Q-School: World Pipe Band Championships Style

October 17, 2008 on 7:19 pm by Michael Grey | In Pipe Bands, Whinges | 16 Comments

People heavily involved in the competitive pipe band world (without doubt a far smaller group than those immersed in the “non-competing” pipe band world) know the scoop, the “gen”, when it comes to how the Worlds thing works. We know, when it comes to the Worlds, intense participant passion is the way it is; passion, and for the event itself, a litany of Byzantine rules and quirky subtext.

A friend recently asked me about this year’s Worlds: “How’d the band do?”.

“Um,” I say, “Not great, we didn’t make it through the qualifier”.

“Oh,” says nameless friend, “so you didn’t play at the World Pipe Band Championships”. [note: this was a statement and not a question].

“Yikes!,” says me, to myself, in that instant tipping-point-cum-eureka moment. OF COURSE! My pal was right. I didn’t play in the World Pipe Band Championships. My band did not play in the World Pipe Band Championships. We never got through the gate. We bought a ticket, maybe, to the lottery, but didn’t get a real chance to line up our skills on a level playing field with the rest of our like-graded comrades – we never got to play our ticket. The band dabbled in Q school. “Q school”: in professional golf, you’ll know, I’m sure, the term qualifying school is used for the annual qualifying tournaments for leading (read: glamour, big-money) golf tournaments; a (small) set number of players in the event win the right to tour and compete in professional events.

The bands in the premier grade Q school are pretty excellent. It has been estimated that there are over 10,000 pipe bands in the world. The bands at Q school hover around the number of 14. So Q school bands might be said to represent .0014 of the pipe band world. Not to sound too much like a poncie bastard, but really, this is a fairly rarefied group.

I ask myself today: for bands like the Toronto Police Pipe Band, or, now, for that matter, the 78th Fraser Highlanders, the Australian Highlanders or New Zealand’s Manawatu bands, currently relegated to “Q school” , is it worth the mammoth investment to journey to the Worlds? Since the RSPBA started the Q school format there has only been one band to play in Q school and reach the final top-six prize list: the redoubtable 78th Frasers. Not encouraging odds.

I think happy thoughts back to, say, 1987, when the Worlds had no Q school. The event was never more electric than when, in the premier grade, bands performed their medley, tuned for 20 minutes, and finished up with an MSR. In 1987 I was a member of the band last to play, number 25, an experience not to be forgotten. To the paying audience, in those days? Well, it just didn’t get better.

With the global economy in shreds, people (read: bandspeople) fearing for their jobs, and priorities in the lives of everyone – including those of us who play the drums and bagpipes – seriously refocused, I wonder about the “Worlds”. As it is, is it worth it?

The politically correct side of me (the 10% side of me) says, “I don’t know”. But, really, I think it is not. In total, there are only about 20-25 bands now who play in the premier, grade one, event. Less than the 30-plus grade two championship, much less than the grades 3 and 4 events.

This year the Toronto Police Pipe Band, led by PM Ian K MacDonald, one of the world’s best solo march, strathspey and reel players, received this comment on our score sheet from the ensemble category judge: “…in my opinion, not playing in the Scottish idiom…”

Well. I’ll leave judgement to you, and simply say we invested upwards of a $100,000 to honk on the field that morning.

80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.

A thoughtful spend? Everything considered, I repeat, I don’t think so.

The RSPBA undertakes dozens of great initiatives. The Q school format is not one of them.



  1. Well said. Assuming that the world economy remains as stinky as a year-old container of unrefrigerated Airtight, the 2009 World’s will be dramatically different. “Overseas” bands are the bread-and-butter of the event, and I think far-travelled bands are already tired of the Qualifier gamble, and the ante next year might be just too too much, the potential pay-off of a seventh, tenth, twelfth or whatever not worth the bet. If the RSPBA were smart, the organization would re-think the whole thing before the bands do.

    Comment by aberthoff — October 17, 2008 #

  2. Much food for thought here. Yes, I agree with the global economic crunch going on, events like this will become a luxury few (especially from overseas) can afford. The RSBPA should be rethinking what it does as a matter of course, but if this next year doesn’t present a huge wake-up call, overseas numbers for a meaningful event might be very light on.

    I wouldn’t go so far as your friend’s statement (and your realisation, Mike) that you “didn’t play in the Worlds”. That’s more semantics… you were they on the day, you played, you finished 20th out of 23 when it’s all said and done. Charitable spin, maybe, but I stand by my interpretation.

    Comment by srmdrummer — October 17, 2008 #

  3. This sounds like a re-awakening of an old debate. Before the time of the “world’s week” festivities I would be one of the people behind the notion of taking the World Championships to the world… i.e. moving location to allow more bands to compete from countries like Australia and Canada.

    The work done by the crew behind the week long piping festivities in Glasgow make the roving competition option a tad harder to table now.

    But… there is another option. With the rise in musical abilities and the likes of suites being played by most premier grade bands why can’t there be an international competition of a new format.

    Say the top band from each participating country gets the invite, they go to a different venue each year and play a single composition of their own making for an audience to determine the winner. That levels the playing field somewhat and still leaves the worlds as the big-boy of the prizes.

    That would take the music right to the viewing public, make for one hell of a great evening. It might even show some of the bands in the UK how much effort overseas bands put not only into playing but fund raising as well.

    If this was to happen with all the amount of bandsmen traveling and their tag-along friends, not to mention the audience, the advertising potential is huge. That said a canny bunch of organizers might be able to make this happen outwith the auspices of the RSPBA and with good sponsorship, provide some big prize money to make it worth while.

    So the venues could be Radio City Music Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Sydney Opera House…

    Just a thought…

    Comment by IainMcLean — October 18, 2008 #

  4. Andrew: Thanks for your comments – AGREE!

    SRMdrummer: I have a feeling you are right on your guess on future Worlds numbers – we’ll see soon enough. Yikes! We were 23/25?! I knew we were low but honestly didn’t know the actually placing. Agree on your point around semantics.

    IainHamiltonMcLean: Good ideas all. Radio City Music Hall, nice! I’ve always fancied playing at the Apollo. Though, not sure we’re there where “suites” are played by most premier grade bands. “A canny bunch of organizers…” – outside of bands playing in the ‘Scottish idiom’ such a group must be the rarest thing in pipebandom! :-)M.

    Comment by mike — October 18, 2008 #

  5. Why did this change in the first place? What’s wrong with giving all bands a crack at the prize and having the medley followed by the MSR? If you can run a ‘qualifier’ and then a ‘final’, why not just have all bands through? At least it gives everyone a shot at the ‘top six’. Whether or not most bands really have a real chance is another question….I remember the PM of a band I used to play with that started with G and ended with lengarry saying “You need to be in the top 6 to come in the top 6.” A real catch 22…but I think, with maybe a few exceptions over many years, he was bang on.

    The whole Q school thing just begs for disappointment on many fronts, short and long term.

    Comment by ccrosbie — October 19, 2008 #

  6. Sorry Mike

    23/25 doesn’t sound too flash? How about 23/260-odd seeing the whole shebang is graded from bottom to top and you were in the top grade? Sound better? I think you did bloody well, mate!


    Did I get my count wrong the first time around? Anyway – you get my point!

    Comment by srmdrummer — October 20, 2008 #

  7. Cam – I think at one point numbers might’ve been teetering on the 30 side and the Q school thing was meant to address that – though, really, not entirely sure

    Stephen – I like this picture you’ve painted way better!!! LOL. Thanks! M

    Comment by mike — October 20, 2008 #

  8. I don’t think it comes down to semantics at all. Every single band in every grade (other than the bands playing in the Grade 1 qualifier) were playing equaly IN A CONTEST for a prize. They ALL jumped through the same hoops for that prize.

    Now look at the Grade 1 band contest. The 14 bands that played in the morning were in the “World Pipe Band Championships Qualifier” of which only 6 went on to the “World Pipe Band Championships”. You say that, for instance, TorPol was 23rd out of 25th. Well the RSPBA don’t agree becasue the bands that didn’t qualify don’t show up anywhere on the “Grade One World Pipe Band Championships” final tally. It’s like they were never there……..

    Then what about the bands the did manage to qualify. Those “lucky” six bands then had to play again – against all the remaining 8 “fresh” bands. Can you imagine the same thing in football: Okay, play your European qualifier in the morning then play again – in the final against a fresh team in the afternoon – hardly a fair contest is it – even for those lucky few bands.

    Add to this the unfairness in the method used for pre-qualifiying. It is patently unfair to overseas bands and totally biased for UK based bands (That’s the way the RSPBA likes it and that’s why it will likely never change).

    I had tallied up the total mileage travelled by the overseas bands that travelled to Galsgow for the “Qualifier” and never got through. It came to over 70,000 miles! That’s collectively over 70,000 miles all those musicians in grade one bands travelled and never got to squeeze out one note of a medley. F$#%ing disgraceful and the RSPBA should be ashamed!

    Comment by strabbie — October 20, 2008 #

  9. The big question that maybe you could answer is, Knowing the risks before you decided to make the trip to Scotland, then why did TPPB go to the World’s in the first place? After all, the RSPBA has pretty much said to all bands, If you don’t like it, stay home. It is their event and, even if “overseas” bands wanted to change it, they can’t because they have no official say in RSPBA matters. The only potential way for non-RSPBA bands to have a chance at effecting changes is not to enter. I often think that, even if the overseas bands did stay home, the RSPBA still wouldn’t change the event, and would just as soon go back to 1975 before all these upstart bands started obsessing over it. However, the lynchpin is Glasgow City Council’s massive investment in Piping Live! Without the overseas bands coming for the World’s, I’m afraid the festival would have huge challenges. But Piping Live! is not officially connected with the RSPBA. There’s the rub.

    Comment by aberthoff — October 20, 2008 #

  10. Strabbie – you should really be more passionate about what you’re saying! You do point out a sad truth regarding the “freshness” of bands going through from Q school to the afternoon world championship; especially challenging should it be a rainy morning.

    Andrew – I am not the official voice of the TPPB. I’m only expressing my own opinion – not band consensus or band-vetted or band-approved statement. In fact, they’re probably annoyed at me for “stirring it up”. And while I’m all for what the group as a whole decides – I also support what you suggest. I think we’d have way more fun and a great life experience heading to, say, Australia or New Zealand to play at their championships (if we qualify). M.

    Comment by mike — October 20, 2008 #

  11. Mike – For the record, if you came to Oz or NZ you’d NOT need to qualify. Admittedly our respective Grade 1s are small by ‘Worlds’ terms, but we don’t run qualifiers. In 2001 (I think) SFU came over to the Aussies (and won) and it was fantastic. If TPPB were to come you’d be most welcome. Incidentally out Nationals are on in two weeks and there are only three Grade 1s entered (two of whom were obviously at the Worlds too). Normally our championships are around Easter, near to the NZ champs… you you could get two-for-one and lots of great fun and sightseeing as well!

    Comment by srmdrummer — October 20, 2008 #

  12. Would it be heresy to suggest the RSPBA shouldn’t own the right to stage the World Pipe Band Championships…that no one national association does?

    What if the pipe band associations of the world formed an international pipe band society and it staged the world championships in a manner that reflects and promotes the international nature of the pipe band world? This would include staging a week long festival in advance and moving the whole show around the world annually with the host national or regional association and its regional associations working with the world association to organise the event. A model similar to international sports bodies like the International Ice Hockey Federation or the International Olympic committee…etc…

    I know this is far-fetched, but real change has to start somewhere…

    Iain Ricketts-Moncur

    Comment by iain_rm — October 21, 2008 #

  13. Stephen – the 2-for-1 championships idea sounds incredible!

    Well, Ian, to many it would be heresy to make a suggestion like yours! Lots of interesting ideas there!

    I’m not seeking such dramatic change: just the elimination of Q school!

    Thanks for your notes. M

    Comment by mike — October 21, 2008 #

  14. Okay Mike – try this for size…

    Not sure where the 2010 NZ Champs are on yet (they will hopefully synchronise the two champs as they used to), but the 2010 Aussies are during Easter in Coloundra – that’s the Sunshine Coast, Queensland (Google it and see for yourself). How could you pass that up? Plenty of time for you TPPB blokes to get your acts together and organise the trip. And in fact, the way the Aussie dollar is going (against the US, at least), you could almost make a profit out of the trip if you play your cards right! Seriously – consider it… Stephen

    Comment by srmdrummer — November 10, 2008 #

  15. Okay – more detail: Should have been Caloundra (oops), Easter weekend (1st week in April?). NZ Champs at Masterton (Wellington) possibly on 12/13 March though is is unconfirmed. Hmmm… might be doable! Come on all you lot up there in the northern hemisphere, give it some serious thought!

    Comment by srmdrummer — November 11, 2008 #

  16. Stephen! Great info – and inspiration! The wheels are turning! Will float this with the band! Cheers, Mike

    Comment by mike — November 11, 2008 #

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