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We salute your change.Quite a few pipes|drums readers sent a heads-up about the drum-major with the Cleveland Cleveland Firefighters Memorial Pipes & Drums quitting his band after he got in trouble for “making eye-contact” (read: winking and waving like Benny Hill) with President Obama at last week’s inaugural parade. Apparently, protocol strictly forbids even looking at the new president, although the Chosen One waved or winked or whatever back at John Coleman.

(It reminded me of the rock-star, Prince, 20 years or so ago, communicating with his “people” during his tour only by telepathy. No one was allowed to speak to him, including his girlfriend at the time, Sheena Easton, who was soon dumped for not being able to know what her wee purple man was thinking . . .)

Similar to the previous discussion on advertising acceptance, deciding what qualifies as pipes|drums news can be a difficult call. While “Colemangate” grabbed the attention of entertainment-focused outlets like CNN and “Good Morning, America,” I didn’t think it deserved the attention of pipes|drums. It wasn’t about piping / drumming; it was about one person’s breach of protocol.

Potentially, the “news” that could have been reported on pipes|drums could have been about the attention that the story got from mainstream news sources – the news becoming the news, if you follow, but still I didn’t think the story was about piping and drumming. Never mind that it was a drum-major, it had nothing to do with the actual playing of a bagpipe or pipe band drum.

Piping and drumming-related things occasionally garner mainstream attention. Often, it’s a piper who gets arrested for “noise pollution” when playing in public, or it’s some regulation that says that bagpipes are potentially dangerous to workers or soldiers’ hearing.

Personally I find that stuff tedious and I think most readers do, too. But occasionally, like when the mainstream media sensationalized Hugh Cheape’s 2008 book about the Highland bagpipe as being a relatively modern invention, it crosses into pipes|drums news territory.

If Obama had covered his ears, rolled his eyes and declared pipe bands Satanic when the Cleveland band marched past, well, then that would have been a pipes|drums story. But a drum-major doing what he did didn’t qualify as piping and drumming news, and the mainstream coverage of it was not about piping and drumming, either.

Qualifying quality

Meet your maker.At least twice a month for the last 20 years I’ve received inquiries about advertising from companies based in Pakistan. These outfits say that they make Highland pipes, but also list Uilllean pipes, custom pipe-banners, reeds, drums and all manner of things associated with pipers and drummers. And for 20 years I’ve consigned all of those messages to trash.

But they keep asking, and each time a message gets through my junk filter, I feel a pang of guilt. After all, they’re just trying to make a living at making stuff that clearly a segment of the piping and drumming population wants. The Pakistani companies’ money is just as good as that from any other business, and perhaps it would make sense to allow them to advertise. pipes|drums can always use more support to plow back into the not-for-profit magazine.

My first practice chanter was made in Pakistan from sheesham wood that was painted black. It tasted funny. My dad, bless him, picked it up at some shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, along with Captain John MacLellan’s revised Logan’s Tutor, with the hope that maybe one of us kids would take it up. For the next year it lay around the house. One of us sat on it, and the thing snapped from the F hole on down. My dad dutifully glued it back together.

The following summer I expressed an interest in learning after hearing the Toronto Gaelic Society Pipe Band playing in number-one-dress at a festival in Earth City, Missouri, in July, on an asphalt parking-lot under broiling sunshine. My first lessons were on that Pakistani chanter, my left thumb sticking to the syrupy glue that dear old dad used for his earnest repair job. I was onto a Hardie chanter after a few months.

I don’t know how many serious pipers started with a Pakistani practice chanter, but there must be a fair few. The knee-jerk reaction is to think that whatever is made there is not up to the minimum standard that readers of pipes|drums demand, but I have seen some made-in-Pakistan custom banners and embroidered items and thought they were pretty good. But perhaps to a professional embroiderer they’re just as inferior as the pipes.

Is it wrong not to allow Pakistani companies to advertise?

Tuned in

I caught part of the inauguration of Barack Obama. All very impressive – even the new President’s bumbling of the oath-of-office, which finally showed, in a much needed way, that he’s human.

I liked the stellar and politically correct quartet of cellist  Yo-Yo Ma (Chinese-American), Itzhak Perlman (Israeli-American), clarinetist Anthony McGill (African-American) and the half-finger-gloved pianist Gabriela Montero (female-American), who all are at the top of their tree when it comes to their instruments. Of course they played an arrangement by the Hollywood classicist, John Williams, since there’s nothing more Hollywood than Washington, DC, these days.

Watching them, I couldn’t help thinking that all of us pipers and drummers have been there: sitting around in the freezing cold awaiting our turn to play. (Sometimes this happens in August in Scotland.) Pipers harp on about keeping four reeds in tune, but I am sure that sustaining the intonation of four cat-gut strings or 88 pieces of piano wire is at least as challenging.

And then playing together and (roughly) in-tune before an audience of a gazillion or so. Terrific.

I have a lot of time for Ireland (before the Euro, anyway) and other countries that put their greatest artists, and not always their politicians, on their bank notes. I like that the inauguration included great music and poetry. It bodes well for people like us.

Sincerely, Anonymous

Would Mary Ann Evans have been as successful had she not written under the name 'Mary Ann Evans'?Ever since the newfangled Internet machine was first applied to piping and drumming way back in 1994 with the (truly sordid) chat group, our little world has been frequently miffed and confused about those who speak publicly, but wish to remain anonymous. Forums, blogs and an online magazine like pipes|drums give everyone the power to speak their opinion, and choose whether or not they want their true identity to be attached.

It frequently frustrates those with a high sense of integrity. Pipers and drummers who have the courage and conviction to put their real name to what they say in public often get into high dudgeon when they read the pointed and controversial – and often just simply muck-raking – opinions of posters using pseudonyms.

Of course, the piping and drumming world is not unique in this regard. Have you ever visited a major newspaper’s online edition? Take the New York Times, Scotsman or Evening Times, for examples. Readers are allowed to post anonymously, and even publications considered the most reputable in the world welcome dissent, agreement and everything in between, provided it’s fair comment and not slanderous or libelous.

pipes|drums takes that stance. The thinking is that it’s far better to open the discussion to all – anonymous or not – than to have no discussion, which, as the major dailies understand, is pretty much what would happen if every reader’s identity had to be verified and listed before anything was posted. Web 2.0 discussion is not like traditional letters-to-the-editor, which are closely vetted for authorship and veracity. That’s not a conversation at all, but instead just a one-time rejoinder.

The piping and drumming world is far more open today than it was 15 years ago. Results are openly debated, competition requirements are openly critiqued, the moves of associations are subject to open criticism. We discuss musical issues like never before. While a group of judges may condone a new musical approach, the players of the world may hate it, and vice versa. This lively and open dialog and debate simply did not happen before 1994.

There are still some places where they still seem to try to sweep sensitive matters and clear injustices under the rug, but that approach will eventually catch up to them when they discover their membership has turned on them, and it will be ugly.

As long as it’s not slanderous and is “fair comment” (don’t ask me to define it; I just know it when I see it), then opinions should be welcomed, whether it’s on the Internet or at an AGM. It’s understandable that we pipers and drummers are reluctant to put our names to strong or unpopular opinions. We compete in subjective competition system built on years of slow-moving musical custom and tradition. Rocking the boat may alienate those in charge (executives, board-members, judges, teachers, stewards . . .) who usually don’t like to be criticized, and who theoretically have the power to put down any uprisings they deem not in their interest. And some still do.

Fortunately, even with the preponderance of anonymous commenters on the Net, there are always the true courageous leaders with a conviction to confront the piping and drumming world’s “authorities” and its traditions and mores, unafraid of being identified. It takes integrity and guts to take on the establishment, especially one that’s so entrenched and used to being able to control the players, whether it’s through threat of disqualification, a clipboard hammering or simply creating a century of piobaireachd settings that everyone has to play just so if they want to get a prize.

That sort of abuse of power is unfortunately how the competitive piping and drumming world often operated for its first 200 or so years – until the Internet came along, giving power to everyone and anyone to espouse boat-rocking opinion without revealing their identity.

Similarly, from time to time pipes|drums is criticized for using sources who speak on condition of anonymity. This is a long-established practice still used by any credible publication. Essentially, an anonymous source enables a publication to include sensitive third-party opinion that otherwise might get someone into trouble, whether it’s with a criminal, a business, a political regime . . . or a pipe band association. Readers of The Times, to use that example again, trust the paper’s long-established credibility and integrity to report honestly. When the publication uses an anonymous source, readers have faith in the journalist’s professionalism to use that content truthfully.

pipes|drums often puts together predictions and honours. It started years ago as fun and innocuous features, but some people apparently take them extremely seriously. I guess that’s a credit to the publication’s integrity, or perhaps people are just so bored that they have nothing else to talk about. Rather than me single-mindedly choosing these things, I far prefer to stay out of them altogether. So, the approach has been to assemble panels of experts from various areas, and invite them to vote and contribute their thoughts, with assured anonymity.

I would love to announce grand panels of named experts, just as I would love everyone to put their true name to their comments on pipes|drums, and will try to convince people to agree to that when the time comes.  But, unfortunately, my feeling is that the real, subjective world of competitive piping and drumming still makes it impossible to require the inclusion of true identities and still have an honest dialog.

I’m sure some who pine for the old days would prefer no dialog at all to allowing anonymous contributors. Again, looking back at the sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality that pervaded the pre-Internet era, we are far better off to allow intelligent pipers and drummers to provide their intelligent and fair comments anonymously than to say nothing.

Judgment calls

Kill the ref!Accusations of bias run rampant throughout our particular brand of piping and drumming. The more focused on competition the piper or drummer is, the more it seems he/she thinks everyone has an agenda to promote, hidden or not.

Over the last few decades of putting together publications for pipers and drummers I have had a fair share of accusations of bias thrown at me: I’m a piper, so therefore I must not like drummers. I have played in a few bands; thus I must be promoting them. I play piobaireachd, so I’m suspected of disrespecting those who don’t. I live in North America, so therefore I must be anti-UK. I reside in Canada, therefore I’m anti-American. I live in Ontario, so some from other provinces assume they don’t get fair treatment. It’s all about Toronto . . . I have a bias against those not living in the west end of the city . . . I’m against shorter people . . .

And so it goes. I’ve dealt with the (usually anonymous) accusations by just continuing to do what my heart tells me is right, and creating the kinds of publications that I think people want to read. That’s all it ever was and ever will be. Readership keeps increasing, so I have to assume I’m doing something right.

By profession I work in public relations. I understand that, from relationships, people can do more good things. It follows that I generally approach people I know – those I’ve played in bands with, grown up with, competed against, received instruction from – to contribute articles, as long as I know them to be fair-minded and I respect their opinions and intelligence. It helps me when they express an interest in writing. Nonetheless I’m always delighted when people I don’t know contact me with an idea for an article they’d like to see or contribute, and over the years some of my favourite stuff has resulted from just such unplanned contact. (See Willie Donaldson.)

I try my hardest to be fair and objective when it comes to content on pipes|drums. I’m aware of accusations of bias, but I guarantee that I have no other agenda to promote than providing a publication that as many people as possible will enjoy. No one likes propaganda. There are times when I catch myself almost overcompensating, thinking I shouldn’t include articles that truly merit publication because a small minority of cynically competitive readers will suspect me of bias.

That was the dilemma I faced with the recent New Year’s Honours story. The overwhelming feedback from the panel was that the Spirit of Scotland – based on news value – should be named the Band of the Year, and that Roddy MacLeod – based on overall contributions to the scene – deserved to be Piper of the Year. Uh, oh, I thought. I’m in SoS, so what will people think if they’re named?

But, ultimately, I did the right thing and gave those that deserved the accolades – under the conditions of the system for determining the honours, whether that system is good or bad. In the meantime I tried to grow an extra layer of thick skin, but fully prepared to accept any fallout.

It’s the same predicament that a good judge finds him/herself in. The very worst judge is one who overcompensates and doesn’t award a prize to a deserving competitor for fear of being accused of bias. Our system is such that we truly respect only the opinions of people – judges, teachers, magazine editors, and association leaders – who have also done the business as competitors and performers, who understand the vagaries and challenges of competitive piping and drumming because they have experienced it. Those who talk a good tune have little credibility. Consequently our judges, teachers, editors will always be accused of bias by some, simply because their history as a player is known and there for cynical connections to be made.

Good judgment sometimes requires an element of self-editing, making sure that you do the truly right thing when you’re tempted to overcompensate and do wrong. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

On second thought . . . no, I don’t . . . but I will anyway.

Tuning folk

Speak with forked tongue.I haven’t read a full copy of the digest, the Piping Times, for at least a decade, but when there’s a (usually mean-spirited) bit pertaining to pipes|drums or (rarely) me personally, people are prone to alert me to it, even though I’m invariably not interested. I gather there was something pertinent recently, and a few folks took it upon themselves to make sure that I knew about it . . . many thanks . . . I guess.

Ironically, Rab Wallace, the current Editor of the monthly, in the early 1980s said to me, “If you haven’t been slagged by Seumas, you haven’t made it in piping.” He was talking about Seumas MacNeill, the co-founder of the College of Piping and editor for almost 50 years of the aforementioned digest-sized periodical. Rab didn’t come up with the axiom himself;  I remember him quoting someone else.

In 1987 I took great delight when Seumas, in his report of the Northern Meeting, wrote that I must have “the worst tuning-notes in the business.” To my relief, he didn’t comment on the tune that I played, since he was apt to save his worst slagging for that. So, I figured that I might have finally made it as a piper when the Famous Seumas simultaneously let me have it and let me off the hook. MacNeill had a sharp but always entertaining pen.

“Ouch!” one pipes|drums reader said in a message alerting me to the reprint of the 1987 comment, in what I hazard to guess was a new attempt at a taunt. In fact, it it served as a pleasant reminder of a time when everything was a new adventure. I also know that “making it” as a solo piper requires a lot more than a MacNeillian barb.

Anyway, it also reminded me that, while it should have sweet FA to do with the result, what’s played while tuning is part of the overall performance. In 1987, I didn’t put much thought into tuning phrases and the like, and simply wanted to get the instrument in tune, which more often than I’d have liked didn’t happen. When I’m on the other side of the table, it’s irritating when a piper comes up at the tail-end of a 20-plus-competitor piobaireachd event and screws at his/her drones with an eternity of gibberish notes and no apparent game-plan. It does indeed set the teeth on edge, as Seumas wrote 20 years ago, and more than a few times the performance that I remember first after an event is someone playing interminable airs and things and never actually tuning an instrument, that would probably never stay in tune anyway.   

I have learned, though, that there is usually a correlation between pleasant tuning and tuneful performances. Those who have put thought into their tune-up, almost always have put a lot more thought into their instrument and their music.


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