The noble prize

Fair dues..‘The Gathering’ was a solo piping competition held recently at the National Piping Centre Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. Sponsored by Homecoming Scotland, which is, according to its website, “an events programme celebrating Scotland’s great contributions to the world.” The initiative seems to be doing many things that tie-in with piping and drumming, including the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ August concert in Stornoway, Lewis, and the various Road to the World’s events to draw attention to The Big One at Glasgow Green that every single reader of pipes|drums knows about all too well.

The Gathering solo competition apparently offered substantial (for solo piping, anyway) prize money. Someone doing well at the contest stood to come away with more than £1,500, or about $3,000. That’s right up there with, if not better than, the most prominent invitational events.

Quite right. The pipers in that competition are the very best in the world, our elite musicians. Stuart Liddell, Willie McCallum, Angus MacColl, Greg Wilson, Gordon Walker, Euan MacCrimmon, Niall Stewart and Bruce Gandy I’m sure rose to the occasion before a good-sized crowd of a hundred or so enthusiasts.

But compare that event with the biggest pipe band contests. The 2008 World Champion received £1,000. The first-prize in Grade 1 at Maxville isn’t too much more than that.

I’ve never heard any band once say anything terribly negative about either the World or the North American Championships’ prize-money. No band goes to those events to become rich on the day.

But, considering the overall strides that the solo piping world has made when it comes to prize money and judges’ compensation at its more prestigious contests, something is just not right when the top pipe band competitions lag behind. After all, the big band contests draw crowds and CD sales of tens-of-thousands, and many bands invest tens-of-thousands just to get there.

Overall, the solo piping world is rapidly outpacing the pipe band world when it comes to organization and compensation. Why that is, I’m not sure, but would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Contesting age-limits

She doesn't look 60.Like just about everyone else, I was cheering for 59-year-old Tom Watson to win the Open Championship at Turnberry July 19th. It was a feel-good story and a nice change to all-Tiger-all-the-time. It prompted me to think about our own competitions, of course, and I started comparing Watson’s situation with those that we’ve seen through the years in solo piping.

While I wanted Watson to win, I also reminded myself that the guy already has five Open Championship victories. That’s five more than the vast majority of the field, most of whom are decades younger. I don’t feel sorry for him one bit; he can go back to Kansas and kiss his five replica claret jugs.

As good a player as he is, the eventual winner, 36-year-old Stewart Cink, had never before won a major championship. I liked it when Cink’s young family poured onto the 18th green for a group hug. His win clearly meant a massive amount to the Cinks.

The Royal & Ancient, the organization that governs pro golf in the UK, last year lowered the age-limit at the Open to 60. Ironically, their rationale was that it would allow a few more younger players to compete, to have a shot at golf glory. Besides, almost all of those older than 60 who would compete in the Open are former-winners who qualify through their 25-year exemptions. I suppose they could get in through the truly open qualifying system, but that’s unlikely.

The Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering – solo piping’s quasi-equivalents to the Open Championship – about 15 years ago decided to get tougher with older competitors in the Gold and Silver medal competitions. “Old” in their book apparently was (and still is, as far as I know) about 35 or 40 – an age when some pipers actually reach their prime piobaireachd-playing years. Highland Society of London Gold Medals have certainly been won by pipers older than 40, but usually after being several times in the prize-lists.

Oban and Inverness decided to reject entries from older applicants who had not previously won any or many prizes in the Gold Medal events. This allowed them to accept more entries from those 25-and-younger players who had done well around the (Scottish) games and/or in the Silver Medal, without managing to win that automatic qualifier.

Around 1998, after eight years of not competing or even entering Inverness and Oban, my entry to the Gold Medals was rejected. I was miffed at the time, but decided I’d go round the Scottish games instead, try to collect a few prizes and regain some cred, and re-apply the next year. It all worked out, and I was accepted again in 1999 and hit it as hard as I could (until 2005 after my entry was rejected following my having to bow out of Inverness when my mother died suddenly).

While I was peeved at the time, I actually think that the age policy makes a certain amount of sense. After a while, others should be given the chance to win their spot in history. If there are a limited number of spots for competitors – as with Oban, Inverness and golf’s Open Championship – then older players highly unlikely to win should be culled, if they don’t stand down on their own. It’s a tough call in a contest that can only be won once, but it’s ultimately good for the art and the sport.

Additionally, solo piping and drumming have a number of competitors who have won some top prizes numerous times, repeatedly experiencing the glory. I’m not sure that I agree, but there is an argument to be made that the Tom Watsons of our own solo world, might want to step back, enjoy their personal accomplishments, and make room for more of the next generation to have their shot at glory.

I swear, it’s true

Capt. Haddock made it count.So, a new “research” study reveals that profanity can be good for you. Apparently, it helps to ease pain. This is welcome news for the pipe band world, which I’m sure previously thought that swearing was debilitating to band morale and the pipe-major’s health. It’s welcome information that the pain of a badly blown D can be relieved by a choice cuss.

I must confess, I quite like swearing. But, like everything, try to do it in moderation. A good oath blurted out at the right time can really emphasize a message. I don’t think I know any adults who never swear, but I know many who rarely let out a good curse-word and, when they do, you know they really mean it. They make it count.

And then there are those who swear all the time. Cursing is part of their everyday language and just about every sentence includes sharp Fs and Cs. You end up not even hearing it, and after a while you realize that they have an affliction and you start making fun of them behind their back. If the good people at Guinness gave such an award, I’m sure one or two very famous pipers might have the world record for the highest percentage of swear-words in normal conversation.

There’s a lot of swearing in pipe bands. Since kids generally join bands that include mostly adults, they are indoctrinated to the wonderful world of cussing at an early age. Like good blowing and solid attacks, swearing is a learned skill in pipe bands, passed from generation to generation.

But I remember that even before I joined my first pipe band at the age of 12 I was already swearing like Captain Haddock. I can only imagine that the language of tweens is at least as filthy now as it was in the 1970s, so most kids joining the pipe band universe won’t be shocked. And if their parents are alarmed, they should f&*#ing chill.

There was a recent story about a piping teacher who was dismissed from the school system that he taught at for many years because he allegedly exploded with a bit of profanity in the presence of a young student. While piping and drumming teachers would be wise to rein in the invective, I can’t help think that, gosh darn it, it’s all part of good training for a life in piping and drumming.

Besides, it’s damned good for you.

Our drumming duty

The Black Bear, twice over, wot?It’s often the most obvious ideas that are the best and often not realized for decades. The introduction of a “duty piper” for Grade 5 solo drumming competitions is a notion so clear-cut that you have to wonder why it wasn’t always offered.

We pipers have always understood that competing in solo competition fosters involvement and skill, which are then transferred to pipe bands. Bands full of players who also compete in solo competition are inevitably better in terms of technical ability.

As long as I’ve been around pipe bands, I’ve known that all pipe bands could use more snare drummers. We’ve all seen bands fold because they don’t have enough snare drummers, and every year there are several bands that can’t compete due to a thin snare line.

Solo drumming competitions are not, of course, “solo” at all. They require a piper, since a major challenge is how well the competitor accompanies live music and all its spontaneous changes and nuances. Drummers are constantly challenged to find a piper willing to practice with the drummer and then hang about waiting for the competitor’s turn to come up. It’s a lot to ask of a piper, who often has other things to do, like his own solos or sleeping-in.

The obvious idea is to provide a piper, who is standing by ready to play a score to a number of set tunes. In time I think this approach could be something like that of Highland dancing, where a few pipers take turns playing for snare drummers, offering a repertoire of 10 or so set marches, strathspeys, reels, hornpipes and jigs.

My prediction: offering a piper for solo snare competitors will be adopted by many associations around the world, and the PPBSO will gradually apply it on up the grades. We can either sit around bemoaning the lack of available drummers for another decade, or we can do something about it. Encouraging and fostering snare drumming is not just smart, it’s our duty.


Forgotten Password?