Friendly confined

Talk to any piper or drummer older than 55 anywhere and they will all say that, until the 1980s, there was much more socializing and camaraderie between rival bands and players. In Ontario they always talk about how everyone camped at the games, had impromptu ceilidhs the night of the event, then played softball or football on Sunday. In Scotland they talk about band socials where other bands would support each other more.

And then they remark how today everyone just goes home, and hardly even socializes with the competition – the enemy – even in the beer tent.

Why have things changed so? Has what we do become strictly about winning? Are the high-stakes of the World’s and Maxville and Oban and Inverness becoming such that we have no time to have fun?


Your inner-Lance

As a keen road-cyclist, I was right into the Tour de France, watching the live coverage every morning. I cycle to work (about 12 km) each day through Toronto traffic and my wireless computer tells me that I average about 25 km/hour, and can reach a maximum of about 65 km/hr in one spot on the way home. That’s about courier-speed and the hour of riding each day is a work-out.

On the longer, flatter races on The Tour, the average speed is usually around 50 km/hr and they occasionally reach 100 on some downhill stretches. And that’s over four- or five-hour rides. It’s truly mind-boggling.

Lance Armstrong’s people have done a good job dispelling any notion of him artificially enhancing his performance. They coordinated an independent medical study on his physiology and publicized the results. The study was done by experts in the field who are also keen cyclists. Armstrong would appear to be some kind of uber-human, able to pump far more blood and consume more oxygen than just about anyone on earth. His natural metabolism combined with his training regimen make him virtually unbeatable.

Which of course leads to piping and drumming. Wouldn’t it be great to do a similar study on, say, Willie McCallum or Stuart Liddell or Jim Kilpatrick or even our own Armstrong, Chris? Is there something in their physiology that makes them do the things that they do with their bagpipe or drum so consistently?

Yes, of course they’re bound to practice like mad, but dozens of others who practice more, who compete or perform at the same level, don’t get the same results.

There must be a piper out there who could conduct such a study. The research on Armstrong basically indicated that, as long as Lance stayed on his bike, no one would touch him. Perhaps the same sort of conclusion could be made after studying our greatest players.

But, then again, since we’re not scoring goals, racking up points, or being timed, we’d have to conduct a follow-up study on the subjective brains of judges.


Grand Slamming

You just knew that it would come to this.

But, first, a bit of history.

The 78th Fraser Highlanders are the 25-year-old band based in Toronto. The surviving members of the former General Motors Pipe Band got uniforms and a bit of sponsorship money from the 78th Fraser Highlanders, a group of mainly society folk into re-enactment and wearing the bright orange 78th Fraser tartan, tam, retro-tunics and tartan socks. The new band named itself the 78th Fraser Highlanders and won the World’s six years later. “The Frasers” have had no real sponsorship tie with the historical group for at least 15 years, and even created its own “78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band” tartan (a brilliant idea, if I do say so) in 1997. The band got permission to keep the name.

The 78th Highlanders Halifax Citadel Pipe Band is about five years old. The band was the Halifax Police for many years and, as with the General Motors situation, found new sponsorship from the Halifax Citadel, a major tourist attraction and historical re-enactment thingmee in Nova Scotia. To get the benefit of the sponsorship, the band had to change its name to the 78th Highlanders. No “Fraser” in the name, since there’s no “Fraser” in this particular historical group. Fair enough.

So, what has it come to? Well, both bands are competing in Scotland again this year, and both bands are playing at Bridge of Allan. The RSPBA has made the draw for the contest, and, lo and behold, the two bands play back-to-back. Not only that, but the RSPBA has listed the 78th Highlanders Halifax in the draw as the 78th Fraser Highlanders Halifax Citadel.

While North American judges seem to be used to the notion of two bands having similar names, the same might not be true of RSPBA judges and administrators.

There was a time in the 1970s when there were two bands called Denny & Dunnipace. Both were Grade 2. Both were teased with the “Dummies That Didnae Place” name by jealous rivals. One was from Denny, near Stirling, Scotland, and the other from Washington, DC, where the closest thing to the name is a “Denny’s” on Highway 66 near Fairfax. The bands met a few times at the Inter-Continental Championships in Toronto. No word whether they shared a Grand Slam Inter-Continental Breakfast at the Denny’s off of the QEW.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see if there’s any confusion at Bridge of Allan, or the World’s for that matter. My guess is no. The two bands couldn’t look more different and their musical styles and sound are like chalk and cheese.

But, if the 87th Cleveland Pipe Band manages to get to Grade 1, dyslexic judges will have to be monitored very closely . . . or is that loosely . . .



Watching the Open Championship (or, the “British Open” as North Americans call it) at St. Andrew’s reminded me of a little known bit of piping trivia.

There’s a bunker on the second hole named “Cheape’s.” It is in fact named for the grandfather of Hugh Cheape, the well known piping historian (who is also the grand-nephew of Brigadier-General Ronald Cheape of Tirroran).

To have a bunker at St. Andrew’s named for your family — how cool is that?

Loco motives

A ton of correspondence comes through the sumptuous P&D offices every day from pipers and drummers of every ability, from everywhere. I can’t help but notice how many of them say how they’re “crazy busy” with everything, running around to band practices, their own practices, judging, teaching, workshops, whatever. And so many of these folks are doing all of that piping/drumming stuff in their spare time.

Why are so many of us willing to drive ourselves to the point of exhaustion? And for what? Our name in a prize list? A hundred bucks? Beer-tent glory?

I’m one of those people, too, and I’m not even playing, except for giving a lesson or two a week and the odd band practice with The Odd Band and the occasional twiddling on the chanter of The Odd Tunes. Add all the other piping stuff (about which I won’t bore you again) I’ve been busier than ever this summer.

What is it that drives our obsession?


Slim J.

I note that on the “This Day in History” feature on the Web site is something about the birth of Slim J. Woulie in 1967.

Slim J. is a little-kent piper from Argyllshire said to have a direct blood-line to John McLellan, Dunoon. Slim reportedly left active piping at the height of her career to become a scientist for NASA or something, which was a great loss for our world, but a great gain for innovation.

If anyone knows anything further about the legendary Slim fae Dunoon, please write in.


Tech glitch

There were a few technical problems with the blog, so, to the several folks who had sent in comments, feel free to send them again. I was planning to post them, but they were accidentally deleted.


Bagpipes ain’t noise pollution?

During my first few years of playing the Highland pipes, I would practice the full instrument in my backyard, serenading neighbours and total strangers with what had to sound like what the late John D. Burgess would refer to as screaming banshees.

It continued until a neighbour called the police, who showed up and told me to cease and desist. (My parents, being natural PR types, called the local paper a few days later and there was a story about the incident.)

I’m reminded of this because Steven Tripp, a very good piper here in Toronto, writes saying that he is struggling for practice space. He goes to the very famous Mount Pleasant cemetery and has a tune among the graves. But he says that, despite constantly changing locations, he’s been told to stop on eight occasions now by the Toronto Police (which ironically has supported a pipe band for almost a century, and Steven even played with it for a time). Steve says that someone recently threatened to have him banned outright from even entering the cemetery, alive or dead.

Practicing outdoors is an interesting dilemma. On one hand, a player of Steven’s calibre is probably a treat to the thousands of people who can hear him, but one or two grumps with nothing better to do call the police. They’d call the police if Pavarotti were practicing.

On the other hand, I don’t like it when music is foisted on me, whether it’s drum-and-bass played at 11 from a pimped-out Honda Civic or muzak at a dentist’s office. When I practice it’s indoors with the windows closed. When I lived in an apartment I asked a local school if I could use one of its classrooms in the evenings and they kindly obliged.

Practicing outside in a big city is a quandary for pipers and drummers. I think it should be avoided, but others may see it differently.



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