Spotlight - Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion at the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland

Every month, the Youth Music Initiative (YMI) puts the spotlight on an activity or strand of work that is important to them. This month we hear from the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland and its Director Steven Blake, who has written about the organisation’s progress with their Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion goals.

A young woman is pictured playing the bagpipes during a performance

Young Piper, courtesy of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland.

In July 2020, I took on the role of Director of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland (NYPBS) because I was excited to contribute to a project with the potential to positively impact creative and social change in piping and the wider Traditional Music scene.

In my opinion, creative excellence and inclusion are mutually beneficial: without new perspectives, it is difficult for new ideas to flourish. The NYPBS is run by the National Piping Centre (NPC) and, as a national institution, addressing access needs is a firm priority. The NPC is committed to taking the lead on Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) within piping and improving access within our own work.

At the moment, I would say there is an optimistic momentum at the NYPBS around EDI and being vocal about this position is part of our strategy. However, this must be coupled with the sobering reality that we are not yet where we need to be.

As a young person, your access to opportunity is still too dependent on your circumstances. There are significant groups we do not see adequately represented in pipe band generally and the NYPBS.

There is also a considerable gender imbalance. In our last round of applications for our bands, we saw only around 22% of applicants identify as female, with the rest as male. Of that 22%, only about 7% of our piping applicants were female, with most female applicants applying for the bass section, which has become a typical gender role in the tradition. Young people from BAME and LGBTQ+ communities, and those living with disabilities are also underrepresented amongst our ranks.

The situation is more nuanced for those living in areas high on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD).

Pipe band plays an important role in the cultural landscape, similar to brass band, in that it is one of the few genres traditionally accessible to working-class communities. However, it's all relative, and playing a musical instrument is still an expensive endeavour. The pandemic has helped to highlight the critical barriers we need to address for this group.

Our approach to EDI

When developing a strategy towards EDI, our guiding principle becomes incredibly simple in thinking about what it means to be 'national'. Our aim must be to serve everyone and for the National Youth Pipe Band to ultimately become a resource for all young people in Scotland.

We must bear in mind when reaching out to communities representing these groups that each participant is an individual with their own unique advantages and disadvantages.- Steven Blake, NYPBS Director

Our programme is structured around two strands: our National Bands and our Outreach programme. There were some quick wins we actioned straight away. Firstly, we have improved our monitoring practices across both programmes to help us track our engagement and monitor our progress concerning EDI. Secondly, we extended our National Bands with the addition of our Junior Band.

One of the first things that struck me about access was that with the standard being so high and the age range spanning 10-25 years old, it was really difficult to gain a place in the NYPBS unless you were an elite player aged around 17-25.

By reaching participants earlier, we increased access and can now monitor other EDI outcomes across these age ranges and see where people are dropping off. More specifically, we have tried to reach each of the priority groups mentioned above with some notable challenges and successes.

To continue to reach those living in areas high on the SIMD Index, we took great care to make sure our marketing material was widespread and focused a lot of it on social media to meet young people where they are. We also coordinated with local tutors in areas high on the SIMD index and advertised bursaries, however, this year, we met this need by offering accessible online activity for free.

One challenge we have faced here is understanding how to analyse this properly.

What is the definition of 'high on the SIMD index' exactly? For reporting purposes, we have focused on rank 1, the most deprived area in the quintile band, but understanding the exact parameters of this priority group as a national standard would help us gauge our performance here.

Also, equipment is a big issue facing those living in areas high on SIMD, and we noted that drummers, particularly, were affected by this during the pandemic. They often don't have their own instruments, and even with access to local band drums, they lack the experience to independently maintain the drums at home. In response, we have created YouTube tutorials focusing on these critical skills.

Working with partners

We have been fortunate to work with various inclusion partners over the past year, including Drake Music Scotland, The Bit Collective and Bogha-Frois (Queer Voices In Folk). This work is relatively new at NYPBS, and we still have a long way to go. However, this partnership work has significantly impacted our marketing strategies, including creating accessible marketing materials that resonate with priority groups. We also utilise our inclusion partners' networks to help reach more of their communities.

In reaching those with disabilities, we have learned we must look beyond our current age and skill barriers when it comes to inclusion. Education and development opportunities often take longer for young people who are disabled. As a result, we have begun implementing extended age ranges for those who identify as disabled. We are also setting up disability awareness training for our tutors and young people.

As part of my role at the NYPBS, I joined an initial working group set up by the Bit Collective, which has commissioned research to establish improved safeguarding training for traditional music practitioners to make sure young women feel safe and included in our industry.

In understanding where we are with those in the LGBTQ+ community, we are still working on improving our monitoring in a way that makes our participants feel comfortable.

Bogha-Frois helped us understand the power of simply creating work and experiences with inclusion at their centre over explicit inclusion events when it comes to engaging with our young people.

We also realised an easy improvement for us was to be more vocal about our support. For the first time, we ran a series of social media posts for Pride Month celebrating a few notable piping composers from the community and featuring performances from alumni.

We haven't managed to establish meaningful partnerships amongst BAME communities yet but are prioritising this. We also realise that many organisations have likely been swamped with inquiries like ours over the past couple of years following the impact of the BLM movement.

We have also had beneficial conversations with individuals who have proven to be informative inclusion partners outside of these partnership organisations.

Many of these have started as accessibility enquiries from parents and potential participants, however, discussions with alumni have been illuminating as well. These conversations have led to immediate outcomes, such as providing applications in alternative formats and changing our communications to clarify the support we can offer to specific groups. They have also helped us identify critical longer-term milestones to action so that everyone can feel welcomed in our programme.

New projects

Creative Scotland's YMI team have also given us great advice, support and a framework to get started on improving access to our programme. Specifically, thanks to the Youth Arts Targeted Fund, we have launched a new strand to our activity called New Horizons, a platform for us to increase opportunity and create visibility and support for the priority groups in a way that ties into our main programme.

This year we launched two new projects as part of this: a project called Emerging Composers and an initiative to engage young instrumentalists.

Emerging Composers offers paid commissions to five early-career artists we wouldn't typically hear from in pipe band.

This project allowed us to form a selection panel from various inclusion partners, who helped us evaluate each applicant fairly and gave us valuable feedback on how the applications and project were structured.

We also changed the initial age restrictions from 18 - 25 years old to up to 30 years old if you identify as disabled in response to feedback from Drake Music Scotland. And we were able to provide alternative application formats thanks to very patient and helpful access enquiries from young people themselves.

Following a training weekend with NYPBS tutors and top industry mentors, our 5 successful applicants have all written new work for the NYPBS in response to one of 7 stories on the themes of inclusion, difference and community.

We are currently supporting each artist in the final stages of their pieces. Whilst our live events were cancelled due to the impact of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, we plan to perform the work live at our next end-of-year concert.

The second initiative seeks to engage young instrumentalists of various levels, ages, and backgrounds in various genres to work with the NYPBS on a collaborative performance of Martyn Bennett's piece Mackay's Memoirs, scheduled to launch soon.

One learning here has been the value of longer-term partnerships and planning. As we aim to work heavily with partner organisations in projects like this, we have found it much harder to adapt in an agile way to COVID-19 restrictions when there are simply more people involved.

An illustration of children and young people playing lots of different instruments together in a band. They look excited and joyful and colourful streamers burst out around them making the whole image feel exciting and happy

Celebration Band. Illustration by Lillias Kinsman Blake, image courtesy of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland.

We wanted to create marketing materials for this project that would resonate with a more diverse group of young people and create imagery where they could see themselves represented. However, we realised our archives just do not communicate diversity at all, so we worked with a fantastic illustrator Lillias Kinsman Blake to create imagery of the type of diversity we aspire for in the project.

Looking ahead

As we move on from here, we hope that as we start to see a greater diversity of people we interact with, we will see ideas and our strategy towards EDI develop in direct correlation.

As momentum snowballs with everyone's input, I would expect things to move from focusing on reaching those we are not reaching, to a more robust access infrastructure to cater to our more diverse participant base.

In the meantime, one of the big questions is: how do we know if we are making reasonable progress towards our EDI goals?

We know for sure that we are behind, as with the rest of society, but it's hard to determine what a reasonable rate of progress would be.

Over the last couple of years, the feedback we have had has been a complete mix. We have received a lot of encouragement and guidance from partner organisations and individuals, however, we are also aware that those facing access barriers are justifiably frustrated. We seem to have made a positive start towards sustained progress around EDI but it's just that, a start.

We are also trying to bear in mind an understanding of intersectionality more often as we proceed and work feedback into our approach.

Identifying priority groups has been a helpful starting point for us but it is understandable that if your child identifies with only one of these groups, our progress with the others often feels irrelevant. And we must bear in mind when reaching out to communities representing these groups that each participant is an individual with their own unique advantages and disadvantages.

Determining whether we are working at a reasonable rate of progress on this is complex. However, with the big picture, we know for sure we are still behind.

In lieu of that unknown velocity, we are working from the standard of bringing a continuous sincere commitment to improving access and diversity across our work.

This article was published on 08 Mar 2022