Chris Earl: Teaching is essential in a changing world

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By Chris Earl, President of Pipe Bands Australia

Chris Earl.
PBA President, Chris Earl.

Pipe Bands Australia (PBA) this year celebrates its Diamond Jubilee – six decades since six state associations decided to form a federation that would in time transition to the national association we have today.

The journey to that momentous meeting in 1960 when state representatives agreed they shared a commonality was far from short. At least 10 years earlier, the 6ft 2in expat Scotsman, doyen of piping adjudicators and a state association vice-president of the time, Peter Stuart, was advocating across Australia for the formation of an Australasian pipe band federation that would include Australia and New Zealand. Stuart had arrived in Australia in 1912 and over the next 40 years would adjudicate in every Australian state – no mean achievement on this continent back when roads across the country were rough and travel times measured not in hours but days or weeks.

Peter Stuart pictured in 1932.
Peter Stuart pictured in 1932.

Whether or not Stuart was the sole driver for an Australasian federation, the irony is that six state pipe band associations (Australian state boundaries even now are dotted lines on maps from the colonial days before Australia became a commonwealth in 1900) agreed to form a federation in the year of Stuart’s death.

The pipe band movement that Stuart first encountered in Australia more than a century ago is vastly different to that of today. There are more bands and they’re now graded from Grade 1 to Grade 4B. There are juvenile bands, too and the playing complement of the bands has on average doubled and also includes tenor drums. Contests are judged on piping, drumming and ensemble compared to up to the early 1950s when a single piping judge assessing all music. The bands have mostly ditched the No. 1 uniform for more appropriate attire in the hot Australian summer.

Musically, Australia has continued to advance with the rest of our pipe band family around the world. The influence of later expats from Scotland and Ireland has been as integral as Stuart and his ilk and reaped a number of World championships along the way.

Our Diamond Jubilee year championships in Maryborough, Victoria – where the first Australian championships were held in January 1961 – will be the first since the introduction of Grade 4B and Juvenile grading here. The arrival of Grade 4B finally overcomes an anomaly that followed a change in music requirements for a standalone Grade 4 in 2012 when the MSR was set for those bands without any musical development bridge through a selection of marches.

Mildura Pipe Band, 1935.
Mildura Pipe Band, 1935.

Over the past five years, we have incrementally addressed that anomaly and in doing so, re-engaged many bands across Australia, particularly in rural and regional communities. Entries for our championships sees, for the first time in many years, a number of those bands back competing at the premier pipe band event. And the introduction of Juvenile band grading recognises the growth in school-based programs that are engaging young pipers and drummers at record numbers.

However, the challenges faced by Peter Stuart and his contemporaries remain for bands everywhere today, I would suggest, both in Australia and around the world: travel and its cost can impede participation, recruitment and retention of players, raising money.

Technology has also made the world seem a smaller place, yet modern society sharing that ‘smaller space’ has also become crowded as pipe bands compete for players, opportunity and engagement with other activities that can seem to consume people’s time. When Peter Stuart arrived in Australia, he soon formed a pipe band from scratch – teaching enthusiastic learners and moulding them into a musical unit. That example is as relevant in the 21st century: there is no substitute to teaching new generations if we want to have sustainable bands into the future. The moment a band stops teaching, its future risks becoming quite bleak.

That’s one huge reason we will celebrate with a sense of achievement and vibrancy at the 2020 Australian Pipe Band Championships. The pipers, drummers and drum majors in competition have been sagely and passionately taught by a piping or drumming tutor at some time, some where. Some may say things don’t match the favoured foremost memories cherished and augmented through time but as we know, times do change and we must make the most of these new and exciting opportunities.

Player and band membership numbers are again rising across Australia, new teaching programs are emerging in community-based bands and there are a growing number of our bands regularly competing and performing on the international stage. They are adding to the fabric of our pipe band culture here.

Pipe Bands Australia has matched music requirements for our contests with those in Scotland although our bands play two elements … travelling five or six hours for three minutes in the circle does not appeal to many, if any.

Later this year, Australian bands will participate in VP75. It’s our piping tribute to mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Pacific and the end of World War Two on August 15, 1945. The importance of VE Day in May 1945 was tempered for Australia with thousands still on active service in the Pacific, many still Prisoners of War. Among them were members of pipe bands who had enlisted, including the entire band from the river city of Mildura.

For the PBA and our pipe band family, 2020 is a year of both celebration and commemoration of significant events in our history, events that guide our future.