August 28, 2021

Opinion: Promising post-pandemic predictions

One line on the horizon.

If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us to expect it’s to expect the unexpected. It’s best not to lay plans, even for wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie pipers and drummers.

But maybe, just maybe, we can take a look back at the last 18 months and draw a few conclusions from what we’ve learned and make a few predictions for a promising post-pandemic future:

Pipers an drummers will be more self-sufficient. Our recent Doctors of Piping II panel perceptively concluded that leaders and teachers manipulating your instrument by hand and mouth to fix your reeds, chanter and whatever else is pretty much over. That means pipers will have to learn to adjust their instruments on their own. While this is a short-term aggravation, especially on a contest park, in the long run, it results in better musicians and faster and more efficient band tune-ups. A win for all.

Associations will run their own pipe band contests. We wrote about this maybe 15 years ago, recognizing back then that the allure of ethnic Highland games in immigrant-rich countries like the United States and Canada will continue to dwindle. Immigrant Scots and second- and third-generation Scots are in decline, so the instant audience is, too. The competition to attract a crowd will be increasingly unsustainable for organizers, most of whom only want a pipe band or two to satisfy the need for authentic bagpipe sounds, whether Grade 1 or Grade 5 quality. That will leave it to associations to create and manage their own events. Most have run their own solo indoor contests for decades, and now it’s time to take on band competitions, free from organizers’ demands. This management will mean more work for associations, which will have to pay more workers and rely less on volunteers. The Midwest Pipe Band Association already took up the mantle, taking on the piping and drumming contests at the cancelled Wisconsin Highland Games. Watch for more of this, and do not underestimate the importance of this trend. This will be a sea-change in the way piping and drumming operates.

Online competitions will continue. Virtual events started mainly to keep members active and drive revenue for associations suddenly left without their regular seasons of Highland games and in-person events. Improvements continue to be made, but online solo contests are effective and popular, satisfying our constant desire to have our music judged so that we can improve. Or something. Not only that, they’re profitable for organizers when well run and attract a larger entry and good return on the $15-plus entry fee. No stewards. No chaotic events clashing together on a dusty field. But, alas, also no camaraderie. There will be in-person solo events, but just not as many and, almost certainly, not cookie-cutter-predictable weekend after weekend. With no travel, associations now are in competition with other associations and private organizers. This is good, as there will be pressure to provide a better product.

Creativity will be key. It might be that, as we predicted, the pandemic has resulted in the greatest period of musical creativity since World War I. Pipers and drummers have had time to reflect on what’s important and, at the heart of it, is music. We doubt there’s a player out there pining to have the band dust off the old MSR, to get out there to blow people away with their clinically precise “Thompson’s Dirk.” It is time for associations to open the creative floodgates for their members with new formats and fewer strictures to enjoy this musical renaissance.

Associations must provide value and find new revenue sources. Hectoring members to pay their dues just because it’s the responsible thing has made many consider just what we’re paying for. Because the RSPBA is a one-trick-pony pipe band competition-running machine, was there value in paying expensive dues? Other associations have solo events, but paying an entry fee of $15 for each event, when costs were dramatically reduced, similarly raised eyebrows. Associations will have to provide better value for the competitions they put on, plus look to teaching, performances and other creative ventures to sustain themselves and satisfy their members. The importance of competition will recede, and with it the power of judges to influence our music.

Too many judges have considered their primary duty is to protect the past. No more. It’s time to promote the future by allowing new music, arrangements and orchestration to enable our art to flourish.

Judges will cede control to the players. With fewer play-it-by-the-book strictures, judges will have to be up to the task of assessing the new. William Donaldson was the first since Lt. John McLennan to say that the Piobaireachd Society was established essentially to allow highfalutin judges to control the then-working-class pipers by standardizing piobaireachd to make it easier to judge to create a “right” and “wrong” way of playing. More than a century later, there are still judges who can’t cope with the unknown or unheard, so they use their power to put down artistic innovation. These dinosaurs will either have to change their ways and become more enlightened or face their own extinction. If this art is ever going to thrive to its potential, we have to eradicate these so easily threatened small-minded judges. Quashing new music for no other reason than it being unfamiliar is, in short, bullying. It’s lording power over art that needs fresh air to thrive. Too many judges have considered their primary duty is to protect the past. No more. It’s time to promote the future by allowing new music, arrangements and orchestration to enable our art to flourish.

Relaxed dress codes. Apart from newsreaders and politicians, does anyone wear a tie anymore? Work attire is casual everywhere, and we should relax our rather absurd woolly uniforms and dress requirements. There’s almost nothing “Highland” about what we have to wear, so let’s just stop the Victorian guising. Keep the kilt, for sure, but no more neckties, heavy wingtip brogues, and most of all, ugly and ill-fitting vests/waistcoats. Let’s have something still respectable that satisfies whatever tartan-hungry crowd there is, and then allow for something more modern and – get this – conducive to playing music. No one’s stopping you from getting all tarted up for fancy events like parades, weddings and funerals and what-not, but let’s simplify uniforms for those among us who strive to make great music.

There will be less tolerance than ever for the haters among us.

We’ll all lighten up. As we continue to look for non-competition outlets for our music, we will be, well, less competitive. That is, we’ll bond with music, rather than part over prizes. Over the last while, there’s been a noticeable decrease in haters spewing their bile on social media. There will be less tolerance than ever for the haters among us.

Change is good, especially when it comes to an artform overly entrenched in tradition. The pandemic has seasoned us to meet change head-on, expect the unexpected, and take advantage of the positives that can come with it.

The pandemic has provided us with a much-needed pause. We have proven we can adapt to change, and we have realized new ways and that we can live without old customs that decades ago passed their sell-by date.

Welcome to a bold new era of piping and drumming.



Doctors of Piping II, Part 2 – teachable moments, changed habits and expert advice to stay safe
August 20, 2021

Doctors of Piping II, Part 1 – we reconvene four accomplished piper-physicians to discuss the pandemic
August 17, 2021

Wisconsin competition saved by MWPBA
August 24, 2021

Wisconsin Games cancelled due to worker shortages
August 19, 2021

Opinion: Virtual competition is real, and it’s here to stay
May 29, 2020

Piping and drumming. Now, more than ever.
March 16, 2020




  1. Thanks for your kind remarks.
    I was minded to add that “protecting the past” as you rightly say, not only stifles variety, also assumes that there is an authentic past there to be preserved, and leaves unstated the fact that the “official” scores in which that past is currently enshrined do not embody a timeless authority, but are in fact corrupt, mendacious, and thoroughly unreliable. The Piobaireachd Society editors silently altered the time values of many of their tunes, but characteristically misrepresented their sources, claiming the mantle of great authorities like Angus MacKay for what were essentially their own ideas. We should remind ourselves that the “official” scores were mainly produced by just two people, Archibald and James Campbell, father and son, proceeding independently of the Music Committee which was supposed to oversee them. Creating a “house style” which significantly departed from tradition, the Society then ensured that this was taught as written to upcoming generations of young pipers What role can the self-appointed guardians of the sacred text legitimately fulfill if there is no sacred text to guard? Our only dependable access to the real past lies through the older manuscript and printed sources, and it is disappointing that so few competitive players seem to have consulted them in the “Set Tunes” series in pipes|drums or reflected their stylings in their playing. On the positive side, it does seem to me that people are playing piobaireachd a little more quickly than formerly, with a real gain in musicality, but maybe this is an indirect result of playing for Zoom cameras in acoustically-cramped bedrooms and living-rooms.




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