Saint Angus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#MeToo

I can only imagine what it’s like for female pipers and drummers to persevere in what is still a male-dominated – and often dominating – avocation. It’s a topic that has interested me for many years, going back to the 1990s when I worked to pull together a piece on females in piping.

It wasn’t easy then to get women to speak to the issue, and it’s still a difficult subject to discuss openly, many seemingly afraid of rocking a boat or jeopardizing their band’s or their own chances with judges and “authorities” – which are heavily weighted to males.

For sure, much has changed since the 1970s when women were still prohibited from competing at the major solo competitions until Patricia Innes (Henderson), Rhona MacDonald (Lightfoot), and Anne Stewart (Spalding) broke the gender barrier in 1976. Top-grade Scottish pipe bands disallowed female members until Ontario’s Gail Brown courageously stepped into the World Champion Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia in 1973.

It would take another 31 years before a woman would be awarded a Highland Society of London Gold Medal, when Faye Henderson broke the glass ceiling at Oban in 2010, not coincidentally following in the trail-blazing footsteps of her co-pioneering mother.

Back then, I wrote a blog post on the topic of pigeon-holing males and females, but the piping and drumming world remains a disproportionately male-dominated place, replete with its share of crass macho-shiteheads who continue to operate as if it’s an old-boys club. Only 20 years ago there were bands that not only wouldn’t allow women into their ranks, but would not even allow them to get on the bus. Maybe there still are.

The Royal Scottish Pipers Society only a few years ago voted to accept women as members, perhaps recognizing that they risked becoming a complete anachronism in addition to being hopelessly discriminatory. I don’t know how many women have been accepted as members, or have even been invited or applied. They might have jumped that shark decades ago.

If pipes|drums readership analytics are an indicator, about 25% of the world’s pipers and drummers are female, yet women are under-represented in associations’ executives, directors and judges, often woefully so. As far as I know, the RSPBA has one active female adjudicator. Of the Solo Piping Judges Association’s 52 judges listed on its website, a grand total of two are women.

The excuses are many. Well, there aren’t that many women who are qualified. Well, they just don’t seem to be interested. Well, they don’t have time, what with looking after their families. Well, they can’t physically blow a good instrument or carry a heavy drum. Well, their fingers are too short. Well, their wrists are too weak. Well, they’re moody. Well, they’re always complaining. Well . . .

The truth is, piping and drumming is still not the inclusive place that it must be. The challenges that women are faced with are systematic, insidious and, mostly, considered endemic. “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is,” I have been told by some great female pipers, resigned to having to put up with both blatant and tacit discrimination at practices and competitions. We males might not even recognize it, but it is there, often in subtly demeaning ways, and sometimes in quite awful insults – or worse – that probably force women to quit the scene altogether rather than put up with it.

And then we have the audacity to wonder why there aren’t more females who rise to the top.

The #MeToo social media campaign should be eye-opening to any sentient male. Personally, I have been astounded and saddened to see so many female piper or drummer friends of all ages come forward to divulge publicly that they have been the victim of emotional or physical abuse. I can safely assume that at least some or even many of those experiences have been around piping and drumming. Horrifying as it is, I know that there have been Harvey Weinsteins among us.

But, like thoughts and prayers, sadness and astonishment won’t solve anything on their own. We need to take action.

  1. All piping and drumming associations and pipe bands need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against any member discriminating against any minority – female; non-white; LGBTQ.
  2. Members of associations must sign an agreement to uphold its zero-tolerance policy in order to become members and maintain membership.
  3. Associations must actively strive to reach and maintain gender parity between its leaders and judges and its membership.
  4. Associations must adopt a safe and private process to allow its members to report acts of harassment, bullying or discrimination.
  5. Members and leaders who have been found to breach the policy should be suspended or, if warranted, banned for life.

Some organizations might already have similar policies and rules but, given that it’s hard to agree on obviosities like teachers not judging pupils or family not judging family, I suspect not.

Piping and drumming comes from all-male military roots, but chalking up discriminatory behavior to “just the way it is” is no longer acceptable. It never should have been acceptable in the first place.

We’re a slow-moving and change-averse lot, but implementing these policies, and altering our habitual way of thinking, can no longer wait.

 

River crossing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more catchy tune.

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

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

 

Maxville memoir

Aways good to get back to Maxville for the Glengarry Highland Games, despite the usual scramble to get out of town before the holiday weekend traffic hits Toronto. Here are a few stand-out memories taken away from my two days.

Drew Mackay’s “Clan Campbell’s Gathering” – she walked the Intermediate Amateur Piobaireachd and might well have won the Senior Amateur with a terrific rendition of this fun tune (or as fun as piobaireachd can be). The best tune I heard all weekend. This young woman has a huge piping future ahead of her.

Brannagh O’Donnell – it’s always an unexpected treat to encounter a really good piper whom you have absolutely no idea about or have never encountered, and Brannagh, who’s a member of the Grade 2 Scotia-Glenville, might have had the best instrument that I heard all weekend. She was on her way perhaps to winning the Grade 1 Strathspey & Reel when she had an unfortunate misstep. Absolutely effortless hands and a fine musical touch.

Andrea Boyd – I wish I had heard her “Lord Lovat’s Lament,” which she played to win the Piobaireachd Society Gold Medal (Canada) after many years of narrowly missing the prize, and I was pleased for her that she finally gained the award. Chasing certain solo prizes can often be frustrating, and the relief can be palpable. Her fellow competitors seemed to enjoy her success. Andrea’s one of the nicest and hardest-working people in piping. Like.

Mother nature – it’s often said that Maxville is either sweltering sun or massive thunderstorms. Friday was more the former, while rain always threatened, while Saturday was cooler but a solid half-hour of heavy horizontal rain impacted not a few competing bands. Moments like those ones judging bands with your back to the windy rain, doing all you can to keep the scoresheets dry make for a theatre of the absurd. I couldn’t help think that while all this was heaving down on 400 Squadron, it was a like a tactical group of helicopters blowing in on a mission in a stormy sea.

Lillian Livingstone – as Bill was working through the constant long line of fans to get their signed copy of his Preposterous memoir, there was Lily waiting patiently in support and partnership with her husband of almost 50 years. There’s never been a more loving and mutually committed couple in the world of piping. As Bill alludes to in his book, everything – the bagpipes, the bands, the book, even the preposterous horse-drawn carriage ride as the games’ Honoured Guest – would have been impossible without Lily.

All females. After more than 30 Maxvilles, memories can tend to melt together, but each of them stands out for a few specifics. Out of many other good things at this year’s, for me, these rose above.

 

Club sorta

Pipers and drummers (mostly pipers) traditionally bemoan the fact that the general public doesn’t listen seriously to what we do. We put so much into our music and performances; we live and breathe pipe music and get frustrated when non-pipers or drummers or who aren’t family or friends (call them “outsiders”) don’t turn up for even our greatest events.

It’s particularly true of piobaireachd and piobaireachd players. Here’s the most sophisticated and hallowed music we have, yet no one else seems to care.

But here’s the thing: when outsiders actually do come to piping, pipe band and, especially, piobaireachd competitions and recitals we tend to think they’re freaks, and treat them with suspicion. It’s plain weird to us that any outsider would be a keen enthusiast of piobaireachd music.

It’s a club that’s by us and for us, and we actually prefer the exclusivity.

Some years back, there was a group of burlap-and-Birkenstock-wearing folkies who’d come out to the games around Ontario. They’d arrive in the early morning, find the Open Piobaireachd contest, and plant themselves in the grass, quietly listening to each player with closed eyes and gently swaying bodies absorbing the music.

I think there were two women and two men. They’d never ask any questions. They didn’t bother anyone. They were visibly happy people. The pipers would murmur among themselves wondering who they were, but I can’t remember anyone actually speaking to or even welcoming them. Looking back, I certainly should have. They dressed like Hippies, but they were seen as freaks because they actually, truly enjoyed piobaireachd – and they were not connected with the scene or the music in any obvious way.

And there was another older gentleman in other years. He had scraggly long hair and wore a tweed flat-cap. He’d also listen to the piobaireachd events, and actually record them on his cassette deck. Since these contests rarely if ever actually informed listeners what was being played, the gent would make a point to ask the name of the piobaireachd you’d played when you’d finished. He too was considered some sort of freak, simply because he loved music that I guess we thought that only players in the club by rights should appreciate.

Those piobaireachd enthusiasts eventually stopped turning up. I hope they’re okay, and I’m sorry that I didn’t make them feel more welcome. Ultimately, it’s our loss.

My friend and one-time band-mate Iain Symington wrote a terrific little hornpipe called “The Piobaireachd Club.” It was named after the group of pipers (me included) in our band who competed in piobaireachd events. Within the band we were seen as elitist, I guess, perceived to shut out other pipers for not knowing about the hiharin-hodorin. We all got along, but the Piobaireachd Club was a running joke within the pipe section.

So, we even ostracize within our own groups, and perhaps we like it that way. We lament the lack of attention from outsiders, but we rarely welcome them into our club.

I suppose excluding people is what defines a club, but if we want it the other way we’d be wise to try to bring in outsiders  – or at least make them feel welcome as guests.

 

Refuge

Piping and drumming and pipe bands are a refuge from the real world – at least, they should be.

I have always enjoyed having a piping alter-ego. Through school piping was almost completely separate from that world. Different friends. Different mood. Almost a completely different identity. I was and am “Andy” at school and with family, and “Andrew” in piping. Old school friends and family still call me Andy and can’t imagine me as piping Andrew, and vice versa.

In work that separation of solitudes has carried over. My piping life is not my professional life, and that continues to work well for me. Colleagues know that I’m a piper, and some pipers and drummers might know what I do for a living, but that’s about the extent of it. I want to keep it that way.

Piping and drumming is a melting pot of people. You hang out with those of virtually every profession, religion, political leaning, sexual orientation and age. If that stuff affects how you see your fellow pipers and drummers, you’ve picked the wrong hobby. Doctors and lawyers play shoulder-to-shoulder with students and janitors. Politics or religion or class should never come up. You might go years without knowing these things about your band-mates, and, when you do learn of them, it should be with a shrug.

It wasn’t always that way. Until maybe the 1960s, competing piping and drumming and pipe bands were very much divided by class, especially in the UK. In general, the “working” class and military non-commissioned officers did the competing, while the “professional” class or aristocracy did the judging. The likes of John MacFadyen (headmaster of a private school) and Seumas MacNeill (lecturer in physics at Glasgow University) facilitated change in 1950s. By the 1960s, the likes of lawyers and bankers were competing in Scotland, and, today, there is little if any distinction between anyone in piping and drumming. A few years ago the serving Attorney General of the United States – seventh in line to the Presidency – was a member of a pipe band in Washington, DC. Not too long ago even females were banned from competing. Today gay and straight pipers and drummers are equals.

World-altering and divisive issues like Brexit and the US election have got many people up-in-arms. Thanks in large part to social media, more of us wear our emotions and beliefs on our digital sleeves. We might know more about our band-mate’s personal leanings than ever before, and it risks dividing us, when we should be united by our music and common goals to be better at it.

Perhaps a few ground rules are in order for pipers, drummers and pipe bands:

Keep your non-musical personal beliefs to yourself – Religion and real-world politics have no place in piping and drumming. We can all worship at the altar of G.S. McLennan and my vote will usually be for the Donald MacLeod composition but, beyond the music, keep the other stuff airtight.

How well you can play is your only status – your ability as a piper or drummer is all that matters. Your playing does the talking. Your real-world social or professional status doesn’t matter one bit in the band or among your fellow pipers and drummers. How much you make or your piety are worthless when it comes to delivering an MSR.

We “Like” and “Follow” all pipers and drummers – this is real socializing that cannot be replaced by social media. We are real people in real time making real music. Piping and drumming is a truly social network.

Keep it light – remember, we are trying to get away from the heavy load and stress of our jobs and all the world’s problems. Climate change and the Middle East are big deals, but the band and the games are for piping and drumming – and that’s it. Have a laugh. Raise a glass to all that musical common ground. This is sanctuary from everything else that troubles you.

It’s my hope that piping and drumming will continue to be exempt from the “real” world. It’s our world, our culture, our freedom to be equals, our place to relieve stress and let off steam through a musical distraction, striving for excellence. We need now more than ever for piping and drumming and pipe bands to shelter us from the real world, if only for a few hours each week.

It’s an untouchable refuge from the stress of everyday life, a place to take solace in the fact that we are united through music.

 

March pastiche

This summer I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting a part of that UK pipe band scene tradition at competitions called the “march past.”

For those who might not know, the march past is essentially this: at the end of the day of competitions, the six Grade 1 or Grade 2 bands that competed first in the draw take position about 20 yards from a “reviewing stand” in the middle of the park. Each band takes turns playing a set of 6/8 marches, while every other competing band in every other grade separately marches in step to the 6/8s.

When each band goes by the reviewing stand, the drum-major or pipe-major does a quasi-military salute to a designated “chieftain of the day,” usually a local dignitary or minor celebrity. The D-M or P-M shouts or, in some cases, shrieks, “Band! Eyes . . . right!” and all members of their band are then supposed to look lovingly to their right at the chieftain, while the D-M or P-M does his/her best Benny Hill-style open-hand British military salute. Each band looks at the chieftain for a few bars of the tune, and then looks forward as they indeed march past.

After you see 50 or so bands do this, it starts to get comical. I believe that every band that competes has to do it, or faces disqualification. Centre bands are not compensated for their extra time, musical performance or, since most of them have come straight from the beer tent after quaffing several pints in rapid succession, strained bladders.

At major championships in the UK, where there can be more than 200 bands, the march past ceremony can take literally hours. It is, in a word, interminable, particularly for the unfortunate centre bands, who are standing there for the entire parade, and then for the eventual announcement of prizes, which on its own can take an hour, with comments from the honoured chieftain, announcements of all manner of drum-major awards and at least nine grades of pipe band results.

During the two-plus hours of the march past some desperate pipers and drummers sneak off the field for a pee. They’re apparently not supposed to do this, but it’s better than the old kilted kneel-down to let it go in a puddle right there and then behind the bass drum while band mates stand shotty (something I have only heard about), so officials seem to look away from the ignominious parade of pishing.

One could die of exposure or boredom or muscle atrophy from these things. You don’t know what will come first: the end of the march past or the end of the world. It is mental and physical torture, worse by many magnitudes than any massed bands event, which are familiar to those in North America.

Massed bands are certainly no great hell, but at least there is some entertainment value in them for the non-playing public, who are often attracted to the grand finale spectacle of thousands of pipers and drummers playing “Amazing Grace” and counter-marching up and down the field en masse to “Scotland the Brave” or some other musical potboiler. What’s more, bands in North America understand that it is the massed bands more than the competitions themselves that please the paying public. If a band does not participate in massed bands it forfeits its travel allowance. There is a decent correlation between massed bands, the paying public and compensation for performers.

The massed bands ceremony of course could be improved, but it is miles better than the march past. I’ve participated so far in three march pasts at three championships in 2016, two as a member of one of the centre bands. I hadn’t done that since the 1980s, and nothing had changed. They were exactly the same somnambulant torment as ever, with the same crowd of confounded or dozing grannies on the sidelines who, by the thirtieth band, could not care less about the next Grade Whatever ranks of disinterested players doing their best (or worst) imitations of soldiers or Benny.

I recognize that the march past is a tradition borne of an era when pipe bands were either of the military itself or populated with veterans. Back then, the march past actually meant something and looked impressive and – maybe most importantly – in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s would comprise a small fraction of the number of bands a major championship boasts these days.

Today, pipe bands have grown well beyond their honourable military roots. Bands and march pasts have nothing to do with the military, and is there any other musical hobby where civilians pretend to be soldiers?

If the lengthy march past was originally a way to buy time while administrators tabulated results, that too is history, since a database or spreadsheet today completes the task in a microsecond.

A march past is a pastiche, like a crazy nightmare, band after band inexorably coming at you, seemingly never-ending. It’s a zombie apocalypse. A trail of tears. A death march. Night of the Kilted Dead.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But can’t the custom be replaced with something else? For the pleasure of the paying public, the organizers of competition can provide better value. If not for the improved sanity of pipers and drummers, then there must be something else that will reduce the number of urinary tract infections caused by straining to hold it three hours after swilling multiple pints in the beer tent.

As with many questionable traditions, all it takes sometimes is someone to ask a simple and constructive question in order to evoke positive change.

So, here it is: Is the march past a relic that can be replaced with something more satisfying to all?

Right? Aye?

Aye’s right.

 

Pipecycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharp!

 

Proudly independent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corruption of any sort should be exposed.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christmas past present

In every piper and drummer’s life there is a period of maybe two years at the beginning during which parents get to fill your figurative stocking with any and every piping and drumming gifts they can get their hands on. It’s all new; it’s all good.

After a few years, young pipers and drummers begin to understand what’s what. We learn the music and the instrument and what it is to be a competitive player, so we become far more knowledgeable and selective about the items we acquire. We leave our parents behind, and there are no longer any surprise piping/drumming gifts, since they start to follow strict instructions about which items to get – “the X-Pat Mark 3 Carbon Body with Tongues Impregnated with Gold Dust Drone Reeds” are the only thing on the list. That 1975 Royal Scots Fusiliers album just won’t hack it.

My parents – my dad especially – made the most of my first few years of piping. I started when I was 11, and there was no shortage of tartan bedecked presents of vinyl LPs by terrible pipe bands and Highland dress knick-knacks that had lovely thought behind them, but missed the mark for the more informed musician.

There was the brass piper door-knocker. The LP of Seumas MacNeill gamefully attempting mostly regimental tunes (a strange collaboration of ideas). The new green wool drone cords. A bag cover in MacFarlane (?) tartan.

And then there were the parlour pipes. Back in the 1970s, before there was any talk, let alone availability, of shuttle pipes, smallpipes, border pipes or any-other-pipe-besides-the-Highland-one, I found out about parlour pipes. Parlour pipes are essentially mini-Highland pipes that use a practice chanter for a chanter and tiny cane drone reeds. Gordon Speirs, who I got occasional lessons from, had a set of ivory-mounted Henderson parlour pipes and, me, a wide-eyed 13-year-old, thought these were the coolest things. Mini anythings are appealing to nerdy kids, and mini-bagpipes were just the thing for this early-teen piping geek.

To be sure, I was wrestling away with my full-sized set of plastic-mounted Hardie pipes, but who could resist those cute little parlour pipes? Certainly not me. I become a bit fixated with getting a set, and that’s all I ever wanted for Christmas in 1977.

My dad researched parlour pipes. By that time this novelty item was rarely available, and pipe makers would only do them by request, since satisfying the core business of full-sized pipes was priority. But he found that the old Kintail company would make a special-order set.

So my dad negotiated these parlour pipes with the fine folks at Kintail. As I found out later, they were to arrive in time for Christmas, and, to be sure of that, my parents paid for them in advance. In full. Back then, they were probably about $200, but that was never loose change for my dad and mom, Depression-era penny-wise children.

Christmas came, and under the tree were a selection of piping odds and ends, and, as far as the parlour pipes went, only a card saying that they were delayed but would arrive shortly. Moderate disappointment ensued, but at least I had these treasured mini-pipes to look forward to.

Back then, the American market for bagpipe makers didn’t appear to be important to them. Quality gear and reeds were hard to get, and not until maybe the 1990s did the USA stop having to wait an eternity for anything from Scotland. So it was with these fully-paid-for Kintail parlour pipes.

We waited weeks, then months, with my dad growing increasingly impatient, even at one point calling the company to give him a piece of his mind. Promises were repeatedly made. Still no parlour pipes.

I believe the next Christmas even passed, and by then the allure of mini-bagpipes had made them an afterthought. But one day at least two years later a battered package arrived from Scotland and in it of course with the coveted parlour pipes.

As with many kids’ Christmas presents, this one got played with a few times and then mainly forgotten. I’d gotten over it before it even arrived. I still have the parlour pipes today, and they’ve been played maybe a total of two hours.

I came to think about this Christmas present while thinking about all of the pipers and drummers out there who might have been given piping/drumming-related gifts, with loving thoughts, from their parents, only hoping to hit the mark for their kid’s delicate hobby, quickly becoming more intense than they ever imagined.

After probably 20 years since being played, I got out my parlour pipes for a Christmas tune, wishing my parents could be around to hear them again.

A good thought that counts.

 

Shocks

The recent Shotts / Jim Kilpatrick developments are, to put it mildly, unfortunate for all – the band, the drummer and even the entire pipe band world.

I won’t go in to who I think is right and wrong, since I believe each party shares some right and some wrong. Based on what I know, I can see the pros and cons of each side of the situation. Besides, my opinion on who’s right and wrong does not matter one iota.

What is clear is that the timing of the developments couldn’t be worse. The return of Shotts & Dykehead from burning wreckage in 2012 to World’s winner in 2015 is one of the greatest pipe band success stories ever. To me, it ranks right up there with Inveraray & District’s rise from formation to Grade 1 contender in eight years, or Dysart & Dundonald’s redefining in the 1970s that a great pipe band could be made up of kids, taught from scratch, rather than wizened veterans slowly going through the ranks.

The Shotts move truly shocked the piping and drumming world. The reigning World Champion that seems to have done everything right suddenly acrimoniously parting ways with the greatest competitive pipe band drummer of all time?

Blockbuster, indeed.

The shock was predictable. What has been surprising to me is the fallout and public shaming on Facebook and Twitter. After nearly 50 years building them, Kilpatrick’s fans are legion, and many responded by taking his side of the story. The band’s side, despite the fact that it seems to have a golden touch when it comes to making all the right moves, seemed to be grasped, much less believed, by few.

Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia is more than 100 years old. Over its history the band has seen its share of contentious personnel changes. Greats like J.K. McAllister, Tom McAllister, Alex Duthart, Robert Mathieson and Jim Kilpatrick himself have been at the centre of band controversy, but their legend continued and continues. As ever, these things passed.

All bands make personnel challenges. It’s true that winning encourages camaraderie and “chemistry,” but even the winningest bands have their disputes, and even World Champions have to make tough decisions that, to the outsider, seem inconceivably stupid. Only from the inside can situations be understood completely, and even then complete understanding is a longshot.

Again, I appreciate both sides of the current situation, and I don’t side with one party or other. Each handled the communications of the matter as they saw fit, and no communication strategy – whether pipe bands, corporations or people – is ever perfect.

The band appears to think that the more it says the worse it will become. Despite 100-plus years of history, it knows that the here-and-now is what matters. No one will side with the 2015 version of Shotts just because they liked the McAllister-Duthart era.

Kilpatrick’s legend – in the here-and-now – is bigger than the band’s, and the band recognizes, I think, that it can’t win against the battalions of Kilpatrick supporters. Jim Kilpatrick also understands that he has a stronger and more interpersonal following, and they have mobilized in support of their hero.

But the public shaming and the figurative lynch mobs breaking out on social media are ridiculous and even embarrassing. Really? Is that what we pipers and drummers do to each other? I’ve never seen other pipers and drummers set out to destroy a band because of something it did, and it shouldn’t happen now, or ever.

Maybe I’m kidding myself, but social media public shaming of individuals is not what we pipers and drummers do. It’s unacceptable, immature and even cowardly behaviour.

It’s the quality of music that is played that matters. While people must respect others, it’s not a personality contest on the field or the concert stage. Plenty of nice people and plenty of jerks have won plenty of competitions. We are not judged on our conduct or character, we’re judged on quality of music. That said, we are just naturally nice and only in rare times do we allow emotion to get the worst of us.

I feel bad for Kilpatrick and Shotts in equal measure. Like 99% of pipers and drummers, they are good people. There might be hard feelings and upset, but I don’t believe that they want to harm anyone. Decisions and timing and communications can always be better, and if we expect perfection of anyone inevitably we will be disappointed.

Bands and people make decisions for many reasons, and unless we are there or those people, we will never know all of the details.

I hope that the Shotts band and Jim Kilpatrick can move on. No amount of hand-wringing or name-calling or Facebook grouping or public shaming by people will help.

Let’s get back to allowing the music to do the talking.

Merge method

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

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

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

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

Cue inevitable thoughts of merger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In praise

Take thou the writing: thine it is. For who
Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal,
Held still the target higher, chary of praise
And prodigal of counsel who but thou?
So now, in the end, if this the least be good,
If any deed be done, if any fire
Burn in the imperfect page, the praise be thine.

I have always liked Robert Louis Stevenson’s dedication to his wife in his final novel, Weir of Hermiston, which he wrote at his estate on the island of Upolu in Samoa between fits of coughing up consumptive blood. Due to his sudden death, the novel was never completed, but fortunately he dedicated it before he was, as it were, done.

Behind almost every good piper or drummer is a partner who provides support, encouragement and inspiration. I’ve written before about the benefits of having an understanding spouse and family who understands or, better yet, participates in themselves, the strange affliction that is competitive piping and drumming. Conversely, we have all known pipers and drummers, some who became very good, who have been pressured to quit due to a badgering partner who insists that more attention be placed on other things – specifically, them.

We pipers and drummers can be self-centred. Some might say that the more selfish you are, the better you’ll be. We spend hours by ourselves perfecting our game. It’s generally a solitary conceit, and, if we’re lucky, the happiness that comes with success brings happiness to our family, who are made happy because we’re happy.

I see the partners around the games, whether in-person or at home in support. Invariably, successful pipers and drummers are buoyed by the unconditional love of others. How else would you be able or allowed or motivated to pursue so wholly such a flight of self-indulgent fancy as competitive piping and drumming than with a reassuring and compassionate partner at your side?

My greatest supporter by far has been by my side for 30 years now, and 20 years ago today, September 9,1995, for reasons that I still can’t comprehend or accept, she married me at Greyfriar’s Kirk in Edinburgh. She was radiant as ever, and she shines today, as she has every day 20 years on.

A brilliant scientist, a wonderful mother, a faithful companion, a beautiful woman – she  weakens my knees.

Chary of praise, effusive with common sense, she’s the correcting counterbalance to all that’s not right. With the lightest touch, she tips the scales in my favour.

Whether it’s the playing of pipes or the writing about it, she not only permits me, she encourages me to do my thing. She understands what I get from it. She’s happier when I am made happy by it, and, by that alone, she makes me happier.

She is comfort by my side. Fount of delight. She’s a rare jewel and my astonishingly good fortune and, if whatever I have done is the least good, it is she who deserves credit at least in equal measure.

Twenty years now, she holds still my target higher. The praise is hers.

 

What we do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, it’s what we do.

 

Fond farewell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Happy New You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year!

Hatred unwelcome

The Highland pipes draw attention. The volume and distinct sound of the instrument – especially when played poorly – get a reaction from people, so pipers are often seen in protests and parades.

Pipers who work their entire lives to be the best musicians they can be are invariably annoyed when “pipers,” who only want to be a spectacle by making as much kilty-noise as possible, go out and give the musical instrument and all of those who strive to be excellent musicians a bad rap.

It’s disturbing that things Celtic often seem to attract a certain racist element. Skinheads donning “utilikilts” and Celtic knot tattoos often add a noisy “piper” to the mix.

It makes my skin crawl.

The latest is a racist in Oregon who happens to use the Highland pipes to draw attention to his disgusting views and spitting vitriol. His MO seems to be to use Highland wear and the pipes to stand out from other hate-mongers, and, evidenced by the media attention he’s receiving, it seems to be working. (If you must investigate, you’re on your own – I won’t promote him any more than necessary here.)

Someone in the musical world of Highland piping needs to say it:

This hatred has absolutely no place in the culture of true pipers and drummers.

The world’s pipers and drummers are utterly and completely inclusive of all race, economic status, religion, sexual orientation and political belief. If you meet one who does not subscribe to inclusivity, kindly tell them to do us all a favour, take up the triangle and go away.

Real pipers and drummers enjoy and nurture the common bond that our music creates. We are colour-blind and completely tolerant – uninterested, actually – in what our fellow pipers and drummers believe, unless, of course, it is a “piper” or “drummer” who refuses to be part of that ethic. The only people we exclude are those who are not inclusive in their thinking.

Real pipers and drummers reject intolerance and racism. Those who embrace those things are not welcome.

Last tune and chorus

If you could choose, what would be the last tune that you ever play? The  last words in life of the famous are often quoted, and I’m sure that many of us hope to utter something profound or telling on our deathbed, as in the movies. Based on a few unfortunate experiences, it doesn’t seem to happen that way, but it’s a nice thought.

It seems to me, though, that we pipers and pipe band drummers should hope to play our favourite tune, or at least something meaningful, the last time we play with the band or the big pipes. At the risk of sounding morbid, I frequently think after a practice session or a competition event, that that tune could be the last tune of my life.

Not that I have any reason to believe that I’m going to kick off any time soon – any more than at any other time, at least – but I try to be conscious of living and doing things as if there is no time to waste. I like doing nothing from time to time as much as the next person (that, too, can be living life to the fullest), but I tend to have a do-it-now personality. It helps with productivity and getting things done.

Carpe diem, and all that.

I can’t recall anyone remarking on a person’s last tune in life. But I’d like to imagine that John D. Burgess had a nice run through “In Praise of Morag” or his classic arrangement of “P-M George S. Allan.” Maybe G.S. McLennan reeled off “The Little Cascade” before he finally lost the lung capacity for the big pipe. Or Captain John MacLellan recorded his “Phantom Piper of the Corrieyarrick,” always trying to help future pipers.

For myself, I’m not sure what I like to play last – the most meaningful tune to me that concludes a piping life. If I had a tune closely associated with me by others, it would be that. But I don’t believe that’s the case.

So, I think I’d like to play something I associate with others. “Lament for Mary MacLeod” was my non-piping dad’s favourite (it reminded him of the classic theme to “Jesus Christ, Superstar”), and I like it a lot, too, so that would be nice. Or perhaps “Lochanside” or “Highland Brigade at Magersfontein,” my personal two favourite tunes of all time. Or maybe “Edinburgh City Police,” in honour of my father-in-law. Or Michael Grey’s wonderful “Annabel,” which he wrote for my daughter. Or Bill Livingstone’s brilliant tribute to my lovely bride, “Greyfriar’s Julie.”

I don’t know. Not all of them could be played last every time I practice. But I find it an interesting thought, and, thinking about it, being spoiled for choice is suggestive of life’s richness.

May we all live forever, but, if you could have it your way, what might be your final tune?

Masons’ April

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

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

“A what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And your identity can be secret.

Memorial Bell

My daughter’s great-great-grand-uncle is the great, great composer of grand pipe tunes and hero of the Boer War, John McLellan, DCM, of Dunoon, identified by all as the creator of some of our greatest tunes: “Lochanside,” “Southall,” “The Memorial Bells of Inveraray,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein,” and “The Road to the Isles,” to name a few.

He was born in Dunoon, Scotland, in 1875, and pictured here is the bell he played with as a baby.

My father-in-law, Martin Wilson, Jock McLellan’s grand-nephew, gave it to us 13 years ago when my daughter was born. The bell has been in the family for probably 135 years, at least. It’s a cherished possession.

I was giving a lesson the other day with a very promising 11-year-old piper, and we were going over “Lochanside.” Pointing out and talking a little about the composer of the tune, I went to find his bell, and, sure enough, it produced a certain, “That’s cool!” from young Kerry.

We rang it, as one does with bells, and for the first time I realized that this bell might well have magical musical powers, considering that it was probably the first instrument that wee Jock McLellan played. Surely it imparted simple tones to him so that he would eventually compose tunes that are magical for their simplicity of melody.

There’s something to this. I wonder if John McLellan’s DNA is still on the bell, which he must have sooked on, teething in his pram around the streets of Dunoon, round the Black Park, over to the side of Loch Loskin, and down Argyll Street.

Memorial bell, indeed.

A gift

Rowland and Tirzah Berthoff, 1998Composing new music is the most significant thing we pipers and drummers can do. Recordings, winning competitions, performing in recitals and concerts – all good. But it’s the act of creating new music that has the most profound impact on the art.

In my real job, I work for songwriters and composers to uphold their creative rights. Being involved with all manner of musical genres, I appreciate that we pipers and drummers are not much different from the rest of the music industry.

I have realized, though, that in piping and drumming there is probably as much, if not more, original music creation than anywhere. Pipe bands through every level are under pressure to compose and arrange new content, and drum scores almost always have to be original. As a result, the idea of making new tunes and scores is instilled in every one of us from almost the beginning.

Just about every piper I know has tried their hand at composing a new tune, usually in the first few years of playing. Even if they’re not great or non-derivative compositions, pipers and drummers are able to make a new tune. The ability is in almost all of us.

There was a time when I fancied myself a decent composer, and I suppose I still do. Doing it well takes time and, since there’s no great demand and plenty of other things to do, composing hasn’t been a priority for a few decades now. But I made a few decent tunes that a few good friends published and a few good bands have actually played.

The great thing is that we can name our creations for people or events or places in our lives. In the late-1980s I composed a two-part strathspey and named it “Mrs. Campbell of Canna” for the late, truly great, Margaret Fay Shaw, who was (somehow) a friend of my family.

When I sent it to her, I never realized the reaction. She loved the pipes and she was a world scholar of Hebridean music, but this simple strathspey that I thought was okay bowled her over. She was truly touched, and hung a framed copy of the tune in the drawing room of Canna House. She asked me to play it each of the times when I saw her thereafter.

Young and naïve then, I only now realize the effect that an original composition created and named for a person can have on their spirit. Is there a greater honour that a person can receive than receiving a piece of art that is named for and inspired by them? Margaret Fay Shaw died at age 101 and her scholarly work lives on. But so will this tune. We pipers sometimes don’t fully appreciate that.

My daughter plays piano, and she’s pretty good and, like all kids, would be a lot better if she practiced more. I know that if she were to compose a little tune or song expressly for me, I would get weak at the knees and blubber like The Great One when he went to Los Angeles.

I’m not one to regret much. Life is what it is, and if you make on balance many more good decisions than not-so-good decisions, things go in a positive direction, so there’s not much point in wishing something wasn’t. As Beth Orton sings, “What are regrets? They’re just lessons we haven’t learned yet.”

But if there are two things that I regret, they’re that I did not compose and name a tune for my father or mother. Perhaps it was because I wanted to be sure each was good enough for others to want to play, or that I simply didn’t make it a priority, but it didn’t happen, and now it’s too late.

The lesson learned: if you are a piper of some experience, and your mother and father are still with you, you most certainly have the ability to compose a new tune and name it for your parents. It might not be a great tune, or even a good tune, but in their eyes I guarantee that they will be moved beyond tears. If you haven’t already, make them a tune.

While there’s time.

Seven realizations in 2013

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

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

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

Looking back, there were several things I realized:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retirement hame

Quartet is a charming movie set in a grand retirement home for gifted musicians. Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and others star in the poignant comedy, with support from actual elderly famous musicians from the British stage. They long for what they once were as players and singers, but, the key is, instead of sinking into decrepitude alone and forlorn, they do it together, sharing their wistful memories of great performances, professional rivalries, multiple curtain-calls and standing ovations.

Their home is a stately Georgian mansion called Beecham House, in the idyllic English countryside, and the viewer assumes that the famous retirees have the means to pay for their care, but it’s apparent that there are major contributions to support the place and the lifestyle the old residents deserve.

They don’t just sit around moldering. They teach. They perform. They compose. They have a good time and, when one of them is down, they band together to pick him up.

What a thing it would be for our most accomplished retired pipers and drummers to have a grand home to go to, to live out the last years of their life among others who also lived the life. Perhaps set somewhere in rural Scotland, it could be a renovated castle supported by the piping and drumming community and a combination of private and government funding.

In return for all those Highland fling performances of his tune, perhaps the Marquis of Huntley could gift us his Aboyne Castle. Just the place.

Imagine the atmosphere. The retirement house would be like a Piobaireachd Society conference every day, except that every person there would be able to back up the talk with a career of playing ability that qualified them for residency. The home for old great players would enable drummers and bandsmen and women to relive memories, stay current with trends, and debate the past.

As in the movie, there could be regular recitals and workshops, kids visiting to learn from the masters, and for the masters to learn from the kids. An annual gala would bring in the Highland aristocracy (there is one, you know) ready to rip a cheque from their sporran to help things along.

There would be healthcare on-site, treating uncooperative fingers and wrists, and doctors to look after the mentally infirm with the dignity that they deserve. But most of all, the place would be a last band of brothers and sisters united by their common love of the art.

Some great pipers and drummers are fortunate to have the savings and the friends and family to lovingly look out for them into their dotage. Sadly, though, too many of our greats drop out of our own consciousness, and conclude their lives lonely and detached from piping and drumming society.

There should be a place for our greatest performers and authorities to go, if they wish, if they need to, to share their experiences one last time, for themselves, for all of us.

How many more?

Piping and pipe bands have a reputation problem. It’s called booze. But it’s not just reputation; it’s reality.

Our connection with alcohol is part of our tradition. The image of the drunken Scotsman, the piper downing a dram – these are as predictable with the general public as tartan and “Amazing Grace.”

Virtually every competition, concert or band practice ends with alcohol. For sure, it’s an essential social aspect of what we do. It’s one of my personal favourite parts of the piping scene, and I am not for an instant suggesting we stop enjoying ourselves in moderation.

I’m not sure that in reality pipers and drummers have any worse a problem with booze than other musicians. Just about every club or community likes to share a drink among friends and, in that sense, we’re like everyone else.

What I’m talking about is recognizing, confronting and helping those with serious alcohol dependency problems. I’m sure that you know at least one or two pipers or drummers who are probable or full-fledged alcoholics.

Our drinking tradition is also a tradition where it is customary to sweep problems under the rug. We turn a blind-eye to those with serious alcohol problems and, in fact, we often encourage them. We buy them drinks. We coax them. Just one more. Give us a tune. Have another.

For every world famous piper who dies of alcoholism or suicide due to its associated depression and relentless demons, there are far more we never hear about. When it happens, not much is said except for the euphemism that he “died suddenly.”

Thankfully there are those among us who have recognized their problem and, with the support of others, work every day to stay sober. To a person, those pipers and drummers I know who are recovering alcoholics struggle at social settings to decline offers from their drinking pipers and drummers to “go ahead . . . one won’t hurt you.”

In 1987 I wrote an editorial about this very same topic in the then Canadian Piper & Drummer. Living in Edinburgh at the time, I happened to run into a group of Queen’s Own Highlanders off-duty soldiers on a night on the town. One of them was a prominent piper who expressed his extreme displeasure with the piece, accusing me of “ruining all the fun.”

I understand that others will not like this being talked about again here. It needs to be said. I am bothered greatly that we traditionally tend to sit there and watch our friends be destroyed by this disease, and some of us even egg it on. If there are those who feel that these things should not be spoken of, well, I’m afraid that you’re part of the problem.

This isn’t about stopping the fun. We can coexist with alcohol, and this blog even uses an image of whisky as symbolic of discussing various sides of what we do and who we are as pipers and drummers. This post is about friends who might need help.

Alcoholism and depression will continue to affect pipers and drummers just as they will continue to impact all other walks of life. Addiction and illness will not go away. But at least let’s all of us try to do something about it by eliminating the taboo of talking.

That starts by confronting the problem, discussing it, and reaching out to help each other.

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.

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