For the parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the beat

Buddy Rich was a master of playing 'in the pocket.'I’m often intrigued when a pipe band is first from a drumming judge, but far back in ensemble. One of the adjudicators must be wrong and, call me presumptuous, but it’s usually the drumming judge.

To me, the very first function of a pipe band drum corps is to play in time with the pipe section. That is, on the beat. Not slightly at the front or the back of where the pipe section’s tempo is, but absolutely with it. A drum section can be insanely impressively technically complicated, inventive and together, but if doesn’t play on the beat that the pipe section establishes, it is missing its first essential function as an ensemble instrument within the band as a whole.

Playing on the beat would seem to be an easy task, but it is in fact extremely difficult. Even the world’s greatest pipe bands suffer from tempo drift, as they try to keep 20-odd pipers, eight or so bass section players, and upwards of 10 snare drummers together. The complexities of centering the beat from the pipe-major, to the leading drummer, to the bass drummer, to the leading tenor, back and forth with each other, and then across their respective sections is a study in focused concentration. A slight deviation from the beat set by the pipe-major creates an immediate cascading effect throughout the band, and that previously toe-tapping tune suddenly and mysteriously feels oddly scattered.

I come from the piping side of things, but I assure you that when I assess ensemble, my focus is almost always on the drum section. First order of business: is it one the beat? Second, is it enhancing, neutral to, or hindering the melody? Third, is the drum corps supplying the dynamics inherently lacking in pipe music, and are the tones of the drums complementary to the piping and each other?

Drumming judges who lose sight of the ensemble nature of a drum section lose sight of its fundamental role within the band. I have spoken with many drumming judges who support this concept, and actually can’t think of a drumming judge who would refute it. But when it comes time actually to judge the drumming, they often seem to forget their “ensemble ear,” and simply assess each corps in isolation from the balance of the band. Perhaps they worry that if they don’t reward the technically superior, they will fall out of favour with the drumming tradition. The consequence often is the drumming prize going to a band that received a poor market from the ensemble judge.

The Kingston Scottish Festival in Ontario has for several years now had each of the four pipe band adjudicators judge ensemble. The post-event consultation is always illuminating, and inevitably the discussion with each certified ensemble adjudicator – whether he or she has a piping or drumming background – begins with how well the band as a whole was knitted to the beat. There have been many times when the drumming judge has said that the drum section that was technical superior did not in fact help the band much, and gave the nod to a band with a relatively inferior technical corps. The consultation process (which Ontario continues to conduct to very positive effect, I might add), is a respectful, educational dialog that informs the decision in a purely constructive way, and there’s hardly any commentary on the minutiae of blemishes within the three sections, but rather an open discourse of the “big picture” of the band as a whole.

A drumming prize awarded to a section that does not play in time with the piping is a prize awarded incorrectly. It all starts with a single beat.

What musical milestones?

Smashing.I was watching the movie Superbad again the other day. Seth, played by Jonah Hill, says about some girl’s boyfriend who he can’t compete with, “He is the sweetest guy. Have you ever looked into his eyes? It was like the first time I heard the Beatles.”

The hilarious crassness of Superbad aside, people talk about moments that changed the course of music. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Clash and London Calling. Nirvana’s Nevermind. Your choices will vary.

But how many game-changing musical moments has piping had? Not those that inspired you on a personal level (we all have those), but musical moments that altered the direction of everything. It’s an interesting and debatable question. Here are a few that I would suggest.

1957 – Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band debuts selections of small strathspeys and reels – never before had pipe bands ventured outside of marching tunes or “heavy” MSRs.

1967 – Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band‘s rendition of “The Old Woman’s Lullaby” – a groundbreaking pipe band take on ceol mor, complete (or replete, as some people may still believe) with cymbals and other colouristic percussion.

1980 – General Motors Pipe Band performs a glissando, or “slide-note,” in “My Lagan Love.”

1987 – 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, “Journey to Skye,” Balleymena, Northern Ireland – first suite by a pipe band, composed by a jazz musician, no less.

Maybe not enough time has passed yet to decide whether the Toronto Police’s 2008 “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions” should be included, but it may well be.

Interestingly, I’m having a hard time thinking of solo piping examples. Certainly many of the compositions of  G.S. McLennan and Gordon Duncan, for example, moved the art in a different direction, as have those of other tunesmiths. But by and large groundbreaking new musical artistry is made by individuals, but made famous by pipe bands. Perhaps there was a precise moment when G.S. first performed “The Little Cascade” in public. I don’t know.

And, yes, Donald MacPherson is credited with being the first to refine consistent tuning of Highland pipe, and bands like Strathclyde Police, Field Marshal Montgomery, Simon Fraser University and Victoria Police have set standards of tuning and unison, but not sure if they sent the music in a completely new direction.

What are other examples of great musical moments in piping and drumming and pipe bands that turned things upside down?

Travelling band

All the young dudes.I think every pipe band dreams at some point about doing “a tour.” The glamourous concept of the rock n roll lifestyle, hitting stops along the way, rolling into towns to do a show, partying all night, then hitting the road again for the next concert.

Hello, Cleveland!

British military bands are the only ones in our musical realm that can hit the road – they’re ordered to do so and the government coordinates the venture, which is as much about entertaining as it is about waving the flag. The problem with a civilian pipe band is, of course, no one has the vacation time to commit to such a thing. We all work for a living, and playing in the band isn’t a realistic income source.

The mythical rock n roll road lifestyle seems to have taken hold of several professional pipers and drummers (“professional” meaning they make a living from teaching and performing) for the first time with the “Pipes n Sticks on 66” tour planned for April. Mike Cole, Stuart Liddell, Jim Kilpatrick, Willie McCallum and Angus MacColl seem to be the first to make fantasy reality by tracking the famous old US Highway glamourized so often in song to get their kicks in a mini-bus, stopping along the way, fighting off the chicks and hoping a roadie or two will look after their gear.

It’s all part of our rock n roll fantasy: five guys in their forties (mostly) in search of the dream and the bleary lifestyle of the troubadour and the stories that will inevitably be told from the trip. To most, Bon Scott notwithstanding, Highland pipes are about as far removed from rock n roll cool as can be imagined, so the tour is a great story on its own. It should get a number of curiosity-seekers wondering if Stuart Liddell will play vintage Henderson Stratocaster drones.

We pipers and drummers secretly wish we could be rock stars. Instead we play mostly traditional music, clad in 20 pounds of wool, often standing in the rain on a farmer’s field before a crowd of family and bored friends. Some may shake their head at the Pipes n Sticks on 66 tour, but I think most of us deep down know that these guys are ticking off a box on their list of things to do before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

It’s the stuff that rock n roll dreams are made of.

Fixing holes

Wait'll Yoko has her say . . .Every top pipe band needs a composer and, ideally, it has two. I’ve been reading Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music-The Definitive Life by Tim Riley. My mother was a big fan of The Beatles, and some of my first musical memories are (along with my dad’s fondness for Jimmy Shand records) listening repeatedly to Rubber Soul and Revolver on our green wool living room rug. One of the first movies I saw in an actual theater was Yellow Submarine. I would have been five.

I know my Beatles, but Riley’s book opened my eyes wider to the Lennon-McCartney composing dynamic. The two were supreme collaborators and, more importantly, they were big-time rivals. Outdoing one another with musical originality was implicit.

Lennon showed McCartney his trippy “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and McCartney answered back within days with his nostalgic Liverpool memory with “Penny Lane.” McCartney’s maudlin 4/4 “Michelle” received a quick caustic 6/8 comeback from Lennon in “Norwegian Wood.”

At least until Magical Mystery Tour, they injected themselves into each other’s compositions. But from then on they drifted apart musically and emotionally. Almost all of the songs were still fantastic, but they lacked that certain Beatles brilliance when they worked collaboratively – for example, compare the collaborative “A Day in the Life” with the Lennon-only “Revolution.” (Incidentally, apparently McCartney’s “Fixing a Hole” is about him solving the gap in Lennon’s “A Day in the Life,” with the “woke up, fell out of bed” section.)

You can see a similar dynamic with other great composing partnerships in their heydays: Jagger & Richards; Simon & Garfunkel; Page & Plant. When they worked well together, they challenged one another with different thinking, and made otherwise predictable songs incredibly distinctive compositions. Their compositional styles pretty much mirror their very different personalities. The competitive and personal friction between them paid off.

Bands in the top grades are under pressure to be original. Just about every band with a distinct musical identity has a composer/arranger either in the ranks or on the outside funneling pieces to them. Bands that have two or more composers and arrangers who collaboratively debate, prod and critique each other’s works I would think have an advantage.

But that sort of constructive collaboration is usually stoked by a rivalry and competitive spirit. Goodness knows, pipers and drummers are driven by competition. But rivals often eventually fall out. They stop collaborating. They stop caring what the other thinks. They go their separate musical ways.

But as long as competitive composers can appreciate each other’s input, they and their bands should make the most of it. Great things happen when opposites attract.

True-love giving

“Twelve drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping” . . . these are maybe the greatest connections to piping and drumming we have when it comes to bridging to the non-playing public. Everyone loves “The 12 Days of Christmas.” It’s the “Scotland the Brave” of Christmas Carols.

I’m not sure about your part of the world, but it seems that Christmas windows at big department stores have made a comeback in Toronto. That’s nice. I’d hate to think that kids never get the chance to gaze dreamily at the mechanized glittering windows before they become completely inured to consumerism. It used to be that department store Christmas windows were a marvel of technology; now, they’re a quaint throwback to the days of Hornby trainsets and Meccano.

The fancy Holt-Renfrew store on Bloor Street this year has a really clever series of windows that have a fashionista take on “The 12 Days.” Their interpretation of 11 Pipers Piping is quite brilliant: 10 female mannequins in plaid/tartan with “drones” sticking out of their designer handbags. Get it? Bag-pipes. (The eleventh mannequin appears to be a man smoking a pipe, to keep everyone honest, since I’d imagine about one out of every eleven Holts customers is male.)

Sadly, the 12 Drummers window is made up of mannequins in a tin soldier motif. Drummers can be many things, while pipers to most punters, at least in the western world, are Highland bagpipers. Ed Neigh said many years ago that pipe bands must be eternally grateful to drummers, who have so many other musical options, but instead chose to play in, of all things, a pipe band.

Every year you see financial calculations of how much it would cost to buy or rent the entire 12 Days. For the 12 drummers, they always seem to go with a marching band of some kind, while the cost of 11 pipers is mainly that which the local pipe band would charge for what today would often mean about half of its pipe section. I’d imagine that hiring 11 of SFU or Field Marshal Montgomery’s pipe section would set you back at least a thousand dollars, or about the price of five decent gold rings — six if you throw in both Lees and a Parkes.

Swans, a partridge in a pear tree, geese a laying – all very doable, and I’d bet you could wait around Westminster to get 10 Lords to leap on their tea break. I’m not sure what eight farm-girls go for what with the cost of their dairy cows, or if eight wet-nurses are even possible in this age and day.

“Eleven pipers piping”: a true gift to our art.

Put a golf tee in it

Just shut it.pipes|drums is all about creating constructive conversation and dialog, and I like to think that over the years many sensitive topics have seen sunlight after having been swept under the rug for ages. We’re getting there.

Reviews are always done by those who have the right combination of objectivity, detachment, respect and expertise to make their words count. People who sell the product or compete with the item or have some other vested interest – real or perceived – are avoided. It’s often difficult to find the right match, and sometimes the best potential reviewers have to decline because they’re too busy or just feel uncomfortable about the task. I like it when they say no, rather than deliver something that disappoints or is well past the product’s sell-by-date.

Increasingly, RSPBA judges are declining the invitation to review products or events. It’s not because they feel they’re biased, it’s because the association allegedly requires  that they get permission in advance to write or speak about anything to do with piping or drumming. So, some of our best and brightest apparently are afraid to share their insights with the piping and drumming world, and don’t want the hassle of requesting advance consent from the association.

What a shame.

In 2007 I wrote about pipe bands veering towards that wrong-headed tack. Fortunately most of them have lightened up a great deal since then, as they’ve realized the communications potential of  Facebook and Twitter and other means to share insights. When an organization disallows members from speaking about their passion, and using their common sense when doing so, they undermine trust. The band or association views it from a strictly negative perspective, cynically thinking that their member will somehow embarrass the group, rather than indirectly vaunting it with their intelligence.

Granted, no organization should have members go out and speak for the organization, but, when it comes to a musical art, all they have to do is tell them to stick strictly to talking about music. Then trust them to do so.

As I understand it from RSPBA judges, they might not be allowed to post anything related to piping or drumming on Facebook, on which most of them have an account. They allegedly shouldn’t post any videos or anecdotes or comment about any band performance anywhere without prior consent, or do any interviews without prior approval. Should they just keep their mouths shut and their fingers off their keyboard? If they play a recital they shouldn’t speak to the audience without clearing things first with 45 Washington Street? Put tape right across your entire hole?

Are their only unapproved comments those that they put down on score sheets?

It’s a case study in how to get the least from your best.

Flatten the grass

BzzzzzzBzzzzzplop . . . . . . BzzzzzBzzzzzplop  EEEEEEEELike many other people I’ve been listening to Ceremonials, the new disc by Florence + the Machine. Of course, it reminds me of a great pipe band. Florence Welch’s powerful, instant-on voice makes me think of a pipe chanter, except one with a three-octave range, multi-layered, with complex harmonies and counter-melodies textured in.

I just read that her new album has hit the number-one spot in the UK charts, so there must be a market for BIG music that carries certain sameness, and which is highly infused with Celtic style, crazy outfits and wispy heather visions of the moors. She also often uses lots of lower-toned drums, often in rhythmical, chant-like ways, which fits with the current sound of many bands.

Bill Livingstone once talked about listening to the 1980s vintage Strathclyde Police when they were “in full sail,” conjuring an image of a clipper meeting the waters head-on with wind. The pipe band-sailing ship analogy is even more apt today with much larger bands developing huge visual and sonic power.

I could see Florence + the Machine doing something with a pipe band, just as I could hear a pipe band covering one or two of her songs in a concert. Our music is often criticized by outsiders for always sounding the same with unwavering loudness and a dearth of dynamics. But there is no denying that a pipe band at its best produces impressive and beautiful energy that, as George Campbell would say, “flattens the grass.”

I’ve also read some criticism of Ceremonials, contending that the songs remain the same from track-to-track. But Florence Welch clearly works within a formula that rings true with many people. Sometime, pipe bands try too hard to be something they are not and can never be. Instead of working with what they have, they strive to overlay pipes and drums with other stuff, seemingly never content with, It is what it is.

I’m not saying for a second that there is anything wrong with that. I’m a vocal proponent of pushing the boundaries. But some artists are able to hit upon a formula without ever becoming formulaic. They recognize what they’ve been given, their limitations, and get on with making the most of them.

Easy image

Shiny, happy tenor.The current pipes|drums Poll attempts to discover how skilled pipers and drummers around the world (that is, the over-achieving musicians who follow the magazine) respond to the question, How long do you think it takes to become a pretty good tenor drummer? The results are interesting.

While the majority (about 32%) have so far answered “At least a few years,” the next-highest response, at about 24%, is “A day or two.”

Clearly, tenor drumming has an image problem.

I’ve coordinated these polls for many years. The high volume of participants means that after only a few hours the percentages are pretty much established. While it’s not scientific data, the p|d Poll is a very good basic gauge of the attitudes and perceptions of pipers and drummers on issues and topics of all kinds.

I really should take some tenor drumming lessons to find out for myself, but I have a hard time believing that I could become “pretty good” – to a standard defined by our competition-band format – after only a few days, even if I worked at it for 16 of each of the 24 hours. Or maybe I could. Maybe I’ll see if someone would be willing to teach me. It would at the very least make for humourous video content (particularly if I could wear a vintage leopard-skin apron).

But why would a full quarter of us think that it’s so easy? They say it takes seven years and seven generations to make a piper. That’s over-stating things, but my own experience was that I wasn’t a “pretty good” piper until at least a few years after I started. To become a pretty good pipe band snare drummer is at least as challenging. Is it because pipers and snare drummer often look like they’re in total agony in competition, drenched in sweat, while tenor drummers appear to be having so much effortless, smiling fun?

Goodness knows that tenor drumming is far more complicated and intricate today than it ever was, but should it be made even harder to satisfy possibly resentful pipers and snare drummers?

Or perhaps, to use that dreadful expression, it is what it is. Maybe it is relatively easy. Is that necessarily wrong? Maybe it’s not an image problem at all.

Awesome simplicity

Mingus.“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

“Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

The great jazz cat Charles Mingus famously said these things back in the day. He was speaking particularly about his own music; it also applies to ours.

My favourite tunes – bagpipe or other – invariably have extraordinarily simple, memorable melodies. They’re uncluttered and pure in their distinctive structure and sound. “Lochanside,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Lament for Mary MacLeod,” “In My Life,” “The Little Cascade,” “A Case of You,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein” . . .

We pipers play a rather complicated instrument, and many composers – especially those just starting out – seem to think that complexity is the root of cleverness. As listeners we can’t help but be impressed by our fastest-handed players doing things that we can only dream of. We associate clever with complicated.

But we’re moved by the simple. The simple stays with us. A blur of notes and impressive technicalities generally leave us cold, while pure memorable melody puts us in the mood for more.

Pipe bands have a particularly difficult time with this concept. The temptation is to impress with “innovation” rather than wow with sound. The real challenge is to present the pipe band’s complicated intricacies in a simple and meaningful manner that resonates long after the sound stops. The task is made yet harder when snare drummers are rewarded for technical rather than musical achievement, and complicated yet again when bass sections are inserted into places they’re really not needed.

Maybe it’s because our music is so simply nine notes that we strive to over-complicate it. We gild the lily. Perhaps it’s overcompensation for what we feel we lack in terms of octaves and dynamics and time-signatures, but it’s the simple, and the confidence to be awesomely simple, that sustains.

Lessons earned

Ethical dilemmae.There’s a hardly a person out there who has not at one time won a prize when their teacher was judging, and I would be willing to bet that of the 99 per cent of pipers and drummers who have been rewarded by their instructor, nearly all of them felt a bit regretful.

I know I have.

1984. I had been living in Scotland, spending my third year of college at the University of Stirling. I had the extreme good fortune to be taken on as a regular pupil by someone of prodigious knowledge and renown strictly for piobaireachd, and another even more renowned person for light music. (Why I didn’t occasionally seek one for the other music, I don’t know, but that’s another story.) I also was lucky enough to access the prodigious knowledge of another prominent person for a few weekends in the fall of 1983.

I had been preparing all year for the Silver Medal. The event in 1984 called for contestants to submit six of their own choice of tunes. I keenly learned up the tunes set for the Gold Medal contests, since it was all good. I got all of these from my main piobaireachd teacher. I’d been playing well enough over the summer to pick up prizes around the games.

But then the judges for the Silver Medal were revealed in July. At the time I was extremely excited to learn that not one, not two, but all three of my teachers would be on the Silver Medal bench at Inverness. Since I believed that the teacher/pupil/judge connection was an acceptable part of the game, I figured that I had hit the jackpot. What great luck!

After getting nothing at Oban, Inverness came around. I was the first to play after the lunch break. I thought that I played as well as I possibly could, which is all you can hope to do. The result was announced, and I was first. All three of them told me later that their decision was unanimous.

While I felt that I deserved the prize, I also felt awkward at the time and ever since about the award. I knew then as I know now that many prizes big and small have been won with teachers judging their students. As far as I know, there’s no rule anywhere against the practice, and only “policies” with some organizations that asks teachers to avoid judging their pupils.

I’ve written before that the practice of teachers judging their students is inevitable, since the best teachers make the most knowledgeable judges and vice-versa. Maybe tellingly, I came up with that thesis when I was actively competing. People often find ways to reconcile such dilemmas in ways that suit us at the time.

I’ve since changed my mind. Teachers judging pupils can and should be avoided. If for nothing else, a teacher should avoid the practice for this fundamental reason: it’s not fair to the pupil. It’s not fair because the student may well have deserved the prize, and probably did, but his or her peers – every one of them – will have at least a shade of doubt.

I don’t for a second think that back in 1984 my teachers were anything but ethical and honest, and my sense of ethics may differ substantially from others. I respect other opinions. I also think that the ethical sense of players, teachers and judges have changed over the last three decades.

But all too often I sense teachers accept judging pupils for what appears to be a selfish reason: to further their own reputation as a teacher via the success of their student. The better the pupil does, the better the instructor appears.

Some players dodge the issue by saying that a judge who’s judging them isn’t really an “instructor” because they see them only periodically, or receive only casual feedback. That may be so, but, as a friend recently pointed out, the player is quick to list the very same person as a “teacher” in their autobiographical sketches.

Some judges dodge the issue with the well-worn contention that, if you prohibit teachers from judging their pupils, there won’t be enough judges to go around. I don’t believe that. It just takes adroit planning and full disclosure. Judges need to tell organizers who they’re teaching, and then let them organize events accordingly.

Competitions are about the competitors, not the judges. Teachers should not put their students in such compromising situations. Ironically, prizes won by students of judges are an injustice to the pupil who needs to be seen to earn prizes fairly, strictly on his or her own merits.

And declining to judge pupils in contests could be one of the most important lessons an instructor can teach.

“Bass-Cam”

In 2010 “Glen-Cam” was first used and it still gets lots of inquiries. People seemed to like it a lot, as it was intended to provide an adjudicator’s perspective. And, now, I bring you “Bass-Cam.”

If you think about it, the rarest vantage-point in the pipe world is that of a bass drummer with a Grade 1 pipe band. There’s only one of them, and they tend to be pretty stable when it comes to staying with bands. So why not bring you this unique perspective?

Kindly agreeing this was Reagan Jones, keeper of the big drum (or, one of them, anyway) with the Grade 1 Toronto Police Pipe Band. The original intention was to get footage from the actual competition, but mechanical difficulties prohibited that (i.e., the freakin’ camera didn’t work!), but she was successful with a test-run, capturing the band’s final stages of tuning with a set of 4/4 marches.

Thanks to Reagan and her band for being such good sports and having some fun, even in the heat of competition and the heat of the 35-degree day.

And, so . . . here’s “Bass-Cam.”

Lament for the union

Strength in numbers.Here’s a wildcat thought: piping and drumming associations are unions. Well, we all know they’re not, strictly speaking, but maybe it’s time we all thought of them that way. There could be great up-side if we did.

Every association I know contends that its central purpose is to promote, further, enhance . . . whatever the piping and drumming arts. If that’s true, then shouldn’t every piper and drummer get behind the greater group for the greater good? We all too often think of associations as a requirement to compete, a necessary step simply to take part in the events that are our primary performance platform.

In fact, we should want to be a member of an association primarily to further what we do – to promote our own arts in a long-range, big-picture perspective.

The trouble is, associations may claim that their fundamental mandate is to further our art, but they often lose sight of that objective. Too many associations think that they’re in the business of running competitions, like a kind of one-product company. They may run competitions exceedingly well, but is that really for the greater good of the art? Is it to an association’s long-term benefit to do little or nothing else but administer competitions?

Companies that have one product and don’t diversify are almost always doomed eventually to fail. Once the popularity of their one thing wanes, they’re left with nothing to sell. The corporate graveyard is filled with the ghosts of one-product companies that failed to diversify, leapfrog the competition or satisfy the expanding needs of their customers.

Associations therefore need to refocus and fulfill their core goal of furthering our arts in as many ways as possible. Pipers and drummers who don’t receive more in return on their investment than being part of a competition-running-machine will eventually look elsewhere. They won’t want to be part of a “union” that is a nothing more than a condition to compete.

If we think of associations as unions, and if associations deliver on their core promise, we can leverage strength-in-numbers. If we work like the unions of actors and musicians, eventually all events where pipers and drummers perform will be required to work through our associations.

But it has to start with the associations. They have to do more than administer competitions. They have to diversify their products, extend ROI for their members and be seen as the right thing for the art. If that happens, then card-carrying members will rally around the union, and solidarity will prevail.

Why not?

Stewards, chiefly

The passing of the esteemed piper, leader and organizer Robert Stewart of Inveraray in May was a sad loss for piping. I can’t say that I knew him, but those who did had all-good things to say, and talked of him with reverence and respect and admiration.

My encounters with him were limited to competing at the Inveraray Games 10 or so years ago. I was impressed with the way he handled the large number of competitors as both the piping convener and steward for the competitions. I remember thinking that, without such an adept hand, the whole thing would be chaos instead of the fun and smooth-running event it was.

Stewarding takes a deft touch. It’s true that once pipers and drumming gain experience, they essentially know the drill and look after themselves. But good stewarding can turn a decent competition into one a soloist will return to again and again.

The best stewards are often those who played the game themselves. Former competitors have been there and understand how to improve a piper or drummer’s overall experience, while simultaneously looking after the necessities of the event itself.

Until about 1986, the Edinburgh City/Lothian & Border Police Pipe Band used to organize a popular indoor solo competition. It was popular with competitors, in large part, because the band’s members did the stewarding. They kept the events moving, but also were true to the definition of “steward”: one who manages and assists.

I would add empathy to that description. Too often piping and drumming stewards don’t fully appreciate their role and, instead of being empathetic with the competitors, are almost unfeeling by not first giving the soloist the benefit of the doubt, or deferring to the piper or drummer’s experience when they themselves haven’t walked the boards. Although stewards at times need to get tough, stewarding shouldn’t be considered a position of authority.

I understand that competitions can’t all have a fleet of Robert Stewarts managing events. We all do the best we can, and are always grateful to volunteers who step up and who strive to do a good job. Often, though, volunteer stewards aren’t aware of what they can do to make an event better for the competitor.

So here are a few tips for stewards:

– Get a briefing. If you’re new to stewarding, a run-down of dos and don’ts from the organizers is essential. Also, ask the judge how he/she likes to operate before the event starts.
– Talk to competitors. Introduce yourself and help them to feel at ease. These people have put a gazillion hours into preparing for the event you’re stewarding, and part of your role is to, if not keep them calm, not let them get any more anxious.
– Don’t just sit there. Some stewards are evidently told that their only task is to check off competitors on their list as they report to them. You need to get up and about and even ask competitors and other stewards if someone entered but not checked in is in fact present. Walk around keep competitors informed on what’s going on.
– The idea is participation. We want pipers and drummers to compete and enjoy their day, not to be unnecessarily DQed. Find ways to solve misunderstandings. Not permitting someone to compete should always be a last resort, only when it’s out of fairness to other competitors.
– Ask for feedback. After the event, ask the judge and a few competitors how you did, and ways you might improve.

Stewarding can differentiate a competition and a good steward improves “customer service” for the event and the association. What do you see as the most important aspects of stewarding?

Name games

Like at me!An attention-craving couple named their unfortunate baby “Like” last week and evidently alerted all the papers. Apparently they’re so obsessed with Facebook and being “unique” that they’re willing to subject their child to a lifetime of confusion and torment. I can’t imagine the cruel variants of poor Like’s name. (Well, actually, yes, I can.)

I’ve heard of piping and drumming people naming their pets after piping and drumming things. For example, the famous Ronnie Rollo had two dogs, one named “Captain,” the other “Carswell.” I’ve heard of an Australian piper being named after his parents’ Scottish hometown of Airdrie (“Good thing they weren’t born in Auchtermuchty,” the late great Big Ronnie Lawrie famously quipped while judging).

I suppose if the aforementioned couples’ “passion” for Facebook can be strong enough, then surely (don’t call me that) some piper or drummer will eventually name his/her progeny after something we do. The possibilities are great.

“Tachum” comes to mind as a good boy’s name, and “Edre” seems a nice choice for a girl. You could always give your spawn a first name starting with D and a middle name of “Throw,” thus “D. Throw.” (Of course, body type would dictate whether D. Throw will be of the heavy or light variety.)

One of the “_luath” embellishments, while inviting a nice nickname of Louie, presents certain pronunciation and spelling problems, which, believe me, get tedious. I’d see any of the “Taor_,” “Crun_” and “Lem_” having a masculine sound, so good for boys. But since Gaelic nouns are gender-agnostic, these potential forenames are AC/DC, as it were.

Like George Foreman, you could name all of your kids “Mach,” and thus “Mach 1,” “Mach 2,” “Mach 3” and so forth. Make Mach a middle and add a first-name beginning with A for a perfect “A. Mach.” Brill.

“Darado” has a certain ring to it, but one can conceive of the obvious horrible variations on that ground. When I was a toddler I listened to a record of folksongs by Burl Ives (the voice of the reindeer Rudolf, by the way, in the stop-action 1964 TV special), so that’s almost as good as “Birl,” which I would think would be a certain front-runner for many pipers.

I can hear the shouts from parents: “Get a grip, Grip!” “Doubling! Don’t let me show you the back of my hand!” “Nice job, Strike!”

On the drumming side, little “Flafla” works nicely for a girl, but beware of “Ratamacue,” unless you want the poor kid forever compared with vermin. “Roll” seems almost normal, but anything with “Diddle” would be going simply too far. If Tyler Fry ever had a kid we could reasonably expect him/her to be named “Flourish.”

Although I think that our passion (although I’m getting sick of people talking about their “passion” for every little thing – “I have a passion for garage doors.” Really??) for piping/drumming is unique enough on its own, I’m sure some procreating duet somewhere at sometime has named their offspring after an embellishment.

After all, what’s not to like?

Off your head

No Kidding.There has been a lot of news recently about concussion in sports. Here in the hockey-religious country of Canada, every other day some talentless goon clobbers a star like Sidney Crosby, potentially ending his career with a concussion. Research on repeated concussions causing dementia and brain atrophy and premature death has rattled the National Football League to the point where its very ability to continue may eventually come into question.

I got a pretty bad concussion in 2002. It was a freak accident. I work with a public relations agency, and at the time the PR firms and a few news agencies from around Toronto formed a softball league. Each team had to have a set number of male and female players, and “guest” players had to be somehow connected with the people on the team.

My team made it to the final, and the championship game was against the fine people of Reuters Canada. Reuters had a bunch of ringers on board, one of whom was at shortstop. This guy was taking the game – supposedly an all-fun, schlubby affair – far too seriously. He had an impressive arm, even though the girl playing first-base clearly had trouble catching his laser-beam throws. She actually would cower out of the way rather than try to catch it.

Of course I came up to bat in the first inning and grounded to the macho shortstop, who whipped the ball to the useless first-base-woman, who opted to protect her head instead of using her leather. As I was crossing the bag, the not-soft ball got me square on the head, just above my left ear. There were no helmets in our little fun league.

It was like a cannon going off in my ear. Momentum carried me forward, my legs buckled beneath me and I crashed to the ground. I was unconscious for only a few seconds, they told me, but there was blood coming from my ear and the whole left side of me was one giant scrape.

My teammates helped me up and we staggered to the side, where a bunch of us sat. Eventually Julie arrived and took me to the nearest hospital where – eventually – they did a CT scan, diagnosed concussion and told Julie to make sure I kept breathing in my sleep.

All of this was only a few days before I was to fly to Scotland to compete at the Northern Meeting. I was a complete mess. I could hardly walk, let alone practice, but somehow I drove myself to get on that plane. Missing Inverness, what with their draconian unwritten policy of chucking competitors out if they dare not turn up, was out of the question.

The flight was brutal. I remember forcing myself to stay awake for the overnight seven hours for fear of the air pressure doing me in. I even rented a car and drove the four hours from Edinburgh to Inverness.

I got through all of that and the day of the Gold Medal my scraped and bandaged knees were exposed, and I remember steadying myself on and off the stage at Eden Court. The weird thing was, I think it was the best tune I ever managed to play. It was “Nameless – Hiharin odin, hiharin dro,” which was set that year and, the best part was, people were coming up to me saying it was good, and there seemed to be that peer-buzz that all contestants hope for. When they say nothing, you generally get nothing. I remember Malcolm McRae – a hard piobaireachd man to please, if there ever were one – remarking to me, “Very good for a concussed piper,” which of course I clung to throughout the day (and still, evidently), even though perhaps what he really meant, in that backhanded way that pipers sometimes speak to one another, was, “For a non-concussed piper, that sucked.”

As seems so often the case when competitors get their hopes up, when the prizes were announced I got sweet FA. I departed the cursed place even more confused and fuzzy-headed than when I arrived. (One of the judges, who never actually ever competed himself, told me weeks later, only after I contacted him, that he had a problem with a few taorluaths. Oh. How informative.)

Comparisons of our competitive art with sport are frequent. There are many similarities, but perhaps the most striking is our mutual all-out drive to compete. After being conked on the head, hockey and football players force themselves back onto the ice or field for both the desire to be seen by their peers as a “gamer,” or for fear of losing their spot on the team. The mind wins over the body.

Despite common sense or doctors advising otherwise, we pipers and drummers also go to such extremes that it can be positively unhealthy. We’ve all seen competitors and ourselves let competition get the best of us.

Sometimes we just need to give our head a shake.

10 words that should never appear on score sheets, but do

Competition score sheets, or “crit sheets,” are the primary way that a judge accounts for his or her result. They should provide feedback in a clear, constructive and, perhaps most important, respectful manner. Some judges are better than others at writing score sheets.

Constructing a good sheet takes an ability to multi-task (writing while listening takes practice and skill), and finding the right words with originality and specificity for at times dozens of performances over a day is far more exhausting than competing. Judging with constructive accountability is a hard, hard job.

But what isn’t hard is respecting the competitor. There’s something of a tradition in some quarters, particularly in pipe band judging, of being disrespectful to competitors. It’s like a Simon Cowell approach to “judging,” where the main objective seems to be to put artists in their place, reminding them who’s boss. It’s an old-fashioned and ignorant style of judging that, sadly, still happens today.

It often comes down to single words that can be so demeaning that even using them could be cause for suspension from a panel, reinstatement only after sensitivity training and/or completion of high school English. Alarmingly, the use of a few of these is actually encouraged in some quarters.

Here are 10 destructive words that I’ve seen on actual score sheets. In this day and age they should be banned from further use – the words and the judges.

“Vacuous” – imagine telling a band or soloist that their performance was “mindless” and “lacking in thought or intelligence.” This is what vacuous means. Has a judge stepped into a beer-tent and called a pipe-major “mindless” to his/her face? Didn’t think so.

“Dispassionate” – this $100 word is doing the rounds. It means “emotionally detached” and, perhaps ironically, is used in non-piping/drumming terms to describe someone rational or impartial. Is there a piping, drumming or pipe band competitor who is not passionate about their music? Seriously? How incredibly insulting.

An “exercise” – this seems to be a word that some judges use when they don’t personally prefer or understand a particular rhythm or melody. In this era of Rhythmic Fingerwork exercises does anyone really practice without attempting to be rhythmical?

“Devoid,” “insipid” – can you be more hurtful than telling someone passionate about their music that it’s devoid of something positive? I’m pretty sure judges who use either word don’t really know what they mean but, regardless, they can say the same thing using constructive language.

“Tuneless,” “unmusical” – these are cop-out words by judges who can’t constructively explain why they didn’t prefer a particular score or interpretation. They throw these destructive words with the intention, really, of saying, “Don’t ask me what I mean, it just was, and I know better, so shut up.”

“Mumbo-jumbo” – really? We know you’re tired and full of yourself and all, but you need to resist the temptation to sink to this sort of insulting language.

“Jungle-drumming” – this hyphenation is used by some judges who don’t like certain styles of bass-section drumming. J.K. McAllister I’m pretty sure coined the term “jungle-drumming,” or at least made it famous. Not only is it demeaning, it smacks of racism.

“Ignorant” – the only thing ignorant when it comes to this word being used on a crit-sheet is the judge, who is apparently ignorant of tact and respect and has apparently completely forgotten what it was like to be a competitor. A judge who uses this word may find his/her picture if they look up the definition.

Those are 10 words that seem to be in use by actual piping/drumming/pipe band judges. I hope that you haven’t been the victim of this stuff appearing on score sheets. And if in the future you receive one of these bombs I recommend that you send a copy of the sheet to your association to be sure that they are aware of it and deal with the offender.

When judges use this sort of language they’re really just bullying their way out of facing the truth: they’re not an effective judge of modern piping and drumming music, so they try to block its evolution by putting it down with insulting and demeaning language. Sometimes they might not even know the true meaning of the words they use. They don’t bother to look it up, just as they don’t bother to understand what today’s pipe bands are attempting to accomplish musically.

What other $100 words of judging destruction have you encountered?

Being arsed

Remote possibility.For as long as I can remember I’ve read reports on things piping and drumming that moan about the lack of young pipers and drummers attending this or that competition or performance. They usually say something like, “It’s too bad that more kids don’t bother to listen to these great players. They could have learned something.” It has always been thus.

But attending a screening of On The Day, the documentary about the one-off (so far, anyway) Spirit of Scotland project of 2008 this week got me thinking. It’s not just most of the kids and beginners who don’t bother to attend performances – it’s most pipers and drummers of any ability, age or level of experience.

The one-time screening last Wednesday at a really nice, easily accessed theatre with a state-of-the-art sound system drew a decent crowd, but only maybe 20 were pipers and drummers. Remember, this was in a city of four-million people that may be third only to Glasgow and Edinburgh for number of players. Tickets were $12.

Whether it’s a concert by the World Champions, or a recital by a Gold Medallist, or an invitational professional competition, or a unique movie about a unique pipe band project, the vast majority of pipers and drummers who could easily attend something pretty darned excellent just can’t be bothered. Why is this?

It couldn’t possibly be that so many of us don’t actually like the music – or could it? Over the years of asking prominent pipers and drummers to list their top-five CDs of all time, I’m always struck when they don’t list any piping or pipe band recordings. It’s rare when they do. They prefer to listen to “real life” music.

Is it because we’re so competitive that we can’t stop listening with a hyper-critical ear? Perhaps it’s just too hard for pipe band folk to divorce themselves from competition, and just enjoy the music. Given that we spend so much time zealously pursuing this music-sport-hobby, it’s intriguing that we can be so often passive about it.

But I realized, sitting there watching this truly historic event – the first time in piping and drumming history that a Hollywood-produced full-length movie was being shown in a real live cinema to real life people – that so many pipers and drummers couldn’t be arsed to be a part of it, much less enjoy it. I’m pretty sure that if it were a documentary about Simon Fraser University, or St. Laurence O’Toole, or Field Marshal Montgomery the interest, or lack of it, would be the same.

So, the next time I read (not in these pages, to be sure) that well-worn cliché bemoaning today’s apathetic youth ignoring great opportunities to enjoy leading exponents of the art, I will be reminded that it’s not just the kids who can’t be bothered, it’s just about all of us.

Paradiddle universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trouble with AGMs

I’ve always been miffed by pipe band associations’ annual general meetings. They’re of course a necessary thing. Every formal organization with bylaws and legalities and such-like are required to hold AGMs, but there’s something really out-of-whack with AGMs for many piping and drumming organizations.

For a start, it’s music. Music and politics are incompatible bedfellows, and politics pretty much are the source of all piping and drumming unhappiness, whether it’s alleged “political” decisions rendered by judges, or the “politics” within a pipe band, or simply the administrative side of organized competition. Most of us simply want to play or listen to music, and, for the most part, the political administration of piping and drumming associations is left to others.

As evidenced by the typical five per cent turnout of members at most AGMs, we dislike these things more than massed bands in a downpour. AGMs are held in the off-season, when the last thing we want to do is drive for miles on a Saturday when we’d rather be doing . . . anything else.

But AGMs can have a profound impact on our happiness as competitors and players. The problem is that every association I know of uses AGMs to vote on motions to change rules and policies – matters that frequently determine the structure of our events, what we play, how we play it, and how they’re judged. To say that association members are apathetic or lazy for not attending AGMs is unfair. We all care deeply; we choose instead to just cross our fingers and hope that whoever actually attends doesn’t do anything too stupid.

The difference today is we no longer expect to have to attend these meetings in-person. Since the 1990s, video conferencing and electronic voting have been easy and increasingly less expensive to set up, especially for fairly small organizations, which is what piping and drumming associations really are. Yet many associations are woefully behind when it comes to making use of technology and modern communications to reach out to members.

For today’s piping and drumming associations, here’s a checklist to improve participation in your AGMs:

  • Webcast – invest in a professional A-V company to assist with a broadcast of your event, so that members can log in with their membership number and password.
  • Communicate the agenda early and clearly – outline the motions put forward and allow members to ask questions in advance.
  • Create a formal process for executive nominations well in advance and allow candidates to campaign to membership – the business of spur-of-the-moment nominations for powerful positions often results in electing those who truly are not serious about the role.
  • Allow for proxy voting – members should not have to attend meetings in-person to cast their votes. Develop a system for online balloting.

Lastly – and this deserves to be separate from the bullets above – stop the practice of letting individual members invent rules and allowing them to push them through. Most associations comprise an Executive, a Board of Directors and a Music Committee. Just like a democracy, these three branches of elected and appointed experts are vested with the responsibility to monitor and adjust rules and policies. Just like your government, they make the laws, and they represent you. If you don’t like what they do, vote them out. But the idea of every rule-change being a membership referendum is, as we have seen many times, potentially dangerous. It allows personal agendas to be driven, as individuals, knowing that a small minority of members actually attend the AGM/referendum, can easily stack a vote by ensuring that a handful of cronies attend and vote with them.

Most piping and drumming associations pretty much operate the exact same way they did in 1947, 1964 or whatever long-ago-year they were started. Meanwhile membership numbers have exploded, revenues have grown, and the amount of time and money that pipers and drummers annually invest in this avocation beg for a more modern approach to government.

The gold ring

Ring toss.If you’re like most, your piping and drumming “career” depends heavily on the attitude of your partner towards your hobby-avocation-obsession. I’ve seen my share of players in misery, beaten down by an overbearing spouse who can’t appreciate that there’s more to their life than him/her. They’re “not allowed” to go to certain band practices, competitions or even glorious band trips. They tut-tut and tsk-tsk, and think of your bagpipe or drum as tantamount to you having an affair.

Screw that.

Ideally, as said before, you find a soul-mate who also plays the pipes or drum, or comes from a family of pipers or drummers. He/she already speaks the language of piping and drumming, and understands your affliction. These folks have hit the relationship jackpot but, sadly, that’s a rare situation. Most spouses at best just tolerate it and learn to live with the tension.

The erosion of a relationship can be a slow creep. I’ve seen pipers/drummers’ marriages start out all hunky-dory, their partner hanging out with the band, happily coming to competitions. But gradually things get rocky, and, instead of attending practices or contests, the piper/drummer is pressured to go shopping, or look after the kids, or even (shudder) stay home to do yard work or some other mundane thing. It can get very unpleasant.

But how can we recognize these incompatible people before we get in too deep? With a shout-out to the movie “Diner,” here’s a 10-question quiz that you can administer to your prospective life-partner in the early stages. Keep track of the answers, because at the end you’ll have to tally them to take an ultimate read of who or what you’re dealing with.

Good luck. This could be life-changing.

Our anniversary conflicts with the most important pipe band competition of the year. What do you do?
A) Call the pipe-major to tell him/her that I can’t make it.
B) Demand that I stay home to have a “cozy” night at home watching chick-flicks.
C) Recognize that my pipe band is a passion, too, and suggest we celebrate another time.
D) Invite yourself along on the band trip so that we can “make a weekend of it.”

I walk through the door after a three-day piping/drumming weekend, my uniform stinking of beer and vomit. Your response is:
A) Oh, my God, go somewhere else to clean up before entering my house.
B) It’s your turn to clean the house/take the kids, I’m going out.
C) So, did you have fun?
D) Silence.

My practicing woke up the baby, so you say:
A) How often do you really need to play that?
B) It’s okay, the little one will just have to get used to it.
C) The baby must have heard that missed D-throw in the third part.
D) Maybe we should we soundproof your practice room.

Feeling terrible, I call you to say that it was me who botched the attack in the contest, which made my band lose. Your response:
A) What’s an attack?
B) That’s okay; it’s only a competition.
C) Oh, wow, I’m really sorry that the band lost.
D) Which MSR was it?

I suggest that we have a piper at the wedding, so you say:
A) How much does that cost?
B) But I want a sweet violin sonata as I walk down the aisle.
C) Yes, let’s ask [best piper friend/family member] to play.
D) Do you think we can get someone really good?

I need a new suit for work, and I also need a new kilt for solo competitions, and we can afford only one. Your advice is:
A) Maybe you should get an extra job to support this piping/drumming obsession of yours.
B) Can you not wear a suit in competitions?
C) Get the very best kilt you can – it’s a lifetime investment, after all.
D) Maybe a great business suit will help you get that promotion so we can afford that new kilt.

You show up after practice with the entire band ready to party at your house. What’s your reaction?
A) Chain the doors and call the police.
B) Quickly hide all the breakables.
C) Run to the supermarket for ice and munchies – it’s going to be a great few days!
D) Call your friends to invite them over – in for a penny, in for a pound, after all.

I was away at a competition over the weekend and didn’t call or text you. You say:
A) Is it too much to ask that you call me to say you love me?
B) What, did you drop your phone in your pint again?
C) But I was dying to hear the result!
D) I was worried about you.

Who won the World’s in 1964?
A) The what?
B) How the &^%& should I know?
C) Why, the Edinburgh City Police at Ayr, of course.
D) Let me just check the pipes|drums Big Prizes database . . .

The holidays are approaching fast. What gift are you considering getting me as a gift?
A) Power tools so that you can finally install my new closet shelving system.
B) A “pass” that allows you to go to any competition you like.
C) Not sure, but I’ll ask your piping/drumming friends for suggestions.
D) A gift card for that other hobby of yours.

Now, then, let’s tally up.

For every “C” answer give yourself three points. These indicate that you’ve found an ideal piping/drumming spouse who understands the game and appreciates your passion. You’ll have no trouble with him/her as you merrily continue your avocation.

Score two points for each time you answered “D.” While these aren’t ideal responses, they do indicate someone with compassion and practicality, or who knows enough not to say anything, or takes an interest in what you do.

For each time you answered “B,” you can have one point. These answers are a bit insensitive and uncaring, but they indicate a minimal effort to understand your passion, or at least a sense of humour.

For every “A” answer score zero points. Even one of these horrific answers is an indication that you’re messing with a potential piping sociopath, so out of touch with who you really are, who will be nothing but trouble in the years ahead.

25-30 points = you have found the ideal piping/drumming soul-mate. Marry that person now, rest and be thankful.
15-25 points = definitely worth investing more time with. With training and gentle mind-melding, the right seasoning and a little more blowing-in time, he/she could be a keeper.
Seven-14 points = akin to getting the red light at the Northern Meeting: unnerving, and a serious sign that this just won’t be a good performance and even a breakdown could be a likely event.
Six or fewer points = uh-oh. You’ve got an enemy of piping/drumming on your hands. Either give the person the old, “It’s not you, it’s my pipe band . . .” speech, or steel yourself for a life of hen-peckery.

Of course, the mere act of having to administer this quiz would probably hasten the end of the relationship anyway, so if you’re even considering using it, you probably already know the truth.

Next: revised wedding vows for the piper/drummer.

In art, only hate itself should be hated

The only thing I really hate is hatred. When people say that they “hate” piobaireachd, a new pipe band medley, or, for that matter, any form of music or art, it bothers me. You can prefer one style more than another, or love a certain sound or sight, but why would anyone hate something as truly harmless as art?

You hear people in piping and drumming use the hate word frequently. “I hate that tune.” “I really hate what bass-sections are doing these days.” “I hate that band’s music.” It’s a word that, unfortunately, seems to be part of the piping and drumming tradition, perhaps borne of spite and envy and the ever-present need people seem to feel to compete on any level.

Some like to try to get a competitive edge by tearing down or belittling things they’re threatened by. Rather than minding only what they do themselves, they take a negative tack and discredit different approaches by using hateful language.

The other day I thought about different types of music. Like anyone else, I prefer some music more than others. But I can’t think of any music – whether classical, jazz, hip-hop or whatever – that I wouldn’t listen to and try to appreciate, if not enjoy.

My musical preferences run from hard rock to country to punk to bubblegum pop, even, and when it comes to music, I have many guilty pleasures. I was ridiculed mercilessly in the 1980s for admitting that I liked Debbie Gibson’s “Only In My Dreams” (which I maintain to this day is an intoxicating melody).

There is a sordid custom in piping to tear down that which threatens us. Dr. William Donaldson’s The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society is a seminal study of just such an example, in which piobaireachd was standardized by a group that set out to control the music in part by denigrating its history. The irony of ironies was that, when Donaldson’s book emerged, there was a strong and vocal attempt to – what else? – discredit his research, not to mention his training as a piper, each of which are impeccable.

There are those who are completely stuck in a hateful rut and, sadly, these folks all too often end up in positions of power. They try to eliminate things that threaten them by spreading hateful ideas, discrediting and belittling anything that is a challenge to their past and their status. They fancy themselves the protectors of some faith that really cannot exist in any art that wants to live in the present and future.

When it comes to art, the only thing to hate is hate itself.

Down under

Australia is a large, rich and diverse country with a large, rich and diverse piping and drumming scene.

Discuss.

Kids these days

So much to do.When it comes to piping and drumming, kids have it a lot harder today. I’ve come to this conclusion after once again trying to get back into a more regular routine of practicing. I say “trying” because, inevitably, that routine is more like a sporadic, when-I-can-block-out-all-other-distractions-and-temptations, series of sessions that gradually, slowly, maybe, do the job.

When I was learning to play in the 1970s and ’80s, distractions and temptations consisted of games of corkball, kickball, capture-the-flag or kick-the-can; building the occasional model airplane or boat; a train set; or the baseball Game of the Week on TV on summer Saturday afternoons. Sure, there were moments of getting up to no good with friends, but, by and large it was easy to find time to practice. In suburban St. Louis there wasn’t much else to do and, however nerdy piping may have been, it was something to do that was at least marginally less boring.

Maybe because it was so routine, I hardly remember practicing at all. But it must have been a lot. I do remember practicing exercises while watching one of the three or four TV channels (until my mother would turn off “that idiot box”), or listening to ballgames on the radio, or, yes, doing homework. When it comes to multi-tasking (read: ADD), I was an early adopter. I’m still prone to playing scales while doing something else, but I really don’t recommend it – you end up doing both half-way and, evidently, years later you won’t remember any of it.

It amazes me that there are any kids pursuing piping or drumming today – and it’s positively astonishing, come to think of it, that the boys and girls who do somehow become committed to or afflicted by it are playing at a standard that is, overall, better than ever. The siren-songs constantly blaring from the Internet, or the 500-channel TV universe, or video games, or alluring retail temptations that are positively everywhere one would think would make today’s young piper or drummer a rare breed indeed.

So, my hat is off to every young player out there who today has the focus and commitment to do this crazy, still very nerdy, thing.

Back in my day, we had it a lot easier.

Funraising

Use when needed.Because pipes|drums is non-profit, funds from subscriptions and sponsors that remain after site development and hosting costs are taken care of go to other worthy, non-profit piping/drumming causes. The other day the pipe-major of a Grade 3 band asked if a few subscriptions might be donated to a silent auction to help the group get to Scotland. Of course! Happy to help, and it’s good for pipes|drums, too, since almost all subscribers re-up year after year.

That’s not a monetary donation, of course, but it got me thinking about donations to piping/drumming causes in general, and then about what more associations could offer for sale to members beyond membership itself.

I think folks are looking for ways to create new and interesting approaches to competitions. There’s the “Pipe-Majors’ Wheel of Fortune” in the Edinburgh area that is extremely clever. I haven’t been to it, but I understand it’s great fun, with competitors spinning the wheel to see what they have to play – or even if they have to tell a joke.

What if a group put on a competition / fundraiser where competitors could purchase vouchers as part of the event? There could be “Play Again” cards that pipers and drummers could purchase to use if they cocked up the first attempt, sort of like Monopoly’s “Get out of Jail Free” card.

Or how about purchasing a loan of some great player’s pipes or drum for the event? Imagine being able to use someone like Bruce Gandy’s pipes for a day. Or maybe buying a voucher that you can use to have the judge tune your drum or drones. Or buy the right to move up a place or two in the prizes, should you make the list.

The fun fundraising possibilities are endless.

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