February 16, 2013

As ithers see us

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

“To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church” is one of my favourite Robert Burns poems. The lines above, “translated” from the Scots to common English, are roughly, “Wouldn’t it be great if some divine power could give us the ability to see ourselves as others see us?”

There was a recent cartoon in The New Yorker magazine that to put the Highland pipes on the same level of abuse as the American banjo. We all know that the pipes are much maligned (mainly by those who only know them by the ear-wrecking sound of rank novices who refuse lessons, with no interest in improving, who insist on publicly displaying their inabilities – our own worst enemies), but the banjo? I always thought it added instant happiness to all genres of music, including its native bluegrass. Who doesn’t like the banjo?

The Internet and social media have made researching just about anything easy. Pick a topic and you can get a snapshot of what people think in a few keystrokes. In a sense, it gives us the power to see ourselves as others see us.

I have many continual searches set up for all kinds of things for work and piping and other hobbies, and use Tweetdeck to take a read of Twitter activity. Of course, I have a column for “bagpipe.” What’s found is generally a depressing series of jokes and abuse, often involving shoving drones up various orifices and well-worn jokes and myths about the instrument. (The one about a bagpipe originally being made from a sheep’s liver; the difference between chopping up an onion and a bagpipe – no one cries when it’s a bagpipe, and so forth).

But what about a banjo? How does the tweeting public view that instrument? Is there, as the cartoon suggests, the same level of abuse against it that we see hurled at our treasured bagpipe? Hardly. With few exceptions, and after weeding out references to Ashley Banjo, the vast majority of mentions are respectful and loving references. There are the odd mentions of hitting a cow’s backside with a banjo, but these aren’t against the banjo itself.

The accordion also seems to be mocked as an instrument. But a search of mentions on Twitter brings up pretty much nice stuff about France and bread shops and joyful ensembles. Like the banjo, there is the odd person who thinks it’s dorky but, unlike the Highland pipes, there is nowhere near the level of ignorant hatred that we endure.

I kind of hoped that a social media search of “banjo” and “accordion” would bring some degree of comfort that, yes, the pipes have common ground with a few other instruments in terms of public misperception. But, no, we might never change the thinking of the unwashed masses, and perhaps “to see oursels as ithers see us” isn’t quite so useful after all.


  1. “We all know that the pipes are much maligned (mainly by those who only know them by the ear-wrecking sound of rank novices who insist on publicly displaying their inabilities – our own worst enemies)..”

    I think you hit the nail on the head right there. A friend of mine who played in a professional rock and roll band, once pointed out the incredible tolerance we, as a group, have for basic bad playing, especially in bands. He noted that if a guy showed up at his band practice with a guitar and displayed the equivalent abilities that some folks in local pipe bands display on their pipes, he’d be asked to leave. However, that is seldom the case in a lot of lower grade and street bands. All are welcome, all are embraced and though often encouraged to work on their skills, most seldom do not, but remain in the band anyway. These are the bands on TV, at parades and ceremonies for all to see and hear their substandard, out of tune playing. These are the guys playing in the town squares, and subway stations. The vanguard of our art, the tip of our spear oft times is not even capable of tuning their own drones and John Q public thinks that’s the way its supposed to sound.

  2. Over the years I have often seen and heard comments of this sort. While they may be justified coming from the sources who present them they can be harshly cutting to those of us who while we love the instrument and strive to do it justice will never be the next Jack Lee or Gordon Duncan. I have always taken every opportunity to hear the best pipers and bands live and on recordings and have strived to support the music and those who play it so well. I believe that if those of us at the other end of the spectrum were to put away our pipes and the lower grade bands and street bands were to stop embarrassing the elites and go away this in itself would not advance the art or make the world a better place.

    1. Before this goes in the wrong direction, that original line was not what I intended to say, so I have amended it. I’m thinking only of those who never try to improve, never seek out instruction, and have no idea what a good pipe should sound like.

      1. Yeeaaahhh, I was about to go off in the wrong direction….(pipes are “in yer face” loud..you can’t ignore ’em.)
        Back on track….Perhaps the ones to whom you refer have a different motivation for “playing” the instrument. I would think that some (or most?) of them are basically “posers” who like to dress up and march in public parades, etc. The musical aspect isn’t even considered as they compete for ranks within the band and flourish their full dress uniforms or equivalents with ribbons, medals, pins, stripes, etc. Same thing with the bagpipe itself with the special tartan cord ribbons, bag covers with emblems, blinged out pipes, pith helmets, feather bonnets, HUGE bird feathers sticking out of their glens, dead animals hanging everywhere….etc. Sort of more like one of these reinactment clubs (rennaissance, military, sci-fi conventions, etc.). Perhaps they could be called Pipe Band Reinactment Clubs?
        I say “To each his own” as long as the silly aspects of it all stay out of our little world. ….NAE BURD PARTS!!!!!!!

  3. You have all summed up the situation pretty well. But isn’t the situation of our own making? Top bands have cut themselves off from their local communities and consider it beneath their dignity to play at local functions such as street parades, ceremonies, galas and the like unless they are paid a ransom. They are too busy pot hunting, tucked away in their corners competing for the accolades of their peers
    The objective of most musical groups is to play to appreciative audiences whereas for pipers and pipe bands competing has become an end in itself. Honestly, how many top bands could even turn out a decent band without calling in their “travellers’ from all around the world? And if they did turn out the chances are they would play ‘competitive’ (technically difficult) music rather than stuff the public would enjoy.
    The dunces are ready and available so they get the publicity.

  4. At times, the banjo has become ‘cool’. Reference Steve Martin’s comedy routines from years back or the current emergence of Mumford and Sons. The accordion’s never quite made made it beyond Lawrence Welk in the plaid jacket playing “Lady of Spain”.

    However, it’s not often that you see a troop of accordion players marching down the street, playing at funerals for US Presidents, or featured in Academy Award winning films and film scores. Pipes even have (had?) a bit of a Mumford-esque following amongst the frat-boy Floggin Molly set. I mean, just last summer we were all pretty thrilled with our NBC Olympic coverage with a package that featured the World’s, The National Piping Center, the Browns, and resulted in Samuel L. Jackson tweeting about the Red Hot Chilli Pipers.

    It just may be the simply the visibility itself that makes us a bit more of a target. Whether it’s Eric Rigler working with James Horner, or a wretched “bagpiping” joke on an infantile Disney Channel program, it may simply be from our visibility.

    If we were more invisible, we might not be such a target, But, there’d be fewer of us and it’d be like the old days where trying to get reeds for a band in the midwest required bribery, treachery, and veiled threats…all to get a box of some other band’s cast-off cracked and chipped up unplayable 2x4s that have been lashed together.

    And, did you check on the “tuba”? Seems like every time you see one of those it’s associated with the “fat kid” joke

  5. As a player of both pipes and banjo, i find parallels in the music and in public reaction. I cannot account, however, for pipers calling everything they play a tune, even if it is a song, and for banjoists calling everything a song, even if it is a tune. There is a certain truth for both instruments in the adage that you spend half your time tuning, and half your time playing out of tune.

  6. We all know that the pipes are much maligned (mainly by those who only know them by the ear-wrecking sound of rank novices who insist on publicly displaying their inabilities – our own worst enemies)..” – this sums it all up. Theories abound that a lot of successful people are intelligent and therefore have a healthy dose of self-doubt. They are the ones who retire to practice at home, or perform to a select and discerning audience when they are good and ready. It is the brazen and deluded who venture into the public domain, hungry for the cheap and instant gratification one can get from Joe Public by simply feeding them the spectacle of tartan and noise – the stereotype. There are also those who like to dress-up more than trying to play music. The only reason people on the street believe the pipes sound like someone throttling a cat is because, by en large, they do. Our own worst enemy indeed.

  7. A little bit of education goes a long way. It’s unlikely that we can turn adult beginners into Gold Medal winners. It’s very likely that we can teach them how to set-up and tune their instruments, blow reasonable tone and play musically (correctly phrased, well-expressed, in time, accurately reflecting the idiom), even without the heavier embellishments.

    That doesn’t address those who don’t seek to improve. I honestly have no idea what to make of them.

    1. Dan, that latter profile of person you speak of is the predominant species amongst us, it would seem. If you were to gauge it on public appearances, they would be the ones that Joe Public sees the most of. They are the ones who don’t know that they don’t know. Their objective is to be seen and admired. Having to play music is just part of the means to an the end. All they need to do is escort a bagpipe down the street and get a noise out of it. Tick the box!

      What to do about them? One suggestion I have would be unfair and probably too inhumane to print here (and would be edited anyway).

      If I was to generalise (always risky, but ask yourself why generalisations exist to begin with..?), there is a certain profile of person in this category. They are invariably interested in the attention that the pomp, pageantry and spectacle attracts. They often wish to focus on perceived links to the military (though really non-existent apart from the legacy of the hierarchical structure of a band). They relish the chance to get dressed up and strut around in public, whereas if they were simply in ‘mufti’ they’d be the most spectacularly unspectacular people in the crowd. “Itchy Fingers” is the ubiquitous ‘look at me’ tune, without realising they are giving a crossing noise demonstration to anyone who actually knows what is going on. Full dress would be worn in preference to #2 gear, in any weather. And the bigger the dirk, the better! If they happen to wear #2 gear, they would usually opt to look like a Mexican traffic cop – lanyards galore and pips galore! Usually, a bit of road kill acts as a sporran. The Edinburgh Tattoo would be mandatory viewing and is on the ‘bucket list’. The bookshelves would be adorned with trinkets like Scotty Dogs, doylies, little brass regimental soldiers, ‘pipes and brass’ albums and military history books. There might be a motivational poster of a wolf howling at the moon in the study, or a photo of a Scottish regiment, and most certainly a self-portrait of oneself looking like PM Angus MacDonald, Scots Guards (we all know THAT photo). Now, who doesn’t know someone like that…..?

  8. I think the slagging of street bands here is a little heavy. No doubt there are those band members that really don’t practice enough to move themselves down the developmental continuum at an appropriate rate but most of us do. Where do you think the new crop of Grade 1 pipers is coming from? But this thread brings a level of sadness with it. Partially because of the expressed attitudes of the ignorant towards piping and sadness on a personal note, because I have commited with discipline and passion to make myself the best piper I can be. No, I’m not there yet.
    How did we get to this? Isolation and fiefdoms, cliques and piety are greatly responsible in my view. In the isolation of the local band we answer to no standard but to our own, with fiefdoms we bolster our security with internal power structures, in cliquishness we protect our introverted comfort groups and our piety allows us to look down at the other guys and feel proud and superior. Age? Well that’s a big factor too.
    Competition bands suck the dedicated and energized players right out of the social street bands arena. Thus our best talent pool is concentrated into too few locations The young love the exhilaration of competition, they love their fluid fingers and quick responding brains. Why would they stay long in a group of laid back older guys when they can be barked at and pushed to greater proficiencies with others of their cohort?
    How do we try to change the public’s negative attitude and esteem towards the mighty bagpipe? Maybe it can’t be done. This would take generations of work, acceptable standards and fellowship; certainly not a new set of badges to sew on your Argyll sleeve.
    1. We could form federations which organize and offer in-servicing, and provide networking possibilities, for all members and leaders for no corporate gain. (we do this now to some extent)
    2. We share, we help, we support each other’s band.
    3. We choose and play music that reaches the pop-prone public ear
    4. But the biggest of all, and the rest will follow, is the sustained and openly proclaimed “commitment to competency” of every member in every band. It’s an attitudinal thing.

    1. Hal, this is an excellent and very sincere post.

      The most harmful thing in pipe bands (aside from the political dinosaurs who need to remain relevant) are those people who don’t know that they don’t know. These people are even more damaging when they are leaders in lower grade bands (certainly where I’m from). It’s all about the gongs and brass plaques. They use terminology like “poaching” to describe the natural graduation and progression of younger musicians, who would otherwise be held back to ‘wither on the vine’ under a deluded and ill-equipped leadership. They use the word “loyalty” (lack of) to morally persecute people who move to a higher/more healthy band, rather than analyse why people are departing.

      In my local area, the offer stands for street bands to receive all the assistance they require from both College/Branch level and also from higher-graded bands. The response has been a deafening silence. They seem to be too busy out telling the huddled and ignorant masses how great they are. Most reasons for shunning assistance centre around fears of “poaching” (a misnomer) or, perhaps more so, having ‘the bubble’ burst by an outside and more credentialed set of eyes and ears, and being shown-up before your subordinates as a result. As Hal puts it, little empires are being built.

      Grade 4 should never be terminal, especially for young people. It is where you start, yes, but the proverbial glass ceiling should not be held in place by also-rans who seek to hold younger people back for no other reason than to have numbers to rule over.

      A Grade 4 PM, whom I respect greatly because he’s been there and done that at the elite level (but never has to talk about it), said this to me once: “If a kid is still in my band 4 years after I started him/her and not up in the higher grades, it is one of two reasons: either the kid doesn’t have the talent, vision and enthusiasm, or I don’t. But I’m no mug, so go figure.”

      I honestly don’t know how this can ever be changed. It seems preordained that certain personality types will gravitate towards a number of positions of authority in the lower grades. I’ve personally seen individuals cling on to power despite the entire band membership wishing for change, only to oversee a total collapse (also quite topical in Gr1, Chicago, it would seem). I would argue that if you’re a musician first and foremost, you’d never allow that to happen.

      There’ just simply not enough ‘emotional intelligence’ in many pipe bands.

      1. This post reminds me of a simple expression to say, but somewhat difficult to follow….When Bob Geldof was tryng to organize the singing/musical personalities to come together for Band Aid, the only way to get that much individual talent into the room and co-operate was to get them all to focus on the cause and “Check their egos at the door”. If we could all do that in our little world, things might progress alot more smoothly and we’d all benefit from the collective knowledge.



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