The Walking Dead of Qualifier Friday

February 23, 2019 on 9:49 am by Michael Grey | In Pipe Bands, Random Thoughts | Comments Off on The Walking Dead of Qualifier Friday

With less than a score of grade one bands projected to attend the 2019 World Pipe Band Championships (and quite possibly an entry closer to ten than twenty) any case to be made for a Friday qualifier, or play-off, may likely come across as pretty weak. That the grade 4B contest in 2018 featured 18 bands in each run-off suggests that organizers have a perspective on optimum numbers for any contest (grade 4 is the less-experienced end of the grading spectrum, with grade one, the highest).

For those who aren’t dialled-in to the world pipe band thing – especially as it applies to the idiom’s premier grade – here’s context:

  • The World Pipe Band Championship is held every August in Glasgow, Scotland.
  • It is managed and officiated by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA).
  • Until the early 1990s it was something of a novelty to see a lot of bands from across all experience levels attend the event (these levels are known as “grades” to pipe band people).
  • The rise of discount air travel along with greater awareness of the event due to technology has made the “Worlds” (as it is generally known to pipe band die-hards) a must-go event, at least once, in the life cycle of any competitive pipe band – from anywhere.
  • There are no fewer than six categories of band competition at the Worlds.
  • Grades with large numbers of entries are managed through a system of “qualifiers”, a system to winnow numbers, and, theoretically, achieve a more accurate assessment outcome.
  • The premier level – “grade one” – has, until recently, featured band entries that could number upwards of 25.
  • It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the grade one event was staged with a play-off – or qualifier.
  • Before the late 1990s a one-off Worlds contest was staged on the same day with all grade one bands delivering their required set(s) of music in one day. During this time the number of bands entered could reach the mid to high 20s.
  • A global trend shows a reduction in the number of active and competitive grade one bands.

    • The RSPBA is masterful in presenting the Worlds. As a professional organization run with an huge amount of volunteer fire-power, you just have to tip the hat: the remit of the RSPBA is delivered by an effective bunch. The strength of the pipe and drum combo – the one the world loves to love – and hate – is thanks in no small part to the work of the RSPBA.

      Knowing that band numbers in grade one are way down and – AND – having lived first-hand the whole Friday grade one qualifier and Saturday play-off experience, I got to thinking: What do other competitive pursuits do? How do they manage big numbers? Surely, I thought, judging a couple of dozen bands is not a unique competitive challenge or experience.

      And, FFS, why does it matter?

      Starting with the second question: it matters because for the grade one bands qualifying on the Friday before the big day are forced to experience emotions that seldom approach joy.

      Joy. Ironic, in this instance, joy’s that thing that is so tightly linked to music. Joy, or, at least something close to happiness, drives the pursuit of greatness in pretty much anything we do.

      For the bands tromping Friday’s Glasgow green grass, emotions span the narrow range from relief (and a feeling of relief is as good as it gets) to despair. When your most seasoned and experienced exponents are made to go through paces that fire up a feeling of relief – at best – relief at “qualifying” for the Saturday event – there’s a problem.

      The atmosphere at any of the many August Friday qualifying days I’ve experienced is strangely and almost indescribably hollow. In fact, there’s a Zombie vibe where the only tonic for the walking dead of qualifying day is that found in the beer tent.

      With countless hours of precious non-work time – and money – invested in a Worlds’ performance it’s no wonder numbers in the top grade are waning. For every band that doesn’t qualify band survival pressure mounts: “all that for this?”.

      And what do other groups do?

      A random selection here:

      The seriously competitive British brass band world – they even have grades – five of them – similar to pipe bands. The final of their big day, the National Championships, can have 16-24 bands.

      And to figure skating. As an Olympic sport figure skating is the poster child for hyper-politics driven by subjective assessment and nationalism. I always think of the missed triple axle as a sort of pipe band blooter; any fall on the ice, like a missed pipe band “attack” (performance introduction); a skater’s fall like a bar-long pipe band mistake. Anyway, the finals in each category of the World’s Figure Skating Championships number between 20 and 30.

      I don’t have a simple answer to the challenge of running a grade one World Pipe Band Championship. Again, the overall event stands as a great one.

      I do suggest that its a good thing to change the joy-repellant Friday qualifier. Simply put: scratch the qualifier from the schedule and keep the Zombies at bay.


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