Let your dim light shine

Social networking media – blogs, forums, newsgroups, MySpace and all that – have been huge for the last three years or so. They have brought communities together online, and the piping and drumming world is no exception.

The first was the pretty-much-now-defunct rec.music.makers.bagpipe, which started in DOS format back in the early 1990s. It became a wretched cesspool of innuendo and slander, unfortunately spoiled by a few nonentities who discovered that they could shout at lots of people and no one could stop them. But, by and large, online forums have been beneficial and benign.

I know that there are several top bands that have a decree that no one in the band, no matter what, is allowed to post their thoughts online. They are banned from expressing their opinions, presumably for fear that they will come back to haunt their home band in some way. To me this is paranoid and just a little deluded. It’s also completely lacking in fun.

A band that categorically prohibits players from expressing their opinions about their passion is downright draconian. I can understand if some Juvenile band responds to parents’ concern that the kids should not be posting to forums. But a band banning adults from posting their intelligent comments treats its members like children. It says, “You can’t be trusted to do the right thing, and you can only make the band look stupid because you’re too dim to be smart.”

These bands are littered with pipers and drummers who could otherwise provide real insight, and actually make the band look intelligent. The band world needs to stop being so paranoid. Judges judge what they hear and nothing else. If a band is competing in contests judged by anyone responding to posts on the net, maybe they should avoid those events – or use the net to speak out against them.

If a band can’t trust its players to demonstrate and share their intelligence, common sense, and expertise online, maybe it should reassess what it’s all about.

Big MAP attack

Okay, I am going to say it: the whole RSPBA MAP thing is a crock. The more I think about it, the more it does not make sense. I have written positive things about MAP in the past, but I have since changed my mind.

The intent of the Musical Appreciation and Presentation initiative is to train newer pipers and drummers in “the fundamentals.” That’s great, but I have decided that what went on before was training people just fine. The Grade 1 standard today is higher than it has ever been. In fact, standards throughout the grades have risen dramatically over the last 20 years. Yes, synthetic things are making it easier to create good tone, but people are playing better than ever, too. And this has happened without MAP-like dogged adherence to classically boring tunes.

MAP is a step backwards. The teaching trend in piping and most musical instruments is to get kids playing tunes and on the full instrument quickly. My daughter started piano lessons at age five, and was playing actual songs in a matter of weeks, and coming up on two years later is still enjoying it and doing well. The traditional notion that piping students have to spend a year or more on the practice chanter before touching a set of pipes is today considered wrong-headed by most. There’s less emphasis on mastering scales and technique and more on engaging the student in something fun.

Playing “Greenwoodside” all summer is not fun. It’s Jack Bauer-esque torture. Listening to it again and again is even worse. I suggest that MAP is more about making it easier for judges and using fewer of them so as to cut costs, than it is about furthering the art of the pipe band. It’s about some artificial preservation of old standards.

Sound familiar? It will to anyone who competes in piobaireachd competitions. And no kid has ever wanted to take up the pipes because of piobaireachd. Piobaireachd for the last 100 years has been subjected to its own MAP-like doctrine that says it must be this way or else. There is a strong school of thought that the effort to standardize piobaireachd settings was really an attempt to make the judging of the music easier at a time when the people doing the judging couldn’t carry G.S. McLellan’s spats, let alone determine if he played a better “An daorach mhor” than Willie Ross.

I suggest that MAP just begs kids to quit out of sheer boredom. It artificially clings to something that just isn’t. It props up tunes that few, if they had a choice, would seriously want to play, and no one, but no one, would want to play them all summer long with no one else listening for fear that their ears would start to bleed.

I may still change my mind on MAP. But no other association in the world is adopting it. And, if it indeed is the right thing to do, then we will see a huge number of Grade 4 UK bands promoted to Grade 3 next year. Don’t hold your breath.

And pawty every day

There is a point in the great Kiss rock-anthem,”Rock and Rock All Night,” when all instruments stop except a kick-drum, and singer Paul Stanley repeats the chorus of the song: “Ahhh, wanna rock-n-roll all niiiight, and pawty ev-er-ee day.” Live, he usually claps his hands over his head, pulling the crowd along. Then Gene Simmons’s bass line creeps in, Ace Frehley’s power-chord-guitar rejoins, and the band and song are back at full throttle. It’s called a “break-down,” and it’s the hallmark of many exciting pop songs.

A few pipe bands know how this works and the use it to great effect. It started probably in the mid-1970s, when the unlikely band Bilston Glen Colliery made an LP that included “The Hen’s March.” On the record, they took the clever third part of the Donald MacLeod jig, dropped the drums and let the pipe section play a modified version alone. It was simple and effective and by far the most memorable part of that otherwise non-descript album.

Jog to 1988 and the 78th Fraser Highlanders famous “Wise Maid” medley, one of the all-time great pipe band selections. It was made greater by a terrific break-down near the end, where the pipes were left for several bars, and the drum section gradually crept back in, developing this terrific crescendo finish to seal the deal. (Unfortunately for them, one judge didn’t see it that way at the ’88 World’s, and the band narrowly missed a repeat World title.)

Fast-forward to the 2005 and ’06 Simon Fraser University World’s medleys. Here again, Leading-Drummer Reid Maxwell (the common link between the 1988 example and this) spearheads a formidable example of an effective break-down in the jig, “Emancipation.” The gradual build back to full band strength is the centre-piece of the medley.

Pop music has understood for years that break-downs are a way to spark variety through contrast to engage and win-over the listener. I don’t know if these pipe bands (and there are other examples) know that they are using the same technique that Kiss deploys in “Rock And Roll All Night,” but it works in our domain just as well when well done.

Two tenors

There have been a few legendary instances of pipers in very big solo competitions having either a bass or tenor drone shut off mid-performance leaving them the equivalent of standing there naked with only one drone remaining. We’ll not name names, but suffice to say they’re still with us.

John Wilson (Edinburgh/Toronto) apparently used to get up from his judge’s seat and actually put his hand over each tenor drone to see if they were both actually going.

Which begs the question, if you can’t tell if two are going then why bother playing two? Whose bright idea was it to have two tenors anyway? Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that there’s another bagpipe with two drones pitched and tuned exactly the same. There aren’t two piano keys that play identical notes. So why us?

There are other examples of Highland pipe-music being hard for no other explicable reason than to make it harder. My tongue-in-cheek “Ban the B” blog of a few years ago resulted in not a few pipers’ blowpipes getting out of joint, including the fusty old Piping Times. But the unruly B gracenote in taorluaths, crunluaths and grips from D is an infamous example of Highland pipers’ self-flagellation.

Is the middle tenor a conspiracy by bagpipe makers to make a third more from the sale of a set of drones? Where are the reedmakers in all this? Aren’t these guys profiting from pipers’ middle-tenor misery? And what of drummers? Are they in on the conspiracy? All that extra drone-tuning means more sitting about, and we all know how much drummers love to sit about.

Isn’t it about time we rebelled against the insipid middle-tenor? Can anyone give me a compelling reason to have two tenor drones?


My top four corrupted titles to well known tunes. (I could list a fifth and my absolute favourite, but I might get sued.)

  1. “Fondle and Blow” (“Bundle and Go”)
  2. “Plonking the Wank” (“Walking the Plank”)
  3. “King George Versus Army” (“King George V’s Army”)
  4. “Thug In The Jail” (“Thug Mi Gaol”)

The matter of size

The news of the Scottish Lion-78th Frasers’ plan to 28-to-30 pipers and 14 snare drummers resurrects the question of size. It’s been debated for years now, probably ever since Davey Barnes’s Polkemmet competed successfully with 18 or 19 pipers back in the early-1990s.

I predict that 2007 will be the year when the issue is again formally addressed by the RSPBA? Why the RSPBA? Because that organization is the only one that realistically can. If the PPBSO or BCPA legislated something first, bands competing in the UK would create so much uproar that they probably wouldn’t even play in those areas, since they wouldn’t be able to prepare for the blessed event in Glasgow.

But I’ve been through all that before.

I like a big band as much as the next person. But it is increasingly difficult to keep a level playing field when one band has 12 pipers and the next has 22, let alone 30. We have minimum requirements for this exact reason, so it seems to me that maximum limits should be put in place – not necessarily on how many can compete, but on how many can be on the roster. Those limits don’t have to be static; they can increase as bands naturally and uniformly push the boundaries.

The RSPBA has to be watching this closely. I can count at least seven Grade 1 or 2 bands that have gone out of business in the last two years due to loss of personnel. Survival of the fittest and de’il tak the hindmost, you might say, but the increasingly open-door policy that some top bands are implementing is encouraging people to leave their Grade 2 and 3 bands for a shot at the top.


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