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Date: Monday, 21st January 2013
Contributor: Alistair Aitken - Adjudicator Panel

RSPBA Adjudication - (Piping, Drumming and Ensemble)


Adjudicator Image

What RSPBA Adjudicators are looking for?
The Pipe Band world is no different from many areas of endeavour where there are numerous individuals who consider themselves to be experts irrespective of whether they have given any serious thought to the official expectations of the Adjudicator. In reality it is likely that few people really understand the complexity of Pipe Band adjudication until they have experienced the demanding training which the RSPBA now requires all aspirant Adjudicators to undertake. It is relatively easy to make valued judgements when standing or sitting in the crowd. It is a rather different experience when faced with:

  • the pressure of assessing consistently large numbers of Bands one after the other (often for 3 or more hours at a time);
  • the need to write a constructive critique for each performance;
  • the need to rank the performances accurately in order of preference; and
  • the need to do all this whilst coping with the pressures of varying weather conditions, rigid timetables and external forces such as spectators, officials and other ongoing activities.

What does the process of RSPBA adjudication really entail?
In simplistic terms the key requirements of an RSPBA Adjudicator are the ability to listen consistently to performances, analyse them, evaluate them constructively and then rank them in an order of preference. To do this effectively an Adjudicator needs to:

  • be musically qualified and have a good musical ear;
  • have credibility as a performer, either previously or currently;
  • be aware of the standards expected;
  • have an analytical mind;
  • be alert, committed and consistent;
  • be able to write comments constructively and understandably, and provide advice;
  • have the ability to rank performances accurately;
  • have a high perception of fairness; and
  • have high integrity

A common impression of adjudication is that it is only concerned with aspects such as note errors, execution faults, poor integration and tone. Many people also consider these aspects in isolation in the context of the individual disciplines of Piping or Drumming within the Pipe Band performance. Perhaps the fault lies with the Adjudicators themselves since over the years comments in their critique sheets have tended to concentrate on these issues. How many people, in assessing the technical aspects of their respective discipline, also consider the Pipe Corps or the Drum Corps in the context of the collective interpretation or the musical effect of the overall Pipe Band? To what extent, if any, do they consider the impact of the Drum Corps on the Piping performance or vice versa? There is a strong argument that the broader interpretation should have a significant bearing on their assessment. They are after all judging a “Pipe Band” competition.

Most people would agree that the main purpose of participants in a Pipe Band competition is to achieve high standards of musical performance consistent with good technique and technical ability, operating as a collective team. The aspiration of most Pipe Bands is to perform to high standards, to be the best and to win consistently when their performances deserve it that achievement. Obviously the capabilities of the players are a significant factor, which of course is reflected in the fact that the RSPBA grades Pipe Bands at different levels of competence. There are also strong grounds for arguing that Pipe Band competitions are a means of measuring and testing whether the educational and instructional programmes of the individual Bands and of the RSPBA in general, are working effectively. Meaningful adjudication is, therefore, a fundamental requirement to realising all these objectives.

Accepting that the primary focus of the Pipe Band competitive environment is on musical performance, it is reasonable for the RSPBA to expect Adjudicators to assess Band performances against the three main constituents of music - Rhythm, Melody and Harmony. As a matter of course this approach takes account of fundamentals such as technique, basic rudiments, integration and tone. However, it also focuses the mind on other important issues such as style and interpretation, musical balance, musical impact and tonal balance. The effective Pipe Band Adjudicator, irrespective of whether he/she is judging Piping, Drumming or Ensemble, sub-consciously should be taking the following aspects into account whilst listening, analysing and ranking different performances.

Rhythm is defined as “the regular recurrence of strong and weak accents arising from the division of music into regular metrical portions”. In making a rhythmical assessment, therefore, the Adjudicator should be thinking in terms of:

  1. Phrasing - division of a melodic line into rhythmical phrases or cadences, giving emphasis to accented notes whilst maintaining fluency. Phrasing can be described as the rhythmical grouping of the notes of a melody.
  2. Embellishments - which are used to enhance and add character to a piece of music without interfering with the natural flow. In the execution of embellishments to enhance the rhythmical effect of a piece of music, care should also be taken in maintaining relative note values. There is little point to adding embellishments if they result in disturbing the rhythmic flow and fluency.
  3. Syncopation - deliberately changing the normal accent to add expression and excitement.
  4. Tempo - the speed at which the piece of music is played and how that can affect the idiom of the tune (i.e. March, Jig, Strathspey etc.), the rhythmical presentation and the musical effect.

The simplest description of a melody is a succession of notes with a distinctive sequence. Aspects for the Adjudicator to consider are:

  1. The Emotive Theme - the intended emotional effect on the listener (in this case the Adjudicator) of the composition/s being played. The key factor for the Adjudicator is the interpretation of the melodies and the style in which they are played in keeping with the emotive theme.
  2. Musical Arrangement - the manner in which the music is structured (i.e. the combination of melodies and the sequence in which they are presented). The quality of execution, integration and expression are important aspects for the Adjudicator to consider.
  3. Player Capability - the selection of melodies within the capabilities of the Band members. Lower grade Pipe Bands in particular often attempt technically complex melodies which are outwith the capabilities of the players.
  4. Intonation - the influence of the pitching of instruments on the melodic theme and on the overall tonal balance and musical balance.

A simple description of harmony is the combination of simultaneous sounds. In addition to considering the natural harmony of the instruments, Adjudicators should also pay attention to passages in the musical presentation where harmony is used on the Bagpipes to enhance the melodic line. Aspects for Adjudicator assessment include:

  1. Bagpipes - correct instrument tuning, including chanter/drone balance.
  2. Harmonic Intervals - enhancement of the melody using specific harmonic intervals for effective harmony in the musical arrangement.
  3. Drum Corps - effective tuning of Snare, Bass, Tenor etc. Drums individually and in relation to each other. The Adjudicator needs to assess their overall balance collectively as well as their relationship to the Bagpipes. Variation in weight and volume control are important aspects to be taken into account.
  4. Musical Balance - consideration of the performance as a totality in terms of the combination of instruments, their use for different musical effects and the overall dynamic impact musically. Piping and Drumming Adjudicators ideally should consider in making their assessment the influence of their respective discipline on the overall Pipe Band (i.e. assessing the contribution of either the Pipe Corps or Drums Corps as part of the “Pipe Band” rather than as a separate entity).

It is of course impossible for Adjudicators to comment on all of these aspects in the short time available during each competition performance. This highlights the need for individual Adjudicators to develop a structured approach to adjudication to ensure that their thought processes cover the range of factors before they summarise their thoughts in the written critique. In this way they can provide constructive analysis and feedback, with appropriate advice, rather than have a negative focus on faults and tonal issues. The Critique Sheet obviously has limited space but it is still possible to achieve this form of comprehensive and constructive assessment using the main categories of Introduction; Execution/Interpretation/Expression; and Intonation/Tonal Quality.

Adjudicator Critique Sheets
In the competition field Critique Sheets are the recognised official medium for communication between Adjudicators and the Pipe Bands. The Critique Sheet is expected to provide a reasonably comprehensive summary of the Adjudicator’s assessment of the performance of the Pipe Band. It is an important document which Adjudicators have a duty to complete carefully and meaningfully, as ideally it should provide information and advice to help Bands maintain or improve their performance. The comments on the Critique Sheet should also justify the placing awarded in the contest.

Critique Sheets are often widely criticised for various reasons such as:

  • illegibility;
  • lack of constructive comment;
  • poor spelling;
  • comments which are difficult to understand;
  • comments which are predominantly negative;
  • concentration solely on execution faults and errors; and
  • no relationship between comments and placings.

Critique Sheet comments will always be contentious as they reflect the opinion of one individual. Recognising this, the RSPBA has over the years, through its Adjudicators’ Training Group, encouraged Adjudicators’ to adopt a more sophisticated and constructive approach to the completion of Critique Sheets. Although it still happens, these days Critique Sheets should not simply contain standard and brief comments such as “Good Intro”; “Good uptake to march”; “note error or roughness in 2nd part”; “Strathspey not so good”; “Reel could be better” etc. The present day Adjudicator is encouraged, and expected, to use correct and understandable terminology, covering a range of parameters such as:

  • quality of the Introduction;
  • tempo, phrasing and relative notes values;
  • execution, style & interpretation, integration, technique and time signatures;
  • rhythm, expression and dynamics;
  • musical balance and musical effect;
  • intonation and tonal balance;
  • the make-up of the actual selection of tunes; and
  • providing useful feedback and advice to competitors.

Pipe Band competitions have a variety of objectives, one of the key ones of course being to improve standards of performance. However, competitions are also an education process, being a means of testing whether the training systems used by individual players, Bands and the RSPBA itself are effective and successful. Viewed in this way adjudication is an important task and thus Adjudicators have a duty to provide in the Critique Sheet the maximum useful feedback in the limited time available. It has also to be borne in mind, however, that the Adjudicator has only one opportunity and a very limited time frame in which to hear each performance. Given the complexities associated with the sizes of modern Pipe Bands, the time restrictions, varying weather conditions and other pressures, it is impossible for the Adjudicator to comment on every aspect of the performance. The extent to which this is possible also varies between grades due to the different levels of performance. Nevertheless it is possible to provide a comprehensive and meaningful assessment if the Adjudicator adopts an objective and structured approach to considering the different parameters.

As well as using the English language properly and accurately in Critique Sheets, the Adjudicator has also to ensure that words associated with musical vocabulary are used correctly. He/she has also to bear in mind, however, that not all Pipe Band personnel will necessarily have a sophisticated musical vocabulary. The basic principles associated with Critique Sheet writing should, therefore, include:

  • legibility;
  • simplicity;
  • brevity;
  • consistency between Bands;
  • advisory;
  • understandable;
  • appropriate technical terminology; and
  • appropriate musical terminology

Most Adjudicators will assess Band performances under broad headings such as Introduction, Musical Performance and Intonation. Under these 3 categories the critique sheet ideally should cover a reasonable range of the following, where appropriate to the specific discipline of Piping, Drumming or Ensemble:


  • quality and precision of the Introduction (with reference to specific faults such as drones/chanters not striking as one, consistency of roll pulsations, timing of Bass Drum, Tenors and Snare Drummers not accurate etc)
  • integration between Pipes and Drums
  • balance between instruments
  • maintenance of tempo into opening tune
Music Performance
  • rhythm, melody and harmony
  • technique and quality/precision of execution
  • integration
  • expression and dynamics
  • tempo
  • phrasing
  • time signatures
  • style and interpretation
  • musical effect
  • musical balance
  • breaks/arrangement of tunes
  • advice on any of these aspects


  • tone quality of Chanters, Drones, Bass Drum, Tenor Drums and Snare Drums
  • tonal balance (within Pipe Corps/Drum Corps/overall Pipe Band)
  • advice which might help remedy any specific faults

All these requirements of the effective Adjudicator are covered in the extensive in initial training which applicants must complete successfully before becoming an approved member of the RSPBA Adjudicators’ Panel. The development workshops which Adjudicators are now required to attend on an annual basis are also used as a means of continually improving adjudication skills and re-emphasising the aspects of adjudication which should be covered.

Ensemble Adjudication
The concept of Ensemble was introduced to Pipe Band competitions by the then Scottish Pipe Band Association in 1970, following lengthy debate within the Association during the 1960s. Since that time Pipe Band competitions at Major Championships, and more recently at a limited number of local competitions, have been adjudicated by 3 separate categories of Adjudicator - Piping, Drumming and Ensemble.

As with many aspects of Pipe Band development, the introduction of Ensemble proved to be controversial initially, possibly due to different interpretations of the concept and also a reluctance to change from the traditional focus on Piping and Drumming adjudication disciplines. One dictionary definition of “Ensemble” in a musical context is “the degree of precision and unity exhibited by a group of instrumentalists or vocalists performing together”. This definition is not as specific as it might be and is open to different interpretations. In the Pipe Band environment there are similarly varying interpretations. For example, there are those who regard Ensemble in a Pipe Band context as focusing on technique, integration and unity of the Pipes and Drums; there are those who think in terms of integration and overall tonal balance; there are those more orchestrally minded who consider the concept to be primarily about collective integration and overall musical effect taking account of the influence of the Drum Corps on the melodies; and there are those who see it as a combination of all of these aspects. Arguably the latter is the ideal but is difficult to achieve.

In the early days many Pipe Bands were unconvinced that there was a place for Ensemble with an “orchestral” focus in Pipe Band adjudication. The initial attempts to involve prominent musicians outwith the Pipe Band environment as Ensemble Adjudicators met with a mixed response, and very quickly the then SPBA moved to appoint Ensemble Adjudicators from within its own ranks. Over the years Ensemble adjudication has become an accepted component of Major Championships but it remains a grey area and there has been criticism of differing approaches by Adjudicators. When the RSPBA produced its Structured Learning Book 3: The Advanced Certificate in the early 1990s it contained the following definition of Ensemble:

“Ensemble is the coming together of component parts to establish a complete entity. A good ensemble is the combination of well matched and balanced components that successfully produce a pleasing (harmonious) effect.”

Even so, the variations of interpretation continue to exist today, and there are many who still believe that there is a significant difference between a “Pipe Band Ensemble” (i.e. a group of instruments within a Pipe Band playing together in unity and harmony) and a “Pipe Band Ensemble Performance” (i.e. the different instruments and players in a Pipe Band combining and integrating to produce overall musical effect). The RSPBA Structured Learning Book 3 considers Ensemble under 4 main headings - Introduction, Intonation, Integration and Interpretation. The Ensemble training programme for RSPBA Adjudicators follows a similar approach but covers these headings in greater detail, with a much more significant focus on the combined musical effect of the Pipe Band.

The RSPBA training programme for Ensemble Adjudicators also emphasises that the role is significantly different from that of adjudication in the Piping and Drumming disciplines. The Ensemble Adjudicator is expected to focus on assessing the overall musical presentation of the Pipe Band performance and be less concerned with specific technical aspects associated with either Piping or Drumming, although these of course must still be regarded as important and not ignored. Consequently those individuals who successfully complete Ensemble Adjudicator training, which involves two full weekend courses and practical experience as shadow Ensemble Adjudicators at actual competitions, should be assessing and valuing aspects such as the following when adjudicating Pipe Band performances in an Ensemble context:

The assessment should concentrate on the quality of the Introduction as a Pipe Band collectively (i.e. the precision and accuracy of the collective impact of all the instruments – Bagpipes, Bass Drum, Tenor Drums and Snare Drums).

In the context of intonation, the focus should be on the quality of the overall Band sound, covering the carrying power of the Band sound and the tonal balance between all the instruments in terms of pitch. The weight balance of the sound in general should also be an important consideration, but it needs to be recognised that the weight balance of the Drum Corps can be varied at times during the performance for musical effect. Personal preferences can obviously be a factor in this area between Adjudicators as views inevitably will differ depending on the richness, fullness, resonance, brightness, harshness and clarity etc of the Band sound overall.


Under this category the Adjudicator has to assess the precision and co-ordination of the technical execution between Pipes and Drums throughout the complete performance. The emphasis should be on the integration of the Band as a complete entity (i.e. clarity, phrasing, unison and breaks) rather than on specific technical aspects of Piping and Drumming, although obvious failings in technical aspects should not be ignored.

Musical Interpretation
This category offers most scope for comment by the Ensemble Adjudicator. The Adjudicator should be assessing the arrangement of the melodies, the overall expression and the style in which the tunes are being played in relation to their time signature, musical theme etc. The focus should be on assessing aspects which relate to three constituents of music - Rhythm, Melody and Harmony - and should take account of areas such as phrasing, rhythmic clarity, fluency, dynamic effect and the overall impact of the performance on the Adjudicator from a musical perspective.

It is probably fair to say that in practice few Critique Sheets from Ensemble Adjudicators cover the above territory fully and there is a tendency for some Ensemble Adjudicators to focus on overall Band integration and tonal issues with little or less reference to musical effect and musical balance. This suggests that there may be a need to review and possibly re-define Pipe Band Ensemble, taking into account the experience gained over the past 37 years or so. There have been many innovative developments in Pipe Bands in recent years which have a bearing on Pipe Band Ensemble. There is also a debate about the extent to which the boundaries of the traditional Pipe Band can or should be further broadened. At present, however, the role of the Adjudicators’ Panel is to operate as efficiently as possible within the procedural parameters set by the RSPBA.

How RSPBA Competition Results are Calculated
The results of all RSPBA competitions are determined by means of a Placings System, which eliminates the need for the use of points or points ranges, and is simple in its application. Critique Sheets are completed after each the Pipe Band performance and are handed to the RSPBA Board of Directors’ representative immediately after each performance. During the competition each Adjudicator is expected to note brief comments for each performance on an Adjudicators’ Personal Record including a provisional placing. At the end of the competition the Adjudicators are allowed 10 minutes to reflect on the performances using their notes, and to decide their final placings. They are then required to complete a Results Sheet provided by the Board of Directors’ representative.

At Major Championships (involving two Piping, one Drumming and one Ensemble Adjudicators in each competition) and at some minor competitions when full Championship teams are used, results are determined by adding together the placings of each Adjudicator. First place goes to the lowest total, second place to the second lowest etc. In the case of a tie, the result is determined by the highest Ensemble placing and, failing that, the highest collective Piping placing.

At minor competitions (involving one Piping and one Drumming Adjudicator in each competition), results are determined by multiplying the Piping placings by 2 and adding these to the Drumming placings. First place then goes to the lowest total, second place to the second lowest etc. Ties are decided by the highest Piping placing. The different approach for minor competitions is required to maintain the weighting between Piping and Drumming when only two Adjudicators are involved Separate arrangements are in place for calculating the results of the Final of the Grade 1 World Pipe Band Championships, where the Pipe Bands compete in MSR and Medley sections.

RSPBA Adjudicators’ Training Group
January 2013


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