Crazy AGM Head

Let it all out.Paltry attendance by members at annual general meetings of associations seems to be a worldwide dilemma. Every year that I’ve been in piping and drumming I’ve seen, heard or read about people bemoaning the apparent apathy of members when a small percentage turns out for their AGM. (In fact, come to think of it, pipers and drummers don’t generally go to any piping and drumming events at which they aren’t actually a performer, which may tell you something about us.)

The recent PPBSO AGM was another case-in-point. Thirty-five of the association’s 1200-odd membership attended, or about three per cent. And, of those there, about half held an official role with the organization. It’s almost traditional for members not to attend these things.

I’ve made the PPBSO AGM now for 21 straight years, mainly because of my role either in publishing or with the Music Board. I have to admit, though, that it is one of my least favourite days of the year. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is, and I would suspect that that’s true of most who attend. They’re mostly there out of a sense of propriety or duty.

It’s odd to me that, with people so passionate about their piping/drumming avocation, they’re apparently so apathetic when it comes to meetings where significant rules and policies can often be determined and leadership is decided. Pipers and drummers inherently kvetch and moan their whole lives about judging and rules and results, but when it comes time to do something about them, they’d just as well stay home. Funny, that.

Maybe it’s the off-putting phenomenon of individuals who come out of the woodwork seemingly with the sole intent to make a fuss. There are always one or two people at AGMs who are very outspoken, but no one seems to know who they are or even recall seeing them before, never mind knowing if they’re even actually involved with piping and drumming. They make a scene at the AGM, then go away for 12 months. After a year or two, they go away for good.

At AGMs of publicly traded organization this occurs, too. As long as you own one share of a public company, you have the right to attend its AGM and have your views made known and your vote counted. You can stand up and make Steve Ballmer sleepless in Seattle if you own a bit of Microsoft.

There’s something about AGMs that tempts people – me included – into becoming argumentative and, at times, insensitive. Call it Crazy AGM Head. The affair this past Saturday was actually very congenial and relatively sedate, but I’ve seen meetings at which I swear folks came close to having a coronary right there, veins pulsing out of their forehead as they try to shout down one another. It’s probably the passion for the art kicking in, or maybe it’s a habitual need to perform. Whatever the case, after these meetings I’m sometimes a shade embarrassed of my conduct.

I understand why people wouldn’t want to dedicate a Saturday to such a thing. It’s not fun, and at times it can be downright difficult. But, ultimately, when measured against the big picture of a lifetime of commitment and dedication to piping and drumming, attending annual general meetings is relatively small pain for the greater good.

Ho-ho-ho

They call it a purple patch when you happen upon a sustained streak of good fortune, and over the course of the last three months Stuart Liddell has had one of the greatest purple patches for solo pipers in recent memory.

Since August he’s won the Dunvegan Medal, the Clasp at the Northern Meeting, the Glenfiddich Championship and London’s Bratach Gorm and Gillies Cup. Those are four of the very biggest prizes there are in piping.

So hearing Stuart play, jet-lagged and all, this past Friday in Hamilton, anyone familiar with his record probably realized that here was a guy at the top of his form, just coming off a sustained streak of big wins. (That there were only 30 or so people there to hear him out of a metropolitan area of about 10-million is a post for another time).

Who knows? Stuart’s purple patch may even carry on through the next year or even decade. But that night hearing him play right now was a rare treat. He’s known as much for his pipe band leadership as he is for his piobaireachd as he is for his competition light music as he is for his creativity as he is for his blinding hands as he is for his great sense of humour.

Here’s a sample from the night. Ho-ho-ho, indeed.

Another list

Since I made my picks for the top-five competition band pipe-majors of all time, it’s only fair that I try the same for the lead-drummers. Both of these lists are prompted by recent pipes|drums polls, which proved popular and effective conversation-starters.

Granted, I know the ins-and-outs of piping more than I do drumming. The criteria for those listed on the drummers’ poll was less defined than the pipe-majors’. The drummers listed by and large were those who had some combination of World Drum Corps, World Solos or teaching achievement.

Before I give you my list, I have to remark on something else. Each poll entry could submit five choices. That means that, if a drummer were named on every submission, he would get 20 per cent of the overall vote. I may have relatively limited knowledge of snare drumming, but I do know this: Alex Duthart and Jim Kilpatrick should have been named on every submission. Since each received a less-than-20-per-cent share, that means that they both were left off of quite a few entries.

Maybe these submissions were from infants sneaking on to their parents’ computer. Perhaps they were mentally challenged. Or maybe they were from folks who are so vindictive and twisted that they would take leave of their senses. But not selecting Duthart or Kilpatrick makes my mind boggle.

Anyway, based on my admittedly limited knowledge, using competition success and teaching impact as criteria, here are my choices for the top-five pipe band drummers of all time.

1. Alex Duthart. No one has had a bigger impact on pipe band drumming as the elder Duthart. He essentially invented modern music for the pipe band snare, adapting concepts from Swiss-style drumming, and composing some of the most musical scores ever. He is to drumming what GS, Willie Ross, Angus MacKay and Donald MacLeod were to piping.

2. Jim Kilpatrick. While he is by a wide margin the most successful competitor in pipe band drumming history, with solo and band records that may never be topped, Kilpatrick would probably be the first to admit that he trails the legend that is Alex Duthart. But it can be argued that KP has made a bigger impact on the development of the snare drum itself than anyone, and his tireless teaching around the world certainly rivals, if not bests, that of Duthart. History may well eventually decide that Kilpatrick deserves the number-one spot.

3. Reid Maxwell. He’s won the World Pipe Band Championship Sash numerous times, and with two different bands. As a member of Dysart & Dundonald in the 1970s, the 78th Fraser Highlanders in the 1980s and Simon Fraser University in the 1990s and 2000s, Maxwell has won World Drum Corps championships in four decades. For my money, Maxwell is most responsible for SFU’s always terrific ensemble production. He’s taught dozens of top-flight drummers, many from scratch, and he still seems to have many playing years ahead of him.

4. Tom Brown. “Tam Broon” has played such a major role in the development of drummers in the West Lothian corridor over almost forty years with the Boghall & Bathgate organization that he has to be in my top-five. In the 1980s he made great use of the bass-section, experimenting with differently pitched tenors and a rhythmical bass that, along with a technically brilliant snare line, would lift Boghall further up prize-lists at majors.

5. Wilson Young. It may sound trivial, but Young was the first drummer to actually incorporate other percussion instruments into the pipe band. As Lead-Drummer of Red Hackle – a band that narrowly missed winning the World’s several times – Young partnered with Pipe-Major John Weatherston on several albums to raise the musical complexity of the modern pipe band. Wilson Young is an unsung pioneer of pipe band drumming.

History will determine whose names will live on, and who knows who the next Alex Duthart or Jim Kilpatrick will be? I’d love to hear your choices for the top-five pipe band snare drummers of all time and why.

A list

By the right, check, mark.So pipes|drums readers feel that the greatest pipe-major of all time – at least for competition-oriented bands – is Richard Parkes of Field Marshal Montgomery, followed closely by Iain MacLellan, Glasgow/Strathclyde Police and, also close, SFU’s Terry Lee. All great choices, and the entire list is a who’s-who of legendary names, each making a great mark on our history.

Of course, if military pipe-majors were included, then one would have to consider the likes of Willie Ross, G.S., Donald MacLeod, John MacDonald (Inverness), Angus MacDonald, John A. MacLellan, Jock McLellan (Dunoon), Willie Lawrie . . . and on and on.

But sticking to those who focused on the competition racket, the poll I think captured all of those who had won a World’s, and the hope was that readers would consider other merits.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a proponent of constructive change for the better. So, a pipe-major’s impact and legacy beyond winning a bunch of prizes would play a heavy role in my choices. Here are my personal picks for the top five competition-oriented pipe-majors of all time:

1. Tom McAllister Sr. – this may surprise readers, but to me Tom Sr. is the George Washington, John A. MacDonald or Sir Robert Walpole of the modern pipe band world. I mean, McAllister Sr. was the one who came up with the two-three-paced-rolls-and-an-E introduction, revolutionizing the way pipe bands played together. He is the founding father of the pipe band as it is defined today.

2. Donald Shaw Ramsay – DSR was the man with the vision to expand the pipe band repertoire. Before he came along, it was stuff played over and over, and Ramsay was the first to suggest that pipe bands could actually do more than march along the street or compete with an MSR – bands could actually put on a show for non-pipers / drummers, complete with things in – gasp! – compound time.

3. Bill Livingstone – while Ramsay prompted a change to adopt a soloist’s expanded repertoire, Bill Livingstone in the 1970s and ’80s sent pipe bands into completely uncharted waters. “Deadrock” pushed musical boundaries and buttons, adapting content from Ireland, England and Hebridean Scotland, while expanding the notion that top bands should introduce completely original content. A great leader also looks to the greatness of those around him, and Livingstone’s ability to embrace the ideas within his bands is a leadership quality that is often overlooked. Add to that the first non-Scottish band to win, and the virtual invention of the pipe band concert format that bands imitate today, and he makes my top-three.

4. Iain MacLellan – of course there are the 13 World Championship wins, likely never to be equaled, but to me Iain MacLellan was the Donald MacPherson of the pipe band world. He elevated the idea of tone to a completely new level with his Glasgow/Strathclyde Police bands with a clarity unrivaled for more than a decade. He was the first to make precision tuning a science, literally blowing bands off the park. MacLellan not only set the new standard for sound, he raised it to a level that wouldn’t be matched until, arguably, the Victoria Police in 1998.

5. Iain McLeod – I was surprised that McLeod garnered only 2 per cent of votes, leaving him near the bottom in the results. McLeod’s Edinburgh City Police was the first true superstar pipe band, touring the world throughout the 1960s and ’70s, with the first pipe section comprising all elite players. McLeod picked up Ramsay’s trend towards expanded repertoire, and set the stage for the modern pipe band concert format. Five World titles are nothing to sneeze at, either.

So, those are my top-five pipe-majors. It was difficult to choose, and by no means should the accomplishments of the rest be minimized. I might change my mind in a year, or tomorrow and would have no trouble respecting anyone else’s preferences and reasoning. They’re all great pipe-majors, and may well make your list, which you are of course encouraged to submit.

Musical ecosystem

Balanced on an axis.Every ecosystem reacts to foreign invaders. Earthly things merrily exist in their particular environment, change occurring over eons and epochs in Darwinian sloth . . . then suddenly a bunch of things come off a jet plane and all hell is unleashed.

Scotland is not called the Auld Country for nothing. The “New Town” in Edinburgh was first established 230 years ago, about the time that the United States was born. While Scotland’s cities are among the most modern in the world, and it’s the place where many great inventions were made, paradoxically there are centuries-old traditions that exist simply because they exist and that’s the way things have always been done.

The new worlds of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, by comparison have few traditions, and those that exist are years rather than centuries old. Religious holidays become commercial festivals; days of homage to great leaders are declared; musical trends start and stop every minute.

Thanks to jet travel and other technology, Scotland’s piping and drumming ecosystem has been infiltrated by foreign invaders, brought on partly by Scots themselves. The missionary work in the 1960s and ’70s of Seumas MacNeill, John MacFadyen, John MacLellan, the Balmoral Bobs, Donald MacLeod, Alex Duthart and others brought the gospel of good piping and drumming to the colonials. Other Scottish pipers and drummers, like John Wilson, Roddy MacDonald, James Barrie, James MacColl, Jim Kirkwood, James McIntosh and others – outright emigrated to the new world, and embraced the cultures of their new homes, profoundly improving things through their tireless teaching.

New world pipers and drummers not only worked to perfect their craft, but injected into it new traditions by consistently questioning why things are done the way they’ve always been done in Scotland for hundreds of years. Piping and drumming’s new world has readily tweaked and even thumbed its figurative nose at the traditions of the art. Those disruptions have usually not gone over too well in the Auld Country.

It’s a culture clash. While Scots are accustomed to maintaining traditions, the new world generally has less tolerance for doing things the same way. As such, the challenges to established piping / drumming ways over the last 30 years by and large have originated from outside of Scotland: the resurrection of the bass-section; the rise of summer schools; judging accreditation; solo grading systems; new light music compositions and styles; pushing the boundaries of the pipe band medley; “kitchenpiping”; aristocracy replaced by meritocracy . . .

As with everything, there are exceptions, but the large majority of biggest challenges and changes to piping and drumming traditions over the last 30 years have originated from outside of Scotland.

I’ve been a piper and bandsman in the United States, Scotland and Canada for decent amounts of time in each country. The three cultures treat change very differently. The struggles with change that piping and drumming has had, I believe, are largely due to a struggle of cultures. The Scottish piping ecosystem that existed and hardly changed for hundreds of years was significantly disrupted by an influx of foreigners, exiting jet planes with their new ideas and acceptance of change. It has been an invasion of fresh ideas to some, of pests to others.

The remaining traditions of piping and drumming – the MSR, the uniform, competition formats, to name a few – are sure to be challenged by the pressure to change. The mindsets of players from various countries vary, each with different ideas of what’s “acceptable” and what’s not. These clashes of cultures are responsible for the massive changes to our musical ecosystem that will continue faster than ever with the worldwide piping and drumming population explosion.

There can be no doubting that great changes have occurred since the advance of piping skills in North America and Down Under. Now, as piping and pipe bands go even more global – continental European countries and Asia, especially – how will these diverse cultures further impact upon the traditions and mores of our musical environment?

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