Here today, gone later today

It always surprises me just how quickly well known people can vanish from the piping and drumming scene. Our history is full of folks who did pretty significant things, and then suddenly elected to do something entirely different. When once they were at every event for decades, one day they seem to decide that they’ve had enough and they’re gone from our sight and our psyche.

Occasionally, these people will surface as a spectator at an event. A few veterans will notice them, and maybe you’ll hear one tow folks whispering, “Hey, there’s So-and-so. He once . . .”

It’s like seeing someone who went through drug/alcohol re-hab showing up at a pub drinking only ginger-ale.

I think piping and drumming is for so many such an intense passion that leaving it can only be done cold-turkey, otherwise the addiction will once again take hold. Piping and drumming dependence can be intense, so perhaps some people would rather walk away forever than try to temper their addiction.



I enjoyed listening to the complete light music contest at this year’s Livingstone Memorial on Saturday. It was very different being a non-participant. No heart-palpitations. No schadenfreude. No sweaty palms when the prizes were announced. Goodbye to all that.

In competitive terms, there were a few very good performances, but I enjoyed all of them — that is, once they actually started to perform.

With one exception, every competitor stood there for what seemed an eternity screwing and twisting away at their instrument, sometimes putting out of tune a perfectly tuned bagpipe. The more seasoned competitors at least whiled away part of the time with some nice airs, but others regaled the audience with hemming-and-hawing of the tuning-up variety. One competitor looked like he just didn’t want to compete, seemingly putting off the whole business until the end of the judges’ patience or the end of the world, whichever came first.

Granted, the tuning rooms were reportedly a bit chilly (one player referred to one particularly bad room as “the ice-box”), and instruments were clearly in some flux. But, still, are 10 minutes of tuning notes for seven minutes of tunes any way to treat the judges or the audience? I tend to think that the whole tuning thing is often more ritualistic than functional.

I’d like to see a contest some day that states in the rules, “Competitors are not allowed to touch their drones once they have blown up their pipes.” It would put every player on the exact same ground. It would also put pressure on contest organizers to provide temperature consistency between the tuning-rooms and the main stage. Imagine a pipe band contest where competitors tuned for 10 minutes in the circle before they actually played their medley. Bands would be pelted with beer cans. If Field-Marshal Montgomery’s pipe section can go into the circle sounding like a pipe-organ, surely a top solo piper can do the same.

Eliminating the mind-numbing tuning process would go a long way to making these events more enjoyable, and put the spotlight directly on the music rather than the ritualistic aspects of solo piping.


Vitamin C

My favourite note is C.

Each of my most favourite tunes — “Highland Brigade at Magersfontein,” “Lochanside,” “Donald MacLean,” “Jig of Slurs,” “Lament for Captain MacDougall,” Lament for Mary MacLeod” . . . — favours the C.

It’s a note that’s rarely not true on even the worst chanters with the crummiest reeds. It blends with the drones like no other non-A note. It is happy. It’s futz-proof.

Yes, it’s the C for me.


Tommy Pearston

I didn’t know Tommy Pearston, the co-founder of the College of Piping who died last week, but I knew of him and certainly liked watching him at competitions. He was small in stature and quiet in demeanor, and seemed the exact opposite of Seumas MacNeill, who was tall and skinny and never met a podium he didn’t like.

MacNeill was “Famous Seumas” while Tommy was just Tommy, as far as I knew. I really like the less-known people who make a strong impact on the piping world, and the Piper & Drummer tries to bring these folks to the fore as much as possible. Of course, because of their natural reticence, it’s often difficult to draw them out. Willie Kinnear, Edith MacPherson, and Hugh Cheape are just a few of the less-known people who have been profiled.

For this reason, too, we sometimes overlook those who deserve better. Tommy Pearston would have been a great interview. His side of the College of Piping story and his view of Seumas certainly would have made fascinating and important reading. The fact that Seumas MacNeill, who had so little time for anyone who wasn’t an intellectual challenge, had so much time and respect for Tommy Pearston says a lot about Pearston as a person.

Beth Orton on Central Reservation sings that “Regrets are just things you haven’t done yet.” So, I greatly regret not thinking of Tommy Pearston until now, and it’s too late.


Comic relief?

The piping and drumming world is full of incredibly funny people. Maybe it’s a result being so wound up by competition that pipers and drummers enjoy taking the piss out of most things.

It is funny, though, that we come across as a bunch of humourless pucker-arses to those not in the club. Contests are so often full of long and worried faces,  as if players are about to go over the top of the trench. Pick up any piping publication (with one notable exception), and it’s all terribly serious articles and reporting with a heavy air of “authority.” Not a trace of humour in any of them unless it’s some inside joke with other “authorities.”

It’s a shame that we can’t lighten up a bit more on the outside, like we do on the inside at band practices and at competitions. We are so often a bizarre lot of competitive fanatics and traditionalist zealots. If our extraordinary spectacle isn’t occasionally amusingly absurd, nothing is.

Judges in the truck

Anyone who has been to the World Pipe Band Championships is aware of  BBC Scotland’s remote truck capturing all of the action. The contest rings are lined with wooly and water- and wind-proof microphones. Iain MacInnes and Gary West have, beyond a doubt, the best listening experience on the park since they get to hear each band as a whole, with a perfectly-balanced sound that is consistent from band to band.

Which begs the question: why doesn’t the RSPBA put the judges in the BBC truck or another truck with the same microphone feeds? The judges would then get the full effect of the sound — and only the sound — and could make their judgments without distractions.

After all, if you can’t hear a piper hitching up his bag or a drummer lifting his sticks, then it should not matter. Additionally, putting the judges in the BBC truck would keep bands better focused on their task, with no eyes drifting from the pipe-major’s hands as a judge walks by.

Yes, the judges wouldn’t be able to preen before the crowd and competitors, but any piping and drumming competition is about the music and the competitors and not the judges. It’s not the way things are done, but it’s a way to do things better.



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