have risen to the top last year no matter the format. Two Bands with four strong sets each. The suggestion would also seem to be that (last year) Scottish Power was a more consistent outfit across all four performances than SLOT. The St Laurence performance in their Qualifying MSR seems to have let them down. this year there will be no chance of simply writing off a poor run in the Qualifiers.

What about more recent form?

Well, we have had four Major Contests this year. The Canadians remain unknown quantities, but what if we try to combine the results from 2019 so far in a similar format?

This table looks at things through a 2019 lens. Apologies to the other Bands who didn't feature in last year's final, but I suspect that most will imagine that the winners of the top six places will come from the same pool. Clearly, as stated above, I have dropped out the Canadians and imagine that they could slot in in similar positions to last year. The projected places in the lower half are therefore optimistic for Bands in those positions.

There are of course huge reservations about taking this too seriously. The Bands will have to cope with four performances over two days, rather than "single shots" as each of these was. I'm also not sure whether any of these Bands have been switching up their sets, or whether each performance has been of their "Number One Set". Is there a chance they may have neglected the "Number Two"? Could we see a similar outlier to SLOT's MSR qualifier last year?

Who knows? However, suggesting that the final running order would be Inveraray, SLOT, Power, FMMPB and then Boghall sounds about right given current form, doesn't it? As it should, before anyone points this out, this lower table reflects the current standings in the Champion of Champions Table - but what the Champion of Champions table doesn't show is the relative distances between the Bands. We can see IDPB with a four point margin over St Laurence, but then a ten point gap back to Power. Can they overcome that? From Scottish Power to FMMPB is again only a four point margin. Could it be that the real battles will be between IDPB and SLOT for the top spot and then between FM and Power for third place?

The time for mindless speculation is drawing to a close. In a couple of short weeks we will know all the answers and will, once again, be giving off that the judges got it wrong. Roll on Glasgow Green....

You Ya With this Year?

This was a post written quite a while ago - but nothing I have seen over the course of the last year and more suggests it isn't still valid....

Loyalty seems to count for very little these days.

When I was at Primary School, we all picked our football teams. Of course it tended to be the teams in the current ascendancy which were favoured, but whichever one you plumped for, that was your team. For life. As the fortunes of the team would wax and wane, moods would rise and fall. You took the rough with the smooth. By the time I had hit secondary level education my own team was still up there, but I can remember the head scratching at the classmate who supported Chelsea. His time eventually came - he just had to wait a a little longer.

The point was that you picked your team and you stuck with them - through thick and thin.

Back then, it tended to be the same thing for players - not that there weren't transfers, but the wages were more modest and it was not uncommon to see a player serve out the bulk of their top flight career with one team, before drifting off towards the lower leagues in their twilight playing years.

Everything has changed.

The wealthy mercenary millionaires of top flight football follow the money from team to team and country to country. In an attempt to curry favour with the fans following a move, they issue cynical press releases claiming boyhood affection for [insert name of new paymasters here]. I would say they were fooling no-one - but apparently they fool a brave few.

Anyone playing in a pipe band should be starting to see the parallels by now...

It doesn't seem all that long ago that when you were approached by someone who had learned you played either drums or pipes, their first question would be "What Band are you in?"

Now the question is somewhat different - "Who are you playing with now?", or "Where are you this year?" There seems to be a positive expectation that relationships with a band are now fleeting things. Like the Premiership footballers, we hop from squad to squad, seeking the glory of prizes and promotions, but jumping ship immediately that a better offer comes in. No longer do we buckle down when things get tough - now we simply up sticks (slight pun intended) and head for the hills.

I have no desire to rhyme off the list of bands which have gone through this process but we can probably all name them. It has become particularly prevalent in the lower grades, where the glory hunters ply their destructive trade. They identify a Band with some potential, join up (perhaps telling their mates they are only "guesting" until the results start to come in) and stay out a season or two, collecting titles and trophies on the way.

Then the inevitable happens. A tough year. Maybe another contender Band has emerged. Maybe a promotion has been secured which proves more challenging for the players. Whatever the reason, the trophies are harder to find and the "Another cheeky first place" posts on Facebook are no longer on the timeline.

In years gone by. this would be the time to regroup and build for the future. Not now. Now, this is the time to start ringing all your contacts and asking them where they might be playing next year. Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Of course as you sidle out the door, you might mutter from the sides of your mouth that "if you can get something going again, give me a shout" but those weasel words don't mean any more to the audience than they do to you as you utter them.

Surely the honourable thing to do is to stay and rebuild. Why is it left to the loyal few to take on that task as the glory hunters move on their next victims?

Having pondered on this for a while I think there are two motivating factors which have brought us to this point.

Firstly, this is the era of instant gratification. We simply won't wait for anything - and certainly not success. We want it now. We deserve it. And if this band won't do it for me, then maybe that crew over there will. Building, teaching, planning. They all take time and we won't wait.

Secondly, the big Bands are showing the wee Bands that this is the way to do it. Several (if not most) of the Grade One outfits have "members" from other countries to their home base. Notably, Field Marshal Montgomery has essentially two bands - one in Northern Ireland and the other in Scotland. There simply cannot be the "team spirit" in a Band where players only meet a handful of times in the year. And yet their success speaks for itself. The system works. Be ruthless in your approach and reap the rewards. It clearly works, but don't kid yourself that these are Bands in the older sense of the word. They are winning machines - but machines with no souls. They meet, they play, they win, they post about it on Facebook, and they go their separate ways. I wonder could they all even name each-other?

Fair enough, if that's what you want. After all, machines don't have souls anyway.

I don't want that, though. The Bands used to be about more than that. They bred a sense of community. You had your Band. It would have its ups and downs, but it was your Band. You knew your fellow members - for years. People grew up in the Band. Generations followed each-other through the ranks. It built spirit and found common cause with its community. The Bands were forces for good, getting kids an interest and fostering inter-generational transfer of skills and tall-tales.

Whatever these things are that we have now, they do little of that. And they are the poorer for it.

I Accept it's been a While....

Like the title says, it's been a while since I last posted on here and I have a raft of excuses why that is.

Work has been hectic and difficult, age has been creeping up and the general pace of the life I lead seems to be increasing on a weekly basis. Often-times over the course of the last year or so I have found myself wanting to do nothing quite so much as curl up in a ball.

The usual fodder on here in recent years has been Pipe Band related - and in common with many other exponents of the genre, my Band has fallen on troubled times. Indeed, I had posted an article addressing what I think is at the root of the problem for many bands about a year ago and then took it down, for fear that its tone was too reactionary. Looking back, I don't believe that it was and I'll repost that again shortly.

I made the traditional trip to Glasgow over the period of the World Pipe Band Championships and acquired the usual copious amounts of video footage. As some of the you may have seen, I also undertook a slightly different video project in making daily(ish) Vlog style records of the days from Tuesday through to Saturday of "Worlds Week". In truth, I also have footage from Sunday but as it lacks any real pipe band content I haven't uploaded that yet. I was broadly pleased with the reception to the Vlogs - although it was interesting to note that engagement tailed off as the week went on. I partially attribute that to the fact that by the end of the week most of those who would be most interested were either in Glasgow themselves or were thoroughly in a state of pipe band exhaustion following live streaming Grade One.

In my own opinion, I think that the Vlogs actually serve as a better record of the Piping Live events and the Worlds than many of my other recordings on the basis that they take in a little more of the colour of the City and of the event rather than the robotic recording of practices and performances. On that basis - and because I sort of enjoy the creative process - I hope to continue this pattern in subsequent years. I still have huge amounts of footage of the bands to upload and hope to get started on that shortly.

What was missing (due to concentration on the video) this year was the posting on here of commentary/predictions/results.

I think that posting results in the age of Twitter and Facebook Live now seems redundant but I suppose there remains some place for comment. I had really hoped to have time to do an analysis before the Worlds of the Results earlier in the year to see if they could be used to predict who would lift the World Title but life got in the way. I may still give it a go, but time will be the deciding factor once again.

At this point suffice to say that FMMPB was a worthy winner and it was strangely gratifying to hear them loudly cheered from the announcement all the way back to their bus after a few years of some less than gracious cat-calling while they dominated all before them....

I'll be back

All Over Again

Traditionally I post something about this time every year to say what I thought of the results from the World Championships, so why would this year be any different?

First thing's first - massive congratulations are due to Inveraray and, in particular, to Stuart Liddell and Stephen McWhirter. With a few major championships under their belts, finally lifting the Jubilee Trophy wasn't exactly a shock, but it is quite an achievement nonetheless. As soon as the drumming title was announced it was clear where the silver chanter was headed, but there was still a massive roar in the park and a genuine warmth towards a Band that everyone just seems to like. Whether they can go on to dominate in the style of Field Marshal, or Shotts before them remains to be seen (and I think it is unlikely). With dominance comes resentment, so maybe it's best if they don't.

I had the pleasure of being at practices for both IDPB and FM over the last few days and it's fair to say that there wasn't much between them. To nitpick with the judges, the 5th in medley drumming and 6th in ensemble look suspect for FM. Their drum corps was in sparkling form for Worlds and it's hard to contemplate the Hard Drive medley only being worth a 6 - even on a bad day. That medley does seem to have an unusually polarising effect amongst bandsmen and maybe it is the marmite nature of it which resulted in the low score from Mr Mathieson, but who knows?

When all is said and done, the top two are clearly the best two bands in the world, so seeing them filling those places on the results sheets is at least pleasing. It was also touching to see genuine emotion from many of the Band as their dreams were fulfilled. Well done folks.

Elsewhere in Grade One, the PSNI did a phenomenal job to qualify - and they were well worth it. Triumph Street looked less assured of their place in the final and it was hard to look past them for the bottom slot. I only saw them a few times in the tuning park and they didn't look happy at all. The Band looked and sounded disjointed. There was no sense of communal effort and a lot of either glum or nonplussed faces were evident. Something tells me there will be changes there before too long.

As for the contest itself, it needs radical overhaul.Of course the weather didn't help, but the whole experience has the feel of an endurance test. The rain depressed (in every sense) the crowd on Friday. The main stand, although free for entry, was sparsely populated. Although the weather picked up a little on Saturday, the Stand was again largely empty - I have heard at least one Grade One player (from a top three Band) complain that there was simply no atmosphere. Is it time for the Stands to go? Perhaps free entry on a first come, first served basis for both days?

Certainly let's get rid of the VIP tent. It restricts access and sightlines. If the great and the good need to be fed, let them get their scran in a tent behind the stands. It's not as if they can see from in there - the only viewing area is the paddock to the front, and from the look of it, many of those visible there had little interest in the contest.

Speaking of food, the catering is developing into a scandal. The starting price for any of the takeaway food this year appeared to be £7.50. Add in a drink and you weren't getting anything back from a tenner. Not on. It;s an expensive contest to be at, don't gouge the bandsmen and supporters who attend. Waiting for the Finale, I heard one lady remark that her husband had been despatched "down the town" to buy sandwiches. He could likely have got a taxi there and back and still been better off.

The crowd seemed generally delighted for Inveraray. There is an oft made statement in pipe band circles that "you win the Worlds the year before you get the prize". I'm not convinced that it really holds true, but it's certainly fair to say that Inveraray has been knocking on the door for a while now.

It's also a pleasingly uplifting tale to see a Band which genuinely started from nothing (albeit with an inspirational Pipe Major) and got right to the top in less than 15 years. It shows that it can be done. What is more pleasing is that the Band is not entirely overrun by newcomers. Their junior structure also holds out hope for the future and the more Bands that can generate this sort of Academy system the better. Boghall's structure is probably the gold standard (or SFU before the splits) but the more the merrier!

As before, I have to observe that the two day format still isn't working, but it feels like no-one is listening. The traders don't like it. The crowds on Day One are low and the exhaustion on Day Two - even for spectators - is palpable. We may as well write a letter and place it directly in the bin.

Let's not gripe. Well done Inveraray - another great Band to lift the World Title - only a year to go and we'll do it all again.

Inveraray in New Tie Scandal

Okay, it perhaps falls slightly sort of a scandal, but it's a fact nonetheless - and you can see the proof in the photos. 

IDPB was in sparkling form at Victoria Park in Glasgow this afternoon ahead of tomorrow's qualifiers. 

Action starts at Glasgow Green around 11am with gates opening a few hours earlier. 

The forecast is for rain....

FM Change their Heads

Field Marshal Montgomery drum corps was on the grass at Kelvingrove this afternoon. The big news was the white Andante Core-Tec heads in their Premier drums. 

These new heads are popping up all over the place and sometimes it can be hard to say exactly how much of a difference they make. 

It may all be psychological for the players - but they were certainly sounding well. 

The whole Band was present and playing through both medleys. The Hard Drive set in particular has the hairs standing up on the back of the neck!

Inveraray for the Win?

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.....

A Mixed Up Season

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.....