Pipe Bands negative-2.0

Och aye!It’s extraordinary to me that some prominent pipe bands have a sweeping policy that bans members from contributing their comments, insights and knowledge to piping and drumming “forums.” Apparently only the officers in these bands have the authority to provide their two cents to the piping and drumming world, and all others are threatened with expulsion if they speak out.

How 1985.

I think this Draconian mentality stems from a few archaic pipe band traditions. First, bands still think that they will face judging repercussions on the contest field should someone say something opinionated. There was a day when this was so, but, seriously, when was the last time that there was a travesty of a result chalked up to something someone said? I can’t remember the last time I seriously disagreed with a band winning the World’s. Sure, results will always be debated, but no one is ever so bent out of shape to the point where they wouldn’t return to a contest.

It’s bizarre to me that the same bands that muzzle their own people also refuse to complain about clear conflict-of-interest perceptions that are rife in the UK: bagpipe makers judging, family members adjudicating, performers rights laws being ignored. They’re okay with that stuff impacting them directly but when it comes to what their own people might say . . . no way!

Second, culturally the Scots are a reserved lot. In general – and of course there are exceptions – they’re no good at promotion of any sort, much less promoting one’s self or organization. It just isn’t the thing to do. They’re getting better, but the Scots’ disdain for self-promotion has been absorbed throughout the piping and drumming world. American, Canadian, Kiwi and Australian pipers and drummers, in an attempt to “do what the Scots do” to win prizes, still think that reticence must be part of it.

Truth is, the piping world has moved on since the 1970s. It is a true piping world, and the culture of piping and drumming is evolving and becoming far more sophisticated. Where there was once only beer tent whispering, there’s now constructive and open dialogue about issues that were once taboo.

Shutting up intelligent bandsmen and women is positively backward. Instead of telling them that they can’t be trusted, why not encourage them to make smart decisions and represent the team positively?

Sherriff reckonings

I really enjoy listening to the next-generation of top solo pipers, and I had that chance again at the George Sherriff Memorial last weekend. Starting at 10 am and going till about 11 pm it’s a big day for the judges, and even bigger for the competitors.

Lots of things that I’ll remember, but here are a few that stand out:

  • Faye Henderson’s “Lament for Captain MacDougall.” This was a performance that would have stood up very well in the Gold Medal competitions at Oban or Inverness, and, with the right bench, it could well have won it. It was a great example of a lament that can still have very short notes – an expertly built and shaped tune on a perfect pipe. Fifteen years old, she will have to compete in the “Juniors” in Scotland for another three years, meaning that she will probably be back to the Sherriff several times.
  • Tuning, tuning and more tuning. Funny, the French word for tuna is “thon,” and audience and judges suffered through several tunathons from a few competitors. Some players screwed away at their drones for more than 10 minutes (seemed like eternity), and we all know that when a pipe is not settled after four minutes, that dog just ain’t gonna lie down no matter what. Here’s a tip to all competitors: don’t tune for more than five minutes. It won’t matter. However, never feel like you need to start too soon if the pipe’s not in tune before four minutes have passed. While there were a few instances of excessive, futile tuning, there were also a few times when a competitor started too soon. Practice timing your tuning to understand your instrument.
  • Alastair Lee’s professionalism. Another competitor with an enviable piping pedigree, 15-year-old Lee is a mini-Uncle Jack. Same bold technique. Same posture. Same competitive focus. Can you say dynasty?
  • Brittney-Lynn Otto’s “Little Cascade.” Forget the relatively tedious “Cameronian Rant.” For my money, G.S.’s masterpiece is the most challenging and thrilling tune a competitor can deliver, and Otto shook off the afternoon’s troubles and did just that. Terrific hands!
  • 6/8 marches. Forever people have said, “No one knows how to play 6/8 marches any more.” They were probably saying that in 1955. Compound time is easy as long as it’s round. As soon as note values are chopped up, many pipers struggle. I know I do. There’s a reason why 6/8 marches are the domain of bands: they generally need drummers to provide light and shade.
  • Slooooow playing. I know the trend is to play marches at no more than 68 BPMs, with strathspeys and reels to balance, but I like them livelier. There was a bit of sluggish light music, and those with relative up-tempos, like Ben McClamrock, immediately got more of my attention. A 2/4 march ain’t nothing if it ain’t got that swing, and it takes a rare player to get swing from a 2/4 at 64.

I could go on for a lot longer about this excellent event – venue, organization, meals – and the many excellent performances, but I’ll stop there. YMMV.

A non-competitive renaissance

Parlour pipes only.Someone told me about an article in a recent Piping Times, the Glasgow-based monthly print digest about piping in Scotland. I don’t get the publication, so I haven’t read it. But I understand that the Barry Donaldson-written piece bemoaned the decline of quality piping in Scotland, how the Northern Irish and North American bands have been laying some whup-ass on the Scottish bands for years, the future’s bleak, etc. I think that’s the gist of it.

Competitively, I would agree. There are fewer Scottish Grade 1 bands than ever, and the eight in the Grade are more than twice outnumbered by non-Scottish bands. And yes, for the most part, up and down the grades at the World’s non-Scottish bands are winning.

In the solos at Oban and Inverness, if it weren’t for the selection committee’s predilection toward Scottish applicants (reportedly two-thirds of the spots are reserved for UK players), there would be far more success by “overseas” competitors than there has been.

Whatever. To say that the standard of Scotland’s competitive piping is in decline may be true, but it misses the bigger picture. The truth is that more Scottish pipers are choosing not to compete altogether. In fact, I would say that Highland piping Scotland is in the middle of a surge. It’s just not on the competition stage.

I hear more inventive applications of pipe music coming from Scotland than anywhere in the world. Piping Live! has quickly become more about the new and different than the competitive and traditional. Scotland has discovered, more than anywhere in the world, that piping and pipe music can actually be fun. What a novel concept.

While the rest of the world obsesses about winning competitions – and I think actually regressing when it comes to what it plays in those competitions – more of Scotland’s pipers are interested in pushing the boundaries and possibilities of the music itself in a non-competitive way. And that’s anything but a decline; it’s a renaissance.

Tenacious D

Blow!The current pipes|drums Poll asks about which note is most difficult to tune. (By the way, the poll system we use is limited to six choices, hence omitting specifically low-A, B, C and high-A, which I think are not that hard for most bands to get right.)

So far D leads the race, with F coming from behind (oo-er!). My choice is D, evidenced by the fact that it is by far the note that is most likely to blare when listening to a band. My second choice would be F, and actually bad F’s are harder on the ears than bad D’s.

I wrote about “The Brown Note” a while back (two years already?!), suggesting that instead of judges having to write again and again “D’s not well blown,” they could just write, “Brown Note,” and bands would know exactly what was meant.

In reality, more often than not a pipe section’s D is well tuned; it’s just not well blown. It’s a note that is prone to relaxation. Pipers love to take a little break with big D’s, all that air rushing through open bottom-hand. All pipers really have to do is be sure to time their blowing so that they’re blowing steadily, not breathing/squeezing, through the longer D’s, and, voila! D’s no longer sag, and the dreaded D becomes the mellifluously positive note that it deserves to be.

Well, that’s my theory, anyway. Your brown note may vary.


Young Liam Hoyle, a piping student of mine, will be playing tomorrow for Remembrance Day ceremonies at his church. He asked a few weeks ago what he might play this year, wanting the music for “The Flowers of the Forest,” that somber tune we Canadians hear all too frequently on the news these days when Colin Clansey or another Canadian Forces piper plays for a fallen soldier returning from Afghanistan.

This fall Liam has been working on “The Taking of Beaumont Hamel,” the magically swinging 2/4 march by my favourite of all composers, John MacLellan, DCM, of Dunoon. Like most of MacLellan’s tunes, “Beaumont Hamel” is more melodically captivating than technically challenging, and it’s a tune that stands up just as well in Grade 3 solos as it does at the Silver Star.

Beaumont-Hamel should also be able to stand up just as well at a Remembrance Day event. Along with the dozens of other terrific pieces of light music by MacLellan, G.S., Willie Lawrie and others that were inspired in part by The Great War, “The Taking of Beaumont Hamel” is a remarkably positive and uplifting composition – remarkable because more than 300,000 soldiers died during the Somme, some 30,000 on the first day, most within 30 minutes of the start of the Beaumont-Hamel action.

On Remembrance Day, we tend to want to hear a lament to pay homage to those who sacrificed themselves for their country. For us pipers and drummers, though, we should remember what all tunes inspired by World War I and other wars are about. And each time we play them, we pay our respects.

Competing concerts

The stars have come together in this general area with two major Grade 1 band concerts happening within a week and 250 miles of each other. On November 10 St. Laurence O’Toole performs its “Dawning of the Day” concert in Pittsburgh, and on November 17 the Scottish Lion-78th Fraser Highlanders mount its “Seanchaidh” show in Mississauga, Ontario.

Pittsburgh is about a five-hour drive from Toronto (as are Cleveland and Detroit), so, conceivably both of these events can reasonably draw from a total population of upwards of 20 million people.

Seanchaidh seems to have been marketed far more than SLOT’s event, and the Toronto area is a notoriously difficult place from which to attract a crowd. I have seen or heard nary a word or marketing about the SLOT concert, but my impression is that it will be heavily attended.

This will be interesting. I hope that both events will be sold out. They should be: two marquee bands in full form taking the stage for two hours at a reasonable price. Both of these concerts have been made into CDs and DVDs, so people will know what to expect. Both the SLOT and SL78FH events were well reviewed.

Stay tuned for how these events pan out, and, in the meantime, feel free to discuss here!

Absence of mallets

Softens hands while doing the dishes!Two of the new rules enacted at the PPBSO’s AGM on November 3rd (the usual 60 people attended. Why does every association’s AGM always attract 60 people?) were ones that stipulate that Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands must have a minimum number of tenor drummers.

The RSPBA does not require a band – in any grade – to have any tenors to compete, and this was a first for the PPBSO. I believe the EUSPBA demands that all bands have at least one tenor drummer to meet minimum requirements, but I think that’s it for the world’s associations.

Rules such as these define what a “pipe band” is. They say, essentially, that a Grade 1 band without two tenor drummers is not in fact a pipe band. It requires a pipe-major and leading-drummer to integrate that sound into their band’s ensemble. These rules to some extent dictate how a band should sound.

Whether this is right or wrong, I just don’t know. There are pros and cons on each side. Something tells me, though, that, if I were a pipe-major, I still would like to at least have the option of not including the sound of a tenor in my mix. The rule also does not require the tenor drummer(s) actually to play. They could simply stand there with a tenor drum strapped on and more or less rub the drum, looking like they’re washing dishes with the mallets. But that would of course make a mockery in the eyes of some judges of the rules.

Or would it? Even if the rules stated that all personnel on the field have to be “playing,” what constitutes playing? Maybe a band decides to have a tenor drum play one crucial beat in a seven-minute medley. How much playing is “playing”?

I was glad that similar motions were defeated that would have required lower-grade bands to have at least one tenor drummer. To me, that would cross a line where bands either would not be able to compete or would have to have someone wear a drum without playing it. Both situations are undesirable.

But, still, if the definition of a “pipe band” demands the sound of a tenor drummer, shouldn’t it be across all grades?


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