Joined at the armpit

Lucille in the skye.Many great pipers’ instruments are almost as well known as the pipers themselves. Often a vintage set of Henderson or Lawrie drones, they most often acquire their pipe at an early age, sometimes as a family heirloom, but normally purchased for quite a bit of money. Occasionally, you hear about the pristine set of MacDougalls found in a junk shop or at a garage sale.

But, like Yo Yo Ma’s Stradivarius cello, B.B. King’s Gibson ES-355 or Paul McCartney’s Hofner “violin” bass, these pipes become synonymous with the musician himself. A pipes|drums poll not too long ago confirmed that, like King’s naming his guitar “Lucille,” many pipers name their own axe. That someone would pay $13,000 for John Wilson’s pipes is evidence of the power that famous instruments can have on people.

I don’t think that I would be attached to my pipes if I didn’t pay for them. There are a lot of pipes given away as prizes these days, and that’s nice marketing, but I’d bet that very, very few of these instruments actually end up being played by the winner. They’re generally sold into the market, where they can become someone else’s prized possession.

Some pipers agree to endorse instruments made by prominent makers, but I generally think that they aren’t getting much more from the instrument than the sound it makes. I even know one fairly prominent piper who has never actually paid for a set of pipes – ever. I guess he saved some money at some point, but there’s something to be said for feeling an intangible connection with an instrument, for losing a part of one’s self if the bagpipe itself is ever lost.

The elusive ancillary benefits of having that instrument synonymous with your own name cannot be minimized.

Quite contrary


Legless piper on a well balanced instrument.
The Queen Mary piping, drumming and band competitions finish with one of the most entertaining contests in all of piping. It’s an event held in the extraordinarily beautiful original art-deco Observation Bar at the prow of the ship. Packed with serious partiers letting loose on the final night of the weekend’s events, the competition is an anything goes thing that brings a huge dose of fun, good playing and not a small amount of complete idiocy to the February festival.

The contest has been going on for many years, and was happening well before similar things around the world that it inspired. Last night ranged from the sublime to the absurd, and the absurd won out. While Will Nichols, Micah Babinski, Steve Megarity and others combined technical brilliance with pure comedy and creativity, the piper (sorry, I don’t know his name) who copped the $350 prize, trophy and the coveted chef’s hat, played left-hand pipes while riding a unicycle. Yes, a unicycle.

The guy’s piping ability was nowhere near that of any of the other competitors, but the (mostly non-playing) judges were clearly wowed by his balancing act.

The pipers in the crowd weren’t exactly pleased with the result, but it was all in fun, and there was some serious schadenfreude going down when the one-wheeled player in his encore after accepting the award, twice went arse-over-teakettle on his unicycle, somehow managing not to smash his drones.

It didn’t matter. The Queen Mary is pure California piping: laid back, fun, creative and kind of (in a really good way) weird. Definitely a great place to break up the cold weeks of a long piping winter.

Note: it turns out that the Unipiper didn’t actually win. The judges didn’t realize until days later that they miscalculated their points. First prize went to Marshall German; second to Steve Megarity; and third to Will Nichols. The good piping gods prevailed.

The force is with us

I’m currently in sunny Los Angeles away from the three-metres-and-growing pile of snow surrounding my house from the record-setting deluges on Toronto this February.

Alongside the piping, drumming and band events at the festival at the Queen Mary in Long Beach is a special exhibition of the actual Hollywood sets from the Star Trek TV series. There are not a few Trekkies wandering around the place.

What a bunch of total bizarroids – so obsessed with their hobby that they would actually dress up in the costumes of their heroes. They seem to enjoy getting a bit inebriated, as well. They actually like to hang out with each other, talk Trek and do a bit of partying.

I love this convergence of over-zealous hobbyists. I wrote awhile back about “Mr. Sulu” being chieftain of the day at the Bearsden Highland Games. There’s definitely something to these meetings or cultures.

Coincidence? Highly illogical, Captain Kirkwall.

Best laid plans


Me and my pal J.P. Ricciardi a few years ago when I was still buying in to his 'plan' for the Blue Jays.
It seems like every other band these days boasts of having a “five-year plan.” I’m not sure why it’s five years, and not three or 10 or seven, but my hunch is that it all stems back to the first five-year pipe band plan that I ever heard of, which ended in 1987, the fifth year of the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ “plan” to win the World Pipe Band Championship.

Bill Livingstone taped a BBC Radio interview from Bellahouston Park just after the prize was announced. He told the world about his band’s five-year plan that started in 1982, and remarkably everything fell into place – “as luck would have it,” Bill said on the radio – and his band carted off the banner, trophy and sash, not to mention the now-extinct British Airways Mace for “Best Overseas Band.”

But I haven’t heard of any pipe band’s five-year plan working out so well since. In fact, five years back then was something aroundwhich you could plan. Today, bands seem to have trouble planning from month-to-month, let alone year-to-year.

My local baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays are now on the eighth year of their General Manager, J.P. Ricciardi’s “five-year plan.” Along the way the team has had four managers; a revolving door at shortstop, second-base, catcher and DH; and untold unforeseen catastrophic injuries – and the last point Ricciardi constantly uses as a crutch, as it were. The team is now on a one-year plan now for Ricciardi, I think, as fans are weary of his increasingly desperate, yappy salesmanship.

Just look back five years and look at the changes that have happened in the pipe band scene. In 2002 the top bands were still playing with maybe 15 pipers. Tenor drumming was only just returning to popularity, if not viability. The idea of “travelers” in bands was nowhere near the trend it is today.

It’s good to try to plan for the future, but sometimes the best plan is no plan at all. I am a firm believer that the best organizations simply need great leadership to succeed – leaders who are best at identifying talent and managing it, rather than creating wonderful, theoretical plans. Using common sense, creativity and intelligence to react quickly to changing conditions is the best plan of all – that and keeping a core group of talented pipers and drummers for a long time.

If a band doesn’t have the right leadership and personnel making thousands of good decisions along the way, no amount of planning will make goals come true. With luck, it might happen, but, chances are, it won’t.

Worlds apart

I had heard rumours that the RSPBA was entertaining offers for the World Championships, and yesterday’s news that Glasgow’s bid for 2010-’12 was accepted was both anticipated and surprising.

Despite inquiries, no information from 45 Washington Street was received regarding the matter. I’d imagine the Glasgow Herald and BBC Scotland got the scoop because they cover Glasgow City Council matters, and this is most assuredly an important one.

Glasgow reckons that the World’s over those three years will bring in upwards of ₤10-million into the city’s economy. Perhaps that includes additional revenues from the Piping Live! Festival, which coincides with the contest, but, either way, it’s a crap-load of money.

I’d imagine that the Piping Live! folks are breathing easier now that they know the contest will remain in Glasgow but, then again, I think that festival could stand up without being intertwined with the World’s.

If the World’s is worth ₤10-million over three years, then it would follow that Glasgow’s “bid” for the rights, in addition to proposals about the venue, accommodation and coach parking, would include a good chunk of money. I assume (the only thing to do if an organization doesn’t provide details) it goes directly into the association’s coffers.

Factoring in organizational and marketing costs, there’s no doubt a tidy sum that could be dispersed to the bands themselves for prize- and travel-money (if they offered such a thing). Add into that remuneration to the performers, as per the law, for the World’s recordings, and it could mean good things for the bands that make it happen.

But what about the bidding process? Was it open to any city interested in hosting the World’s? Were, say, Vancouver, Sydney, Auckland, Toronto, or even Edinburgh approached? Las Vegas is alleged to have $1-million ready to put towards a pipe band contest, so what about them?

There continues to be this massive disconnect between the passion of the competitors and the business of the World’s. Yesterday’s news makes the time better than ever for the event’s organizers to bring things together, and give back to the artists that make the whole thing possible.

Sweet surrender


That tree will be looking pretty good to a few of these people in a few minutes.
I haven’t been in a massed-band, or march-past, for about a decade now. I miss the camaraderie, half-inebriated socializing and anxious anticipation of prizes being read out (on the infrequent occasion when the result wasn’t already known). But I don’t miss the aching legs, scorching sun (Ontario) or drenching rain (Scotland) and often bladder-twisting misery that these protracted things inflicted.

Beer and bands go together like Airtight and sheepskin: one keeps the other lubricated and firm, if not half-in-the-bag. After the pressure of competing, every band heads directly to the beer-tent and consumes as many as possible before having to head out for the interminable ceremony.

A thousand-odd bandsmen and women with a belly full of liquid consumed on an empty stomach are performers isolated on a large field with no chance of discreetly exiting after the first hour to relieve their throbbing internal plumbing. This toilet-less torture is nothing short of Jack Bauer-esque. There should be a law, and if pipers and drummers unionized, perhaps some day there will be one.

Bands have lots of ways to deal with this, but I recall being amazed, as a naïve 20-year-old suddenly in the midst of seasoned Scottish bandsmen in the mid-1980s. March-pasts in Scotland then as they do now go on for sometimes two hours, so things happen.

Now, I don’t know if this is commonplace over there, and I have never seen it occur in North America, but when someone really had to go band members would make a human wall-circle around the guy who desperately needed to pee. The kilted person would then bend down on one knee, usually with the bass-drum as an added shield, and let it go on the ground. Ah. Sweet fancy Moses.

I recall being in a march-past at Cowal on a rare blazing-hot day. The band I played with had these nice new flannel-grey jackets. One stalwart guy in the band was particularly tired so he decided to lay down in the grass for a quick rest in the sunshine. When he got up he emerged with a giant wet-stain on the back of his grey jacket, which was, of course, you know . . .

I can still see him sputtering with anger and the entire band crying with laughter. What was worse, I believe we gained a high prize at the contest and had to march off the park and then “down the road” in Dunoon, him smelly and pee-soaked all the way.

But in truth, if pipe band associations and games organizers really want to do something for the bands, they should either shorten these ceremonies to no more than 45 minutes, have a brief intermission for the performers, or provide on-field facilities. It’s only fair.

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