Really cauld bum.Every contest is interesting, but the one recently at Kingston, Ontario, was particularly remarkable. The growing event is still relatively small, with 16 bands competing, and it’s independently run – that is, not sanctioned by an association like the PPBSO. That means it’s free to do what it wishes in terms of events, playing criteria and judging.

Never averse to trying new things, I like shaking things up, particularly in the fairly same-old-same-old pipe band world. Scott Bell, the chief organizer at Kingston, decided they’d try something new with pipe band judging.

They would have only three judges: two pipers and one drummer, but each of the judges would judge only from the perspective of ensemble. That is, no focusing solely on sections, and instead the ears would be trained on the band as a whole. I understand that the competitors were aware of the concept when they entered. I certainly hope so!

Most experienced pipe band adjudicators I know will admit that judging ensemble is far more difficult than judging piping or drumming. To concentrate on the whole band is surprisingly harder, since distractions are inevitable and all around. The tone of the chanters, blowing, intra-section unison, mistakes, robotic tenor-drummers . . . all such aspects can distract from concentrating on the band’s music as a sum total.

The judges were of course allowed to consult with one another at the end of each event, and it was interesting to hear our differing perspectives. There were a few instances of a band with clearly the best pipe section or drum corps, but not the best overall integration of the two – and vice-versa.

So, there were occasional dilemmas about what constituted a better pipe band. Should the emphasis be on the pipe or on the band? Is it possible to be the best band while being the third- or fourth- or even fifth-best pipe section? Is that right? I’m pretty sure that a few bands did much better/worse under the all-ensemble-judging approach, and whether that’s right or wrong I’m still undecided.

But I am leaning towards a more balanced approach, in which every judge considers the band as a whole – ensemble – as well the specific element that he/she is judging. So, perhaps do away with the ensemble-only judge altogether, and instead have everyone assess ensemble as maybe half of the overall score, with piping, snare-drumming and mid-section specifics as the other 50 per cent of the mark from each of the judges.

I also think it’s important to hold occasional events that try new things, unencumbered by association rules and tradition. It’s quite possible that this seemingly little event in small-town Kingston, Ontario, made a giant leap for band-kind.

Touchy subjects

Not a few pipes|drums readers have contacted me about the recent p|d Poll question, “Should full-time bagpipe-makers be allowed to judge pipe band competitions?” Other versions of the bagpipe-makers-judging query have been posed before on the Poll over the years, and it’s of course a hot topic. Always has been; always will be – even if some sort of rule(s) were established to address the matter.

Several readers coyly wanted to know what prompted the question. That’s an easy answer, of course: the results of the Grade 2 competition at the 2009 Scottish Championships last week.

Bob Shepherd was the ensemble judge of the Grade 2 competition. He makes bagpipes and chanters. (I played one for several years and still play a Shepherd reed that’s been going strong for more than a decade.) Shepherd’s reputation as a judge, teacher, pipe-major and all-round remarkable person precedes him.

For the most part the two piping judges seemed to agree on the placings of bands. The band that won the contest, Inveraray & District, had two firsts in piping, a first in drumming, and an eighth in ensemble from Shepherd.

Now, I was not at the competition so I of course didn’t hear Inveraray. I also have no idea what make of chanters or bagpipes or drums or reeds the band plays. For all I know, the band did something horribly wrong with its ensemble. I don’t really care.

But thanks to the RSPBA’s publishing of all judges’ marks, we know that Inveraray received a 1,1 (piping), 1 (drumming) and 8 (ensemble) scoring. We can also see that Seven Towers had 8, 9, 9 and 1; MacKenzie Caledonia received 12, 19, 11 and 3; and Central Scotland Police got marks of 17, 16, 15 and 2.

So, the question was posed in the Poll, causing concern with a few people (several from bagpipe dealers), as if asking a simple, albeit sensitive, question were taboo in the world of piping and drumming. Many other tough questions also have been posed, and many new ones are still to come. Bring them on; let’s get things out in the open so that we can gain better understanding.

I suppose debating touchy subjects is still unthinkable with some old-school folks. There is something of a tradition in our art that prefers to sweep things under the rug rather than discuss them in the open. pipes|drums rejects that tradition. Only by asking questions will we ever get answers.

The reason that tough questions are traditionally not asked elsewhere may be because many people seem to have an interest in not asking them; sweep it under the rug and leave well enough alone. pipes|drums doesn’t sell anything but subscriptions and advertising, and those funds are plowed back into the publication or given to worthwhile not-for-profit causes, so I think we might be more free to evoke constructive conversation about sensitive issues that have been unaddressed for decades.

I’m interested to hear what others think about bringing sensitive matters that have existed for decades, even centuries, in piping and drumming out into the open.

(By the way, the last time I looked, the answer to that particular question from 74 per cent of respondents was “No.”)

A request: please keep any comments on the subject of discussing sensitive topics. Anything off-topic won’t be posted. Thanks.

Worth a song

Copy that.A friend of mine the other day said that at his daughter’s solo singing competitions every competitor is required to present to the judges original scores of the song he/she is to perform. That is, not photocopies or handwritten things, but actual published and purchased sheet-music.

Here’s a rule of a vocal competition that I found:

Upon arrival at the festival, two copies of performance selections must be provided for the clinicians. The use of photocopies is forbidden. Photocopies of permanently out of print material must be accompanied by a letter of permission from the publisher (or legal copyright holder).

Solo light music piping competitions are generally assessed from memory, and occasionally someone will provide sheet music of an obscure tune. But I would say that, at least in my experience, there are four or five competitors in every light music event who play something questionable, leaving me wondering whether the piper got it wrong or is just playing a different version.

Providing scores might avoid those doubts, but, perhaps more importantly, it would help our own publishing industry if competitors, as with serious vocal competitions, were required to present actual purchased published manuscripts in order to participate. It would mean that all pipers would have to purchase collections, and not rely on photocopies and scans.

If it’s good enough for serious singing contests, shouldn’t it be good enough for us?

Offshore drilling

A few months ago I read an article called “Made in U.S.A.” in my favourite print magazine, The New Yorker. The story discussed the difficulty of finding products that are actually made in America, and to some extent bemoaned the apparent fact that Americans would rather buy cheaper goods manufactured offshore than pay more for stuff like electronics and furniture and many other things made in the United States.

The article prompted me to e-mail the magazine a quick letter-to-the-editor from the Florida beach-chair from which I was reading the article. The piece made me think of the Highland bagpipe market and the fact that over the last few decades numerous bagpipe-making businesses have started in North America, joining Dunbar of St. Catharines, Ontario, which I believe was the first maker to set up business in the colonies. John Walsh has been making fine instruments in Nova Scotia for several years now.

Cushing (New York), Gibson (Ohio), Kron (New York), MacLellan (South Carolina) and, most recently, Atherton (Illinois) are all U.S.-based makers of Highland pipes, and all of them (and Dunbar) are considered at least on par with instruments made in the United Kingdom.

My letter – which the magazine didn’t publish (those damned editors!) – made reference to the fact that all is not lost when it comes to U.S. manufacturing and craftsmanship, that there are reverse examples of North American ingenuity working to improve products and serve the world market.

This isn’t to say for a second that non-UK bagpipe makers are necessarily producing anything better than UK-made instruments, but I wonder if the UK media have ever written about Highland bagpipes being made increasingly more often on other shores.

I suppose there was a time when all pianos were made in Europe, but then that upstart Steinway set up shop in New York and conquered the concert-grand market (even though they seem to be struggling against Yamaha and Boesendorfer and the like these days). I also wonder if Yamaha, which seems to make high quality instruments of every other kind, will one day enter the Highland pipes and pipe band drum market.

Do Highland pipes “Made in Scotland” have cachet today? Do Americans, for example, prefer to buy “authentic” pipes made in the Auld Country, or, in this time of manufacturing losses, is there a preference to purchasing products made at home?


Redbird Express

Is there a more physical musical instrument than the Highland bagpipe? The “fit” of the pipe is so important to the player’s ability to perform well, and I can’t think of an instrument that conforms to the body as closely as the pipes.

When the instrument is going well, with a bag that’s perfectly sized, stocks positioned the way you want them, blowpipe just right, reed-strength and vibrancy adjusted exactly, the pipes can feel like they’re part of the player’s body. I’d think that most experienced pipers have enjoyed times – rare for most – when the pipes feel like they’re not even there. And, considering how relatively heavy the instrument is, that’s remarkable.

Such a feeling I had playing in the Medley event with Spirit of Scotland at the World’s last year. It was one of those transcending, out-of-body experiences when the pipes and music seemed just right – no nerves that I can remember, just enjoying the ephemeral moment that is music’s great allure.

In a band it can actually be a dangerous thing, enjoying one’s self so much while competing. Hopefully going on autopilot (or shifting to glide as the song with one of the worst lyrics ever says: “Hey little Donna, still wanna; You said to ring you up if I was in Toranna”) doesn’t cause such daydreaming as to forget tone, but I’d think that a sudden tonal lapse would snap you out of the trance.

I wrote before about riding a fixed-gear bike, which is what I’ve done almost daily for more than three years. I really enjoy the connection with the rig, since you have to keep peddling and use resistance on the pedals to help stop. Like a good-going well-set-up pipe, a fixed gear bike almost becomes part of your body, and when the there’s a tail-wind on a warm spring day with a glittering Great Lake on one side and a shiny set of skyscrapers on the other, the effect is, like a good-going World’s medley, transcendental.


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