April 30, 2007

Winning and coaching

It’s not unusual to piping and drumming that prospective students are attracted to those who have won the biggest prizes in the art. The value of winning a Highland Society of London Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering or Northern Meeting is certainly not that of the actual gold-leafed medal or the marginal prize-money; it’s the instant lifetime stamp of credibility that comes with it.

To be sure, some pipers and drummers work decades to gain such awards. They learn and study dozens of compositions, and, if the stars and the judges align, they may one day come away with such major prizes. And then there are those talented and not-a-little-lucky few who gain the prize the first or second time out. Big prizes are no guarantee of knowledge. In fact, more often than not, it is the pipers and drummers who toil for a lifetime, looking to get every ounce of an edge by constantly self-analyzing and over-critiquing themselves who are the most knowledgeable and the best teachers.

We like to compare our art and culture to competitive sports. Anyone who follows athletic competition will notice that most of the world’s best coaches are those who did not have an illustrious career. Conversely, those who were unanimously elected to their sport’s hall of fame are often a disaster at coaching. The reason, we think, is clear: those who were seemingly born with a gift for their art or their sport just let it come naturally to them. They almost effortlessly applied their innate talents and didn’t have to work nearly as hard others.

That’s a gross simplification and generalization, but the gist of the meaning is there. The not-so-innately-talented spend much more time learning, studying and practicing. They attempt to replace their natural talent-shortcomings with sheer hard work, which may or may not ultimately pay off for them. It can be difficult to know who these people are. While it’s easy to look up the folks who won the big prizes, the many more who toiled and tried for years and years, just not quite winning the big awards, tend to be in the background.

While in many cases these are the people who would make the best teachers at piping and drumming schools, they don’t have the allure on paper needed to draw attention and paying students. Most of the best hitting coaches in Major League Baseball slogged away in the minors for years, maybe had a few months in the bigs, but were serious students of the craft. In their quest for glory, they dissected every nuance of the swing, experimented with every technique and studied every model of success. Through their own shortcomings, they became better teachers, and found that their fame would come from imparting their knowledge, and not their career playing stats. It can be tricky for pipers and drummers to understand who knows the most, and who can impart that knowledge best. The easy route is to sign up with those who have won the biggest prizes. Certainly, some of these famous competitors have become the world’s best teachers.

But, for those who are willing to do their own research, finding the world’s greatest teachers of piping and drumming can also be the difference between toiling in the minors and reaching the hall of fame.


  1. Great point in the article. Many students of piping & drumming follow the prize winners thinking they know just a *bit* more than those who don’t have the shiny medallions. Sometimes all the planets line up and Joe Blow gets a prize while Jane Doe does not. Doesn’t necessarily mean a lot. I have first hand experience receiving bad instruction from a border line world-class player. Having skills and being able to teach them are two entirely different things.



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