Five ways to improve the World’s

For what it is, the World Pipe Band Championships is a magnificent event. I’ve remarked before that it runs like a flawless Swiss watch, with thousands of moving parts and several rare jewels. Three-hundred-odd pipe band performances running on time, judges and stewards and administrators all knowing their role and doing their jobs. There is no bigger or better competition in the pipe band world.

But the World’s is at a crossroads. As the organization realized back in the late-1990s, they had a great product on their hands. The popularity of the contest with pipers and drummers from Canada, USA, France, New Zealand and just about everywhere in the world where pipe bands exist had grown so much that it finally dawned on the City of Glasgow to get on board in a serious way.

In a stroke of obvious entrepreneurial genius, Piping Live! was born 10 years ago. Events Glasgow partners with the RSPBA to stage the spectacle. If we are to believe the purported stats, tens of millions of pounds come into Scotland during World’s Week. It is a cash-cow for the local economy.

The World Pipe Band Championship is a great event, and it could be so much better, and so much more beneficial to the art overall and to the performers who make it the spectacle it is. The move to a two-day event shows that the RSPBA wants to try new approaches. It could be a spectacular success or a colossal failure, or even net-neutral, as they say, but at least they are trying.

Here are five more changes to improve it:

1. Transparency. We do not know how much the RSPBA charges the BBC to broadcast the event, or if it is given to Events Glasgow to negotiate. We just don’t know. As a broadcaster, by law the BBC must pay or negotiate a direct license with the organizers. The BBC doesn’t send eight tractor-trailers, miles of cable, dozens of technicians and an editing team back at head office to cover just anything. This is a mobile broadcast crew on the order of the Glastonbury Festival or T in the Park. There is a lot of money either unrealized or unaccounted for. It’s time to share the terms negotiated with the performers.

2. Bring the Grade 1 Final indoors. The SEC or the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall are prime venues to stage a 10-band Grade 1 Final. If a two-hour Pre-World’s concert with one band can sell out 2,000 £30 tickets, then certainly a four-hour World’s Final could command £60 a ticket. That’s a £120,000 gross. Do the Grade 1 Qualifier and all the other grades at Glasgow Green on Saturday, and then focus on a guaranteed dry Grade 1 Final on Sunday.

3. Pay-per-view. Again, the RSPBA, by selling or giving away the broadcast rights to the BBC could be missing a huge opportunity. The BBC is not allowed to charge viewers or listeners, so it’s all free. That’s nice, but the only way that is fair is if the BBC is paying the RSPBA at least as much as it could make from a pay-per-view broadcast. This year’s Saturday event is being streamed, not by the BBC, but privately, and that, too, is free. A pay-per-view streaming format each day where viewers purchase access for, say £10, at 10,000 viewers a day (a fraction of the number they contend logged in to the streamed broadcast last year), would bring in £200,000. And, if the viewers knew that the performers were being compensated fairly, they would be happy to pay a fair amount . . . so . . .

4. Share the wealth. Even without a ticketed indoor Final on pay-per-view streaming, the World’s is big money for the Scottish economy, and the license to broadcast the Grade 1 event is extremely valuable. The money must be shared with the performers. No performers; no money. The RSPBA can take an administrative share, but the rest should go towards prize money and appearance fees. The performers have a legal right to be compensated fairly, and saying that bands waive their right when they enter the competition is simply not legally true.

5. Promote the art. All pipe band associations contend that their first mandate is to “promote the art of piping and drumming” (or words to that effect). In truth, they are little more than competition-running machines. The RSPBA is by far the best in the world at keeping its competition machines finely tuned, but whether the World Pipe Band Championship or anything else they do truly promotes the art is debatable. The art is not solely competition. Fair enough, promote the competition as a product, but plow some of the money from the product into truly promoting the art through teaching, by taking it further afield, by promoting new and creative ways to present the music.

Many people still say that there is no money in all of this. Bollocks. Just look around. The week in Glasgow culminating in the glorious World Pipe Band Championships is huge money, and the performers deserve a fair share. Piping Live! by all accounts does a great job of compensating performers, and many bands are able to recoup some of their costs by playing during the festival.

We are not unique. Musicians of every kind can be and are exploited. Rock, rap, classical, pop, opera – you name the genre; all of them start off just happy to play and to have their music heard and they don’t know enough or are afraid to ask questions. We are really no different from the fledgling garage band who ignores their rights while others reap the benefits, until one day they realize they’re playing stadium gigs and can’t afford anything but fish suppers.

The irony is that we are not talking about greedy for-profit record labels. This is a nonprofit association that represents the will of its members and strives to create a fair and level playing field for all. Pipe band associations are not businesses, and they can be forgiven for missing business opportunities. They do a fantastic job of executing competitions, and now they need to catch up to the business end of the deal.

It’s now time to compensate fairly, once and for all, those who provide the product: the performers.

The nerve

Considering the thousands upon thousands of competition performances we inflict on ourselves each year, instances of on-stage meltdowns are relatively very few. I’m not thinking of nervy breakdowns, but more of full-fledged panic-stricken collapses or sick-to-your-stomach upchucks. Maybe for that reason, the tales of such happenings become the stuff of legend.

The only time I actually witnessed it happen was at Alma, Michigan, in maybe 1980, when an unfortunate piper with a now-defunct Canadian Grade 2 band tossed his cookies in splashing style mid-MSR. It was a lovely sunny day, and I was sitting in the grass enjoying the band coasting along until there was a collective “Ahhh!” from the crowd, as if a firework exploded in the sky. The Scottish person next to me shouted, “He spewed! He spewed!” The band of course continued on with ever-deteriorating tone while the piper stood there, using his tie as a napkin. The human geyser faithfully replays in my mind’s eye in Guy Ritchie-like slow-motion.

The rest of the stories I’ve heard I can’t verify, since I wasn’t actually there. They might well be apocryphal, but I understand a well-known drummer back in the 1970s was competing in the World Solos and chundered on stage all over his drum. I’ve been told that the drummer carried on playing, never missing a beat, but with each stroke the stuff splattered on his piper and the judges.

He didn’t win.

The worst I’ve had to deal with is a dry mouth, but I’ve heard of other solo pipers – including one or two of history’s most successful – inducing their own sickness in the toilet before they went on at big competitions. Apparently it’s a common practice with concert pianists and violinists. No doubt it’s to calm an upset stomach, but most certainly it’s to mitigate risk. Blowing chunks down a blowpipe during “MacDougall’s Gathering” is not generally conducive to winning a Clasp.

Around these parts the legend of “Sally Sprinter” (not her real name) is well known. Apparently the poor dear lost her nerve and her lunch in the competition circle but, instead of regrouping and faking it, or at the least standing there while the band finished, she bolted right across the circle, through the crowd, into her car and went home – thus gaining her nickname.

They’re bound to happen more often than we know, these quiet upheavals in the face of sheer terror. And considering the live broadcasts and ever-heightening stress of the Grade 1 Final at the World Pipe Band Championships, it’s just a matter of time before the next legendary retching occurs. Not only will the event itself gain inevitable mythological proportions, but it could be rivalled by the BBC commentary.

“Oh, my word, Jackie! There it was! He heaved right into the reel there, and it looks like he had one too many boiled burgers and onions this morning . . . or maybe it was a bad pint!”

It’s inevitable and only natural, and a YouTube sensation just waiting to happen.

The 5 O’clock Tune

The British Army doesn’t already have a memorial to pipers and drummers killed in action over the country’s long history of wars? I guess I assumed that there was one somewhere, since there are so many tales of the heroism of courageous pipers, like George Findlater at the Heights of Dargai or Bill Millin at Normandy, who risked everything for the sake of motivating the troops with a tune. (And let’s not forget about the pipers and drummers killed by the English when they were fighting for an independent Scotland, but I digress.)

That there does not appear to be a record of pipers and drummers killed in conflict is also strange. After all, these soldiers were there, yes, as soldiers, but most of them carried a specific and important distinguishing role as pipers and drummers. There are probably records of orderlies killed in action, but none for pipers?

And the British Army won’t even contribute to a memorial? I can just hear it. “Well, if we do that then we’ll have to make one for orderlies, and then one for cooks, and then where does it end?”

Anyway, it’s all good. I hope enough funds are collected for a memorial cairn at Redford Barracks. But here’s a better proposal:

Build a memorial cairn for pipers and drummers killed in action, and erect it at Edinburgh Castle where so much piping history and teaching has occurred. And, like the traditional 1 O’clock Gun that’s fired from the Castle ramparts every afternoon of every day, create a tradition of a “5 O’clock Tune.” Every day of the year, like clockwork, an army piper appears at the cairn at 5 pm to play a lament.

What a great thing this would be for piping and the British Army. Hordes of tourists would collect at 5 o’clock for the daily tune. They can snap photos and perhaps even learn a little about piping and hear how a good Highland pipe sounds. The British Army can showcase how thoughtful it is, and shed positive light on one of its great traditions to, eventually, millions of people around the world.

“The 5 O’clock Tune.” The British Army can thank me later.

Immemorial

I was heartened to see the Waipu Highland Games in New Zealand create a drumming trophy for Robert Turner. Not the late Robert Turner. Not a memorial trophy. This is for the living Robert Turner, who appeared overjoyed at seeing the prize created in his name.

This is exactly how it should be.

It’s our somewhat sad tradition to memorialize contributors with monuments and trophies, as if we only realize what they’ve done after they’re gone – when it’s too late to tell them in person how much we appreciate their contributions and achievements. It’s as if we don’t want it to go to their head or something, and only when they’re dead and dust do we decide that a gesture of thanks is in order.

For sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with memorial trophies and competitions, and even after the fact of life is better than nothing. Perhaps acknowledging contributors to piping and drumming while they’re here might seem somehow ghoulish, or feel like a surprise party for a person who dislikes drawing attention to him or herself.

A few years ago the Ontario scene appeared to be getting on the right track by celebrating big contributors Reay Mackay and Ed Neigh – folks who are very much still with us and going as strong as ever. I think each of them was taken aback, and I’m sure both cringed at the spotlight being put on them. There are other one-time things like the Balvenie Medal and honourary life memberships that celebrate people for a day.

Our thing is competition, and competitions are full of names and trophies created in memory of people and these are all good. But even better would be to create events and trophies while their namesakes are still here, so that they know that we know what we have before they’re gone.

We can live with that.

Resolutions #9

New Year’s resolutions are usually about improving on a personal shortcoming or two. Pipers and drummers have no shortage of those, since improvement and striving towards perfection is really what the competition thing is all about. We want to be the best we can be.

I like to make a resolution or two at New Year. This year it’s to listen to more live music – that is, more non-piping/drumming live music.  That and play my pipes every single day.

If you’re stuck for a New Year’s resolution, why not look to broaden your appreciation of things in the piping and drumming world? Some of us tend to put down the things that we don’t understand, or discredit what threatens us, which is completely unfair. Here are a few resolution suggestions:

  • For the person who “hates” piobaireachd – resolve to learn a piece of ceol mor, memorize it, and play it on the pipes. Start with a copy of Piobaireachd Fingerwork, earn the ceol mor rudiments and, even if you’re not a piper, understand how it works. I guarantee your “hate” will turn to appreciation.
  • For those who don’t take tenor-drumming seriously – try it. Get yourself a set of tenor mallets and learn just a bit of flourishing technique. You’ll have a more positive outlook on the difficulty of the art.
  • If you think stewarding is easy – volunteer with your association to help with a contest or two. Find out what the challenges are, and then offer to make positive suggestions to make it better.
  • Sign your real name to every online comment you make – that’s all. You’ll feel a lot better.
  • For the piper who can’t understand why his/her band lags in ensemble – pick up a pair of snare sticks and take a year’s worth of lessons. You’ll start to hear the snare work completely differently, and can help bridge the gap between sections.
  • If you think your association doesn’t serve you well enough – attend branch meetings and discover just how much spare-time work these volunteers put into trying to make things happen for members like you. Don’t have the time? First resolution lesson: be like them and make time.
  • For the person who rarely likes his/her band’s medley – try your hand at composing a tune or arranging harmony. Who knows? You might be a composer-arranger-genius in hiding.
  • Can’t understand why scoresheets don’t always have great feedback? – resolve to put on a solo piping CD, put two minutes between each track and during that time write a crit-sheet. You’ll appreciate just some of the pressure that piping, drumming and pipe band judges undergo accounting for their decisions in writing.
  • Volunteer to write an article for pipes|drums – I happen to have inside information that your story ideas are always welcomed.

The best resolutions are those that make both you a better person and the world a better place. Here’s to a happy and healthy and improved year ahead.

Personality crisis

I’m pretty sure I know the main reason why competitive pipers and drummers are so often in disagreement about our avocation: it’s about a clash of two distinct types of personalities: it’s the creative versus the analytical.

The current pipes|drums Poll asks, “What do you like most about piping/drumming?” and readers can answer one of either “The creativity,” or “The competition.” It’s an admittedly unscientific attempt to determine how many of us are drawn to the artistic or the analytical sides of what we do. And polling shows that we’re 50/50. (Actually, about 52% chose “the competition,” but chances are the creative types are bending the polling rules, while the analyticals rigidly stick to them, because that’s what they do.)

We are involved in competition that uses art as sport and this has forever caused friction. We attempt to create “rules” to more equitably assess what piper or drummer or band wins a purely subjective event.

Take for example the recent stramash over Bagad Brieg’s six-second time overrun in their medley in the Grade 2 qualifying round at this year’s World’s. The error was either missed altogether or intentionally overlooked, and the band went on to compete in the Final, finishing third and winning the drumming.

In the ensuing discussion on the matter (during which,notably, both Brieg and the RSPBA have been deathly silent), opinions seemed to be split along 50/50 arty vs. anal divides. Those drawn to the artistic side more than likely couldn’t care less about such a perceived impropriety. “Six seconds? Who cares? They deserve the prize.”

The analytical folks who are drawn first to the competition side of our thing, are spitting with outrage that a band could be allowed to get away with such an infraction. “Even it were one-second – throw them out!”

It’s a fascinating case study in the tension we face at every competition, due much to different essential personality types. The artistic creators are in need of a platform for their art, and often settle for the competition stage. The serious composers more often than not become worn down eventually by competition and rules being placed on their creations. They might continue to compete, but in their hearts they probably don’t much care about the result.

The competitive analytical types just want to compete and get a result based on “the rules.” They don’t care much about what they play, only playing it well enough to win. They struggle with a judge liking something for purely subjective “musical” reasons, seeming to ignore pseudo-objective criteria like tone, attacks and time.

And inartistic analyticals seem to gravitate to bureaucracy. They love joining associations and gaining power so that they can create and uphold rigid rules. They’re often not even pipers or drummers, and instead are enthusiasts drawn in by sons or daughters doing the playing.

As with everything, there are exceptions. I admit that these are generalizations. But I think there’s something to this essential struggle of personality types. Look around and see what the rule-sticklers do for a living. More often than not they’re in professions that involve numbers and black-and-white yes/no options. The artistic types are usually in jobs that require flexible creativity. And if each type is unhappy about their work, it’s often because they’re doing something that doesn’t match their personality.

Arty readers will likely see this as an interesting take on our struggle, even if they don’t agree. The analyticals probably enjoyed the stats in the second paragraph but never got past the third.

Spirited & lively

Scott MacAulay, 2008.Once or twice each year of judging, something indelibly memorable occurs. Yes, there are good performances that stand out at almost every contest, but I’m thinking here about events that transcend the music, when circumstances converge to make a perfectly magical merger.

I was enjoying a morning of solo competitions this June at the Summerside Highland Gathering at the idyllic Prince Edward Island when one such event was conjured.

The College of Piping is always associated with its first director, the late Scott MacAulay. Scott was a good piping friend and a wonderful piper. His personality was larger-than-life. He found the party and upside in everything, it seemed, and when his life was cut down by cancer it was a huge loss for the scene. We will always miss him.

Scott discovered piobaireachd later than most. In the 1980s, when he was into his late twenties, he found ceol mor or, rather, ceol mor found him. A product of Lewis-born parents, and someone who seemed to enjoy things Hebridean and Gaelic way more than most, even as a teenager it seemed odd to me that Scott focused only on light music and pipe bands. But in the early-1980s he dived head-long into piobaireachd.

After, say, age 18, “discovering” piobaireachd is a difficult thing to do, not because the music can’t be learned, but because your fellow competitors and adjudicators might not take you seriously. Back then, anyway, a certain amount of ceol mor capital had to be banked before the prizes would be paid in dividends.

Scott was as smart a person as you could ever meet. A canny man, one might call him. He could size up a person or an entire room in a second, and work his way in with his incredible wit and charm. One could even say that he charmed his way into piobaireachd. Within a few years he had learned enough tunes and put his musical smarts and technical skills to work his way into the prizes.

He set his sights on winning a Silver Medal, which he did at the Northern Meeting in 1985 just a few years after taking on the big music. He learned up four Silver Medal tunes, and had particular success with “Queen Anne’s Lament.” Going around the Scottish games with him that summer, that tune seemed always to be picked – so often, in fact, that we started to refer to him jokingly as “Queen Anne,” which I remember him laughing at with his unique cackle.

But back to Summerside. Not wanting to lug my piobaireachd books to PEI, I managed to borrow a complete bound Piobaireachd Society Collection from the College. It turned out, though, that the big book had belonged to Scott, with his name custom-embossed on the front and spine in Scott’s typical spare-no-expense style. There were relatively few solo competitors, and some time between each, so I decided to browse through Scott’s old book to check out a few of the tunes I remembered he had played: “Sir James MacDonald of the Isles,” “The Company’s Lament,” and, of course, “Queen Anne’s.”

And then, in the Grade 1 Amateur Piobaireachd event, young Sarah Simpson of Cavendish, PEI, submitted her three tunes. “Queen Anne’s Lament” was one. So, here’s that special confluence of serendipity: College of Piping, misty day, Scott’s book, Scott’s tune. It had to be.

As she built the tune, I found myself rooting for her to see it through, for the pipe and nerves to hold. With a terrific instrument that featured a perfectly tuned and blown high-G, Sarah Simpson delivered a spectacularly musical and almost technically flawless rendition of Scott’s best tune.

Scott MacAulay was all spirit. For 10 minutes or so on that day, on that field, at that time, with that tune, his spirit happily returned.

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.

Pass the pipe

Breeding ground.There was a time when passing around a bagpipe to let anyone who could play and who wanted to “have a tune” was commonplace. It seemed like at any informal gathering of pipers there would be a bagpipe that was going well, and no one had any reservations about having a go.

It seems like that tradition has all but died away in this era of germaphobia. Passing the pipe has fallen victim to marketing’s discovery that creating a fear of unknown and unseen bacteria, and subsequently selling all manner of “germ-killing” products from hand sanitizer to dish soap to toothpaste, has worked to kill off our willingness to share a germ-infested blowpipe and pipe bag.

I’m not sure if passing around a single instrument at a party of harmonica players or clarinetists or Jew’s harpers has ever been a thing, but I do know that it was because of the pass-the-pipe tradition that I first had the opportunity to play a really good instrument. It was probably about 1978, and the bagpipe was Gordon Speirs’ MacDougall drones and Sinclair chanter. I had been used to playing a basic set of Hardies and some sort of newfangled plastic band chanter. To be sure, the tenors were tuning about a quarter-inch from the projecting mounts, if they were tuned at all.

Suddenly, when Gordon’s MacDougalls were passed to me I had under my arm a wondrous sound alive with resonance. Relative to my hurricane-like instrument, his pipe took almost no effort to blow. It stayed in tune. I could feel each note of the chanter on my fingers. I could have played all day on that instrument, and wanted it back as soon as I passed it to the next person. I had experienced a sound that I knew I wanted to achieve.

And, as far as I can remember, I didn’t get sick from any saliva-borne disease. Because of society’s fear of germs, I wonder how many kids today miss opportunities to play great instruments.

I was recently at a party where a good-going pipe was passed around. There were several excellent players there, but there were also a few lower-grade amateurs, and I noticed one kid in particular whose eyes seemed to light up, not with fear of catching a horrible canker sore, but with the feel and sound of a well set-up bagpipe.

I’d think that in this age when synthetic bags and reeds are more common than the virtual Petri dish that is sheepskin and cane, passing the pipe would be safer than ever. I do know that, back in 1978, the only thing I caught was a lifelong addiction to achieving good sound.

Arresting change

Yesterday's news.A change is as good as a rest, and we all like a good rest, but for the rest of us a change makes all the difference. On that note, welcome to the latest rendition of Blogpipe!

You’ll find all of the content and comments that were with the previous iteration, but we’ve streamlined the look and usability, removed some clutter and improved a few important functions like search and usability on mobile devices.

With your iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and iPad, you can visit Blogpipe using the main URLhttp://blogpipe.wpengine.com/  and up will pop a clean and efficient rendition optimized for your device. And with nearly 500 posts dating back to March 2005, searching for things is that much easier.

Because there are so many daily visitors to the blog, many organizations have inquired about advertising. So, we’ve added a place for ads for a nominal charge to those who want to tap the marketing benefits. As ever, advertising has nothing, zippo, nada, zilch to do with posts or comments.

As for the approach, well, it will be the same sort of babble on a variety of topics, some barely even relating to piping and drumming. It’s all about conversation and constructive dialog.

I hope that you enjoy it!

– Andrew

Tips for the World’s

Every year the World’s comes around and every year there are things I forget to remember. Like these:

  • The RSPBA runs like a Swiss watch. If the program says a band is to play at 10:57, almost without fail the band is brought on to the park at 10:57. It’s to the point where watching the RSPBA’s stewards is more amazing than watching the bands themselves. These guys are like the secret service, decked out in ear pieces, communicating across the park, the oil in the machine. It really is uncanny.
  • Best bands always win.The results are almost always right. Say what we will about ranking spreads, perceptions of conflict and other problems (and they are problems), but the right result is almost always delivered at the end of the day. When was the last time that someone had a major, major problem with the results at the World’s, especially the first prizes? It all comes out in the wash.
  • The best place to be is at the World’s. The live streaming on the BBC could ultimately become a case of the RSPBA cutting of its nose to spite its face, and for sheer listening pleasure there’s nothing better than watching the contest from your 7.1 surround sound 55-inch plasma system at home, but nothing beats actually being there. The atmosphere on the park is irreplaceable.
  • It’s still a closed shop. Everyone around Glasgow seems to be aware of the World’s going on, but still only pipers and drummers appear to actually go to the event. Taxi drivers and barmen and customs officers know the event is happening, but I have yet to happen upon someone not directly connected with a band or piping/drumming paying to attend the contest. I’m sure they’re there, but they’re as scarce as a band with brown brogues and balmorals.
  • You’re increasingly spoiled for choice. It gets more difficult every year to do everything that you want to do at Piping Live! and the World’s. Piping Live! now has three, even four things happening at the same time every hour of every day, leaving you strangely disappointed. The World’s has always been that way, but at least now with the BBC’s coverage you can reasonably skip the Grade 1 and have a listen to other excellent events, or soak up (or get soaked at) the beer tent.
  • Just in case, bring sunscreen. Yes, that’s right. Everyone brings rain gear, but this year the sun emerged in full-force for about an hour. And there’s nothing like the intensity of pure Scottish sun to get a burn. I got absolutely baked in the beer tent, as it were, in the unexpected sunshine. I looked like the burn-victim I was for two solid weeks.

I’ll keep these tips on hand for 2012 so that I’ll not forget to remember.

Maxville memories

Even though it was my twenty-third in succession and twenty-seventh overall, each Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville is remarkable. I recently compared photos of last year’s event with one from the 1980s and was amazed at how much the piping and drumming and band competitions have grown.

Each year is memorable for different reasons. The exact years often blur, but the memories tend to stay clear. Here are a few of my stand-out positive recollections from the 2011 rendition of Maxville.

Alex Gandy, Maxville 2011.1. Alex Gandy’s March, Strathspey & Reel. I heard maybe six or seven players in the contest, but when I caught Alex’s performance I thought that it could stand up just about anywhere. It emerged the winner of the “Glengarry MSR” against a field of more than 20 other top-flight players. Everything about it was excellent, but most of all the content: Donald MacLeod’s “Duncan MacColl,” Allan MacDonald’s “Crann Tara,” and Fred Morrison’s version of “Alick C. MacGregor,” and compliments to judge Reay Mackay for having the moxie and knowledge to choose them. I’m not sure when the last time was when a competitor won three Professional solo piping events at Maxville, but it’s a rarity.

 

2. Acknowledging our over-achievers. Special Honourary Life Memberships to the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario were awarded to Reay Mackay and Ed Neigh for their decades of unflagging service to the cause. Bob Worrall and Michael Grey respectively paid tribute to these stalwarts of the art not at some small members-only event, but at the final massed bands ceremony before tens of thousands of pipers, drummers and others. This sort of thing needs to happen more, and I’m pretty sure that it will after starting with these deserving gents.

Maxville Grade 1 commemorative pin.3. Pins for winners. The good folks at the Glengarry games decided this year to create commemorative pins to give to each player in the 2011 North American Champion band. What a great concept. Maxville lost most of its great trophies in a fire several years ago, and marking the achievement this way is a certain treasure for every member, this year, of the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band. Pure class.

4. Logistical brilliance. Coordinating the more than 60 events (51 separate solo contests on Friday alone) is an almost superhuman feat that we often take for granted. There are folks out there at the crack of dawn getting things ready week in and week out in Ontario, and they deserve huge thanks. There are games that have a hard time getting three events to run on time. Sure, there were minor hiccups, but the PPBSO’s volunteer management team for this year’s Maxville deserves huge recognition and credit.

5. Trickle-down creativity. I’ve heard people disparage the Toronto Police Pipe Band’s adventurous medleys of the last few years, saying that, if people liked them then why more bands would immitating them. But my view is that the avant-garde or Haute Couture in art or fashion makes a strong style statement that is rarely imitated, but it instead inspires. It trickles down to become a trend a few years later. Listening to bands, many are now more creative and adventurous than ever, and many times at Maxville I heard inspiration in their new music. There’s a correlation.

Those are a few of my stand-out Maxville memories. What are yours?

Great Big Bug

Like this.Solo pipers in outdoor contests have to contend with all manner of things. The bouncy castles, midges and starter’s pistols of Scotland. Oblivious passers-by wandering in between you and the judge at Ontario events. The odd mid-2/4 march dust-devil in the Midwest. They’re all a test of either our concentration or sanity or both. We shake our heads and carry on.

By far the most memorable thing to happen to me was at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville, Ontario. Anyone who has been to Maxville knows that it’s in the middle of farm country. In fact, many of the solo events back up onto fields, often bone-dry in the latter part of the hot and humid summer.

It was when I was playing a piobaireachd contest. The venerable Reay Mackay was judging. The tune was some dreary thing set for the Gold Medal competitions in Scotland, which I always played all summer, convincing myself that I liked some of the dreckiest pieces of dreck ever composed for the Highland pipe. This particular instance I think had me playing “The Rout of the MacPhees,” which isn’t exactly a toe-tapping melody, even in the hands of the world’s elite pipers.

But the tune was going quite well, I thought. Back then the Open Piobaireachd was invariably put out in the open, sun blazing down. I got to the first variation of the thing and the biggest freaking bug known to Glengarry County landed on my arm. As soon as this giant cicada or extraterrestrial grasshopper or flying kitten plunked itself on my bare left forearm I jumped about two feet, hands flailing off the chanter (shaddup!), drones in a heap.

“%*&% !!”

“What happened?!” Reay shouts.

“It was a Great Big Bug! A Great Big Bug landed on me! It was a Great Big Bug!” I said breathlessly.

“A Great Big Bug?! Really?” Reay says. “Here, just go off and collect yourself and we’ll let you play again.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course,” kindly Reay confirms. “I’ve never seen that happen when a Great Big Bug upsets a tune like that. Sure, I’ll tell the steward you can play later.”

Which is what happened. I went away, recollected myself, tried to get the vision and feel of the Great Big Bug out of my head, and hoped that I’d also get a chance to play a tune that bugged me less. (Not so; Reay Mackay said I had to play the same thing.)

I felt a bit sheepish about it, and a few fellow competitors told me it wasn’t fair. (Then go talk to Reay, I told them.) But being on the other side of the table, I can understand why a judge would do that. You tend to make a lot of non-piping judgment calls during the day, often about what a competitor’s intentions might be. I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt, and I try to do that with others when I think they deserve it.

The name of the game is fair play, Great Big Bugs included. What extraordinary circumstances have you encountered in your competition experiences?

Sign language

U-turn.Here’s a piece of simple advice that I hope will help your next event: Invest in decent signage.

You can have the best piping/drumming competition, your Highland games might be a wonderful little gem, your gala evening might ultimately be great fun, but your first chance to impress is with a well-made sign.

I cringe every time I see hand-written directional signs on flimsy pieces of paper at otherwise high-profile piping competitions. Or, how many times have you driven to a Highland games and barely detected a wobbly board with spray-painted lettering and maybe an arrow for where to turn? Or, worse, tried to find an event that completely forgot to make signage?

It’s unprofessional and immediately implies that the organizers forgot to sweat the details. It makes me want to go home, and, I would bet, not a few people opt to do something else instead of take their chance on this apparently amateur event.

And, while it’s pretty easy to do-it-yourself, it’s an even better choice to set aside a few dollars and some time to invest in signage designed and made by a professional company. By making them reusable, your small investment will be a one-time effort with long-term results.

Signs. Good signs. Simple. Effective. Inexpensive. Professional. A lasting first-impression.

Living salute

We pipers and drummers all too often pay tribute to those who contribute only after the person’s left us and we realize that it’s too late to show him or her the appreciation we have for the life-long contribution to the art. That’s not something unique to the piping and drumming world, of course, but perhaps we’re too caught up too often in our own competitive concerns to acknowledge the work of others.

 

 

The Georgetown Highland Games in Georgetown, Ontario, on June 11, 2011, was a rare exception. One of the games organizers had the good idea to pay tribute to Bill Livingstone and his nearly 50 years of work and accomplishment in the art. A few folks put the word out only a few days before the event, asking anyone who might be at the event who had played under Bill over the years to participate in a tribute at the massed bands ceremony at the end of the day.

A good number of folks gladly stepped up, and, led by new 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe-Major, Doug MacRae, played a mass rendition of “Lord Lovat’s Lament” and “The Mason’s Apron,” two tunes closely identified with Livingstone.

It was one of the nicer gestures I can remember seeing by the piping and drumming community. There are life memberships and posthumous tributes and trophies and things, but I would think an actual playing tribute is about as meaningful as it gets for someone who’s committed most of his life to the art, and, better yet, is around to hear it, still living strong.

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?

Consorting with the enemy

Play hard. Win. Do it again.Not too long ago it was almost unheard of for pipers and drummers to consort with the pipe band competition. The band you competed against was the enemy. They hated pipe band music, and sat there in their practice hall hovels scheming about ways to cheat. They were out to steal your music, drink your beer and ransack your bus.

I was reminded of this when I read about my childhood hero, Joe Torre (St. Louis Cardinals, #9, 1971 MVP and near-Triple Crown winner – I sobbed when he was traded, along with Tommy Moore (??), to the New York Mess in 1975 for Ray Sadecki . . . but I digress) setting out to cut down on baseball players from opposing teams goofing around and even hugging one another during games. Team athletes today hobnob with players with the opposition all the time.

So do pipe band people. With athletes it’s no doubt a result mainly of players shifting from team-to-team. An athlete spending five, 10 years – never mind their whole career – with one team is a rarity nowadays, and so too with pipe bandsmen and women.

A few decades ago you’d commit to one band and that was it. People who do that today are extraordinary. It used to be that it took everything in your powers of etiquette to suck it up and go over and shake hands with members of the winning band. Ugh. Now I see losing pipers and drummers actually celebrating with the winning band.

Major League Baseball doesn’t like the appearance of socializing between teams. Presumably it diminishes the intensity of the competition and undermines the product. Will you really buzz a batter high-and-tight or slide into second spikes-up after joking around with the guy? Isn’t the intensity of the contest reduced? And how committed are you to beating the Airtight out of that Kiwi band when you spent part of the winter competing with them?

Call me old-fashioned, but competition is competition. The enemy is the enemy. You can be civil and magnanimous and respectful on the day but, after the pleasantries are over, it’s competition, and a little loathing goes a long way.

Or maybe not. It’s art, after all, and perhaps it’s possible to play hard against the opponent on the field and party hard together after the results.

Where do you stand on socializing with the competition?

Lonely pipers

I saw the important bits of the Westminster wedding and accompanying parade. Lots of scarlet tunics, gilt and bearskin hats.

But not a single, lone piper to be heard by the billions served on April 29th.

Normally it wouldn’t faze me, but you’d think a small public homage to the intersection of middle-class Middleton and William Windsor-Wales – St. Andrew’s, Scotland – would be in order. They’ll be spending half the year at Balmoral soon enough, and the Windsors own a good portion of Scotland.

But apparently there’s some piping at the Buck House reception, with David Rodgers of the Irish Guards gi’in’ it laldy.

Seems that the rest of the world loves a piper at a wedding when the couple exits the kirk, but the royals are more about private pipers, playing out of earshot of the public, for their own amusement.

Pity.

True pipe strong and free

In all thy drones command.The Highland bagpipe is Canada’s national instrument – not officially, but it should be.

This isn’t to suggest for an instant that the pipes aren’t also Scotland’s national instrument, but I believe that Canadians would and should welcome such an official declaration. Here’s why:

Since I moved here in 1988 I am yet to recall anyone who lives here to say that they dislike the pipes. In fact, I’d guess at least 95 per cent of the time Canadian citizens, landed immigrants and permanent residents that I’ve heard comment say that they love the pipes. As with everything, there are detractors, but I can’t remember seeing anyone cover their ears at the sound of the great pipe.

One hears Highland pipes almost daily in Canada. Police events, political rallies, weddings, military repatriation ceremonies, fundraisers, celebrations, parades, curling matches and hockey games routinely feature a piper or a pipe band regardless of any obvious Scottish connection. These piper-rich events are often attended not just by WASPy Canucks, but also by immigrants from everywhere you can imagine. Highland pipes are even popularly featured in the theme music for Hockey Night in Canada – the country’s de facto national TV show.

Far more often than not, in Canada you hear quality piping – not necessarily Ian K. MacDonald-standard, but decently tuned and pitched instruments played with well-taught embellishments.

The realization that the Highland pipes are Canada’s national instrument solidified in my pea-brain last week. I was at a work meeting when I happened upon a Canadian citizenship ceremony. These momentous swearing-in events now take place in unusual and often public places, and this one was at a research science centre in downtown Toronto.

There were maybe 200 immigrants who were to be sworn in. An LED display scrolled the more than 120 countries that these folks came from. There was a judge in regalia and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer in full scarlet tunic.

Kaitlin Kimove welcoming new Canadians.And there was a piper – a very good one at that. Kaitlin Kimove from the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band piped in these soon-to-be-Canadian citizens. These immigrants were from places like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iraq Tunisia and Libya. When she struck in the pipes there were instant smiles and even tears. The pipes are as much a part of Canada’s culture and being Canadian as maple syrup, pea-meal bacon and Nanaimo bars. Pipe music is part of Canada’s sound track. Newcomers are practically indoctrinated to the sound when they step off the plane or boat.

Having attended several of these citizenship ceremonies (one of which in 1995 I was a participant), I can say that each is a poignant and meaningful moment in the lives of every single person there. The Mountie, the judge, the fellow immigrants embarking on a new life . . . the pipes.

The pipes are heard so often in Canada that I think they are simply a part of the country’s culture, spanning all provinces – even Quebec’s separatist-minded citizens who seem to have just as much affinity for the instrument as anyone. Piping and pipe bands are so familiar to Canadians that it’s perhaps a reason why the popularity of Highland games in the country is waning. Hearing bagpipes in Canada is no big deal.

The Scots co-opted the pipes from elsewhere, and so too has Canada. The Highland pipes will always belong to Scotland, but they can also be Canada’s national instrument. The Highland bagpipe could also well deserve to be the national instrument of New Zealand, or Australia, or other Commonwealth countries. Bring it on. It’s all good.

If you agree, there’s a Facebook page to “like.” If response is there, we’ll eventually take our petition to the powers-that-be in Ottawa to lobby them for official recognition. As always, your constructive comments are welcome.

Creative break

Massive challenges ahead.North American pipe band associations have to change. For the last 60 years they have coordinated familiar solo and band competitions that are modeled after Scotland’s traditional Highland games. These events resonate mostly with first-generation post-war immigrant Scots. But in 2011, many North American Highland games – at least as we know them – are on the wane as they struggle to compete for attention from a less-Scottish and more demanding public.

Associations are going to have to reinvent themselves – and quick.

There always will be opportunity to supply the usual turnkey piping and drumming events. Reactively sanctioning competitions under association rules at the request of Highland games put on by other organizations won’t be abandoned, but they are abandoning us. Consequently, associations increasingly will need to proactively create their own platforms for their members to perform. Waiting around for the phone to ring with a Highland games on the line, ready to contract the piping and drumming won’t cut it any longer.

More creativity and more entrepreneurialism are needed if associations are to continue to serve their membership. Risks will have to be taken, and some mistakes will inevitably be made along the way. But the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward can be.

North American associations have faced a quandary for a long time: how to push the boundaries of the art while maintaining the competition desires of members and still respect the ethnic musical “idiom” of the Highland pipe. The fallback has almost always been a cookie-cutter approach to events, with conventional competition formats and requirements. The unchanging competitions are very often almost completely ignored by the general public, who really only want the pipes as background music for their day, culminating in a massed bands spectacle.

The irony is that, in general, the public is indifferent to the competitions but love the massed bands, while pipers and drummers love the competition but dislike the massed bands.

Which begs the question: why don’t associations simply create their own events and stop relying so heavily on Highland games? Perhaps associations should give up on the fantasy that piping and drumming events alone will one day attract the respect and interest of the public, and embrace the challenge of staging their own competitions mainly for their membership. In essence, expand the concept applied to existing indoor events to outdoor venues.

Associations and their branches already are expected to be entrepreneurial and creative. See the Metro Cup. See the Livingstone Invitational. See the BC Indoor Gathering. See the Toronto Indoor Games. See the success of unsanctioned events like Winter Storm, the Dan Reid and Mastery of Scottish Arts. All of these events put piping and drumming first and operate on their own. They’re not a Highland games afterthought; the centerpiece is piping and drumming itself.

Scotland will never have this problem because Highland games and pipe band competitions are not an ethnic oddity, they’re a cultural occurrence. The decline in interest in ethnic Highland games is perhaps more pronounced in Canada than it is in the United States. But the two countries, which once had massive first-generation Scottish immigrant populations, are now dramatically more ethnically diverse. I’m not sure if Australia, New Zealand or other countries are facing the same thing.

North American associations need to adapt to a changed population, halt the erosion of the familiar and alter their traditional approach to meeting the needs of their membership with creativity and entrepreneurialism – before it’s too late.

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.

10 tips to get judges

Working on a verdict.At least in North America, it seems that securing accredited judges is often a challenge for piping and drumming competition organizers. I’d assume the same might be said of Australia and other areas where either the number of judges is scarce and/or the geography is vast.

I don’t want to come across as presumptuous, and I’m always honoured to be asked to adjudicate anywhere, but following are a few tips that might help contests get more confirmations from the judges whom they invite to their event. Chances are you’re not involved with organizing any competitions, but if you compete and note that some events have a hard time attracting different or even enough judges, these may be a few of the reasons for that. 

  1. Compensate appropriately. There are far worse things to do than listen to piping/drumming all day and spout off your opinion, but organizers should understand that adjudicating is both hard work and time-consuming. Often, judges have to take a day off of work to get to your event. A day of vacation can be precious. If you want excellent judges, compensate accordingly, and be clear at the outset about fees and expenses.
  2. Don’t nickel-and-dime with small stuff. Unless he/she happen to be a close friend, most judges dislike being billeted at a volunteer’s house. Spend that relatively small amount on a decent hotel. Ask judges about other expenses they incurred – e.g., airport food, taxis – and cover those reasonable costs.
  3. Communicate. With your judges in place, make sure that they know the whats, wheres and whens of the weekend. Don’t assume that they’ll just figure it out. Inform them of all travel arrangements to and from the airport, the hotel, the contest and any planned events. And make certain that each judge understands your competition rules and policies, and has a reference sheet to refer to, if needed.
  4. Organize meals. Make sure that judges are fed and watered. Doesn’t have to be five-star dining, but arranging breakfast and sandwiches on the day with enough time to consume them in a relaxed manner goes a long way. Offer optional organized dinners on the Friday and Saturday for those who wish to attend.
  5. Beverages. A coffee or tea in the morning and soft drinks in the afternoon. Simple, but often forgotten.
  6. Get enough judges. You should never try to squeeze another event into a judge’s already full schedule. Rushing through competitors can make a miserable day for the judges and not great service for competitors either. If your contest is popular with competitors, make sure you plan accordingly. And understand that judges need a pee just like the next person (see “Beverages” above), so ensure that breaks are scheduled.
  7. A beer or two. After standing judging a score or more of bands, most judges are gasping for a pint by the end of the day. Getting off the field only to find a massive line for beer tickets or a stowed-out tent is a drag. Providing each judge with a few tickets in advance, or welcoming him/her to a hospitality area with a cold one in hand is a great touch.
  8. Settle before leaving. When judges are told, “Your cheque is in the mail,” they inevitably wonder if they’ll ever see it. Judges occasionally get stiffed, so make sure you deliver an envelope to them no later than noon. Judges talk, and if you’re late with payment, word will get around.
  9. Say thank you. Yes, judges should always thank you, but expressing your appreciation goes a long way for the future. Follow up a few days later with a card, or at least an e-mail message.
  10. Ask for feedback. Chances are, experienced piping and drumming judges have seen a lot more competitions than you ever will. Tap them for their thoughts on what you did right and areas that could be improved. It’s free, expert advice that most judges won’t offer unless asked. 

I realize that all of this may sound just a bit precious. Believe me, these tips are only intended to help, since some competitions might not realize or appreciate the work involved with adjudicating. It’s enjoyable work, for sure, but it is work, so looking after these fairly simple details can help make your event even more popular with adjudicators and competitors alike.

Glen-Cam

Always appreciating a different perspective on things, I sourced a mini high-definition camera with the thought of making videos hands-free. I connected the camera to a ski-helmet strap and tested it out at the recent Georgetown games. With the association’s okay, I had recorded a few events last year with a hand-held audio device. But I found it difficult to keep a grip of the thing. This was a great solution.

I was assigned to judge ensemble in the Grade 3 and Grade 4 competitions, and was able to get some footage of a few bands, each, as it happens, with interesting medleys. The result is here for your interest.

This is pretty much exactly what a judge would see and hear while assessing a band. I always try to get various perspectives on the bands, and ensure that I’m far enough back to get a comprehensive sense of the overall sound of the band. The contribution of mid-sections/bass-sections (take your pick) is increasingly important, and bands seem to strategically position tenors and bass drums to give the projection from the instruments that they’re hoping for.

The venue for these events is one of the better ones, placed in a natural enclosure that contains the sound nicely. The weather was gie dreich, so the crowds weren’t nearly as large for these events. I believe it was raining fairly hard during Durham’s performance. (By the way, that’s a rendition of “Oowatanite” by the 1980s Canadian rock band, April Wine, that Durham opens its medley with. Many Ontario bands in all grades have been getting very creative over the last three or four years.)

There’s also a clip from the scene at the beertent, right after the Grade 1 winners, Peel Regional Police, came in to play a bit. The Georgetown beertent generally goes well into the night. I think that’s the Rob Roy band playing.

To be honest, I look even more a right prat with the camera strapped to my head (no more, though, than some of the absurd hats that you see some judges wear), partially covered by a glengarry, but it’s the price one pays to deliver constructive new perspectives for the piping and drumming world to, I hope, enjoy. A few people have already said what a great learning tool this could become, so perhaps use of such technology could even be considered for future judging and band feedback. I love that we can be so open-minded.

Pipeband-palooza

Ungraded.The Montreal games’ decision to forgo piping and drumming competitions due to the expense is telling. Like everyone else, I’m disappointed. But I also understand the economic challenges of holding a full slate of band and solo piping and drumming contests, and I can’t fault them for deciding not to go ahead with them this year.

Rather than pay a lot more to have the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario mobilize their turnkey operation of contests, with standardized judges, stewards and rules, Montreal is reportedly spending about half as much money simply to hire four or five top grade bands to perform a mini-concert on the day. I’ve been told that each invited band will receive a flat-fee of between $4,000 and $5,000 for their musical stint, which, I also have been told, would last no more than an hour. That’s a festival of pipe band music.

And that’s pretty good going for the fortunate few bands and the paying customers. It’s Pipebandpalooza. As a listener I’d want to attend Montreal to hear this festival of pipe banding, even more so than the usual full day of competition. Montreal can do this for that fairly inexpensive rate because the bands involved will be competing the day before at the North American Championships, a few hours’ drive away, in Maxville, Ontario. I’d think that other events without performers essentially already there would have trouble getting so many bands without paying a lot more for travel, but they could probably get two bands at double the fee.

So, this is the new quandary that I think we will see more and more of around the world. Highland games really only want the sound of pipes and drums. They don’t necessarily desire the peculiar cultural phenomenon of our little competition club, which is, as I’ve said many times before, not exactly attractive to the non-playing punter. The stuff we play for competition is technically demanding, tailored for clearer critical analysis, but it’s just not interesting to the large majority of those who don’t have a vested stake in it.

The reality is, if I were organizing a Highland games I think I’d be tempted to do what Montreal has done. I’d put on a pipe band show that’s accessible to and fun for non-players – the ticket-buying public who I need to be a viable operation.

But there’s still plenty of room for piping and drumming competitions as we know them. After all, pipers and drummers have repeatedly confirmed that they like these events, and don’t necessarily want to compromise or corrupt what we do to become a show for non-players. As a result, I’m seeing more Highland games opt out of the whole massive competition thing, but I’m also noticing more self-sustaining piping and drumming contests, held on their own, without the trappings of heavy events, dancing, sheepdog trials and a sanctioning pipe band association. The two formats are gradually going their separate ways.

As far as I can see, the World’s is the most successful example of the self-sustaining event. Anecdotal evidence and observation tells me that there are very few listeners at the World’s who don’t have a vested interest in the competition. The competitors alone attract about 7,000 people, and their friends and family bring attendance way up. As a result, it’s basically self-sustaining, provided it remains popular with competitors. Either way, events that are based purely on piping and drumming competition are scalable – they can expand and contract with the entry. (Note the May 29th Kingston, Ontario, event.) Just find a field, park or parking lot, tell everyone in your organization that there’s a competition, gather start-up funding, and charge everyone for admission, entry-fees and parking. Bob’s yer uncle.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that the familiar competition format is in danger of collapse. I do think, though, that, if we continue to reject the notion of changing our system radically, then we’ll just go our separate ways. There will the self-sustaining, competition-only events, and there will be the Highland games that hire guest bands to entertain the crowds. Montreal’s Pipebandpalooza (and they can pay me later for the name) is just a first radical start to the inevitable change.

Let er dangle

The Livingstone Sr. Invitational assembled the usual excellent piping talent with the usual small crowd of solo piping devotees, familiar handful of young learner-pipers and the customary consternation by older pipers (me included) as to why, oh, why more enthusiasts and learners don’t bother to attend these state-of-the-art demonstrations of musical excellence.

Nevermind. Of note was a relatively older roster of competitors. Of the eight, I believe all but a few were younger than 30, and most were older than 35. That the winner, Bruce Gandy (age 39) may have been (marginally) the oldest may say something, too, about the current condition of top-drawer solo piping in North America – or at least those who want to travel to this contest.

By far the youngest of the lot was Gordon Conn of Calgary. I’m not certain of his age, but I’d say he’s probably 19 or 20. Gandy, Grey, Troy et al.’s performances were all excellent, but I would say that the most memorable playing for me on the night was the hornpipe and jig that young Gordon threw down.

Kids today seem to set as the solo piping light music benchmark not what might win a Silver Star (although I’m sure that’s important, too), but what guys like Stuart Liddell and Fred Morrison can do with their hands. While most competitors in this own-choice light music event went with tried-and-true hornpipes and jigs (e.g., “The Man From Skye,” “Allan MacPherson,” “Donald Cameron’s Powder-Horn”) , taking a calculated conservative strategy, Conn chose tunes that would allow him to – as the late, great Scott MacAulay would have said – “Let ‘er dangle.”

That Conn’s hornpipe (“Mr. and Mrs. J. Duncan’s Golden Wedding”) and jig (“Karen Nuttall”) were composed, respectively, by Gordon Duncan and Scott MacAulay, pipers who left us far too early, I know carried some additional meaning to not a few people attending.

I liked that Gordon Conn executed the tunes in an edgy, seat-of-the-pants style – exactly the way the composers of the tunes would have done it themselves. They were pipers who lived on the edge of the moment, and objective number-one was always fun.

Damn the prize. Scott and Gordon I’m certain would have loved to see Gordon Conn, a young piper with a huge career ahead of him, do what he did.

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