Fit like

Watching the Tour de France, and being a keen cyclist, I can’t help but realize how a bike is a physical extension of the rider. There’s hardly another non-motorized mechanical invention that is so intertwined with the human body as the bicycle. Proper fit, form and function of a bike are everything to the success of the rider.

And so too the Highland bagpipe. I can’t think of another musical instrument that needs to be fitted so finely to the player’s body and preferences. You don’t change the dimensions of a trumpet to suit the length of the player’s arms. You can’t get a piano with smaller keys for a small-sized pianist (keep your snickers to yourself, please). A tuba’s a tuba.

But the Highland pipes are different. The size of bag, the length of blow-stick, the position of the chanter, the aperture of the mouthpiece – all should be altered to fit the player, so that the instrument can be played better. Personal preference and sensible fit are integral to getting the most from the instrument.

You see pipers hunched over their blowpipe all the time, or with their heads cocked to the side, or straining to reach the chanter. Not only does their music (and their listeners) suffer, but they run a greater risk of repetitive strain injury. Like a cyclist with aching knees because the reach to the pedals is too long, that numbness in the hands is more often than not due to the wrist being at an awkward angle because a bag is sized incorrectly.

The Highland pipes are probably the world’s most individualistic instrument. A good piper will seem physically connected to his/her bagpipe and, inevitably, winning the race.



Ever wonder about the two three-paced roll thing? It actually was adapted from military brass bands and, they say, Tom McAllister Sr. made it a standard for pipe bands about 80 years ago. Today, it’s okay for MSRs, if you like that sort of thing, but a bit archaic for medleys.

The RSPBA to my knowledge is the only association that actually has a rule for what bands must play in a medley. Ever since a Grade 1 band started its World’s selection with a waulking song in 1992, there’s been a rule that bands must start with two three-paced rolls, with an E and with a tune in “quickmarch” time.

Every other association in the world just lets bands play whatever they want within the allotted time. No big deal. Go for it.

But it’s those three-paced rolls that get me. Haven’t we progressed beyond that stamped-out predictable start? The drummers are the most creative musicians in the band – they compose pretty much everything they play. So why do they limit themselves to Tom McAllister Sr.’s decree of the 1930s?


No crying in piping

The image of David Beckham sobbing after he was taken off of the England-Portugal World Cup quarter-file match made me wonder about crying in sport and pipe band competition (which more and more people are saying is a sporting event). I couldn’t recall seeing a player crying actually during a game, and I tried to recall if I’d ever witnessed seeing a piper or drummer older than 12 crying at a contest.

I have. It happened once. It was at the World Pipe Band Championships in 1984. As I and a few members of the band I played with at the time, Polkemmet, were walking off of the march-past field, there was a piper from a rival Grade 1 band that had narrowly lost to the near-indomitable Strathclyde Police. Wearing number-one-dress, the guy just stood there in the middle of Bellahouston Park, shoulders heaving up and down, eyes streaming like the Clyde.

And, of course, everyone I was with tried to ignore him, but one of the pipers in my band extended his heart-felt sympathies by saying, “Aw, quit yer greetin’ ya wee wean!”

Which is to say there’s no crying in piping and drumming, just as there’s no crying in baseball or football – at least during the day of the contest. Sure, there’s lots of emotion in it but, really, it’s just a game. Yes, there are often piles of money wrapped up in it, but that’s a choice people make. At the end of the day it needs to be put in perspective.

A former Scots Guardsman needed to tell “Keeps Hot Things Hot and Cold Things Cold” Beckham to quit his greetin’, and save it for his Crying Room at his mansion or his trip to the bank.


Kids these days

So, there I was under my tree at Hamilton Games judging 21 Grade 5 pipers in one-hour flat (surely a record) and a half-swing sand-wedge across from me was the Professional Strathespey & Reel event. Some of the world’s best solo pipers were playing in it, the likes of Ian K. MacDonald, James, MacHattie, Colin Clansey, Michael Grey, Andrew Hayes . . . the list goes on.

And who was watching? No one. The newbie Grade 5 competitors seemed far more interested in listening to their own competition than in hearing top soloists just across the way. Perhaps they didn’t know or maybe their teachers weren’t pointing them in that direction. Or maybe people don’t feel like standing around a pasture in the baking sun any more than they absolutely have to.

It seems to have always been the way, at least at most contests in Ontario. I don’t know, but when I was a kid (that sounds old) I tried to listen to as much good piping as I could whenever I could.

We learn the most by watching and listening and then trying to immitate what we’ve seen and heard. Could it be that the sporting act of competing is somehow more important to students of the art than listening to, appreciating and emulating the greatest artists?

The Somme

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the first official day of the Battle of the Somme, which actually started with an action at Beaumont-Hamel. More than  57,000 soldiers – from the British side alone – were either killed or wounded on this day alone. The total would surpass 600,000 over the next five months, during which time about 10 kilometres of ground would be gained.

Remarkably, it was from the horror of the Great War that much of Highland piping’s greatest music was composed. This war, more than anything before, spread piping throughout the Commonwealth as a key aspect of the British Army. Armouries around the world still ring with pipes and drums, and we can, to a great degree, look to World War I as a major factor for today’s piping and drumming excellence beyond the UK.

If anyone has any thoughtfulness, “The Battle of the Somme” – one of the greatest pipe tunes made – will be played by a band for the crowd today at the All-Irish, at Kincardine, at Annan, at Embro, at Thornton, at Pugwash, at Round Hill, at Penticton.

We owe so much to those who served and sacrificed for what we have in piping and drumming today, 90 years on.



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