The hard truth

I don’t know why I never thought to ask it before, but the recent p|d Poll asking if band members think would get better competition results if their band were to play easier stuff is another eye-opener.

More than 49 per cent feel that they might get better results if their contest material weren’t so difficult. So why do their bands play pipe music and/or scores that are too hard?

Maybe it’s an extra challenge for the band. A little short-term pain for long-term gain. Maybe they think that judges will reward them for degrees of difficulty. Maybe the pipe-major’s just hard-headed.

I would say that bands playing material that’s too difficult, to the detriment of unison and tone, is in my top-three most-common problems, particularly in the lower grades. It’s often difficult to detect just how difficult a tune is on first listen, and a tune that might suit the pipe-major’s hands could cause finger contortions from the balance of the pipers.

Maybe they should be, but the truth is that bands are rarely, if ever, rewarded for “hard.”

I remember playing “Eileen MacDonald,” one the hardest jigs there is, in a band medley one year. It’s a brilliant tune, but really ill-chosen no matter how talented a band’s pipe section. We hammered away at the impossibly tricky third part all summer, and not a single judge complimented us for having the courage to play it. Instead all those ever-so-slightly-out-of-unison low-G strikes were easy-pickings for judges.

The sole acknowledgement came at the World Championships when the late great Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald said, in his always surprising voice, “Aye, you boys played ‘Eileen MacDonald.’ Hard tune, that.”

I think most judges enjoy a well-blown, well-timed rendition of something simple and melodic. But there is something to be said for keeping the troops interested, and challenging content can do that.

But when it comes to most pipe bands, usually the easiest way to keep players interested and to attract new pipers and drummers is to win.

Off the wall

I received my gratis copy of the National Piping Centre’s Piping Today last week and was both happy and sad to see a profile piece on the late Ronnie Lawrie. I hope he got to read it before he died.

When it comes to the p|d interviews, it’s tough to decide whether to interview those who are in their prime and popular now, or those whose glory years are long gone and may be inching up in age. There are a few folks who I really regret missing before they died. Luke Allen would have been a great interview, and it was actually in the works when I got the sad news. Alex Duthart’s sudden passing came just before I really started trying to capture the greats in their own words.

Jimmy Catherwood, John MacFadyen, Bob Montgomery, Donald MacLeod – all would have been essential reading but for the fact that they died too soon.

When I did the print interviews, I made a point of getting the cover mounted on a plaque, so that I could send the interviewee a memento. Depending on the personality, some no doubt would put the keepsake in the closet with their boxes of trophies and medals, while others might actually hang it on the wall.

So, it was really touching to see the picture of Ronnie with the plaque-mounted cover behind him in a place of honour on a wall at his home. It’s pleasing to me that the he was proud of it, as much as it’s good to know that some of his thoughts and personality are preserved in words.

Chief Ruffled Feather

The Hen's quick-march.One of the first books on piping that I ever read was
Alistair Campsie’s The MacCrimmon Legend: the Madness of Angus
. It was first published in 1980, so I’d been at the
pipes for a few years. I thought it was pretty interesting at the
time, but when I started to get a sense of the reaction from the
piping establishment I realized just how important tradition is to
seasoned pipers and how change-averse they can be.

Even to a smart-arse teenager, the book seemed to me to be a
researched study by a professional journalist. It appeared to me
then, as it does now, to be ultimately harmless to the music
itself. I’m all for giving credit where it’s due, but, really, does
it matter who composed what tunes or if the “history” of the music
of the Highland bagpipe might be based more on myth than

Over the years there are many examples of academic studies that
challenge common assumptions. Allan MacDonald ruffled feathers when
he argued that there is a strong connection between piobaireachd
and Gaelic song. Willie Donaldson’s Highland Pipe is a
brilliant exhibit of thorough, irrefutable historical evidence
challenging the piobaireachd “traditions” invented over the last 80

In those instances, I think the establishment was threatened (see
last week’s “Back in the Day Syndrome” blog post), so some set out
to discredit the research summarily.

I haven’t yet read Hugh Cheape’s soon-to-be-released book, but I
gather it will again shake things up, mainly because it’s not what
the establishment wants to read, much less accept.

This is where people confuse history with music. Our new music is
continually challenged by those who want to preserve a folk
tradition. Ultimately, history I think should have nothing
substantial to do with music. If someone challenges conventional
thinking, so what? It has nothing to do with how the music is, can
or should be played.

Champion of the world

A different perspective.Every day is Earth Day for pipes|drums. Part of the
thinking 18 months ago when publishing efforts went all-online was
to eliminate the expensive waste that paper can be. It made little
sense then to keep churning out the paper copy, what with the
back-and-forth of proofs, the expensive and energy-sapping printing
press, the smoggy ground delivery of crates of copies, the
polluting transportation and postage and time involved with sending
copies out.

The transition to all-online has worked almost perfectly, and there
are some really great things on the horizon. Yes, some
people older than 40 want their paper copy to read in bed or on the
crapper, but their numbers are ever shrinking. Does anyone younger
than 25 even subscribe to paper-based publications any more?

For the $9.99 annual subscription cost, pipes|drums’ readers can
access online what equal thousands of paper pages. In fact, if the
thing were in paper only, you’d have to buy back issues to see what
you’ve missed. What’s more, to be viable, two back issues would be
priced at more than the price of an annual p|d subscription.

So, Happy Earth Day to all readers of pipes|drums, and an even
happier one to subscribers. We’re doing our part.

The Back In The Day Syndrome

Are there no Robertson chanters? And what of the Rose-Morris drums?I think many pipers and drummers must have some sort of brainwashing or mind-alteration occur 10 or so years after they retire from competing. They start thinking that playing quality was so much better back in their day, that pipers, drummers and bands just don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not only pipers and drummers, of course. This changed thinking happens in every walk of life. As people get older, they often glorify their past.

Why? I think it’s a subconscious attempt to validate who they are or were. If you discredit the present, the past seems superior, and thus the older person does too, at least in his/her mind.

Piobaireachd’s evolution has really suffered from this. Even with all of the empirical evidence that piobaireachd had far more variety and creativity in the past, those whose competitive careers were built on standard settings of tunes so often try to discredit that evidence. They might not realize it, but they may poo-poo research because they feel threatened, because they think that acceptance might undermine their accomplishments.

Some pipe band judges can be particularly guilty of the “Back In The Day” syndrome. They constantly criticize bands for not knowing how to play a “proper” 2/4 march, or not understanding the strathspey idiom or quality of drones or chanter-tuning or drum-sound or ensemble integration or any number of usually ridiculous accusations.

The truth is that piping, drumming and pipe bands have never been at a higher level musically, tonally or as an ensemble. It might be a different sound than what went on 30 years ago, but anyone honestly believing that it was better back in their day needs an MRI.

I fully recognize that the sublime band performances that I may have enjoyed as a player 10, 15 or 20 years ago today might not get through the Grade 1 Qualifier. That doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about, or that I can’t be a good judge, or that I should feel threatened, or that people shouldn’t respect me. But I do know that when I hear judges or “authorities” summarily dismiss today’s standards that I lose some respect for their ability to judge.

Strictly for educational purposes, have a listen to a snippet of Shotts & Dykehead’s medley that helped them win the 1980 World Pipe Band Championship. Sure, there are lots of great things there to appreciate, but, honestly, it wouldn’t rate very highly in Grade 2. And it’s not just the scattered tone; it’s unison and musicality.

Try this segment from Dysart & Dundonald‘s medley at the same contest, at which the band finished sixth.

This is not to take away from these bands’ accomplishments back in the day. For the time, they were great, and we should continue to respect their achievements. But, believe it or not, in 2038 people will listen to today’s recordings of Field Marshal and SFU and all of today’s great bands with the same kind of nostalgic discomfort.

Standards always improve over time. It’s the human way. Piping and drumming judges need to keep up with and appreciate those standards, and never try to block them.

Going places

Haley Brinton, 2007.Okay, back at it after nine days away in sunny and hot Florida. In general, because of work constraints, I accept long-distance judging invitations only when I can combine it with a family vacation, and that was the case with the Dunedin Highland Games held last weekend. (Just to be clear, I pay for everything except what I would have received anyway in terms of judging fee and travel allowance.)

I was last in Dunedin five years ago, I believe. I was impressed this year that the solo piping and bands’ standards, for the most part, had improved. There are lots of young players there with bright futures.

It was particularly impressive to hear young Haley Brinton, who plays in the City of Dunedin organization. You might remember Haley’s name from the Pimp My Pipes! contest that she won last year after pleading her case with probably the most dilapidated instrument I’ve ever seen. It was good to see her playing her prize set of silver-mounted Henderson drones.

When she won the pipes|drums contest Haley competed in Grade 3, and she’s progressed to Grade 2 now. At Dunedin she came away with three first-prizes – two from me and one from Robert Mathieson. It’s always great to see a young piper with the kind of talent that Haley has: complete preparation, confidence, accurate and strong hands, and, of course, a good instrument. I would venture to guess that if she stays with it and continues to get the right instruction she will be doing well in the Professional / Open grade in three years or so.

Haley Brinton: a name to watch.

This week

Not that you’ll necessarily be wondering, but the blog will be relatively quiet this week since we’re taking a break someplace warm. Back next week!

Paradox of the piping times

Hmmm. What would Donald Mor MacCrimmon do?I’ve noticed this year more than ever at how “busy” everyone seems to be, including me. I think technology lures people into thinking that they can or should do more. It sometimes entices us to be too busy to think.

It’s no wonder why many upper-grade bands are trending towards a completely different approach to practicing and preparation. Who has the time to travel two or three times a week to the band hall? Better having one long practice a month when everyone can attend and cram for the season.

Maybe piping and drumming, too, are just placing too many demands and presenting too many opportunities for people to resist the temptation to do more and more. I don’t know how many times in the last year pipers and drummers have said – by e-mail – that they’re up to their ears in it, scrambling to fit in everything.

It’s hard to keep up with a hobby that becomes an avocation. It presents the constant question of whether it’s truly enjoyable, or something that starts to get the better of you.

A famous piper sent me something a few weeks ago that resonated: “Remember, it’s a musical instrument.” That can be taken many ways. But one interpretation is that we should remember that pipes and drums are meant to make enjoyable music, not politics or work or money. Simple, sage words, those.

Along with a brazillion other people, my brother’s a Buddhist and has a rather contemplative view of life. I do, too, I think, but just not in a religious way. As long as someone’s religious beliefs aren’t foisted on me, they can believe whatever they want. Makes no never-mind to me. One can be reflective and look for answers to complex questions without practicing a religion.

The Dali Lama’s been in the news a lot recently, and he’s capable of some equally sage stuff. He says, “We have bigger houses, but smaller families; More conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees, but less sense; More knowledge, but less judgment; More experts, but more problems; More medicines, but less wellness.”

Are we increasing piping and drumming, but decreasing music and fun? Better bands, but fewer friends? Larger circles, but smaller unions?


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