Behind the time

I’ve done a few seminars on timing and playing on or around the beat, particularly as it pertains to band ensemble. I find it a fascinating subject.

Mentioned The Who’s new CD, Endless Wire, a few posts ago. I’ve always thought that the band’s legendary, late drummer, Keith Moon, was a master at playing just a shade behind the beat. Moon was just about always fractionally late with everything, and it actually did wonders for The Who’s sound. They were able to evoke great control and reserve in the midst of thundering guitars and vocals, and Moon’s overly-busy brand of drumming.

After Moon’s death, The Who made a few recordings with Kenny Jones, who unfortunately played “in the pocket,” as they say: right on the beat. I thought the group’s music suffered as a result, and became overly poppy.

The new CD has Ringo’s son, Zak Starkey on drums, and on almost every tracks he plays just a shade behind, and I’m sure it’s intentional. The recording has been compared more closely and favourably with the group’s Moon-era stuff.

The 2006 World’s DVDs are great for analyzing ensemble. It’s interesting to me how leading-drummers can dictate a band’s energy. Shotts’s ensemble is always familiar, with the Mathieson/Kilpatrick combination never failing to fall right on the beat. These guys play solo that way, so it follows that together they produce on-the-beat rhythm.

SFU I always find full of energy, mainly because Reid Maxwell is naturally accomplished at playing just slightly on top of the beat. It creates terrific excitement and momentum, and Reid delivered that same forward style when he was with the 78th Frasers.

What’s remarkable to me are the bands that have fairly recently changed leading-drummers. Some, like Zak Starkey and The Who, have been able to maintain their previous ensemble style, while others are completely different. There are several top-of-the-heap bands that to me evoke a different (not necessarily better or worse) feeling because the leading-drummer has a different sense of the beat. If an L-D is slightly behind the beat while the pipe section is on it, it can work well.

But when the P-M naturally plays at the front of the beat and the L-D naturally plays behind (or vice versa), it can change the whole appeal of the band. It’s a very difficult thing to identify, but it’s a feeling that’s created – a pipe band intangible that is often reflected in crowd response.

Resistance is useful?

The Robert Malcolm Memorial II story keeps unfolding, hopefully not to the point of the band folding.

Without doubt, the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band system is a teaching and competitive success probably unrivalled by any other organization in the world, except for maybe the Scottish Schools piping program. But going back longer than a decade it has had detractors, accusing SFU of cornering the market on piping and drumming in the Pacific Northwest. Even SFU-organization members jokingly refer to the system as The Borg, maniacally consuming all around it.

With recent RMM2 developments, the situation may have come to a head. It would appear that members of RMM2 did not fully understand the band’s role: to feed SFU, but never to compete with it. It’s an unfortunate situation, but perhaps necessary to the evolution of piping and drumming in that area.

My prediction is that this will result in more diversity and a livelier competition scene in that part of the world. SFU is still one of the world’s three mega-bands. That won’t change any time soon. But what will change will be the be-all-and-end-all attitude with which the band tends to be considered by many in BC.

I’m a big believer in blessings in disguise, and I believe that this may well be one.

ReMeMber 2 much

The news that Robert Malcolm II has applied to move back to Grade 2 after being upgraded by both the BCPA and RSPBA is at once alarming and not surprising at all.

Alarming: isn’t the band’s reason-to-be competition success? If a Grade 2 band wins just about everything at home and abroad, and the overall standard in both regions is good, then it follows that it should make the leap.

Not surprising: RMM2 is a “feeder band” for SFU. It’s not supposed to compete with the big band, but instead groom and supply members so that the ultimate goal of SFU winning the World’s is realized. At least, that’s what I understand.

Other bands have faced the same dilemma, where their feeder bands were potentially competing with and threatening the parent band, rather than nurturing it. Boghall and Toronto Police’s solution was to dissolve the feeder band and let the players go where they may. Seems to me that that solution was overall better for their pipe band scenes.

So, if RMM2 goes back to Grade 2, what will its mandate be? Will it still be competitive success, even knowing that there’s not much point in trying to dominate Grade 2 since it will never stay in Grade 1? If competitive success isn’t the core goal of RMM2, how would players be groomed for the Grade 1 band?

If it were me (and stop here if you don’t give a toss what I think), I would either dissolve the band or break away from the SFU organization. Anything else doesn’t seem to make much sense.

iPod choices

In heavy rotation:

  • Beck – The Information
  • Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
  • The Who – Endless Wire
  • Fred Morrison – Up South
  • The Psychedelic Firs – Mirror Moves

Expansion

I was thinking back to 15 or so years ago. Grade 1 bands had pipe sections of between 11 and 15 pipers. Twelve or 13 were considered optimal numbers. Today, of course, a Grade 1 band without a pipe section of at least 18 is unusual. I know of one top band that plans to hit the 2007 contest field with 26 pipers, choosing from a pool of 32. Explosive.

But, back to 15 years ago. I remember sitting around many times with pipers in bands I played with reviewing potential new members for the section. It tended to be an elite club. One way or another, it was difficult to get in and, if a candidate didn’t have a great track record in Grade 1 and an additional solo piping record and an acceptible personality he/she didn’t have much chance. Not only that, but if they did get in, chances were that he/she often would have to serve at least a year of being dropped before they got to know “the style.” What bollocks.

How times have changed. Now there’s a much bigger talent pool of pipers with professional-calibre hands and a desire to commit to the band completely. They can play whatever material is thrown in front of them. And they don’t make blooters.

Time was that if a piper had not made a name for him/herself, they wouldn’t get a game. Today one wonders every new season, Just who are these pipers and where did they come from? It’s remarkable too that, while the standard of Grade 1 bands goes up, up, up, the standard of top solo piping holds steady.

Making a mark

The death of Bob Dunsire is sad, and I feel for his family. He was too young to go and obviously had much more to give to the piping and drumming world.

But the positive thing is everything that he contributed to our art. I don’t think he put together his piping and drumming websites or took photos for anything but the pursuit of his passion. He seemed to just want to do something positive for the scene by getting people together to discuss things in a civilized and constructive way.

That he affected so many people is remarkable, made more so by the fact that he was not a piper of world-class talent. Before the net came along, to become famous in the piping and drumming world you pretty much had to win big prizes, write great tunes, or teach great players.

I don’t think Bob Dunsire did any of that. Instead he made his mark by recognizing the power of the Internet to bring people together and, for this, I think his contribution is far more important to the art than winning a Silver Star or a Clasp. Those are great personal accomplishments, and a certain number of people get to enjoy the music, but they are not lasting contributions to the art overall.

Bob and I corresponded a lot in the late-1990s about the phenomenon of the net. We fell out for a time over some stupid copyright misunderstanding, but I actually learned a lot from him. He was well ahead of his time when it came to social networking. It’s remarkable that he recognized that a traditionally fractured and occasionally back-stabbing culture like competitive piping and drumming could use a place where people could speak positively and freely without fear of being ostracized by their peers or hammered by a judge. That his Forums sprang from the vitriolic and often insane world of the old rec.music.makers.bagpipe chat group (the social networking pioneer on the net) was further remarkable.

While no person can ever be replaced, there are more people like him out there who will make their positive and constructive mark in ways other than the competition platform. May they be inspired by Bob Dunsire’s passion.

Meeting standards

The annual solo piping competitions at London are among the most prestigious in the world. No doubt about that. The event over the past five years has worked to align itself with the Competing Pipers Association, requiring competitors to be a graded CPA member, and organizing contests to be in sync with gradings. It also introduced and uses scoresheets.

(In every country outside of the UK grading and scoresheets are standard practices, but, for the most part, British events are still open to any who want to play in them and, if anything, age is the only restriction. UK competitors also don’t get any written feedback, and judges don’t have to account for their decisions.)

But to the best of my knowledge the CPA requests that its members not compete before their teachers. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but more of a policy that members should strive to uphold. Also as I understand it, the CPA asks members to try to play only for judges on the list approved by the UK’s Joint Committee for Judging. (But that list is not made public, so how do they know?)

London’s organizers apparently were challenged getting all invited “A-List” judges to accept the job, since travelling to London for Scottish judges can mean expensive airfare or a 12-hour journey if they don’t fly, so I gathered the event had to make due with a few judges not on the list of judges approved by the Joint Committee.

I was also struck by the London event’s proviso on its online order-of-play that said something like, “Don’t worry about playing for your teacher; the others on the bench will sort it out.”

So, what’s an event to do? Any contest that aspires to high standards must ask itself if it is better to fill out the benches with B or even C list people, or reduce a bench from three to two or even one if the judges don’t meet the criteria, or outright cancel an event? It’s a bind that events are often faced with: carry on with potentially reduced standards, or scrub the competition entirely?

I know that in Ontario there are occasions when certified judges just aren’t available or can’t attend at the last minute. At least a few times a season someone without the specific judging credentials pitches in just to ensure the event goes on. On one hand, the competitors get to play. On the other, there are grumblings (mainly from those not in the prizes) about the judging and organizing, and a reputation for excellence is potentially tarnished.

Curious to hear what people think.

Seismic shift

So Fredericton’s official promotion makes it 12 Grade 1 bands in North America. There are 14 Grade 1 RSPBA-member bands, by my count.

Over the last 10 years, the number of Grade 1 bands in North America has gone up, while the number in the UK has gone down. I’ve written about this trend for many years, and have thought about it ever since I listened to Jimmy McIntosh lecture impressionable American pipers at a 1980 piping school that Scotland is losing its grip on piping standards, and that “Piping will go the way of golf.”

If the trend continues in a few years there will be more ANAPBA Grade 1 bands than RSPBA.

Why does this matter? In terms of numbers and competition, it really doesn’t. Currently there’s no chance that all of the world’s top-grade bands will meet at one contest. Bands have never hung their hats on anything other than music. Band contests are not the Olympics; bands don’t represent anything but themselves and the music they play.

Where it does matter is in the balance of power. Currently the RSPBA sets the agenda for how band competitions should be run. Because so many North American Grade 1 bands compete at the World’s, they are fairly insistent that their home association’s competition requirements match those that the RSPBA sets for the World’s, since that’s what they want to practice and play before they head across the Atlantic.

But when there are more Grade 1 bands in North America than the UK, eventually they will decide to converge closer to home. Las Vegas in November (cheap flights and accommodation, readily accessible, great weather, commercial involvement) has been suggested by more than a few. Makes sense to me, and I’d bet FMM, Shotts, Strathclyde et al. will be enticed, too, since Las Vegas is increasingly a vacation destination for the British.

Easier said than done. No organization on earth runs pipe band contests better than the RSPBA. They have it down to a science – at least the way they are conducted now. But if the contest format itself is changed along with the balance of power, the whole thing might well be reinvented.

The next few years will be a fascinating, watershed period. As long as North American bands continue to do their thing and raise their competitive standard, there is bound to be a seismic shift in the pipe band world.

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