Taken aback

That MSR was a bit cabaret . . .Colin MacLellan, in the Tip of the Day a few days ago, said that performers should never turn their back to the audience. We’ve already discussed at length the issue of the inward-facing pipe band circle, and I think Colin was referring mainly to solo performers.

You often see at big solo competitions the judges’ bench located at the rear of the stage, the judges facing the audience, putting the competitors in an awkward situation. Do they play to the audience? Do they face the bench? Do they stand to the side of the stage and face neither?

Some of the most amusing things I’ve seen at big events like the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering have been when the judges are at a table at the middle of the stage. The judges, and not the pipers, became the performers. They seemed to be conscious that the audience was watching them more than the competitors, whom they’re there to listen to, primarily, so they affected lots of histrionics, chief of them being of course the synchronized pen-diving when a competitor dropped a gracenote. Before indoor air was cleaned up, John Burgess’s displays of elegant smoking techniques were legend.

All competition organizers should remember to put the competitors and the audience first, and the judges second. The judges don’t matter to the audience, so they should be positioned, Pop/American Idol-like, so that the performers can face both them and the crowd.

Ryders on the storm

I like to play golf more than I like to watch it, but I still like to watch it, so I watched some of the Ryder Cup on Sunday. A lot of people get excited about it because a team of golfers from the United States takes on a team from Europe, so it’s one of the few times when the individualistic conceit of golf becomes a rah-rah, back-slapping, high-fiving, knuckle-bumping sport.

Unga-bunga, my son.The Americans are really good at celebrating their success and thumping their chests before the crowd. The Europeans are trying to ape those antics, but the site of the motley Englishman Ian Poulter doing his best impression of Tiger made me cringe. It ain’t natural, squire.

Anyway, it got me to thinking about a Ryder Cup equivalent for the piping and drumming world. If the Spirit of Scotland can be the 11th best band in the world after playing together for only five days, could the concept be broadened in a Ryder Cup-like format? What if Scotland were pitted against all of the Commonwealth countries in a series of events where a single band from each side would be formed, comprising players that qualify somehow and a number of “captain’s picks”?

There could be the familiar MSR and 5-7-minute medley events, but also match-play quartets, trios, mini-bands and even points-based solo contests.

Since the United States would be left out due to not being a Commonwealth country, they might supply the judges and the lessons in over-the-top victory celebrations.

What side do you think would win? Who would be the non-playing captains for each side? What events might there be? What players would make up the teams?

Pushing the parameters

Attack!Back in June I speculated that the traditional pipe band attack might be becoming less important than it used to be. After listening to Grade 1 performances at the 2008 World’s, I’m convinced that it’s true.

Ten years ago bands would set aside large lots of practice time to perfect their attack. Punching the E’s in perfect unison was thought to be critical to success. While just about every band that I’ve heard so far had an audibly okay attack, I don’t think I’ve heard any that, as they say, flattened the grass.

There were also several instances of trailing drones that didn’t seem to impact a band’s result terribly much.

When it comes to competition, most bands will concentrate on the things that they think are most important to success. These days, those things seem to be tone and music. Bands focus on these areas because they feel that excellence in these areas will being the biggest return from the judges, so they invest the most time and effort in them.

The trend and the talk seem more and more toward MSRs being judged with an ear to technical precision, and medleys being less about accuracy and more about the overall musical effect.

Further evidence of that trend is that the musicality of MSRs often seems to be completely ignored. The tenets of excellence that a great solo player strives for aren’t heard much by most bands, and, when they are evident, it seems most judges either don’t recognize them or simply don’t care.

Perhaps it’s time for two sets of parameters – one for medleys; another for sets – to be spelled out to judges in detail.

The content of character

Say it's so, Joe . . .The great former St. Louis Cardinals MVP third-baseman and all-star manager Joe Torre, when discussing baseball teams, said, “Chemistry does not create winning; winning creates chemistry.”

Sage words, too, for pipe bands.

It’s funny how pipe band people get along so well when they win a lot, and how they crumble when they don’t. We see it all the time when bands are upgraded, especially in those making the jump from Grade 2 to Grade 1. Almost always, the band was winning everything in Grade 2 one year, and the next season becomes a distant also-ran in Grade 1.

That “fun” that everyone was having suddenly becomes not-so-fun, and all the back-slapping people did when they were winning turns into back-stabbing. The band’s chemistry fractures into cliques, the pipers stop talking to the drummers, and the biggest camp tries to take control, ousting the leader.

It’s true of leadership itself. If you take a look at the world’s most successful bands they have a major thing in common: leadership continuity. Terry Lee, Richard Parkes, Robert Mathieson, Terry Tully, Bill Livingstone . . . all of them have been in charge of their bands for more than 20 years.

It’s not a recent phenomenon. Over time, there have been numerous examples of consistent winning with steady leadership: Iain McLeod, Tom McAllister, Bob Hardie, John McAllister, Iain MacLellan . . . none of these greats were flash-in-the-pans.

I’d also bet that most of these guys have or had steady professional careers and enduring personal relationships.

Based on what I have observed, some possible advice to bands recruiting a new leader would be to search for someone with demonstrated commitment and consider these questions:

  • How many bands has he/she played with?
  • How many jobs has the person held?
  • Does the candidate stay with personal relationships or regularly fall out with people?
  • How did he/she do in school?
  • Has the person contributed to the piping and drumming scene in ways that go beyond personal achievements?

These are all indicators of the content of the potential leader’s character.

Without fail, the bands that have leadership changes have mixed results. And mixed results mean not winning consistently. Not winning consistently results in loss of chemistry, which means loss of fun, dissension and a rush to make leadership changes. With some bands, it’s a cycle.

Too often, too, bands tend to look outside of their membership for a new leader. They want the guy with all the solo medals or creative juices, and they often overlook the stalwart, long-serving member who has stuck with the group through thick and thin, the guy who understands that the “band” is much more than just winning.

Admittedly, bands do look internally first, only to find that no one is willing to make the commitment required of a pipe-major. That’s another topic, but suffice it to say that every band should have someone ready, willing and able to take over, and every pipe-major should groom his or her successor.

When it comes to effective leadership, commitment and continuity and confidence are far more important in a leader than superior playing ability and creativity. If the committed leader is not a great player or composer, he or she will most certainly have the management skills and self-confidence to find and surround him or herself with the needed talent.

Great chemistry starts with winning, and winning happens – over time – with well chosen, committed leadership.

The give and take

pipes|drums isn’t my job, but I do strive for professionalism. One of the hardest things about it, though, is reporting on the news of the death of a friend. Inevitably, as we get older, that sort of close-to-home news will become increasingly common.

Yesterday was a rough day for the piping world, and especially for Ontario. I think that almost everyone who knew Scott MacAulay and Willie Connell would have been aware of their illnesses and that the odds of long-term survival were not good. In that sense, we were dreading but anticipating the bad news, but it hit nonetheless hard.

After ensuring that relatives are aware of the news, the 10 minutes that it takes to write the news story are for me something of an emotionless blur. I try to be professional, and distance myself from my personal upset and focus on the task at hand. But after the news is published, I’m immediately hit with sadness and reflection. It sinks in, but the sorrow starts to give way to appreciation when mutual friends start chiming in by phone and e-mail about fun times and fond memories.

That’s what yesterday was like after I heard of Scott’s passing. I cycled home from work as usual through the bustle of downtown Toronto traffic only to be punched again with the news of Willie Connell’s death. And the draining process of matter-of-fact reporting giving way to reflection started all over again.

I take solace in the fact that pipes|drums has become a focal point for the world’s pipers and drummers. That people can and do share their memories  of and tributes to those who have left us is a comfort, and it’s the dialogue aspect of the online magazine that I personally like the most. I know that Scott was a big fan of the magazine, and loved to monitor the lively debate. I also know that Willie was often at odds with some (if not most!) of the magazine’s non-old-school opinions, but I know that he, too, followed the discussions closely.

These two people gave a lot to me, and I am glad that, in whatever small way, I was able to provide something for them in return.

Cap’s on

Formidable!Judging from the dozens of comments about the pipes up-down-up rule and the thought of changing it, the subject of dress and deportment in competition is surprisingly contentious as piping and drumming evolves.

A few years ago I wrote a Blogpipe post that was intended to be funny about the fact that pipe bands from Pakistan and Spain come to the World’s and are allowed to wear their national costume. Now, reading it again, there’s a lot to that.

The Breton bands wear quite smart trousers and double-breasted waistcoats. It’s all allowed, since the RSPBA has no provision for bands having to wear “Highland” dress; they simply say bands should be in uniform.

So, in effect, bands can wear what they want as long as they strive to have every player look the same (which never happens, because there are always two or three odd sporrans and a few folks with a tie from another band after they traded their own), and provided the RSPBA’s National Council approves it.

I don’t know one piper or drummer who prefers to compete while wearing a jacket. The more encumbered a piper or drummer is, the more difficult it is to play his or her instrument, and playing the instrument is the task at hand.

Besides, the uniforms of bands from Brittany and Spain and the like are a welcome added variety at the World’s. People I think enjoy seeing a change from the conventional ersatz Victorian-military derivative ensemble that makes the Scottish, US and Commonwealth-country bands look pretty much all the same. Now that Bagad Cap Caval has won the Grade 2 event and may well be required to compete in Grade 1 next year, does their more comfortable uniform give them a decided playing advantage? I think so, and they have the right idea.

Why can’t the currently kilted pipe bands have two uniforms – the predictable tartan one for performances, and another one – equally smart – that’s more conducive to good playing in competition?

To bring about this change, most people think a Grade 1 band will need to do it first. And that might well happen in 2009.

Lexy M. Catskill, 1992-2008

Life is sweet.You might remember a post awhile back wondering whether anyone had made their pet’s fur coat into a sporran after it passed on to the kitty-litter tray in the sky. Well, just to let you know, our cat, Lexy M. Catskill, is no longer with us. Sixteen-and-a-half years of unbridled comfortable living after being saved from the Humane Society, his unlucky end finally came on August 8, 2008.

And, no, we didn’t re-use, reduce and recycle his coat for a sporran.

In the space of just a few months, the big man went from being a 23-pound mass of luxurious fur to an 11-pound threadbare critter. The vet said that we could try to save him through tests and operations and what not, but that the likely cause – some sort of kitty cancer – is probably not treatable, so we made the decision that most pet-owners face, whether it’s a sophisticated euthanasia or the proverbial fish-flush.

Sporran or not, Lexy’s memory will live on!


Make up your mind!I believe that the RSPBA and the PPBSO are the only two associations that require bands to do the pipes down / pipes up drill at the starting line. The Scottish association has done it forever, while the Ontario one introduced it in the 1990s, dropped it for a few years, then brought it back again maybe seven years ago. The maneuvre is a hold-over from the military roots of pipe bands, and the commands from the pipe-major – who rarely has any military background – are supposed to go something like this:

– Band: atten . . . shun!
– Band: pipes ready! [pipers gather up chanter and blowstick; drummers put their sticks under their armpit]
– Band: pipes down! [pipers put instrument in the crook of their left elbow; drummers turn drums to the side; both keep their right hands on their instrument]
– Hup! [right arms down to the side]
– Band: at ease! Stand easy! [why this is said twice I don’t know, but players move their left foot out and are supposed to stand in a more relaxed way, with their right arms behind their back]

The pipe-major then talks with the steward and/or ensemble judge for maybe 15 seconds, then turns to the band and says:

– Band: atten . . . shun! [players move their left foot back in, their right arm to their side, and stick their chest out]
– Band: ready! [players put their instruments to the front]
– Hup! [pipes moved to shoulder, drums to the front, right arm remaining on the instrument]
– Hup! [players put their right arm to their side]
– Band: get ready! [pipers carefully bring their chanter down; drummers’ sticks in playing position]

Essentially, when all of this finally concludes the band is back to what it looked like when they arrived to the line, provided a poorly maintained tenor drone-top hasn’t slipped off its tuning pin, or a chanter reed hasn’t fallen in, or a stock hasn’t come loose from the bag.

(There’s a famous story of a pipe-major of a Grade 1 Ontario band who, at the band’s first competition in Scotland, was unaware of the RSPBA’s pipes down/up rule, arrived at the line with his band ready to play, only to have the steward kindly remind him, “Pipes down, pipe-major.” A bit rattled, he followed the steward’s direction and had his pipers put their instruments down, only to be told by the steward, “Pipes up, pipe-major.” Thoroughly confused, the pipe-major said, “Would you make up your %&^&ing mind?!”)

I actually clocked that pipes down/up drill a few times this summer, and it takes anywhere from 40 to 190 seconds. During that time, the judges are pretty much standing their doing nothing, the crowd is daydreaming, and, most significant of all, the instruments are going flat.

In a 20-band competition, with each pipes up / ready / down / hup / pipes up, etc. routine lasting an average of, say, one-minute, all of that adds 20 minutes to the event.

I’m not sure what the reason for the drill is, but I gather it’s to make bands look regimented and smart. But I have never known a crowd to be wowed by it, a band judge to let it sway their opinion, or a band to be anything but miffed that they have to jostle around instruments that they just spent an hour fine-tuning.

In this age when march-pasts and massed bands push larger competitions into the night and associations scramble to compile results in time, it makes little sense to add the extra time to competitions for virtually no return.

Time to scrap this antiquated tradition.


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