Published: December 07, 2017

Solitary confinement

I’ve said before that Highland piping is often a solitary pursuit that attracts introverts. The lone piper. Solo competition. Hours of isolated practice at home. Maybe nowhere in our art is independence more evident than in our music creation.

An estimate based on a lifetime of observation is that 99% of pipe music is written by a lone composer. Music creation in our world is thriving, driven by an ever-present thirst for the new by competition pipe bands. A band with a strong composer in its ranks has a great advantage.

I work in the songwriting, composing and music publishing side of the music industry. Our piping and drumming world is a model of creativity. But it’s also a relative outlier in that our composers don’t truly collaborate with each other to make tunes together.

Songwriters (also usually introverts), on the other hand, actively seek out new ideas from their peers. They attend song camps with other writers. They trade notes, as it were, and concepts for new music. Their publishers will put together writers from disparate genres and styles to see what happens. They chip away at their stuff, adding a word here, a key change there. They experiment with different idioms. They are almost always totally open to working together to create a better or more widely appealing work.

The exceptions to pipe music composers writing in solitude are generally the instances of a composer tacking on a few parts to an existing tune. Donald MacLeod did it a lot with traditional pieces, to the point where we attribute “The Wee Man from Skye,” for example, to him as the sole composer, when in fact it’s his arrangement. Piping schools will sometimes have an entire class compose a tune, coming up with phrases and changes together. Mainly because these pieces are written by relatively inexperienced pipers, they’re generally not great (read: terrible) compositions, but well intentioned and educational though they might be.

I was once in a band where, like most bands, we’d sit around the table with practice chanters in the winter and trade ideas on music possibilities for the next season. There were several composers in the band. They’d pitch new compositions, and the rest of the pipe corps would suggest a note change here, a timing improvement there, or even a collective Ugh! on first-listen of some or other hopeless piece. The group as a whole was a good editing machine. It was collaborative and, in many instances, it was a co-writing process. The tune got better when rattled around the ears of others.

Tunes that go through an editing process are almost invariably better. I don’t know what G.S. McLennan’s writing process was, but I would guess that he would, as I understand Donald MacLeod did, bounce tunes off of carefully chosen trusted pipers for their opinions and suggestions and then make many amendments and revisions before declaring a piece “final.” And no piece of music is ever final, anyway.

Composers who collaborate will often realize that they’re better off trashing a tune altogether. On their own, they might not twig that it’s too close to another piece designed around our nine notes, or that the new tune is unplayable or, um, unappealing.

Most composers do seek advice and suggestions about their draft work, but rarely if ever would they give credit to another piper as a co-writer, whereas in songwriting and composing in other genres it wouldn’t only be expected, it would be legally prudent. There’s a saying in the songwriting industry: “Change a word, get a third.”

How many pipe music composers sit down with one or more other composers to create a tune from scratch? Are there bands out there where the pipers sit around that winter table and collectively create a tune needed for the new medley? Or do all bands expect “the composer” in the band to come up with something great on his or her own?

I know that most of us are introverts who, perhaps paradoxically, like being in a spotlight, letting our music speak for us. But when it comes to new compositions, taking the cue from successful songwriters and seeking real collaboration could well pay better dividends for the art.

 

Published: October 19, 2017

#MeToo

I can only imagine what it’s like for female pipers and drummers to persevere in what is still a male-dominated – and often dominating – avocation. It’s a topic that has interested me for many years, going back to the 1990s when I worked to pull together a piece on females in piping.

It wasn’t easy then to get women to speak to the issue, and it’s still a difficult subject to discuss openly, many seemingly afraid of rocking a boat or jeopardizing their band’s or their own chances with judges and “authorities” – which are heavily weighted to males.

For sure, much has changed since the 1970s when women were still prohibited from competing at the major solo competitions until Patricia Innes (Henderson), Rhona MacDonald (Lightfoot), and Anne Stewart (Spalding) broke the gender barrier in 1976. Top-grade Scottish pipe bands disallowed female members until Ontario’s Gail Brown courageously stepped into the World Champion Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia in 1973.

It would take another 31 years before a woman would be awarded a Highland Society of London Gold Medal, when Faye Henderson broke the glass ceiling at Oban in 2010, not coincidentally following in the trail-blazing footsteps of her co-pioneering mother.

Back then, I wrote a blog post on the topic of pigeon-holing males and females, but the piping and drumming world remains a disproportionately male-dominated place, replete with its share of crass macho-shiteheads who continue to operate as if it’s an old-boys club. Only 20 years ago there were bands that not only wouldn’t allow women into their ranks, but would not even allow them to get on the bus. Maybe there still are.

The Royal Scottish Pipers Society only a few years ago voted to accept women as members, perhaps recognizing that they risked becoming a complete anachronism in addition to being hopelessly discriminatory. I don’t know how many women have been accepted as members, or have even been invited or applied. They might have jumped that shark decades ago.

If pipes|drums readership analytics are an indicator, about 25% of the world’s pipers and drummers are female, yet women are under-represented in associations’ executives, directors and judges, often woefully so. As far as I know, the RSPBA has one active female adjudicator. Of the Solo Piping Judges Association’s 52 judges listed on its website, a grand total of two are women.

The excuses are many. Well, there aren’t that many women who are qualified. Well, they just don’t seem to be interested. Well, they don’t have time, what with looking after their families. Well, they can’t physically blow a good instrument or carry a heavy drum. Well, their fingers are too short. Well, their wrists are too weak. Well, they’re moody. Well, they’re always complaining. Well . . .

The truth is, piping and drumming is still not the inclusive place that it must be. The challenges that women are faced with are systematic, insidious and, mostly, considered endemic. “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is,” I have been told by some great female pipers, resigned to having to put up with both blatant and tacit discrimination at practices and competitions. We males might not even recognize it, but it is there, often in subtly demeaning ways, and sometimes in quite awful insults – or worse – that probably force women to quit the scene altogether rather than put up with it.

And then we have the audacity to wonder why there aren’t more females who rise to the top.

The #MeToo social media campaign should be eye-opening to any sentient male. Personally, I have been astounded and saddened to see so many female piper or drummer friends of all ages come forward to divulge publicly that they have been the victim of emotional or physical abuse. I can safely assume that at least some or even many of those experiences have been around piping and drumming. Horrifying as it is, I know that there have been Harvey Weinsteins among us.

But, like thoughts and prayers, sadness and astonishment won’t solve anything on their own. We need to take action.

  1. All piping and drumming associations and pipe bands need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against any member discriminating against any minority – female; non-white; LGBTQ.
  2. Members of associations must sign an agreement to uphold its zero-tolerance policy in order to become members and maintain membership.
  3. Associations must actively strive to reach and maintain gender parity between its leaders and judges and its membership.
  4. Associations must adopt a safe and private process to allow its members to report acts of harassment, bullying or discrimination.
  5. Members and leaders who have been found to breach the policy should be suspended or, if warranted, banned for life.

Some organizations might already have similar policies and rules but, given that it’s hard to agree on obviosities like teachers not judging pupils or family not judging family, I suspect not.

Piping and drumming comes from all-male military roots, but chalking up discriminatory behavior to “just the way it is” is no longer acceptable. It never should have been acceptable in the first place.

We’re a slow-moving and change-averse lot, but implementing these policies, and altering our habitual way of thinking, can no longer wait.

 

Published: February 22, 2014

Look at me!

Self-promotion is a touchy thing in piping and drumming. Tradition tells us that we accept our success and failure in equal measure. Apart from handshakes, fist-bumps and back-slaps at the prize announcement, publicly celebrating a victory has always been frowned upon, just as much as outwardly harping about a result to anyone but band-mates and trusted friends.

Thanks to social media, all that seems to be changing. Open up Facebook and you’re likely to see pipers and drummers flaunting and vaunting their wins, usually in a tacky and clunky way:

  • “Really pleased with my first in the March and 2nd in the Piob today! Congrats to all other prize-winners!”
  • “A great day and really humbled to finish ahead of gold medallist ____. Great competition!”
  • “Piper of the Day! Well done to all!”
  • “Thoroughly enjoyed judging today with [much more famous and accomplished person].”

Selfies of people wearing their own medals or in front of their trophies right after the contest even five years ago would have been unheard of. It’s pretty common now, as the “Look at me!” nature of social media has eroded piping and drumming’s tradition of letting only others and your playing itself do the promoting.

The generation of pipers and drummers that has grown up with social media, the unseemly notion of being famous simply for being famous, and “success” often determined by self-promotion is now coming into prominence as top-level prize-winners. Our tradition of magnanimous tact – quietly accepting success and failure – is being chucked out the window. Discreetly enabling and encouraging others to do your publicity is quickly becoming a bygone art.

The Look at me! culture of social media is changing the customary self-effacing nature that pipers and drummers have learned for centuries.

Magnanimous in defeat; gracious in victory: a piping and drumming tradition that we should keep.

Published: June 05, 2012

For the parents

By Andrew Berthoff

The world of piping and drumming can be a strange and unusual place for the non-piping/drumming parents of young kids becoming involved with the art. As a child of a mother and father who knew nothing about the mysterious and exclusive club before allowing their boy to become involved, I recognize now how difficult it can be, even more so after teaching young pipers who are plunging into our pool of competition, decorum and tradition.

So, here are a few tips especially for the parents of young pipers and drummers who might be struggling with the decision as to whether to allow their boy or girl to continue with what will become a life-long involvement.

Piping/drumming prepares them for life. Your son or daughter will be surrounded by adults from every background, every profession, every ability. They will learn to conduct themselves in a mature way, and have the benefit of weekly interaction with very smart people. Religion or social status does not exist in piping and drumming. The music is the great equalizer. Your boy or girl is more likely to appreciate people for their skills and character, rather than discriminate or prejudge.

Piping/drumming creates lifelong friendships. Your child will meet other kids his/her age within the band, at competitions and at summer schools. These friendships will last forever. And wherever your son or daughter goes, he/she will find instant friends in the piping community.

Your child will always be “the piper” or “the pipe band drummer.” Do not underestimate the value of being in this exclusive club. It will help your kid stand apart from all of the other mundane hobbyists. Listing “bagpipes” on a university application or resume will be noticed and remembered, and virtually everyone has some sort of positive piping-related connection. It’s an immediate common-bond.

If all else fails, there’s always piping/drumming. Once your child becomes good at his/her art, it is a constant safety net. Your kid can always find paid gigs or teach beginners either part-time or even professionally. Piping at ceremonies is increasingly popular. And once your child learns rudiment-based pipe band drumming, other drumming will be easy in comparison.

Your child will learn to fail. Sounds strange, but it’s a great skill to possess. I’ve said before that even Willie McCallum or Jim Kilpatrick – winningest competitors who they may be – have had far more non-first-prizes. In our competition-based world, your boy or girl will learn to accept defeat, learn from mistakes, and work harder to be better next time. Unlike junior’s football team or dance group, there are no medals in piping/drumming for those who don’t earn a prize.

Competition is preparation for real-life pressure. Standing solo before a wizened judge can be a knee-shaking thing. Delivering when your band-mates are counting on you is even more nerve-racking. At the beginning, you might consider this unnecessary pressure for your child, but understand that each time he/she competes and improves with each event is practice for that university interview, the class presentation, the job interview or the seminar for colleagues. Once you’ve stood at the trigger at the World Pipe Band Championships, or climbed the boards at a big solo event, that real-life stuff is cake.

It’s music. Because of the competition-driven nature of what we do, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that your child is making music. It’s art from nothingness. Like fireworks, it’s beautiful for a second, and then it’s gone forever. And your kid is creating it to the best of his or her ability. Don’t ever forget that that is a true miracle more valuable than anything above.

So, I hope these points are of use to parents of young pipers or drummers delving into our little world that, once seen in a bigger view, is full of benefits for life in general.

Published: December 18, 2010

Paradiddle universe

Truth be told, I was a snare drummer first. Yes, at the age of nine, when Flynn Park fifth-graders signed up for a musical instrument that they wanted to learn, I wound up with the drum.

My actual intention, like most boys, was to play the trumpet. But I remember gathering in the school cafeteria, and the music guy (who had a toupee that was more shag-carpet than hair) looking in our mouths like so many gift-horses, considering my under-bite and crooked teeth, and crushingly informing me that I would most certainly be getting braces, so the trumpet wasn’t practical.

Inconsolably sobbing, I was offered, maybe even assigned, the drum.

This was at least a year before I expressed interest in that other ultracool instrument, the Highland pipe. I set about getting completely underwhelming instruction in the drumming rudiments. I learned a flam and a paradiddle well before my hands were placed on a chanter.

The music guy didn’t actually do the drum teaching. Instruction was from an obviously very talented woman, who had the worst (or best, depending on your preference) arse-to-torso ratio of any person I’d ever seen – at age nine, anyway. She seemed to know every instrument there was, and I was her only drumming student at Flynn Park. I think she took at shower in pure Charlie perfume; such was her fragrant embrace around me when she worked my hands, trying to teach me the art of the roll, the ratamacue and the red-hot flamadiddle. It was all in the wrist, she cooed.

I vividly remember her frustration with me, her indolent, prepubescent percussionist, as we prepared for the big spring concert at which the little school orchestra would perform an outdoor show (pictured above). With her dimensions, one would suppose that she would go for “Hot Crossed Buns.” No sir-ee. She was determined to have us first-year squealers and bangers do a heartfelt rendition of the “Theme from Shaft,” which had been at the top of the 1971 charts.

She became completely exasperated with my inability to play the drumming interlude/solo that went ta-da-ta-da-taaaaa ta-da-ta-da-ta-daaaaaa ta-da-ta-da-taaaaa ta-da-ta-da-ta-daaaaaa at about 120 BPMs. I completely blew it in the concert (that no one but my diligent paparazzi Pop attended), and I can still see her shaking her head at me mid-performance, what with her giant hoop earrings, crispy pre-disco-era hair and upturned glossy hooker-red lips.

Amazingly, I continued to “play” the snare drum for another two years, much the same way that I continued to “learn” algebra. While doing that, I found my musical calling in piping, but there too I was an early wilter – the local band I was learning with, when I let it slip that I was a “drummer,” immediately tried to move me to that, to offset their dearth of bodies at the back end.

I’m sure that my Dad must have stealthily intervened and insisted that they keep teaching me piping, so I was rescued from the dregs of practice chanter students and eventually committed myself to actually trying. Early wilter turned late bloomer.

All told, I’m glad that I tried my hands at drumming. For me, what the instrument lacked in melody, it made up in theory. When I started the pipes, I could already understand note-values and time signatures, notwithstanding wondering where all the rests went. Because I sucked so bad at it, I appreciate just how difficult the instrument is.

I’ve occasionally considered picking up the sticks again. I’d love to experience for real a pipe band’s back-end. But, like my lovely first music teacher, it’s all in the rearing.

Published: October 20, 2010

Where are the leaders?

You lead. No, you lead . . .

The post-season partings from premier pipe bands seem to increase every year. What’s perhaps more interesting is that these leadership vacancies appear to be increasingly difficult to fill. Pipe-Majors and Lead-Drummers resign and, more often than not these days, there’s no ready successor. Bands usually have to go searching for willing leaders. Some have even resorted to advertising.

Was this always the case? Not so long ago, it seems to me, every pipe band had numerous pipers and drummers looking for their shot at leadership. When there was a chance to become a P-M or L-D of a top-grade band, people would leap at the opportunity. Now it seems like talented players with potential leadership skills have to be persuaded to take on the job.

And the job today is ever more complex and difficult, even though the rewards are pretty much exactly the same as they were in 1947. Never mind having a great ear and musical talent, leading a modern top-grade band demands extraordinary “man-management” skills. Today’s Grade 1 pipe-majors and lead-drummers are supervising sensitive egos of skilled players who often would just as soon go elsewhere if you dare to look at them sideways.

Their role demands that they deal with terrific pressure to produce a professional-quality band while still trying to enjoy their hobby. It’s a full-time job that has to be completed during so-called free-time. In truth, managing people, instruments, music, logistics and who-knows-what-else is a full-time job that has the exact same return as ever before.

There’s no money in it. Unless you’re an extraordinarily rare case – like, for example, Terry Tully, Terry Lee, Richard Parkes or Bill Livingstone – there’s inevitably a coup d’état awaiting you down the road. You now have to manage twice as many players. The glory is whatever self-satisfaction you can derive from doing something well and, all too often, it’s a thankless job. Every year the investment is more but the return is the same. Further, you can do your absolute best and wholeheartedly believe in and love your band, only to have some anonymous, incompetent, cowardly idiot skewer you on the net. Who needs it?

But perhaps the two situations go hand-in-hand. The reluctant leader is almost always the best. He or she doesn’t pine for the job, but must be convinced to do it and, when coaxed to give it a try, all too often turns out to be really good at it.

By that token, beware the piper or drummer who’s looking for a leadership gig. There are of course exceptions, but one can’t help but notice those who bounce from band to band, looking for the next great thing. And why does the next great thing never happen for them? That’s right, because they’re leading it.

So maybe it’s understandable that natural born leaders today have to be discovered. They have to be cajoled and coaxed and persuaded to just try it, to tide the band over just for one season. They step up to help not because they want to help their ego, but because they want to help the band.
And with luck and a lot of care and feeding, they’ll learn to love the job and not run screaming from the ordeal they never really wanted in the first place.

Published: March 05, 2010

A fine thing, chance

I remember 20 years ago doing the annual pilgrimage to Glasgow for the usual, compelling World’s self-flagellation. We all snickered at a rival band, as word got out that they had engaged a sports-psychologist to help them prepare and focus for the big event.

Rumours were widespread that this band was prohibited from consuming even a drop of alcohol, and when it became known that each of the rival band’s members was issued a large bottle of Evian water to keep them hydrated on the flight, well, it was all just too much.

This was not what pipe bands were about! It was taking things far too seriously. Hydration?! A sports shrink?! They were sapping the fun from the annual Glasgow week in humbug.

Our laughter was fueled by many pints and self-satisfaction that we were having a much more fun time than those guys.

That is, until we had our sporrans handed to us on a platter at the competition, and the focused, sober, fun-sapped band marched off to a night of boozy celebration with a high prize. No fun. At that point I’m sure every member of my band would have gladly traded all the pints and mockery for a guaranteed prize, but nothing much changed the next year, and nor did I necessarily want it to.

How things have changed. Today’s most respected pipe bands are the ones that run like musical machines. Every one of them is looking for a competitive edge, whether it’s hiring a sports-psychologist, abstaining from booze, or simply eating and sleeping properly before the contest.

Sure, there are still some old-world good-time-Charlies whose idea of a good pipe band is an under-achieving social group of partiers. But ask up-and-coming pipers and drummers what bands they dream of playing with, and they’ll almost always list the bands with the highest degree of musical and competitive discipline and focus. Fun, to them, is musical commitment through competition or concert success or, ideally, a combination of both.

The culture of competing pipe bands has changed irrevocably since 1990, and I think it actually started on that specific trip. Some may pine for the old days – and I may actually be one who does – but the reality is that, today, nothing is left to chance.

 

Published: March 05, 2009

Passing notes

Yesterday brought bad news of yet more Canadian casualties in Afghanistan. Warrant Officer Dennis Raymond Brown from the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, Corporal Dany Oliver Fortin from the 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron and Corporal Kenneth Chad O’Quinn from the 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Headquarters and Signals Squadron were killed when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb, one of the devices that they had just finished clearing.

Their deaths bring the total number of Canadians killed in Afghanistan to 111, and each time a soldier makes the supreme sacrifice the media coverage in Canada is widespread. And so too is the sound of the pipes.

Each “ramp ceremony” – the military procedure that begins the repatriation of the fallen – has a solo piper from the Canadian Forces, and always a very good one at that. The Canadian Forces clearly knows that only excellent piping will do when paying allegiance to excellent service. Fraser Clark, a Captain with the Canadian Forces’ Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (KPRT), Task Force 1-08, wrote about the experience passionately last August in a pipes|drums feature story that I hope everyone reads again.

If there were ever a positive to these sacrifices, it’s the small fact that millions of Canadians are exposed to the sound of the instrument as it should be.

Published: July 28, 2008

Rush to judgment

Geddy-up!

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Rush-inspired medley that the Grade 3 Durham Regional Police are playing this year. The band (pipe) starts with “Tom Sawyer,” the (rock) band’s one hit – or the closest thing they’ve ever come to a hit despite a gazillion album sales.

I managed to get a recording of it at Cambridge, so here it is. You can compare it with the original prog-rock song from the Canadian power-trio, as they’re referred to by anyone who cares. The video is from – gulp – 1981.

I also wrote a while back about bands doing new things with familiar melodies, mentioning that Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” might make a good adaptation. That summer I believe Shotts included Coldplay‘s “Kingdom Come” in its medley.

I think that what Durham does works, especially for a non-piping Canadian audience. The band includes lots of content for piping aficionados, and so it can still be new and different and clever while also being “true to the idiom,” as some people like to say.

You might say that the recent pipe band trend of taking a very familiar tune and repurposing it in a new time signature and tempo (see Al-Cal’s take on “Crossing The Minch,” for example) is much the same idea.

I spent much of my lost high school years doing two things: listening to Rush and playing the pipes. I never thought that the two could be merged.

 

Registration

Forgotten Password?