Sound decisions

A weighty subjectThe, ahem, peculiar circumstances of the Grade 1 contest at the British Championships bring to mind a number of thoughts. I remember competing at Markinch a few decades ago when a piper in my band had a stock come loose from his bag. At the attack there was no response from his pipes, so he made a quick right turn before crossing the line, never making a sound. There were only two competitors, and the other band was clearly well behind. Coincidentally, Peter Snadden was a piping judge that day, too, and he allegedly had us first but then was told to change his mark. We weren’t disqualified, as I recall, but we were second, or last, and the whole thing was a bit of a fiasco.

I don’t know the full details of what happened to Field Marshal Montgomery yesterday, but I do think this: a judge should not on his or her own decide to DQ a band, which is essentially what Tony Sloan did. My feeling is that a judge must only go by what is heard, not what is seen. If a judge sees a piper hitch up his/her bag then that alone isn’t cause for criticism. But if the hitching causes the tone to drop or a cut-out to be audible, then it impacts the sound negatively and the judge should act as he or she sees fit.

But, assuming Richard Parkes did not even start his drones, how could his ducking out affect the band’s sound? If Snadden put them first, then clearly the sound of their pipe corps rated highly, so a true last in piping – based strictly on sound – is undeserved. Fourth? Okay. Seventh? Maybe. But last? Can’t fathom it.

A few years ago I judged a championship Grade 1 contest in Ontario. As the ensemble judge, I witnessed all of the bands draw for the selection that they would play. The last band on picked their number-one medley, but then proceeded to play the other selection. I and the other two piping judges recognized the error immediately.

We quickly discussed it, and then decided that we would mark the band according to what we heard, and then pass it to the association’s Executive and Music Board representatives to decide what to do. It wasn’t our place as judges to do anything but assess what we heard the band play, whether it was the selection they drew or not.

The RSPBA clearly did not disqualify FMM, but nonetheless allowed Sloan’s mark to stand. The band finished sixth, and still would not have won had Sloan placed them first. However, that sixth could well come in to play in a major way at the end of the year when the Champion of Champions tables are tabulated.

Perhaps Sloan indeed called it like he heard it. He and Snadden of course are reputable and fair judges, and there’s no reason to think that either did anything but try to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, none of the judges at the British appeared to notice (based on the results that the RSPBA posted) that the Vale played the wrong stuff, and, quite rightly, simply judged the band only based on what they heard, and correctly left it to the administration to deal with matters of rules.

So far this year there have been a number of new dilemmas presented to judges at pipe band contests: FMM, the Vale and the Toronto Police. In each, it is a reminder to judges that they are not there to do anything but assess what they hear, and then leave the interpretation of the the rules to the administers.

Sterling silver

Robert Mathieson’s excellent interview has special meaning to me. The interview process started maybe a year ago when I asked if he’d be interested in and have the time to do an interview. After a bit of convincing he agreed and by chance we were at the same contest in the piping paradise of Dunedin, Florida, this early-April, so we found two hours for an ocean-side on-the-record chat that featured several Coronas (beers, not cigars) and not a little reminiscing.

In Part 1 of the interview you’ll see a 1984 photo of the Polkemmet Colliery band. Along with many others, Rab sent a scan of that shot, which was actually taken by my dad, a day or two after my twenty-first birthday, which we celebrated in Pitlochry. My late father would have got a huge kick out of, not only his photography being useful to and seen by others, but the fact that his picture came full circle back to me after 24 years.

Just about every interview that I’ve done is with a friend. Very few times have I met someone for the first time at the interview itself. When that was the case, I’m happy that those people have gone on to become friends of mine.

The straight skinnyReconnecting with Rab has been a pleasure. When I arrived in Scotland in the summer of 1983, a wide-eyed, 19-year-old piping St. Louisan who the Scots didn’t know from Lou Brock, it was Rab who gave me a shot in his band. I remember calling the RSPBA headquarters during my first week at Stirling University, trying to get help with connecting me with a band. They suggested Knightswood Juvenile, I remember – a fine band, but I was aiming higher. They gave me the name of a contact at Boghall, but they didn’t return my call.

Finally, I tried the number of Matt Morrow, then band president at Polkemmet. He said they would love to meet me, and he told me where and when the band practiced. So I set out the next Sunday to their practice at the East Whitburn Community Centre. This involved a bus from the university to Stirling train station; a train to Edinburgh; a train to Falkirk; and then another bus that somehow got me near the practice hall. It took about three hours.

But when I arrived no one else was there, and then slowly people started filing in. Everyone seemed a little intrigued that I was there, but they seemed to have heard about it. Then a 24-year-old Robert Mathieson arrived, he said hello and then took me to the room where Jim Kilpatrick and his corps practiced and asked me to play something on the chanter.

“What should I play?” I asked.

“Anything,” Rab said.

So I remember starting “Duncan Johnstone” only to have Rab tell me to stop after a few bars. I thought he was going to tell me to get my arse back on that Bluebird bus. But he just said, “That’s fine; you’ll play.”

And that’s what happened. I played, and learned, and had unbelievable fun with new friends that exist today. It was a terrific first year in Scotland, and I can credit Robert Mathieson – as he has done with so many other pipers over the years – with giving me a chance to contribute to his band. All the interviews have special meaning to me, but this one is particularly significant, 25 years on.

A crazy salad with their meat

You don't often see salad bars these days . . .The last week has seen a ton of debate about not only the Toronto Police’s adventurous new “medley,” but what actually constitutes a pipe band medley. Someone raised the salient point that a medley should be a combination of different tunes and argued that, because what TPPB played wasn’t a selection of tunes, it’s not really a medley.
By that token, if a band came out and played, say, the short piobaireachd, “Salute on the Birth of Rory Mor MacLeod,” as its “medley,” should it be allowed? It’s a single tune, after all, but certainly a medley of variations. Then again, all pipe tunes are built on variations, or parts, so is each tune a micro-medley?
“The Megantic Outlaw” (the brain-child of Michael Grey who wrote it with Bill Livingstone and Bruce Gandy), which I discussed in the previous blog, was clearly both a combination of distinct tunes, but also variations built on a common theme, each variation having a name. I recall some bands using one or two of those “Megantic” theme/variations within their own medleys. The introductory 12/8 march by Bill seemed to be the most popular.
The results of the p|d Poll were interesting and raised another point. Sixty-three per cent of poll-voters said Yes to the question, “Should pipe band competition music always have some familiar element of the Celtic idiom?” Some would debate that there’s nothing Celticly familiar in the TPPB’s medley.
It’s all subjective interpretation. What’s “familiar” and “Celtic” to one may not be to another. What’s a “tune” to one is a “variation” to another.” And the subjectivity of judging art is the age-old quandary of things like juried art shows, dance competitions, and pipe band contests.
I am involved with the PPBSO’s Music Board and already several judges are requesting that guidelines be established and guidance given to adjudicators. They don’t want to be caught off-guard by such musical nuances, which seemingly happened at the Georgetown games, not only in the Grade 1 event but in the Grade 3 band contest in which Alex Lifeson‘s power-chords were adapted for the Highland pipe, but surrounded by very “familiar Celtic content.”
This quandary will not be solved easily, or ever, and nor should it be. The role of the modern pipe band judge is not solely to identify good tone and point out blooters; it’s also to render musical judgment based on their years of experience and proven ability in the art.
As discussed in another Blogpipe post, the attack, blooters, tone and unison-playing are accepted objective competition criteria. The grey area, as it were, is music, and no one has the right to state definitively what is “good” or “bad” music. But we all agree that, on the day, the judges’ definition of good and bad music is what counts in the prizes. As long as there are judges judging subjective music, the healthy debate will rage.

Good morning

Sunset or sunrise?About 15 years ago, the 78th Fraser Highlanders decided that it would play its Megantic Outlaw “suite” as one of its competition medleys. The piece, which can be heard on the band’s CD of the same name, was about six minutes long, and was a musical impression of the tale of a celebrated figure in Canadian history.

The medley/suite was played one time in competition, at the then Canadian Championships at Cambridge, whereupon one judge, Archie Cairns, lambasted it, as I recall, writing on his scoresheet something like, “This does not fit the pipe band idiom.” I believe the band didn’t win as a reult.

After that, the suite was essentially bagged, not played at the own-choice medley events at Maxville or the World’s. In effect, the band caved for fear of risking losing points because the judges might not like the content, no matter how well it was executed.

That was a watershed decision, as I see it now. Had that band played “The Megantic Outlaw” at the World’s, then, who knows, perhaps the predictable HP/Jig/Air/Strath/Reel (the Jig and Reel sections interchangeable) might not be so predictable. Since then no Grade 1 band has competed with anything significantly different.

Until yesterday, that is, when the Toronto Police shook things up by playing a Gershwin-inspired selection that obviously rallied the crowd, but not all of the judges, one of whom once again apparently didn’t like or understand the content. (I didn’t hear the whole contest, so I can’t comment on what the other two bands played or the kind of sound and unison they produced.) The medley includes very little that is musically familiar to the pipe band enthusiast.

Looking back again to 1980, the General Motors band (the forerunners of the 78th Fraser Highlanders) regularly brought down the house with a creative (for the time) medley, but which also didn’t do well with the judges.

I’m a firm believer in art over-reaching its creative boundaries in order to move things forward. Impressionism was almost universally panned. Picasso was a heretic for cubism. Pollock splattered paint and offended many. Warhol called depictions of garbage art.

In my mind, full credit goes to the artists who are willing to sacrifice money and prizes by being courageous and, at times, outrageous. For the rest of us they fall on their swords.


I hope that pipes|drums and Blogpipe readers like the new design and all the new features. For various reasons it had to be migrated to a new web developer partner, and I decided that, since all that was happening, then new features should be added at the same time.

That was in November 2007 and it has taken this long to get it done. Recoding thousands of items and migrating data from one language to another, fixing code and such like are things I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But here we are.

Among the things we’re still working on are all the comments posted to the previous version of Blogpipe. Uploading those to the new platform is a work-in-progress, but we’ll get there eventually.

Anyway, I really hope people enjoy the new site. It will always be non-profit effort, which causes some people to ask me, Why do you do it? I wonder about that myself, at times, but I think it’s in the blood.

I grew up with the sound of my history professor dad pounding (and often swearing) away at his Smith-Corona typewriter, writing articles and books and reviews and lectures and letters-to-the-editor. He always had something to say and he would usually say it in writing and he would always sign his name to it.

So, if you want to blame or thank someone for all this publishing stuff, he’s your target.

Personally, I’m thanking him.

Navel gazer

Nice navel!I was thinking the other day about the old adage, “No one ever says on their deathbed, ‘Gee, I wish I had worked harder.'”

I wonder if that can be applied to piping and drumming. Do pipers and drummers ever sit there when they’ve retired from the game and think, “Jings, I wish I had practiced more and spent more nights and days and weekends with the band.”

I have met a lot of players who left family behind every weekend and several nights a week for scores or years while they went out to seek their self-centred goals of competition glory. They seem downright wistful when they talk about how their kids grew up and moved out of the house before they knew it.

It’s a huge quandary for many people. For those who have families, who want to pursue their hobby while at the same time being there for the spouse and kids, the best, and perhaps only, solution is to get them involved in the hobby. This strategy works well when the spouse is also a piper or drummer, but, if not, it generally doesn’t work.

I sometimes mistakenly fancy that the practice time that I gave up after “retiring” from solo competition has been committed totally to family. Truth is, I replaced much of that time with working on your pipes|drums, keyboarding away in the basement office, on the deck, in the kitchen, wherever and whenever I can.

Does our hobby / avocation / affliction attract a peculiarly self-centred personality-type? And, if so, are non-self-centred people destined not to be as good at piping and drumming as those who are?


Mother Superior jumped the gunI’ve seen a few comments about bands that did well in Grade 1 at the Scottish Championships last week even though they might have had an early chanter at the attack and/or a trailer at the cut-off. Time was that I band with an early E might as well keep marching across the circle and straight to the beer tent to commence the commiserations. The judges would have put a quick end to their chances of winning.

Things are a bit different these days. Many band judges will see past a blip of two if a performance is otherwise excellent. I don’t care what 24 pipers you put out there; at least one is going to make a slip somewhere in that five-to-seven minute performance.

It used to be that judges would use such a blatant blooter to take the easy way to calling the contest. No one could argue that it happened, and unconfident judges, who have a hard time deciding what good or bad music is, would latch on to the mistakes that any dunderhead could hear.

We’re a bit more sophisticated now. By and large, judges are, in a word, better. I think that new attitude of music appreciation started with piobaireachd judging, actually. It’s far more common now that a player who made a note-error can still get in the prize-list. As Andrew Wright said, “I’d rather give the prize to someone who went off the tune than to someone who was never on it.”

A few weeks ago, at my real job, I interviewed someone for a vacant position. I went out to meet her, and said, “Hi Judy.”

She stuck out her hand confidently and said, “Nice to meet you, Adam.”

Adam? Adam?! I thought, Who’s Adam?! She immediately recognized her mistake and apologized profusely.

The rest of her interview went really well after her mistake. Her bad start was unfortunate, but I was willing to look past it and appreciate what she might be able to bring to my company. But I have to admit that I have already told the story to a few people, so it has stuck with me. Her bad attack didn’t do her any good, but it didn’t ruin her either.

To me, blips and blooters count the most when I can’t otherwise make up my mind. If two or three bands have excellent musical and tonal performances and there’s little to separate them, then an early chanter will become a deal-breaker. Otherwise, it’s just not that big a deal in the greater scheme of things.


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