Sheep v Synthetic

RossCanisterBag

Red v Blue, Vanilla v Chocolate, iPhone v Smartphone… we are constantly faced with the choice between two options. Nothing could be less untrue for piping currently, with the resurgence of the use of sheepskin bags in New Zealand competing. PBNews.co.nz decided to take a wee look at both the solo scene and the pipe band scene and look at what’s preferred, what’s winning and what the future could be.

On the Pipe Bands…

In the last 10/15 years, sheepskin bags have dominated the “Top Six” results at the worlds. Not since Victoria Police Pipe Band in 1998 Shotts and Dykehead in 2005 has a synthetic-bagged band won the World Pipe Band Championships in grade one. It is almost a reality that without sheepskin you cannot win the worlds. Another phenomenon occurred in 2011 – not one band in grade one that qualified played synthetic. All 14 bands in the final played either a sheepskin – of any make – or a Gannaway bag.

Pipe Band’s in New Zealand have been slow to react. The advent of synthetic bags meant a quick change to the black ross bags across New Zealand. Some bands continued on Sheepskin and/or Gannaway, but only since 2009 have grade one pipe bands in New Zealand begun to reintroduce sheepskins at the top – and even then, only two out of the four have done so.

So has this been a successful venture for the bands? The first time since the late 90′s/early 2000′s that a band has won with synthetic was in 2012, with Canterbury Caledonian taking their first title in grade one.

From RNZPBA records available on-line, the following is a fact: from 2001 through to 2010 (with 2007 being the exception, which was won by the New Zealand Police on sheepskin), every band who won was on synthetic. From 2000-2011, two of the top three place getters played on synthetic. For the majority of the 2000′s, at most only one band played on sheepskin at the National contest. 2011 did not occur, but 2012 saw two out of the top three bands in grade one play sheepskin bags. Both bands – Canterbury and Manawatu – see it as creating an edge for their competition prospects in Scotland. It might now be almost a requirement that grade one bands use sheepskin as a pre-requisite for qualification in Scotland. It certainly looks as if the trend will continue, with the top six at the Scottish championships all once again being sheepskin (and, interestingly, all playing mostly one type of bag – Begg). The winners of the other two major contests outside of the nationals – Palmerston North and Victoria Square Days – were both won by sheepskin bags. However, to suggest this trend is going to continue would be a little misleading, considering there is not enough empirical evidence to say so.

But does this mean the re invigoration of sheepskin bags is a certainty for New Zealand pipe banding? I don’t think so. When weighing up the variables – tone v stability mostly – it is quite easy to see both have their pros and cons. Our New Zealand climate is not always well suited to sheepskin maintenance – while it can be done, the effectiveness of synthetic bags in maintaining constant tone and balance seems to still have a slight edge. No other grade was won by sheepskin bags, and only South Canterbury in Grade 3 came close to winning with a natural bag (they played Gannaway). While Scotland might demand the extra tone a sheepskin bag gives off, it cannot yet be said the same applies to New Zealand.

On the solo boards…


Photo by Celtic Kiwi

Interestingly enough, the use of sheepskins can’t be associated in the same way in solos as it is in pipe bands. World wide, sheepskin/natural and synthetic are fairly balanced in their application. In a recent feature article in Pipes|Drums, a survey was conducted as to what bags were played. The response?

Eight of the 19 respondents listed a natural bag, while the other 11 said they play a synthetic model. Overall, a Bannatyne synthetic bag was selected by most (five/26%), while Begg sheepskin and a zippered Canmore were played by four (21%) each” (http://www.pipesdrums.com/ViewObject.aspx?sys-Portal=57&sys-Class=Article&sys-ID=18783&sys-Count=8&sys-Page=3)

In New Zealand, it seems only a few play sheepskin. Out of 15 or so competitors at the recent Queens Birthday competition, only 4 played natural bags – three sheepskin, one gannaway. The rest were on synthetic bags – mostly Ross. Players who play either sheepskin or gannaway suggest their tone and drone sound have improved remarkably since moving to the natural bags, whereas those on the synthetic options maintain their steadiness and stability continues to win the day.

But enough of the banter – Does either bag equate to winning the most places, or getting the results? We have analysed the last 12 months of major competiting (Labour Weekend 2011, Waipu 2012, Hastings 2012 and Queens Birthday 2012) to try and statistically prove which one has a more impressive record.

A Grade-only events (not including special events)

(Canmore is included in synthetic)

Labour Weekend 2011
Bag Type First Second Third Fourth Total Placings
Sheepskin 4 5 3 1 13
Gannaway 0 0 0 0 0
Synthetic 1 0 2 4 7

 

Waipu 2012
Bag Type First Second Third Fourth Total Placings
Sheepskin 2 1 0 3 6
Gannaway 0 0 0 0 0
Synthetic 3 4 5 2 14

 

Hastings 2012
Bag Type First Second Third Fourth Total Placings
Sheepskin 2 2 1 0 5
Gannaway 0 0 0 0 0
Synthetic 4 4 5 3 16

 

Queens Birthday 2012
Bag Type First Second Third Fourth Total Placings
Sheepskin 3 2 3 2 10
Gannaway 0 1 0 0 1
Synthetic 2 2 2 3 9

So, synthetic bags  over the last 12 months at our “major” solo piping championships won 46 places (or 56.79%). Sheepskin bags won 34 prizes (or 41.9%), with Gannaway winning one prize in the last 12 months in purely A Grade events alone (1.2%).

 

Special Events
These include the Clasp and Gold Medal at Hastings, The Clasp and Silver Chanter at Christchurch, and the Qualifier and Premier MSR at Dunedin.

(Canmore is included in synthetic)

Labour Weekend 2011
Bag Type First Second Third Fourth Total Placings
Sheepskin 1 2 1 1 5
Gannaway 0 0 0 0 0
Synthetic 1 0 1 1 3

 

Hastings 2012
Bag Type First Second Third Fourth Total Placings
Sheepskin 0 2 0 0 2
Gannaway 0 0 0 0 0
Synthetic 2 0 1 1 4

 

Queens Birthday 2012
Bag Type First Second Third Fourth Total Placings
Sheepskin 0 1 1 0 2
Gannaway 1 0 0 0 1
Synthetic 1 1 1 1 4

So, synthetic bags  over the last 12 months at our “major” solo piping championships in special events won 11 places (or 52.3%). Sheepskin bags won 9 prizes (or 42.8%), with Gannaway winning one special prize in the last 12 months in purely A Grade events alone (4.7%). This is broadly similar with A Grade-only events – the only major difference being the 3% increase in the use of Gannaway bags.

Going further into it, the four who were playing sheepskin or gannaway bags at Queens Birthday won over 50% of the prizes. This does not obviously account for the statistical analysis between bag type and ability, but it does mean that the 11-or-so others who played on ross only accounted for 45% of the prizes.

So what does this mean? Is the sheepskin making a come back? It does not statistically look to be a correct statement, especially given the fact the only contest where there was more than a 10% difference between synthetic and sheepskin was Labour Weekend 2011. Sheepskin has, however, over the last 12 months, won 11 out of 21 A Grade 1st places, with synthetic bags winning 10. In special events, four have been won by synthetic,  with one each to Gannaway and sheepskin. So it is not a resounding “Yes” to the question of whether sheepskin has returned.

 

Conclusion

Like most comparisons -  Red v Blue, Chocolate v Vanilla, Crusaders v Highlanders – there is not a resounding win either way for Sheep or Synthetic. The results for pipe bands would suggest there is for synthetic in New Zealand, but the opposite is said for results in Scotland. Which ever approach you take, the result will be different. This writer wouldn’t like to espouse which way is correct… mainly because there isn’t. Both synthetic and sheepskin have great qualities and bad qualities, and at the end of the day the qualities which appeal to your band more will determine the best fit for your band.

In the solos, it can equally be said that neither takes precedence. Both have track records of high success, and consistent placings. Perhaps solo competing has had a more even spread for a longer period of time when it comes to statistically proving which is better, but suffice to say it again comes down to preference and what qualities you look for in solos. Just to throw a few more spanners into the works, whilst tone and projection off the sheepskin might be on average better than the synthetic options, no one could claim the likes of Brian Switalla or Greg Wilson’s pipes do not project and have magnificent tone. Likewise, you could not say Richard Hawke or Stuart Easton’s pipes with a sheepskin bag has any less stability or longevity than those on synthetic pipes.

The battle between the sheep and the synthetic is set to continue for longer yet – unfortunately for action-loving readers, the battle not likely to come to a conclusion anytime soon.