Raising Hell

In 1978 I visited Canada for the first time, as a 14-year-old piping student from St. Louis at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The late Finlay MacNeill, a double Gold Medalist (for piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting and for Gaelic singing at the Mod), was the piping teacher. The great Wilson Young was the drumming teacher. I was required to learn some Gaelic, which I didn’t like because it took me away from practicing piping.

Almost all of the students were Canadian, and a vivid memory was going to a party one night at one of the residence halls. Over and over again there was a song I’d never heard before being played on the hi-fi record or eight-track tape machine. It was “Raise a Little Hell” by the Canadian group, Trooper, and it was all the rage in Canada that year.

It was my first exposure to Canadian music. I didn’t quite know what to make a song that said “hell,” but knew that it was catchy. At that same school, I remember both Barry Ewen and Neil Dickie, immigrant Scots who were both living in Nova Scotia at the time, came to the Gaelic College to compete, or do a recital, for us students.

They played what I thought were crazy tunes. Barry did a rendition of the accordion tune that Donald MacLeod adapted to the pipes, “The Hen’s March O’er the Midden,” with mind-blowing vibrato finger-trills in a variation. It was pure piping insanity. I can’t remember exactly what Neil played, but I do recall it being very different and adventurous.

I would return to St. Louis to become a fan of Canadian rock and pipe-music. Rush, April Wine, Neil Dickie, Trooper, City of Victoria, Clan MacFarlane – all were part of my late-1970s Midwestern years.

Destiny and luck I believe are informed by choices. I chose to come to Canada, largely to play Canadian-made pipe music on a world stage. I got to know Barry and Neil, and count both as good friends. I’ve been lucky to be a small part of some of the biggest changes in pipe music, much of which have come from Canada, and last year my backgrounds in piping, publishing and PR played big roles in starting the work I currently do with SOCAN, the Society of Composers, Authors & Music Publishers of Canada.

In November at our annual awards at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, nearly 35 years since my first visit to Canada at the Gaelic College and my first listen to Canadian music, things came full circle when I met Ra McGuire and Brian Smith, the Trooper-member-composers of “Raise a Little Hell,” and to whom SOCAN was presenting a National Achievement Award. McGuire and Smith seemed like two of the nicest guys you’d want to meet, and they were genuinely honoured and thrilled to receive the accolade.

I wanted to tell them about that party in 1978 in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton but, even if they had the time to listen, I wouldn’t have bored them with it and the fact that serendipity, fate, luck and conscious decisions all converged for me right then.

Nobody’s going to help you
You’ve just got to stand up alone
And dig in your heels
And see how it feels
To raise a little Hell of your own.

A few simple words to guide us.

No thanks

Piping and drumming associations have a problem with manners. They struggle with the most important and basic politeness: saying thank you.

Over the years I’ve known dozens – no exaggeration – of good people who have given their time and energy and intelligence to their association – sometime many years of it. And when they finally decide to move on what thanks do they get? Absolutely nothing. Not a word of appreciation. Not a peep. Radio silence.

It’s no wonder that associations struggle to attract and keep good people. You’ve got to be mad to voluntarily agree to do this stuff with only an altruistic “giving back” M.O.

So, what happens? With too few exceptions, you get people volunteering for positions of power whose M.O. isn’t giving back at all. They too often volunteer by reason of something disturbingly self-motivated, whether it’s a competitive edge for them or their band or some convoluted means to make money.

I was speaking to someone the other day who served his organization on various committees and such like for almost 20 years. He finally gave it up to devote time to other things. It was by all accounts an amicable departure. The thanks he received? Zilch. What will he say if he’s asked to help again? No thanks.

You might guess where this is heading. I faithfully edited and published the quarterly print magazine for my association for nearly 20 years, and volunteered for its Music Board/Committee for 12, seven as chair. Not a word of thanks from any of the five different presidents I worked with over that time. I never did these things for the thanks or anything else, but it still miffs me when the only resolution is none. Radio silence.

Perhaps there are piping and drumming associations that remember their manners and do the right things. There might be an organization or two out there that puts a priority on thanking those who work to make it work. But if there is, I haven’t heard of it.

That’s all. Thanks.

The 5 O’clock Tune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downton piping

The British soap-opera Downton Abbey could just as well be about the piping world. The highfaluting British soap opera is about many things, but the core theme is a separation and then a mingling of the upper, middle, and lower classes, and the changing attitudes that resulted after World War I.

Piping was much the same. From the era when Downton Abbey takes place (1910s to the 1920s) until the 1950s, the jobs of competing pipers and drummers would look something like:

Soldier, policeman, soldier, miner, factory worker, soldier, soldier, shipbuilder, riveter, joiner, bagpipe turner, reedmaker.

In fact, in most cases the competitors had to work, while for the judges it was an option. The competitors would be downstairs while the judges were upstairs. The competiting pipers were far better players than those who judged them, who never of course competed because it would be mingling with the lower classes. Back then, adjudicators usually would be born into their wealth, or esteemed “professionals” with degrees from universities that they had no choice but to attend.

Until maybe the 1950s, when the likes of Seumas MacNeill, a university lecturer who was not wealthy and who, according to custom, should never have competed, decided that he would earn his place on a bench through competition success. It was no coincidence that Seumas was a member of the League of Young Scots, a nationalist group that preceded the Scottish National Party.

Piping and pipe band judges back then would generally be wealthy landowners, lawyers, Cambridge dons, the local laird. Often they didn’t even play, much less compete. They were members of “society” and societies, like the Royal Scottish Pipers, which today still looks to men with money and “class” over accomplishments in piping for non-honourary admittance into the group.

But gradually, that class division in piping has changed, sped up by class-unconscious countries like the US, Australia and Canada taking a big interest in the art. The wealthy American Shirley McLaine comes on the scene on Downton Abbey and simply can’t understand the class traditions. In the 1970s there was an onslaught of doctors, lawyers, and “professionals” who simply wanted to compete to the best of their ability and earn their spot in piping. The lawyer Bill Livingstone, perhaps, is our Shirley McLaine.

At the same time, former competitors like MacNeill, the Bobs of Balmoral, Donald MacLeod and Captain John MacLellan transitioned to the judging benches. Power in piping was decided by achievements rather than wealth – no doubt an ethic that MacNeill taught and instilled in students and teachers at his College of Piping.

Today, we often don’t even know what our fellow competitors do for a living. But thinking about it, I can count lawyer, doctor, actuary, professor, magazine publisher, physicist, rocket scientist, neurosurgeon, and even the Attorney General of the United States of America as fellow competitors. This would never have happened in pre-1950s UK piping.

If you take a turn around the Scottish games you can still see some holdovers from that bygone era of class distinction. Lochearnhead games clings to its tradition of having Royal Scottish Pipers Society members judge. The occasional games has a local “piper” adjudicate the jigs. For the visitor it can be an amusing diversion from reality. Witness it while it lasts.

The ridiculous and often comical class divisions of Downton Abbey are not so far removed from our own little world.

Resolutions #9

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

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

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

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

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

Crossroads

Toronto, like so many other Commonwealth-country cities, was built by many Scots. Though the city has become much more multi-cultural from the days of white Europeans settlement, a walkabout most older neighbourhoods uncovers evidence of the role that Scottish played in laying bricks and pavement, carving stones and wood.

Most days when I ride to work I go across plenty of streets with Scottish names – “Dunedin,” “Colbeck,” “Strath,” and even “Craic.” Sometimes I think these roads must have been named by homesick builders and bricklayers.

I carry on to the toney Forest Hill area, home to many of Toronto’s business elite and the neighbourhood where Aubrey Graham – much more famous as “Drake” – grew up. And every trip I ride along Dunvegan Road and, after a few blocks, turn at Kilbarry, not spelled the same as piping’s notorious Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, but it’s a confluence of streets that every time I cross it I wonder if somehow there wasn’t come piping connection back in the 1920s when these large homes were constructed.

I can’t think of a much better, or more ironic, piping crossroads as the intersection of Dunvegan and Kilbarry, but I got to wondering if other such piping and drumming road coincidences exist.

Thanks to the officious folks at Google, who kindly mapped the planet, and somehow took away from the charm and serendipity of discovering such things, here are a few others:

Maybe you have a few favourite piping and drumming roads more travelled.

Gifts

I stumbled across this photo that my dad took in 1978. He snapped pictures of everything. My dad used a camera then almost like we do today in the digital age. He used slide film because it was cheaper, and he’d print only the good ones. Every few weeks he’d hold a “slide show” and force us grumpy kids to suffer through his images when we would rather be outside running reckless.

This is Christmas 1978, when Jimmy Carter was President and disco raged and computers still ran on punch cards. My father always got a photo of the presents under the tree, and you’ll maybe notice here the presence of things for my sisters, an 8-track stereo, a suitcase (?!) and a piping record – specifically an LP by Donald MacLeod. I was 15 then, and had been at the pipes for three years. I didn’t have to put piping and pipe band records on any list; they’d always just appear. (Like T.J. Eckleburg eyes, MacLeod symbolically peers over the top of boxes of model trains, the other shared hobby that my dad nurtured.)

These Donald MacLeod records were hard to find then and rare today. God knows how my dad sourced them in the days of stamped letters and “surface mail.” MacLeod made two of these records on a trip to New Zealand in the ’70s, and they had very limited release. Apart from these, I don’t believe that he made any other commercial recordings, even though he might be the most recorded piper in pre-digital history through his broadcasts and instructional tapes.

At any rate, do kids in 2012 even ask for or get piping and pipe band CDs for Christmas or their birthday? Have recordings, like photos, become so throw-away and commonplace that the sheer volume of them here, there and everywhere make them undesirable? I don’t know.

I do know that I still have those Donald MacLeod vinyl records and all of the 35,000-plus slides that my dad took and meticulously saved. I’ve scanned the slides and the records to digital formats. Gifts that keep on.

For the parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please please me

Show me your mother's Freudian slip.It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that solo pipers are an odd lot. A more solipsistic pastime I can’t imagine: playing for prizes that almost no one on earth – except the piper him/herself – gives a damn about. I’m not condemning it; it is what it is, as they say, and there’s nothing wrong with pushing one’s self to be the best he/she can be, whether it’s solo piping, golf or basket-weaving. It’s what we humans do, and who is anyone to get in the way of someone’s good time?

I’ve heard many very good, even great, solo competition pipers say that he or she doesn’t or didn’t actually enjoy competing. It’s a lonely and self-absorbed hobby, fraught with tension and anxiety and pressure. Even for the greatest pipers, the times that you’re first are far, far less frequent than when you’re second, third, fourth or not in the list at all.

I don’t think I ever really enjoyed competing, either. It was more like I became an adrenaline junkie, perhaps tricking myself into looking forward to each event being done, rather than enjoying the performance itself. (Yes, I know what a few of you nice people are thinking: You weren’t the only one looking forward to the end.) The blessed end would justify the means.

My daughter has been playing the piano now for five or six years. She’s getting pretty good but, like almost all kids and their instruments, she despises practicing. With luck, the correlation between playing the piano and the pure magic of making music will sink in. If not, I hope she’ll stop, but I think she’s pressing on for fear of disappointing her parents whose hearts leap up when they hear her play.

Looking back, I wonder if my raison-d’pipe was to please my dad, who absolutely cherished my piping. Again, like many children, I cruelly tried to keep him from it, and I’ll regret that forever. But I will always remember his thrill at various contests he attended when that illusive prize came my way. As a parent, I understand that feeling.

He died in 2001 (congestive heart failure), and my mother in 2003 (car crash). It was a year or so after that when my obsession with solo competition piping died, too. I’m pretty sure now that I must have in my subconscious felt like there was no one except myself left to play for, so I stopped. What was the point? I could still play with a band (in a band, your band-mates appreciate what you do), and continue to learn new tunes, play for my personal enjoyment, and do some teaching. But I think the treadmill that the boards had become got unplugged because there was no one left to please.

We pipers and drummers are psychological case studies, every one of us. The desire to please parents can make presidents, start wars and even win Clasps.

A pipe for the people?

Truly humble.The death of the “fabulous Donald MacPherson” (as Seumas MacNeill described him) was made even more poignant by the announcement of the available-for-sale of the Lawrie drones and Hardie chanter with which he won just about all of his prizes. If John Wilson’s dilapidated MacDougall drones went for $13,000, who knows what price MacPherson’s instrument will realize? $15,000? $20,000?

The truth is that the instrument is not just a bagpipe of one well-off piper’s dreams, but a historical piece that would be better shared by as many people as possible, whether as part of a permanent museum collection, or, even better, an instrument that could be loaned out to deserving and needy players.

I know that some organizations in the classical music world purchase world-class violins and cellos and then rent or loan them to artists who otherwise could not possibly afford to purchase such an instrument. Now, these instruments I believe are generally valued at hundreds-of-thousands, if not millions, of dollars. We all know that a decent violin bow can cost $10,000 or more, so the parallels with Highland pipes perhaps separate there.

But wouldn’t it be great if the late, great Donald MacPherson’s pipes could be acquired by a venerable organization like, say, the National Piping Centre, and then loaned each year to a deserving young piper? “The MacPherson Prize Pipe” could become the most meaningful award going in the piping world, making a true difference to a young player’s career. The MacPherson family could realize the value of the instrument in monetary terms that they truly deserve, but the piping world becomes the true beneficiary.

In truth, a bagpipe is only as good as the player. No one will ever again attain the distinct sound that Donald MacPherson achieved and, chances are, the highest bidder will be a player who can only dream of having the ability to walk on a professional-grade competition platform.

Donald MacPherson’s piping legacy will live in the memory of his performances, the standard he set with his sound, and the tunes that he wrote. Making his pipes accessible to deserving players would be a true reflection of his humble and giving character.

Travelling band

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

Hello, Cleveland!

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

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

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

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

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

Crookit horns

Sweetheart . . .Why are there no pipe tunes about love with gushy titles along the lines of “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose”? Sure, we have “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart” and “The Clumsy Lover,” but the first is named after a cow and a brown hill and the latter is perhaps an unfortunate pre-Viagra-era experience.

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and I’d bet not a few tunes were composed for loved-ones and presented on the day. But I’d also bet they have bland, modest titles consisting of the lover’s name, e.g., “Donella Beaton.” “Betty Hardie.” “Lily Christie.” Zzzz.

Burns knew how to rip a good bodice now and again in his poetry, so it’s not like there isn’t a tradition of lusty overtures in Scottish art. But we pipers keep things positively Puritanical in our tunes. Like Donald MacLeod’s “Cockerel in the Creel,” we dance around the topic, rather than say what we really mean. What’s “Tam Bain’s Lum” really about, anyway?

One hears endlessly how the Highland pipes are full of passion and ceremony. We celebrate battles and commemorate deaths and marvel at ewes wi’ crookit horns (ooh-er!), but when it comes to outward displays of affection, we’re as inverted as a good cane bass drone reed. (Which reminds me of a great anecdote about synthetic reeds and, um, “marital aids” . . . )

So, let’s start with piobaireachd. There are salutes, laments, battles and gatherings – all a bit dour. “In Praise of Morag” is hardly lusty and, besides, wasn’t “Morag” supposedly Bonnie Prince Charlie in drag? I recommend we create a new ceol mor category that suggests something a lot more passionate, even suggestive, for tunes written especially for significant others. It will be our very own heart-shaped box of a tune.

But what would that be? A sonnet? A lovesong? A fawning? A stalking? Your suggestions are welcomed.

Independent thought

The indomitable Scottishry.The real possibility of an independent Scotland has been all over the news in Canada because of Canada’s similar (but not really comparable) situation with Quebec. On Facebook I see all sorts of pipers and drummers – Scottish and not – appearing to support the idea of Scotland as a nation.

I was brought up to back the Scottish Nationalist Party. My parents were close friends with James Halliday, leader of the SNP from 1956-’60. From about the age of four on my American dad kitted out me and my brother and sisters with badges, posters, stickers and t-shirts with SNP slogans with the ingenious thistle-ribbon emblem (still one of my favourite logos anywhere).

When I went to the University of Stirling for a year in 1983-’84 there was a club day. My main reason for being in Scotland was of course piping, but I figured I should try to do something else. There was a table for the university’s SNP Club, staffed by fairly radical-looking students. Clackmannanshire is a traditional SNP stronghold, and my mother was born in Tillicoultry, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll join up.

I went to a few meetings that I remember consisted of a lot of callow raving about the English and the “Westminster government.” After a month or two came the club’s election of officers. As with many volunteer groups, lots of people were nominated as president, but no one accepted.

It was then when they tried to convince me – an American – to be the president of the University of Stirling’s Scottish Nationalist Party Club. It was also then that I realized how absurd this was. I wasn’t Scottish. I played the pipes and had a Scottish mother and liked to read Hogg and Burns and Stevenson, but that was as close as I could be. I understood at that moment that I had no business getting involved with serious Scottish politics. It was the last meeting I attended.

We non-Scottish pipers and drummers tend to think we have a right to be Scottish. Because we play the Highland pipes and strap on the kilt most weekends and often visit the country and usually enjoy a dram and a bit of haggis, we make the mistake that we can get involved with Scottish politics, and fancifully support the very serious concept of Scotland as a separate nation.

A great thing about piping and drumming is that these arts are a great equalizer. Lawyers mingle with high school students. A police officer plays next to a dentist. A refuse collector can also be a genius composer. An Obama supporter can serve a member of the Tea Party as a pipe-major – and not even know it. We get along because we’re equalized by a common passion for music.

I like the notion of an independent Scotland, but I also respect the serious implications of such a move. “The indomitable Irishry” was how Yeats described his countrymen, and that has always stuck with me. But just because I play the bagpipes doesn’t entitle me to campaign for the SNP. It’s up to the real Scots to decide for themselves, and everyone else should just stick to the music.

Unforgettable

Unforgettable. [Photo:Linda Graham]I read about the rock legend Peter Frampton recovering his beloved 1954 Gibson Les Paul guitar after losing it 31 years ago when he thought it was destroyed in a cargo plane crash in Venezuela. (It begs the question of why he would put it on a cargo plane in the first place if it was so beloved, but never mind.)

Most pipers I know won’t part with their instrument at any time. When away from home, they keep it by their side, closely watch it or, at the very worst, ask a trusted friend to look after it while they go to the toilet. In a beer tent, they will leave it on a pile of pipes, knowing that pipers don’t steal from other pipers. I’ve known pipers to walk away from a flight when some idiot ticket agent insists that the case must be checked.

I’ve had a few embarrassing moments in piping. Maybe the most shameful was in the early-1990s at the old Fort Erie Games. Fort Erie always had a good beer tent and the weather was always hot and humid. Add those elements to solos in the morning, a McAllister band reed in the afternoon and a designated driver and . . . well . . . you know . . . one forgets.

There was no band practice – and no practicing of any kind – the next day. Or on the Monday. Band practice was on Tuesday night and it was then that I was overcome with panic. My pipes – at the time ivory and full nickel Lawries from the 1950s – were gone. The mind raced. I don’t know about you, but when I think I’ve forgotten something really important – passport, laptop . . . anniversary – I get a weird rush of blood to the head, dizziness and a strange sick sensation.

I can’t really remember what I did after tearing apart the house looking for them, but I eventually realized that I must have left them at the games park, under the big tree where the band tuned up. I remembered that much, anyway, and figured they were gone for good. With the band practice to start in a few minutes, I figured I go along anyway, and set to take what would come.

When I got there, it was of course Ken Eller who asked me if I had been looking for the box and contents that he happened to notice and gathered up before he left – since The Captain always but always closes down a beer tent. The feeling then was the exact opposite of the losing one. I’m not usually a hugging person, but I’m sure I hugged Kenny then. Once everyone stopped laughing, all was right again in the world.

Until I tried to blow up the pipes. They didn’t seem to work. At all. Another rush of blood to the head. Clearly, Kenny couldn’t let the joke end at giving me back the pipes. He had extracted all of my reeds – which I still consider a compliment. (I’m pretty sure he returned my chanter reed back when he couldn’t manage it. More on that theme another time.)

Given the circumstances, I’m amazed that more sets of pipes aren’t lost. We hear about the concert violinist who leaves his multi-million-dollar Stradivarius in a taxi. There must be a few good stories out there about lost bagpipes and their recovery.

Play well . . . or else

Fallout.The crimson-faced screaming pipe-major I think is mainly a thing of the past. There was once a tradition that I’d guess came from our roots in the military where the pipe-major would be a complete hard-assed martinet, getting in the faces of players, intimidating them into playing better . . . or something.

Civilian pipe bands have gradually lost their military traditions of #1 dress, regimented music and regimental sergeant-major-style leadership, giving way to a more congenial, team-building approach. Where once soldier-pipers and drummers had no choice but to put up with a bullying pipe-major and simply do as they’re told, I would think that pipers and drummers in civilian bands would likely tell an abusive leader to go stuff himself.

I’ve played in a total of five pipe bands in my life – four as a piper; one as a pipe-major. The ones in which I was a piper, the pipe-majors were friendly and accommodating, coaxing the best from their players through team-building and good music. Sure, they occasionally had a hissy-fit, and tried to time a tantrum for maximum effect, but they’d never humiliate someone in front of the whole band. In general they followed an essential rule of management: praise publicly; criticize privately.

I’ve only heard of pipe-majors who got in the face, or even struck, their players, and I could never understand why anyone would put up with that kind of leadership in a thing that’s supposed to be a hobby. Maybe it was accepted behavior for those who were hit or screamed at when they were children, or veteran soldiers whose idea of authority is tied to some sort of RSM-like brutality. I’m pretty sure today’s successful pipe-major needs to be liked in order to keep his or her players.

I found the recent BBC Northern Ireland documentary on Field Marshal Montgomery and St. Laurence O’Toole interesting in part because it provided insight into the leadership styles of Richard Parkes and Terry Tully. These are two pretty mild-mannered people, but it was a revelation to me how strict they can be with their bands. They clearly derive intensity from their players through an intense leadership style. I’m willing to bet that dozens of band leaders around the world, after watching the documentary, are trying to imitate their obviously effective approach to leadership, just as they try to recreate their music.

Some successful Grade 1 band pipe-majors leave the bellyaching to someone else. The P-M sedately keeps things in check, while the pipe-sergeant goes off his head shouting blue murder at pipers. Leading-drummers more often seem to be stern task-masters with their snare drummers, perhaps knowing that side-drummers tend to be loyal to them, and come to and go from bands along with their L-D. Their tolerance for shouting may be that much higher than that of a relatively more independent piper.

I don’t know. Does nonstop shouting work? Is it possible in today’s civilian bands to drive success by making players terrified of making a mistake? What’s the best way to maximize potential? What’s a modern-day pipe-major to do?

True-love giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wanger

Over the sea to Rum, actually.A few weeks ago I was trying to think of my first real exposure to the pipes. I mean, the instrument, and how it works, not just the sound. My Toledo, Ohio-born father used to play vinyl records of Jimmy Shand and various military pipe bands (my Scottish mother wasn’t as keen on Scottish music aside from Burns and the odd waulking song from Barra), so I guess I had the sound rattling in my head.

But, really, it was in the third grade at Flynn Park Elementary School when I was introduced to how the bagpipe worked. (See previous post on another Flynn memory.) I would have been eight years old; a good two years before I put my hands on a practice chanter. My teacher was Ms. Durr and one day for music time we all were taught to sing something Scottish.

Extraordinarily, it was “The Skye Boat Song.” Remember, this is in suburban St. Louis – about as far removed from the Hebrides as you can get in the western world. And I knew then that it was weird but highly coincidental that we third-graders would be singing Scottish music, the stuff that my dad irritated us with on the weekends.

But here’s the thing. Ms. Durr broke the class in half. One side would sing the words and the melody, and the other side would be what she called “the drone.” This, she explained, was how the bagpipe worked. But we weren’t just any drones. No. We were wangers.

She said that the drones side would, in sort-of rhythm, sing “wang” – as in, “Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang!”

I can’t remember, actually, if I was on the wang side or the song side. In any case, I recall Ms. Durr getting the wangers going:

“Okay, wangers! Start wanging!”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Okay, now the song side! Sing!”

“Speeeeed bonnie booooat, like a biiiirrrd on the wiiiinng!”

“Keep wanging wangers!”

“”Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Onward! the saaaaiiilors cryyyy . . .”

“Good!”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Carry the laaaad that’s booorn to be kiiiiinng!”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Keep on wanging, you wangers!”

“”Ooover the seeeea to Skyyyyye . . .”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

So, this, I think, was my first real introduction to how a Highland bagpipe functions, and since I was the first piper in my family it may have been a determining moment. I remember coming home and trying to describe the experience to my parents, who reacted with a combination of humour and horror. To this day when I hear the tune I picture a little rowboat with a kid with a crown floating on top of a giant seagull’s wing and even the most perfect drones start wanging in my head.

But even though my third-grade experience with Ms. Durr at Flynn Park forever ruined “The Skye Boat Song” for me, in its way it must have influenced my desire to take up the pipes. There must be other unusual tails of inspiration to wang out there, so, Follow I’m sure you’ll dare.

Recharging

Eilean ChanaighAnother World’s is in the books, and I’d have to say it was the best yet. I think I say that every year, but this one seemed to run spectacularly well. Say what you will about the RSPBA, but these people know how to run some of the most complex events on the pipe band calendar.

After a fun and exhausting week in Glasgow, I’m off to a little island in the Hebrides to create a few altogether different life memories with my girls. Access to the Internet (not to mention my desire to access it) could be scant or even nonexistent, so things could be relatively quiet around these pages for a spell. As always, we’ll try to do our best.

I do hope that you enjoyed the coverage from Piping Live! and the World’s. We’re all indebted to great writers like Pete Aumonier, Michael Grey, Iain MacDonald and Meaghan Proudfoot and many others behind-the-scenes for their pith and insight.

For now, I’m on the West Highland Line to Mallaig, camera and mind trained on things other than pipers and drummers.

Well, at least some of time . . .

Name games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, what’s not to like?

Off your head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes we just need to give our head a shake.

Say what?

The good folks with Hear Toronto at the Toronto Indoor.At Highland games, bouncy castles, Scottish sweets-stands and greasy pies are pretty much the norm. You get the odd Ham-a-lot or Montreal smoked meat, and of course the essential beer-tent. Naturally, there are the vendors of Highland gear and pipes and drums. All of this is pretty familiar and predictable stuff.

I’m a big fan of marketing ideas that resonate so immediately that you can’t believe that they took so long to appear. Sometimes, the most obvious stuff is the smartest.

At the recent Toronto Indoor Games I had a eureka marketing moment when I did a double-take after almost walking by a little booth with folks who were selling hearing protection devices. I’m so used to the same-old-stalls that it’s easy to bypass something like this.

But it made perfect sense. Here’s an indoor piping, drumming and pipe banding event held in a cavernous hall. Pipers and pipe band drummers play loud instruments, and hearing loss is a serious concern with players over time. Of course! The audiologists from Hear Toronto set up shop and were selling serious protection devices by Etymotic Research, including custom-fitted models. They were even taking silicon impressions on-the-spot for anyone who wanted to pay $200 to protect their hearing while providing “uniform 15 dB sound reduction across frequencies,” i.e., quieting, not degrading, the sound quality of the pipes, drum, pipe band or nagging spouse.

I was talking – or, rather, shouting over the piping/drumming din – with the venerable Brian Pollock, a veteran of nearly five decades of top-level piping, hundreds of competitions and, I’d guess, more than 10,000 practice sessions. Brian seems to have all his faculties still, including hearing, and he’s also got serious business acumen. I mentioned that it was impressively smart for Hear Toronto to do some marketing and selling at the Indoor. Bagpipes, drums, pipe bands = hearing loss.

We both wondered why it had to stop there. Why not look at other afflictions that we pipers and drummers face? Can’t they, too, come on out to our events? We started to brainstorm.

  • Massage therapists – anxious competitors could take a load off and get a good rub-down before their event.
  • Psychiatrists – just set up a little screened-off booth for discreet visits and I bet this would be booked solid by neurotic competitors.
  • Loan accountants – is there a piper or drummer who doesn’t need more money to support his/her affliction? Cha-ching!
  • Hypnosis therapists – who doesn’t know a piper or drummer who couldn’t use a little of this? “look into my eyes. . . . you are getting sleepy . . . sleepy . . . when you hear the words ‘quick march’ you shall play perfectly until you must stop . . .”
  • Marriage counselors – maybe this little booth wouldn’t get much action, since, as I’ve only witnessed on TV (honest!), marriage counselors need both parties to attend the counseling. The many who need it of course wouldn’t be at the contest with their spouse . . .

So, forget the big lemonade stand and the taffy booths. The real marketing and selling opportunities at the games are with stuff we really need. I’m sure you have your own ideas about what would sell.

Just in time

Nothing but a trollope.More than any other time of year, the New Year reminds me of time. I’m not one to mourn each of my birthdays (far preferable to the alternative, I always say), but whenever January 1 rolls around I become more conscious of time.

I’d much rather reflect on the past than dwell on the future. This time of year, when time slows down for most because we spend less time working and more time choosing what to do with our time, I finally get some time to look back. Looking ahead makes me anxious; looking back gives me comfort. Maybe it’s because I find it harder to remember the details of things negative, but the past to me is always positive. The future can be full of great plans, and “planning” is inevitably packed with deadlines and unrealistic expectations. I tend to take the future as it comes, using common sense as my guide towards a sunny, broad horizon.

Piping things are always dependent on time. There are plenty of things that I’d like to do, but whether I have the time generally dictates whether I’ll actually commit to doing them. More and more, as time marches on, pipers and drummers have to pick-and-choose. Solo competition gives way to bands, bands give way to family, teaching gets squeezed in around work . . .

The Victorian novelist (and inventor of the pillar mail box) Anthony Trollope wrote most of his 45 500-plus-pages novels during his 15-minute coach commute to and from work at the post office. He chose to use that time for his own pleasure, which happened also to be to the pleasure of many others.

“Where do you find the time?” is by far the question I’m asked the most regarding pipes|drums. Time is everywhere; you just need to know how to find it, and choose to use it in certain ways.

Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline, they say. I guess it’s a paradox: I’m far less productive when I’m not busy. I like sitting around doing nothing as much as the next person, but generally I’ll resist doing nothing unless I plan to do nothing, like on vacation or that wretched necessity called sleeping. When I have the time I tend to waste much more of it. If you want something done, give it to a busy person.

For 2011, here’s to good use of time – and, while we’re at it, a damned good time.

Paradiddle universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gold ring

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

Screw that.

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

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

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

Good luck. This could be life-changing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, then, let’s tally up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: revised wedding vows for the piper/drummer.

Tracks that inspired

A little later, c.1979, probably listening to Rush. Not 'Farewell to Kings' concert shirt.It’s safe to say that all pipers and drummers are inspired to play because of the playing of others. When we first hear a band or soloist perform, there’s something about the sound of the instrument that makes us want to do that. If we’re lucky, we’re exposed to quality playing from the very beginning, to set a benchmark for the standard that’s possible if, after quality instruction, we practice really hard.

About the only podcast I listen to regularly is National Public Radio’s “All Songs Considered.” If you like popular (mainly rock) music, I highly recommend it. They did a show recently called “Tunes That Got You Through Your Teens. It was a little maudlin at times but, as ever, it reminded me of the many hours I spent as an adolescent listening to . . . bagpipe music.

It got me thinking about the piping and pipe band recordings that inspired me to practice and, since that and baseball were about the only things I remember doing back then, I guess this music helped me “get through” my teens. Fortunately my Dad liked pipe music before I ever touched a practice chanter (a made-in-Pakistan, bought-in-Edinburgh sheesham wood model he gloppily glued back together at the neck after my brother – I’m sure it was my brother – anonymously sat on it), so as I learned I had some great examples of world-class playing to which I could aspire.

If I had to pick two tracks, though, that inspired me as a kid to practice it would be these (you can click on the links to hear a snippet):

“Lament for the Children”The Art of the Bagpipe – Pipe-Major John Burgess. Goodness knows where my father found this record from the 1950s featuring one of the all-time great figures in piping history. It’s from “Folk-Lyric Records” of Baton Rouge, Louisiana – about as far removed as you can get from Burgess’s stomping ground (although I’m confident he would have concocted a great time if he ever had a walkabout in Baton Rouge). I would listen to the full track repeatedly, and practically memorized the little story about Padruig Og MacCrimmon losing seven of his eight sons to plague in one year. Looking now at the list of tracks on the LP I see that I learned every one of the tune on the record and competed with many of them. No coincidence there.

Inspirational.“Jigs”The Pipes of Scotland – Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band – This was one of those compilation albums that Fiesta, another obscure American record company, co-opted from various LPs. The record featured the Edinburgh and Glasgow Police, the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders and Invergordon Distillery. I think the Edinburgh Police track must be from 1967’s Capital Parade, and it comprises “Banjo Breakdown,” “Butter Fingers” and “Caber Feidh.” It was Donald MacLeod’s “Butter Fingers” that got me. I couldn’t understand how they managed the fourth part with its staccato effect of going down the scale (the high-A’s lost in the drones), but I loved it and wanted to learn how to do that.

The lost effect of the album cover was important, too, with these albums: young Burgess in Cameron’s regalia; the mass of bands marching down Princes Street. For the longest time I wondered One small hitch for mankind.why the Edinburgh Police Pipe-Major, Iain McLeod, was hitching up his bag when such an important photo was taken, but that I also figured out later when introduced to the ignominy of the massed band.

The “All Songs Considered” show taps listeners for the tunes that got them through their teens. I could identify with most of them that were in sync with my teenage years, but they also included tracks from the 1990s that feel to me like they were just released. It’s all relative. While I still think of something like, say, Masterblasters, to be new, there are of course many who were in their adolescent years when the Victoria Police released the CD.

Every piper or drummer has recordings that saved them. Those are a few of mine. If you want to share yours, fire away.

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