Facts

I just read comments on the occasionally entertaining and usually selacious “Beer Tent” about the little story about Gordon Lee joining SFU. I thought the piece was totally benign, no matter which way it was sliced, but there’s always someone – and usually someone who’s afraid to put his name to his or her thoughts – who’s convinced that I have some secret agenda or intentionally try to misrepresent the “facts.”

The fact is, I personally could not give a rat’s arse about what any band or piper or drummer does. I don’t care where a band comes from. I have no predilection towards any group, whether I once played with them or not, or any country or city that I may or may not have lived in.

All I personally care about is that bands and soloists – all of them – play well and keep building their respective scenes. I only care that people play and compete and perform and judge fairly, and that everyone gets whatever they fairly deserve.

I do my best to acquire the facts and report news as I feel is appropriate and commensurate with the actual news value. I’m not a mind-reader and I don’t spend all day investigating reports or conjuring up stories. In general, what you see on Piper & Drummer Online comes from incoming tips and bands and soloists sending their news. If you don’t read about something, it’s usually because no one bothered to send it in or because it’s not, in my judgment, news.

It’s too bad that some in the piping and drumming world are bent on thinking there’s an ulterior motive to everything. Generally speaking, you’ll find these people doing the most complaining and the least contributing.

 

Walking out

The news that the Royal Burgh of Stirling Pipe Band’s drum section effectively walked out with only a few weeks before the first big contest of the season can’t help but be surprising. I don’t know the circumstances around it, but I do know that there is something of an unwritten rule in pipe band etiquette that, after about February, if you’re still on a band’s roster you should see the season through, even if it means grinning and bearing it.

(That said, if you can’t commit the time, or if family or illness get in the way, you have to do what’s right for you and the band. No use muddling through music and letting people down.)

But, if you have the time and health, you should stick with it and do your best to help the cause. I don’t know what the RBS players intend to do, but walking out to join another band for the season should really be treated with total disdain. In fact, I fully support rules that keep quitters from joining another band for at least six months.

That’s probably too draconian for some associations. But just as there is an unwritten rule that you don’t jump ship months, much less weeks, before the season, there should also be a rule that bands don’t welcome those ship-jumping players. Pipe bands can be overly desperate to build their rosters, even if it means turning a blind eye to the circumstances. In this age of mega-sections, who can blame them for succumbing to the temptation?

But, really, a band’s reputation for adding band-hoppers to their roster should suffer just as much as the players’ reputations themselves. The world’s best bands of course perform well, but they also do so with their integrity intact. The models for pipe band success are those bands that build their rosters with dignity and respect. Occasionally, that means saying no to a band-hopper who has left even their fiercest competition in a lurch.

 

Made to be broken

There seems to be a bit of a groundswell of emotion about St. Laurence O’Toole’s entry to the Scottish Championships going awry, and most of it seems to be in favour of the letting the band play. I posted a poll on the site to see what the temperament might be, and, sure enough, about 75 per cent think that SLOT should be allowed to compete.

I’m the first to support the enforcement of rules when it comes to competition. It drives me crazy when competitors seemed to try to circumvent them by turning up late and being allowed to play at the end in a solo event when I was there at the crack of crow’s pee, respectful of an early draw. But you generally know who to believe and who to suspect by their track record. There are people who have made a career (or at least a reputation) of “hiding behind bushes” trying to slip in later.

When more serious issues like SLOT’s come up, I think that good judgment should prevail. Has the band ever done this before? Is there any reason to suspect fiddling the system? Do the negative aspects of not allowing them to compete outweigh the positive? Are there in fact any positive aspects of keeping them out of the Scottish?

Ultimately, in a case like this, I think the competing Grade 1 bands should be asked if they have any problem with making an exception. I would be shocked and amazed if a band insisted that the decision should stand. After all, who wants a prize when there’s a figurative asterisk by it in the minds of those who care? There’s plenty of time before the event to contact the 12 pipe-majors. If the majority thinks the decision should stand, then fair enough. But if my hunch is correct, and the bands want an exception made for SLOT, then the association should do the right thing and make an exception based on the evidence, the band’s history, and common sense.

 

Entry into crater

St. Laurence O’Toole’s unfortunate non-entry-entry to the Scottish Championships reminded me how slowly things can change in the pipe band world. In an age of instant response and confirmation, bands and pipers and drummers still have to enter for most events by old-fashioned stamp-post-and-prayer, and hope that nothing goes wrong along the way. Entry fees are the main reason, since few associations have any kind of instant payment system set up.

I once entered for the Fergus Games, or something, back in the 1980s and planned to make the 15-hour drive to the event. I hadn’t received any notice of my entry, so I decided to call the PPBSO president, the late George Forgan, who told me that there had been a Canadian mail strike and my entry was not received in time. No questions, please; I wasn’t allowed to play, and that was that. My fault for not calling before the deadline to confirm. And so it goes.

Pipe band associations and contests need to have entry rules. But it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. St. Laurence O’Toole obviously puts its heart and soul into what they do, and wouldn’t for an instant be trying to fudge the system. Everyone – association, judges, their competition, punters – wants them to compete. In cases like that, it perhaps makes sense to take a band at its word and quietly give them a call to make sure there wasn’t an oversight or lost mail or whatever.

The higher the standard, the sweeter the victory, and I’m sure SLOT’s competition would all want them to compete at the Scottish. Wouldn’t they?

 

Travelling all-stars

The last post about Allan MacDonald’s recording brought back some memories, mainly because of his really clever use of the Jew’s harp on a few tracks. It was either the spring or fall of 1977 or ’78, I believe, when I was a 14- or 15-year-old in St. Louis. British Caledonian Airways for some strange reason decided to start a St. Louis-Prestwick non-stop flight, and to launch it they sent over the Grade 1 B-Cal Pipe Band.

Back then, and perhaps even today, a top-flight Scottish band suddenly landing in St. Louis for a kid-piper would be akin to a Little Leaguer on a farm being visited by the New York Yankees. B-Cal then, as ScottishPower is now even after many name changes, was a band of all-stars players. Not the entire competition band made the trip, but I remember Hugh MacInnes, Tom Johnstone, Rab Kelly, Frank Richardson and Rab Turner being in St. Louis.

They played up and down the streets of Clayton (?!), a suburb of St. Louis in the first afternoon, and my dad took me out of school to go see them, since he recognized, as always, how important it was to me. Feather bonnets and tunics and plaids, and they were larger than life.

I think the band then had to play downtown that evening, and I and some members of the Invera’an band, which I played with, managed to tag along with them. I remember ending up in O’Connell’s, a great St. Louis pub, with many of them. Hugh MacInnes must have been in top playing-form then, and I remember that he was playing P-M Angus MacDonald’s pipes, a set of 1890 or so MacRaes. (Angus unfortunately didn’t make the trip.) He had them out at the pub, and everyone (including me, who must have been shockingly bad) had a tune among the many pints.

But the most memorable part of the experience was Allan MacDonald when he pulled out a Jew’s harp and started playing “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay,” alternating with his practice chanter. I’d never heard anything like it, and it made me practice all weekend, all week, all year and all life . . . at least until a year or so ago. (I even tried to learn how to play a Jew’s harp for awhile, and discovered that you could make a perfect Star Wars’ light saber sound with it.)

It’s funny how things like that can just happen, even to a wide-eyed adolescent piper in St. Louis. Not that I’m necessarily notable, but I think that probably most  notable pipers or drummers can recall similar happenstance being something of a turning-point in their career.

 

Sunday tonic

One of the problems I find with having your whole recorded music collection on a single device is that you sort have to know what you’re looking for when you’re not sure what you’re looking for. Because you see hundreds of titles or artists scrolled through with a jog-wheel, it’s easy to miss things you’ve forgotten about or even forgot you’d acquired. Flipping through CDs is or was a better process, and I hope Apple or whoever can find a better way to merge the music with graphics.

Coming home from work on the subway on Friday I happened across Margaret Stewart and Allan MacDonald’s Colla mo rún, their 2001 Greentrax recording, which has always been on my iPod but a favourite that had somehow fallen through the jog-wheel cracks. What a brilliant piece of work this is, made even more sublime when listened to on the westbound Bloor line.

It’s been on our home system all weekend. Allan’s playing is so creative and so pure and so rhythmical and so deft. His Gaelic singing is evocative and smoky, and if you’re not moved by “Tha sior cóineadh am beinn dóbhrain,” or his overwhelmingly tuneful pipe and ringing hi-A on “na h-eilthirch,” I’m afraid that you may have a heart of Aberdeen granite.

This is a terrific recording, for the Toronto subway, for the A82 to Crianlarich, for a Sunday morning anywhere.

Sponsors again

Simon Fraser University’s going to the British Championships in June in addition to the World’s in August is quite a thing. It’s not so much the money – which can always be found, if you really want to do it – but the time commitment. It speaks a great deal about that band’s passion for what they do.

I am very interested to see how SFU does with their new Naill chanters. SFU’s played Sinclairs since the mid-1980s, and, to me, this is their sound. Well-set Sinclair chanters produce an unmistakable ring. But, who knows? Perhaps Naill, working with Terry and Jack Lee, have been able to capture that ring, or even improve on it.

I don’t know how SFU subsidizes its travel, but I would hope that the good people at Naill are pitching in. It makes marketing sense. The British will be a telling day for Naill’s business. If SFU were to win the contest it would most certainly open Naill to the massive band chanter market, a sector that it has not yet been able to capture with the same success it has had in the relatively small solo market. Any chanter-maker with a winning Grade 1 band at a major reaps huge rewards.

I think more equipment manufacturers – bagpipe makers, drum companies, chanter makers, kilt makers – should look at one-time product launch sponsorships. Rather than committing to sponsoring a band in a long-range deal, these companies should use bands to launch their new products by publicizing it and funding the travel to the event or for the season. Assuming that the products perform well, it’s really the least they could do in return for such great publicity.

 

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