Pipe Band Circles are So Square

April 16, 2008 on 9:19 pm by Michael Grey | In Music, Pipe Bands, Whinges | 4 Comments

I’ve been going on for ages now about the standard competitive pipe band performance configuration, “the circle”.  This arrangement makes no sense to me.  Yeah, everyone can see the hands of the person leading the band, and that helps unison and timing of rhythmic transitions, but what about the many and varied down sides, the good reasons not to perform in a circle?

Consider first the audience:  How many other performers in the world – in any discipline – perform with their backs to ticket-buyers?  Outside of Cirque du Soleil and professional farters [check out the link – this is a real thing!] I can’t think of any.  It’s an approach to performance that is at once self-conscious, insecure and not a little bit rude.

What about presentation of sound?  The circle creates drone-heavy and melody-light (relatively speaking) ensemble.  Crisp and well-tuned harmonic and technical wizardry is lost in the abyss of a grass-hole.  The circle is just not optimum for presenting varied pipe band voices.

The other day I was talking to the band guys and trying to sell the idea of playing in an outward-facing circle – one eye-to-eye with the audience, with adjudicators.  Sound would be unleashed, performer’s faces would be uncovered and a new glorious day of pipe banding would dawn.  Peace even – who knows. 

In all seriousness, the real arguement in favour of inward circles, the one with any backbone, is the one that talks to the importance of visual queues. 

Think for a moment and consider the remarkable case of Dame Evelyn Glennie.  Profoundly deaf and still a percussionist of international reknown (she plays the pipes, too, by the way).  She has tapped into all her senses to become the musician she is, including performing in bare feet to feel vibrations of sound in the moment.

She’s a great example for us. 

We in pipe bands just need to adjust our perspective, tap into other senses, other musical queues and other possibilities – look outward, maybe even upward — and not so much inward.

Inside-out circles: I’d love to try that at the World Pipe Band Championships. 



  1. Mike,
    Re Dunaber Pipeband contests, I agree with most of what you say, however, here can be the argument. Pipebands are all about the drones and how it makes the pipes sound over all, and when the bands turn in (circle) it becomes more full sweet sounding with nice sweet drones will tuned sweet chanters and wow! there you have it. Will we lose that effect…yes.

    Pipebands have been working so hard to find that warmth, sweet full vibrant sound that a bagpipe can produce and this would with out a doubt take what Richard Parks and Terry Lee have achieved and say… bye bye.

    Trying new things is a great idea and it might just become the next BIG IDEA!


    Comment by jackperry — April 18, 2008 #

  2. Well, you could be right about the drone aspect, Popeye … though I’d still like to try it and find out. Proof is in the tasting! M.

    Comment by mike — April 18, 2008 #

  3. I enjoyed your posting on Dunaber music about pipe band circles. Other musician friends of mine never could understand the concept of The Circle and now of course going to the fife/ drum world I can’t either. In 2007 my group, the Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes & Drums (MCV) performed at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. We did all sorts of marching routines, but after forming a facing in circle playing Speed the Plough, the fifers faced out and played Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shores. Frankly it was tricky because the circle was so big and the wind blowing across the Esplanade, but a tighter circle would work just fine for pipe bands. We put the drummers in the middle, which helped the fifes project outwards even better. I can say that the audience just loved it.

    Comment by fiferpiper — April 18, 2008 #

  4. That’s very interesting! I’d guess that would be a challenge facing outwards playing Speed the Plough! Surely its only a matter a time before a pipe band takes up the challenge! M.

    Comment by mike — April 18, 2008 #

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