Stars and bars

Warning: this isn’t much about piping.

The World Cup is all the rage around Toronto. Since Canada’s not in it, and since the country comprises about one-third first-generation immigrants, every other car seems to have a flag mounted to its side. These flags are being sold all around the city. With every result there are spontaneous celebrations down the streets, cars honking, fans cheering, traffic stopping and no one, not even people from the losing side, getting too bothered by it.

Biking along College and Bloor streets I go through Korean, Portugese, Brazillian, Jamaican, Italian, Polish, Czech, Ukraine and Russian areas, each maybe four or five blocks long. It’s a daily dose of world culture. Immigrants to Canada are intensely proud of their new Canadian home, but they keep and show their strong connection to their homeland. It’s part of Canadian culture (at least in Toronto), and maybe also explains the popularity of things-Scottish across the country. One’s no less Canadian being proud of your country of birth.

Apparently there are more than 80,000 US-citizens living in the city of Toronto. Being one of them, I was keen to find an American flag to fly on our car (have one of those, too), but despite trying numerous vendors there was not a single one to be found. In fact, I don’t recall even seeing an American flag on any car at any time over the last two weeks.

I’m not sure why that is. Americans are famous for displaying their patriotism on their sleeves, their lapels, their heart and even tattooed on their skin. It didn’t make sense to me that the tens-of-thousands of US citizens wouldn’t want to fly Old Glory while the US team was still in the World Cup.

Nevermind. Tomorrow we’ll fly our Canadian flag, and on Tuesday we’ll fly our American flag, and on St. Andrew’s Day the Saltire will go up. Maybe we’ll put out the St. George’s Cross if/when England wins it all!


Size matters

Last Saturday at Georgetown, listening to the various bands in various grades, I was conscious of pipe-section sizes. You couldn’t help but be aware of the issue. The 78th Frasers played with 21 pipers, while City of Washington had, I believe, 13, and the Toronto and Peel police bands had numbers in between. In Grade 3, the Hamilton Police band’s section was, I think, 18, playing against bands considerably smaller.

Comparisons are difficult, since sound qualities and texture are radically different. There’s an unmistakable broadness that comes from a band with more than 18 pipers, while a band of 10-to-14 often will come across with a tightness of tone – provided both sections are decently tuned, which almost all bands from Grade 3 upwards are today.

A judge by necessity these days has to remind him or herself that it’s not a numbers game. It’s easy to be impressed or swayed by a larger section because the initial impact is almost always more substantial, even if it isn’t always more refined. The Manawatu band last year at the World’s didn’t necessarily have the largest pipe section, but it had a purity and clarity of chanter sound that is so hard to achieve with even a smaller section. But I’m sure that judges at the World’s had a hard time assessing Manawatu in relation to some of the bands playing with 18, 19, 20 pipers, and it would take a courageous judge to rate a smaller sound with impeccable unison over a massive section with stellar drones and powerful chanter tone.

While I like hearing a variety of sounds, I am a proponent of putting a limit on section sizes to level the field a bit. Competition in any form needs to have as level a playing-field as possible to be as successful and equitable as possible. If Grade 1 pipe section sizes were capped at, say, 18 it would help to put an end to the dilemmas that judges find themselves in, and perhaps mitigate a bit of chagrin. (I stress that I have not heard of any chagrinning from Georgetown.)

And if all Grade X bands continually meet maximum numbers, then the number can be raised accordingly, allowing the requirement and standard to rise as a whole, rather than risk leaving some bands behind in a survival-of-the-biggest struggle.


Jottings from Georgetown

About halfway through judging the Intermediate Amateur Pibaireachd contest I thought to myself, What could be better than being paid to listen to good piping all day long? Even though it was like a windy late-autumn day, the solo piping I heard was impressive, and any one of four in that piobaireachd contest or the Professional Jig could have been placed first by another judge. What’s most impressive are the pipes. There’s hardly an instrument that goes substantially astray and doesn’t have a well-pitched and tuned chanter.

Allison MacDonald, first-on in the Intermediate Amateur Piobaireachd, played “The MacFarlanes’ Gathering” with nice style and with exceptionally good hands. Watch this name. If she sticks with it and gets good tuition, she’s going places.

The Grade 1 band contest was very good. The 78th Frasers were strong with 21 pipers, solid right-round the circle. What was great to hear was that all four bands were a significant improvement over 2005, particularly Peel Police and City of Washington. CoW had a very well-set sound and, if not for some unfortunate mistakes, may have finished higher. Even though I was on piping, I couldn’t help hearing the Toronto Police’s new snares, which, to my ear, seemed lively and nicely pitched.

If pipers and bands could play so well at the trying Georgetown conditions, 2006 should be a very good year in Ontario, with rising standards across the boards.


Offline online

My decision to make the Piper & Drummer online-only came about after years of careful consideration. It was an unusual situation to be in: the print P&D was a great success and people kept telling me that it was the benchmark of  piping/drumming paper publications. P&D Online had become incredibly successful. Since the last major re-modeling of the site, its role was to provide news, while the print was to provide longer features.

My decision to go all-online is supported by lots of data that shows that the future or print is in some peril. There will always be room and demand for lovely, glossy weekend magazines that are all about experience. These generally will have circulations of more than 1 million. While the print P&D is clearly a nice experience, the cost of producing it, and the advertising and subscription charges needed to make it viable were getting out of whack. Developing a top-notch news website is also expensive, but it’s more or less a one-time charge. Publishing with it is basically free.

The new Piper & Drummer website will continue to be not-for-profit. That is, new revenues from whatever paid subscriptions come in, and advertising revenues, will be plowed back into the either the site or new piping/drumming projects. We’ll continue to sponsor other events and causes as we can and as they make sense. I hope that readers and advertisers will like the idea that their money is going to good causes to support their passion.

The fact that the P&D will no longer be connected in any shape to an organization is an important factor, too. Because the P&D magazine went to all PPBSO members, there was some confusion about the brand. Some thought that the completely independent website was also connected, and communicating that it was not was always difficult. Now, it should be absolutely clear that the P&D is independent. Unlike every other piping/drumming publication that I know of, we’re not connected with any organization, we’re not selling anything, and we can report on everything. Content on the site can continue and will continue to be completely objective.

The feedback that I have received and read regarding the move to all-online has been mainly of the “hate to see the print go, but it makes perfect sense and good luck” variety. Those most disappointed with the loss of the print edition seem to be older than 40-60 (my own age bracket), and you can understand why. They are not of the generation that grew up with the Internet, which, to many of those 40-plus folks, is still a mysterious newfangled gizmo.

The new P&D is an adventure. I’m never one to shy away from change, and the P&D, in many ways, has always encouraged and welcomed and called for change in piping/drumming. I’ll miss the old girl, but the future is bright and I’m looking forward to experiencing it with you.



I was at a small competition awhile ago and there were maybe four bands in the Grade 4 event. All of the bands played well and did their best, for sure, but the one that won the contest was streets ahead.

So many times I’ve spoken with prominent judges who have returned from a far-off judging trip, reporting back with effusive praise about such-and-such a band being in top-form at a small contest, and how they are sure to crack the top six at the World’s. Then the World’s comes and that band doesn’t even make the final. I’ve learned to take reports like these with a dose of sodium.

Context can be a funny thing when it comes to subjective competitions like ours. The competitive standard of any pipe band grade is wide-ranging. In any category, the quality range between the best bands and the worst bands is big. When only a few bands are in a contest, the one that plays substantially better than the rest can seem like a world-beater, even though they may only be excellent in the context of that specific contest.

It’s difficult to maintain a mental image of a musical “standard” for a grade. Our perception of quality is made up of so many things. A decent Grade 2 band playing on the day among Grade 3 and Grade 4 bands can seem like FMM incarnate.

It’s amazing to me how bands that function without any other bands in their grade for many hundreds or even thousands of miles can turn up at the World’s and do well. I’m thinking of bands like SFU, Alberta Caledonia, and the 78th Highlanders (Halifax). The greatest example was the Victoria Police in the 1990s. Not only did they have basically no other Grade 1 bands in Australia back then, but they competed at the World’s – and won the damn thing – in their off-season. Uncanny.

I think that the good Grade 4 band that I heard recently will do well when they compete at the World’s in August. I’ll be interested to hear how they ultimately do, and wonder if my mental image of a good standard was accurate.



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