Dunno Dunoon

The Cowal Highland Gathering has, quite rightly, employed the excellent PR agency that Piping Live! uses to bolster its image. As the current pipes|drums poll indicates, Cowal is considered the second-most-important pipe band competition next to the World’s, so it’s clearly well regarded by pipers and drummers as an event, if not for its venue, which the bands outgrew a few decades ago.

Part of the Cowal media campaign included some excellent publicity shots, designed to get the attention of mainstream newspapers and the like. As much as anyone, I can appreciate that. The shot here, though, reminded of the story about a prominent pipe-major in the 1970s recommending to his pipers that they stand in a filled bathtub to play in their new chanter reeds. The rising humidity, he thought, would break them in faster.

This picture is just begging for a witty caption, so submit yours using the Comments system. I’ll choose the best one and award the person an open-ended subscription to pipes|drums, worth, depending on your age, as much as $700!

A few contest tips

A few people wondered why the last post about golf was on a blog purportedly about piping and drumming. Good question. The blog is really about whatever I want it to be, but, sure, the vast majority of content pertains to the Highland musical arts, as you of course know.

So, I suppose there should be at least equal time given to piping and drumming competition etiquette and decorum. These points are based on years of competing in and, more recently, judging piping and pipe band contests. Perhaps they will help:

  1. In a solo piping competition, if you can’t get your instrument in tune after four minutes it won’t ever be in tune. Just start. The judge will appreciate it.
  2. When warming up your instrument before competing, make sure you are at least 50 yards from any competition going on.
  3. Remember the name(s) of the tunes you’re submitting to the judge. If you have problems remembering names, write them down. Standing there with a brain-cramp not only rattles a competitor, it irritates the judge.
  4. At least pretend you’re having a good time. Okay, you’re nervous and all that, but put on a happy face and make like you really love competing. If you’re about to throw up, you should reconsider the whole thing.
  5. Unless you’re a soldier competing before an officer of a higher rank, skip the saluting business. It’s an antediluvian hold-over from piping’s long gone military roots.
  6. If you make a slip in your tune, just get back on track and keep going. I and a growing number of judges would rather give a prize to someone who went off the tune than to someone who was never on it. (Credit goes to Andrew Wright for that line.)
  7. Wear it well. No one relishes wearing the kilt and all its uncomfortable accoutrements. But, if we have to do it, we may as well do it well. Get a piping/drumming suit that fits. If in doubt, ask The Style Guy for assistance.
  8. Similar to the first point, if there’s a lot of piping noise around your competition, and you’re having trouble hearing your drones, the judge is having the exact same problem. Don’t stand there screwing at them to no avail. On such days, just do your best to get them close and get on with it. After the event, be sure to express your concern about the closeness of events to your association. They need to understand when competitors (the body of the association) are not pleased so that they can work with the games committees to improve conditions.
  9. Arrive in plenty of time and don’t try to fiddle the draw. If you frequently make up reasons to play later, you’ll get a bad reputation very quickly.
  10. Treat your steward with respect. These people are mainly volunteers. They are doing the best they can. If there’s something they can do to improve, politely let them know after the contest. And a simple “thank you” goes a very long way. Besides, it’s just good manners.

So, there you are. Ten points to consider. Have a good games!

To the fore

Okay, this isn’t about piping. It’s about golf. It’s friendly advice to the many pipers and drummers who partake in the world’s second-most-frustrating Scottish pastime:

  1. Before you ever set foot on a golf course, please read the first page of the rule book.
  2. Don’t take more than one practice swing. It isn’t the freakin’ Open Championship. One swing to get the feel of the club; another to hit the ball.
  3. If your ball is within a foot of the hole, just pick it up. It’s a gimme.
  4. Power-carts slow the game down and are for the frail. If you’re able, walk the course. If you’re too out of shape to walk the course, get in shape.
  5. Watch your ball. When you hit a shot into the hay or the woods, keep watching it, and walk straight to it. You should be embarrassed making your playing partners spend time looking for your ball more than once a round.
  6. Wave through faster groups. This concept is well understood in Scotland, but I can count on one finger the number of times that I’ve been waved through in North America.
  7. Unless you’re a single-digit handicapper, play from the front tees. No one is impressed that you want to play from the tips.
  8. Leave the rake in the bunker (not a “sand trap,” by the way). Having your ball hit a rake outside of the bunker is really annoying, and often makes the ball go in the bunker. The rake goes in the bunker.
  9. Fix your pitch-marks. Leaving them on the green is completely antisocial.
  10. If you have to swear, do it under your breath. Golfers yellings F’s and C’s should just go home.

There, I just needed to say all that. Have good round.

In rotation

buy this.

  • Stompin’ Tom Connors25 of the Best Stompin’ Tom Souvenirs – standout track: “The Gumboot Clogeroo”
  • Dave GunningLive – standout track: “Barnyards of Delgaty”
  • John CairnsAll Through the Ages – standout track: “Zimba Warrior”
  • Stevie WonderTalking Book – standout track: “Superstition”
  • MetricGrow Up and Blow Away – standout track: “Soft Rock Star”

Basic in-sync

Don't hold your breath!One of my favourite channels is PBS High Definition. When Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s (Big Macs, etc.) founder, Ray Kroc, died a few years back she left $225 million to PBS. They had the foresight to invest heavily in HD right away, and some of their programming is sensational.

There are a number of documentaries on obscure topics that have interested me. There’s a series called, The Pursuit of Excellence. There was one on ferrets and another on hairdressing (honest) that were excellent. I’m usually fascinated by “world championships” for anything off the beaten-path . . . like pipe bands.

A “Pursuit of Excellence” show that also got my attention was one on synchronized-swimming. It showed the nearly all-female participants (there was one poor male swimmer who was supremely talented but not allowed to compete due to rules preventing men from taking part in contests) being really obsessive about it. The documentary made me appreciate this unusual sport, its artistry and the desire and commitment that top-level participants have to it. Some families even move thousands of miles to be closer to the best synchronized-swimming clubs, like one in Santa Cruz, California, with this dictatorial director barking at the poor people on the team.

Sound familiar?

But what really caught my eye was synchro-swimming’s similarity with modern tenor-drumming. I mean, some of the moves are close, especially the ones where arms go up in a robotic fashion, and then the drummers suddenly go into that slow-motion thing. I wonder if the two camps ever compare techniques. If they don’t, they should, since tenor-drummers’ arms and sticks rise above the band, as if the other drummers and pipers were at water-level.

I’m sure those moves have names in both synchronized-swimming and tenor-drumming, and I apologize for not knowing the specifics of either. I completely respect both idioms, but when judging I’m only concerned with what the tenor-drummers play, not how they look. At other times I enjoy watching them and admire the diligence and commitment to excellence that they give to their craft.

There’s a famous Saturday Night Live sketch from the 1980s that parodies synchronized swimming. I’m sure that it rubbed the swimmers who commit their lives to the sport the wrong way, but it made me laugh.

And there were a few silly videos strung together by pipe band people that took the piss out of Scottish country dancing. It sort of missed the mark with some because Scottish country dance aficionados probably think what pipe band people do is daft, too. Of all people to ridicule an obscure art, piping and drumming zealots might want to be the last. Then again, screw ’em if they can’t laugh at themselves.

I’m hoping that PBS will do a “Pursuit of Excellence” documentary on pipe bands. Part of the reason why the BBC has decided to make TV shows out of the World’s must be because they discovered that the obsessive event is quirky and amusing to outsiders. I’m certain that there are many non-pipers and drummers who get a good laugh out of the whole thing.

My all-time favourite author, Vladimir Nabokov, once wrote something to the effect that the definition of truth is the pursuit of knowing all that can be known about one specific thing. While I can’t help but shake my head at the absurdity of synchronized swimming, of piping, of Scottish country dancing, of drumming, I have a lot of time for anyone who strives to understand completely and excel entirely at anything.

Sunday AM P-M

B. MacDonald]
The Sunday morning pipe-majors are analyzing the results today, putting together their “what if?” scenarios, and trying to find non-performance reasons for why things happened as they did at yesterday’s World’s.

I have friends in just about every Grade 1 band that competed, and my only hope was that the best band would win, that the rest of the results would be fair, and that everyone would have a good time.

Some things come immediately to mind, though, so let’s discuss.

The rain: The World’s has enjoyed uncharacteristically good weather for most of the last decade. A steady dreich was bound to happen. Meanwhile, Toronto was partly cloudy and mid-20s. I’d have still rather been there.

The drumming results. SFU must be dazed and confused with the marks they received in drumming. The seventh and ninth they received from Jim Hutton and Harry Russell, respectively, effectively ended any hope of the band winning. In that light, finishing second overall was a massive achievement. Whether SFU’s corps deserved these marks or not, these judges must have been aware when they handed in their sheet that the band would not be able to recover. SFU’s won it four times, but they have been second an astonishing eight times, meaning they have been first or second a remarkable 12 times in 22 years. The cliché that second is the hardest prize is no more true than with SFU.

Mistakes. With the testing conditions, the error-quotient seemed to be high, with an unusual number of early chanters, squeals, trailing drones, and all-out blunders coming through. It seemed like judges may have been turning a deaf-ear to these, understanding the cold, wet circumstances, and concentrating on tone, content and unison. As a competitor, it is extremely difficult to keep the head and not let the appalling weather be an excuse for slack playing. Listening to the BBC Pipeline broadcast, it’s impressive to think these top bands are producing such quality under such duress. Since you rarely hear big clangers at the top of Grade 1 these days, the recordings should have a big weather disclaimer on them

Gridlock: I and many others thought that 2007 would be the year in which the “Big Three” stranglehold on the World’s might be broken. This is the ninth straight year that the same bands – FMM, SFU, and Shotts – have taken the first three prizes. Even the 78th Frasers’ overall drumming win, Strathclyde Police’s copping of several other majors, and Boghall’s top-three success earlier in 2007 couldn’t change this.

Pipeline: To Gary West and Iain MacInnes: awesome, awesome job as always pulling this show together in minutes. I’ve seen this crew in frenetic action at an otherwise almost-empty Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow, and it has to be seen to be believed how tight getting this show to air in so short a time actually is. We are all indebted.

“International” judges, wherefore hath thou been forsaken? So much for the RSPBA’s 2005 move to bring more non-UK judges to their panel. A grand total of one non-UK judge (drumming adjudicator Greg Dinsdale in the Grade 1 Qualifier and Grade 2 Final) had a clipboard out of the 36 working at Glasgow Green. McGillivray, Eller, Worrall, Neigh, Troy and Russell were nowhere to be seen. Oh, wait, many of them will be on at Cowal, where few UK judges want to judge, and after all the “overseas bands” (as the RSPBA pejoratively calls them) have gone home.

Medley re-runs: Yes, the goal of competing is to win, but shouldn’t originality play a role in that? Several Grade 1 bands, including FMM and SFU, played essentially the same thing as last year. With repetition, a band runs the risk of becoming a parody of itself. But, then again, look at the MSR situation where some bands – not unlike many soloists – have been playing the same thing for a quarter-century.

Optics: For the first time in memory, there wasn’t a judge in the Grade 1 final who was a brother, a chanter-maker, a bagpipe- or drum-dealer. Of course, people can invent other connections, but the RSPBA is to be congratulated on this. But let’s not mention the Grade 1 Qualifier.

Those are a few of my thoughts, and I wasn’t even there. Others are welcomed to add theirs.


Feel free to paint this with your favourite band's colours!This will be a funny time for a lot of bands now staring the 2007 World Championships in the face. Reality will start to sink in, as bands realize that where they are right now in terms of tone and playing is as good as it will get before the contest.

I think a lot of members of UK bands still see the event as just another Major, but bigger and with more competition at the top. Many of them don’t seem to have the edginess that the “overseas” (how I dislike that pejorative) pipers and drummers possess. After all, it’s back to their own beds and families and pubs after the contest, and there’s security in that.

I remember 1988. The year before, the band I was with had won the World’s. For some bizarre reason, we stayed in a little village called Kinross, which seemed near Orkney we were so far off the beaten path to Glasgow. Isolated and bored, the band started to eat away at itself with way too much introspection and worry, and not enough distractions and fun.

The night before the big contest where the band was to defend its title, we all sat in this weird morose manner in a little wood-panelled room at the wee country hotel (that continually ran out of hot water and had to put five of the tallest pipers in an attic room with feet draped over the end of lumpy mattresses) dreading the next day. When morning came and the bus pulled out with windscreen wipers on full, someone had the bright idea of putting on a special mix tape of really sad Gaelic songs. We wouldn’t admit it then, but, in hindsight, we were doomed.

That said, when I was doing the World’s thing, there was usually this prevailing preposterous Pollyanna attitude that’s required of anyone on a team. Even if the band had about as much chance of actually winning the contest as the RSPBA has of actually responding to a pipes|drums inquiry, bandsmen – including me – would inevitably pick it to finish first when it came to making their first prediction in the annual pool.

I used to coordinate that pool, similar to the one currently going on the site, where each entry cost £1, and people could enter as often as they liked, and the winner took the entire pot, which could approach £200. People would start off with a “my band first” pick, and as the week went on, they’d start to sneak in their true predictions, once they realized the kind of money that was building up.

Most band-members’ ultimate objective is to win the blessed World’s. But, for those 15-odd bands that this year have nae chance, every one of their pipers and drummers will have different goals. Some will be devastated with a fifth-place; others will be ecstatic. Some may just want to get through the Qualifier. Some will aim to improve over last year. Others will simply want to play as well as they can personally and let the chips fall where they may. Many just want to have a good day out and get to the beer tent as quickly as possible.

A few years ago at a sweltering Piping Centre, Bob Shepherd and Alistair Aitken presented a seminar on the evolution of pipe bands as part of Piping Live! It was very interesting, with some outstanding archival recordings. I’ll never forget that, at one point, Shepherd – who of course is a prominent judge on the RSPBA panel – made the alarming comment: “Only three bands have a chance of winning tomorrow. That’s a fact.” He added that if someone quoted him, he would deny he made the statement.

Shepherd wasn’t judging the next day, but his saying such a thing showed a lot of courage, if not dubious tact. He was right, of course, and it showed up in the 2005 World’s results.

Passion can often cloud reality. This stuff means so much to us that we sometimes think that if we just believe in it strongly enough, it just might come true. Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do, and cheers to dreams becoming truth.

Maxville musings

Welcome to Maxville.
Another Maxville’s in the books, and I thought a few recollections might be worth highlighting. These are the things that will stand out in my mind for a while to come:

Triumph Street: A number of people have asked me since the contest finished, “Are they a Grade 1 band?” My answer is a solidly waffling Maybe. TSPB is definitely a top-of-the-heap Grade 2 band, but I noted the lack of punch to their pipe section sound. It was well in tune, and the drones were very good, but it was one of the softer sounds in the MSR, the contest I heard. It begs the question of what comprises a good sound? I always look for an impressive presence. It’s not a “loud” contest, but there is a requirement for a band in Grade 1 to leave a strong tonal impression.

Ben McClamrock: This American piper easily won the Grade 1 Amateur March section that I judged. He played the seldom-submitted Peter MacLeod 2/4, “Willie MacLean,” and executed a flawless, swinging rendition of this great, difficult tune. Watch this name.

Lightning storm: On Friday morning a thunder-storm rolled across the Glengarry County sky, and when I saw fingers of lightning bolts coming near the games field, I decided that was enough. Considering the piobaireachd event I was judging was under one of the biggest trees around, I reluctantly decided to stop Lyle Davidson’s tune (still in the ground) to run for cover before we both become newspaper headlines. Fortunately, Lyle agreed it was the right thing to do, and he of course was allowed to start again after a half-hour delay, and he played impressively well.

Toronto Police: The 2006 North American Champions competed with the minimum eight pipers but produced an excellent sound and a thrilling, error-free medley with excellent unison and tight drones. One of the few top bands still to play Sinclair chanters, when these chanters are well-set with lively reeds they produce a sound that attracts me.

Peel Regional Police: Piping-wise, Peel’s medley was as good as I have heard from them in years. Another band that suffered personnel losses, it is definitely on the up-swing. Impressive unison. John Elliott is a master at pulling the maximum out of his pipers.

Cramped space: With the 78th Frasers competing with 30 or so pipers, I often had little choice but to be virtually in the middle of two pipers. There was little room between the crowd and the band. Being able to hear the overall effect of the pipe section, particularly when it was playing complex harmonies and counter-point, was difficult. If bands continue to get bigger, the solution will have to be to spread out the chalk contest circles and move the crowd back. But is that fair to listeners when relatively smaller bands come on? One thing I know, trying to assess a pipe section of eight and one of 30, while within the rules, was not easy.

Windsor Police: No one can blame this band for opting to miss Maxville to do a performance in Ohio to raise money to get to the World’s, but I couldn’t help but wonder how they might have done had they competed. It’s a shame that such choices need to be made, and that “overseas” bands have to go to such lengths to get to Glasgow. I hope they – not to mention SFU, Alberta, LA Scots, and the 78th Halifax – decide next year to try to make their mark at the North American Championships. And isn’t it about time a UK Grade 1 band made the trip?

I’m sure other thoughts will come to mind, but these are the facets of Maxville ’07 that leap up today. Here’s to a great 2008 event.

Favourite 401

Off to Maxville this afternoon for Friday and Saturday at the North American Championships, piping and drumming Mecca for many North Americans. Ontario, like many other parts of Canada, is having a heat-wave, and it’s 36 degrees and humid in Toronto today.

I’ve often joked about a Seumas MacNeill report about a summer school in Ontario that appeared in a Piping Times in the 1970s. Seumas described the motorway that cuts across most of Ontario as “John MacFadyen’s favourite 401 highway.” It’s funny because, to most people who live in Toronto, “the 401” is this clogged, stinking mess of a road that’s nobody’s favourite.

But thousands of pipers and drummers, including me, will be driving the 401, resisting stopping along the way at The Big Apple.

Provided there’s a decent signal, I should be able to connect from the field without much trouble, and plan, as usual, to post results as I get them.


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