By Stuart Letford for Bagpipe.News

Stuart Letford

Prepare for the long haul regarding the Coronavirus, folks. That was the message from a webinar discussion into the future of piping and pipe bands post-Covid-19. Further, there is a chance there may be no pipe band competitions held in 2021.

The webinar took place yesterday and was organised by Strathallan School, an independent boarding school in Perthshire, Scotland. The webinar chairman was the school’s Piping Instructor, Craig Muirhead and less than 100 people, mainly piping instructors and teachers from around the world, took part. Joining Craig on the panel were John Hughes, chairman of the RSPBA and Dr Robert Gray, Senior fellow and Consultant Respiratory Physicians at the University of Edinburgh. Gray and Hughes are also pipers. Both spoke well and both spoke frankly – which is exactly what we need.

Dr Gray began with a reminder that Covid-19 is highly infectious and is spread by droplet/aerosol from person to person. Covid-19, he said, is a new illness that is caused by a virus called coronavirus. The first discovery of human forms came from a Glasgow scientist in 1965, he said.

Dr Robert Gray.

There hasn’t been a lot of research into whether musical instruments can spread respiratory droplets, Dr Gray said, but there is an assumption that the great highland bagpipe might. The instrument requires a lot of airflow (15-30 litres per minute) and expiratory pressure. Breath condenses inside the instrument and players produce excess saliva. In addition, band hygiene is suspect at best. The main concerns are that the bagpipe is aerosol generating, i.e. suspends fine particles or liquid droplets in the air, and that the bagpipe is a reservoir for viruses from respiratory secretions. Any risk from the instrument is dependent on whether the player is infected. Generally speaking, mouth-blown bagpipes are more risky generally than other musical instruments, due to them being potential reservoirs for viruses from respiratory secretions.

Clearly, Dr Gray said, there is a different degree of risk in the solo-piping world and in the pipe band world and there is an even higher risk of transmission with indoor contests. Outbreaks are more common from indoor gatherings but even outdoor activities involving groups and aerosol generation may be hazardous. Coronavirus seems to thrive in cold and wet environments.

There have so far been Covid-19 outbreaks associated with choirs (in Japan and in the US where in one case a single musician infected 60 others) and church congregations (in South Korea) but none yet with pipe bands.

John Hughes said that we all – not just the RSPBA – have to accept that things need to change in the pipe band world now. Social distancing in the competition arenas can be accommodated already but the social areas, i.e. catering and beer tents, will need to be looked at. Beer tents will probably need to go and be replaced by beer gardens. Queuing systems will need to be introduced as will hand sanitisers and social distancing. The RSPBA, Hughes said, will work with promoters on these aspects.

Currently, he said, there is no allowance in the official guidance for having any mass gatherings and any event with over 500 people is classed as such. Until that guidance changes, there will be no mass events such as pipe band competitions and highland games. Hughes said the Scottish Government is to publish a set of guidelines for the music sector very shortly. He said he is in “regular contact” with Fiona Hyslop (Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs) and Jason Leitch (National Clinical Director of the Scottish Government).

The guidance that applies to organised sport for children, said Hughes, may also be applied to Juvenile, Novice Juvenile, school and community bands. Dr Gray agreed and pointed out that children are at least risk and the focus should be in getting them back to practices and playing.

John Hughes
John Hughes.

The RSPBA’s Music Board is currently assessing further options and awaiting further guidelines from the Scottish Government. Staggered competitions have been suggested, but Hughes said, that could have time implications – with resultant cost implications for the promoters if an event cannot be held within one day.

Permanent changes may come out of this health crisis, the panel agreed. For example, regarding the competition arena, the RSPBA’s Music Board has already been discussing the circle formation – despite the pipe bands preferring it and not desiring a change to it – and this will be looked at afresh from a health perspective. “The concert formation,” Hughes said, “has been used for a while in indoor contests and it works well and could be a factor in minimising aerosol.” The RSPBA is currently canvassing the views of Grade 1 bands in this.

How a band leaves the arena will need to be addressed as counter marching out of the circle will be a problem. Pipe band leaders will need to think how they can set their bands up without, for example, mouth-blowing the pipe chanters of others. Drone tuners at competitions and at practices will need to adopt the wearing of gloves and face shields. Then there’s the bass drummer – everyone faces the bass drummer, particularly the pipers with their aerosol-generating instruments. Face shields are very good at stopping cross-contamination.

Many pundits have been calling for smaller bands, mainly in Grade 1. Well, from a pubic health point of view this may now need to happen. The more pipers in a band, the more the increased risk of spreading pathogens. Also, bands will need to revert to being much more local – the days of pipers and drummers travelling large distances and of bands ‘flying in’ members may now be over. About time too, in my opinion.

Simon Fraser University competing at the 2018 World Pipe Band Championships.
The circle formation is to be looked at afresh as is the issue of how bands leave the competition arena.

Other mitigating risks for pipe bands include hand washing, social distancing, and better hygiene. If you have symptoms then, clearly, you give band practice a miss. Indeed, bands may need to formalise not allowing members in to practice halls if they have symptoms. Once social distancing is relaxed out of doors it may be possible to have limited outdoor practices. What is crystal clear is that indoor practices are out of the questions for now until distancing is relaxed – and when it does resume it may need to be very different from before.

Dr Gray also suggested that face shields and “adequate” distancing be introduced to indoor band practices, as well as introducing plastic shields between individual players at practices as well as at competitions.

When asked about the return of children to schools (in Scotland) in mid-August, Dr Gray advised that physical lessons be undertaken in very small groups in large rooms with plenty of ventilation and with face shields adopted. It is not necessary, he said, to move lessons all online, but simply to mitigate the risks inherent in physical lessons. Outside learning – with social distancing – is an avenue, weather permitting. Other common sense measures for indoor teaching would include:

  • Teaching a pupil in a practice room whilst you stand outside.
  • Leaving a room empty for one hour between each pupil to allow aerosols to dissipate.
  • Introducing basic PPE e.g. face mask or shield for teacher/pupil.
  • Having lessons only take place if teacher or pupil has no symptoms.
  • Drying out your instrument and wipe down with proprietary wipes after playing.

Dr Gray reminded us that piping is no stranger to viruses. The famous piper and pipe-maker, James Center died of Spanish flu in the epidemic of 1919 and Lament for the Children was written when the composer’s seven children died in a smallpox epidemic. Smallpox has, of course, been eradicated. It is not likely that there will be a vaccine by October, despite what some governments say.

All physical piping competitions for the remainder of 2020 have been cancelled – excluding the Argyllshire Gathering and the London Competition. Yesterday, Armagh Pipers’ Club confirmed this year’s William Kennedy Piping Festival, which was to have taken place in mid-November, has been cancelled. What is clear is that, as things are, there is no chance that the Argyllshire Gathering and the London Competition will take place this year. Looking ahead, the organisers of Winter Storm have already cancelled their event for 2021.

Clearly, if we can suppress this virus – and keep it suppressed – then life might be almost normal. However, we will not be fully in control of Covid-19 for a year, possibly even two.

One unintended consequence of all this is that this gives us an opportunity to refocus what is important about our music. We may need to get over our obsession with competitions in band and solo playing … and it might be a while before we see each other on the grass.