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Andrew's Tips: Understanding Solo Bagpipe Competition Grading

By Andrew T. Lenz, Jr., Santa Cruz, California, ©2003-2009

One aspect of piping competition that confuses new pipers is grading and scoring. This article looks to explain things like what the scores mean, how to advance, etc. within North America.

The Competing Pipers Association (CPA)—the solo organization based in Scotland—uses an P, A, B, C, J grading system which will not be discussed here. In 2005, a new grading system for amateurs was introduced in Scotland—the C.L.A.S.P., loosely based on the system used for grading in North America.


Explaining the Different Grades.

There are six different grades in bagpiping: V - I (five through one are amateur grades) plus "Professional" which is sometimes called "Open." ("Open" competions are open to any grade level of competitor, though lackluster pipers are not expected to subject the judges to a poor standard of play.) Some associations also break grades further into "Juvenile" and "Adult" or "Junior" and "Senior." Below is a loose description of the grades, though you can expect different opinions since there is no written standard. One piping judge with 40 years of piping experience described any attempt to define grades as "impossible." (A certain amount of piping appreciation is subjective and therefore a set standard would be hard for judges to implement.) These are descriptions of a typical player in the grade, not necessarily the ones winning that may belong in a higher grade.

Grade V (five): This is the lowest grade (sometimes not recognized or offered) and is the rank beginner level. At this grade, in some associations (such as WUSPBA), performers are merely competing using a practice chanter. In other associations (such as EUSPBA), performers can be on a full set of pipes. Grade V pipers may or may not be required to belong to their association to compete as these events may or may not be sanctioned. Competitors typically try to get through the tune without any glaring errors. Tunes are played very slowly. Many pipers skip any "chanter only" grade.

Grade IV (four): Pipers are playing on a full set of pipes. At any given time, about 60%-70% of competing pipers that you run into are going to be in this grade (or in Grade V). Slow tunes are played, and quick tunes are played at a reduced tempo. Competitors may not be able to tune their own drones perfectly. Only partial piobaireachd tunes are played in competition. Occasional minor embellishment mistakes. Competitors who don't make technical errors, but don't have particularly good expression might win. Drones not always steady throughout the tune. An attempt at musicality and expression is made and sometimes achieved. Most associations don't offer MSRs (March, Strathspey, Reel) at this level.

Grade III (three): Competitors can tune their own drones pretty accurately. Complete piobaireachd tunes are played in competition. Good execution of fingering. MSRs, sometimes only SRs, are played slowly at this grade. Only about 25%-30% of pipers ever advance to this grade. Drones are steady.

Grade II (two): Command of many tunes, judges can select from several submitted. Drones are steady and tuned very well, if not perfect. MSRs just about at tempo. Very good embellishments, musicality and expression.

Grade I (one): Excellent playing, everything just about perfect. Performance is just shy of professional quality.

Professional: All aspects of performance are consistently outstanding: drones stay steady and tuned for long periods of playing, lovely expression, crisp and clear embellishments, very fast tempo on demand.

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Aggregate points vs. Event points.

There are two different kinds of points associated with competition: points awarded for a single event, and aggregate points awarded to top finishers in an event.

First, event points. When you compete in an event, such as "Grade IV, 2/4 March," upon completing the event, you may be awarded 0 to 100 points based on the judge's appraisal of your performance. There's a trend away from a score on a judging sheet, instead you may see a sheet giving you a ranking such as "above grade," "upper quartile," "at grade level," "lower quartile," and "below grade."

Second, aggregate points. As associations like to have a overall season "champion" of sorts for each grade, or at least, keep track of the top finishers, there is the aggregate point system. These points are typically awarded for an event based on how many competitors played in an event. For instance, in WUSPBA—other than the 2003 season when it tempoarily switched to a championship qualifier system—if 10 pipers show up and play in an event, the first place finisher is awarded 9 aggregate points, regardless of the score on their adjucation sheet. Aggregate points are usually awarded for the top five finishers (or six, depending on the association), so if you finish number six out of 85 people competing, you are out of luck. (But, hey, I'd take it!)
The "winner" for a grade is based solely on the accumulation of aggregate points. There is no allowance made for the smaller size or the smaller number of events in which a piper competes. The more often a piper competes, against a larger number of competitors, the better it is for him or her—if his or her goal is to score the most aggregate points. Since not everyone lives in close proximity to a large number of large sanctioned piping competitions, this will mean a big sacrifice for some—and an impossibility for others—to finish high up in the aggregate point standings.
Some associations keep track of aggregate points but determine a season champion by having an annual championship competition to which top placing pipers in each grade level are invited.

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What the Score on Your Sheet Really Means.

As noted above when discussing "Event Points," there is a trend away from a point score on adjudication sheets. But since you may still find yourself assigned a score, we'll discuss it here.

A judge, after listening to your performance, may assign it a point value and note it on your adjucation sheet as well as—hopefully, but not aways possible—lots of constructive comments. (Depending on your association guidelines, points will be assigned either immediately after your performance or after all competitors have played.)

Piping scores aren't like a math test where you get points for each question. You don't earn a set number of points for each properly played embellishment or for consistent tempo or for each correct melody note.

You should consider the points you get for a performance for that event only. If you score 50 on one day, it could be a 85 from another judge for the same performance.

In 2006, WUSPBA eliminated a point score in favor of indicating one of five "performance levels" to inform the competitor of his or her skills compared with the other pipers in the same grade. Prior to the change to performance levels, some judges simply start with a score of 50 points for the first piper and go up or down for the remaining competitors. If you were to play perfectly and happened to be the first piper, you might still get a 50 on your score sheet, and end up winning the event with a score of 50.

In EUSPBA, points are usually awarded at the end of the contest and not at the end of each performance. EUSPBA requires all grades to start out with a 100 point possible score and errors will result in deductions from that 100 point score; a judge can't arbitrarily decide that a first place Grade III finisher will get a maximum of 80 points, for instance. A judge isn't obligated to award 100 to the first place finisher unless he/she felt the competitor had a perfect performance.

The only truly meaningful comparison of your own performance scores over time would require the same judge, the same event, the same competitors playing the same tunes in the same playing order, under the same circumstances—impossible.

It is the opinion of some judges that the primary purpose of a score sheet is to justify the result, not to be used as a lesson for improvement. Since in many instances there are more faults than can be covered on the form, especially given the time constraints, many judges just comment on the fundamental flaws first. This means that even if the mentioned flaws were corrected in advance, that piper still may not have won a prize for that event.

Where you place in an event is much more telling than the score on your sheet.

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"What's a Sanctioned Event?"

In order for an event to count toward aggregate points, the event must be sanctioned. Sanctioning indicates that governing association has reviewed and approved the events offered and the judges that have been hired. In addition, by sanctioning a contest, the governing association has an agreement with the games officials that the contest will be ruled according to that association's rules for competition. The event sponsors usually pay a fee to the association to cover the costs of administrating the sanctioning and for score sheets. (Fees vary quite a bit by association.) They also usually arrange for a "chief steward" on-site to oversee all aspects of the competition.

Conversely, if a venue doesn't involve the association, a competition—while fun—doesn't exist as far as the association is concerned.

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"What's a champion supreme event?"

Some associations (such as MWPBA), do not count every sanctioned event toward the season's aggregate totals which determine the association's "Champion Supreme" for each grade. Perhaps as few as a half a dozen games are designated as "Champion Supreme" competitions and only the results of those events will be counted for points toward "Champion Supreme" status.

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How and when to advance a grade.

Procedures for moving from one grade to another vary by each association. (Though there is an effort to standardize certain aspects of competition procedures across associations via ANAPBA.) Some have some very strict rules on grading, such as EUSPBA, where you petition to get moved up and are approved or denied by a committee. However in others, WUSPBA for instance, pipers just set their own grade annually when they register and pay their dues. This self-regulation may seem a little odd, but in practice it works pretty well.

Typically, you change grades when you register between seasons, usually around January. You might be able to change mid-season if you were to be blowing away all your competition, placing first in every event and the judges all giving you AGLs ("Above Grade Level") on your forms. It would be quite the rare thing indeed, but who knows. You might be a Mozart of piping. Associations strongly discourage and may even deny a mid-season change as it wreaks a bit of havoc on the scoring bean-counters at the association, but it has been done.

After your season is over (or earlier if there's a prior cut-off for submissions), if you think you did well enough, write a letter to the competition/grading committee asking for a upgrade. The important thing is, if you want to move up, ask! When you petition, you should send them copies of your score sheets, a letter of recommendation by your instructor and/or a judge and/or a well-known top piper. There's a letter at EUSPBA by Vince Janoski that you can read talking about the behind-the-scenes grade review process. (At the time of this writing, the letter is located on this page.) Committee members want to be convinced that you are capable of winning prizes in the next grade and that you won't be placed in a position for which you aren't ready and get frustrated and discouraged.

Scores and points are nice, but the bottom line is your playing ability. Theoretically you could as a Grade IV piper have only 5 aggregate points for your yearly total, yet if you are playing at a Grade II level, you should be in Grade II. (The "Above Grade Level" comments by the judges will be a significant help here.) You can skip grades, it's very uncommon, but it has happened.

Now the bad news. If you placed high but competed against subpar pipers, you may not be ready to perform well at a higher grade. You have to understand that you may be one of the pipers that may never be ready to upgrade, whether it's lack of quality or quantity of practice, motor skills, proper instruction—whatever—it does happen too. You have to be ready to accept that also.

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"Should I advance if I haven't competed in Piobaireachd?"

Ideally—the ideal piper—you should have placed in every available type of event for your grade at least once before you consider moving up. If you are a piobaireachd player, that means competing in "light music." If you are a non-piobaireachd player, that means taking the leap into some long demanding tunes. Top pipers aren't considered complete if they can't play a full piobaireachd on demand.

That said, no association that I am aware of requires competitors to play both types of music to advance. And in fact, in EUSPBA, as light music player you can seriously harm your chances to advance if you compete poorly in piobaireachd, since all your competitions will be considered when you apply for an upgrade. Same goes for a piobaireachd player: don't compete poorly in light music if you want to be upgraded. However, in WUSPBA, an association where you set your own grade, it makes no difference, so you might as well experience as much as you can to help make you a well rounded—ideal—piper.

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"I never advance!"

You should be playing the pipes for fun. If it's not fun, don't do it. Or at least change your approach or attitude about playing until it is fun. If you do want to advance and you are not and the judges' comments reflect that you are where you belong, you need to change the way you practice. If your adjucation sheets tell a story of you being better than your current grade level and you've applied for an upgrade but haven't received it, start politely asking questions of your association or the local branch of your association. (Just remember that the association officers are volunteers that do it for the love of piping and are not paid—appreciate the fact that they are there for your benefit.)

While it's exciting to win and advance grades, you should be competing to improve yourself, not to beat other players or to prove anything to anyone. It's easy to get caught up in the whole competition mentality and lose the focus: music and entertainment.

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You may be interested to read the competition tips on my page What to know for your First Bagpipe Competition and also my personal competition journals.

Need more associations links? Visit my Piping Links page.

If you've found something that you think should be addressed that is not, have corrections (heaven forbid), clarifications, or additional insight, please contact me.

This page last updated Sunday, March 14, 2010
Page first created in January 1, 2003.

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