November 13, 2019

Opinion: America rising

About 25 years ago, we published an editorial about the state of piping and drumming in the United States. It was intended to create constructive thought and discussion, but, thanks probably to our ineffective writing, it was also seen by many as unfairly critical.

Back then we heard from many proud American pipers and drummers who felt their talents and achievements were impugned. We got an earful in two or three beer tents by a few irate accomplished pipers and drummers who took it personally.

The editorial then was a generalization. It attempted to explain that, thanks mainly to the influx of the Scottish regiments in Commonwealth countries, the USA was about two generations behind places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia. But it also remarked that the USA, the richest and most populous of nations with a piping and drumming establishment, perhaps uncharacteristically under-achieved in terms of piping and drumming competition success.

Well, 25-odd years later, that has changed. While the overall growth of piping and drumming in those Commonwealth countries seems to have plateaued or even declined in terms of standards, events and competition success on a world level, the USA has risen up. One could say that, outside of Scotland (which in the last generation has reaped great fruits from organized teaching in schools regionally and nationally) American piping and drumming overall is probably now the most relatively vibrant, active and increasingly successful in the world.

While there are pockets of continued success, it’s clear that overall momentum has slowed or even stalled in some piping and drumming rich countries. The lack of organized teaching, a more diverse population with fewer first-generation immigrant Scots – not to mention plain old complacency – perhaps have contributed to the relative lethargy that these countries now experience.

Again, in every country, including Scotland, some areas are more or less successful than others. There are exceptions in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, just as there are exceptions in the USA and Scotland.

This situation is complicated, but it is correctable, particularly if pipe band associations shift from strictly competition-running machines to also being teaching organizations. That will take time and effort, but if implemented now, we’d probably see a momentum change away from any lethargy and complacency, with significant achievements realized in about a decade.

If there’s a one-word descriptor for the American psyche, “complacent” is not it. Americans don’t like to be second at anything, and, once they’re first, they’re not prone to giving up the pole position.

Such has been true of American piping and drumming. Again, a generalization, but pipers and drummers from the United States might be the most driven in the world. They earnestly and diligently strive to get an edge. They will spend what it takes to get better.

We see it all over the USA. The scene in Dunedin, Florida, is exemplary. The St. Thomas program in Houston, Texas, continues to crank out talent produced by bringing in top teachers. American bands have won Grade 2 at the World’s two straight years. The Midwest Pipe Band Association is testing and funding new initiatives, seizing opportunities such as again seeing Chicago as a centre (or make that center) for a major North American competition. Winter Storm in Kansas City has become the world’s biggest organized teaching, performance and competition event on the piping and drumming calendar. More American pipers than ever are regularly featuring in the prize lists of the world’s major solo competitions. The Eastern United States Pipe Band Association is working to reinvent itself with meaningful new programs, recognizing the need to do much more than simply organizing contests.

All this is to say that American piping and drumming continues to trend upward in ever increasing ways. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that, all things continuing to trend upward, an American pipe band could win the World’s in the next 10 years – or even the next five.

Seumas MacNeill and a few other leading Scottish pipers many years ago predicted that the United States would eventually be a world leader in piping and drumming. Commonwealth countries might have had a considerable head-start, and they have had their share of success, but never count out American ingenuity and innate desire, even need, to be number one.

There is every chance that the 2020s could be the decade when the USA puts it all together.



RSPBA promotes St. Thomas Alumni, Closkelt to Grade 1
September 21, 2019


City of Dunedin: 2019 North American Champions
August 3, 2019


World Champions 2019: Inveraray & District
August 17, 2019


Winter Storm expands to four days
May 12, 2019


World Champions 2018: Field Marshal Montgomery
August 18, 2018


Is Dunedin, Florida, the world’s most successful piping and drumming community?
July 10, 2018



  1. Indeed this great nation of mine has set about to pull itself up by their boot straps to become a better piping and drumming competitor! As correctly pointed out we are beginning to get the top rated teachers to instruct to come over the “great puddle”. This may have begun with Carnegie University being the first to recognize bagpiping as a legitimate musical course. That said it all boils down to the American gene which in 1987 at a COP summer school with Seumas MacNeill when at an instructors concert Seumas stated a “scientific fact” he discovered after teaching in America. Americans according to Seumas have a gene that tells them “we can do better”.

  2. Is it “America Rising,” or is it the latest “bubble” that will inevitably pop?

    Many of your observations are spot-on. The American desire for competitive edge undoubtedly brought development and capital to many great innovations in a very traditional world – synthetic reeds, synthetic bags, poly chanters, etc. To gain an edge, we have been seeking and bringing great talent from Scotland and Canada for three generations (and Seumas was only a fraction of the talent pool). The EUSPBA has led the way with many competitive and instructional innovations (can we say, “score sheets”?). The rise of quality competitions in the South may, in fact, give us a year-round season to prepare and peak at the World’s. But there is also a rather large list of quality pipe bands that have risen and fallen over the years.

    Two tremendous factors will continue to plague our progress. First, sheer size works against us. While we might get two or three world-calibre bands at the same time, their opportunities to challenge one another will be limited. Getting St Thomas Alumni and City of Dunedin into the same arena will be about as difficult as getting LA Scots to face City of Washington, or GM/Detroit to face Worchester Kilty. Once we figure out this challenge ($$$), we might move forward.

    Secondly, we must overcome a very transient/mobile society. While it has been good for piping overall to reach formerly remote areas of the USA, it has been difficult to develop and keep good programs going. Our UK/Commonwealth colleagues can often count on breathing new life into an established program, but many American bands seem destined to start from scratch every decade. Kids grow up and move away, go off to school, etc. Sometimes mobility works to an advantage – like talented instructors retire to Florida – but more often than not, the talent is dissipated, not concentrated.

    Perhaps the true benefit of any rise in American piping is the fact that it occasionally shakes up the top of the heap. They respond with in-school programs, national youth pipe band events, and cross-discipline musical degrees. The standard of music is raised once again, so we go back to the drawing board to face new challenges.

  3. Clearly, the overall quality of American pipe bands and soloists has significantly increased in the past several years. To paint the past in completely negative terms is a mistake though (I am not suggesting you did this in your monograph). It is my belief that two things were the impetus for the development of a thriving piping community in Canada and they were, the arrival of John Wilson and the Grade 1 Worcester Kiltie Pipe Band from Worcester, Massachusetts. For several years, Worcester embarrassed the Canadians at Maxville and other Canadian venues until they finally put together a truly world class band in “the Clan”. There were three bands in the northeastern US that dominated the US and North American piping in the 20th century. In between the world wars, the Holyoke Caledonian Kiltie Pipe Band was undefeated in North America for a period of ten years. In the second half, Worcester clearly dominated the grade 1 bands in the US and Canada. I believe a good case can be made for the Manchester Pipe Band in Grade 2 as a perennial competitor and sometimes winner in the North American championships at Maxville. An argument might be made that the quality of those bands was inferior to today, however, it might also be argued that the technology available to contemporary bands is far superior that of those earlier bands and the improved breadth and quality of instruction owes at least some of its success to the legacy of those who came before. Some of those bands were American.



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