Ontario Pipers’ Society in need of a remake

The old adage about re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic is so cliché I would normally never use it, but for the fact that it applies perfectly to the direction of the Pipers’ and Pipe Band Society of Ontario for the past many years.

I can remember a time not too long ago when you could attend a Highland Games in Ontario almost every weekend from early June until the end of August, with two or three games some weekends. At one point we had games weekends in May because there were no other free Saturdays. Now we’re down to eight, including Cobourg, which is newly back on the scene. There is no sign of a resurgence, and sparse attendance at some games suggests that a rain day might wipe them out.

The PPBSO, meanwhile, continues to dance around the minute intricacies of judging, more and more modeling itself after the RSPBA who, despite the dropping away of Cowal from its list of majors, is not nearly so threatened by extinction. Consultative judging, one of many innovations which once distinguished us from our Scottish sister, has gone by the wayside as a result of communication mismanagement rather than any good reasoning.

The Society could give you a full afternoon workshop on how to judge midsections, but ccouldn’t tell you why almost none of the paying public listens to the administratively expensive and musically bankrupt solo competitions that fill games mornings with a cacophony of noise that leaves this long-time adjudicator not wanting to be there any more.

The boat is foundering unless we embrace the needs of our Highland Games committees and structure ourselves accordingly. Here are some things that I have long thought might help right the ship.

1) Dramatically decrease the number of individual competitions held in the mornings. Nobody listens to them but friends and family, and they are costly to run. Certainly these competitions are important to the furtherance of our art and the development of players, but a good argument can be made that running fewer events and promoting them better would do more to further piping and drumming and bring players along than three hours of shoulder-to-shoulder dissonance in the hot sun. There is no evidence that today’s plethora of events is making better players than half that number did in the 1970s.

2) Work with the games committees to stage a showcase pipe band event that the paying public will love. Competing bands are good for the art form, but most of the listeners are pipe band people, not paying public.

Here’s an example of an event games committees might like: A few years ago I attended the South American Pipe Band Gathering in Santiago, Chile. There are 8 pipe bands in South America, and every three years they gather in a different country. I was there along with another piping judge and a drumming judge. The event consisted of a roped area about 50 meters long and 30 meters wide. Each band had 20 minutes to perform in that rectangle. They could do anything they wanted. Bands would do intricate marching displays, drum fanfares and little bursts of solo piping. Drum majors added visuals. Each band would bring out a dance troupe that would perform once or twice during the show. By our playing standards, the bands weren’t very good, but the show was thoroughly entertaining. The crowds were packed five deep around the entire perimeter for three hours and they cheered like it was rock concert. By the luck of the draw, the last band to play was working toward competing in North America. They formed a circle and played tunes for 20 minutes. By the 10-minute mark you could see the crowd lose interest and start streaming away. This said much about what we do here in Ontario. A showcase event of this kind would probably attract the most ambitious of our Grade 3 and 4 bands and would make a huge contribution to the entertainment value our Society provided. Offer big prize money for this event.

3) Continue to run our more traditional World’s-oriented events, but more as a service to the art form, with reduced prize money and in less prominent areas of the field.

4) Stop paying bands travel expenses and pass the savings on to the Games Committees. This is our hobby. We should pay for it ourselves and support the games committees, most of which are volunteer-driven.

5) Use the reduction of morning events as a way of shortening the day. Move seamlessly from the solo events to begin the “traditional” band events at 11 am, and the display showcase at 1 pm. Support a 12 noon Opening Ceremonies parade of determined length with no first massed bands, and target the closing massed bands for 3:30 pm so the bulk of the crowd has reason to stay for this climactic spectacle. Streamline the prize-giving (don’t announce solo results). Make the finale about the paying customers, not the musicians.

6) Find a way to change the governing principles of the PPBSO to blow this ridiculous business of membership voting on motions at the Annual General Meeting completely out of the water. What a miserable practice this is. It’s an antiquated system of mob rule that essentially chops the rudder off the ship every November. As long as it remains in place, the Society will meander wildly and history will repeat itself again and again. We should elect the leaders we want and then let them lead.

7) Strive to populate the Music Board with members who have time to devote to the task and who don’t have strong allegiance to groups that might be self-interested. Back in the 1960s, the original “Advisory Council” consisted by definition only of Grade 1 pipe majors and leading drummers. Members in these situations are both time-challenged and face possible conflicts of interest, so the potential for progressive reform is limited. Competitive achievement should not be the prime reason for membership.

None of the above thoughts is going to turn things around on its own, and each requires a supporting structure beneath it. And these ideas say nothing about important topics such as publicity and promotion, funding, administrative enhancements (i.e. you call that a website??) or how to involve non-competing bands. These are sea changes, and I use that term deliberately because if we don’t starting doing something dramatically differently from what we’ve been doing for more than 50 years, we’ll slip beneath the waves. The numbers are telling a tale.

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2 Responses to Ontario Pipers’ Society in need of a remake

  1. You are a very smart man, Jim McG.

  2. eileen livingstone says:

    I love your thoughtfulness on this issue. I have been going to highland games for 40 years as a spectator. I have only attended EUSPA events, so I can only speak to my experience with them. The decline of paying public for the piping competitions is a very simple issue – there has been no effort to engage or even consider the audience. There are no seats. There are no signs identifying what competitions are going on at what tent. Competitors are even confused. There are no announcers, like at the athletic events, who give a little insight as to what is going on or even some explanation of what to listen for for the uninitiated.

    I am always amazed that with the number of band members attending these events, almost no one comes to listen to the solos. I went to the Metro Cup for the first time this year and knowing that there was a hotel full of pipers, I was surprised at how few showed up to listen to the amateurs play. If you can’t rally your own support, why should anyone else be interested.

    I hear pipers at every event complain about having to play Scotland the Brave or Amazing Grace and how the audience doesn’t know better. Wanting to hear something familiar and recognizable is not ignorant. It is triggering memories. And believe me, regular audience members know when something sounds bad, but we don’t care because we’re there for the love of the music and to support the musicians.

    You are on the right track. If you want more “paying public”, act like the audience matters. Be more inclusive and engaging. Any effort is a step in the right direction.

    Thanks for starting the dialog.