Gary Nimmo: The rush to resume practices … and how concert formation is not the answer

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Last weekend in Lorient, Brittany, a bagadoù concert was held by the Festival Interceltique and Sonerien. There has been a great deal of discussion and speculation on whether this concert would provide a shining light paving a way for the return of pipe band activity around the world; in Scotland in particular. As a member of one of the bagadoù that participated, I took part in this concert.

I now have the benefit of experiencing the response to the cornoavirus pandemic in both Scotland and France. Clearly, I am no expert in infectious diseases or, indeed, in how their spread but I was utterly shocked at the lack of appropriate protection in France compared to the response of both the UK and Scottish Governments.

Logistically, travelling to Brittany is always difficult. On this occasion I elected to drive, and I’m glad I did because, frankly, I loved driving the width of France through Normandy and into France’s Celtic corner.

During practice and the rehearsal for the concert, all the musicians individually maintained social distancing, but the inevitable tuning of drones and fine tuning for a public performance meant that this very thing we worry about in Scotland is prevalent at such an event. Each musician is given an element of trust and responsibility for their instrument but the reality is that in Grade 1 – or 1st Categorie as the Bretons classify the top grade – there were aspects of compromising and simply doing the best that could be expected realistically in a practice situation.

Bagadoù rehearsing for the concert last weekend.

I have seen reports of that Brittany’s annual bagad championships normally attract 10,000 spectators. This is inaccurate. The stand in the stadium can accommodate only 5,000. For last weekend’s concert, there were 3,400 tickets sold. All spectators were required to enter the stadium through a single entrance, confined in the same walkway but seated in a stand where social distancing only seemed to count either side of the individual but not in front or behind. Social distancing was, effectively, non-existent.

The bagadoù of Brittany have long played in what we term a ‘concert formation’ and a great deal has been written and spoken about whether or not pipe bands should adop this. Whilst the formation may look attractive and perhaps even commercial, it’s not in the interest of pipe bands to go down this route. I would suggest that the quality of sound and performance would suffer. For a player, there’s nothing better than being in a circle encompassed in the sound that you produce. You certainly do not get that in the concert formation. The bagadoù comprise the same number of members as do larger competitive pipe bands, and this necessitate two ranks … which prevents social distancing and increases the risk of aerosol contagion.

Last weekend at the Sade de Moustoir in Lorient. The author believes concert formation is not the answer for pipe bands competitions.

I would suggest that changing to a concert formation is not enough to meet any standard of protection. In any case, the responsibility of protection, social distancing etc will fall on the promoter, rather than our governing body. Further, can you honestly see promoters investing money and resources into an event that may not happen? Can you see the local games committees paying deposits for services or similar when there’s still such so much unknown?

I digress. The issues aren’t just about how we position ourselves when performing. There are a lot of fundamental questions that would need answering, such as:

  • How can one safely tune a band to a competitive level? For example, virtually all our leading bands have ‘sound guys’ who are responsible for tuning.
  • How can spectators be managed safely to ensure an event does not become a breeding ground for an outbreak? (Look at what happened within one pub in Aberdeen). Do you trust your fellow bandsman or woman to maintain this?
  • How would you travel to events? Buses, trains, ferries and aeroplanes all exponentially increase your potential exposure to this virus.
  • How is your band going to be able to practice efficiently whilst maintaining a safe distance – two metres – between players? Could your band do this?
  • How would promoters manage queues for food, beer tent, park entrance and exit?

The reality is that none of these questions can be answered, certainly not at the moment. Why, therefore, do we seem to be so desperate to return to practices?

Pipe band social media is full of too many so-called ‘experts’ with opinions on this virus. So, too, is our mainstream media for that matter. Last month, I was present at the Strathallan School conference and one of the speakers, Dr Robert Gray, is indeed an expert. He’s both a virologist and a piper. Dr Robert Gray painted a very bleak picture in the short term for any sort of social gatherings. A summary of the discussion can be found HERE. It should be read by all pipe band people.

In Scotland, pipe bands will be able to return to a degree of normality when our government commences Phase 4 of its Coronavirus Route Map. This will be at a time when the government deems it safe to do so – and not before then. There have been no deaths from COVID-19 for almost a month now (and currently only 265 confirmed cases in hospital), which is testament to the hard work of many people.

We are all missing pipe band practices and competitions. I most certainly am. I work in this industry and I can confirm that this is a very trying time for us all whose living depends on all facets of piping. But pipe bands are not a matter of life and death. They will still be here long after this virus has subsided or has been contained.

Health should always at the forefront of our concern. It’s not just about the potentials of events or practices but then the risk of passing that on to vulnerable or high-risk groups. Almost everyone I spoke to in Brittany last weekend reckoned that the first bagadoù contest of next season (held in Brest in February) will not take place.

I don’t think we’re through this all just yet. There was a recent outbreak in Aberdeen recently and even New Zealand has new cases, local lockdowns, and a lack of infrastructure for mass gatherings. Stay safe. Look after yourself and your family. Pipe band activity will return – when it’s safe and appropriate to do so.

* Gary Nimmo teaches piping in the schools in and around Falkirk. He also runs Achiltibuie Bagpipe Specialists, and is a former Pipe Major of the Burgh of Stirling and Pipe Corporal of the Dowco Triumph Street. Gary also played with Strathclyde Police and currently is a member of Vale of Atholl and Bagad Kemper.

• The views expressed in all blogs that appear on Bagpipe.News are not necessarily the views of the National Piping Centre.