Hacking the Bagpiping Judge: Prologue—What Do You Expect?

Everyone here in the eastern U.S. wants to hear and play in pipe bands that are as good as we hear in Scotland, don’t we? We all try very hard to make it so. Our governing pipe band association lately has also taken it upon themselves to try very hard to make it so as well, shifting the rules of the game we play in order to bring about some desired result, as if success in the game is simply a matter of playing by the rules. Changing the rules of the game to force improvement is a bit like trying to sell your house and sprucing up your flower garden when the siding is falling off. It might make it all look nice but does nothing to address the larger issues that influence success.

Anyone lamenting the poor quality or bleak future of U.S. pipe bands need look no further for blame than the game of pipe band competition itself. It is natural for us to adapt to meet whatever expectations are placed on us—whether those expectations are at your job, come from family or friends, or, in this case, from competition performance. But if those expectations are narrow and flawed, where does that leave you? When the only venue for a U.S. Highland piper is in front of the same judges on the solo boards or the pipe band circle, the expectations are not only implicit, they become the core of any preparation and education. Given this relationship, what can you expect? Poor quality piping makes a statement about the nature and demands of piping competition we have here in the east as much as anything. Simply changing the way we do things does nothing to change the things we do. The game continues to reinforce the same expectations in the same way. Nothing changes.

It is the equivalent idea of “teaching to the test,” an argument that is at the fore of modern public education. Require kids to take a test that measures their education, and the education itself adapts to teach, not what is good for the growth of the student, but what is necessary to do well on the test. Is the school really then serving the student and is the test then measuring anything other than how well kids are taught what is on the test? So the argument goes.

A similar argument could be made in bagpiping and drumming. If there are reasonable flaws when it comes to “testing” basic skills when curriculum is standardized, can the overall standardization for piping and drumming certification as implemented by the EUSPBA’s PCP exams, or even on its judge’s exam, be free of those same flaws?

Certainly, the curriculum and certification levels offered up by the PCP exams can bring an increasing number of players “into the fold” at a level that keeps the playing standard acceptable, but it is really just more “teaching to the test.” Players will then be prepared for the same competition boards and circles, playing the same music the same way to the same judges, all of whom have the same point of view.

What is needed then is a change of expectations. To do that, we need different points of view demanding a more diverse output from players and pipe bands. There are a couple of ways to achieve this: mix up the competition format by creating different types of piping and drumming events or shake up the point of view responsible for setting the demands for what is heard—namely the piping and drumming adjudicators.

Cultural issues and economics perhaps make it more difficult to create additional noncompetitive events here in the U.S. but it would be an easier prospect to reevaluate the adjudicators who are so influential in setting the bar for what is heard. Any ideas you can come up with to do that are not going to be easy, but done right, they would sure shake up the core of what we do, perhaps expanding our musical horizons and heightening the standards needed for successful piping and drumming competition elsewhere in the process.

It’s a tall order, but keep watching this space for ideas to achieve it.

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