By Meaghan Lyons
You guys, I’m worried.
It’s been swirling around in my head for a while now, as I move from one season to the next, seeing dwindling numbers at our contests, our concerts, our ceilidhs, and it’s time to understand why.
Spectators seem to be scarce on the ground these days at all of the above, all of which often feature some of the best pipe bands and soloists in the world.
Where is everyone?
I’ll tell you. They’re sitting with their faces in their phones or glued to their computer screens, that’s where. Lazily sprawled out in places that are warm, dry and with a ready supply of life’s little comforts nearby, like flushing toilets.
It’s the social media, you guys. It’s killing our art.
I first picked up the pipes in the 1990s, before mobile phones, Facebook, YouTube and before we knew what “the Internet” even was. Sheet music was like gold dust in rural Canada. If you came across it, you did everything you could to make yourself a copy because you had no idea where it had come from and if you would ever see it again.
Recordings were even harder to come by. Occasionally, as I played across Canada in the Army Cadet system, someone would produce a tape or CD of a concert or recital. Like, you actually had to travel far and wide to find people with actual recordings. You had to rely on your imagination as you hovered around the Discman with its crappy external speakers, envisioning the awesome venues and enormous crowds these bands must have played to.
In my mind, all of them were epic.
You relied on word-of-mouth for any information about the great pipers of the day. Their names, where they hailed from. You had little idea what they looked like. Some of them, they just didn’t sound real. Stuart Little? Is that a real name? He plays with SFU but he’s from Scotland? That makes no sense. That can’t be right. No one travels that far to band practice.
The “Vicky” Police? Where are they from exactly? You mean you don’t know? People would look away, avoid answering the question. For a while, I thought they were from British Columbia.
Contests were one of the few opportunities to play and hear bands in a large-scale venue. We drove hours and hours on summer weekends to stand in a park in some small Ontario town. Sunburnt and dehydrated, they were some of the best days of my teenage life.
The emotional wound that opened in the summer of 1997 when I wasn’t playing in a band at the Glengarry Highland Games in Maxville, and watching everyone else do so instead, still scars me today. I was miserable. Inconsolable. “What’s the big deal?” my high school sweetheart said to me that day. “It’s only bagpipes. And they’re loud and awful.”
We broke up soon after.
The teenage angst I felt as I lay in my bunk at cadet pipe band camp over the summer of 1996 still stings my heart to this day. I listened to Field Marshal Montgomery’s 1995 medley at the World’s on my Discman on repeat. Who was this band? Where were they from? How was I ever going to see them in-person???
The agony. The mystery. The longing to know more. I had to find a way to get over to Scotland, to the World Pipe Band Championships, to see and hear it all up close and as it happened.
In 2002, when I finally set foot on the hallowed ground of Glasgow Green for the first time, I dropped to my knees and kissed the grass. “That’s disgusting,” said my university sweetheart, as he stood beside me grimacing.
We broke up soon after.
The agony of wanting to know more, to belong, to hear the best bands and pipers regularly only deepened after that. It drove me to kamikaze my burgeoning career in film and television and move to Northern Ireland eight years ago. It made me jump at the chance to marry a local just so I could legally stay so close to the scene I had once only ever dreamed about being a part of. (Hubby still doesn’t know. Please, nobody tell him.)
It’s that half-unhinged pain, the not-knowing-unless-you’re-there factor that is missing from the latest generation of potential new pipers and drummers. Now, from anywhere, you can watch just about any band in the world do anything from practice on the weekend to win the World’s, instantly, at the click of a mouse or tap of a phone screen.
All the great performances. All the awesome solo feats. It’s all too easy to find, watch and hear now. I mean, I know what pretty much all of the big talents look like now. The mystery is gone. I can find out where they will be playing next and then just watch from my couch. Longing? Quashed.
Social media is pacifying it all. It’s killing the inner fires that make people do things like move to a country with fewer than 40 days of sunshine a year just for the chance to be nearer to it all.
It’s time for a tightening of all this sharing. We need the next generation to suffer like those of us who started out pre-FaceTube did.
The future of our art depends on it.
Originally from Maxville (yes, the Maxville), Meaghan Lyons now lives in Banbridge, Norn Iron. She’s been a piper with several excellent bands, including Bleary & District, the Hamilton Police and Glengarry. She works in marketing and communications at Queen’s University in Belfast.