A piping workshop.There has been some hand-wringing in parts of Ontario over the low attendance at the annual Stratford Sessions Saturday workshop last week. I read of Ken Eller’s frustration, questioning whether Ontario pipers and drummers think they’re “too good” for it, and suggesting that players today might think they know it all and that there’s nothing left to learn.

A few older pipers agreed with Ken and the current president of the PPBSO talked of the “quite dismal” situation he thinks the organization’s branches are in.

The truth is, there’s more good teaching then ever going on in Ontario and worldwide. Just because people don’t want to attend a day-long Saturday workshop does not mean they’re apathetic know-it-alls.

While weekend workshops exclusive to a single pipe band are smart, weekend workshops open to all who want to pay are old-school. Why throw $100 at one day of instruction when you can have a $40 hour-long weekly one-on-one lesson with Roddy MacLeod, Bruce Gandy or Jori Chisholm by Skype from the comfort of your home?

Twenty years ago, rubbing shoulders with Jim McGillivray, Bill Livingstone, Bob Worrall, or any of the other greats who were at the Stratford Sessions was a rare treat. Today it’s no big deal. Not only have most pipers hung out with Bill or Jake Watson at an Ontario massed bands or the Todd Bar or the Maxville beer tent, but the Internet has changed everything. Just connect with Ken Eller through his website or, heck, become his Facebook friend.

I see more piping and drumming events and interest in Ontario than ever before. Sure, more can always be done, but there are probably more competitions in the province than since 1980. More good teaching is happening and, take it from one of the many who were judging for nearly 11 hours straight on the Friday at Maxville, entries to PPBSO solo events are greater than ever. Not all of the new games are sanctioned by the PPBSO, but they go on and they are successful.

The teaching is sophisticated, and students are using technology productively. Given the results from Glasgow Green this year, Ontario’s Grade 4 band standard I would venture to say is as good as anywhere in the world. Membership in the PPBSO continues to increase in spite of the president’s apparent dour and erroneous perception of things.

I tend to think that the hand-wringing about the lack of interest in weekend workshops is more about bruised egos than a genuine concern for the art. Simply assembling an all-star cast of instructors isn’t enough to drive enrollment today. You have to create an experience, maybe with competitions and recitals as part of the package at a nice hotel, like they’re able to do in Kansas City and Seattle. Successful workshops are as much if not more about socializing and entertainment and getting energized to practice as they are about improving one’s playing.

Weekend workshops like the Stratford Sessions are a noble cause, and great credit goes to the people, like Geoff Neigh, who organize them. But the reality is that in places like Ontario and British Columbia, where piping and drumming have matured, they simply don’t have the allure they carried back in the 1970s.

On the other hand, week-long schools, where students can sink their fingers and wrists into meaningful projects and enjoy supervised learning and practice night and day for seven or even 14 straight days, are immensely productive and worthwhile no matter where they are held.

To be sure, piping and drumming workshops still do well in relatively remote piping and drumming places. People will come from miles around to say that they got tuition from Fred Morrison or Angus MacColl. But in Ontario? Sorry, the one-day workshop concept has had its day. People are doing their learning in new ways, and hobnobbing with famous folk is just a mouse-click away.

No contest

Splendid!So that was the worst World Series I’ve ever seen – a totally lopsided affair with most games starting too late to see through to the end. Red Sox fans are happy, and none more than my uncle, who lives in Concord, Mass., and has rooted for his team since before Teddy Ballgame hit .406.

But, really, the Red Sox playing the Rockies was like Field Marshal versus Colorado Skye: different grades altogether. The Rockies and their fans seemed amazed that they were really in the World Series, as opposed to the Red Sox and their “nation” (which is really just New England) who were just having fun while dispatching this talented band of up-and-comers.

I started out rooting for the Rockies, but by the third game just wanted a sweep so the whole thing would be over and the underdogs could be mercifully put out of their misery. I sensed that the Colorado team and its followers just as quickly became so awe-struck by the Red Sox that they decided just to enjoy and learn from it, like any good Grade 3 band would do when spending a week with the World Champs.

Ach aye, ya ken the wee place was hoachin, ya know

Ice, ice bairn!We all know that the Scots have a knack for clever expressions. Their really creative vernacular is part of the pipe band world, too, with words like “trigger” and “blooter” peppering Scots pipe band lingo.

North Americans have been travelling to Scotland for decades now to live and play with top bands and soak up instruction and, for pipers, anyway, the solo circuit. I had my own experience with that in 1980s, following the likes of Scott MacAulay, Ed Neigh, John Elliott, Mike Cusack and others. While you’re living there you can’t help but pick up on Scots’ dialect, and, inevitably, your voice takes on some of the lilt and cadence of the accent. Sorry, like.

I don’t think I ever seriously tried to use everyday Scottishisms like “aye,” “I ken,” “dinnae,” or “disnae,” and would have hoped someone would give me a shake if I subconsciously did. I think you really have to have Scots as a first language, or live there for at least a decade to have the right to use that stuff. Otherwise, with a North American accent it sounds goofier than goofy.

You’d get a glower like Chuck D’s at Vanilla Ice in 1990.

But there are always one or two American or Canadian pipers and drummers who somehow try to talk that way. They must think that they’re blending in or something.

We can borrow and imitate the music that the Scots invented, but when it comes to their jargon, some things are best left unsaid.

There was a sojourn, a Scottish sojourn

Amazement and fascination were what I always felt when I talked to James and Kylie MacHattie about their annual Scottish sojourn, pitching their tent across the Highlands, scrabbling for practice locations and cooking on a wee propane stove. The closest I’ve come to that is sleeping in a car a few times after a contest, and vowing never to have to do that again.

Much like bagpipes, when it comes to camping there are people who really like it and there are those who really dislike it, with not a lot of middle ground. James and Kylie obviously really like camping, so they probably view it as part of their yearly piping vacation. But I find it fascinating to compare their experience with that of neurotic pipers who have to have things just so before they compete: the right B&B, the same breakfast, a hot shower, practice-sessions timed to the second.

I’ve known a few pipers who had the wife carry their pipe-box (in the days before padded cases with shoulder-straps), and had her do the driving to the games so that their hands wouldn’t get tired. Seriously.

Musicians in general tend to be a precious lot. Ego, superstition, anxiety and inferiority abound. We read about it in the worlds of pop, rock and rap, and it’s all over the place in piping and drumming, too. I don’t know about you, but I find the MacHatties’ simple approach to their complex art refreshing.


Can you spare a dime?I’ve always liked Radiohead, and I think have all of their CDs. Their latest album, In Rainbows, has created a bit of stir because people can download it and pay whatever they want, even $0.01. After about 10 days the average amount paid is around $8.50 – pretty close to the $10 that iTunes would charge and a lot more than the potential next-to-nothing that the band risked.

I really like this idea. It’s basically busking, which I have said is the world’s most honourable profession. You pay exactly what you think it’s worth, or the value of the act to you personally within your economic means. If you’re after just one song and really don’t want the rest you can pay what you think the one song is worth.

This is a group with a dedicated fan-base, and such creativity reflects their brand and re-connects with those fans. It’s a smart thing to try and the big-label music industry is watching closely, I’m sure. Our little piping and drumming music industry may want to watch, too.

A solution

Mmmmm . . . chocolate covered profits.My seven-year-old daughter Annabel is in grade school and several clubs. Throughout the year her class has various fund-raising projects. They sell magazine subscriptions (hmm, why isn’t pipes|drums on the list?), sponsored runs, and products that you can purchase, with a cut of the proceeds going to the school or the club. Everyone in North America will be familiar with those boxes of pricey chocolate-covered almonds or giant candy bars that organizations sell to raise money for a trip to the provincial or state competition.

It struck me that this fund-raising model could be applied to the World’s CDs (£15.26 for each volume) and DVDs (£19.74 for each volume). We’re in the thirtieth year of recordings of the top bands being sold by record companies and the RSPBA without a penny going to the artists that made them. Despite every indication that this practice runs contrary to a 2005 legal decision, it still goes on as usual. Whether bands are afraid of political punishment or judging repercussions or both is anyone’s guess, but I continue to be confounded as to why the artists allow the compensation issue to go uncontested, let alone unresolved. Fear and loathing, I suppose.

So here’s a possible solution: the RSPBA and Monarch Recordings (the company that puts out the CDs and DVDs) allow the featured bands to purchase as many copies as they want at a sub-wholesale price. Like my daughter’s clubs and school, the bands can then resell them at a higher price in any way they want, being allowed to pocket the profits.

Why not? Bands in effect can be dealers for their products, and Monarch and the RSPBA can take advantage of those wide networks of fans, friends and family to sell more of their project. Any piping and drumming supplies business or any record retailer can order as many copies of the products as they please, and then make a profit from their sale to consumers. By allowing bands to be retailers, they can then gain at least a few dollars and pounds from their massive investment in the project – which is better than the big fat nothing that they receive now.

It’s sad that the world’s best bands – the universe’s greatest exponents of the pipe band art – would have to succumb to the equivalent of door-to-door peddling of chocolate-covered almonds, but it seems to me that this might be a way to break the three-decade cycle of taking advantage of the artists that make the whole thing possible in the first place.

If you like this idea, or feel that there should be some other form of compensation to the artists that perform on the top-selling World’s products, e-mail the Executive Officer of the RSPBA, Ian Embelton, and Angus MacDonald of Monarch Recordings to let your voice be heard.

Raspberry blowing

Right idea; wrong tartan.Riding to work on a brisk autumn day here in Toronto reminded me of a summer day in Scotland in June back in the 1980s. Well, it was a summer day in Shotts, which can be like a winter day in most other places.

It was the European Pipe Band Championships. One minute it was raining, the next sleeting, then the sun would poke through, then rain, sleet, wind and so on. The band I played with then was Polkemmet and, besides the weather, I remember it well because we tuned for about 15 minutes beside the band bus, which acted as a shield from the wind and rain – then quickly played to the park hoping that the tone would hold.

Nothing terribly extraordinary there for anyone who’s spent time with a band in Scotland, but the weird thing was that, when we went into the circle in the MSR contest, four of the five pipers – including me – in the front lost our ability to grip the blow-pipe with their mouth. Our collective embouchure failed, and four-fifths of the front of the pipe section, but for intermittent snatches of phrases valiantly popping in and out, was chanterless for the rest of the set. (I also remember the Pipe-Major being incandescent when we finished, but that’s another story.)

I think we finished second. Who knows what glory would have been ours had the front rank not been directing giant flatulent sounds at the judges. Perhaps all those flapping lips resulted in a “poor opening rolls” comment from the drumming adjudicator. Later, I think my mouth – like the proverbial tongue to a sled-runner – froze solid to a can of Export, which isn’t all bad, come to think of it.

As any band that competed at the 2007 World’s will know, the physical challenges of the pipes are increased ten-fold when the weather sucks. It’s amazing just how good the overall standard was at that contest. Any other top-flight musicians would never have taken their instrument from its case, but pipers sputter on regardless.

Star-struck out

Oops.Pity the poor Yankees. All that money and talent yet again under-achieving as a whole. Heads will roll! is the well worn annual decree from the team’s idiotic meddlesome owner, George Steinbrenner, who has probably never played an inning of baseball in his puff, as they say in East Kilbride.

The Yankees’ formula for success is typically one where they attract the best talent with money. To the team’s credit, it can afford a $210 million annual player payroll, with canny marketing, television licensing rights, merchandising and perennial sell-out crowds. The team makes it to the post-season, but more often than not can’t manage to get to the World Series, let alone win it. When will they learn?

We see that misguided strategy backfire all the time, and the pipe band world is no exception. The concept of an “all-star” band is familiar to most. At any given time there are probably a dozen serious attempts around the world to consolidate the best members of various bands to create a super-group that’s sure to achieve competition glory. When it actually happens, some success will be reached but, more often than not, it crumbles in a heap after a few years.

In the late 1960s the Invergordon Distillery company set out to create a super-band, offering money to the best of Scotland’s pipers and drummers to play with a new Grade 1 band. Donald Shaw-Ramsay was the Joe Torre responsible for managing the talent and producing the prizes. Legendary figures like John D. Burgess, John MacDougall, Alex Duthart and Bert Barr joined the band, which enjoyed good competitive success for a few years. It never managed to win the World’s, which was of course the ultimate goal. The “experiment” (as it’s often referred to) eventually failed, Invergordon pulled its financial backing, and the band is nothing more than a memory.

While all that was going on the Edinburgh City Police was dominating with less famous talent that had been together for many years.

The Power of Scotland Pipe Band of the 1980s is probably comparable. This band had more gold in its ranks than Flava Flav has in his collection of grills, with the solo luminaries like Pipe-Major Angus, Willie McCallum, Roddy MacLeod, Peter Hunt and Ronnie McShannon populating the circle. It was led by the venerable Harry McNulty. The band had a lot of fun trips around the world, was dressed to the nines and always had the most luxurious coach. To be sure it was a very, very good band, but it never seemed to achieve the competition success that its personnel would indicate was possible. All those brilliant players, but no World Championship. Nice guy managing all-star players. Sounds familiar.

Similar to the Invergordon example, “The Power” was trying to compete against the Strathclyde Police, a band made up largely of non-soloists who had played and worked together for many years.

There’s a lot to be said for community and camaraderie in pipe bands. In fact, I would say that those intangible qualities are just as important as actual playing ability. There’s usually something about a band made up of players who really like and know each other that comes through in quality and success. Most importantly, bands comprising players who want to do well for the guys around them even more than they want success for themselves personally is an indicator of greatness. I have a lot of thoughts about the current and increasing trend of bringing in “travellers” – hot-shot pipers and drummers who attend a few practices and only the most important competitions and how it can impact a band overall. I’ll save those for another day.

But these days, another Yankees failure only serves as a reminder that all-stars do not a great team make.

Avocation vacations

Been there, piped that.
I relented the other day and installed the “Cities I’ve Visited” application on my Facebook profile. Until I saw the results, I used to fancy myself fairly well-travelled.

The 339 little pegs that populate the places I’ve been are preponderance of North America and, of course, Scotland. There are a few scattered around “the Continent” of Europe from when I eked out a winter trip of bus rides and occasional hitchhiking in between semesters at Stirling University as a poor student in 1984, but the vast majority comprise piping-related journeys.

There’s hardly a place in Scotland that I haven’t visited. From Morpeth to Brora, I’ve been there, with bagpipes and/or golf clubs in tow. And the vast lands of Canada and the US are dotted with piping-related excursions. Mainly because of piping, I’ve probably seen more of Scotland than most Scots, more of Canada than most Canadians, and more of the US than most Americans.

But what concerns me is how much of the world I haven’t seen because of my preference for piping trips. I’d love to go to Scandinavia, to Italy, to South America, to Japan (and just about everywhere else that isn’t currently wracked with war or oppressive governments), but wonder if the lure of piping will continue to limit my travels.

I’m not alone. Just about all non-UK pipers and drummers who compete at a serious level find themselves committing their vacation time and money to getting to piping and drumming events. The back-and-forth to various annual competitions is fun, of course, and no one ever forces you to do it, but after a while, while bringing out the best in you, this avocation can get the better of you.

(George) Will of the people

Temple of baseball.
Despite the efforts of The Great Pujols, my 10-time World Series Champions St. Louis Cardinals are not in the post-season. Losing nine straight down the stretch tends to do that to a team.

And, just as bad, the despised Chicago Cubs managed to win the National League Central, galvanized by a classic Lou Piniella tantrum that made even George Will blush. So, I will root against the Cubs. Anyone but them!

But wait, why do I feel that way? With my team not even in it, what’s the point of all these negative wishes? They probably will, but why should I care if the Cubs lose? They’re obviously capable of playing excellent baseball, so why not hope to see Derek Lee do his stuff? Ted Lily got short-shrift in Toronto, and I rued the day the Blue Jays didn’t sign him, so I hope his curveball is at its wickedest.

Anti-wishful-thinking is a weird thing. I’ve often been intrigued when, say, Glasgow Rangers are in some cup final and, say, Glasgow Celtic supporters cheer for whatever team is playing against them, even if it’s a team from a far-off country known more for torture than football. What’s the point? Is it borne of jealousy? What innate thinking can make people that way? It verges on religious zealotry, and we all know where that kind of thinking has put the world.

I’ve never known any solo piper to have that kind of negative mindset. (Actually, no, not true, I know one solo piper who thinks that way.) Wishing your competition to do badly even when you’ve not made the short leet or you’ve suffered a break-down is just not on in the solos. But perhaps because of the team mentality bandsmen and women occasionally wish ill-will upon their rivals.

It’s said that hate is wasted energy and debilitating to the psyche, and I agree. So, with that in mind, I wish the Chicago Cubs the best of luck this October. They’ll need it. And the bright side is that finally winning a World Series after 100 years will make them, like the Red Sox after their 20064. triumph, just another team, and reduce their fan-base from being “lovable and long-suffering” to, um, fans. So, with that, I muster all my resolve and say, Go Cubs!

Another hit: Barry Bonds

Get this man an Armani kilt.I knew and liked the song “Gold Digger,” but I never had listened to much else Kanye West stuff. The last few weeks I’d noticed rave reviews of his new CD, Graduation, so, what the hell, I figured there must be something to this guy beyond embarrassing MTV moments, Hurricane Katrina comments and Armani underwear, so I downloaded it, making me possibly the oldest and certainly the greyest buyer of his music. Oh, well.

(As an aside, I vividly remember Bill Livingstone round about 1989 raving about Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” so I guess what comes around . . .)

I really like Graduation. It’s brilliantly produced and engineered, and the guy is unbelievably clever and funny (e.g., “You know how long I’ve been on ya? / Since Prince was on Apollonia / Since O.J. had Isotoners.”)

It strikes me that one of the many genres of music that pipe bands have not explored are rap and hip-hop. And, speaking of Brown, I’d bet that if any band is going to have a go at it, it will be the Peel Regional Police.


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