March 05, 2010

A fine thing, chance

I remember 20 years ago doing the annual pilgrimage to Glasgow for the usual, compelling World’s self-flagellation. We all snickered at a rival band, as word got out that they had engaged a sports-psychologist to help them prepare and focus for the big event.

Rumours were widespread that this band was prohibited from consuming even a drop of alcohol, and when it became known that each of the rival band’s members was issued a large bottle of Evian water to keep them hydrated on the flight, well, it was all just too much.

This was not what pipe bands were about! It was taking things far too seriously. Hydration?! A sports shrink?! They were sapping the fun from the annual Glasgow week in humbug.

Our laughter was fueled by many pints and self-satisfaction that we were having a much more fun time than those guys.

That is, until we had our sporrans handed to us on a platter at the competition, and the focused, sober, fun-sapped band marched off to a night of boozy celebration with a high prize. No fun. At that point I’m sure every member of my band would have gladly traded all the pints and mockery for a guaranteed prize, but nothing much changed the next year, and nor did I necessarily want it to.

How things have changed. Today’s most respected pipe bands are the ones that run like musical machines. Every one of them is looking for a competitive edge, whether it’s hiring a sports-psychologist, abstaining from booze, or simply eating and sleeping properly before the contest.

Sure, there are still some old-world good-time-Charlies whose idea of a good pipe band is an under-achieving social group of partiers. But ask up-and-coming pipers and drummers what bands they dream of playing with, and they’ll almost always list the bands with the highest degree of musical and competitive discipline and focus. Fun, to them, is musical commitment through competition or concert success or, ideally, a combination of both.

The culture of competing pipe bands has changed irrevocably since 1990, and I think it actually started on that specific trip. Some may pine for the old days – and I may actually be one who does – but the reality is that, today, nothing is left to chance.



  1. As with all hobbies or sports,the winning makes the sacrifice worthwhile,work hard to achieve and earn the beer,then get back to the hard work.

  2. Champions start with great talent and ability…….then they work and practice very, very hard and efficiently.

    Who wants to walk off the field at the end of the day thinking…..if only we had……

  3. Of course believing in the power of the unconscious (and not through drink!), I think that well tuned in and emotionally balanced bands and PMs first get a sniff or a sense of something that would give them the edge, and then seek out ways to put it in place. Lo and behold it works, and then everybody climbs aboard and copies it. Meanwhile somebody somewhere else is sensing the next thing that is again going to give the edge and the whole process repeats itself, over and over and over again, like the waves on the rocks. Somebody somewhere is already realising that whilst everybody is queuing up for the Sports Psychologist, piping and drumming is more than just a sport, its also an art form………….

  4. Interestingly, (from my experience) most of the kids playing in street bands that believe “a good pipe band is an under-achieving social group of partiers” have a similar idea, except their dream bands are the regimental bands. To me that’s even more of an extreme difference. The question then becomes, “why, if the dream band is a hardcore successful competition band, or a military band, do we have so many party bands”. What happens to the kids as they grow up? Or are these bands made up of mostly adult learners who get in it for the social aspects, even if they do compete once in a while.



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