The following interview with Robert MacNeil was obtained at the 2005 Pacific Northwest Highland Games in Enumclaw, Washington. Robert is the current President of the British Columbia Pipers Association and a former Grade 1 piper with the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band and Pipe Major of the Grade 2 SFU Pipe Band before becoming SFU band manager in 1990. He is also a composer of bagpipe music and has developed software (Bagpipe Music Writer GOLD) for composing bagpipe music.
Interview with Robert MacNeil
Highland Games: I've seen you at many of the Highland gatherings here in the Pacific Northwest diligently copying down the results of piping and drumming competitiions. Could you tell us why you are doing this?
Robert MacNeil: The reason is that we track the results from piping, side drumming, tenor drumming and band competitions over the course of the whole season. Our coverage is many gatherings in the Fall and Winter on to the annual gathering over Easter and then all the outdoor highland games sanctioned by the B.C. Pipers Association. Primarily for two purposes: one is to record the results so that others who are not at the games can see what was happening at the games as far as results are concerned. We also record them so that the grading committee of the B.C. Pipers Association can use the information on prizes won and placings won in promotions at the end of the season. That is also coupled with some other information from the judges comments that are factored into the grading decisions. So that is the primary purpose - a little bit of news and also a little bit for grading purposes.
Note: the piping and drumming competition results which Robert MacNeil gathers are posted, almost always within 24 hours of the close of the event, on the web site of the B.C. Pipers Association (see below for URL)
Highland Games: In some other activities, I've noticed that some of the more accomplished participants tend to look down their nose at the beginners and the lower grades, disparging them quite a bit. But you are interested in all the competitions right down to Grade 5. Are they really equally important to you?
Robert MacNeil: They are! Everyone is the same because you are basically promoting piping and drumming whether you're talking about a beginner just starting out who will be the next professional in ten years, or a young drummer who may eventually become the lead drummer of a Grade 1 pipe band. Basically, every competitor is very important. Generally what you see, though, for the most part, is people wanting to help players at the Highland games tune their pipes, tune their drums. Sometimes they might not have a chance to listen to them because they are playing themselves, but I think you'll see a general willingness to help them get ready for the competition.
Highland Games: The SFU pipe band, some years back, established the series of RMM (Robert Malcolm Memorial) bands. Could you tell us something about this?
Robert MacNeil: The primary purpose behind the establishment of the Robert Malcolm organization was basically to have a home for good, talented young kids be able to play pipes and drums. Many of the players in the SFU band had been teaching kids for many years, but it was with the accident that killed Malcolm and Robert that crystalised the idea that we should be coalescing this into a junior band and then to allow those players to advance and eventually get to the SFU pipe band. It really just started out with one junior band and then as the players kept coming, it eventually grew into grades and other bands and so now there is a band in every grade. And in grade three we've got two.
Highland Games: Has the establishment of the RMM system helped the SFU Grade 1 pipe band?
Robert MacNeil: It's helped it quite a bit because basically kids that are young can see the path that they have to take to eventually get to the SFU band. The path becomes better known to them about what they need to do to get into the band. It takes a lot of time to do that. At the same time, there are also a lot of players who in some cases don't want to play at the Grade 1 level after several years of heavy competitiion. They can step down to a Grade 2 band, or people in Grade 2 band can step down to a Grade 3 band. And that helps to build those bands, so you get more senior players mentoring the younger players as they are on their way up.
Highland Games: You're also the President of the B.C. Pipers Association. What is the main function of the BCPA?
Robert MacNeil: The primary focus of the B.C. Pipers Association is to promote piping and drumming and pipe bands and the advancement of the arts. This is primarily done through the association putting on various competitions, building an environment where players can develop competitively and basically working with other exponents of piping and drumming such as the Highland Games. Take a look at the other games that we're at today. Right now they have huge attendance, a large number of competitors, and they are run by a number of volunteers who are really interested in helping piping and drumming. So one of the main mandates of the the B.C. Pipers Association is to help the Highland Games so that they can continue to do piping and drumming competitions.
In addition to sanctioning competitions and maintaining a grading system, the B.C. Pipers Association develops a list of approved adjudicators who are qualified to judge various levels of piping or drumming or bands in various disciplines, for example, light music or piobaireachd, This is basically a peer reviewed list that also has certain baseline requirements to get onto the list with regards to competitive experience, years of playing, prize winning experience, and also apprenticeship and judging. The grading is also an important part of it because the overall system of grades here is based upon ability, not age. So the grading committee is cast with the responsibility to make sure the players are playing at the highest grade appropriate to their ability.
Highland Games: What is the geographical jurisdiction of the BCPA?
Robert MacNeil: Historically, the circuit as its known here is basically British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. The Games have turned to the BCPA over the years for judges, gradings, etc. So the games that we sanction are basically within that jurisdiction. It covers games all the way from the B.C. interior in Penticton, to as far south as Portland,
Highland Games: What about the future of piping? What would like to see happen in piping here in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia in the next five years?
Robert MacNeil: That's a really good question and it's one of the things we've been looking at in the BCPA. I think the important thing here is that we'd like to keep the standard of play increasing so that whenever competitors from our area go to other areas, they would be able to successfully compete and basically to be able to be at the top of their game. That's the overall vision of what we'd like to do. Build an environment so that players know that if they are in the top of the B.C. Pipers area, they could go anywhere in the world and be at the top of that area also.