Published: August 31, 2003

Knowing when to walk away

[Originally published as an Editorial]

Ted Williams, probably the greatest hitter baseball has ever known, in his last at-bat launched a home run into Boston’s Fenway Park bleachers. Everyone knew if was the last time he would bat in a game, and the crowd saw the drama of the moment. Rather than making a big show of it, Teddy Ballgame circled the bases in his usual quick trot, and simply kept on running into the dugout and back to the clubhouse. Moment, game, career over.

Williams could probably have played another two or three years, and many thought he still had much to offer his Red Sox. But, as his final home run shot proved, he wanted to go out while he was still great, so that his reputation as the greatest hitter in baseball wouldn’t be tarnished by diminishing skills, injuries, and eventual replacement by new blood. His last at-bat was an exclamation point on an illustrious career.

Knowing when to call it a day is an issue in almost every performance-based idiom. Jerry Seinfeld halted his show when it was still top-rated. Michael Jordan, on the other hand, tarnished his image as the greatest basketball player of all time by playing a “farewell season” with mixed results. Many say that the Rolling Stones haven’t made a great recording in thirty years, but still pretend they’re teenagers on stage. Jethro Tull plays Holiday Inns these days. While these are high profile examples from the entertainment world, piping and drumming are really no different.

In the 1980s, a crop of the incredibly talented young pipers emerged. Willie McCallum, Alasdair Gillies, and Roddy MacLeod came on the scene at a time when great pipers two generations their senior were still playing extremely well and winning prizes but, in their late 40s or 50s, had already put in a good innings, as the saying goes. Several of the greatest pipers of the 1970s and ’80s saw the new, young talent emerging, and, while they still could go on winning prizes, collectively agreed to step aside and let the ascending younger players take the spotlight.

Today, these older pipers are considered living legends. They won stacks of prizes over three decades but, perhaps just as importantly, quit while they were still playing well and winning. Had they doggedly kept at it we might remember them differently today.

We’ve compared the Scottish solo competition system with those of the rest of the world, and, by and large, Scotland takes a survival-of-the-fittest approach. If you haven’t become a successful and serious solo player by the time you’re 18, chances are you’re not going to suddenly start competing in solos as an adult, so it’s off to the bands for you. Consequently, adult solo competitors are all of the “open” variety, and there are very few competing pipers over the age of 18 who are not extremely talented.

Other jurisdictions, like North America, are not divided by age, so, no matter how old one is, there’s still a place to compete. We see 40 year-olds occasionally playing against 14 year-olds in the amateur piping events, and more often than not the 14 year-olds are playing circles around the adults. Associations that structure their solo events by multiple “amateur” grades and one professional section take a come-one, come-all approach. It’s great for older people to have a place to compete, but it’s questionable that a 40 year-old Grade 3 no-hope piper or drummer should be trying to beat a 13 year-old rising star.

While it’s much easier for older pipers to play in competition pipe bands, bandsmen should still be conscious of their declining skills. It’s a painful and counterproductive process when players past their prime refuse to accept that they should call it a day, and let new blood take their spot in the circle. Magnanimously bowing out makes life easier for the band’s pipe-major or leading drummer, who are spared the awkward and painful task of telling a longtime member that they can no longer hack it.

We’d bet that everyone reading this knows of at least one person competing with a band or in solo events who should hang it up. We’d also bet that everyone can think of at least one piper or drummer who should have quit, but instead played too long, damaging years of prizewinning performances with embarrassing displays of eroded ability. Unfortunately, there are too many formerly great players who are remembered for their final, agonizing performances rather than their accomplishments in their prime.

To be successful at competitive piping and drumming, it takes a staggering amount of dexterity and skill. As people grow older, while their hands and wrists deteriorate, their ears play tricks. Their listening seem to become selective, and sloppy technique, playing behind the rest of the section, or that uncontrollable blowing on D is either a figment of someone else’s imagination or the fault of the guy next to you in the circle.

There’s a piobaireachd called “The Aged Warrior’s Sorrow.” One can picture a once great soldier recalling former days of glory, while lamenting lost ability. It’s not an easy decision to bow out, but it’s better to control one’s destiny and reputation than have someone do it for you.

It takes a lot of humility to step aside not after you’ve caused the band to finish last because you lost the plot mid-medley, but after you’ve knocked one out of the park in your final at-bat.

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