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....

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.....

The Two Day Worlds - Greed or Genius?

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.

Sounds sensible?

Not really.

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...

The Season Begins

Notwithstanding the recent re-emergence of my BPPV, we loaded up and headed off to Dungannon on Saturday to catch the first contest of the local pipe band season in Dungannon. The County Tyrone Championships could scarcely be described as the most glamorous of the local fixtures, but a decent entry was attracted, including three bands in Grade One.

We made it to Dungannon Park for most of Grade Two and then the big bands. The day was very considerably dampened by the driving rain which swept across the area several times. Ravara had just started to play in some of the worst of it - it's a wonder they didn't drown.

Standards of playing were perhaps a little variable - partly due to the weather and partly ring-rustiness, I suspect. Despite that, the big names in Grade One were clearly out to set the tone (no pun intended) for the rest of the season. Unusually, Field Marshal Montgomery started the season with the underdog tag. The reigning world champions, St Laurence O'Toole had made the journey North and obviously wanted to kick off by taking the biggest of local scalps.

However, the Ulstermen (if we can really call them that, bearing in mind the number of overseas players in their ranks) won out and took the fancy of both piping judges and the ensemble man. The drumming went to SLOT and Cullybackey produced a nice performance but couldn't break into the top two on any sheet.

Hopefully the rest of the season will be characterised by better weather but in the meantime, enjoy the winning performance from FM above. The rest of the Grade One outfits can be seen on the YouTube channel, here. The results sheets are here.

Piping Into the Mainstream

More years ago than I really care to remember at this point, a document came into being, styled From the Margins to the Mainstream - it laid out a vision of where Ulster-Scots needed to go, and how it needed to get there. Although the document itself seems to have long since disappeared, its principles (or indeed just the title) keep bouncing into my head. The whole notiion was that for Ulster-Scots to be really accepted, it had to be mainstreamed. I would like to think that this concept shouldn't require much by way of explanation. Nevertheless, I will needlessly point out that the idea is that Ulster-Scots should not merely be "tacked on" in various areas of society, but should be an integral part of life in all its aspects.

Unfortunately, mainstreaming is still notable more in absence than observation. Sometimes people are inclined to act like Ulster-Scots is the story of some odd handful of people who dandered (or perhaps swam) over from Scotland and who stubbornly refuse to vacate a couple of areas of the Peninsula or the Greater Ballymena metropolis. To think that way is to wilfully ignore the fact that the story of the Ulster-Scots is largely the story of Ulster. To ignore Ulster-Scots history is to be ignorant of the history of Ulster.

Thus, there should be no such thing as Ulster-Scots history - simply "history", a full understanding of which includes much that is Ulster-Scots. History is perhaps one of the most obvious areas for this sort of argument, but it applies pretty much across the board.

Thankfully, that delivers me neatly to where this post was supposed to be heading.


Specifically, piping (and drumming).

We have had a bit of good news in Northern Ireland, but a bit which I suspect may have passed many of us by due to a pretty shameful lack of publicity, so I'll tell you what I'm talking about:

Bradley Parker, a gifted piper from Portavogie is Northern Ireland’s Young Musician of the Year for 2011.

Bradley is fourteen years old and attends Regent House School in Newtownards. He achieved the 2011 Crown in the Harty Room at Queen’s University on Saturday, March 5 against competition from 14 other finalists.

The winning performance was a selection of jigs. Bradley has been playing since he was five-years-old, and he has an already established reputation as an outstanding performer. He is tutored by John Wilson in Paisley and travels regularly to Scotland for his piping lessons. The Young Musician title is scarcely his first - he has been competing and winning at local and national level for several years and holds a world record by virtue of winning best overall under-18 piper at the London Piping Society Championships.

Now in its 19th year, the Northern Ireland Young Musician of the Year contest is run by the Rotary Club of Comber.

Great news and well done, Bradley.

The most encouraging thing about all of this for me is the mainstreaming effect. A lot of years ago, a piper from my band used the bagpipe as his instrument for GCSE music at his local secondary school. As far as I can recall, Monkstown Mossley Band also had a number of members who did the same thing (not surprising for what was essentially a school band). However, it still seems that the bulk of children at schools here are condemned to scratch away at violins and honk soulessly on French Horns when parents insist that "learning an instrument would be good for you".

There is no reason at all for that.

Bradley has shown that there is no reason at all why the pipes cannot be considered the equal (at least) of the piano, the clarinet, or the mighty kazoo. Prizes can be won. Parents can be made proud. Neighbours can be irritated.

Certainly, it can be done.

More than that.

It must be done.

The RSPBA NI has done fine work over the years with its Education Committee (latterly the Northern Ireland Piping and Drumming School) but relegating piping and drumming to a position as simply an afterschool activity or hobby is to leave it forever on the margins. Although piping in Ulster remains strong, the highland pipes are hard to master. Learning needs plenty of practice - just as the fiddle does, or the piano. When a child learns the piano, they may have lessons after school but I suspect that most of them also toil under the tutelage of a school music instructor. There is no reason why the ranks of bands in Northern Ireland could not supply a healthy number of peripatetic teachers.

From there would grow a number of school bands - the same system as persists in Scotland, which has resulted in some very impressive outfits.

Methodist College Pipe Band, Regent House PIpe Band, RBAI Pipe Band, Portora Pipe Band, Grosvenor Grammar Pipe Band and Ashfield Pipe Band could all join Campbell College Pipe Band to create a healthy Novice Juvenile Grade in Ulster and serve as a great breeding ground for pipers for senior bands in the future.

If you have offspring who are of school age and are thinking of forcing them to take up a musical instrument (almost certainly against their will), why not approach your school and see whether they will allow the pipes (or snare drum) to be options? Let's jump right into the middle of the mainstream.

The Pipe Band Vault

At the outset, I have to accept that my timing really couldn't be worse.

It is the end of Pipe Band Competition season and most pipers and drummers are looking forward to a bit of a break in the schedule before having to think about sets for next year. The frantic pace of transfers in the off-season also means that you can pretty much guarantee that at least three or four of the bands you were following last year won't exist next year and the players will turn up unexpectedly in the ranks of their sworn enemies by Easter time.

There will be rumours of drums corps walking out. There will be tales of bust-ups amongst the pipers. There will be one improbable story about a Bass Dummer, a tenor drummer and a trip to Casualty.

Anyway, the rumours do not concern me.

What has been piquing my curiosity is the vast number of people at contests with Digital cameras - both still picture and video varieties.

There must be a huge amount of, for want of a better description, "media" out there which is never really seeing the light of day. There is a fairly healthy amount of footage posted on YouTube but the still pictures seem to go nowhere - with the occasional exception of Flickr.

So, what I have done is to start a site called The Pipe Band Vault. The notion is to try to collect together pictures (and possibly a bit of video) of the bands and to allow anyone and everyone to use the pictures as they see fit. The Posterous system allows for galleries to be downloaded with the minimum of fuss, so if you can see youself in a picture and you fancy adorning the wall with your image, go ahead. If you want to use it on a website, feel free (attribution would be polite, but we'll not fall out). The one proviso would be that commercial use of any images wouldn't be permitted without the passing of a hefty bag of monies - but I think we can safely cross that bridge when we come to it.

This season has been a bit of a disaster for me, with the crippling nonsense that is BPPV to contend with - but next should be better. I would hope to have my own camera out with me and to start to populate the site a little. In the meantime, there must be some people out there with images languishing on memory cards or hard drives. Why not give them a home? If you have any interest, leave a comment and I'll sort out the practicalities of how it might all function over the next few weeks.

Leaden Skies

I was once again plagued by incredibly bad cell reception yesterday and a further foray into Live Blogging from a contest was thus thwarted. Consequently, the post from yesterday morning has only appeared today - once we had returned home!

For anyone interested, FMMPB took the honours in Grade One, pursued by Ballycoan and Cullybackey, in that order. The rest of the Grades threw up few surprises, although it was interesting to see Seven Towers performing strongly in Grade Two - one to watch in that Grade next year, with Ravara safely out of the way in the Premier Division.

The town was packed to the gills and by noon today, we could still count some 35 or so Camper vans in the Lansdowne Crescent carpark. Proof that at least some of them were bandsmen came in the form of a football shirted youngster diligently practising with his Mace Pole - clearly keen to ensure that he doesn't become ring-rusty over the off-season!

The only contest of note which remains is the Cowal Games in Dunoon - beloved by many bandsmen - by me - not so much. It has always struck me as an excuse to go on the tear for a full weekend when most of the important competition business is out of the way. Alcohol fueled tomfoolery results. Not my kind of thing.

In any event, I took a dander round Portrush with my father this morning and took a few shots of the town and the coast - although the skies were less kind than yesterday, some of the shots still pleased me, so I have uploaded the gallery. Sobering to note that my favourite shot of the weekend was probably the lead picture from the post yesterday - which was again taken on the iPhone! Today's efforts are with the trusty SLR - and I don't see the equal of the phone picture!

There Can be Few More Beautiful Places...

The pipe bands round off the local season with the North West Championships in Portrush today.

I came up here last night and have staked my claim in the completely packed car park good and early. It's as well I did, as the camper van brigade has almost totally commandeered the town! If you are thinking of heading this way, you would need to get a move on!

The weather is beautiful at the moment and the scenery sings out its beauty from even the most casually taken snapshots. What are you waiting for? Come on up!

The Video Cometh

The promised video uploading is beginning and this is a small sample of what there is to come - including a mildly disconcerting wink at the camera from Jim Kilpatrick!

I am currently wrestling with the YouTube uploader and will hopefully get a few other clips up pretty quickly. There is a crisp ten pound note awaiting someone who can create a piece of software which will automatically Title and Tag an uploaded video - that exercise may be the definition of tedium...