Published: December 31, 2009

Brave new World’s

(First published February 2007)

What’s all the fuss about size of bands? Impassioned posts abound on the subject, ranging from those proposing an RSPBA Committee on the Sustainability of Pipe Bands to those who suggest that the devil take the hindmost.

We all are familiar with how we got here: little village and colliery bands playing at fair days and raising funds with tea tents and wine raffles, and working all summer to raise enough money to afford a bus for the Cowal Games. The bands were all about families, villages, a love of music, and a social environment for spending the Saturdays through the slightly-less-rainy season. Then, you’d spend half of Sunday morning trying to remember how your spats got mud on them, and what the grass stains on your knees really mean.

Before you know it, the bands are putting themselves together: Shotts joins Dykehead, Dysart joins Dundonald, Boghall joins Bathgate . . . bigger is better baby, even in 1930. Okay, I made that up – but I like the idea. Imagine the surprise at Cowal when the first band showed up with 12 pipers! “How will they ever tune them all?” “B’God Jimmy, that’s two good bands they have there!”

Fast forward to the 1980s, and 12-14 pipers are the magic numbers. In the early days rebuilding Shotts, Rab Mathieson took to the field with eight pipers: four in front, four in back. That’s a front rank these days. But who cares? It’s the way it goes. In 1991, Polkemmet turned up the heat with a 2nd prize and a (then) huge pipe section. Didn’t quite get around to all the Ds and Fs it seemed, but it was a medley 10 years ahead of its time.

The search for numbers starts, and bands are importing madly to make it happen. Scots in SFU and 78th Frasers, Canadians in Shotts, Danes, Germans, Americans, Australians . . . now pipers are flying across oceans to play with bands – in all directions. Starting each October some lame-ass posts, “Who’ll Win Next Year?” or “Shotts to have 13 tenors and three basses,” on the message boards, and it starts all over again. Play along or step back. Your choice.

And then, after everyone is wowed by Field Marshal’s impressive tone and numbers, we hear that the 78th Fraser Highlanders (no Johnny, not the ones from Halifax; yes, I know Bruce Gandy used to play in the 78ths . . .I mean the Frasers . . . oh, forget it . . . yeah, yeah, the Frasers’ bass drummer is from Halifax…) are going to raise the numbers again.

I think it’s time for a new arrangement, and I hereby propose the World Association of Scottish Bagpipe Orchestras (WASBO). The new association would run an annual World Championship in the Las Vegas hotel where the Cirque du Soleil does its circus show. Seems pretty fitting, no?

WASBO would have minimum requirements for membership, along the following lines:

  1. Orchestras will be graded 1 or 2 only. The rest don’t count.
  2. Orchestras must have between 30 and 40 pipers on the roster, and pipe section number must be between 30 and 34 for the World Championship.
  3. Orchestras will have between 10 and 15 snare drummers on the roster, and must play between 10 or more for the World Championship.
  4. Mid-sections must comprise between six and nine tenors, with a maximum of two bass drums.
  5. Grade 1 orchestras will play a 30-minute selection. Fifteen minutes of that selection must incorporate at least three other melody instruments, and three alternative percussion forms. Grade 2 orchestras will play a 15-minute selection using only traditional pipe band instruments.
To take the pressure off of orchestra finances, members are not required to wear either uniforms or Highland dress. It is recommended that orchestras adopt the “black makes you look thin” tuxedo or dresses of the professional symphony orchestras.

WASBO proposes that the event be set up for pay-per-view on satellite and Internet, as well as recorded for after-event sales of various media. Performing orchestras will be required to obtain the individual performance release from their members, and an appropriate percentage of the performance fees for all recorded products and pay-per-view will be assigned to the orchestras. In other words, you still might get nothing.

Sounds good, eh? Instead of pretending to be interested in Highland games and Scottish culture, we can just cut to the chase and get at the hardware in the capital city of greed and pretending. So ends the annual chase to Glasgow, and staying in dorms without great bars and casinos, and taking whatever weather, judging and scoring turns up on your plate. No more cold weather piping, or even hot. It’s all indoors, climate controlled, and you know that in Vegas they’ll clean up after the lions and elephants leave the hall.

Say goodbye to wading through 10 inches of beer-can debris, with slurring people asking about your undergarments, while their children hang expectantly over the fence, begging for a drink from the can and a pound for the bouncy castle. No more 9 a.m. draw for the do-or-die qualifier, and no more scratching together all the school lunch money for 10 years so that your band can make it to a championship in June.

Of course, the World Pipe Band Championship will likely continue, and those experiences will be there for you if you want them. Take your tiny 15-piper bands there, but the orchestras won’t attend. No, they’ll be in Vegas, staying in luxury hotels, taking in the pre-Worlds show lounge concert, and signing the in-house bar tab to the room. The spectators will pay to see the big show, and won’t have to concentrate on blocking out all the bands marching past to other arenas. Nor will they have to stifle gags as the punter next stirs together his chicken curry and fries, and comments in a loud voice, “Oh Mary, they Porta-Loos was mingin’ an’ I couldnae wash ma haunds.”

It’ll be all cocktails and tuxedos, orchestras taking their place on stage before blowing up, and not a sweaty, kilted bandsman in sight. It’ll be all so port-out-starboard-home and the facilities for the after party will be great. You won’t have to stand in a cold street or cram into a sweaty bar where drinks are hard to get, and where the best place to pee is an alley halfway up the road to the Snafflebit, or down the road to the Park Bar—take your pick.

So, on we go to the brave new world. Adjust your sights, redefine the game, turn the worlds on its head . . . and see you at the Park Bar.

Last time Iain MacDonald played a fruit machine in Avonlea, Saskatchewan, it came up all gold medals for a grand pour-oot. He is Conductor of the City of Regina Pipe Orchestra.

Published: February 29, 2008

Brave New World’s

What’s all the fuss about size of bands? Impassioned posts abound on the subject, ranging from those proposing an RSPBA Committee on the Sustainability of Pipe Bands to those who suggest that the devil take the hindmost.

We all are familiar with how we got here: little village and colliery bands playing at fair days and raising funds with tea tents and wine raffles, and working all summer to raise enough money to afford a bus for the Cowal Games. The bands were all about families, villages, a love of music, and a social environment for spending the Saturdays through the slightly-less-rainy season. Then, you’d spend half of Sunday morning trying to remember how your spats got mud on them, and what the grass stains on your knees really mean.

Before you know it, the bands are putting themselves together: Shotts joins Dykehead, Dysart joins Dundonald, Boghall joins Bathgate . . . bigger is better baby, even in 1930. Okay, I made that up – but I like the idea. Imagine the surprise at Cowal when the first band showed up with 12 pipers! “How will they ever tune them all?” “B’God Jimmy, that’s two good bands they have there!”

Fast forward to the 1980s, and 12-14 pipers are the magic numbers. In the early days rebuilding Shotts, Rab Mathieson took to the field with eight pipers: four in front, four in back. That’s a front rank these days. But who cares? It’s the way it goes. In 1991, Polkemmet turned up the heat with a 2nd prize and a (then) huge pipe section. Didn’t quite get around to all the Ds and Fs it seemed, but it was a medley 10 years ahead of its time.

The search for numbers starts, and bands are importing madly to make it happen. Scots in SFU and 78th Frasers, Canadians in Shotts, Danes, Germans, Americans, Australians . . . now pipers are flying across oceans to play with bands – in all directions. Starting each October some lame-ass posts, “Who’ll Win Next Year?” or “Shotts to have 13 tenors and three basses,” on the message boards, and it starts all over again. Play along or step back. Your choice.

And then, after everyone is wowed by Field Marshal’s impressive tone and numbers, we hear that the 78th Fraser Highlanders (no Johnny, not the ones from Halifax; yes, I know Bruce Gandy used to play in the 78ths . . .I mean the Frasers . . . oh, forget it . . . yeah, yeah, the Frasers’ bass drummer is from Halifax…) are going to raise the numbers again.

I think it’s time for a new arrangement, and I hereby propose the World Association of Scottish Bagpipe Orchestras (WASBO). The new association would run an annual World Championship in the Las Vegas hotel where the Cirque du Soleil does its circus show. Seems pretty fitting, no?

WASBO would have minimum requirements for membership, along the following lines:

  1. Orchestras will be graded 1 or 2 only. The rest don’t count.
  2. Orchestras must have between 30 and 40 pipers on the roster, and pipe section number must be between 30 and 34 for the World Championship.
  3. Orchestras will have between 10 and 15 snare drummers on the roster, and must play between 10 or more for the World Championship.
  4. Mid-sections must comprise between six and nine tenors, with a maximum of two bass drums.
  5. Grade 1 orchestras will play a 30-minute selection. Fifteen minutes of that selection must incorporate at least three other melody instruments, and three alternative percussion forms. Grade 2 orchestras will play a 15-minute selection using only traditional pipe band instruments.
To take the pressure off of orchestra finances, members are not required to wear either uniforms or Highland dress. It is recommended that orchestras adopt the “black makes you look thin” tuxedo or dresses of the professional symphony orchestras.

WASBO proposes that the event be set up for pay-per-view on satellite and Internet, as well as recorded for after-event sales of various media. Performing orchestras will be required to obtain the individual performance release from their members, and an appropriate percentage of the performance fees for all recorded products and pay-per-view will be assigned to the orchestras. In other words, you still might get nothing.

Sounds good, eh? Instead of pretending to be interested in Highland games and Scottish culture, we can just cut to the chase and get at the hardware in the capital city of greed and pretending. So ends the annual chase to Glasgow, and staying in dorms without great bars and casinos, and taking whatever weather, judging and scoring turns up on your plate. No more cold weather piping, or even hot. It’s all indoors, climate controlled, and you know that in Vegas they’ll clean up after the lions and elephants leave the hall.

Say goodbye to wading through 10 inches of beer-can debris, with slurring people asking about your undergarments, while their children hang expectantly over the fence, begging for a drink from the can and a pound for the bouncy castle. No more 9 a.m. draw for the do-or-die qualifier, and no more scratching together all the school lunch money for 10 years so that your band can make it to a championship in June.

Of course, the World Pipe Band Championship will likely continue, and those experiences will be there for you if you want them. Take your tiny 15-piper bands there, but the orchestras won’t attend. No, they’ll be in Vegas, staying in luxury hotels, taking in the pre-Worlds show lounge concert, and signing the in-house bar tab to the room. The spectators will pay to see the big show, and won’t have to concentrate on blocking out all the bands marching past to other arenas. Nor will they have to stifle gags as the punter next stirs together his chicken curry and fries, and comments in a loud voice, “Oh Mary, they Porta-Loos was mingin’ an’ I couldnae wash ma haunds.”

It’ll be all cocktails and tuxedos, orchestras taking their place on stage before blowing up, and not a sweaty, kilted bandsman in sight. It’ll be all so port-out-starboard-home and the facilities for the after party will be great. You won’t have to stand in a cold street or cram into a sweaty bar where drinks are hard to get, and where the best place to pee is an alley halfway up the road to the Snafflebit, or down the road to the Park Bar—take your pick.

So, on we go to the brave new world. Adjust your sights, redefine the game, turn the worlds on its head . . . and see you at the Park Bar.

Last time Iain MacDonald played a fruit machine in Avonlea, Saskatchewan, it came up all gold medals for a grand pour-oot. He is Conductor of the City of Regina Pipe Orchestra.

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