A shot of teachers

As I mentioned in the last post, I was in Alma this weekend past. Bob Worrall and I drove down together (well, Bob actually drove the whole way and back. I offered. Honest.), and over the course of the 10-plus hours of Michigan and Ontario there was, as you might expect, a lot of enlightening conversation. Bob is always great for really well considered opinion. He’s one of the smartest people I know in piping.

At one point we got to talking about the whole judging thing. Bob’s been judging regularly for some 25 years now, and does a lot more of it than me. He’s somewhere judging and/or conducting workshops and recitals probably three-quarters of the weekends every year. Other people who commit similar amounts of time, like Ken Eller, Ed Neigh and Reay Mackay, always have intrigued me. Sure, you’re paid, but the time commitment is massive, especially when you have a job and family.

Bob noted that, as a long-time high school teacher, judging might come more naturally to him. He’s professionally trained to provide constructive criticism to students, so applying that skill to piping and pipe band contests is almost second-nature.

And then came a realization: the common denominator with many really good judges is their ability to teach. The aforementioned folks are all professional teachers. The more skilled the teacher, the more skilled the judge. Those who can impart their knowledge in a critically constructive way are usually more effective at judging, which today goes far beyond – at least in North America – simply determining a prize-list. Accounting for that list, and ensuring that competitors know exactly how you arrived at the decision, is essential to a competition in which competitors leave knowing exactly where they stand, and what they need to work on to improve.

There are some judges who still feel that they are not there to give lessons. But the reality is that teaching, by providing constructive and informed criticism, is an important skill for every judge to have.

Alma matters

I’m heading to the Alma Highland Games this weekend, an event in central Michigan held on the grounds of one of several small liberal arts colleges in the US that tout their Scottishness. Monmouth College in Illinois, Lyon College in Arkansas and, where I went to school, Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, have similar Scottish set-ups.

I was last at Alma 11 years ago with a competing band. It was a fun trip, with a few events that were memorable and not a little weird. I won’t go into those.

But, as a kid from St. Louis, Alma used to be the event of the year. We’d drive 12 hours to get to it, because there were real Grade 1 bands competing. Back then the likes of McNish, Toronto & District, Erskine, Guelph and the dominating Clan MacFarlane would often attend. (Interestingly, none of those top-level bands are around now.) But as a 15-year-old from the Paris of the Prairies, it was a whole nuther level. Alma very much made me want to be a part of that, whatever that was.

I also remember one time competing there in the Grade 2 Piobaireachd or something. Major Archie Cairns was the judge. I was to play “Lament for Donald of Laggan.” I got to the end of the first line of the ground and played the second ending to the line, lost the plot and stopped. Not to miss an opportunity to learn, I nonetheless asked Major Cairns, in all seriousness, how the first line was. I remember him finding that humourous, so I of course laughed along, as if I were kidding the whole time.

Anyway, it’s always fun to return to a place like Alma where little seems to change except the perspective from which you’re now seeing it.

Spread em again

Ah, another UK championship, and another round of piping judges with ranking spreads stretching far and wide.

Thanks to the RSPBA’s exhaustive and timely online results spreadsheet, the punters can analyze and over-analyze every microcosm of soggy score sheet detail.

To be sure, credit goes to the Grade 1 piping judges, who were never more than three placings apart.

But in Grade 2, Torphichen & Bathgate must be wondering what’s in store for their season, with an alarming first and seventh in piping. And a second and a seventh to Glasgow-Skye must have that band shaking its collective head.

But the most intriguing must be Grade 3A, where some of the spreads are Grand Canyonesque. Take Kintyre Schools: a second and a thirteenth.

And then there’s most glaring one of the day, Pride of Murray with their eighteenth and second. That’s 15 places separating the judges in an 18-band contest. Is the pipe section pushing Grade 2 standard or are they looking at relegation? One has to wonder what the bus ride back to England was like.

Obviously, discrepancies arise in a subjective event. One judge’s fancy can be another’s pet peeve. But, really, what’s wrong with judges getting together to hear each other out and perhaps find some common ground? The benches at the world’s most important solo piping events have been doing that for centuries.

Going Home, Going Home

Poor Melinda. She sings circles around everyone for three months and gets sent home by the discerning American public.

And how often do we see this in piping competitions? Quite a lot. Bands and soloists are clear winners to everyone but the judges. The winners are happy, of course, and it’s not their fault that they were awarded the prize. Meanwhile the runner-up who deserved the award has to regroup and fight another day.

Subjective competition can be a tough, sometimes soul-destroying effort. Competitive pipers and drummers are a very strange lot: they keep coming back for more hoping that their next performance will get the benefit of the doubt and the top prize.

They say that hack golfers will have at least one shot per round that is as good as any golfer on earth can make. No matter how pish they are, they will keep coming back for more based on that little thrilling bit of hope that says, Yes, I can play this game.

Pipers and drummers cling to that one part, or even that perfectly-played phrase that compels them strap on the kilt again the next weekend, bound for personal glory.

Steady on

At the Livingstone Invitational on Saturday a friend remarked that it’s now usual for professional-level solo competitions not to have a single player make a serious blunder, much less a breakdown. This is true. I can’t remember listening to a big event in the last few years where someone has completely lost the bottle.

Competitors don’t necessarily play to a higher technical or musical standard, but they do avoid “shooting themselves in the foot,” as the person said. The eight pipers at the Livingstone “got through it,” as they say, with relative ease. Some were clearly on edge, but never to the point of crumbling.

And this included a few very young players, like Will Nichols, Jacob Dicker and Lionel Tupman, all of whom showed up ready to play their best. There was not that much, really separating many of the competitors

The professionalism in professional-level solo piping continues to rise. Solo pipers today mean business, and they’re not going to let mental blunders due to nerves or lack of practice put them out.

Listen to the dissin

I’ve done about 70 full-length interviews over my 19 years of putting together the Piper & Drummer and pipes|drums. I do them because I am personally interested in what the interviewees have to say, and I have some compulsion to make sure that at least some of their first-person thoughts are preserved for historians.

I gain at least some new different insight from every one of them. Part 1 of the current Fred Morrison Interview is no exception. He opened my eyes to the perspective of many, many people, and caused me to think of competitive solo piping in a slightly different way. Here’s the excerpt I’m thinking of:

FM: But I’d absolutely no intention of going out there and playing controversial music that would put people’s noses out of joint. I mean, there’s absolutely no gain in that in me. It’s not respectful. If I were going to go round the games, I know the crack and I know the style of music that’s required. And, to me, it’s not the only style of music, but it’s a style of music that I’m going to acknowledge and do and play to the best of my ability.

p|d: Your point about respecting the music is very interesting.

FM: Yes. Those great guys are sitting on the bench and I have heard them giving great performances themselves. That’s the style that they were brought up in and I was brought up in and I’m not going to go and start harassing people. I acknowledge what they’ve done and if people like solo piping, great, because it’s a great thing to get in to. I’m not going to start criticizing a great scene. I know the style required and, if you go to the Northern Meetings, it’s a great, exciting event. It’s fair enough to play in that style.

For me, that is a fascinating debate. Is it disrespectful to introduce a new style to a tradition? Is the task at hand simply to imitate what’s been done forever? Should judges be the keeper and protector of the tradition?

There are many, many enlightening aspects of Fred’s interview, but, for me, this one point hit home the most.

Ceol less

You have to applaud the Piobaireachd Society for making the Senior list all modern tunes – or at least piobaireachd written after Queen Victoria died, which is “modern” in ceol mor terms.

The intention I assume is to open things up a bit more, to get some different stuff played, and perhaps legitimize new compositions. There’s no doubt that the Piobaireachd Society’s “authority” stamp is big, bold and Scottish accented. Pipers see these lists and immediately think that the tunes are worth playing, even if you never see non-pipers with them on their iPod.

If the PiobSoc really wanted to have these tunes in circulation they would not be assigned to Clasp-winners to learn. There are maybe 15 of these pipers on earth, and about two of them play at anything but invitiationals or the major Gatherings.

The accomplished pipers who are out there competing the most are those vying for the Silver Medals. The next-most-active group are the Gold Medal players. Rarely heard are the Clasp people, and I guarantee that these players would enter other events with big tunes – the stuff that made them famous.

I’d imagine that the reason for not including modern tunes in the Silver and Gold lists is the familiar saw that the Piobaireachd Society needs to act as the steward for what pipers should have in their repertoires before they win the Silver and/or Gold medals. And that insinuates that those modern tunes are not in fact credible.

Case in point: a similar modern list was set in 1992, again for the Seniors. Did those tunes catch on? Were they heard much more than at Inverness and Oban? No and no. When it comes to piobaireachd, “authority” trickles up.

Freedom vote

And so, Scotland goes to the polls tomorrow to decide its future . . . or at least the future of its future. I’ve said my piece before about where I stand on the independence issue, as if it matters what a Canadian-American of Scots-Ukrainian-English lineage thinks.

Like millions around the world, I will be watching the results with interest. I don’t live there, but I have hundreds of friends and family who do, and I’m always interested to hear their thoughts on the matter, and especially how they voted.

It will be fascinating to see if all those Scots who have for years voiced their desire for independence will actually mark their X for change.


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