Merge method

MergerThe season’s over in the northern hemisphere. The World Championships and regional events are done and dusted. Pipe bands will take a break for a month or two, recharge the tuning metre, dry out the kitty litter, loosen the lugs, and give the fingers and wrists a rest.

Bands will also think about broader future plans, and not a few will wonder how on earth they’ll ever be able to reach whatever it is they’re aiming to reach competitively.

The World’s, good or evil, is the Holy Grail that many bands in every grade obsess over. The Svengali-like allure of succeeding at this one competition causes pipe bands to take serious, if not evasive, action, from currying favour with judges, to purchasing politically beneficial gear, to flying in temporary players, to – the most evasive of actions – merging with another band.

Much has been made in recent years when bands from Ontario haven’t made the Grade 1 Final, or don’t do well in other grades. After a drought of a few years, in 2014 the 78th Fraser Highlanders returned to the Final as the only Ontario Grade 1 representative, but this year’s contest again saw none of the three bands that played make it through.  Australian Grade 1 bands haven’t ventured to the World’s at all in recent years, and perhaps have similar intense expectations placed on them. Regions in almost every country, including Scotland, feel that they can and must do better and represent their area  on the world stage.

Cue inevitable thoughts of merger.

The solution might appear apparent: Not doing enough to “succeed” in Glasgow? Then merge bands to make a “super-band” that will march in to the Green and show everyone a thing or two. Enough of the shilly-shallying! Just get it or them together and Get. It. Done.

But for what? For the sake of getting into the Final? For maybe a fifth or sixth prize? Great. That’ll show them. Even winning a lower grade could result in an upgrade, and usually means a few years of toil in the new grade before the band takes the next step either up or down.

The cost of pipe band mergers almost always far outweighs the benefits. With rare exceptions, the wreckage caused by mergers of otherwise healthy bands has a long-lasting effect on pipe band scenes. In simplest terms, at least one band is killed off. The simple fact is that there is one less band to compete with or against in a local scene. That is never good for piping and drumming and, to me anyway, I’d rather have two competitive, good bands than a lone “super-band.”

In more complex terms, the irreplaceable camaraderie, spirit and commitment that built a band dies, too. That can have a profoundly subtle, lasting impact on a regional scene.

In the early-1990s someone had the idea to merge the once-mighty-but-then-fallen-on-lean-times Clan MacFarlane with the pretty healthyToronto Police. I wasn’t in either band, but my understanding from those who were in it was that a deal was struck that said, if the merger didn’t work out then Clan MacFarlane would go back to being a band again. It would re-emerge, as it were.

My recollection is that the get-together was quickly unsatisfactory, with power struggles, ill-will and, ultimately former Clan MacFarlane members jumping to other bands, making the merger relatively moot. The net result for the Toronto Police was that they gained a few players but were not much, if any, better off. Meanwhile, Ontario had lost a band and all its tradition and pride, and gained a whole lot of animosity and tension permeating the air for many years.

Just about all of the people involved with that merger have moved on to other things. To be sure, they are all good people, and no one is to blame for trying in good faith to improve. The Toronto Police band remains with hardly a piper or drummer remaining from 22 years ago, of course, still trying to get into the World’s Grade 1 Final but, from everything I can see, enjoying what they do as a band unto itself.

Clan MacFarlane, on the other hand, is just a memory.

There are rare exceptions. The 2011 merger of the Grade 2 Ottawa Police and Grade 2 Glengarry appears to have worked well on the competition field. The Stuart Highlanders absorbing Oran Mor could be cited. But these bands were not made instant world-beaters as a result. In each case the fact remains: one less band on the scene. I’m sure there is an argument that, without a merger, neither band would exist today, so there is that.

A merger is almost always an attempt at a quick-fix solution. Just combine bands and the road to whatever will be paved in gold. It never happens like that. The road will still be bumpy, the destination marginally closer at best. Meanwhile the detritus of a blown up band remains, inevitably years later causing people to wonder why that ever happened. And of course the regional competitive environment is weakened with at least one less band.

The shimmering prizes that merged bands pine for never come any more quickly. There are never quick fixes. There is no fast replacement for strong leadership, cameraderie, commitment, positive spirit, team-building and sheer hard work. All that glitters is not gold.

 

Awash in whisky

John D. Burgess was a legend, not only for his renowned ability as a piper, but for his wit, sartorial splendor and, at least equally at the top of the list, his mischief-making.

It’s impossible to put into words the man and the character he was. Suffice it to say, the piping world will never see his like again. His death just more than 10 years ago was a sad loss for piping.

I can’t say I knew him well, but my work on the Piper & Drummer / pipes|drums since the mid-1980s brought us together, and to have been able to call one of my greatest inspirations as a kid piper even an acquaintance was my honour and great fortune.

Burgess loved the “Trailing Drones” section of the magazine (then print-only) with its bits of gossip, hearsay, occasional red herring BS and, even most of all, the frequent many-a-true-word-said-in-jest content. At Inverness in the early 1990s or so Burgess took me aside in the upper foyer where the light music events used to take place, to let me know that he liked it and whispered in my ear that he was willing to be a source – to be an “Agent in the Field,” as he would say. He had his own team of operatives feeding him intel from his various fields.

He had no email or newfangled “Internet,” so he asked if he could phone me with his scoop. Occasionally I’d answer my line at work and it would a mischievous Burgess with a scandalously juicy tidbit. (For those with back-issues, you can have fun trying to identify the Burgess-isms that got in.)

“Helloo, Andrew, it’s John Burgessss . . . I have a message for Mr. Harry Tung. You tell Harry . . .” he would say in his carefully articulated and maybe a bit affected Highland accent, which was an important part of the extraordinary Burgess brand. I usually had no idea what he was talking about when he delivered his scoop, and he would never explain it, leaving me to trust him that it was rich scandal. So I would dutifully relay it to Harry and then edit whatever came back and hope not to get sued. It was all great fun.

On trips to the World Championships with the 78th Fraser Highlanders in the 1980s and 1990s (joined 1988, left after 1997) I would try then, as I do now, to do one or two significant interviews for this magazine.

I relayed a story many years ago, and was reminded of it recently. I think it bears repeating.

In 1994 Burgess agreed to do an interview, and I believe it is the only substantial published conversation he did in his life. I hired a car and drove from Glasgow to his home in Saltburn, very near Invergordon, about five hours away. I had imagined him to have a palatial estate, maybe with a gated driveway, and a couple of greyhounds at the door.

His home was nothing like that, but it by no means disappointed. A small seafront house overlooking the Moray Firth, several parked oil rigs off in the distance, the Black Isle, ancestral home of the John/G.S./D.R. McLennans on the other side. I was greeted warmly and humbly. He was of course well turned out, but inside the house there was hardly an indication that he was even a piper, no medals or trophies anywhere, and certainly no sign of this being the residence of the King of Highland Pipers.

It was a great, frank conversation, and by far the most memorable of the more than 100 interviews I’ve done. He was forthright and candid, and was taking the whole thing seriously. It was clear that he knew this would be a record of his life, and I was gratified that this little boy from Missouri was entrusted with his insights and stories.

I was at his house for maybe three hours. He provided sandwiches, biscuits and tea, and even offered a dram of really nice whisky that he kept in the house for guests even though he was teetotal for decades after successfully fighting his well-known debilitating addiction to alcohol.

When I was getting ready to go we talked a bit at his front door about the World Pipe Band Championships. He knew Bill Livingstone, of course, and I think had a fondness for him, as the only wit in piping that compares with Burgess’s I think is Livingstone’s. Burgess said that he had “a very good feeling” about the 78th Fraser not just doing well, but winning the World’s on the Saturday. I was taken aback. Here was John D. Burgess putting his money on the 78th Fraser Highlanders, a band that at the time had fallen down the ladder a bit and would have been happy simply to finish in the top-six.

Wow, I thought, wait’ll I get back to Glasgow to tell the guys!

“Yes, yes, you tell Mr. Bill Livingstone that John D. Burgess expects big things – big things! – on Saturday. In fact, let me get something for you to take back to the band.”

At this point Burgess went back inside and returned with an unopened bottle of malt whisky.

“You take this and bring it to the park on Saturday,” he said. “When you’re tuning up with the band, I want you to gather together all of the pipers, get out the bottle and, ever so gently, pour a drop or two on the hands of each piper. Rub it in well, and I guarantee that it will hasten the result you deserve.”

“Really?” I asked. “You think that will help?”

“Oh, yes. Ooohh, yes. You tell Bill that John Burgess recommends it,” he said with his twinkling eyes.

I was sold. The five-hour drive back to Glasgow probably took three, and I arrived to the band breathless with my excitement about the King of Highland Pipers’ prediction and explained his prescription for winning with whisky. Bill and the rest of the pipers were sold.

Saturday came. I put the special Burgess bottle in my pipe case, and kept it at the ready. Without actually testing the effects of whisky on the hands beforehand, the 14 or 15 pipers gathered around, hands extended and I had the honour of putting a splash of it on everyone’s mitts.

The band had a good following then, and in those early-Internet days bands had secrets that would only be known if you witnessed them. Members of other bands would clamour around far more than they do today, trying to divine techniques and tricks. I remember noticing a few WTF?! expressions from those looking on as we rubbed our hands together with the water of life and miracle cure for not-winning. If it happened today, there would be a dozen crappy videos of it and probably something of a pipe band meme.

I believe Burgess actually made the trip to the World’s that day for a promotional appearance with a bagpipe maker, and I suspect he was somewhere around watching this gullible group actually fulfilling what must have been one of his most unlikely mischievous tricks.

Assuming you have never played with whisky on your fingers, you’ll be wondering what the effect was. None of us in the band actually tested it in advance (that might have spoiled the magical powers), and to think that any band – let alone a contending Grade 1 group – would do this blindly at the biggest competition of the year perhaps speaks to the sorry desperation that we competitive pipers and drummers suffer. Thankfully, whisky isn’t sticky, and pretty well evaporates, probably a bit like rubbing alcohol.

How did we play? I think it was okay, but nothing noticeably added as a result of the golden nectar being applied. I’m not even sure where we ended up in the final result.

But I do remember this event, and the unique, mischievous and fun spirit that was John D. Burgess.

 

New rules

I’m a moderate fan of Real Time with Bill Maher, and really like his “New Rules” segment. Spending two days judging an assembly line of competitors at Maxville, there’s hardly time enough to think about anything else between performances, but there’s enough collective moments to come up with a few new rules that we should apply to what we do.

New Rule: any solo piping or snare competitor who elects to warm up within 50 feet of a contest area should be given the choice between immediate disqualification or a public shirtless flogging by a fleet of tenor drummers wielding mallets dipped in Branston Pickle. I mentioned this in 2009, and it still astonishes me how apparently vacant-minded some players can be, oblivious to their surroundings and Competing Etiquette 101.

New Rule: every band competition should have an announcer who introduces the contestant, provides background, informs the crowd about what’s going on, and so forth. Graeme Ogilvie, who announces at the arena at Maxville each year, should give workshops. He’s a master of providing just the right amount of detail without boring people or insulting the competitors.

New Rule: any piper in a piobaireachd contest who tunes to a slow air will be required to play “Farewell To Nigg” 1000 times over without mistakes before he/she is permitted to compete again. Stop, stop, sweet fancy Moses, stop the slow air insanity.

New Rule: once the competitor starts, shut the ^&%* up. I can understand the occasional uninitiated loudmouth who doesn’t know protocol the first time at a contest, but the number of pipers, drummers and even association officials who yap away at volume within 10 feet of the person or band competing is appalling. Those caught doing this get to choose between paying a $200 fine payable to the impacted competitor or having their mouth washed out with 10-year-old Airtight Seasoning.

New Rule: for any piper who’s played more than three years, no more tuning your drones while sounding D. I understand the theory about tuning with D: it is the truest note played with one hand. But it sounds horrible. A good piper tunes to high-A and shows off his/her control and mastery of the instrument. Penalty for tuning with D: must administer one-handed thigh massages to heavy athletes in afternoon.

Those are a few new rules that I thought of over the weekend. You must have more, so fire away.

 

Hard

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.

 

What we do

Tartan_LinkedInSocial media is a melting pot for piping and drumming. Twenty years ago, unless you played in a band with someone, or hung out with them in solo circles, or maybe went to a piping and drumming summer school, you’d hardly know anything substantial about anyone.

Facebook is the default social “platform” (ugh word) for our “community.” It’s a friendly place, where “positivity” (ugh) is encouraged, and things are generally hunky-dory. Twitter is far less popular with us, perhaps since it’s more a place of terse thoughts and quick links than photos of a fluffy white westie that looks nothing, nothing at all like her owner.

Used to be that competition rivalry produced automatic suspicion and general dislike between bands. Now, I think largely because of social media and the fact that people tend to bounce between bands, everyone seems to get along just grand all together. It’s all one big massed-band, where we wish each other the best: Play well! That was awesome! Great job! Your competition rival could be playing next to you in a week, so you’d better be nice, and use your emoticons wisely. 😉

I’m all for informed and fair opinion, but if Seumas MacNeill published today the savage and one-sided commentary he routinely wrote from his bully pulpit in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, he would be flayed alive on social media. Woe betide anyone making unfair personal attacks on pipers and drummers these days.

Social media has made us all “friends” and “followers.”

But LinkedIn provides an interesting new element for pipers and drummers. We share the common ground and camaraderie of piping, drumming and pipe bands, and we don’t much care what we do in real life – that is, life outside of piping and drumming.

Many pipers and drummers are a “connection” on my LinkedIn account, and there I can discover what these friends actually do for a living.

  • Alumni Officer at Queen’s University Belfast
  • Mental Health Nurse Consultant at City of Toronto
  • Supply Chain Specialist Sales at Oracle
  • Managing Director at Revolution Technologies

Where we normally see each other in terms of bands and playing, on LinkedIn you suddenly see people in strange work attire, listing accomplishments and jobs that don’t include contests and bands.

  • Technical Sales Representative at Dawn Food Products
  • Director of Engineering at SwiftStack Inc.
  • Senior Legal Counsel at Auditor General of Canada
  • President & CEO at LBMX Inc.

It can be a bit jarring, if not comforting, that they lead actual real lives with real challenges that go beyond whether they’ll make a blooter in the MSR.

  • Senior Systems Analyst at University of British Columbia
  • VP, Creative Director at Rivet
  • U.S. Immigration Lawyer
  • Sales Coordinator/Graphic Artist at Sportfactor Inc.

While Facebook has made piping and drumming a friendly melting pot of mostly golly-gee friendliness, LinkedIn is a reality snapshot.

  • Head of Marketing Communications at Kames Capital
  • Health, Safety & Environmental Co-ordinator at National Oilwell Varco
  • Global RA Director at GE Healthcare, Life Sciences
  • Lecturer at San Jose State University

There are, of course, a number of my LinkedIn connections who list piping and drumming teaching or businesses as their employment, and that too is something that has been a major positive change in the last 20 years. But it’s the real-world jobs that interest me – the accomplished, avocational pipers and drummers who are also accomplished professionals in a completely different vocation.

  • Advancement Officer at Canadian Museum of Nature
  • Owner at The Railstop Restaurant
  • Executive Director at Music Nova Scotia
  • Research Assistant at Syracuse University

Thinking about it, I’m not sure if something like Piping Live! would be as successful without social media. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, I’d have had a hard time imagining hanging out with the suspicious characters from rival bands. You’d pretty much keep to your own kind, and hope the other guys got the worst of the weather. Sad, but true.

There’s a whole helluvalotta respect today for each other.

After all, it’s what we do.

 

Easy prizes, or challenging fun?

Play easy and boring music well, or play harder and interesting stuff and have more fun?

It’s an age-old quandary for lower grade pipers and pipe bands. Almost every judge would say (over and over again), play tunes that your hands or your pipers and drummers can manage better.

For time immemorial, judges will sit or stand there at virtually every competition and wonder, usually several times throughout the day, why oh why that piper or pipe band is throwing away the competition trying to play a tune or tunes that they simply can’t manage. Or, perhaps more accurately, wondering why they don’t play far easier stuff to get better results.

You would think that after a hundred-odd-years of competition, competitors would learn that playing easier stuff better would more likely produce better results. So why is it that season after season pipers, drummers and pipe bands come out playing stuff that’s too difficult?

The answer: it’s more fun.

It’s more fun because it’s a bigger musical challenge. I would venture to bet that many lower-grade bands recognize that if they were to play easy tunes all year long, they’d lose their members’ interest. Practices would become monotonous, and bored members would pressure the pipe-major to make things more interesting by engaging members with more challenging stuff.

But, but . . . the name of the game is to win, right? Why risk sacrificing winning for the sake of a few musical challenges?

It’s counter-intuitive, but that kind of sacrifice (the prize for the musical experience) is exactly what we need more of – pipe bands most of all. Producing engaging and interesting music – even if it’s not played to the competitor’s potential – is better for the art than interminably cranking out boring, repetitive tunes that no one, but no one, really wants to hear again.

The choice of playing easy tunes for better results or harder tunes for more fun is one of the great strategies of our competitive game. Allowing pipers, drummers and bands the freedom to make that choice adds spice and variety to our contests. Associations might think they’re practicing tough love by prescribing tunes for lower grade competitors, but they’re not.

When I was a kid, one of the first four-part 2/4 marches I was given to play was “Abercairney Highlanders.” The late Gordon Speirs said I would get far more out of that technical challenge than playing some boring, easier thing that would lose my interest. Yes, I wouldn’t make a great job of it, but it would help my hands and give me an opportunity to expand my horizons. And, I think it worked.

After years of the RSPBA’s MAP restrictions for lower-grade bands, the dividends, if in fact there are any, are difficult to see. Lower-grade “overseas” bands still regularly come to the World’s and do well. Requiring kids to play “Corriechoille” ad infinitum for a year I suggest drives more of them away than retains their interest in the art.

And, I will say it again: requiring contestants to play certain tunes is far less about the art and learning than it is about making judging easier. And that is no good for anyone, except of course the judges.

Pipers, drummers and pipe bands need to learn to challenge themselves, expand their horizons, take musical chances, and understand that there are things far more important than winning. “Play simple better” might work in competition, but, in reality, it goes only so far.

Toeing a fine line

Pressuring bands to compete only in sanctioned contests makes some sense. The RSPBA’s most recent alleged request – some use the word “bullying” – that bands not compete at the new Spring Gatherin’ has brought the topic to the fore. Should bands toe the line for their association by competing only in events that adhere completely to the association’s rules and regulations?

My answer: it depends.

It depends on whether an association is truly looking out for its members’ wishes, by demonstrating a willingness to bend when it makes sense. An association that summarily rejects any event that wants to try something new for the enjoyment and benefit of the competitors and the audience will rub most member-bands the wrong way. And when the association’s rationale isn’t communicated to members, it causes further ill-will. Silence is always met with contempt.

Associations today face many quandaries. Chief among them is the dilemma of representing both the interests of their members and adapting to the interests of the events that they want to sanction. A pipe band association is, to some degree, a union. They are unions of pipers and drummers so that their interests are represented; so that they can expect to attend contests and not be blindsided by unfair rules or unqualified judges; so that there is continuity from contest to contest.

But there is a big difference between solidarity and protectionism. Associations need to tread very carefully when they are faced with events hoping to do things a little differently, but with the cooperation of and supervision (to some degree) by the association. Non-standard contests certainly want meaningful and equitable competitions that pipers and drummers take seriously, but not at the cost of diluting the attractively different nature of what they’re trying to do.

The RSPBA isn’t the only association that apparently pressures or even requires members to compete at only sanctioned competitions. The Western United States Pipe Band Association is said to have it in their rules of membership. The Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario has been heavily criticized by some of its members for not getting together with events that refuse to play by their rules. The PPBSO has not pressured, much less suspended, any bands for participating in these events, but the inference is there that, every time a member band competes at one it weakens the union and slackens the association’s leverage to negotiate. I get that.

There’s no clear solution. The hard line is disliked by most members, and the softer approach makes members wonder why these non-standard events can’t be fully sanctioned for aggregate points. The current pipes|drums Poll shows that about 90% of readers agree that pipe bands anywhere have the right to compete anywhere without threat of suspension by their home association.

The key is partnership and patience. Summarily rejecting with no explanation contests that try new things is certainly the wrong approach. Associations have to maintain an element of partnership, working with people – most of all their own members – rather than being perceived to be obstinately unwilling to change.

In short, every association must somehow always represent the wishes of its members, and never be considered wagging an authoritative finger at them, telling them that the association knows best. Intransigence and inflexibility have no place in the modern piping and drumming world, which risks burning down completely if it doesn’t adapt and change.

Associations are the pipers and drummers. The church is the congregation; not the preacher or the elders or the building. If an association loses sight of that truth, and is seen to act only in the interests of its leaders and officials, it’s in big trouble.

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.

 

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!

Repetition, repetition

RepeatSignPipe bands and solo pipers are generally reluctant to introduce unfamiliar tunes into their competition repertoire. It’s usually regarded as an unnecessary risk to unveil a medley of all, or even half, newly minted, previously unheard content. When it comes to MSRs, those of us who have been around a few years have heard “The Clan MacRae Society,” “Blair Drummond” and “Mrs. MacPherson” ten-thousand times.

But why is this? I repeat: Why is this?

I read an interesting article last spring on the National Public Radio Shots blog about repetition and familiarity in music. “Not only does every known human culture make music, but also, every known human culture makes music [in which] repetition is a defining element,” the piece said.

Essentially, the premise is that repetition in music works because of what’s known as the mere exposure effect. People are generally tense when it comes to the unfamiliar. Humans through millions of years of self-preservation are naturally suspicious and wary of change. Only after a while, when we get to know someone or something through repetition and familiarity, we tend to warm up to them.

It’s a fascinating little piece that produced a eureka moment for me and pipe music. Pipe music is similar to other music. The rock song that we didn’t much like the first time gets better and better with repeated listens. More frequently the instant likeability of a new song is due to that song being a lot like a familiar song – derivative, even. (I was happy to remember that I alluded to that in a review of a St. Thomas Episcopal School Pipe Band CD almost 15 years ago.) Record labels often encourage their artists to go after a familiar and popular sound. Why? It’s more likely to be liked.

We know, too, that pipe music derived from Gaelic song, which some feel is in part derived from birdsong. It’s music that repeats itself, through a communal chant while waulking cloth, or a curlew repeating its song to attract a mate, or “Cameronian Rant” riffing on the same theme for eight or 20 parts, or the hypnotic effect of a piobaireachd like “The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy.”

Bands that have competed with a wholly new set of tunes can only hope that the judges will do the unnatural thing and react positively. Like it or not, it’s instinctive to reject altogether unfamiliar music, no matter how well it’s performed. We can admire the artistic effort, but, if we don’t like the music, pretty much no amount of tuning, unison and tone will overcome that natural rejection.

And that is why pipe bands and solo pipers stay with the familiar. They want to succeed, and to succeed, the music – on the whole – must be liked. And to be liked, it bears repeating.

And that is why substantial change in styles of pipe music takes generations to take hold. At best, a band that values winning (and what’s the point of competing if you don’t want to win?) might throw in a few original, but certainly derivative, tunes in a medley, or make a jig out of a well-kent strathspey’s melody-line.

Certainly and, perhaps, sadly, ScottishPower intertwining “A Flame of Wrath” in a medley tempted some fate. It’s a familiar piece to any solo piper, but, the trouble is, there are very few serious competitive solo pipers who are RSPBA adjudicators. Judging from the results, I think many adjudicators must have been dumb-struck because, to them, it was for all purposes unfamiliar and they reacted naturally. If the band stays with it in 2015, the overall reaction to the now familiar music will likely be friendlier. They should warm up to it.

The rare instances of pipe bands that competed with non-derivative, completely original, “avant-garde” selections (78th Fraser Highlanders “Megantic Outlaw” 1991; Toronto Police medleys 2008-2013) might have been noble and ingenious efforts to push the art ahead quickly and dramatically on the competition field, but accepted that the art was more important than the winning. There are exceedingly few competitors who will voluntarily reduce their chances of competition success to make a musical point.

And so our art, because it is so wrapped up in competition, progresses at a snail’s pace. Each new generation of pipers discovers “Blair Drummond” or “Itchy Fingers” and enjoys the first few thousands plays at least. The few who stay with competition for three of four decades find that, at an advanced age, it’s very unlikely that musical change can be effected when new generations of wide-eared young pipers and drummers keep coming in, marveling at every last over-played note of “Cameronian Rant.”

We relish the familiar. Repetition gains familiarity, which in turn gains warmth and acceptance, and if familiarity breeds contempt, by that time, it’s too late to effect serious change.

Sadly, sadly, it is forever, forever so-so.

Break it down

“I broke down.”

These are the saddest of possible words a competitive solo piper has to say.

The ignominy of going off the tune and skulking from the competition stage (even if the “stage” might be a parking lot or a bumpy patch of grass in a farmer’s field) is perhaps unique to our wee club.

Is there another musical instrument where the performer, after making a mistake, simply stops and walks off? Sure, small children at violin recitals might get so petrified that they break down and cry. Despite the tune, I am certain there are no breakdowns with banjo players.

But I’m talking about experienced and fairly mature performers think the best option is to go away, deflated, sporran between their legs in shame.

I lost the bottle.

He crapped the bed.

She lost the plot.

I made a *&$% of it.

He broke down.

I think pipers might be singular in this respect. It is somehow acceptable for us just to bugger off rather than continue the performance with little or no chance of a prize. Notwithstanding a physical mishap, like a hole in the bag or a reed falling out, where the instrument is no longer playable, it’s part of our tradition, it seems, to flat-out give up the ghost rather than persevere.

The show must not go on.

“How did it go?” solo pipers ask each other. “I got through it,” is often the response, not saying it was good or bad, but only confirming that you didn’t break down, because it’s always a possibility that the person stopped playing part-way through.

Many years ago I had a spell at the games when I couldn’t seem to “get through” any event. I had the equivalent of what golfers refer to as “the yips.” I was playing well enough in practice, but as soon as I got out there my brain wouldn’t allow my body to work right. The traditional piper thing to do was and is to simply stop. The right thing to do would be to keep going no matter what, just to prove to yourself that you can indeed, “get through it.”

At least finishing – as hard as it might be – is something to be proud of. There is absolutely zero pride, I suggest, to be gained from breaking down.

The strange thing is that there is not an experienced piper at any time in history who has never had at least one breakdown in competition. Breakdowns seem to happen less these days, but they still occur even at the very highest levels in the very biggest competitions.

It’s another peculiar and questionable piping tradition: the breakdown.

So, let’s break it down: is it better to stop and slink off, or is it better to get back on it and finish the tune?

Forward

The 2015 World’s format is backwards.

It’s hard to fault the organizers for having another go at the 2014 format: Friday only Grade 1 qualifying; Saturday is the Grade 1 Final and everything else.

It’s an opportunity missed. But in a few years it will go like this – guaranteed:

On Saturday, all bands compete at Glasgow Green in qualifiers and/or finals, except all Grade 1 bands entered competed in two heats in Medley and MSR events to determine a final round of 10 or 12.

All winners and Grade 1 finalists are announced at a wonderful march-past.

Then, on Sunday, those 10 or 12 Grade 1 Finalists compete in an afternoon MSR (if they insist), and a Medley at night at a ticketed indoor venue like the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall or SECC.

Charge £25 for the MSR. Clear the packed hall, and then £40 for the Medley and announcement – or £55 for the combined deal. At an average gate of, say £60, with a certain packed hall for each event of 2,800, that’s approximately £175,000 in ticket sales. People pay £30 for one Grade 1 band for two hours; they will pay at least that for four-plus hours of a dozen bands.

The Sunday event is hosted by Bob Worrall and A. John Wilson, tag-teaming in their inimitable styles. When one is not on stage, the other is in the broadcast booth with Jackie. BBC Scotland (or whatever broadcaster bids the highest amount for the valuable broadcast rights, which would be on the order of £50,000-75,000, given the overall value of the event) mounts at least seven cameras in the hall, and conducts behind-the-scenes shots and interviews as bands tune and leave.

The RSPBA can take, say, £10,000, the hall gets maybe £5,000, the stewards and compilers get £1,000, each judges gets his/her usual £75 and a Jaffa cake, and the remaining £180,000 or so goes to the bands and the composers and arrangers – those whose terrific music is the valuable product being sold.

People will argue that there’s not enough room at these venues to handle 10-12 bands tuning. That’s incorrect. As with top-flight solo competitions, there will be two designated tuning areas. Each band has exactly 40 minutes to tune in the building, and that’s bags of time for these elite groups in a controlled, indoor environment.

Sunday might be problematic for some religious people, just as Saturday is for some others, and perhaps Friday is for even others. I completely respect those with religious beliefs, but if they conflict with the quasi-religion of pipe bands, well, they’ll just have to choose which is more important. The shops are open on Sunday, after all.

I’m confident that this format will eventually happen. It’s the obvious thing to do.

The benefits of Saturday outdoor World’s and a Sunday indoor Grade 1 Final World Championship are obvious to me:

  • The Friday is freed up again for Piping Live!
  • All of the bands get to compete on Saturday.
  • Those not competing on Sunday (and maybe also those who are) can celebrate Saturday night.
  • Nearly 4,000 total enthusiasts can enjoy the indoor Grade 1 Final nirvana on Sunday in cozy comfort.
  • The world’s greatest bands can show their stuff without the threat of being drenched with horizontal rain, equalizing the conditions.
  • Bands compete in concert formation.
  • Judges hear and see everything.
  • Audience gets the pipe band listening experience of a lifetime.
  • The broadcaster can create an even better production (and sell pay-per-view, if they like) for those who prefer to watch the stream.
  • The bands and composers can share in the substantial licensing rights.

And the Grade 1 World Championship can have the venue and conditions and spotlight that it truly deserves – finally.

Instant replay

recorderThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Great Tape Scandal of Inverness. In 1974, Bill Livingstone’s second-prize in the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal was rescinded after Lezlie Webster (nee Patterson) produced a tape recording of his tune, conclusively proving that Livingstone “went wrong” in his performance.

No fault of Lezlie, of course. She was and is a keen piper who was simply capturing the big contest as an early-adopter of portable recording technology (which we can assume was some giant reel-to-reel magnetic machine that ran off of a car battery).

It was a famous event. Seumas MacNeill wrote a pithy and scathing report in his inimitable style saying that recording devices found on listeners should be “smashed into little bits.” Presumably he feared that using recordings would upset the time-honoured tradition of judges working from pure concentration and super-human memory. Bill Livingstone is probably still chagrinned, even though he went on to far bigger and far better first-prizes over an illustrious solo career.

Fast-forward 40 years.

Today, solo piping competitions are recorded by everyone and their grandmother – and that’s no exaggeration. Anyone with a mobile phone can record any contest digitally. If they tried to smash every device into little bits, there’d be hell to pay.

But the judging tradition of relying on concentration and memory continues. Why is this?

There is not a self-respecting competitor out there who would feel good about winning a prize because their major error was missed. And absolutely no piper feels good about a fellow competitor coming away victorious due to an inadvertent adjudication oversight.

In most sports, technology is quickly making major mistakes by officials things of the past. Reviewing uncertain calls is a reality in tennis, baseball, football, soccer and even in the time-honoured self-policing game of golf. And the competitors want it. They like it. They want the right decisions to be made. Too much time, energy and money are wrapped up in competing not to use it.

A piping judge today can easily come equipped with a tablet computer with virtually every setting of every piobaireachd published. He or she can simply press Record before each contestant. If, at the end of the event, he or she was not sure if a player “went off it,” it takes a few minutes to have a listen and be assured that the result in that regard was accurate and free of NMEs – “no major errors.”

If an adjudicator feels it’s too onerous or too much responsibility or above his or her pay-grade to record the tunes, it could be the job of the steward. Or, if it’s a major event with a “reader” – a non-adjudicator whose job is simply to follow the score – that reader should also be a “recorder.”

The technology has been available for years. It’s smaller, more reliable and easier to use than ever. Competitions should use it. Time to join the 1990s.

 

Keeping score

Scoresheets or crit-sheets have never been a regular thing at UK solo piping competitions. I remember arriving at Montrose Games in 1983, an awestruck 19-year-old from St. Louis playing at the “senior” solo competition on a brilliant, sunny day at the links.

My bass drone stopped while tuning for the Strathspey & Reel (cane, sheep, wet, overplayed), so I slunk off, too frightened to take it out and flick it in front of Old Jimmy MacGregor, who might have been too, um, under the weather to notice. Never mind. I thought that I played pretty well in the March, and keenly waited around for the result.

Nothing for naïve me. But I remember being surprised that, not only was there no ranking order of finish past third, there weren’t even scoresheets. I was told that such things weren’t done in Scotland. I eventually got used to it, but always had a sense of miff as to what I did right or wrong, or why I was in or, more often than not, not in the prizes.

Thirty-one years later and, but for a few experiments with CPA B- and C-Grade events, there is no system of feedback for solo competitors in the UK.

That is truly ridiculous.

As with pipe bands, every solo competitor deserves to know how an adjudicator accounted for his or her decision. They don’t need or even want a “lesson,” or to be given helpful hints for the next time, as I have heard scoresheets reasoned away by many UK judges. Instead, competitors should at least come away from an event knowing that each judge’s decision was more than arbitrary.

The lack of feedback and accountability in the UK has at times propped up truly shallow, and even nonexistent, piping pedigrees from not a few adjudicators over the last century who, if they had to account for their decisions by providing constructive and informed criticism, would have been exposed as the frauds they were. The aristocratic “society” types who didn’t or wouldn’t know a phrase from a pheasant could simply draw up a prize list and go home.

Today, even, the best a competing solo piper in the UK can do is ask and hope for feedback from the judges. I once did that after I got nothing for what I fancied was a really good tune at the Northern Meeting. Days after the event I emailed one of the judges (who was someone who had never competed himself), and he responded with comments about how my taorluaths from D weren’t good. That might well have been the case – with another piper. The tune I actually played had no taorluaths from D.

In every other piping jurisdiction, not only are scoresheets mandatory, but judges only become judges after amassing a long history of competition success, learning feedback techniques, and proving that they can produce accurate and constructive scoresheets. It works. And if a judge were to write on a scoresheet criticisms about technique that didn’t even exist in the performance, he or she would be held to account.

Over the next few weeks many of the world’s greatest solo pipers will converge on Oban and Inverness. Some will come away with a prize or two. Most will get nothing. But the majority of those competing will receive no accounting for the result from the adjudicators.

The old world of piping should join the new world order, where formal feedback and accountability aren’t just nice to have, they’re essential aspects of a well-run and fair competition.

And not only do they account for judge’s decisions, scoresheets weed out the judging imposters.

Post-World’s-Week

World2014_Saturday_ (182)_smallA week has already gone by since Piping Live! and the World’s wrapped. It was another terrific week of piping, drumming and musical (and other) excess. The planning involved to put on the Festival and the World’s never cease to astound, and every year each event seems to improve.

A few impressions of the week:

Timing: it’s everything, and the RSPBA is the Rolex watch of associations. Even with, um, challenging weather, events run like clockwork, down to the second. If you consider that a single grade at the World’s is usually bigger than the entire number of bands at a Highland games in other parts of the world, and the RSPBA flawlessly executes eight of those events (plus finals) on the day, I, for one, am left awestruck.

Timing: the Friday experiment was worth trying, but the day was flat and many people were failing to see the need for holding a Grade 1-only day to see which bands would qualify. Many said that it seemed feasible simply to have all bands compete in MSR and Medley events on Saturday, and then decide the prizes from that. No more qualifier. One and done. Get on with it.

Calum Ian Brown: this 14-year-old won Pipe Idol with sets of tunes played effortlessly, on a sweet instrument, and, most importantly, beautifully and faithfully on the beat. The last skill is elusive to even some of our best pipers. This kid has it.

Shotts: won the drumming. Finished fifth overall. Could have been as high as third. 2014 marked a remarkable and welcomed comeback for this historic band. Here’s wagering that Shotts will pick off a major in 2015, and the World’s within three.

Family judging family: again there were several examples of judges adjudicating bands with their direct family within the ranks. This is not to say that these judges were not fair, only that it looks terrible, and people talk about the optics. Just about every judged thing there is has rules preventing family judging family. It’s time that all associations around the world did the same.

Stuart Highlanders: Solid Grade 1. Nuff said.

GGPSPB: credit to Pipe-Major Duncan Nicholson and Leading-Drummer Eric Ward and the whole Greater Glasgow Police Scotland Pipe Band for delivering almost three hours of complicated Ceolry content, and then two/three days later finishing just behind SFU at the World’s.

The crowd: the main arena was a bit awkward on Saturday. The stands were not full or even close to it for much of the day, and all but deserted during the (kudos there, too) Grade 2 Final. Yet, the gallery to the side was mobbed, 30-40 deep. Why not just relax a bit, let them in, fill the seats, and create some atmosphere for the bands and the cameras? After all, these are hard-core pipe band fanatics.

Grudgy judges: those who seem to allow some ancient slight to cloud their objectivity are out there with a clipboard at the biggest event of the year. Everyone knows who they are. Their eyebrow-raising results are as predictable as a crowded beertent. They think they’re slick. They are not. Time to monitor these people and remove them from panels if their results continue to be out-of-kilter.

Last major: making the World’s the final RSPBA major championship of the season is a good move. Finish at the pinnacle. No more restarting the motor to drag to another championship. Like this.

Ian Embelton: people should remember that it has been under his watch that the World’s and the RSPBA in general have made huge strides forward. Sure, they can do more (see above), and not everyone will ever be happy all the time, but Embelton has overseen everything. He has a board of directors to answer to, of course, and they should take due credit, too, but Embelton deserves acknowledgement for often exceeding expectations in a job that is generally thankless.

Just a few thoughts from the week past. There are plenty of others not mentioned — live stream, excellent beertent, FMM, IDPB, ScottishPower . . .

What are some of your pros and cons?

Making the grades

The second-most-important role of an association is upholding grading standards. We all know that the first is – or should be – promoting and teaching the piping, drumming and pipe band arts, but since every piping and drumming association that I know governs competition (with many, that’s all they do), the accurate maintenance of grading standards is key to the success of the organization and its members in its own region and around the world.

A reader recently wrote wondering how the whole grading system works. He was confused, since a few bands that won most everything last year and were declared aggregate champions in the association, were not upgraded. This year the bands are competing in the same grades. He tried to find details on the association’s website about how the grading process works, but, as with many pipe band associations, there was no information obviously available.

I have said before that grading should never be based entirely on competitive success within one association. Grading should be based solely on the world standard. It’s all good if a competitor wins everything locally in a grade, but if that grade’s standard is not commensurate with the rest of the world, that competitive success is relatively meaningless.

If the quality of the grade is not as good as, or maybe even better than, the benchmark set on a world stage, then it is the association’s responsibility to correct it by shifting bands or soloists to where they belong, regardless of competitive success. Too often bands and soloists are prematurely moved up when they don’t meet the true quality of the world standard. When that happens, the association just makes works the problem of a weak overall grade, and the quality of their scene is eroded.

But how best for an association to ensure that their own grade standards are in line with the world’s standard?

Start with the grading committee. As a member, you should know exactly who is on this committee, when they meet, and their process for making decisions. Go to your association’s website and look for that information. (If it is not there, your association has a problem, and you are not being served well as a member.)

Each of the members of the grading committee must be:

Experienced – they must have competed successfully at the highest levels. Anyone who has not walked the talk carries little or no respect with the members they assess.

Knowledgeable – competition success is one thing, but a well-rounded and multi-faceted competitive career is quite another. What level of repertoire do they have? Are strictly pipe band people making solo grading decisions (and vice versa)?

Informed – they need to have actually heard the competitors they’re assessing play. Do they have first-hand information on specific abilities, or are they simply looking at a results spreadsheet?

Current – are they listening to competitors in other jurisdictions? Do they travel to the top competitions to listen to the year’s best?

Inactive in competitionno one on a grading committee should be an active competitor. If current competitors are making grading calls at any level, members will be suspicious. Even if they recuse themselves from involvement with competitors in their own band or solo grade, it does not matter. Each grading committee member must not be perceived to be in conflict.

Lastly, it should go without saying (even though it had to be said recently) that no association should re-grade a member of another association. If there is a grading concern, associations must work together to resolve it. If a competitor’s grade is seen to be inaccurate when the band or soloist enters, then pick up the phone and speak with a knowledgeable and respected representative who has the above qualities, and work it out.

Accurate grading hinges on accurate standards. An association’s grading committee is responsible for the monitoring and upholding of those grading standards, and it starts with grading committee members who meet the standard of the committee itself.

“Musical”

Musical Edge [photo: Y2kcrazyjoker4 - Creative Commons]It’s generally a bad sign when someone comments that you or your band had a very “musical” performance. In piping-speak it’s a backhanded compliment that really means that the technique and tone weren’t so great, but they managed to listen through it to discern that you actually know how to deliver the tunes.

“He’s a very musical player.” “They’re one of the most musical bands out there.”

These comments are applied generally to the contestants who don’t get prizes. The precise opposite should be true.

I guess this follows on from the last blog post. As the grades rise, so should the expectations of judges to recognize – and reward appropriately – the overall musical presentation.

Does a virtuoso guitar player consider, say, the aptitude of U2’s Edge, who he himself admits is not even a good technical player? Do they dismiss what he’s able to achieve musically, unable to hear past the technical glitches, or do they sit back like the rest of the punters and allows themselves to be uplifted with the rest of the fans?

Does Itzhak Perlman enjoy Ashley MacIsaac’s fiddling, or would he cringe with every slip of the fraying bow, tut-tutting while the ceilidh dancing flies around him? One wonders.

And, somehow, “musical” is rarely applied to bands and soloists who are pitch-perfect and finger-perfect. We marvel at the technical and seem to forget the nuance of music. For my money, Field Marshal Montgomery, ScottishPower and Inveraray & District (to name a few) tick the Musical box even more than those for Tone and Technique – and that’s saying something. I admire the precision, but I am truly uplifted by their music.

It’s another of competitive piping’s bizarre traditions. “Musical” is code for inferior. That goes against just about every other genre of music where “musical” means superior.

Greater expectations

At 83.5" × 108.7", Caillebotte's "Paris Street, Rainy Day" is a big picture.At the recent PPBSO judges’ seminar there was an interesting section on the various solo piping and drumming grades. The gathering of about 25 adjudicators separated into smaller groups to discuss and determine what our expectations are in terms of tuning/tone, musicality and technique ranging from Grade 5 to Professional.

Obviously expectations of competitors rise along with the grades, with expression and music perhaps being the last piece to master in the complicated puzzle. That’s fair. Our master musicians at the top are those who have the technique and the tone – those are givens. But what separates the good from the great is expression, musical nuance and sophistication of delivery.

Not all judges, though, are up to the task of separating that musical nuance. Too many judges fall into the trap of looking for the easy out: they look for technical problems, like a dropped doubling or a slightly flat note, and they either ignore or are unable to recognize the bigger musical picture.

To me, apart from a corrupt adjudicator, these little-picture thinkers are the worst judges. They sit there and wait for an objective technical error, rather than reward the subjective musical side.

In addition to judges expecting more of competitors as the grades rise, competitors also expect more of the judges. By the time a piper or drummer reaches the top amateur and professional grades, they should expect to be rewarded for musical superiority, and they expect that, at the very least, they are assessed by adjudicators who are actually capable of making that judgment call.

The famous Andrew Wright famously said, “I’d rather give the prize to someone who went off the tune than someone who was never on it.”

Anyone can hear and punish technical mistakes. It takes a superior judge to recognize and reward superior music.

Masons’ April

My first real introduction to the Masons was in 1983 and I didn’t even know it. A naive 19-year-old American piper at the Argyllshire Gathering, I thought that Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay simply had a strange handshake. When I was introduced to him and shook his hand, he sort of tickled my palm. I didn’t think much of it, but when I saw him the next day and he spat on his hand before shaking mine, I thought it a bit queer.

“You idiot,” a more canny piping friend said to me when I told him that MacNeill had a strange handshake. “He’s trying to find out if you’re a Mason.”

“A what?”

“A Mason. A member of the Masonic Order of [I don’t know].”

My only knowledge of the Masons up until then was as a fan of Monty Python, and their “How to Recognize a Mason” sketch. They were dressed in black tie and tails, so I figured it was some bizarre aristocratic thing about the UK class system, along the lines of their “Upperclass Twit of the Year” skit.

My Canadian friend went on to explain that, in piping, being a Mason helped you win prizes, and that in order to win a World Pipe Band Championship, the pipe-major had to be a Mason. Rumour had it then and for a good long time after, that that tenet was actually true and verifiable. I’ve asked several people who I believe do know to expand on it and, to a person, they refuse to say. They don’t deny it; they simply stay silent. And silence almost always means acceptance.

I was even told about a prominent piper who joined the Masons for the sole purpose of winning more prizes, and, looking at his incredible record, it certainly did not hurt.

There are many American Freemasons, to be sure, but the so-called “secret society” seems to be far more prevalent and popular in Commonwealth countries. To me, the idea then and now that anyone is awarded a prize for anything but his or her performance is repulsive.

But apparently it still happens. In fact, I have been told by someone I trust and who is deeply entrenched in the Scottish solo scene that the benefit of the doubt “70 per cent of the time” will go to a known Mason piper from a judge who is a brother (forgive me, Masons, if that’s the wrong term). And apparently there are a lot of Masons who populate the benches of solo competitions.

I don’t know for sure. And I guess the only way that one could know is by becoming a Mason, but doing that requires a vow of silence and secrecy, so I wouldn’t be able to spill the beans on threat of punishment by running the gauntlet of spanking with a cricket bat or wet noodles or something.

So, you can see how the tradition of the Masons continues in piping, since our other big tradition is sweeping serious problems under the rug and pretending they don’t exist.

I have nothing at all against anyone having their club with their rules. If the Royal Scottish Pipers Society wants to ban women from joining, that is their prerogative. If the Masons want to hold their meetings and get off on their rituals, fill your apron. Just don’t foist it on others.

And foisting it on others is what happens when delicate and subjective music competitions are swayed by anything but the musical performance itself.

For sure, the Masons do a lot of great things. They contribute to communities and charities, they volunteer their time. They are good people. This is simply a topic of conversation in piping and drumming based on my experience and what I have been told by those I trust. If it is indeed a practice or a problem, then sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant. If members of the Masons are offended by the perception simply being raised for the first time (that I am aware of) in a public forum in piping, then I guess that can’t be helped.

I am sure that readers know more about this and have had many more Masonic encounters in piping than me. Feel free to fill us in. Any Masons who want to refute it, you’re welcome.

And your identity can be secret.

Double-dip

The New Zealand Championships again brought to light the growing practice of pipers and drummers playing in multiple bands in the same grade in the same year. Almost unthinkable 10 years ago, the custom is now commonplace, with pipe bands playing within the rules (or the lack of one) and, essentially, gaming the release and transfer system.

On the surface, temporarily switching bands in the off-season seems harmless, and when compared with, say, civil war in Syria, it is. But in our little pipe band world, the idea of splitting time between competing bands is an erosion of healthy competition. It’s also another symptom of the large numbers condition.

To stress, I’m not talking about people flying in to play in the only band they play in. That’s just a longer distance to travel to play in one band. Go for it.

What I’m talking about is the practice of learning the music, submitting release and transfer documentation to the home association, and hopping on a few planes to contribute your talents during the northern hemisphere’s off-season, and once the contest is over, rejoining the original band. At first blush, it seems like a harmless thing to do for those talented and wealthy enough to pull it off. But, on closer look, it simply compounds a problem that is becoming more significant every year.

As discussed a few times now, bands across all grades – and especially Grade 1 – are under pressure to field large numbers. Bigger is seen by many judges as better, or at least more impressive, and “impressive” is often correlated with “better.” Ratcheting up a pipe section by a few good players promotes presence. Pipe-majors and leading-drummers can’t be blamed; they’re only responding to pressure that has gone unregulated by associations by their inaction to establish maximum numbers. One band sees another band doing it, so they do the same, and now southern hemisphere bands even recruit fly-in temps in Glasgow in August.

Imagine working a few times a year for a company that is otherwise your direct business competitor. Or lending your football talent to a team in the same league when your usual side isn’t participating in a tournament. These examples wouldn’t happen without you being fired or thrown off the squad. It only happens in the pipe band world because we don’t disallow it, associations have encouraged it (through inaction on maximum numbers), and our changed sense of competitive ethics have enabled it.

It’s a tough thing to regulate, since accurate roster tracking is almost impossible, and currently relies mainly on trust – and bands ratting out their competition. But it seems to me that all the RSPBA needs to do to address the situation is establish a policy that says something like, “A playing member of the organization may only compete with one band in a grade in a calendar year.” That is, you can’t play with another band in the same grade until January 1st.

For sure, there are positive claims that come from double-dipping, always from pipers and drummers and bands that do it. People have explained away the practice by contending it builds camaraderie and allows them to experience new pipe band scenes. That’s lovely, but it comes across as scrambling for reasons.

I’ve actually received a number of messages from players in Grade 1 New Zealand bands that fly in members from their competition. They have expressed their agreement that it should stop, but also understand that it’s being done for their short-term success because it is within the rules.

All this is not to say that any piper, drummer or band is at fault. Double-dipping is simply a response to worldwide pressure to create bigger bands. The inaction of the RSPBA when it comes to creating caps on section or roster sizes is the real reason.

A rule is needed. One band, one grade, one year.

Look at me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less is more

In 2006 this blog first raised the growing issue of large pipe band section sizes being ultimately detrimental to the health of pipe bands themselves. Eight years have gone by, and the topic has been raised repeatedly, with another call in July for the RSPBA to do something to address the problem.

In 2011, I wrote and published a feature article on the World Pipe Band Championships’ anicillary negative effect on the pipe band world in general, a chief example being the growing size of pipe bands paradoxically diminishing the scene overall.

Last month, one of the great pipe band institutions, the former World Champion Dysart & Dundonald, decided, for all purposes, to cease to operate. It wasn’t the only reason, but the fact the band’s numbers were way down and the ability to build them up again to compete against the top tier in Grade 2 was unlikely in the near-term, informed their decision to release all of their players.

It’s not just Grade 1 and Grade 2. Larger bands in the lower grades are increasingly dominating, making judging comparisons ridiculous, as the formidable “presence” of a large, reasonably well tuned pipe band almost always trumping the clarity of technique and tone of a very-well-tuned small group with small numbers.

While pipe bands around the world continue to gaze longingly at being competitive at the World’s, they ever-increasingly look for quick-fix solutions to their numbers, such as recruiting even more players from afar and merging with the cross-town rivals. Bands are bigger; bands are fewer. Local Highland games suffer as they are no longer worth the logistical effort and cost to bring everyone together

Pipe bands today play at fewer events, simply because they have to be selective for financial reasons, or simply to save face because, even though they could compete with the minimum numbers from the local members, they don’t want to put out a group that does not reflect their full complement.

And the RSPBA, so far, has done nothing. It’s up to them because their rules influence every association, whether they pertain to music, format, judging, or section sizes.

As the World’s turns, so does the pipe band world.

Placing reasonable limits on rosters for the 2015 season through all grades will almost immediately reinvigorate the world pipe band scene. It will make almost all members of large bands do one of two things: practice all the harder to keep their spot, or, face the music, and join or form another band. There could be a very small minority who fall off completely because their interest in almost solely social, and they see competing as a necessary evil, but the world passed these folks by long ago anyway.

I’ve competed at the World’s with a band of 25 pipers, and it is a certain thrill. The energy created is terrific. I’ve also competed with a pipe section of 12 that won the MSR event at the World Championships. The precision and tone were similarly thrilling. I’ve also seen two bands that were inspirations to me when I was younger collapse in the last year. That’s not so thrilling.

There are reports that the RSPBA is in fact going to address the situation, and will try to put through roster / registration limits. If they finally do that, they will need to be prepared to fight the good fight, and do what’s best for the pipe band world. There will be dogged resistance by some of the most powerful and successful people and bands around.

But if the RSPBA takes a courageous stand they should know that bands will get even better. There will more of them. And they will be judged on a far more level field.

Or, they can waste another year of inaction at everyone’s peril. It’s time to lead.

Seven realizations in 2013

2013 was one of my more memorable years in piping, mainly because I was seeing things from a different but familiar perspective. Following a few springtime commitments, I took a break from judging, and, after eight years away, competed as a solo piper.

For the first time I didn’t have the self-inflicted burden of set tunes to crank through. It was true before, but, also for the first time, I practiced and competed with whatever I wanted to play. I was also free after competing in the morning to do whatever: go home, or stay around to listen to the bands.

Not soaking up an entire day judging 50 solo pipers and then 35-odd pipe bands was a nice change. Judging in Ontario is lonely and exhausting work; an assembly-line of competitors, each deserving close attention and specific and constructive feedback. Paradoxically, you’re thinking so much that there’s no time to think. So, this year I felt liberated from another self-induced burden, rewarding as it might be to try to give back to the community.

Looking back, there were several things I realized:

1. Tuned and steady are almost everything. If your pipe falls away even slightly, with all but the most courageous judges, you might as well forget it. Professional solo pipers who are in the prizes have impeccable, steady instruments. Wonderful music and technique more rarely than ever trump an untuned instrument.

2. Piping and drumming manufacturers have finally figured out marketing. Pipers and drummers will do anything to achieve the previous point, and makers of things know it. There is no end to what pipers will pay to gain a microscopic competitive edge. You make it; they’ll try it. The last decade has produced a dizzying array of products, each promising to deliver what you need. (Money-back-guarantees don’t appear yet to be widespread, though.)

3. Be ready to spend if you’re going to be a competing solo piper. (See points 1 and 2.) I compare solo piping to two other hobbies: golf and skiing. Each is expensive to maintain. Every year brings new equipment that promises to lower your score, allow you to turn more sharply, or steady your instrument. And, as with golf clubs and ski resorts, the price of participation in competitive piping is high. I handed over almost $500 this year to the PPBSO for the right to compete in five competitions. Low-income pipers and drummers are gradually being pushed out of the art.

4. One percent of the pipe bands control 100 percent of the pipe band scene. The world’s top pipe bands have more political and musical power than ever. As it goes with them, so it goes with the rest of the pipe band world. To some extent, this has always been so, but it seems today more pronounced than ever. Changes that should be made in the pipe band world, won’t be made unless a handful of pipe bands approve.

5. Tenor drumming jumped the shark. I’m not sure if it was a single episode akin to Fonzie jumping over man-eating sharks on water-skis, but it’s clear that pipe band tenor drumming at some point went just a bit too far, and there’s an overall retrenchment in the histrionics and pirouettes we’ve witnessed. Unlike Happy Days, the Tenor Drumming series won’t be cancelled, but it will continue in a more music-first manner.

6. The piping and drumming world is friendlier than ever. Particularly in the solo piping scene, pipers respect and support their fellow pipers, and there’s a spirit throughout of camaraderie. As I’ve said, we might thank social media for that, but I doubt there’s a more pleasant atmosphere at the games than among the Professional solo pipers, filling the time awaiting their turn to play with friendly and enlightening conversation.

7. Snide loses. The demise of hate-filled anonymous piping and drumming Internet forums is testament to point 6. Haters will hate, as they say, but we know who they are, and they will continue to be outed and ostracized from the community. Those who make personal attacks will quicker than ever find themselves without a band, out of solo circles, or, in the case of one well known attack, off of judging panels.

Those are a few of the things that I realized in 2013. I hope your year was full of realizations, and all the best to you and yours for a happy and prosperous 2014.

Ill-defined

Folded kilt.It was winter 1991 when the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band was down to about seven members and I was one of them. The pipe-major was taking a sustained break. The L-D had gone for good and most of the drummers went with him. Five survivors met on a freezing February night at a library in Toronto that provided practice space, and we discussed whether the band should fold or somehow beat on.

Keep in mind that not even four years earlier the band had won the World Championship, recorded Live In Ireland and another album and was unbeaten on the Ontario circuit for probably eight years. How quickly things had changed.

Obviously, the decision was to carry on. Too much passion and effort and commitment – by the surviving seven, anyway – had gone into the band’s 12-year history. We accepted that there were lean times ahead, and that we might not be as good, but we would stick in and at least die trying.

I’m certain that the word “merger” was never spoken. Ever. The band was the band, and if other players were out there, we’d simply have to find them. Where once the band was a club of snobs, a more open-door policy was adopted. Bill Livingstone came around, talented pipers and drummers came out of the woodwork and were welcomed, we hung out a shingle, and no rival bands were ransacked.

The next season saw the band drop back in quality, but the music and the drive were still there, along with the will to maintain the band’s spirit, which of course continues 23 years later in a newly distinct personality.

Perhaps today it’s different. Pipers and drummers are prone to look for the instant fix. If there’s not a satisfactory local option, then simply “join” a band far away, and occasionally fly in to practices and contests, and do the hard work in between times at home.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s proven to work to gain success in competition. But what other “success” is there? Is there true camaraderie? Is the band truly a part of a community? Is there more to a pipe band today than winning competitions? Has the definition of what a pipe band should be changed for good?

I’m afraid it has. The century-plus perseverance of community bands like Kirkintilloch or Wallacestone will be made ever more extraordinary as bands crumble and merge and speak of a 20-year history and a downturn in numbers as ample reasons to call it a day.

When a grim situation like that of the 1991 78th Frasers happens now, too many bands tend to fold like a cheap kilt. There must be more to the definition of a successful pipe band than a bunch of casual acquaintances winning prizes.

Registration

Forgotten Password?