‘How To Judge’

The purpose of the seminar was to discuss judging quality.  Alastair Aitken presented the RSPBA judge training programme and John Wilson gave a perspective from his experience of judging pipe band and solo piping.

John Mulhearn and Alastair Henderson played and were given feedback on their performances by 3 judges.

Alastair Aitken: RSPBA adjudicator training

In the early days of the SPBA there was little or no training of judges and comments on performances were very basic. Then there was gradually a realisation of the need to do more training of judges.  This became more intensive during the early 70s when ensemble judging started.  The current system began in the 1980s – and has increased in depth and scope since.

It was evident that good players may not necessarily be good judges. Applicants under the current system require RSPBA advanced qualification or equivalent and specific playing experience.  Teaching experience is also preferred.

There is a brief pre – entry test which assesses knowledge of the pipe band world, and which measures analytical skills and the ability to make judgements in order of preference.  Those passing this test are accepted to enter the training programme.

Part 1 consists of 8 sessions over a weekend. Then there is supervised shadowing of a minimum of 12 competitions specifically in lower grades which involve large numbers of bands.  Self assessment and peer assessment is carried out.

Part 2 is more detailed and includes some aspects of pipe band ensemble. There is a theory and a practical examination at the end of the course and successful candidates are accepted as approved RSPBA adjudicators.  This is followed by a 2 year mentoring period, and new judges are normallynot allowed near championships for3-4 years pending further development of their skills.

There is now also a compulsory annual development workshop for all judges – looking at significant differences in results between judges and the possible reasons for them such as judges using different parameters or not all areas being considered.  In addition a different topic is looked at in detail each year – e.g. tonal balance, ensemble, judge positioning – to discuss how improvements can be made.

RSPBA judges need 5 years experience minimum judging major championships before being considered for ensemble training, which again involves a 2 part programme over 2 weekends and supervised shadow judging.

All judges have to write a critique sheet. There have been various formats.  A points system is no longer used.  There is now a ranking system.   Advisory and constructive comments are encouraged, and comments such as “good intro” or “early E” are discouraged.  All judges are now also being encouraged to place a greater focus on “musicality” in their assessments.

The examination procedures for the higher levels of the recently completed Piping and Drumming Qualifications Board (PDQB) qualifications contain assessment frameworks for aspects of piobaireachd.  These could perhaps provide a useful guide of judging parameters.  An example of one of these sheets is available here.

A summary document on adjudicator training, produced by the RSPBA, can be seen here.


Ranking: pros and cons – can be difficult practically – may be more practical to divide into 3 groups – very good/good/less good – advantages and disadvantages of judges collaborating or not – undue influence vs need for accuracy.

Critique sheets: generally favoured up to and including gold medal standard, but not by all. Perceived difficulties – writing and listening, could put player off, quantifying and articulating musicality.  Only mentioning mistakes, technical issues.   Avoiding comment on musicality.

Perceived advantages – improving player’s knowledge and understanding about musicality, justifying placing.  Assisting tuition.  Aiding grading.

“Tick boxes”.  RSPBA – no tick boxes at present.  Some solo RSPBA sheets can have tick boxes – prepared by branches.  Ontario system – initially tick boxes, then blank sheet, now tick boxes again (example can be seen here).  Valuable to have space to indicate where the performance is against the expected level.

Critique sheets probably not valued by senior competitors – possible exception if set tunes are being played.  Should be by each judge – no perceived difficulty from performers if different views are expressed.

John Wilson: Judging Parameters

Judging is not just to sort out the prize-winners.  We need to have an appraisal of the performance with the aim of improving the musical standard.  Solo piping up till now has been informal.  Progress has been made with the judges list and the process of applying to it.   Expectations have changed – in the old days you didn’t go up to judges and ask how you had played.  Written comment also helps the CPA with grading.

I think that musical shading is deliberately avoided by some competitors.  They don’t want to introduce colour or activity because these are subjective. Keeping it straight and avoiding errors is the safe approach.   Judges can influence this.

Main points to consider are summarised in an appendix at the bottom this page. Points to note include….

–         Sound quality – self evident

–         Execution – are embellishments woven into the musical framework?

–          Musical interpretation – this is where the piper places his or her  stamp on the performance.  Pipers of the past did it more. This is the heart and soul of the performance. It is about the cycle of the composer, the player and the listener (judge).

Musical interpretation consists of

–          Mood – is the performance reflecting the musical motif?

–          Tempo/rhythm – pulsing/presenting the piece.

–          Expression – musical sensitivity, colour, within rhythmical context – the bending of the notes, the accentuation of the phrase end – the area where the player puts his stamp on the performance.

–          Phrasing – what puts the contours on the music – the shape – is there an order, a      balance, is it reflecting the Q and A nature of the composition.

All this makes up the musical IMPACT

I think players want to hear about this – they may not agree – competitors appreciate that different judges will have different views.

There is an opportunity here for us to get into this area.  We need to have at the forefront of our minds that it is this that separates performances.  This is where the heart and soul is.

Discussion: In the short time available for further discussion an opinion was expressed agreeing strongly with the general principle that judging musicality should be paramount.  This however went with a complete lack of enthusiasm for critique sheets on the basis that objectivity is very difficult when it comes to the musical aspect, that sheets take time to produce, and that they are limited value, especially to the senior player. The point was made that James Campbell was against critique sheets.

Performances: John Mulhearn played Clan Chattan as set in Binneas is Boreraig so with differences in timing of cadences and a taorluath a mach. Alastair Henderson played The Battle of Auldearn. They were given verbal feedback about their performance by three judges. Alistair Aitken, John Wilson, John Mulhearn and Alastair Henderson were thanked by the chairman.

Jack Taylor


Performance Components – John Wilson

Sound Quality

–          Accuracy and clarity of note interval

–          Intonation – sound quality being sustained throughout performance

–          Drone harmony with chanter being produced

–          Drone balance as in bass v tenor

–          Overall tonal balance of instrument – drones against chanter


–          Embellishments – accurate and precise delivery in terms of rhythmical flow

(embellishments essential in articulating pipe tune and add character to a piece of music)

Musical interpretation

–          The “stamp” a piper puts on his chosen piece

–          The “heart and soul” of the competition presentation

–          Why is it so important ? – – it involves the composer, the performer and ultimately the listener (judge)

MOOD                 emotive theme – how does the performance reflect this as in sadness, excitement etc.

TEMPO/RYTHM    use of pulsing + appropriate speed in presentation

EXPRESSION        within the rhythmical context is the performance producing a level of musical sensitivity colour and subtlety whereby the piper is creating his/her “stamp” on the performance?

PHRASING           this is what gives the tune its contours and shape.  Is there order and balance to the presentation?  Is it highlighting the “question and answer” aspect of the composition?