For years, many of us have been vocal in how to improve the pipe band competition environment so as to avoid the large differences in results that are sometimes reached: “How can one judge give us first for piping and the other one last?” and so on. Is it time to rethink the circle formation? How about a concert formation? Elevated judges? Who are our competitions for anyway?

Today, we feature an interesting perspective on the subject. Written by former pipe band adjudicator, Alistair Aitken OBE a decade ago, his points remain pertinent today and should be borne in mind by all who would seek to enter the debate.

Given that it looks likely there will once again be no pipe band competition season, there is plenty of time for all of us – including promoters and our associations – to give this subject serious thought well ahead of the 2022 season.

By Alistair Aitken OBE

Wide differences in results cannot be disputed but there is nothing new in that. Differences in results have always been a problem, and probably always will be. It is an issue continually being addressed in adjudicator training as human nature tends to immediately focus minds on the credibility of the adjudication process and the abilities of the adjudicators, rather than other factors which may be the cause.

It also has to be recognised that adjudicators have no control over the formation in which bands have to compete. Any measures introduced by the adjudicators themselves have been aimed at trying to work more effectively within the existing system.

The circle formation has existed since the early days of pipe band competitions, although at one time adjudicators were hidden in tents, so at least they were in a static position then. Subsequent politics brought them out into the open, allowing them to walk freely round the band and unearthing a whole range of new problems for players and spectators to argue about.

During the past 10 years or so other new problems have emerged as bands have progressively become twice the size they once were; and to confuse things even further have started to adopt variations in their player formations within what purports to be a circle, particularly involving widely varying tenor drummer formations. Not only has this played havoc with the sound projection but the inner circle, where the players are supposed to stand, has become obsolete. The outer circle has become the band circle, whereas the outer circle is intended to be the guide for the adjudicators to ensure that they stand at least three metres from the players. When they do retreat the required distance they often find that they cannot do so because of the proximity of spectators.

The outer circle is intended to be the guide for the adjudicators to ensure that they stand at least three metres from the players. However, as with this band’s snare drummers positioned as they are in this photograph, this can sometimes be difficult to gauge.

Historically, the circle formation was based on the principle of the arena providing bands with space to enter and leave, whilst also allowing the spectators maximum opportunity to see and hear the performances, in effect from three sides of a roughly square arena. The most important objectives, however, were to allow the band to march from a starting line to establish the timing, and then form a circle to contain the optimum balance of sound, whilst also allowing the players to face and observe each other to facilitate integration. Another important objective was to enable Pipe Major, Leading Drummer and Bass Drummer to see each other to ensure the accuracy of breaks etc. These objectives would be difficult to replicate in a semi circle formation in terms of sound projection and the ability of players to observe each other, so new problems undoubtedly would emerge on which there once again would be widely diverging views. Pipe bands do successfully face the audience for concert performances but there they have the facility to place microphones to ensure that the sound balance and projection are correct.

It has also to be recognised that the idea of an arc formation is not a new one. The RSPBA conducted a trial during the late 1990s of an arc formation at a number of local competitions. The whole idea was abandoned very quickly as the trial resulted in the emergence of these new problems, not the least being that bands formed up in a variety of ways in a desire to achieve the best sound projection towards the adjudicators, and most failed to succeed. The adjudicators also experienced great difficulty in selecting a suitable vantage point as there were so many variances between the player formations. The only real solution in either of the circle or arc scenarios is to have the adjudicators in a static position and the bands formed up exactly the same way.

Under the present system the reasons for differences in results are varied, some of which admittedly could be related to inexperience, off days, weather conditions, personal preference etc. However, adjudicator positioning and pipe band formations are the main contributing factors — they are closely related. There is no doubt that adjudicators do adopt varying practices, from static positions to walking round the bands to varying degrees. Whatever they do is affected by the formation of the players, which these days can differ substantially. There is no doubt, therefore, that adjudicators are hearing the bands in different ways. It is also true to say that, due to the size of many modern bands, it is often impossible for two piping adjudicators to hear the same things when they are on opposite sides of the band. It is quite possible for the spectators to hear errors from a distance that are missed by the adjudicator positioned only three metres from the players on the opposite side.

On the move. Robert Matheson judging Shotts at the 2016 European Pipe Band Championships at Grant Park, Forres.

Another possible improvement that has not yet been tried would be to allow the adjudicators to assess performances from a static position above the bands, although this would present some logistical problems for the organisers and probably reveal a range of other issues. In that scenario, since sound projects upwards as well as outwards, in theory player positioning would not affect the overall sound projection or clarity to anything like the same extent as it does at ground level. The result might be that the adjudicators would hear the performance closer to that achieved by the BBC recording of the World Championships, bearing in mind that the BBC microphones are placed so that they pick up the sound around the band simultaneously.

What is clear is that whatever the format, someone in the band world will find fault with it. In reality the issue possibly boils down to the need for in-depth consideration of a few fundamental questions:

  • What is the purpose of a pipe band competition? Is it to test the playing or to put on a show?
  • Who needs to be influenced by the performance? Adjudicators or the spectators?
  • What is the best formation for the competing bands so that the performance can be heard to best effect?
  • Can it be implemented and, if so, what are the logistical problems?
  • How far should pipe bands extend beyond traditional boundaries?

Another important point to make is that adjudicators cannot change the current system. The role for which they are appointed is to operate the system as it exists. If the bands want to change it, the solution lies in their own hands. As members of the RSPBA they can make representations to their local branch, which in turn can submit proposals through its Music Board representatives. Constitutionally, it is the Music Board that is responsible for making recommendations to the National Council on the format of pipe band competitions.

* From the March 2011 Piping Times.