Foot forward

Free kicks.Coincidental to the “Family time” post of a few weeks back, some recent events got me to think further on the topic of passing down hobbies and skills. This is going to be a bit of a gush, but stay with it. My 17-year-old nephew, Daniel (to his family, anyway, but “Danny” professionally), made his debut as a starting player with Glasgow Rangers’ first team last night. He played the entire Scottish Cup quarter-final match against Dundee, making several nice clearances helping the ‘Gers to a 3-1 victory.

Daniel’s dad, my brother-in-law, John Wilson, played professional football as a goalkeeper for Celtic and Hearts until a knee injury forced him to settle into a great career with the Lothian & Borders Police force. John also played – pipes – for a spell with his school band, Craigmount, working with the famous Jennifer Hutcheon, as did my other brother-in-law, Martin Jr., and my wife, Julie.

Their dad, my father-in-law, Martin Wilson, was a piper with one of the first truly world-famous pipe bands, the Edinburgh City Police, being a part of five World’s victories under Pipe-Major Iain McLeod. Piping and football run in the family.

But why is it that piping and drumming so often have not been passed along? If one considers the greats from the 1950s to 1970s, relatively few (pun intended) sons and daughters of the leading pipers and drummers of that era seemed to become equally good or better players, and more often than not didn’t bother to take up the instruments at all.

Donald MacLeod, John Burgess, Hugh MacCallum, John MacDougall, John MacFadyen, Seumas MacNeill, Ronnie Lawrie, Donald MacPherson, Iain MacLellan, Willie Ross, G.S. McLennan, Hector MacFadyen . . . none of these greats, I believe, had a son or daughter who pursued piping in a major way. There are exceptions, of course – John A. MacLellan, Tom Speirs, Alex Duthart . . . but these examples are in the small minority.

But I have a feeling that things are changing. Perhaps it’s the rising popularity of piping and drumming outside of the UK since the 1970s, or maybe it’s the “family time” factor, that’s spurring more kids to take up the instrument that dad or mom plays, and then become as good as or even better – the Gandys, the Lees, the Hawkes, the Hendersons, the Maxwells, the Troys . . . just a few examples, and, yes, there are exceptions.

It’s good to see that that talent, in past generations so often not passed along to sons and daughters, is now more than ever the cool and fun thing to do. Anyway, there’s hardly a better feeling than seeing family follow in family footsteps, and take even bigger leaps.

Facebook TMI

FB TMIIf a generation’s label lasts five years these days, then this must be “Generation Facebook.” A recent blog-post by Michael Grey prompted me to think, as his writing (words and music) is prone to do. It seems that much of the piping and drumming world, just like much of the world in general, is “on” Facebook.

I’ve been at it for three years or so, and don’t tend to do too much with it, except follow friends, link p|d stories and tweets. My interest in FB tends to rise and fall.

But lately I’ve noticed some late-adopters to Facebook from the piping world. Some of these, I’ve also noticed, are quite prominent pipers and drummers who are still active, to be sure, but whose glory years were maybe back in the 1970s and ’80s – well before Generation FB.

I wrote a few years ago about venturing to Scotland for the very first time (as a piper) in 1983, and heading to the Skye Gathering at Portree, and seeing the late, great John D. Burgess. Yes, he, too, was human, although his playing to me was super-human. It was a thrill to see and hear him, Iain MacFadyen, Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald, John MacDougall and others after years of reading about them and listening to their recordings.

To some extent, I’m finding that Facebook is sapping the mystique from superstar pipers and drummers, especially when they post stuff that portrays them as the regular people they really are. On one hand, it’s great that they can connect to the mortals but, on the other hand, the excitement that I felt in 1983 of actually seeing and meeting these people is irreplaceable. For me it was like finally seeing Bob Gibson pitch and Lou Brock steal a base after forever gazing at their baseball cards.

I don’t know. Something just doesn’t quite sit that well with me seeing the legends of piping and drumming carving turkeys or sitting around in their jammees with their family on Christmas day on their Facebook page. It spoils a mystique.

There’s a lot to be said for maintaining an air of mystery, and some of the greatest figures in piping and drumming history were, not coincidentally, some of the most enigmatic. There’s a fine boundary to be drawn between modesty and TMI.


Pipes need clarity.I finally found time to take my primary set of pipes to master craftsman Thomas Doucet in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for refurbishment. Thomas reconditioned the dilapidated John Wilson MacDougall of Aberfeldy set liberated after 30 years from his widow, and subsequently sold for $13,000 to Troy Guindon. Doucet has established a name for himself for his meticulous attention to detail, and to the traditional and painstaking methods of bagpipe-making, so I’ve entrusted him with these 1936 silver-and-ivory Lawries.

In addition to refinishing them, Thomas will correct wear in the middle bass-section, nip a few hairline cracks before they get worse, polish bores and recreate to Lawrie specs a matching blowpipe with wide-aperture plastic insert.

Interestingly, Thomas isn’t a piper, and seemed to come about his business somewhat by happenstance, learning the trade by working with the late Jack Dunbar, who of course learned his trade at Peter Henderson’s in Glasgow.

Coincidentally, I’d been reading Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand by James Barron. The book tracks the manufacture of a single $90,000 piano from the point of order, to the sourcing of wood, through every minute aspect of the labourious process until the nine-foot-long instrument’s completion. At the end you understand why the Steinway brand carries such gravitas and luxury – not to mention why the company’s flagship model is so freaking expensive.

While Steinway since 1853 was often enticed to employ new manufacturing methods and technologies, the company steadfastly resisted, at least when it came to their more major instruments. Almost all of the dozens of stages of manufacture are the same as they were 156 years ago. While Japanese piano-makers were gobbling market-share, Steinway resolutely decided to adhere to what they now refer to as “anti-manufacturing.”

I like this notion. While new technologies are developed to streamline processes and, presumably, push out more product with lower manufacturing costs to make more money, when it comes to great musical instruments, craftsmanship is everything.

It seems to me that most bagpipe-making through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s may have been seduced by new technologies, and that’s why you infrequently see a top player with an instrument of that vintage.

But there are top soloists today playing drones from the last 10 years made using “anti-manufacturing” processes – that is, the traditional ways developed and perfected by MacDougall, MacRae, Henderson and Lawrie.

In an age of cheap, convenient, disposable product everywhere we turn, the bagpipe industry is again being led by those who commit to quality, sacrificing prosperity for the sake of the superior.

What are you playing?

What an eye-opener the survey of solo pipers was for me. Being around it, you get a general sense of what’s being played, but to do an analysis and find out exactly what’s preferred was not only educational but fun.

Of course, the only real way to do such a survey is to promise that names won’t be used, and that’s why I think the response rate was unexpectedly good. I’m glad that people by-and-large feel confident that their secrets may be shared, but not their name.

Until a reader from North Carolina sent me the brilliantly obvious question via e-mail, I never even thought to check my spreadsheet to see if a piper actually played the exact combined set-up of the most popular makes and models. Amazingly (or not), no one puts together all of the leading items to create some sort of super-pipe. The sum of the parts does not necessarily equal the whole . . . or something.

That’s because the Highland bagpipe is still a very individual instrument. We can harp on about how every pipe sounds the same at the top-level, but it’s obviously not true, since the subtleties between chanters, reeds, drones and so forth are a matter of personal preference and taste.

The variety evidenced in the first-ever instrument survey just goes to show: for all the technology and new materials, the bagpipe and its players, even at the very top level, are as fickle as ever.

I’d be interested to hear from readers about what you’re playing, and whether this sort of survey has changed your mind about your instrument set-up.

Family time

Don't argue with Big Daddy.Why is it that there are relatively few examples of pipers and drummers who achieve or exceed the greatness of their famous piper or drummer parents? More often than not, piping and drumming seems to be a one- or two-generation thing in families, with children not taking it up and starting a tradition.

There are great exceptions, of course: Willie McCallum, Colin MacLellan, Angus MacColl, Alasdair Gillies, Gordon Brown, Iain Speirs, to name a few. All had fathers who were very well known and accomplished pipers or drummers, but there are so many instances of famous pipers and drummers who, if they had kids, they either never took up the instrument, or got to a certain level and essentially chucked it. Willie Ross. Donald MacLeod. Seumas MacNeill. John Burgess. John MacFadyen. Duncan Johnstone. Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald.

There is, though, the increasingly common “piping / drumming family.” This happens mainly in North America, where both parents and all of the kids – and sometimes even the grandparents – are involved as pipers and drummers. They don’t necessarily much care about being world-beaters; they’re just out to be a part of it as a family. It happens only occasionally in the UK.

There are reasons for this, I think. The UK piping and drumming scene can consume as little time for dad or mom on Saturday as a game of golf. Get to the contest mid-morning, compete and be home by supper. It’s easy to make it a personal, social thing.

For most Americans, Canadians and Australians, though, the piping and drumming event is at least a 12-hour day, if not a three-day weekend, usually traveling hundreds of miles and staying someplace for a few nights. Anyone with a family will know how hard it is to do that without completely abandoning the wife or husband and kids.

A solution, of course, is to get everyone involved. Find a spouse who also plays, and get the kids playing pipes, snare or tenor. Instead of piping / drumming competitions being the independent social outings enjoyed in the UK, the weekends time to spend with the family. The goal isn’t necessarily to win, win, win at any cost; it’s to have a good time with the each other while learning to play well and finding personal satisfaction for achieving modest goals in the morning’s solo events and the afternoon band contest.

While the instances are infrequent of great pipers and drummers producing kids who match or exceed their competitive accomplishments, the popularity of the happy piping/drumming family is on the rise, at least outside of the UK.

The family that plays together stays together.


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