For those not in the know, Scottish bagpipe bands have traditionally competed in a circle, with their backs facing the judges and audiences, and the tenor drummers and bass drum being placed at the center of the band. This formation has been the standard since the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association was established in the 1930s, but has recently seen some push-back.
Notably, the Chicago Highland Games for the first time in 2015 ran its medley contests for Grade 3 and Grade 2 bands as a concert formation, and it hasn’t looked back since. In 2016 they did it again, and again this year on June 17. The audience in Chicago loves it, and it projects the full sound of the band toward the audience. Musically, the audience is the center of the performance, and judges can sit down beneath tents for some shelter.
Other contests in the Midwest have considered a similar switch, and places as far flung as Edinburgh (in Scotland – obviously, Indiana is the center of the world) have begun making moves toward that switch.
My two cents on the subject as a performer, and as someone who dabbles in owning equipment which records the audio and video of my band’s performances, the concert formation is plainly superior to the backs-out circles as far as acoustics go. I also have been playing in concert formation since I was little. In all of the debate over concert formation recently, it has gone largely unnoticed that the British Columbia Pipers’ Association has been running its Annual Gathering on Easter weekend of each year running all band contests in concert formation – on a stage no less! See below for some excellent video footage of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band performing their MSR this past April there.
At the BC Annual Gathering, every band performance is in concert formation. It takes place in a school auditorium, so they are extremely limited in the sort of formations they can put bands in. However, the audience all sit before the bands with the judges at tables just in front of the stage, and the band contests are performances – for the people, judges and lay people.
Why don’t we do it this way more often?
I could provide long lists of videos of bands performing in concert formation, but all one has to do is to take a listen to a band “turn in” to hear the drop off in sound:
Pipe bands simply do not draw the sorts of crowds they drew even 10 years ago at most small contests, and much smaller than they drew 20 years ago. Our contests are public events, integrated into a festival where each section of the games is meant to draw crowds and make money. Pipe bands being displayed as an attraction, facing crowds, meant to entertain people, are much more likely to keep competitions financially viable and are more likely to attract new players. When you can enjoy the music, you are more likely to want to play that music.
On the other end of the debate, I do respect the importance of tradition. As a band member I do like the atmosphere of camaraderie which occurs within the circle itself during contest. It is an intense experience, and the sheer power of the sound inside the circle is impressive. In the end, though, we are musicians, and is there a musical benefit to playing in that way? Our instruments are designed to face our audience, be it a graveside funeral in Flagstaff, Arizona or a packed concert hall in Glasgow, Scotland. Why do we compete with our instruments facing away from the audience?
I know there are other contests in the Midwest which are thinking of shifting over to a concert formation in their medley events, and this is an exciting development. However, I would like to see contests begin to tailor their entire format to concert formation – for all grade levels, and all event types. Hopefully contests in Scotland beginning to experiment with a concert format for competitions could lead to the World Pipe Band Championships – that holy grail of the pipe band world – to try it out for their top grade bands. If that happens – then we can truly have competitions meant as performance, for the people who love the music.