Deep Purple

I teach a 10-year-old beginner just now. He’s on his fifth or sixth lesson and has already concquered GDEs and heavy d-throws.

But last lesson he asked if “Smoke on the Water” can be played on the pipes.

What was intriguing was not the question, but that a 10-year-old is aware of Deep Purple – and why.

 

Shysters

I like to think that pipers and drummers won’t cheat other pipers and drummers. Piper & Drummer Online is a not-for-profit endeavour, and I created it from my own money. To keep it going, organizations can purchase inexpensive banner ads to pay the bills and, with luck, sock away a bit of capital to plow back in to the site.

But every so often there comes some shyster organization that just doesn’t pay its bill. They are asked repeatedly to settle their account, and they respond with waffling and false promises knowing that we have little recourse to collect.

I’ve toyed with the idea of posting a list of these organizations, but legal counsel has advised against it. What’s a poor, trusting Web site to do?

Pipers and drummers who cheat other pipers and drummers are scum. You know who you are.

 

Bagpipe-making

I’ve noticed over the last few years a decline in prices for vintage Highland pipes. They just don’t seem to be as in-demand as they once were, and I wonder why.

When I started to learn in the 1970s, my first instrument was a set of imitation-ivory-mounted Hardies. I remember that they took ages to get directly from R.G. Hardie in Glasgow, and when they finally arrived they sported a hide bag that was like a new Rawlings catcher’s mitt: tough as 10-year-old beef jerky. I (or, rather, my dad) specifically wanted a Malcolm tartan bag-cover, but they put on a MacFarlane one instead. The chanter was virtually unplayable with one hole being so badly cut that you needed an extra finger to reach it. Much to-do about all that, and Hardie never really bothered to make it right.

It was clear that, back then, the leading pipe-maker of the time sent a bunch of crap, with crappy service, to young American pipers.

Even though we got that bagpipe, it was pretty much understood by me, my parents, and my teachers that it was only a temporary instrument, that the next step was to find a set of older Henderson, MacDougall or Lawrie drones, and, true enough, I obtained a set of 1950s Lawries a few years later, and another set of 1936 Lawries in the 1990s.

It’s different for pipers now. The North American market is a goldmine, and new pipe-makers seem to be springing up all the time. Vintage instruments are no longer in high demand because pipe-making has become more sophisticated. Makers are producing better instruments designed for a modern, sharper pitch. Perhaps most importantly, makers are being nicer to their customers because there’s vastly more competition and a reputation for bad service can spread faster than cans of beer at a march-past.

Are we in a golden-age of pipe-making, or is the best still yet to come?

 

Plumage

Around 1986, I read an article in Maclean’s by Canadian columnist Allan Fotheringham in which he remarked that the normal order of things in the animal world is for the male of the species to wear the brighter colours, to be more flamboyant than the female. The female cardinal is brown and black, a lioness lacks a mane . . . you get the picture.

Fotheringham went on to observe that humans are different in that females are the ones to get all dolled-up and, on average, work hardest at attracting with makeup and nice clothes. An exception is the Scots. When it comes to traditional garb, the Scottish male outdoes the female in a major way. The male Northern Celt understands the power of the kilt when it comes to attracting attention.

A few years ago I happened to be sitting next to Fotheringham at a dinner in downtown Toronto. By this time he had been a bit disgraced when it was discovered that he had apparently plagiarized several articles. He wasn’t getting much writing work. But I told him that I was a piper and that I had really liked his observations about the Scots and the kilt.

Seemingly well into his cups he said that he didn’t really remember the article, but thought that the premise was quite good. We discussed the wearing of the kilt, but that to a competitive piper the kilt is a uniform requirement rather than a courting option – at least when one is well-entrenched in the competition system.

Anyway, I’m not sure what all this means, but it may explain in a basic way the dominance of the male in the Highland bagpipe world. Combine the plumage of the kilt with the mating call of the pipe, and it’s only natural that more males than females are initially attracted to the instrument.

To be sure, women are every bit as good at the Highland pipe as men, but it can’t be denied that more males are drawn to play the pipes than females. The spectacle of the kilt and the allure of the sound attract attention. It’s certain mating-magnetism.

 

Authority

Been thinking about “authority.” It’s a word you hear and read a lot in high-brow piping circles. There must be “authority” to everything we play. Settings of set tunes aren’t acceptable without recognized “authority.” The Piping Times purports to be an “authority” on piping.

I’m all for knowledgable and respected people providing advice and constructive criticism to others, and if that’s authority, great. But in musical terms, what constitutes authority? Who suddenly has a right to be an authority on the way the music should be played? Why do we always try to limit our music to something that has already been done and established and accepted?

I’ve always found it funny that winning certain prizes makes people an authority. Gold Medals won by those who really know only a handful of tunes are suddenly catapulted into “authority” territory, while guys who toiled in the contests for years who know more than 100 tunes and every one of their settings are overlooked.

A friend of mine was asked by a judge after he played in a piobaireachd contest, “Who is the ‘authority’ for the way you played that tune?” His response was, “Me.” It was as if the judge needed some recognized name attached to the tune to award a prize. Not having that gave the judge enough courage to leave my friend out of the prizes. What a crock.

Shouldn’t we stop using “authority” as a crutch for our own broken courage, and simply play and award prizes to the music that we like?

“I fought authority, authority always wins,” sang John Mellencamp before he had the courage to banish the “Cougar” name given to him by music-business “authorities.”

It’s time we banished the word “authority” from piping. It’s creepy.

 

Retired

A few years ago I wrote an editorial about how difficult it can be for a competitor in any activity to bow out, to call it a day, to git while the goin’s still good. A few people asked, “Were you talking about me?” and my response was generally, no, but if you see yourself in those thoughts, then I suppose it is about you.

Actually, the editorial was mainly about me, and now I think that I have decided to stop competing. It’s been nearly 30 years of tramping the boards, 25 in the open or professional category. (Actually, four of those years I didn’t play in solo competition due to 1) living in a basement apartment with no place to practice, and 2) playing with a band that demanded hours of freaking difficult content to be at my fingertips.)

I can still play well and still get invitations to big contests, but the drive and fire has left me, and my interests are now in my family, travel, biking, golf, baseball, music, and, of course, all the various other piping-related things that I get up to and seem to please many more people than any tune I might play.

It’s not exactly bowing out like Seinfeld or Michael Jordan, when you’re ruling your world, but, then again, I don’t think that I ever jumped the shark, as it were. And we’ve all grimaced at failing athletes and artists who didn’t know when to stop.

I’m fortunate that I am still so involved in the piping and drumming world well beyond solo competing. I’ll have more time for those things, and I’m looking forward to trying to make even more of a difference.

Here’s to the newest generation of solo pipers!

 

Invitationals

The solo piping world is quickly becoming an invitational extravaganza.  Seeing the results of the annual Dan Reid competition-recital-invitational-challenge reminds me that more and more events are not “open,” but available only to those fortunate enough to be asked to play.

There are still solo competition circuits that enable pipers to gain prizes and rise to the top. But increasingly these aren’t taken seriously. The conditions usually suck. The judging can be iffy. No one really pays much attention to those prizes any more, and, Lord knows, only friends and family want to listen to them.

Looking at the invitiaionals, many don’t have much criteria for invitation. A few, like the Glenfiddich (the granddaddy of them all), are very specific about who qualifies each year, so there is often quite a bit of variety.

But some, like the Dan Reid, seem to be at the whim of the organizers, who quite naturally want to put on the best event to attract the best audience with the least amount of headaches. Organizers want safe and sure performers – pipers who behave themselves, show up on time, and wear a pressed kilt.

Our best performance venues continue to move from competition to concert stages. Right now, we’re entering a hybrid state, where many events want the best of both. Who can blame them?

 

Ulster ouster?

What’s going on in Northern Ireland? Two bands — Bleary and Quinn — say that they can’t get enough players together to field a competitive group. Meanwhile Ulster bands dominate every grade in the UK. Is it really a case of numbers or simply people not getting along?

Seems a shame that these two bands, with such histories of success, have to fold up while all around them is a rich pool of pipe band talent.

 

Pipe dreams

For the past few days I’ve had similar dreams about piping. They aren’t exactly nightmares, but they have been quite exciting.

The common thread in them is that I am at a solo piping contest. It’s some sort of highfalutin invitational event where everyone is supposed to play to some great standard. The extra dimension in each dream is that I don’t know any of the tunes that I have submitted. I don’t even have a clue as to how they go, and I’m sweating trying to figure out what to do before I have to play.

The contest episodes are preceded and followed by lots of adventures in Scottish-types of places. Last night I was riding a bike through what seemed to be a cliff-side sheep-track on a Hebridean island. I never actually fell, but there was always the threat of disaster — sort of like the not-knowing-any-of-the-tunes situation.

To add to that, Neil Mulvie was in it. I haven’t seen Neil for a few years now, but in the last dream he was really fulfilling his usual dignified educated gentleman role. But, then again, I seem to recall him trying to knock me off of my bike.

Hugh MacCallum called having to learn the set tunes year after year “the treadmill.” Maybe it’s more like trying to ride a bike along a sheep-track on the side of a cliff with someone constantly threatening to push you over the edge.

Any Freudians out there?

 

Mortality combat

What is going on in solo piping these days? Every time I look around there’s another older piper making a recording.

First, 82-year-old Donald MacPherson makes his first record since the dawn of the CD. Then 63-year-old Bill Livingstone (a young pup compared with MacPherson) comes out with his eight-volume “Piobaireachd Diary.” Now there’s a record by Davey Hutton, the former-Muirheads pipe-sergeant who in his late seventies decided to hit the recording studio.

What next? Samples of Angus MacPherson’s playing in a new hip-hop mix?

But, meanwhile, the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering seem to be sending a message to pipers in their thirties and early forties that they’ve had jolly well enough time to do whatever, ushering in pipers in their twenties.

For solo piping, is it the age of the young and the old, and not a lot in between?

 

“World Champion”

I’ve been thinking about the term “World Champion.” The World Pipe Band Championships is an event always held in Glasgow with contests in various grades.

The title of World Champion, though, should be reserved only for the bands that cannot rise any higher. The winner of Grade 3A, for example, at the World Pipe Band Championships still has dozens of Grade 2 and Grade 1bands ahead of it, and should not lay claim to the title.

In the pipe band world there are not different degrees of World Champions. Except for the juvenile grades, bands are separated by quality, or grades, not age groups or some other limiting factor.

Therefore, there are two World Champions in the pipe band universe: the winner of Grade 1 and the winner of Juvenile. All the rest simply won their particular event at the World’s.

In 2004 the only World Champions are Field-Marshal Montgomery and St. Thomas Episcopal School.

Nothing should be taken away from the achievement of winners in other grades, but, if they try to claim the World Champion title, the extraordinary accomplishments of the winners of Grade 1 and Juvenile – the bands that cannot rise any higher – are diminished.

 

Play ball

It’s Opening Day for Major League Baseball, with the Boston Red Sox playing the New York Yankees tonight in the first game of the 2005 season. The clocks went ahead last night. And it snowed for most of the day here in Toronto.

Baseball fans seem just a bit more passionate, or maybe obsessive, than other sports fans, and the game’s peculiar cultural mix of trivia and statistics brings together the sublime and ridicuolus. Many passionate baseball fans contend that the sport is as artistic as it is athletic.

Scottish football fans have similar passion for that sport, which, like baseball, has a very short rulebook. The fewer the rules, the nearer the game approaches perfection. “The Beatiful Game” hasn’t taken off in the United States the way it has in most of the rest of the world perhaps because one beautiful game per nation is enough. Nations that excel in baseball generally don’t do so well in soccer, and vice-versa.

But baseball and football are not unlike pipe bands. Each new season brings optimism, new line-ups, and the possibility of unexpected greatness. We all know that pipe band people can be as obsessive and passionate as they come. The first pipe band competition of the year, wherever it is, feels much like Opening Day. Our competitive art is, like football and baseball, artisitic sport.

On Opening Day there’s always a chance that the Blue Jays will be better than the Yankees, that Aberdeen will finish ahead of Celtic, that a new band will become a contender in August.

Play ball.

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