November 21, 2023

Competing Older: Part 1 of a panel discussion with four 50+ pipers still razor sharp after decades in the art

Editor’s note: with an aging population in most parts of the world’s more significant piping and drumming countries, pipes|drums will explore the challenges pipers and drummers face with getting older and remaining in our competition avocation with various features over the next year.

We continue with part 1 of our panel discussion with four accomplished older pipers still competing despite the challenges. While there are extraordinary examples of older pipers and drummers like Bruce Gandy, Jack Lee, Roddy MacLeod, Reid Maxwell and Willie McCallum still winning at an elite level, we wanted to tap into the thoughts of players whose experiences could be perhaps more relatable to pipes|drums readers.

The piping and drumming world is constantly looking to regenerate itself with young newcomers to the wonderful world of what we do, welcoming kids into the fold.

And with good reason – an art or sport that doesn’t continually look to the next generation will eventually shrivel up and blow away.

It may never be more important than now to recruit new players.

But with an aging population and apparent declining membership numbers with piping and drumming associations, what about older pipers and drummers?

Many players over 50 continue participating in piping, drumming and pipe band competitions, but most don’t. As age creeps up, there is a natural drop-off in any competition-oriented art or sport, but in piping and drumming, attrition seems more significant.

Why do so many pipers and drummers leave our big family? What drives them away in more significant numbers than most hobbies?

Put more positively, what is it that keeps players involved? What more could organizations do to retain members? How can older players stay happier and more involved?

Rather than speculate, we spoke with four actively competing pipers over 50 about their experiences.

Charlie Martin

Charlie Martin of Northern California is in his mid-fifties and competes in Grade 1 amateur solo contests. He is the pipe major of the Grade 5 Pipes & Drums of CAL FIRE L2881. Before that, Martin was pipe-major of the Grade 4 Black Raven Pipe Band of San Francisco and competed with the Grade 3 Dunvegan Pipe Band. A student initially with Ozzie Reid, his teacher is now John Cairns, and he is a regular attendee of the Celtic Arts Foundation’s Winter School. Martin travels throughout California with his band and is active in running the annual Redding Solo Piping Competition.

Brian Pollock

An original member of the 78th Fraser Highlanders, including when the band won the World’s in 1987, Brian Pollock of Whitby, Ontario, continues to compete today with the Grade 2 Toronto Police Pipe Band. Now over 70, Pollock’s competing career goes back to the 1960s. He was a Grade 1 City of Toronto Pipe Band member for many years and went with Pipe-Major Bill Livingstone to play with the Grade 1 General Motors, which then evolved into the 78th Frasers. A busy and highly successful career in business saw Pollock step back for many years before returning to competition more than a decade ago, revisiting and enjoying the scene that has been such a part of his life.

Iain Simpson [Alister Sinclair]
Iain Simpson is from Bo’ness, Scotland. Now 63, he was a member of the famed Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia Pipe Band for more than three decades and served as a leader of the piping and drumming teaching program at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh for many years. As good fortune and canny decisions would have it, the timing of Iain Simpson’s return to Peoples Ford Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia in 2023 was impeccable, as they enjoyed the finest season in their long history, culminating with winning the World Pipe Band Championship for the first time. Not only did Simpson return to the band, but he entered solo competitions and even started to learn piobaireachd, successfully competing with his son, Jonathon, around contests in Canada and Scotland throughout the summer.

Anne Spalding [pipes|drums]
Anne Spalding of Broughty Ferry, Scotland, is a famous and historically significant piper. She was a top soloist in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and has been a stalwart member of her local MacKenzie Caledonian Pipe Band for decades. Renowned for her commitment to teaching, Spalding has ushered dozens, even hundreds, of young pipers into the fold. In 1976, she was one of four female solo pipers to break the gender barrier at the significant competition in Scotland by being permitted to compete at the prestigious Argyllshire Gathering and Northern Meeting. In 2019, Anne Spalding was awarded the Balvenie Medal for her services to piping.

In November, we welcomed these four older and wiser pipers to our exclusive video discussion panel, which we’ll present in two parts.

Stay tuned to pipes|drums for Part 2 of our exclusive Competing Older panel with Charlie Martin, Brian Pollock, Iain Simpson and Anne Spalding.

What’s your opinion? As always, we encourage readers to contribute their thoughts with our Comments feature below, where you can express opinions with your name or anonymously.

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