Hatfields and McCoys

Git awf ma land!
So much of the piping and drumming world involves competition that I think it attracts highly competitive people. The notion of “art for art’s sake” has never really worked that well with bands and soloists who primarily want to do well in competition. Our desire to win can sometimes get the best of us, and even cause us to suspect the worst of our fellow pipers and drummers.

For decades now I have been intrigued by cross-town pipe band rivalries. I’ve been a member of bands in Canada, the United States and Scotland, and have observed the interaction between groups that share the same region. All three of those places have rivalries, but they differ in intensity from country to country.

Scotland: rival bands may seem to resent one another, but at the end of the day they’ll share a laugh and a pint together, not letting the competitive fire get the best of them. It’s usually a quietly supportive community with an atmosphere of respect. The “Boo Brigade” (thanks, RW) that haunts some of the Scottish-based online forums is really a tiny minority of muckrakers, and is really no reflection of the vast majority of UK pipers and drummers.

Canada: there is very little serious animosity between bands from the same city or region. In fact, bands tend to intermingle and completely respect each other. Yes, they go head-to-head on the field, and compete for players, but I can’t remember anything a congenial atmosphere before, during and after a contest. Like the country itself, the scene is peaceful and just a bit bland, but ultimately produces very high standard bands.

United States: some of the points above hold true, but it seems that in many cities with more than one band there exists an ugly feud. I’ve noted that in otherwise successful piping and drumming cities there are situations where cross-town bands seem to despise each other.

Learning piping in St. Louis (home of the 10-time World Series Champion Cardinals), there was always this weird (in hindsight) back-biting that went on between bands. I went to college in St. Paul, Minnesota, and there was a very similar atmosphere there. I bought into it, and was as much to blame as anyone for perpetuating it. Maybe years have softened my perspective and readers will tell me I’m deluded, but it just seems to me that all too often US cities end up under-achieving in quality because they can’t find common ground with their rivals.

So what happens? Well, often two or three pretty good bands – usually Grade 3 or Grade 4 – will co-exist in the city, rather than having one or two really good band(s). Perhaps that’s what some people prefer, but I also often see people in those cities shake their head, wishing that one day an “all-star” band could be created. Occasionally, these places seem to get everyone together and great things happen for about a year, until it crumbles and a new feud begins.

My comments here aren’t intended to do anything but raise a point, or a concern, about these situations and, as always, to try to evoke constructive dialog. About 15 years ago I wrote what I intended to be a well intentioned editorial with observations about why piping and drumming in the US might be hindered or under-achieve. Due to my failure to get my points across clearly, it was misinterpreted and I received a lot of derision and abuse, with people attacking me personally. I learned a lot from that, and understand (occasionally, anyway) when some things are better left unsaid.

But every time I hear about viciousness between cross-town bands, regardless of what country they’re from, it saddens and frustrates me, especially when there’s so much musical talent and potential that could be realized if they only got together.

Often when you observe a situation from the outside you can more easily see a solution. To me, anyway, the solution to rivalries that get the better of people is to find camaraderie from common ground, which is always the music itself. After all, it’s only piping and drumming.

Publish and perish

I got my historic copy of the BC Pipers Newsletter yesterday – a landmark issue since it’s apparently the last one. There’s a reference in the front about how they have been unsuccessful finding an editor for it, so they’ll produce a two-page thing every so often.

Nostalgically speaking, that’s sad, since this was number three-hundred-and-something, easily making it the longest-running piping print-periodical in the world. It predates James MacNeill and Thomas Pearston’s League of Young Scots’ Piping Times.

Practically speaking, I’m not surprised. For the last 10 years, just about all of the information in the Newsletter was available months before on the net, usually on this website. It wasn’t very well designed either, and the stock was super-heavy and unnecessarily expensive.

I read the other day that subscriptions to daily print newspapers and magazines continue to decline, while online publications’ popularity rises. The publishing industry keeps marching into its crater of quandary: how much content to offer online and for how much and how do you replace lost print revenues?

I’ve said before that piping and drumming organizations should not be in the business of publishing. It doesn’t make sense and, inevitably, it’s not cost-effective. If they need to print things, they should outsource it or co-op with successful, independent ventures and do it right.

The Piper & Drummer print magazine, despite constant feedback that it kept getting better year after year, saw its paid subscriptions decline to the point where it became a cash drain. Without giving over more than a third of its pages to advertising (as an example, when I last read a copy many years ago, the Piping Times gives up about 60-per-cent of its volume to ads), the P&D print magazine was assembled very economically despite its glossy stock and full-colour. I shudder to think what piping and drumming associations must pay from membership fees to produce their ambitious books.

All that said, I’ll miss the BC Pipers’ Newsletter, but will look forward to reading and receiving their ongoing news, and, I hope, to serving their membership through pipes|drums.

King of the high Gs

Gie' it laldy, big man! I read an obit recently for Luciano Pavarotti, the great opera singer. Pavarotti apparently couldn’t read music for many years, and at the time of his death had only gained a little ability to do so. “Learning from a score, is like making love by mail,” he famously said.

The oral / aural traditions of pipe-music and drum-scores are well known. Ours was comparatively late to the notation party, and there are piobaireachd purists who believe that the music began a steady decline once it was written down.

While Pavarotti’s intelligence and memory must have been incredibly high and good, his various female assistants reportedly stood in the wings with cue cards to help him with the words, but to say that he usually got the tune right would be an understatement.

“The book, the book, the bloody book, I can’t do with it at all!” Bob Nicol, a piobaireachd Pavarotti of years past, said when ceol mor started to be standardized by the Piobaireachd Society. Nicol and Bob Brown always taught through singing first. They learned that from John MacDonald. Any scores, they said, were only a guide, like cue cards in the wings.

One hears of great snare drummers who just barely read music, yet can produce and teach incredibly complex scores. The fact that they can survive and thrive in a pipe band makes it all the more uncanny.

The most apt comparison to opera singers in our idiom is of course piobaireachd, which unfortunately is only heard in competition, and then pretty much by piobaireachd players.

I wonder if there were Pavarotti-like piobaireachd-players if that art could better hope to communicate with the masses. Imagine throngs of adoring ceol mor enthusiasts chucking roses (or heather) at the artist who has captured the tune in an entirely personal way, while playing a perfect instrument that always nails the high G.

Dressed to ill

Okay, I’m sure I’ll think of something decent to write for the blog soon, but, in the meantime, Harry Tung and The Style Guy asked me to alert you to their new installments in Trailing Drones and The Style Guy.

Note, they are in the “Fun” section.


What would Nick do?One of my favourite groups just now is Wilco. They make jangly, thoughtful music with a unique sound and style. Not that I’m necessarily one of those people, but they’re a favourite of those who especially like “alt-country-rock” (whatever that is), and those folks are often extremely liberal and anti-commercial. Hippies.

The other day I was surprised to hear “Either Way,” a song from the band’s recently released CD, Sky Blue Sky, as background music for a Volkswagen commercial. I figured the online backlash from their zealous fans would be substantial, and I was right. Lots of hue and cry, with the band blaming online file-sharing for its decision to allow a car-manufacturer to use its music to sell the latest smog-maker. Meanwhile, the group preaches environmentalism on its site.

Volkswagen has done this often. They used “Pink Moon,” a song by the somnambulant English hippie-singer, Nick Drake, a few years ago, and in a few weeks more Drake albums had been sold than in his entire career, which ended when he offed himself in 1974 at age 26.

The Volkswagen Beetle became a symbol of the 1960s, so connecting VW with hippie-music makes branding sense. The commercialization creates consternation, but I’m sure that’s welcomed by Volkswagen, too, since it generates buzz and attracts attention.

Licensing music to corporations so that they can in turn sell product is nothing new. The Rolling Stones seemingly have been selling everything they’ve written since Bill Gates gave them millions for “Start Me Up” for the launch of Windows 95. Once the Stones started playing hackneyed stadium shows, commercialization fit their brand.

When John Entwistle died in 2002, The Who’s catalogue suddenly seemed to be all over TV shows and commercials, which was ironic since the band made an album in the 1960s called The Who Sell Out that took the piss out of commercialization.

U2 famously allowed Apple to use “Vertigo” for free to launch a new iPod. The band understood the incalculable value of the exposure and brand co-opting. It was obvious genius: you can’t be accused of selling out without actually selling something. Very crafty.

There are many who argue that pipe music should be heard by as many people as possible, so getting worked up over legalities of copyright and performers’ rights many say isn’t worth the bother.

But what would Field Marshal Montgomery – to pick a completely random well known example – say if Volkswagen took a recording of theirs and used it without permission in a commercial? Would the piping and drumming world be up in arms about the blatant rip-off, or would it welcome the positive exposure for pipe music? Hard to say.

Music continues to be a funny thing. It’s fleeting and powerful, and it can move people emotionally so that they do things like want to buy a new car or operating system. Pipe music is especially emotionally charged, and that’s why it’s used to mark occasions, like weddings, parties and funerals.

But when music meets commerce it seems that, in any domain, ethical turmoil brews.

Caption contest winner!

The Dunno Dunoon caption contest attracted a lot of very funny entries. The ones poking fun at the Cowal Games themselves about tuning facilities and toilets overflowing were almost irresistible, but, ultimately, I decided it would be just a bit too much to have a go at this event. They are trying really hard to improve.

I couldn’t decide, so I asked Julie to help, and she picked the caption submitted by Mark Sutherland of South Alloa, Scotland, as the best:

“. . . and the winner of 2018 globalwarming.com World Pipe Band Championship is Atlantis and District, band number 15 . . .”

What a great mix of social consciousness and topical news. The Atlantis bit was a great touch.

With his winning entry, Mark receives a subscription to pipes|drums for life – his, mine, or its. That could be worth as much as $700, depending on inflation and what-not.

Well done, Mark, and haw, haw, haw!


Watching judges can be more fun than listening to the piping!
The phenomenon of pen-diving is worth discussing. For those not familiar with the term, it’s this: solo piping judges who grab their pen as fast as they can when they hear a missed gracenote or fluffed doubling.

It can be downright comical with a bench of three judges, like those at the Northern Meeting, where the finest pipers in the world play for the biggest prizes in the world. Generally, a dropped taorluath will pretty much keep you from winning. Drop three or four and you might as well go home.

Everyone listening hears the blemishes, and everyone in the hall reveres those on the bench, yet the judges perhaps feel that they are being judged also, and maybe think that they have to outwardly confirm that, yes, they heard the mistake. Pen-diving at times can be almost spasmodic.

A few blogs ago I compared tenor-drumming with the artistic and athletic sophistication of synchronized-swimming. Maybe Best Synchronized Pen-Diving should be an award at these big competitions.

Seriously, competitors hate judges’ pen-diving. To a person, the say it’s distracting and unnerving. Since being on the other side of the table, I have made a point not to write anything or visibly tap my feet while a competitor is playing, trying my best to allow the piper to concentrate fully on the performance. It’s pretty easy to keep positive and negative points in one’s head until the end, and then between competitors write thoughts and account for decisions on the score sheet.

And when you think that there is no formal provision for score sheets or judges’ accountability at Scottish solo contests, it make me wonder further why they’re writing anything at all.

Pen-diving: catch this entertaining game at your next solo event.

Having more

I’ve been in Scotland this past week. It’s always hard to stay connected there, and reporting on contest results is actually easier – but far less fun – when at home than being at the actual event.

The trip actually was originally just to be a no-piping journey to see friends and family and get reacquainted with my golf clubs. Weeks after booking the flights, I realized that the Northern Meeting was that week. I guess I still assume it’s always two weeks after the Argyllshire Gathering, and I forgot that the organizers had made that change – a huge convenience at least for the non-Scots competitors who want to compete at both events.

So I took the train up to Aviemore on Thursday morning and managed to hear maybe eight of the Gold Medal performances, including Iain Speirs’s stellar “Lady Margaret MacDonald’s Salute,” which I thought might win the event. Flawless pipe, technique and interpretation from one of my favourite pipers.

It was my first time to the Aviemore venue at the Highland Resort, where the Northern Meeting has been held since 2005. The place I gather is better overall for a large piping competition than the Eden Court Theatre at Inverness, what with it being a big hotel complex with an auditorium, lots of meeting rooms and good tuning rooms, all surrounding a central hotel.

The auditorium at the Highland Resort at Aviemore when not in use. There were about 60 people watching the Gold Medal event.But I was really disappointed with its lack of atmosphere. Compared with Eden Court, you’d hardly know there was a piping competition going on if you weren’t involved. Eden Court has a common bar and restaurant where everyone crams into between tunes. It’s great for catching up with friends and getting the scuttlebutt on who played well and who missed the mark.

Coincidentally, it was announced in the media on the same day that the three-year multi-million-pound renovation of Eden Court was finally complete. I hope that the Northern Meeting committee decide and can afford to move the contest back there. Aviemore is just not the same.


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