Is there such a thing as too many bagpipes?
There’s a nagging suspicion, even among bagpipers, that the answer might be yes.
Top-grade bagpipe bands used to compete at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, with 10 or 12 pipers. Now bands routinely march into the competition circle with 24 or even 27 pipers piping, and many pipers are worried the ballooning of the bands has gone too far.
“It’s a raging topic in our little pipe-band world,” says
editor of pipes|drums magazine.
The Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, which hosts the world championships, sets a minimum band size. Each grade-one band—the top tier—must have at least eight pipers, three snare drummers and one bass drummer.
The association sets no upper limit, and therein lies the source of the arms race on the Glasgow Green.
“Bands pressure each other to come up with a bigger unit, and size is perceived to matter,” says
former pipe major of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, of British Columbia.
Not that everyone agrees on how it all started.
who plays for Ontario’s City of Thorold Pipe Band, remembers his stunned disbelief when the Clan MacFarlane Pipe Band marched 18 bagpipes into the ballroom of a Toronto hotel for the 1979 Pipers’ and Pipe Band Society of Ontario Highland Ball.
“To those of us in attendance that night, it seemed that the single file of pipers marching through the entrance onto the dance floor would never end!” Mr. McDowell wrote in a letter to the editor of pipes|drums.
But that wasn’t a competition.
Some pipers say a turning point came when
a lawyer from Whitby, Ontario, created the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band out of an all-star selection of local pipers and the remnants of the General Motors Pipe Band, which had lost its sponsorship from the GM plant in Oshawa.
The 78th Frasers challenged the notion that a band should rise to the top simply by playing “Scotland the Brave” and other standards, only better. Mr. Livingstone introduced new Celtic- and jazz-influenced music, played with aggressive abandon.
In 1987, just five years after the band formed, with just 11 pipers, it became the first non-Scottish entrant to win the grade-one world championship, ending a six-year run by the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band.
“All of the sudden the Scottish bands said, ‘We’re not going to let some foreigners come over here and show us up,’” says
pipe major of Cleveland’s North Coast Pipe Band. “So the Scottish bands started recruiting to get larger bands with more players. Fraser responded by doing the same thing.”
The bagpipe has five pipes and an air bag. Traditionally, the bag has been made of sheep or goat skin and the reeds of Spanish cane.
As the player blows, spittle collects in the bag and the reeds get wet. (Some pipers, known as dry blowers, have naturally un-humid breath.) A little moisture is necessary; a lot throws the bagpipe out of tune. It doesn’t help that the world championships are held outdoors in a city that gets 170 days of rain a year.
Pipe majors, who both play their own bagpipe and conduct the pipe and drum sections by tapping their foot, often spent an hour-and-a-half tuning a 14-pipe band. Tuning a 27-piece pipe section was unthinkable back in the day.
That changed with the advent of electronic tuners and Gore-Tex bags. The Victoria Police Pipe Band out of Melbourne, Australia, caused a sensation by winning the world championship in 1998 using synthetic reeds. Then there’s the new moisture-control technology, which involves a microwavable product pipers call kitty litter.
Now pipe majors, working with a tuning team, can tune 27 pipes in an hour.
In 1995, Simon Fraser University won its first world championship with 18 pipers. The band last won in 2009 with 24. In 2007, the 78th Frasers fielded a record 30 pipers, and had another half-dozen on the bench in case of injury or tuning troubles. The band finished fourth that year.
“There’s a visual thing when they walk out on the playing surface and suddenly the audience and judges are confronted by this huge phalanx of pipers and drummers,” says
who edits pipingpress.com. “A small band is a loser before they even strike up.” Mr. Wallace played for Muirhead & Sons Pipe Band, a Scottish powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s.
A huge pipe section can do justice to complex pieces such as “Journey to Skye,” which contain multiple musical parts.
“Pipe bands are now playing at a level that was thought impossible due to the limitations of the bagpipe,” says
who runs the bagpipe program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and has played 16 years with Northern Ireland’s Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band, 11-time world champs. The band won in 2016 with 27 pipers.
Big bands are also louder, something that appeals to players of an instrument one pipe major describes as having two volume settings: Loud and off.
Many pipers see a downside and are pressing for caps on roster size. Pressed to fill their ranks, they argue, grade-one bands are siphoning off talent from lower-ranked bands.
In 2010, the grade-one City of Washington (D.C.) band dared take the field with just 10 pipers at the world championships.
“It wasn’t that bad of a play,” says
pipe major of the MacMillan United Pipe Bands in Washington, D.C. “But they didn’t have the numbers for the sound required for a grade-one band.”
Shortly afterward, the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association downgraded City of Washington to grade two, and the band disbanded.
The RSPBA demoted the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band, of Mississauga, Ontario, to grade two last year after the band’s bottom-dwelling result at the world championships.
Peel Pipe Major
says he could field 14 or 15 top-notch pipers, including a few flown in from Australia. But he can’t round up the 20 or more he’d need to make a serious run in Glasgow.
“At times we’ve had hard feelings with other bands because we feel they’ve come down here and raided us,” says
pipe major of the City of Winchester Pipes and Drums, in Virginia.
Top players might travel thousands of miles to play with grade-one bands, with pipers from New Zealand and Australia traveling north to catch the summer season, and Americans, Canadians and Europeans migrating south.
In pipingpress.com, Mr. Wallace called for a 20-pipe limit. Otherwise, bagpiping becomes a winner-take-all endeavor, with lower-ranked bands struggling to survive, he wrote. “Short on numbers and prospect of success, theirs is a sorry pursuit,” he wrote.
The decision is in the hands of the RSPBA, which effectively sets the standard. The 400-member Scottish association shows no signs of giving in. “The majority appear to be happy with the current situation,” says RSPBA Executive Officer Ian Embelton.
“The guys with the winning pipe bands are the guys with the power,” says Mr. Wallace. “Some say [limiting band size] would be suicide. Why would you change a set of rules that allow you to win world championships?”
Indeed, Scotland has developed a bagpipe program in schools that promises a daunting supply of young talent.
Carnegie Mellon now offers a master of music in bagpipe performance. Pennsylvania’s Edinboro University will offer a bagpipe performance minor this fall. Lyon College in Arkansas offers a minor in Scottish Arts, with the emphasis on bagpipe.
a 17-year-old bagpipe prodigy from Virginia, plans to attend St. Andrews University in North Carolina in the fall. The school, he says, has offered him a combined bagpiping and golf scholarship so he won’t have to choose between his Scottish interests.
Write to Michael M. Phillips at email@example.com