Burn, baby, burn.

This is a lengthier post, but I hope you still read it.

There has been some hand-wringing in Ontario and other parts of North America lately over apparent declining interest in our “product.” While some Ontario Highland games, like Maxville and Fergus, are thriving with bigger-than-ever crowds, others, like Chatham and Sarnia, have recently closed shop.

Jim McGillivray recently described it as “Rome burning,” which might be over-stating things a shade. For the last 10 years, he and others have called out for a reinvigoration or even reinvention of our product – the thing that we sell to Highland games organizers.

The RSPBA and the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario sell a turn-key product to events. For a flat fee, these associations will come in and run all of the piping, drumming and band competitions, and stage the massed band or march-past spectacles. As anyone who has been to several RSPBA or PPBSO events can attest, they’re pretty much the same format from contest to contest.

Most other associations have a different model. They will “sanction” designated competitions that agree to allow them to coordinate the judging and advise on competition formats and some recruitment of competitors. In essence, they ensure that competitions are of a certain quality. But games organizers can much more easily stage creative and different events, so variety from contest to contest is greater. It’s a more competitive and capitalistic approach. Over time, competitors gravitate to the events that are run the best and are the most fun to attend.

But what about the idea of our “product”? What actually is the product that we have to sell?

Here’s a fact we should all face: ultimately, the general, non-playing public does not much like bagpipe music. Let’s accept it. The average person is not drawn to our music for more than a few minutes because, in its usual style, it’s not very accessible or understandable or, dare I say it, enjoyable. This has always been so.

Our musical product has not seriously changed in 100 years. Medleys are more adventurous, but the large crowds that listen to the top-grade competitions at the World’s and Maxville do not comprise the general public; they are the same competitive pipers and drummers and friends and family who have always listened. It’s a captive audience that has grown over many decades. The more competitors a competition can attract, the bigger the crowds listening to the competitions.

The large general public that attends Fergus and Maxville doesn’t much pay attention to the competitions. They come out for the Highland dancing, the caber tossing, the sheepdogs and the grand spectacle of the massed bands. We can, and probably should, add 15-minute freestyle Grade 1 band events in concert formation, but I still think that the general public won’t really care. Performing facing the audience makes sense, but droves of punters aren’t suddenly going to appear because of it.

New competition formats could freshen things for pipers and drummers, however, the competition music will still be relatively inaccessible, because it will inevitably at least compromise when it comes to arguments about “Scottish idiom” and technical complexity that we identify as necessary in order to have a serious competition. At the end of the day, no competitive pipers and drummers want to do away with competition. It’s what they do. Most of us are competitors and get off on winning. Relatively few of us are frustrated artists.

I think that our non-competition “product” for the games still works. It can be tweaked to offer more variety and showmanship, but, if so, that product inevitably will have to leave out many of the lower-grade bands, and allow the more practiced and accomplished higher-grade bands to do the work, and they will want compensation.

The people who cry out for a sweeping change invariably are those who have been around the longest. They’re bored because they have heard and done it all before, hundreds of times.

But I don’t hear competitors younger than 30 express the same desire for sweeping change, because, just as it was for the now jaundiced veterans 30-odd years ago, our competition format is addictive and alluring to a certain type of piper and drummer who spends years getting it. (I also have never heard anyone from the UK suggest that their Rome is burning, but maybe that’s a different story.)

It’s a quandary. Do we accept that the music we play is arcane and boring to the vast majority of non-players and alter it so dramatically (I’m picturing other instruments, marching formations, electronica, light shows . . .) to attract a big general-public crowd? Or do we continue along the same course, mainly pleasing ourselves and our friends and family?

And, if it’s the latter, why not hold our own competitions that subsist on our own dues and entry-fees, holding them in parking lots and fallow farmers’ fields? Why can’t associations therefore move away from being competition machines and instead become event promoters?

I’ve never been to Rome, but I understand that today it’s an awesome place that respects the old while celebrating the new. Perhaps our Rome needs to burn for us to get better.


Wait till the Tri-State area sees my evil Drone-a-nator!It’s winter, it’s cold, there’s not a lot of piping and drumming going on, we’ve said everything there is to say about the Blessed Camaraderie of Tenor Drummers . . . so it’s time for a list.

Here are my favourite TV shows, although I confess that, because of time and watching live baseball almost every day from April to November, I catch up on some of these shows by DVD.

  1. Madmen. This is brilliant TV, especially for someone who works in marketing. A real study of a period just before so many societal things were about to change.
  2. 30 Rock. Funniest. Show. Ever. Me want foooood!
  3. Frontline. I never know when this deadly serious PBS program is on, but when I happen upon it it’s always riveting stuff.
  4. The Office. This has recently come close to a shark-jump (the episode where they get locked inside the building was relatively lame), but it’s still brilliant character acting and timing.
  5. Phineas & Ferb. While reading the morning’s news, I end up watching this show many weekday mornings with Annabel. P&F features maybe my favourite cartoon character ever, Doofenshmirtz, head of Evil Incorporated, and the voice of Ashley Tisdale as the borderline personality disorder-afflicted sister, Candace. When I was a kid all we had was total crap like Speed Racer.

Shiny, happy tenors

Seriously fun stuff.Okay, this is the last thing on tenor drummers for a while. I promise.

But has anyone noticed that, while pipers and snare drummers look like they’re in the midst of a battle – or a funeral, depending on how the band is playing – tenor-drummers are often smiling and even laughing during the competition?

I thought about it before, but was reminded when viewing the World’s DVD. There are many shots of flourishing tenor players who look like they’re at a theme park instead of an Every-Little-Mistake-Could-Ruin-It-For-The-Whole-Band World Championship.

Having fun is the name of the game, of course, but I wonder why tenor-drummers are so happy in the heat of competition while the rest of the band looks like they’re in complete misery.

Big MAP attack II

Cutty Sark was spirited and lively.I understand that the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association has decided to adopt the RSPBA’s Musical Appreciation and Presentation, or “MAP,” system for its lower grade band competitions. I’ve thought a lot about MAP, and wrote about it last year, saying, among other things, that it’s a crock.

I’m not sure if I have changed my mind, but here’s what I think now: it might make sense for the UK, but it makes no sense for non-UK associations. This is why:

MAP is supposed to improve musicality in lower-grade bands. The RSPBA identified a decline in standards so, by foisting traditional (and some really hackneyed) set tunes and scores and all-ensemble judging on the lower grades, the thinking three years ago was that these bands would improve, and quality would trickle up the grades.

The UK pipe band scene, however, is very, very different from elsewhere. Solo piping and band piping are two drastically different worlds in Scotland. Bandsmen do their thing and soloists theirs, and the two hardly ever converge. Competitions are almost always at separate venues. There are pipe band-only judges and there are solo piping-only judges. A select few judge both domains. There may be the odd piper in a UK band who “goes in” for the solos, but they too are few.

In the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and actually, I think, everywhere outside of the UK, band and solo scenes are intertwined. The majority of pipers in bands at some point work hard on their solo stuff, and many, if not most, for their entire lives. They spend a lot of time studying the nuances of phrasing, technique and overall musicality. Pipe-majors of non-UK bands are almost always accomplished soloists. They understand what constitutes quality pipe-music, and as a result they work to instill that in the band.

On the other hand, many UK bands, and especially those in the lower grades, are led by pure bandsmen. These leaders more often than not have not dedicated any time to dissecting the intricacies of phrasing, of how to make a 2/4 march “spirited and lively” – at least in a solo way. They may know how to get a sound, but probably have no idea how to make a march swing. I dare say that this lack of musicality can be heard in some top-grade UK bands that are led by pipers who never rose to any heights as soloists.

Further, judges at non-UK band events almost always are also accredited solo piping judges, and, consequently, the musical standards that non-UK pipe band judges measure competitors against are taken straight from solo benchmarks. On the other hand, the preponderance of band-only judges in the UK might have something to do with the fact that in the UK a band that has a good sound but lacks musicality more often than not does well.

Three years after MAP, I see no evidence that it’s making much, if any, difference to the quality of lower-grade UK bands. In fact, I see the standard of North American Grade 4 and Grade 3 bands rising, perhaps due mainly to the advent of Grade 5. Case in point: the Grade 5 Paris/Port Dover band from Ontario competed in Grade 4B at the 2008 World’s and finished second against 48 other bands. Seattle’s Keith Highlanders placed third overall after winning their qualifying heat. The Keith Highlanders are no doubt a fine band, but they were a distant third in overall Grade 4 contests run by their home association, the British Columbia Pipers Society.

These are just a few examples, but they indicate to me that the North American standard has risen, while the UK standard has not. I can detect no evidence that MAP is working. If it were, then wouldn’t non-UK lower-grade bands competing at the World’s be trounced by those bands that have been competing under the system since 2006?

With the UK’s separation of bands and solos, MAP may make some sense for Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, but adopting it elsewhere is a step backward.


Looking prosperous.The barrage of bad economic news just keeps on coming and, unfortunately, the pipe band world will not be exempt. In fact, the pipe band world as we’ve come to know it, will be hit hard and will likely change dramatically in the next few years. I wish that weren’t so, but it is, so let’s talk about it.

We have seen over the last 15 years an era of unprecedented pipe band prosperity. Rosters have expanded to sizes unimaginable just two decades ago. Bands of all grades have traveled the world to support their hobby in the name of fun and glory. Bagpipes have been developed with every imaginable ornamentation by dozens of pipe-makers that didn’t even exist in 1998. Pipe band associations the world over have raised fees without raising services. Pipe band mid-sections have come from the brink of extinction to, some would contend, almost running bands themselves.

Nothing like a severe global recession to fix all that.

Bass-sections might actually be a bellwether of band prosperity. Up until the early 1970s, when bands wore nothing but ornate and expensive number-one dress, tenor- and bass-drummers were kitted out in (and this is hard to imagine today) the pelts of exotic animals. Leopard-, tiger- and bear-skin “aprons,” replete with canine-baring heads, would adorn the then most musically insignificant playing members of the band. Far more money was invested in the traditional bass-section players than in pipers or snare drummers.

It might not be a coincidence, then, that the pipe band uniform changed dramatically around 1974 when the last comparably major world economic crisis struck. Pipe bands started to cut costs, and looked to uniforms first. “Number-two” dress was adopted from the solo piping world. Not only was it a lot cheaper, but it was far easier to maintain and, most importantly, perform in.

Bands were feeling an economic crunch, and adding a player was a serious commitment. Perhaps not coincidentally, band members were shed, too. Departing tenor drummers often were not replaced.

Fast-forward, then, to the most recent economic boom, starting about 2001 after the last “mini-recession.” Again, not coincidentally, band rosters increased faster than the stock markets. The expansive modern bass-section was invented and, in fact, renamed. “Mid-sections” of four, five, even nine players were added, each drummer adding new tones, each playing an expensive instrument that utilized cutting-edge drum technology.

People still argue about whether such additions help or hinder pipe bands, whether they add or detract from the music, whether complex mid-sections have enough musical return on investment to warrant their inclusion. Robert Mathieson loves them; Richard Parkes is less keen.

If history is any indication, though, the piping and drumming times may reflect the economic times. I dislike the notion as much as anyone, but there is no doubt that the next year or so will present major challenges to pipe band events, pipe band associations and pipe bands themselves. For bands – and I hope I am wrong here – addressing those challenges could well start with the mid-section.

Boom-boom – on goes the light

Yes we can.When Craig Colquhoun and Scott Currie approached pipes|drums a few months ago about having the 2008 World Champion Bass-Section winner decided by the magazine’s poll, I was a little reluctant. Is this right? Should the world’s pipers and drummers determine what Grade 1 band’s mid-section should receive the award? Don’t all pipe band-related prizes have to be decided by accredited judges?

To be honest, I forgot about it until Hoss raised the idea again last week. My immediate response was, Yes, why not?

Why have the award decided this way? Well, for a start, the RSPBA decided to eliminate the prize so certified judges can’t award it in any official way any longer.

Second, we all know that, sadly, the Best Bass-Section prize when it is given out, it’s often in a relatively informal manner. There are no specific bass and tenor judges at pipe band contests, and the prize is usually determined by the ensemble and/or drumming judges, both of whom are either snare drummers or pipers. To my knowledge, there are no RSPBA judges who have specific expertise in modern bass- or tenor-drumming either as players or arrangers. Today’s mid-sections are captained by a player within the section itself, and the band’s leading-drummer and pipe-major pretty well just sign off on the arrangements that they compose and choreograph.

Third, the BBC and the RSPBA kindly put out a lovely (albeit out-of-sync and possibly illegal) DVD of the World’s Grade 1 Final. We can all see and hear first-hand every one of these mid-sections without actually having to be there.

Lastly, the trophy is the Hosbilt Cup and was donated by Colquhoun’s company with the expressed agreement that it be awarded to the best Grade 1 bass-section at the World’s. Since the RSPBA’s prize no longer exists, and since the association clearly doesn’t want to award it, then the trophy should be returned. If Craig wants to award the prize this way, then fine, we’re happy to help.

PPBSO and RSPBA judge Ken Eller has already questioned the relatively harmless method of determining the prize. Why should anyone feel threatened by an award being determined not as an after-thought by accredited judges with piping and snare drumming backgrounds, but a by fair, popular vote of all of the world’s competitive pipers and drummers – including bass- and tenor-drummers, the people who care and know about this the most?

Leading lights from the strong-voiced community of mid-section players consider this popular-vote method a good way to do it for the year (at least) when there appears to be no other way. Why should anyone feel anything but good for bass and tenor players and the bands in which they play?


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