Saint Angus

Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart,
You’re shaking my confidence daily.
Oh, Cecilia, I’m down on my knees,
I’m begging you please to come home.

Paul Simon’s hit, “Cecilia,” from 1970 is at first or hundredth listen assumed to be about a girlfriend, but it’s also, he admits, about St. Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music in the Catholic tradition. One of the greatest songwriters ever, it’s as lyrically genius as pop music ever gets, while being incredibly simple. (But please don’t get me started on Foo Fighters’ dreadful and derivative “St. Cecilia”.)

As a songwriter relying on the whim of the muse, Simon’s lyric has him begging to Cecilia to stay with him, knowing how quickly the muse can vanish, and how fast she can reappear. It reminds me of many U2 songs about girls (“Mysterious Ways,” anyone?) that are actually about the Virgin Mary. Every U2 concert is a big prayer service and most of the audience doesn’t realize or care. I digress.

But it got me thinking that, while piping and drumming is of course music, and Cecilia could sort of look after us, maybe we need our own patron saint.

Looking around, there doesn’t appear to be anything officially declared.

I’m not a religious person, but I appreciate spirituality. Paul Simon was raised Jewish, as I was raised Presbyterian, and I believe he’s not religious,either, but perhaps errs on the side of spirituality.

I defy even the archest atheists who have visited Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona on a sunny day with beams of fantastical yellows, reds and blues raying in through his gorgeous windows, bifurcated by the massive sequoia-like beams, not to feel spiritually moved. It’s so beautiful it makes one’s eyes well with tears.

Given that spirituality is a good thing, it wouldn’t hurt to have a Patron Saint of Piping & Drumming. But who or what? There’s no apparent Catholic saint who played a bagpipe. There are depictions of pipers in various abbeys and kirks, but these are only gargoyles and the odd seraphim.

St. Andrew I guess would be a natural, but he’s a bit predictable. In North America, anyway, St. Patrick is much appreciated for his big pipe band money-making day in March, but that a bit tacky. St. Philemon the Piper is the only allusion to it, but the “pipe” in this context appears to be a flute, not a bagpipe. After Ireland, St. Columba was all about the Highlands and Islands, so he’s getting there, but it’s a bit too close for comfort between Celtic and Rangers supporters.

So, with the lack of existing options, and the problems with religiosity, could we not collectively anoint one of our own as a “saint”? There are pipers and drummers in our history that seemed to perform miracles of music.

Saint Angus? Saint Padrick Og? Saint Donald Mor? Saint Alex? Saint Willie? Saint Donald? Saint G.S.? Saint Alasdair? Saint Gordon? Saint Captain John? Saint Seumas?

I doubt any of these greats were 100% pure, but no piper or drummer I know of is. And the histories of most “real” saints are often filled with violence and evil-deeds. I mean, killing snakes and serpents by today’s standards isn’t very nice.

There’s been more than one piper or drummer who’s said a little prayer at the line or during a tune or would commit him or herself to God in return for the creation of just one divine tune that would be played in perpetuity by the piping world ad infinitum, Gloria in excelsis Deo.

We could use a little divine intervention these days to keep us on the straight and narrow. Even if it’s all hokum, it sure can’t hurt to have a little talisman in the sporran, a superstition for moral support, or, when no one else out there seems to care, a piping and drumming saint who’s got your back.

She loves me again!
I fall on the floor and I’m laughing.


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.



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.


River crossing

Mine would be 40 years ago, my first solo piping competition. It was 1977, about 18 months since I’d laid hands on a practice chanter. I’d been “on the pipes” – a set of imitation-ivory-mounted Hardies – for maybe six months.

I don’t remember having a choice in the matter. I was geared to compete from the get-go. It was what we pipers and drummers did. What one was supposed to do was described to me: salute like a boy soldier, tell the judge your tune, march up and down, making sure you don’t turn your back on the judge when turning, don’t play too fast, make all the doublings clearly, blow steady, try to keep in step with the beat or at least the beat-notes, keep going, don’t stop. Keep going.

The event was the Under-15 march at the St. Louis Highland Games organized by the local St. Andrew’s Society. Fresh from the United States’ Bicentennial celebrations, everything was still red white and blue, at a time when, unlike today, everything in the USA wasn’t always red white and blue every year. The games program was red white and blue, the ribbons on the medals were red white and blue. I think there was even a red white and blue Bicentennial tartan adorning an unfortunate drum-major.

I was prepped to confront my main competition from Kansas City: a young upstart named Kurt (or was it Chris?) Atwell. Everyone seemed to talk about how good this kid was. He must be beaten. Some sort of St. Louis vs. KC pride was at stake. Rivers vs. fountains. Beer vs. barbeque. Cardinals vs. Royals.

I diligently practiced my tune. For some reason, I was playing the obscure 2/4 march, “The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” Gordon Speirs, from whom I got lessons early on, assigned it to me in his often unconventional way. Something about it being a good test of my fingers, or my diligence, or maybe my sanity. I’ve never heard anyone play it since, and couldn’t tell you how it goes, mainly because the tune’s melody isn’t memorable, much less good.

At any rate, I rehearsed “The 12th etc.” every day after school. Marching back and forth. My parents and brother and sisters must have been going crazy listening to me struggle with the instrument and tuneless tune as I got set to do battle against Mr. Atwell, KC Kid Genius.

Games day arrived. If you’ve ever been what you think is the hottest and most humid place on earth, double that and you have St. Louis in July. I was decked out as one was when one played in lower-grade American bands in those days: hose tops, spats, thigh-itchy horsehair sporran, glengarry with cock-feather, epaulettes, khaki shirt, dorky embroidered band patch sewn to the short sleeve, floppy size-13 black dress shoes that I would have to “grow into.” It was the height of cool for this 13-year-old getting set for the eighth grade at Hanley Junior High, since then mercifully demolished in favour of a cracker-box suburban subdivision.

The judge was the truly terrifying Sandy MacPhee. Sandy back then, as he is now, was larger than life. At that time his son, Donald, must have been a toddler, destined for greatness, but Sandy’s legend as a pioneering American piper was established from his years in Detroit.

Yes, this is it. Sandy MacPhee judging, my mother pacing in the background, my sister, Clarissa, dreaming of Olympic balance beam gold.

Still not quite comprehending the occasion’s gravity, I approached Mr. MacPhee. “Name?” he asked in what I was sure at the time was a growl, but was probably just him asking my name. Name given. “What are you going to play?” “The 10th Argyll’s Crossing the Rhine.” “The what?” ” The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” “The 10th Battalion HLI Crossing the Rhine?” I really didn’t know what to say. At that time I’d never heard of that excellent Donald Shaw Ramsay march. “Um . . .” “It doesn’t matter; just play whatever you want.” Someone must have stopped me from breaking down in inconsolable sobs.

I vaguely remember bumbling through the tune, still searching for the elusive crappy melody, my mother pacing in the distance with my younger sister, and my dad, as always, snapping pictures. But I “got through it,” as they say, albeit out-of-step and with drones blaring like the simultaneous horns of three Mississippi River barges.

There couldn’t have been more than three or four in the event. I placed second. Atwell was first, which was okay, since I sussed that he was much like me, a kid plodding along in the heat in spats, epaulettes and itchy sporran. Someone contended that it was fixed and I should have won. I didn’t care. It was over and I received a shiny gold (not silver?) medal with a Bicentennial ribbon, and I was hooked by the will to do better, to exceed and succeed with music. Welcome to piping.

The next year I ditched that dreadful march for the more sensible “Atholl Highlanders March to Loch Katrine,” thinking it was pronounced ka-TREEN, as in latrine. It’s a more difficult tune than “The 12th etc.” but, with a discernably good melody, it seemed easier. The stub-fingered, one-lunged legend John Wilson, who was judging, bizarrely mentions me by name in his autobiography, A Professional Piper in Peace and War, playing it for him at the Kansas City Highland Games where I once again confronted Atwell. I was again second, but Wilson wrote that I was the best player of the day and would have won had I not made “catches” in the final phrases. Best player: second prize. Welcome again to piping.

A more catchy tune.

I’m always interested to hear first competition stories. When more established pipers mention to me now that I judged their first contest, there’s not a certain amount of satisfaction that I, like Sandy MacPhee, didn’t completely scare them for good from the competitive piping avocation. It’s nice when they reassure me that I wrote positive things on their scoresheets.

Like the 12th Royal Scots or the 10th HLI, we all cross our rivers, theirs to military glory, ours to a glorious piping and drumming life awaiting us on the other side.


Touch blackwood

“There’s plenty of time for despair,” a friend likes to say when playing golf after someone hits an iffy shot. Rather than assuming that the ball went into the bunker, he encourages you to err on the side of optimism and enjoy the moment.

After hitting tens-of-thousands of bad golf shots and competing in hundreds of piping and pipe band competitions, I’ve learned to take a different tack: assume the worst, because getting your hopes up inevitably results in having them crushed at the prize-giving. In other words, lower your expectations.

Some might see that as a “glass half empty” outlook. Far from it. It’s a line of thinking that’s as much about superstition as it is peace-of-mind.

When competing, I would actively disabuse myself of the idea that I’d be in the prizes, so that in the event that I or my band did win, it would be gravy. And, if we didn’t, well, then, that was no surprise. No matter how well I or the band played, I thought that it was a jinx to expect to win.

I have plenty of small superstitions in piping. Actually, it’s debatable whether they’re superstitions or an attempt at psychological strategy. You be the judge.

When submitting four tunes to a judge, say the one that you’d most like to play third. Why third? Well, listing it first automatically suggests it’s at the top of your mind, so you’re not getting that. Saying it second makes it an instant afterthought to the first. “What was the second tune again?” many judges will ask, proving the point. It takes a cruel judge to pick the last tune you say (of course after you paused to make it look like you can’t even remember it), and contrary to what you might believe, judges are nice people. Trust me, it’s the third tune that on average is the most likely to be picked.

In a draw at the line in a band contest, always pick the right hand. Most people are right-handed. They favour the right side. Chances are the right pick will be in the right hand. Did you know that the Latin word for “left” is “sinister”? Enough said.

Forgetting, or – much worse – consciously deciding not to take your rain cape means that it’s sure to rain. It’s all your fault. Yes, you can be all-powerful and control the weather just by thinking of or forgetting things.

Never wear sunglasses while competing. Okay, it’s not exactly bad luck, but unless your vision is impaired, few things communicate arrogance like sporting shades in a contest. Playing well should be cool enough. What are you hiding?

Prizes are better announced in order. People often think that announcing in reverse order builds suspense. It just creates more despair, since we all like to live in hope that, Hey, maybe I’m first! only to find yourself and 10 other competitors crestfallen. Vice versa can be true, but by the time they announce third or fourth I no longer care much. That said, I’ll never forget many years ago at the World’s when Grade 3 or something was announced in order. The band next to us got increasingly more agitated when their name wasn’t called out with each prize announced. After they were not even sixth, the lead-drummer screamed out an ear-splitting obscenity at the poor RSPBA Executive Officer that rhymes with Truck My Flock! But overall, announcing in order is better for everyone.

A perfect tune-up invites disaster. Warming up on the golf range or the putting green, hitting everything well or going in brings one thing: a terrible round of golf will follow. Similarly, tuning that seems to be flawless right out of the box inevitably results in a performance that craters on the field. Get out the flaws. Miss a few attacks. Fly around madly searching for that bad F. Get a bit unsettled. It focuses the mind at crunch time.

Eagerly checking the prizes results in your not being in them. Most solo competitions post the results somewhere. You can tell newbie competitors. They’re the ones hovering around, anxious to see their success. Experienced competitors hang back. Many never even look and instead wait for someone to say later in the day, “Well done on the prize(s)!” And then you say, “Oh, was I in? I didn’t even look.” Nonchalance is key to playing the part. Your bag might be bursting with anticipation, but under no circumstances should you actively seek out the result. Often, the only result is embarrassment.

When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition is the way.

Are you superstitious? Carry a talisman in your sporran? A lucky tie? Idol thoughts? Feel free to share.


Sales pitch

Reeds do it. Metres do it. Even educated beaters do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall apart.

With apologies to Cole Porter, the “it” in question is obsolescence, the failure of a product requiring customers to need the next version.

For most industries, planned obsolescence is necessary to sustain business. A product can become obsolete through continual improvement, as in your iPhone. After a time, technology overtakes technology, rendering an older product useless. Changing fashion is about style, but it’s also about creating new desirable products through perceived obsolescence, otherwise, loin-clothes would still be in vogue.

Musical instruments by and large are an exception. A quality musical instrument can last a lifetime, or even several lifetimes, provided that the instrument can cope with the evolution of pitch and, in the case of pianos, incredible tension that can eventually break down a pressure bar, rendering the instrument untenably untunable.

In terms of tension, a pipe band snare drum with upwards of a thousand pounds of pressure puts a piano’s maximum 200 pounds to shame. There is an incredible amount of torque required to bring a pipe band snare to pitch, and an ever-more-demanding drum pitch to complement an ever-sharper chanter sound is a great business recipe.

I have often wondered whether ever-rising pitch across almost all genres of music isn’t about planned obsolescence. From what I have read, the pitch of symphony orchestras has steadily increased, just like pipe bands. No one knows exactly why, but a possible theory is that it puts more pressure, figuratively and literally, on instruments, necessitating replacement parts or outright replacement.

I defer to experts on the mechanicals and engineering of a snare drum, but I believe that shells can buckle, hardware can bend, snare mechanisms fail, eventually rendering the instrument unstable. Pipe chanters generally have a much longer shelf-life, but they too are subject to the pressures of pitch, reed-seats knackered, holes gouged beyond repair, and so forth. At $850-$1,400 each, the pipe band snare drum and its various heads and snares that need regular replacing are the biggest annual collective equipment expense for a band.

I’m sure that a percussion instrument maker could create a snare drum that lasts as long as a Land Rover, but, trouble is, it would probably weigh too much to carry or be too expensive to purchase in the short-term, even though it might pay off in the long-term. Percussion instrument makers tempt bands further by bringing out the latest and greatest drums that promise to be more responsive and resilient, with glorious new sparkly shiny finishes to bling your back end. Just like your iPhone, what started five years ago as a state-of-the-art miracle device becomes a despicable piece of dated garbage.

In 2009, Terry Cleland created snare drums with carbon fibre shells that were lightweight and hardly or never deteriorated under pressure. They came in at a relatively expensive price, and haven’t caught on. He gave a complete set to the Grade 1 Ballycoan band, only to see the band buckle and break up before it ever took the drums into a contest.

Drum makers are smart to give away their instruments to the top bands, just like Taylor Made and Titleist get the best golfers to use their newest gear. The lead-drummers of the lower-grade bands beg and plead for their band to buy them the gear that is sure to up their game when, in fact, it probably won’t make too much difference to reconcile an outlay of $15,000, including matching tenors, bass and heads.

It’s a terrific business model – one that I won’t fault. If it weren’t for pipe chanters and their eventual obsolescence, I wonder how many bagpipe makers would stay afloat. Pipe band snare drum makers consistently strive to create more tension to satisfy tonal taste, and the pitch going higher and higher virtually guarantees sales. Woe betide drum and bagpipe makers if the prize-winning Grade 1 sound suddenly dropped 15 cycles. We’d all be pulling out our old 10-lug Super Royal Scots and Robertson chanters.

Pushing up the pitch is business-smart, lucrative obsolescence.


What judges want

Sitting adjudicating an amateur solo piping competition the other day, I got to thinking again about the competitors, so many of them so anxious and apprehensive.

Playing before a judge who’s going to judge your music is a weird thing to subject yourself to, but it’s what we do. It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the table that I appreciated that I had it all wrong for all those years as a competitor.

Competitors generally have the wrong idea about judges. I know I did, especially when I was younger.

I can only speak with certainty for myself as a judge, but I like to think that these things apply to any right-minded and decent adjudicator.

So here are a few tips for competitors as to what judges actually want when they’re judging you.

  1. Judges want you to play as well as you can. This is the most important thing to know. Any decent judge is rooting for you to play well, or at least to your personal best. I think many competitors mistakenly think that judges rejoice every time you make a mistake. Not true.
  2. Judges were once on your side of the table. Every adjudicator (except for a few anachronisms from a different era who still judge in the UK despite every competitor preferring that they don’t) has been a competitor. We know what you’re going through. It’s not easy. We can empathize.
  3. You will be given the benefit of the doubt. I know that if I wasn’t sure about something that I thought I heard, I will assume it was my mistake, not yours.
  4. Don’t tip your hand. If you make a mistake keep going. Don’t draw attention to it. If you played the wrong tune or got the parts mixed up, never assume the judge noticed or even knew, so don’t proactively confess to it. While I admire your honesty, I’d shake my head at you drawing attention to your error.
  5. Don’t start unless you’re satisfied with the sound. Unless there’s a tuning time-limit, don’t start until you are completely happy with the sound of your instrument. This happens a lot: competitors feeling like they have to start, and knowingly begin with their drones out of tune. True, labourious tuning for no real reason is irritating, but if you are struggling to get your drones in tune or your instrument isn’t quite settled, take the time to get it right. As long as it’s not against the rules, no decent judge will penalize you for tuning, but you will be criticized negatively for an out-of-tune instrument. The memory of long tuning evaporates with the actual competition performance.
  6. We want you to want to play. Connected with #5, judges can tell when a player simply does not want to play. They’ll tune for ages not because their instrument needs it, but because they’re procrastinating. If you’re going to compete, wanting to actually perform is the first step. Maybe you’re a masochist, but if you hate competing, don’t compete.
  7. It’s all about you. Judges are there to serve the competitor. We’re not trying to distract you, and we are (or should be) conscious of how we operate, when we write, tap our feet, or play along with you. My least favourite judges were the few who thought it was all about them, with histrionics designed to draw attention away from the performance, ticking off every mistake they heard just to show others that they heard it, too. (Did they count up all the ticks or something to decide their prize-winners?)  It should never be about the judge; it’s all about you.
  8. It’s never personal. Reacting to not being in the prizes, thinking that a judge must not like you as a person, can be an automatic human response. No, they just preferred other performances over yours. Judges are ambivalent as to who wins; they only care what wins.
  9. Judges want you to be happy. It’s music, but we so often are miserable playing it in competition because of anxiety. Make the music that you love. It’s something out of nothing and then it’s only a memory. Consciously making and enjoying music is a miracle that distinguishes us from other animals. Make a good memory. Enjoy yourself.

It can take many years for competitors to understand these things, and sometimes that understanding only comes when you’re on the other side of the table.

I hope they might positively change your perspective the next time you compete.


Browbeating retreat

Why are you out to get us? You seem to have it in for me. Why are you so unfair? You’re biased!

Watching the new US President going at the American intelligence agencies, the media and pretty much anyone or anything that he doesn’t agree with reminded me of how a few rare pipers, drummers and bands, almost always in the upper grades, can sometimes treat judges.

At least one of the President’s objectives in accusing people and things of being “unfair” or “biased” is clear: he wants them to doubt themselves and, he hopes, overcompensate the next time by giving him a more favourable decision or story.

Accusing journalists of under-reporting terrorism is designed to stoke fear by having media go out, research what they’ve reported, and publish a long list of terrorism coverage, thus achieving the objective of highlighting a long list of big and small terrorist acts, scaring the bejeezuz out of people. Mission accomplished.

As a piping and pipe band judge I have been accused a few times over the last 15-odd years of judging by paranoid bands (and the rare soloist) of being somehow biased against them. I can remember a few frustrated competitors – almost always competing in the top grades – casually or even confrontationally accusing me of not treating his/her band fairly. “Why are you out to get us?” “Why are you so unfair?” “You’re biased!” “Why don’t you like us?” “What do we have to do to get a prize off of you?”

After the initial, WTF moment passes, I ask them to provide examples. Generally, they won’t or can’t. When they do point to a performance in which they think they were hard done, I ask them to refer to the scoresheet as an account of my decisions. It might also be a simple response: “Next time, play better than the others.” When I ask if they listened to the whole contest, invariably the answer is no.

To be sure, there are a few genuinely corrupt judges in the piping and drumming world, but, as I’ve said many times, I don’t care who wins or gets a prize as long as it’s fair and deserved. I’ve never asked to judge anything and never will.

But a few veteran pipers and drummers will take this passive-aggressive or confrontational strategy with an objective to have you doubt yourself or want to make amends, so that next time you might bum them up a bit to get them off your back and prove that you’re not against them. It’s a psychological game. Some perhaps sociopathic competitors have even made a career out of it. Why? It tends to get results with weak judges who, in actuality, doubt their ability to get the result right and account for it convincingly with credibility.

And then there are judges whose top priority is maintaining friendships through judging. Getting the result correct is secondary. They’ll throw an undeserving player or band a prize just to keep up appearances, keep friendships, get judging gigs. I guarantee that this happens. It drove me crazy as a competitor and it drives me crazy as a judge. The judge overcompensates and next time out put that whinging competitor up a few places so that they remain friends while at the same time shutting their yap for a season.

The browbeating competitor tries to suss out the less-confident or more pliable judges, and will be relentless in their accusatory lobbying. Why? Because it apparently works in our little world where some judges are less afraid of losing respect than “friends.”

Obviously there is little comparison between the level of bullying and intimidation that goes on in federal politics and our little piping and drumming world. The point is that, sadly, browbeating can get results. It’s up to the objective and confident judges among us to respond to these sorts of tactics with confidence and integrity, continuing to do the right thing going forward.


The next big thing

Plastic drones. They’re here and they will soon be played and win prizes at every level.

That’s my personal prediction based on a number of factors.

First, the CITES blackwood restrictions are already adding expense and time to delivering new blackwood instruimemts.

Second, advances in synthetic materials like acetyl have been significant. Bagpipe makers that aren’t getting into synthetic materials might want to get moving, unless they’re happy staying smaller and bespoke.

Third, I’m led to believe that the material is far more stable than blackwood. That is, it can be made to more exacting specifications with true laser precision. It’s also not going to warp and crack like wood over time. No need for wood oil and humidity-controlled rooms and pipe boxes.

Fourth, moisture is hardly a factor today. The advent and constant perfection of moisture control systems, plastic and carbon-fibre drone reeds, and synthetic bags virtually eliminate problems with condensation building up in cold or over-played instruments.

Fifth, plastic chanters are by far in the majority. In the 1970s when War-Mac came on the scene with grey, synthetic chanters, purists poo-pooed them – until Shotts & Dykehead started to win. The tone misperceptions that might have existed at the solo level have been broken down. Synthetic chanters have won Gold Medals and Clasps for at least 15 years.

Sixth: apart from the initial manufacture of acetyl and other plastics, it’s environmentally neutral and, presumably, even recyclable. Picture trading in your set of acetyl pipes and getting a recycling credit toward your next purchase.

To be sure, there are bands that still use blackwood chanters, and more power to them. Whatever works. But they’re certainly not using blackwood out of principle.They’re using blackwood because they prefer the sound and feel. I’m sure they’d just as soon play plastic chanters if they thought they sounded and felt better.

In fact, no one particularly cares what materials are used anymore. Whatever sounds the best will do the best. I don’t know a judge out there who pre-judges because of instrument materials.

If I were a bagpipe maker I would speed along this process with some canny marketing. Sponsor a top-tier solo piper and/or band to compete with synthetic drones. Don’t tell anyone. Just let them win with the instrument, then have a big reveal and watch the orders pour in.

It is completely realistic to expect that it will be commonplace for bands to have matching drones, something that I believe when Dysart & Dundonald’s pipe section played cheap model Kintail drones because the band’s pipe-major had a hand in the Kintail business.

I’m old enough to be familiar with the movie The Graduate. “One word: plastics.”



The music you liked when you were younger is the music you will prefer for the rest of your life. That’s an oversimplification, and there are exceptions, but, by and large it’s true of most people.

And so, too, with pipe band judges.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by the lamentably slow pace of change in pipe band competition music and style, look no further than the relatively inflexible and stubborn judge. Just as that 50-plus-year-old guy or gal on the pen goes home after the contest, opens a can of Tartan Special and puts on that LP of Cliff Richard from 1980, they’re having a hard time getting their ears around your band’s “crazy” medley.

If they hear the latest song by Drake or The Weeknd they instantly flip the radio station (not streaming, of course) and tut-tut, “That’s nae music.” It’s a knee-jerk response, and to them there are no two ways about it. “Big Country! Now that was a band!” It is a truism of every generation: what was cool growing up carries forward as their definition of likable or acceptable music later in life.

Again, I generalize. There are exceptions. I have encountered a small number of judges my age or older who relish new music – both pop and pipe band. They have open and tolerant ears, and enjoy the surprise and delight of hearing new stuff. Sure, like me they still like the familiar music of their formative years, but they move on and treat every new song or tune as yet another fun possibility. Invariably, these people get bored quickly. They embrace change, optimistically considering it as continual improvement rather pessimistically seeing the threat of messing with a good thing. Leave well enough alone.

I like to count myself among the easily bored and change-welcoming. At age 53 I listen to new music all day as part of my job, but I have always loved hearing new music and discovering new artists. I get bored with piping when I hear or play the same things over and over and over again. Without question, I understand the competition conceit of playing familiar music flawlessly, and that can be intriguing and interesting. Striving for perfection in competition can salvage 10,000 maniacal airings of “Blair Drummond.” But, regarding the content itself, I would far prefer to hear the new than the old.

It seems to me that we need more judges with such a mindset. Perhaps pipe band accreditation exams should include a tolerance test of the unfamiliar. Not necessarily measure how much a prospective judge likes new music; just how much he or she  will  tolerate it. An intolerant judge is a bad judge, so test how open-minded they are. Hell, ask them to name a few of their favourite musicians or non-pipe bands. If they respond only with things like “The Beatles” or “The Stones” or “The Who” – great though they each might be – maybe they’re better to go rust away elsewhere than inflict their intransigence on us.

Mainly because of the judging, our art evolves more slowly than a lead zeppelin. Pipe bands want to win so they err on the side of caution, terrified that intractable adjudicators will put “new” music in its place as self-appointed gatekeepers of the craft and preservationists of an art and era that they grew up with.

If we’re going to move things forward, let’s make sure that our judges are musically open-eared and tolerant. It’s the right thing to do.



What in the name of Tom McAllister Sr. has happened to the pipe band attack?

Goodness, at any top-grade competition of any size you’re almost guaranteed to hear at least two bands completely eff up what was once a benchmark of pipe band quality.

Early E’s. Early drones. Mushy intonation. Epic squeals. Roaring basses. False starts. Double- and even triple-dunts. Scrabbling hands searching for holes. And that’s just the piping. I’m no drumming expert, but I can hear the sloppy rolls and wandering tempos between bass and snare lines and pipers.

Why is this happening? In an age when pipe bands are playing more technically challenging material on more reliable instruments than ever, one would think that an excellent attack in Grade 1 and Grade 2 is a given. So what’s changed?

I’ve thought more about it over the four years since writing this Blogpipe post, which took a rather lenient view of the attack. Perhaps it contributed to the laissez-faire attitude towards attacks, but I’m prepared to make other guesses as to the reasons for sloppy openings.

  • Judges don’t care that much. Today’s typical pipe band judge is far more enlightened than he or she was 15 or 20 years ago. Judges now see the big picture. This is good. After all, the attack is a relative microcosm of the performance, and hitting a band hard for one piper’s mistake is probably unduly harsh. However . . . shouldn’t excellent bands be expected to execute an excellent attack? Seems to me that blowing one should be seen as a major error — certainly not a showstopper, but enough to determine an otherwise fairly close decision. A cause is also . . .
  • Easy instant reeds. Top-grade bands with 20-plus pipers no longer need every piper to have a high-impact chanter sound. Instead of that 1985 McAllister composed of two short planks strapped together that take weeks to blow in by large fellows, pipe sections today play reeds that go right away, which can be blown by any player of any age and size. With the easy reeds, just add a bit of adrenaline and early E disaster is sure to strike, especially for . . .
  • Inexperienced players. There is such pressure for bands to have large sections that playing standards and experience are inevitably compromised by all but a very few groups. In at least three-quarters of the world’s Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands there are players who never would have got a game 20 years ago. They’re ushered in to fill the ranks and essentially “core” with the rest. They have less control of their instrument and less experience, and . . . see adrenaline comment above and, importantly . . .
  • Attacks aren’t practiced. Every piper and drummer older than 40 can remember going up and down at the band hall or in the parking lot practicing attacks over and over and over. You knew exactly how to punch an E at full pitch. The pipe-major would stand in front of the pipers and listen like a judge, with the ranks taking turns at the front. If you blew an attack, the whole band would have to do 10 more flawlessly or you couldn’t go home.

A top-tier Grade 1 band at the 2016 UK Championships had no fewer than three pipers clearly, blatantly, visibly, audibly screw-up the attack. The band finished second. In the big picture, they might well have deserved their placing, and might have been first without the blown start, what with their otherwise sublime performance.

Then again, shouldn’t a band of such high calibre be expected to get the attack right? Is such a meltdown really excusable? Doesn’t such a multiplicity of basic mistakes warrant a hard penalty? It’s one thing having a blip in the fifth part of “John Morrison, Assynt House,” but quite another having at least three pipers wreck an attack that should be expectedly good in a Grade 3 contest.

Poor attacks are everywhere, though. In 1985 10-out-of-10 attacks in Grade 1 and Grade 2 were generally the case. An early E could essentially torpedo a band’s hopes of winning. I am glad that we’ve moved past that sort of judging, but it would be great to return general excellence in this impressive technical aspect of a pipe band.

Tom McAllister Sr. is credited with developing the two-threes-and-an-E pipe band attack from what military brass bands would do. Before his time in the 1930s and ’40s, pipe bands sort of eventually kinda-sorta got the tune going. With each passing year now pipe bands seem to be going back to those haphazard roots.

Are judges turning a deaf ear to crappy attacks?


Fall out

David Murray’s reported (but as it turned out, incorrect) passing got me thinking again about the military and piping. Looking back, I believe Murray is the last of the pure military men who had a major influence on the judging of piping competitions.

This is no slight against great pipers like Gavin Stoddart, Brian Donaldson, Gordon Walker, Niall Matheson, Stuart Sampson, Michael Gray and others who combined a decorated military career with piping. Long after retiring from the military, they remain terrific contributors to the art, and there will continue to be great pipers who also serve in the military.

But Lieutenant-Colonel David Murray isI think the last of a long era when big piping competitions and military events were confused and even conflated. The Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering until the 2000s routinely saw competitors currently serving in the military, actually on-duty at these events or even around the Scottish games. In some cases, such as with Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald and Major Gavin Stoddart in the 1970s and 1980s, soldier-pipers were ordered to compete, to go out and win medals to make the Scots Guards or Royal Scots or other Scottish regiment look good.

On-duty military competitors were commonplace and part of Scotland’s solo piping tradition for at least a hundred years. It was just the way things were. But as solo piping moved from being largely connected with the military, to being a thing mainly for civilians, the glorious sight of soldiers competing in the immaculate uniform of their regiment dwindled.

And the judges were almost all men who had served with the military, often as commissioned officers, such as David Murray. The UK practiced military conscription until the late 1950s, when the required two-year “National Service” began to be phased out. Anyone born after 1939 did not have to do their stint, and 1960 was the last year for the demobilization of National Service, or “De-Mob.” In fact, if my calculations are right, Iain MacLellan and Andrew Wright are the very last of the great pipers (and now judges) who went through National Service.

So, at solo competitions throughout the UK, judges on the benches very often did their service or were commissioned officers with a Scottish regiment. There would be a lot of talk with the competitors that so-and-so was with the Camerons or Scots Guards or Dragoon Guards or Seaforths, so anyone with [insert regiment here] might be listened to with a different ear – and not necessarily to their advantage. An officer judging a soldier when he knows the competitor is there to do well for his regiment? It’s a bit like the pipe-major judging his own pipe band and those competing against it.

The infamous “ordering off” in 1991 of the late and truly great Corporal Alasdair Gillies, Queen’s Own Highlanders, by (retired) Lieutenant-Colonel David Murray, Queens’ Own Cameron Highlanders, was a bizarre conflation of events. Was this a military exercise or a civilian solo competition? Was Gillies on duty? Did Murray have the right to order him or any competitor off stage? What might have happened if Alasdair were to have given Murray a two-fingered salute and carried on with his tune?

Alasdair being commanded to stand down in the middle of the Gold Medal competition has gone down in history as a permanent part of piping lore. In truth, this kind of confusion routinely happened in smaller ways. Military men who were competing were on some sort of different plane than the rest of us and, if anyone bothered to stop to think about it, someone might or should have called BS on the whole exercise. But, like so much in piping and drumming, it was just the way it was, and you’d better not ask questions if you want to get the benefit of the doubt, which is so crucial in contests that come down to slicing hairs.

At any rate, Lieutenant-Colonel D.J.S. Murray’s death this to me marks the end of a hundred-odd years at least, when civilian piping competitions and military events were confused. It’s for the better that we’ve moved on, but I will still miss the charm and pageantry of immaculately decked-out pipers strutting their stuff before their military superiors, providing a fascinating extra dimension to these events, holdovers from a bygone era.


Setting free

Maybe it’s time to change completely how competitors, judges and planners approach piobaireachd competitions.

A hundred-thirteen years ago the Piobaireachd Society was formed. Before 1903 the music was scattered around in multiple settings by various visionaries and pioneers. The publications were expensive. They were hard to get. There was no such thing as a photocopier, much less an Internet, so, if the art was going to be judged and “promoted,” it made certain sense to create standard versions of the music.

Right or wrong, the Piobaireachd Society (or maybe more accurately Archibald Campbell and his allies) attempted to come up with agreeable single settings of tunes, releasing every few years a new edition of its Collection. The music contained notes about alternative settings, which we can read today, but very few pipers dared to play those alternatives in competition.

The Piobaireachd Society promoted, or certainly encouraged, adherence to their settings – and thus promoted the sale of those printed books – in the major competitions. The judges expected them. If you played anything else, the judges would almost certainly chuck you out. You might not get even a listen.

It didn’t help that many, if not the strong majority, of the judges were aristocrats – “society” folk who couldn’t play their way into a juvenile band, never mind out of one.

In essence, the onus was on the competitors to prepare pretty much what the judges expected. There was no expectation that judges should be prepared with anything but the PS Collection or the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor.

In about 1994 a thing called the Internet hit the piping world, and in 2000 a thing called the Set Tunes Series broke new piobaireachd ground. The piobaireachd scholar and nine-years pupil of Robert Nicol Dr. William Donaldson approached pipes|drums with an idea.

He recognized that here was a far-reaching online publication available for free to all who wanted to read it. The Internet presented a readily available platform for all these piobaireachd manuscripts that heretofore were only available to those rare few lucky enough to possess the printed books, or who might live near the National Library of Scotland.

And these old collections are in the public domain. That is, there are no restrictions as to reprinting them in digital form. As genius ideas are prone to be, it was obvious.

So each year Donaldson and pipes|drums worked to put together the Set Tunes Series. His thoughtful analysis considered all known published settings of each tune set each year for the major gatherings. Suddenly, it was all there at a keystroke. Pipers had access to all settings. They could easily pick and learn. There was no real need to adhere to the standardized Piobaireachd Society setting just because it was the one most readily

Now, 16 years after pipes|drums and Willie Donaldson recognize the opportunity and actually made it happen, the Piobaireachd Society itself and things like Steve Scaif’s digital republishing of the old piobaireachd collections provide an online library of these public domain collections.

Judges, players and contest organizers have access to all of it, for free. Not only that, but today’s piobaireachd judges are vastly more musically sophisticated than the non-playing toffs who once lorded their ignorance over musical geniuses who needed a standard setting of a tune in order to determine who best stayed on the prescribed track.

The onus has just about shifted away from expecting competitors to adhere to a single printed setting, to the judges, who can today be reasonably expected to come prepared with all of the settingsof piobaireachds on their iPad. Whatever the competitor throws at them, they can be ready with the score.

Is the very notion of the Piobaireachd Society encouraging pipers to play settings from their Collection severely outdated? Is it time instead simply to come up with a list of tunes, and supply the names of and links to the collections where settings can be found?

Competitors can then learn whatever setting they want without fear. Judges with their iPads loaded with all of the public domain collections can be well prepared to assess the musical rendition put forward, bringing the contests in many ways back to the thriving, musical cornucopia that they probably were before 1903.

It’s all there to take in. We are no longer encumbered by inaccessible collections. We have knowledgeable, enlightened and tech-savvy judges well capable of accepting and interpreting renditions that have been tamped down – largely by necessity – for more than 110 years.

Is it time to simply stop this boring business of seeing who can ape the exact same notes and style and phrasing of the other guy?

Time to set the settings free.


A non-Scots guide to Scotland

As the summer gathers steam so too do the plans of North American, Australian, Kiwi, South African, European and other non-Scottish pipers and drummers making their pilgrimage to our musical Mecca . . otherwise known as Scotland.

Some of us have been there many times, even lived and worked there for extended periods, playing around the Scottish games and with bands. Most will be relative newbies to the wild and wonderful home of Highland piping and pipe band drumming. For them in particular, here’s a brief list of well-intentioned tips to help get what you deserve musically and avoid receiving the judging equvalent of a Glasgow kiss.

Shut up about the weather. Yes, it rains. A lot. It can also be gloriously sunny. Scots generally like to complain about their own weather, but they hate to hear you brag about how hot and sunny it was when you left Podunk, Iowa, and your ruminations about why you left behind your wonderful summer for “all this rain.” Instead, convert your dank misery into bright optimism. Think of being battered down by horizontal rain at your pre-World’s band practice as the authentic Scottish experience! Bagpipes were made for the Scottish weather. Embrace the wet.

The food: shut it! Scottish cuisine is what it is: delicious! Contrary to 25 years ago, Scotland is full of wonderful restaurants serving exquisitely prepared food and drink. But they are often too expensive for the average travelling pipe bander. Most will subsist on cheap pub food and fried whatever from the chippy. Live a little. Ignore your diet for a week, and for God’s sake keep your lip buttoned down about your disdain for the deep-fried “Cheese-and-Burger” surprise.

Never, ever ask a Scot, “How can you live here?” It’s a small island nation, and in general things are more expensive than where you’re from. But the Scots live good, fulfilling lives and their standard of living might actually be better than yours in many ways (universal health care, majestic scenery, bike lanes . . .). And their standard of piping and drumming is positively better. No one is interested in your bragging about how gas costs half as much where you’re from or that you can buy a bunch of broccoli for a dollar back at home.

Stop with the lame Scottish accent. For some reason North Americans in particular like to put on a Scottish accent when they’re visiting Scotland. They’ll even say things like “aye,” and “ya ken,” and “pure dead brilliant.” Would non-Jewish folks go on holiday to Israel and make attempts at Yiddish? Oy vay! Enough with being such a putz. Speak normally, whatever your normal might be, and keep the Gardener Willie impression to your inside voice.

Watch what you wear. This one is tricky. Some residents of Scotland enjoy wearing shorts, shades, flowered shirts and flip-flops (standard Majorca holiday attire) when the sun’s out. But even though that might be the official state uniform of Florida, you as a visitor wearing that stuff in Glasgow will look like a goof. Stick to a more conservative ensemble, otherwise it comes across as slightly disrespectful.

Scotland rules. If you are competing in Scotland you are implicitly accepting their rules – or lack of them. You won’t always like that you don’t get scoresheets at most solo events, or that the guy judging your band at the World’s didn’t ever play at anything better than a Grade 3 standard, or that your band was disqualified because the pipe-major didn’t say “Quick March” at the command, or that the march past comprises two hours of bladder-busting boredom, or that . . . well, you get the drift. It’s their house so you accept their rules and customs.

Flagism. Since “overseas” bands started competing in Scotland in the 1960s, for some reason they often like to wave their flags. Pipe bands are – or should be – neutral. You are no more the national pipe band of America or Australia or Brittany than, say, Shotts & Dykehead is of Scotland, and you don’t see them with a saltire adorning their bus. These music competitions are only about music, not bragging rights for a country. If nations were ever to assemble pipe bands comprising their very best players for a Pipe Band Olympics, then that might be the time for flags. Until then, leave your maple leafs, stars and bars and tricolours at home.

Be humble. You might arrive acting like you’re going to open a big can of whoop-ass on the Scots, but, if you do, you’re going to get schooled big time. There’s a fairly well-known non-Scottish piper who’s earned the acronym nickname around the Scottish solo circuit of “CTHB,” or “C^&% Thinks He’s Burgess.” This is not the sort of name you want. Be quiet and let your playing do the talking.

In short (but not in shorts and flip-flops), you’re a guest. Imagine a guest coming to your home and telling you how much better the weather, the food, the rules, the whatever are at home. You wouldn’t want them back.

Happy, respectful travels.


The vaulting

The late, great Prince we know kept a “vault” of thousands of his unreleased songs that he recorded over the last 35 years. Music industry vultures are already circling overhead, eager to get their talons into this musical meat while it’s still warm.

There’s a reason why they’re in a vault: Prince didn’t think they were worth releasing to the public. He had the good sense to put out only what he thought was his best work, since that’s what he would be known for, even after death.

I would think the songs in the vault were preserved like a personal scrapbook, or to revisit and glean ideas or improve to make them ready for public consumption. Prince was a man who cared more about his integrity and reputation, and would never sacrifice his definition of scruples for an extra buck. He even changed his name to a symbol, foregoing tens of millions of dollars in sales at the height of his career, just to make a principled statement to the record label and publisher that he believed cheated him.

Our best pipe music composers I think are just as discerning. When it comes to our music creators, we sometimes mistake “prolific” with “successful.” While Donald MacLeod published a boat-load of great compositions and arrangements, my sense is that he either chucked out or put into his own “vault” many times more tunes that he personally thought were inferior. I think the same would be true of G.S. McLennan, Roderick Campbell, Willie Lawrie, John MacColl and Gordon Duncan, to name a few long-gone writers.

It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.

I’m sure that most of our best living composers adhere to this. In many ways, they are better editors than composers, at least when it comes to the ratio of tunes they think are worthy of public hearing to those that aren’t. No one needs to know just how many crappy tunes they write to get a few gems. If Donald MacLeod and G.S. are renowned today for consistent brilliance, and the truth was that they wrote 10 duds for every good one, let’s not spoil things. That’s the way they wanted it. Rifling their “vaults” for unpublished manuscripts would be a disservice to their reputation and legacy. I like the perception that these guys never wrote a bad tune.

That said, I know of at least one living composer who has maybe five tunes that almost everyone in the world plays, and he claims that he has composed and finished only about 10 tunes total in his life. His “vault” numbers five tunes and his ratio of good-to-bad is one-to-one. That’s incredible discipline and a case study in meticulous judiciousness.

I would think the late Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald might have been of a similar ilk. He published few of his compositions but he had some serious hits: “Kalabakan,” “Lt.-Col. D.J.S. Murray,” “Turf Lodge,” “Alan MacPherson, Moss Park” . . . his ratio of good-to-bad must have been superb.

On the other hand, we all have seen since the advent of self-publishing the penchant by some composers to put out seemingly anything and everything – the proverbial throwing against the wall to see what sticks. They might be “prolific,” but no one really plays their music except perhaps the band they happen to play with, so how good are they as composers or editors?

I salute Prince for keeping things in reserve. Discretion and valour, as they say. He was as good an editor as he was a writer, and the two qualities need to go hand-in-hand if you want to leave your name and reputation etched in stone – even if it’s just a symbol.



Some know that I like cycling and bikes. I don’t compete or anything, and am mainly a commuter cyclist, and I’ve ridden to work at least a few times a week year-round for about a dozen years now. Depending on the route I choose, it’s either a 25km or 34km ride each way.

I also like to accomplish as many things as possible at once. “Multitasking” is a word that suggests that, but it also implies that you don’t do any one thing well. But cycling to work achieves numerous things really well: physical fitness, travel, mindfulness, environmentalism, one less car, saving money, alertness, eating four meals a day . . . I recommend it.

I also like the idea of overlapping hobbies. I’m a baseball fan, and about six years ago master frame-builder Hugh Black at True North Cycles in Fergus, Ontario, designed and built a custom, old-style lugged steel frame and built up a one-of-a-kind fixed gear bike that riffs on the St. Louis Cardinals. I’ve been riding “The Redbird Express” ever since. Like Rothesay, she’s a bute.

Drone_slide_smallBut I’ve had in mind for many years the idea of combining piping with cycling. What if we could create a ride inspired by the 1936 silver-and-ivory R.G. Lawries I play? About a year ago I finally went back to Black with the idea.

We went with a hand-built titanium frame. In homage to our nine notes, the bike would be a nine-speed, with a nine-gear cassette and a single chain ring. The frame was powder-coated in a colour to match blackwood, and some of the components would be painted ivory, and the rims plain silver. To inspire Hugh, I left him with a piece of old silver-ivory Robertson drone that the late Gordon Speirs once loaned/gave to me when I broke a tenor pin on my first Hardie pipes.

We took another cool step: I took photos one of the engraved silver slides on my Lawries. Hugh sent me the raw titanium piece for the head tube, and I contacted David Davidse of Toronto, who is one of the world’s top silver engravers. He does a lot of work with reproduction replacement mounts for vintage pipes, as well as engraved mounts for new instruments.

David determined the titanium was suitable for engraving (some grades are too hard and brittle), and he sized-up the engraving on my slide perfectly for the head tube of the bike.

Hugh Black then got to work putting everything together and, finally, I took delivery of what could well be the first and only bagpipe bike. (If you’re a cyclist and interested in the components, just drop me a note and I’ll send them to you.)

BagpipeBike_ (2)_medHere she is, a flying drone of sorts, ready to slide through the streets and bike paths of Toronto, humming along at 485 or higher.



Proudly independent

I hope that pipes|drums and “independent” are as synonymous to you as they are to me.

The publication originates from the old Piper & Drummer print magazine, which I edited and published with almost no interference from about 1987 to 2008. That magazine went to all of the members of the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario, and there was a blurb from the PPBSO president and their results (which I compiled on my own), but, apart from those things, every word of content was ultimately determined by me as editor. That quasi-independence deal was clearly understood by the leaders of the organization.

It was a very good relationship with the various presidents, starting with Henry Roberts for about seven years, and then the long and extremely successful tenure of Bob Allen, and ending with the late Ron Rollo. Until Ronnie arrived, the PPBSO understood the value of a publication that strived to do more than report bromides on themselves and tell association officials what they wanted to hear. There was freedom of thought, free-flowing dialogue, the raising of controversial and sensitive issues that needed to be aired, and lots of humour that did and didn’t always hit the mark. Not only that, but the publication often was a small profit-centre for the association.

And content in the Piper & Drummer was not always complimentary of the PPBSO itself. Confident leaders like Bob Allen understand that that, too, is ultimately a good thing for their organization – provided it is fair and well informed, which I have always tried to be.

In essence, there was a confidence with the PPBSO that such a publication being associated with it would position the society as a leader worldwide. To be sure, the organization did many leading-edge things along the way, but I believe that the Piper & Drummer also was a major contributor to the PPBSO’s positive world stature.

In 1994, I recognized the change to online, launching Piper & Drummer Online, the first piping and drumming news source on the net. I never asked for the PPBSO’s permission to do that; I just did it, and it was completely separate from the organization, although it shared the brand, which, by the way, I still own outright.

When Ron Rollo became president the relationship quickly unravelled. Ronnie and his Vice-President, the late Willie Connell, greeted me on an apparent mission to stop the Piper & Drummer. They intervened, questioned and chased down long-serving advertisers, and generally made my life miserable.

When I decided in 2007 that the Piper & Drummer had to go all-online, Ronnie did not receive the idea well. We had a series of meetings, and I offered to make a subscription available to the online publication to every PPBSO member at a reduced rate. Ronnie was a loving father, well-regarded and successful piper, an accomplished building contractor – not to mention a funny and nice guy – but I believe he was not particularly keen on technology or, for that matter, change.

There was a lot of harangue, Ronnie insisting that his organization needed to have a print publication, and he was rather suspicious of people like me who question “authority,” which can be the case with older Scottish men, I have found, when it comes to change in general. (See the RSPBA’s intransigence toward change and seeming desperation to maintain unquestioned “authority.”)  It was untenable, so I decided to separate completely from the PPBSO with pipes|drums – a fresh start based on a familiar model. I believe Ronnie was startled and maybe a bit relieved that I walked away, perhaps hoping I’d toe the line and kowtow to becoming a boring corporate analogue Tannoy like, say, the RSPBA’s Pipe Band magazine. The PPBSO never created another print anything after that.

But since I made the decision to break away, to be completely independent, pipes|drums has gone from strength to strength. Totals for readership, subscriptions and advertising (rates for the latter two items have not changed since then) have increased every year, and the publication has remained non-profit. I’ve never pocketed a penny.

The magazine has embraced new technologies and social media to its benefit, and, as with the print Piper & Drummer, flattery notwithstanding, the format of the online publication has been copied by the usual rather sad, aping followers.

But there is one tenet of pipes|drums that has not been imitated: independence. And this is key.

pipes|drums remains the only truly independent piping and drumming publication in the world. Every other effort, ranging from the pretty to the dismal, is connected with a business or an association. They are all selling you something other than a subscription, whether it’s the official party-line of an association, positive reviews of products that you can conveniently purchase at the attached business or, in one particularly sordid alleged case, money exchanged for positive press.

There is nothing wrong with any of that, provided it’s disclosed so that readers can take it for what they feel it’s worth.

But independence can come with a price. Over the years I have received earfuls from friends and strangers when they have read things they don’t like or agree with. “Fair” is subjective, and my sense of fair is based on what I believe is sound journalism background, a liberal arts education and a family that constantly debated current events at the dinner table of large pitchers of sweet tea. Occasional humour and satire are important aspects of any good publication, and, as we all know, it’s generally not funny unless someone is offended. Once or twice, friends have walked away from me for good, which is sad. But I also know that pipes|drums is an extension of who I am as a person and, if they can’t abide by what’s written, then they really aren’t my type of person anyway, since true friends are open to both the good and the bad of themselves and others.

And similarly, I am certain that because of some perceived personal slight or expression of an idea that a solo piping judge disagreed with, I paid for it on the competition boards. I did okay, and was reasonably successful as a soloist, but there were times when results simply didn’t add up. Similar to falling out with the occasional “friend,” I reconciled the suspicious result by knowing that that sort of non-musical bias means that the judge is screwing other people, so his or her prizes, as Seumas MacNeill famously said, weren’t worth a pail of spit anyway.

Corruption of any sort should be exposed.

I am asked frequently two questions: “How do you do it?” (easy answer: time management, myriad connections and contributors from around the world, and an ability to collate information and write rapidly), and “Why do you do it?” For that, I sometimes ask myself the same question and wonder about the answer.

Why do it? After all, it’s just a musical hobby, and it’s supposed to be fun, so when people or organizations don’t like what they read and work to get back at you personally, is it really worth it?

The best answer I can come up with is, It’s bread in the bone. It can’t be helped. I had a brilliant academic historian father who surveyed various sides of things, came up with conclusions, and was never, ever afraid to ask tough questions and fight for everything that he believed – after well-informed consideration and analysis – was fair, and of course against anything that was unfair. He wasn’t the most popular man, but he was genuine and true to himself, and committed to trying to make a tangible difference and contribution to society. He was fearless, and he succeeded.

pipes|drums strives to make a difference, and I think it has. Independence – from outside influences and money – is essential to asking important and difficult questions, enabling dialogue and achieving constructive and productive outcomes that truly benefit pipers, drummers, the competition system and the art itself. Piping and drumming is slowly slouching out of its antiquated and often unfair traditions and customs, and I think that the magazine, by asking questions, tackling taboo topics and encouraging open debate, has contributed.

I’m willing to pay the personal price for that invaluable benefit for the greater good.


No middleman

One of the worst traditions in solo piping (and occasionally solo drumming) is the idea of a “senior” or more esteemed middle judge on a bench of three.

Many will know what I’m talking about, but in case you don’t it goes like this: the judge who sits in the middle is often deemed to be loftier or more important. It’s often predicated on age or experience, but it can also be by having won bigger prizes in competition or being seen to know more than the others.

Sometimes it’s none of that and one judge simply has a massive ego that the other two can’t be bothered battling over.

Whatever it is, the practice should be stopped.

Why? Because it tends to put a false sense of importance or priority into the minds of the competitors and judges, and that should never be true. Every judge has an equal say, so has equal importance, and the perception of a “senior” judge communicates the wrong thing.

I’m not easily intimidated, but I cannot remember judging on a solo bench of three when I felt that all three weren’t equal, and have been fortunate to work with folks whose egos don’t get the best of themselves, much less try to throw around their “senior” weight. I have been on benches (none recently) when I and/or another judge have, attempting to be polite and respectful, offered the middle spot to the older fellow. I have served on benches when that gesture of politeness has been declined, and my esteem for those people rose even higher. Sometimes placement of judges is pure happenstance.

The last two times I served as a judge for the George Sherriff Amateur Invitational something excellent happened: there were three events, so we swapped places for each, one of us taking a turn in the middle. It helped to communicate to all that no one judge’s opinion counted any more or less than another’s.

I’m not sure how the tradition started, but I would guess that it’s another holdover from the age of “society” folks like “Kilberry” or “Rothiemurchus” lording their opinions as near-non-players over accomplished competing pipers whose playing ability they could only dream of matching. It was probably the guy with the most money or titles or letters or land who got the position of “authority” in the middle. The richer they were, the more power they had, even when they couldn’t tell a darado from their own flatulence.

We’re so past that sort of thinking today it’s not funny. All competitors are considered equals before, during and after an event, and the judges should be equals, too. Yes, on an odd-numbered bench someone has to be in the middle, but it’s time to stop assuming that that person is “senior.”

The new rule to follow for benches: alphabetical by last name, left-to-right as the competitors face them.



Blurred lines

What shouldn’t judges write on a scoresheet? It’s a more complex question than it sounds.

Adjudicators are encouraged to provide constructive criticism regarding the performance, the key word being “constructive.” We know that comments that are designed to do nothing more than be hurtful are destructive and are probably a result of deep-rooted self-loathing on the judge’s part. We all agree that those comments shouldn’t be written.

But what about the “regarding the performance” aspect of the unwritten code of comments? Should judges provide comments that aren’t about the performance, however well-intentioned they might be?

I say no.

No matter how well-intentioned comments like “Tip: don’t tune for so long,” or “Get your kilts pressed!” might be, a scoresheet is not the place for advice that does not relate directly to the performance being assessed. By writing peripheral advice on the sheet, the message is that rumpled kilts or lengthy tuning had an impact on the decision, and one thing is very clear in our game: the performance and only the performance matters in the result rendered by the judge.

I recently saw a piping scoresheet from the legendary J.K. McAllister for a Grade 1 band competing at the World’s in the 1980s. On this piping scoresheet he wrote mocking comments about the tenor drumming: “Where are the Indians?” sarcastically communicating that he did not like the percussion. At the end of the sheet he wrote something to the effect that his sarky comment in no way impacted his piping decision.

Perhaps that’s true, but that he wrote such a hurtful and unconstructive (never mind his apparent racial insensitivity) remark immediately makes everyone in the band think that, yes, the drumming did indeed impact his decision, and that’s wholly inappropriate. Forty years later it still suggests that.

The band would have been well within its rights to lodge a formal complaint about McAllister. Muirhead & Sons was the only band to take action against Jock the Lum, starting a petition of Grade 1 bands to have him removed, but found itself suspended for several months, reinstated only after submitting a snivelling letter of apology. Muirheads was then — coincidentally, I’m sure — consistently put down by McAllister. So complainers thought twice thereafter.

As much as it might irritate me personally when a piper tunes to D or plays three slow airs or a band looks slovenly or whatever, these things almost always have no bearing on the way they played, and thus on my decision. But if a piper’s instrument went out of tune, then I have been known to suggest that he/she might have used another minute to tune, if that might have helped the performance. If a band’s untucked shirts got in the way of players’ hands, resulting in mistakes, then a comment about untucked shirts is relevant. If obtrusive drumming caused confusion in the pipe section, then comment away.

If a contestant wants friendly advice, I’m happy to provide it, but only if they ask. Otherwise you’re circumventing the piper or drummer’s teacher, and that is rarely if ever appropriate. Some might think this opinion is a bit pedantic, but it’s important that feedback about the performance is strictly about the performance.

So, keep the comments pertinent to the performance. Anything on the sheet not directly about the performance, no matter how well-intentioned, is impertinent and suggests that matters that don’t matter matter.


An unwritten rule of competition: no one is rewarded for difficulty. There are no bonus points for playing hard tunes. There are points for playing hard, medium or easy tunes well.

There are points taken away for playing hard stuff poorly, and on a related note, no judge is going to let you off easy for making a hack of a tough tune, just because, well, it’s so hard.

I remember some years ago playing in a band. In the winter someone had the idea that we should play “Eileen MacDonald.” It’s a clever and relatively obscure, jig written by Charlie Williamson. It’s a whole lotta handful for a top soloist, let alone a whole pipe section.

We toiled away at the four-tentacled thing through the winter and spring, chanters getting slapped relentlessly with marveslously syncopated combinations. We worked and worked at it, because, aside from it being a good tune, it was so impressively hard. Goddamit, we’d show them!

The contest season carried on and the band did well, but it seemed like we weren’t getting much attention, let alone extra credit, for the amazingly difficult four-parted jig.

We played the medley with “Eileen MacDonald” at the World’s. I can’t remember the result, so it must not have been a memorable prize. What I do remember, though, is after we played, the late great Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald had listened to the performance, and a few of us spoke to him afterwards.

Angus, in his famously surprising-for-a-big-man high-pitched voice with one slightly raised eyebrow remarked, “Aye, ‘Eileen MacDonald.’ Tough tune.”

One comment from one solo piper. All that diligent practice to play a very difficult tune well came down to one comment. That was it.

“Aye. Tough tune.”

And I can’t remember a judge ever writing anything to the effect that he/she was impressed or that the tune was even positively noticed. I’m certain there were comments about the tricky passages not being quite together. Easy pickings for a piping judge.

Was it the right thing to do? In hindsight, I would say it wasn’t. It’s a clever jig, and the composition itself is unique. But is it so musically brilliant that it’s irreplaceable in a medley? Do people pine for a band or soloist to play it? Don’t think so.

In solo competition, we all submit tunes that might be deemed difficult. I admit that as a competitor and a judge I know what it’s like to submit or have submitted to me three or four tunes, and the one more difficult tune gets picked – not because it’s the musically superior tune, but simply because, Well, it’s your funeral, buddy.

If the idea is to win the competition, why put yourself at a disadvantage? I remember a lesson with Captain John MacLellan. We were discussing what light music to put in for solo events. We were trying to determine tunes that might suit me better than others. Since he said I had a stronger top-hand, I suggested “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran.” In his rather straightforward manner the good Captain said something that always stayed with me. “Why play six parts when four will do?”

Now, I readily admit that that comment was made 25 years ago, and to me, an American going round the Scottish games trying to “get in.” I wasn’t playing in the Silver Star. But I think the message was clear: Why make it any harder for yourself?

As a judge a few weeks ago a young piper submitted “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.” Nice tune, but no more technically difficult than the other three he put in, so I picked it and he played it. There were enough problems with it by the crunluath variation that he wasn’t in the running, but he then commenced to play an unexpected open fosgailte variation. I say unexpected, because most pipers wouldn’t do that. The tune is far more often played without one. Unlike a few remaining piobaireachd pedants who insist that this is “wrong,” I’m fine with anyone playing it if they want. It’s music.

But why play it? In competition, why would you tack on a very difficult variation at the end of the tune when it’s completely optional? Is it an attempt to get extra credit? Do they steadfastly believe that the tune is incomplete without it? As I said, I don’t think bonus points exist in piping and pipe band competitions, and insisting that it must be played is as pedantic as someone insisting that it should not be played. It’s optional.

Rather than help, the open fosgailte variation was not played well this time, so it actually made matters worse for the competitor, again supporting my argument that there are no potential positives that I can think of, and only probable negatives.

Unlike diving or spelling bees or freestyle skiing, there’s no reward for technical difficulty in what we do, and nor should there be. One person’s “hard” is another’s “easy” in our music. But the question – or perhaps debate – remains: Why play six when four will do? Why play “Eileen MacDonald” when another jig is just as compelling musically and less demanding technically?

I’m sure there are flaws in my argument, so feel free to point them out. In the meantime, I’ll keep slapping my chanter trying to get the syncopation right.


Shake up or shut up

The grand old Crieff Highland Games deciding, at least this year, to drop solo piping competitions from its day in August is certainly a shame for piping tradition, but it’s  emblematic of the challenges facing event organizers — and us.

I wrote about this very threat nine years ago. We pipers and drummers like our competitions. And the large majority of us like our competitions to be just so: piobaireachd, MSR, five-seven-minute medleys, and so forth. We like our assembly-line of contestants. We dislike any more muss or fuss than the predictable: judges and stewards, no fanfare, nothing but closed backs-to-the-audience circles, no inquisitive outsiders who are not part of the club daring to ask just what the heck we’re doing.

Despite occasional attempts by associations to be more audience-accommodating, such suggestions, motions or trials, with rare exceptions, have been historically shut down. Just keep doing what we’ve always done, and screw the rest.

It’s the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

We rely on events like Crieff to supply us with a place to compete. And when places like Crieff make the tough decision to drop events that are, to non-pipers and drummers, rigid, mysterious, repetitious and, let’s be honest, boring, we act surprised, as if we are somehow owed something.

Well, we are entertainers of sorts who are willing to perform for free, but, in truth, we are owed nothing.

Highland games and Scottish festivals are businesses. They might be for-profit and nonprofit, but they are businesses at least looking to break even. To do that, like every business, they must offer a product that people like. If solo piping and pipe band competitions are not attractive products, why on earth would a business offer them? Because they owe us something? Give your head a shake.

It’s simple. We can increasingly continue to hold our own events that are supported by the competitors themselves via membership dues and entry fees, or we can help Highland games to offer a better product. For the former, we can play “Blair Drummond” ad infinitum, and all will be good. For the latter, we have to be flexible and creative; we need to be prepared to entertain non-pipers and drummers better and work creatively with Highland games to break down that wall of mystery between our wee club of pipers and drummers and the general public. They might be interested and like the music, just not hours and hours of what, to them, becomes the Same. Damned. Thing.

I’m all for both kinds of events. We can continue to hold our anachronistic competitions for ourselves. But for our “public” events, we have to help ourselves by creating a better product.

And if we’re unwilling to create a more sellable product for the games, we have only ourselves to blame when they drop piping, drumming and pipe band competitions.

If we don’t help ourselves by trying to help them, they owe us nothing.


Fond farewell

Two years ago, after about eight years away from it, I was looking for a piping change, so had another go at solo competition. I’d stopped shortly after my mother died suddenly in 2003, having lost the desire to keep at it, and, then, too, needing a change.

Going back to solo piping at age 48 was a combination of desires. I wanted to see if I could still play to the standard and I thought it would be more interesting to be among solo pipers, who share a unique bond of understanding, empathy and respect.

That first season back was okay, but re-understanding the solo competition instrument and the set-up, the myriad choices of bags and reeds and moisture gubbins and gizmos was in itself a new art to master. It was particularly humid summer around these parts in 2013, and wrestling with a natural bag and wetness made things interesting. But some decent prizes came around – enough to keep me at it.

The 2014 competition season was fun. I made some changes to the instrument, figured out the right moisture controlling combination, and got up and submitted tunes I particularly enjoyed playing. Even though I was practicing less, I was playing as well as ever I could remember, though the memory can play tricks on you, as we all know.

People say that they “don’t have time” to do things. That’s never true. There is always time to do whatever you wish in life. Saying you don’t have time for something is really saying you don’t make that something a priority over other things. There is time; you just have to decide how to prioritize it with the other stuff. People might be amazed at those who seem to “have the time” to get things done. I tend to believe they’re more often envious of another’s better ability to prioritize.

Competitive solo piping is a mainly selfish conceit. No one but you particularly cares about your prizes. If you’re lucky and good enough, you might occasionally compete before an appreciative audience, but far more often there’s no one listening but the judge, or a few fellow competitors half-paying attention. That’s just the way it is.

I thought that after the 2014 season I’d simply keep it going. But a few weeks away from practicing turned into a few months, and, after several months of not practicing, getting game-ready is hard. The Highland pipe is maybe the most physically demanding of musical instruments. In some way, you’re as much an athlete as you are a musician.

My priorities changed again. I had and have the time to practice, but I have chosen not to. What am I trying to prove that I haven’t proven already to myself and to anyone who might care? At 51, did I want to risk being that guy: the competitor whose skills have eluded him but doesn’t realize what’s happened and gamefully presses on, fingers flailing and failing, pipers mumbling about the bumbling, wondering, Why’s he still at it?

I’ve written before about stopping while the goin’s are still good. The last time I competed was in the Professional Piobaireachd on Saturday, August 2, 2014, at Maxville, Ontario. I was last to play, before a judge, a steward, one or two passers-by, and a lot of bugs. The tune was “The Old Men of the Shells” – one that I have always enjoyed playing. The instrument held. The mind stayed focused. The hands didn’t fail. The smell of fresh-cut grass filled the early afternoon air in the bright Glengarry County sunshine. The thump of bass drums was in the distance, but all felt quiet, the music taking me at least to another place in space and time. And later I was uplifted again by the result.

I can’t think of a better way to end a solo competition career. It’s all I could ever ask of the instrument, or of the music, or of myself. It’s a high that only the brethren of pipers can understand, and the right note, I think, on which to say farewell to the boards. If I haven’t always been good to them, they have certainly been good to me.

So, thank you to anyone who might have listened to me compete since 1976. Thank you for your comments. Thank you to all teachers. Thanks to my long-gone-now parents for the support and spurring me on. Thanks to every fellow competitor and the unique camaraderie of solo pipers. Thank you to the stewards. Thank you to the organizers of the contests. Thanks to the reedmakers, bag-makers and whoever it was in 1936 why made those drones in the old R.G. Lawrie shop. Thanks to the people who created the music. Thank you to the judges who lent their ear and their knowledge. Thanks to the family who put up with the practice.

I’ll remember the thrill and joy of competing well. Thanks.


It’s time for Scottish solo piping reform

The Scottish solo piping scene is a singular beast. While Scotland invented the idea of Highland pipers competing with subjective music judged by “authorities,” there’s really no other country on earth that still uses its system.

And, famously like the old TV show Seinfeld, the Scottish “system” is no system at all.

There are no rules that are applied to more than one competition, let alone a whole circuit. There are no defined grades from contest to contest. There are no training or accreditation processes for judges. There’s frequently not even an order of play on the day. Goodness – judges don’t even have to be accountable to competitors for their decisions and guys who never competed and wouldn’t win a prize in a Grade 3 contest in Arkansas are entrusted to assess performances that they could only dream about delivering.

There is the Competing Pipers Association, run by active competing pipers, almost all of whom are afraid to upset the hierarchy of acclaimed judges, for fear of repercussions on the boards. Borne of the Joint Committee for Judging (or associated with it, I’m still unclear), there is the new Scottish Piping Judges Association, which seems to be trying to do what’s best for judges, but appears to be detached from the competitors in the CPA. The first move of the SPJA is to create milquetoast conflict of interest “guidelines” that appear to say, Declare your conflict, but, well, go ahead and judge if you must.

Um, okay.

Unlike all other piping areas, and pure pipe band organizations like the RSPBA, the solo piping competitors in Scotland have little if anything to do with judging or rules. In Scotland there is almost total separation in the solo piping scene of the powerful from the masses. It is anything but a democratic or member-driven process in Scotland. Everywhere else, the members – the pipers (and drummers) – make the rules by electing or appointing the leaders, by putting through motions, and by voting on rules and policies.

Scotland does none of that essential democratic work and, as a result, it’s a largely haphazard and often inequitable scene. The absence of rules are part of the charm and tradition of solo piping in Scotland, which is okay for tourists, but alarmingly frustrating for those competing in it. The rest of the world’s piping scenes long ago created and opted for something better.

Twenty-five years or so ago when I last did the Scottish games circuit, I knew the drill. After realizing the “system” is no system, and navigating the scene by making connections, playing the game, and, for lack of a better phrase, working it, I thought then that by 2015 reform would have occurred in the shape of amateur grading, criteria for and accreditation of judges, and continuity of rules. In essence – a format adopted by almost the entire rest of the world.

Instead, virtually nothing has changed in Scotland. It’s stuck in a time-warp. Calum Piobaire would fit in comfortably if he came back from the dead to compete at Luss or Lochearnhead or even the Argyllshire Gathering, but he’d also be grumbling still about the familiar inequities and those with power pushing around the pipers.

There are certainly faults and problems with piping and drumming associations around the world. But the key difference is that those faults and problems are in the control of the members – the competitors. They can affect change. The only religion I practice is the religion of piping, and the congregation ultimately changes the church. The congregation is the church. Or it should be. If it isn’t, it’s time to reform the church.

The judging side in the UK seems to want to affect change. The pipers definitely want change. But the fact is this: until there is one association that brings competitors and judges and administration under one roof (with competitors by virtue of their large majority determining their own rules, policies, guidelines and structures), the Scottish solo scene will be stuck in that charming, traditional rut, that few but the tourists seem to think is ideal.

Wipe the slate. Combine the CPA with the SPJA and JCJ and the still fledgling CLASP amateur competing pipers effort and create the Scottish Highland Pipers Association or the Highland Pipers Association or Bruce Og or whatever you want to call it. Allow the members – the large majority of them the pipers themselves – to govern the judging and the rules, as they are set by the members through voting and via the leaders whom they elect and appoint.

The man or woman to lead that reform could well earn a place in the Top 20 Pipers in History.

Until then, the antiquated Scottish system of no system will just see more and more disconnection between judges, competitors and organizers, while the rest of the world continues to do things better.


Happy New You

I like making resolutions. Pipers and drummers especially I think can make a few new commitments at the beginning of the year, and here are a few suggestions, each of which have helped me as a piper.

Get in shape – pipers and drummers each play one of the most physical instruments there is. Add to that walking and being generally on your feet all day, hot summer weather, wearing 30 pounds of wool, and the occasional alcoholic beverage, and, if you’re not physically fit, the other piper or drummer who is has a considerable advantage. Ride a bike, take up jogging, do what it takes to improve your cardio stamina. Along with practicing your instrument, make exercise part of your daily routine, and you will have another edge over the flumpy haggis competing against you.

Learn a tune a week – expanding your repertoire will expand your skill. Every tune or score has new musical twists, and each will make you a better musician.

Seek out instruction – I often ask some of the world’s greatest pipers and drummers if they have a lot of requests for lessons, and invariably they say No. It seems that after a few years, the vast majority of pipers and drummers think they don’t need to learn anything more. Maybe people assume better pipers and drummers are too busy. They aren’t. Go get lessons. Go to summer schools. Learn from the best in-person.

Listen to soloists in the Professional grade – it continues to intrigue me that performances by some of the world’s top players are often ignored at Highland games. Make a point to watch, listen and learn from the best whenever you can. It’s a free lesson.

Subscribe to pipes|drums or other credible publication – if you’re reading this and you don’t have a $14.99 annual subscription to pipes|drums, sorry, but you or your parents have misplaced priorities. Being in-the-know, informed and knowledgeable are keys to well-rounded piping and drumming, and how-to articles like those by Jim McGillivray and Bob Worrall are invaluable.

Purchase things that have value – pay a fair price for piping and pipe band music. Whether scores to tunes and arrangements, commercial recordings or concerts and recitals, music has value. When you pay for it, you are playing your part in the music ecosystem. When you quietly take it without paying for it, you’re cheating your fellow piper/drummer. You’re stealing.

Ask for feedback – judges are happy to provide feedback after a contest. Gold Medallists and World Champions are just people. Don’t be afraid to approach them. Just be sure to bring your scoresheet. (While your performance is memorable to you, it’s not as clear to a judge who’s just assessed two-dozen others on the day.) Don’t look for compliments, but welcome criticism and advice.

Volunteer – get involved with your association. Attend monthly meetings and annual AGMs and contribute. Even if you’re not a natural leader, make yourself heard and available to help as you can.

If you pick just one or two of these resolutions and stick with them I guarantee you will be an even better piper or drummer.

Happy New Year!

Why pipe sections are bigger

Why are pipe sections so big? It’s the great question of this particular era of pipers and drummers, and there’s no sign of the issue going away any time soon. It’s a quandary that virtually every competing band in every grade faces.

Be big or go home.

In 1993 I interviewed the great Iain MacLellan, former pipe-major of the Glasgow/Strathlcyde Police Pipe Band and owner of 12 World Championships. This was just before the dawn of plastic or fibre drone reeds, moisture systems and synthetic bags. Back then it was still all cane and sheepskin, and the number of serious options for chanter reeds was maybe three – McAllister, Shepherd and Warnock, and with all of those a piper needed to know how to work with them. Achieving a sound was an art.

While he certainly had excellent pipers during his tenure, in the interview MacLellan spoke about the requirement that his pipers over all else had to be able to create, manage and sustain tone. So, the guys in his bands had to have a combination of excellence in tone and technique.

Twenty-one years on, the tone challenge has been made immeasurably easier to meet through advancements in the instrument. Anyone who has listened to an amateur solo piping event or Grade 4 band competition hears tone that two decades ago was the stuff of at least two grades higher. Their quality of technical and musical playing is probably about the same but, by and large, the sound of almost every competition piper or pipe band today is relatively pleasant.

Today, for pipe bands, finding pipers with a good-sounding pipe is not the big deal it once was.

I also hear amateur solo pipers who play in top-grade bands who, technically, never would have got a game in Grade 1 in 1990. They wouldn’t have had the technical ability and musical finesse to be accepted. If they had the temerity to ask to join, they would have been kindly told the band was “full up.”

I’d venture to say that there’s hardly a competition band today that would turn away a player who’s within the broad technical scope required. Chances are, they have a pipe and tone that can meet the grade. There’s no longer such a thing as “full up.”

Smaller bands demand tighter unison. A quartet can’t afford a slip or anything but perfect sync. With every piper added, the needed precision wanes incrementally. Iain MacLellan’s pipe section of 12 or 14 demanded precision of playing.

A pipe section of 24, 25 or 30 is not nearly as stringent. Some bands at the top certainly appear to have wonderful unison, but there are still pipers in even the best bands who never would have made the cut in the same top-tier band 20 years ago.

So, it makes perfect sense for a modern band of any grade to build as large a pipe section as possible. Not only is it impressive, but it’s naturally more forgiving in terms of unison lapses and even mistakes. An added benefit is that large sections are built-in insurance against collapse. Two or three pipers leaving in 1990 would mean hard times for a band; for many bands today, it’s hardly a problem.

Advances in bagpipe “technology” have produced better sounding and steadier instruments, easier to tune and keep in tune, opening the doors to playing in grades two decades ago that would have been well above a piper’s ability. A bigger pipe section naturally covers up technical problems that would have been glaring in 1990.

That’s why pipe sections today are bigger.


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