February 26, 2009

Can’t sing but I got soul

I had the good fortune to participate this week in a two-day workshop on mentoring and coaching – skills that everyone can use, not least of whom me. As part of the course, we watched a really good video put together by Ben Zander, the Music Director of the Boston Philharmonic.

Zander’s a whirlwind of charisma and positive energy, and it appears that he’s carved out a nice sub-career as a motivational guru. While I was watching the video, I thought about how many pipe-majors of premier bands might be able to transfer their leadership skills to self-help consulting.

In a sense, many already are motivational speakers, as we see guys like Richard Parkes, Terry Lee, Robert Mathieson and Bill Livingstone hired to conduct clinics. I’d imagine that many attendees go expecting to get some secret sauce for success and become better players or bands overnight. But in actuality I would think most leave these workshops simply feeling a whole lot better about what they do and what they need to do. They get motivated to improve.

There was one point in the Zander video where he has a cellist perform a difficult piece for the business people attending his seminar. She’s clearly a terrific player, and executes the piece technically perfectly. Zander applauds her for that, but then points out that, while her technique was brilliant, the piece lacked emotion. She was so concerned about getting it “right,” that she forgot to engage her audience, who were clearly impressed, but not emotionally moved.

He said, “Perfection is not to be gained at the cost of music.” I found this summarized perfectly what we pipers and drummers struggle with all the time. We’re so focused on getting it “right,” that we leave the audience cold. And then we’re often too quick to criticize a technically flawed performance that got an audience out of their seats and cheering.

It’s an age-old problem for us: how to encourage, recognize and reward music played with emotion and meaning and have the conviction to place more importance on those attributes rather than the “perfect” but soulless performance?


  1. “There was one point in the Zander video where he has a cellist perform a difficult piece for the business people attending his seminar. She’s clearly a terrific player, and executes the piece technically perfectly. Zander applauds her for that, but then points out that, while her technique was brilliant, the piece lacked emotion. ”

    This is something that runs through all quality instruction that I have experienced…..First “praise” the student for what is good, then “instruct” the student on what can be improved. The trick as an instructor, is to do this every single time. the great ones do.

    This carries over so much into HR it isn’t even funny. I use this technique at work all the time. Actually, it’s not even a “technique” with me any more, it’s just how I do things, automatic so to speak. It’s tremendous with noncomplient patients, too!

    Music mirroring life!


  2. I had the privilege of seeing Ben Zander live at a corporate event for 5000+ employees in the IT industry. He was brilliant and recommend anybody see him in any form that you can – live, video, etc. One of the amazing things he achieved with our audience of computer geeks was to have us sing Happy Birthday. The first attempt was mediocre but by the end it was energetic and almost choral. His one hour scheduled slot extended to two hours and it felt like 20 minutes. Outstanding!

  3. I had the privilege of working with police band when I was in grad. school and it really taught me a lot as a piper and a teacher. Having grown up in a competition band, I tried to get these guys psyched about competing in a contest, but it was a real struggle. However, they would work for months on getting ready for the yearly spring ceidhli in town. I’ll hand it to them, they knew they were never going to be the best players but they did their best to be great performers. It was a great experience and I think bands should put on local concerts to “uneducated” audiences from time to time as it forces a shift in focus that is often lots of fun and instructive at the same time.

  4. The people who are least able to let us know who they are through their music, are usually music teachers of a certain type, in the hundreds of Music Therapy workshops I have done. The people who are the best at it, are often the people who have never tried playing music before, but who are open minded, congenial types, interested in other people, other peoples points of view, and open to learning something about themselves and others. So musical or technical brilliance in one sense, doesn’t necessarily follow through to ‘ability to perform TO an audience and communicate the music TO other people’.
    As someone said above, or below, it doesn’t help in bands, when the band is turned inwards on itself. It’s as if they are saying ‘this is our music and we’re not keen to share it with you – anything you happen to catch over our heads you can have, but we’re communicating with each other and keeping it to ourselves, not openly giving it out to you’.
    With solo playing, it’s always disappointing, to me at least, to hear some know-all (or would-be know-all) mutter ‘he missed the B at the start of …..’ or talk of missed gracenotes. Fair enough to record that, but to wipe off an otherwise musical rendition BECAUSE of these things seems farcical to me. It happens elsewhere though. I remember sitting through 3 hours in absolute wonder and awe-inspired-ness at an opera. I was completely transported by the genius of the music and the whole performance, but when we came out onto the street one of the people I was with, said ‘her high B was a bit iffy’. At the time, I remember feeling ignorant because this ‘apparently’ important technical detail, had been missed by me. Nowadays I wonder how far that kind of comment can take someone musically. Not far.
    There’s nothing better than a great motivational speaker. And music really can deliver the goods. An example comes to mind. I once spoke at a conference (in Vienna, and on Rett Syndrome as it happens). As it was international, a TEAM of interpreters was needed and they were all set up at the back of the hall. Five or six of them I think, with loads of technical equipment. They were RUN RAGGED, could hardly keep up – every word the speakers said was being simultaneously translated in to German, French, and Spanish. The audience had earphones according to their preferred language. Because in my presentation, I had happened to choose to demonstrate many of my points through getting the audience to participate musically, the translators were hardly ever needed. And this of course made MY point, even clearer. Music as a universal language. Everybody in the room could understand it in whatever way they could, but nobody there needed a translation or a translator.

    A word of caution though. Amateur psychology can be ok, even quite good, but it can also potentially be detrimental. In piping, I’ve seen it on occassion, used in a bad way, where it seriiously affected peoples’ feelings about their own capabilities as a person and as a musician. Sometimes, the people who like to dabble in it, are looking for a ‘cure’ for themselves, and are inflicting their own ‘issues’ on other people. So I think its an area to be treated with responsibility and not- a- little- thinking.
    Obviously the examples quoted in the article by Andrew, are sure footed and good, great even. But this isn’t always the case so caution needs to be exercised.
    I rant, because its a specialist area of my own, and I have trained long and very hard to study it and try to understand it. But there’s a difference too between motivational speaking, and psychology though they’re interlinked of course. The article by Andrew has obviously, in itself, been motivational, because here I am early in the morning, choosing to write this in response to it, instead of getting the things done I need to.

    It’s an area, I believe that has unlimited potential, in the world of piping and which is currently only ‘toyed with’. It’s exciting to think where it could take the pipe band potential, and also how it could be used to much greater effect by soloists. The whole business of thinking about the music and the person, I mean.

  5. I tend to agree with most of what’s been said above. We, as pipe bands tend to forget our audiences and play to please ourselves mainly, hoping that we will entertain the audience in passing. We have no engagement or interaction with the audience.
    I was at a Snow Patrol gig the other night and they did all the audience contact things – “Hello (name that town) – what lovely people you are – what attractive women etc, etc” . I was also at a gig several years back with the Holmes Brothers a black American(can I say that now?) blues/Gospel trio who asked the audience about evrey fourth or fifth song – “Are you having a good time? Coz we’re having a great time !” I wonder how many pipe bands could, if given the chance say that to their audience and what any response would be – ‘aye there was some sloppy fingeriing on that last birl’
    There was a piece done here a while ago about ‘The Performance’ and I really think that as Pipe bands we have lost our way a bit. I believe that Evelyn Glennie was invited to the Worlds? a few years ago and afterwards wrote a letter to the RSPBA criticising the way drumming was going, but I have never been able to find such an item, or am I wrong and it never existed? Does any one know where I can get a copy ?She has also written an open letter about ‘The Performance’ and it also makes a lot of sense.
    Yes we probably do need a few abortive attempts at trying to change the formats (Toronto Police?) but we need to move forward, which we are not doing at the moment.

  6. A small excerpt from a recent interview I did for Premier Percussion.

    Pipe band drumming for the most part, is still playing material that is a new vamp of 40 year old stuff. With the right influences we can take it to new boundaries. That won’t happen though without backlash.
    It’s a bit of a catch 22. If you want to be successful in competition you have to play clean as a whistle. That to me takes some soul out of the performance. Rarely do you hear a performance that is both clean and emotional.

    Superb piece by Ben Zander, Thanks Andrew, now back to my 15th reading of the Inner Game!

  7. Craig, that’s very true – but how much has rock drumming changed since the early sixties? Very different genres, but I wouldn’t say that it has changed any more than pipe band drumming has.

  8. OK, so pipe bands are not entertaining and have as much stage presense as a church choir, does anybody really think they’re going to produce a rock show out of a pipe band competition?

    How many pipe band CD’s can you listen to all afternoon?

  9. The format of a competition will always limit the product. There has to be boundaries and rules in order to compare the bands as fairly as possible. The nature of competition results in close attention being paid to technique, which can detract from the “musicality”.
    On the other hand, concerts can allow for a free for all where anything goes. If unlimited self expression with no rules or boundaries is desired, then a show is the best place for this.
    Life would be much simpler if some of us wouldn’t keep trying to mix the two……..

  10. I agree with Craig. The Inner Game is where it’s at. A very inspirational book that makes you rethink your mental stability when performing. Definitely a “must-read” for every piper and drummer out there.

    Zander has brought up a topic which has been around for a long time. The bottom line is that we are musicians. Not technicians or robots. For me, a great example of this was the 78th Frasers in 1998 with the “Walking the Plank” Medley. Pure brilliance.

  11. Can’t agree with Calum that rock band drumming hasn’t changed much since the early 60s. Even during the 60s and early 70s it went from being Ringo and Charlie Watts type stuff to Bill Bruford, Alan White, and Neil Peart, and that wasn’t even counting guys like Billy Cobham getting thrown into the mix. We’ve had electronic drums, and all sorts of other stuff happen to rock drumming over the years. And addressing the question in the blog, although Ringo wasn’t as technically proficient as some of the guys who came after, he sure fit the bill perfectly for what was needed in a band that changed the face of not only pop music, but popular culture. You don’t have to be a perfect technician to entertain people.

    I’ve only been at piping for 15 years, but it seems to me that pipe band drumming has changed in terms of the sound of the drum (Royal Scots sound like wash pails compared to HTS-700s and the like), and some degree of technique associated with Kevlar heads. And now the mid-sections are starting to add more flavor overall. I still think a really good Quad player that knew what was what could add another dimension in that regard. As far as entertainment value though, pipe band competitions don’t offer much to a general, non-piping audience. If you’ve ever attended a DCI competition, you know there is NO comparison. Those people entertain as they compete. I don’t suggest we march in formations and all that, but we are inherently as colorful, if not moreso, than any drum and bugle corp. We just offer ZERO in terms of presentation. I’ve seen SFU, the 78th, SLOT, Field Marshall, and Shotts in competition or in concert. The concert settings were always much more entertaining all around. I think if the SFU at CArnegie Hall video was shown on PBS, a lot more average folks would be interested in what pipe bands have to offer. No reason why a bit of showmanship couldn’t be worked into at least the Medley. Leave the MSR for the tradiitional three-paced rolls and attack, and marching into the circle. Let’s see some creativity in terms of presentation in the Medley.

    Sponsors lay down money where there’s an audience. Audiences go to see entertainment. If we ever want to see any sort of real serious audiences, and I don’t mean “three deep all the way around the competion circle,” but in the thousands, and more big money sort of corporate sponsorship, it has to be fore something Joe Average wants to sit and watch.

    I played guitar in rock bands for years and years before getting into piping. If you’re not entertaining, people do not come to see you.

  12. Pipe band drumming the same as 40 years ago?? This is an unusual statement. Maybe snare drumming is the same but bass sections are crazy different. It is the most changed thing in pipe bands. HUGE change!!!

  13. Yea…the drumming really hasn’t changed much…still carrying big drums…still standing in the same formations…same rhythms and even scores…just the same way that hoop is still the same size as it was when i scored 100 points in ONE game!



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