Schooled

Scotland has resurrected piping and drumming to unprecedented new heights through widespread, accessible teaching. It’s an awesome and continuing success story, and the fruits of its strategy have become more and more evident with each passing year.

Just take a look at last week’s Shotts & Dykehead Juniors competition: 185 young pipers and drummers competing in a variety of solo events. Look at what’s to come in March when more than 800 piping and drumming students from at least 120 schools will participate in the eleventh Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships. And witness the steady growth in size and quality of Scotland-based pipe bands across all grades.

Teaching piping and pipe band drumming in private and public schools is now baked in to the Scottish curriculum. When 20 years ago playing the pipes might have been the epitome of nerdiness, today it’s cool-factor seems to have risen at least on par with playing bass in the school rock band.

It’s hard out there for the rest of the world to keep up, and it will only get more difficult.

As much as other piping and drumming regions of the world would love to have widespread teaching programs as part of public and private schools’ curriculum, it’s not realistic. Yes, there will be exceptions, such as St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario, or Knox College in Sydney, Australia.

But in countries like Canada and the United States that have been built with a diversity of immigrants, expecting that Highland piping and pipe band drumming will be taught in the public school system is as likely as India’s sitar or the Chinese erhu becoming part of the curriculum, equally excellent and deserving instruments though they might be. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the reality. It’s not impossible, just extremely unlikely.

Bands not based in Scotland are increasingly scrambling for players to keep up with both the numbers and standard of their Scottish counterparts. While the World Championships continue to be a draw for international bands in all grades, every year I see more of them bolstering rosters with available players from other groups, even from the cross-town rivals, just to meet the size standard, and hopefully also playing quality, when they get to Scotland.

Let me be clear: the Scots are doing the right thing for piping and drumming, and are not responsible in any way for the resulting challenges felt in the rest of the world. The grassroots teaching efforts by Scottish immigrants and visiting instructors that began some 50 or 60 years ago that brought piping and pipe bands in Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand to a world standard have been formally adopted by the home of piping and drumming but in a more organized and publicly supported way.

And barring some radical shakeup by unanticipated Sassenachs, the Scottish teaching infrastructure will only improve and expand. There will be a standard in each grade for Scottish bands, while visitors – including those at the top of their grade at home – more often than not will languish in the lower half.

While Scotland should celebrate and be congratulated for its teaching success, the rest of the world will need to find new ways to keep up. Idly expecting local bands or occasional individuals to do all the teaching using a variety of excellent, good or downright terrible methods will not be enough. Associations need to step up with organized programs and standards that make learning piping and drumming accessible to young students. They need to work with school districts to investigate at least the possibility of getting organized expert teaching into classrooms.

Associations should have recognized it 20 years ago, and some, including me, tried to get programs off the ground a decade or longer ago only to be rejected ultimately by executives and board members.

If the rest of the world is going to keep up, it’s no longer enough for piping and drumming societies and associations to be Highland games-running machines. They need to provide the fuel and the fire to keep the mechanism running.

 

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.

 

Touch blackwood

“There’s plenty of time for despair,” a friend likes to say when playing golf after someone hits an iffy shot. Rather than assuming that the ball went into the bunker, he encourages you to err on the side of optimism and enjoy the moment.

After hitting tens-of-thousands of bad golf shots and competing in hundreds of piping and pipe band competitions, I’ve learned to take a different tack: assume the worst, because getting your hopes up inevitably results in having them crushed at the prize-giving. In other words, lower your expectations.

Some might see that as a “glass half empty” outlook. Far from it. It’s a line of thinking that’s as much about superstition as it is peace-of-mind.

When competing, I would actively disabuse myself of the idea that I’d be in the prizes, so that in the event that I or my band did win, it would be gravy. And, if we didn’t, well, then, that was no surprise. No matter how well I or the band played, I thought that it was a jinx to expect to win.

I have plenty of small superstitions in piping. Actually, it’s debatable whether they’re superstitions or an attempt at psychological strategy. You be the judge.

When submitting four tunes to a judge, say the one that you’d most like to play third. Why third? Well, listing it first automatically suggests it’s at the top of your mind, so you’re not getting that. Saying it second makes it an instant afterthought to the first. “What was the second tune again?” many judges will ask, proving the point. It takes a cruel judge to pick the last tune you say (of course after you paused to make it look like you can’t even remember it), and contrary to what you might believe, judges are nice people. Trust me, it’s the third tune that on average is the most likely to be picked.

In a draw at the line in a band contest, always pick the right hand. Most people are right-handed. They favour the right side. Chances are the right pick will be in the right hand. Did you know that the Latin word for “left” is “sinister”? Enough said.

Forgetting, or – much worse – consciously deciding not to take your rain cape means that it’s sure to rain. It’s all your fault. Yes, you can be all-powerful and control the weather just by thinking of or forgetting things.

Never wear sunglasses while competing. Okay, it’s not exactly bad luck, but unless your vision is impaired, few things communicate arrogance like sporting shades in a contest. Playing well should be cool enough. What are you hiding?

Prizes are better announced in order. People often think that announcing in reverse order builds suspense. It just creates more despair, since we all like to live in hope that, Hey, maybe I’m first! only to find yourself and 10 other competitors crestfallen. Vice versa can be true, but by the time they announce third or fourth I no longer care much. That said, I’ll never forget many years ago at the World’s when Grade 3 or something was announced in order. The band next to us got increasingly more agitated when their name wasn’t called out with each prize announced. After they were not even sixth, the lead-drummer screamed out an ear-splitting obscenity at the poor RSPBA Executive Officer that rhymes with Truck My Flock! But overall, announcing in order is better for everyone.

A perfect tune-up invites disaster. Warming up on the golf range or the putting green, hitting everything well or going in brings one thing: a terrible round of golf will follow. Similarly, tuning that seems to be flawless right out of the box inevitably results in a performance that craters on the field. Get out the flaws. Miss a few attacks. Fly around madly searching for that bad F. Get a bit unsettled. It focuses the mind at crunch time.

Eagerly checking the prizes results in your not being in them. Most solo competitions post the results somewhere. You can tell newbie competitors. They’re the ones hovering around, anxious to see their success. Experienced competitors hang back. Many never even look and instead wait for someone to say later in the day, “Well done on the prize(s)!” And then you say, “Oh, was I in? I didn’t even look.” Nonchalance is key to playing the part. Your bag might be bursting with anticipation, but under no circumstances should you actively seek out the result. Often, the only result is embarrassment.

When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition is the way.

Are you superstitious? Carry a talisman in your sporran? A lucky tie? Idol thoughts? Feel free to share.

 

Sales pitch

Reeds do it. Metres do it. Even educated beaters do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall apart.

With apologies to Cole Porter, the “it” in question is obsolescence, the failure of a product requiring customers to need the next version.

For most industries, planned obsolescence is necessary to sustain business. A product can become obsolete through continual improvement, as in your iPhone. After a time, technology overtakes technology, rendering an older product useless. Changing fashion is about style, but it’s also about creating new desirable products through perceived obsolescence, otherwise, loin-clothes would still be in vogue.

Musical instruments by and large are an exception. A quality musical instrument can last a lifetime, or even several lifetimes, provided that the instrument can cope with the evolution of pitch and, in the case of pianos, incredible tension that can eventually break down a pressure bar, rendering the instrument untenably untunable.

In terms of tension, a pipe band snare drum with upwards of a thousand pounds of pressure puts a piano’s maximum 200 pounds to shame. There is an incredible amount of torque required to bring a pipe band snare to pitch, and an ever-more-demanding drum pitch to complement an ever-sharper chanter sound is a great business recipe.

I have often wondered whether ever-rising pitch across almost all genres of music isn’t about planned obsolescence. From what I have read, the pitch of symphony orchestras has steadily increased, just like pipe bands. No one knows exactly why, but a possible theory is that it puts more pressure, figuratively and literally, on instruments, necessitating replacement parts or outright replacement.

I defer to experts on the mechanicals and engineering of a snare drum, but I believe that shells can buckle, hardware can bend, snare mechanisms fail, eventually rendering the instrument unstable. Pipe chanters generally have a much longer shelf-life, but they too are subject to the pressures of pitch, reed-seats knackered, holes gouged beyond repair, and so forth. At $850-$1,400 each, the pipe band snare drum and its various heads and snares that need regular replacing are the biggest annual collective equipment expense for a band.

I’m sure that a percussion instrument maker could create a snare drum that lasts as long as a Land Rover, but, trouble is, it would probably weigh too much to carry or be too expensive to purchase in the short-term, even though it might pay off in the long-term. Percussion instrument makers tempt bands further by bringing out the latest and greatest drums that promise to be more responsive and resilient, with glorious new sparkly shiny finishes to bling your back end. Just like your iPhone, what started five years ago as a state-of-the-art miracle device becomes a despicable piece of dated garbage.

In 2009, Terry Cleland created snare drums with carbon fibre shells that were lightweight and hardly or never deteriorated under pressure. They came in at a relatively expensive price, and haven’t caught on. He gave a complete set to the Grade 1 Ballycoan band, only to see the band buckle and break up before it ever took the drums into a contest.

Drum makers are smart to give away their instruments to the top bands, just like Taylor Made and Titleist get the best golfers to use their newest gear. The lead-drummers of the lower-grade bands beg and plead for their band to buy them the gear that is sure to up their game when, in fact, it probably won’t make too much difference to reconcile an outlay of $15,000, including matching tenors, bass and heads.

It’s a terrific business model – one that I won’t fault. If it weren’t for pipe chanters and their eventual obsolescence, I wonder how many bagpipe makers would stay afloat. Pipe band snare drum makers consistently strive to create more tension to satisfy tonal taste, and the pitch going higher and higher virtually guarantees sales. Woe betide drum and bagpipe makers if the prize-winning Grade 1 sound suddenly dropped 15 cycles. We’d all be pulling out our old 10-lug Super Royal Scots and Robertson chanters.

Pushing up the pitch is business-smart, lucrative obsolescence.

 

What judges want

Sitting adjudicating an amateur solo piping competition the other day, I got to thinking again about the competitors, so many of them so anxious and apprehensive.

Playing before a judge who’s going to judge your music is a weird thing to subject yourself to, but it’s what we do. It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the table that I appreciated that I had it all wrong for all those years as a competitor.

Competitors generally have the wrong idea about judges. I know I did, especially when I was younger.

I can only speak with certainty for myself as a judge, but I like to think that these things apply to any right-minded and decent adjudicator.

So here are a few tips for competitors as to what judges actually want when they’re judging you.

  1. Judges want you to play as well as you can. This is the most important thing to know. Any decent judge is rooting for you to play well, or at least to your personal best. I think many competitors mistakenly think that judges rejoice every time you make a mistake. Not true.
  2. Judges were once on your side of the table. Every adjudicator (except for a few anachronisms from a different era who still judge in the UK despite every competitor preferring that they don’t) has been a competitor. We know what you’re going through. It’s not easy. We can empathize.
  3. You will be given the benefit of the doubt. I know that if I wasn’t sure about something that I thought I heard, I will assume it was my mistake, not yours.
  4. Don’t tip your hand. If you make a mistake keep going. Don’t draw attention to it. If you played the wrong tune or got the parts mixed up, never assume the judge noticed or even knew, so don’t proactively confess to it. While I admire your honesty, I’d shake my head at you drawing attention to your error.
  5. Don’t start unless you’re satisfied with the sound. Unless there’s a tuning time-limit, don’t start until you are completely happy with the sound of your instrument. This happens a lot: competitors feeling like they have to start, and knowingly begin with their drones out of tune. True, labourious tuning for no real reason is irritating, but if you are struggling to get your drones in tune or your instrument isn’t quite settled, take the time to get it right. As long as it’s not against the rules, no decent judge will penalize you for tuning, but you will be criticized negatively for an out-of-tune instrument. The memory of long tuning evaporates with the actual competition performance.
  6. We want you to want to play. Connected with #5, judges can tell when a player simply does not want to play. They’ll tune for ages not because their instrument needs it, but because they’re procrastinating. If you’re going to compete, wanting to actually perform is the first step. Maybe you’re a masochist, but if you hate competing, don’t compete.
  7. It’s all about you. Judges are there to serve the competitor. We’re not trying to distract you, and we are (or should be) conscious of how we operate, when we write, tap our feet, or play along with you. My least favourite judges were the few who thought it was all about them, with histrionics designed to draw attention away from the performance, ticking off every mistake they heard just to show others that they heard it, too. (Did they count up all the ticks or something to decide their prize-winners?)  It should never be about the judge; it’s all about you.
  8. It’s never personal. Reacting to not being in the prizes, thinking that a judge must not like you as a person, can be an automatic human response. No, they just preferred other performances over yours. Judges are ambivalent as to who wins; they only care what wins.
  9. Judges want you to be happy. It’s music, but we so often are miserable playing it in competition because of anxiety. Make the music that you love. It’s something out of nothing and then it’s only a memory. Consciously making and enjoying music is a miracle that distinguishes us from other animals. Make a good memory. Enjoy yourself.

It can take many years for competitors to understand these things, and sometimes that understanding only comes when you’re on the other side of the table.

I hope they might positively change your perspective the next time you compete.

 

The next big thing

Plastic drones. They’re here and they will soon be played and win prizes at every level.

That’s my personal prediction based on a number of factors.

First, the CITES blackwood restrictions are already adding expense and time to delivering new blackwood instruimemts.

Second, advances in synthetic materials like acetyl have been significant. Bagpipe makers that aren’t getting into synthetic materials might want to get moving, unless they’re happy staying smaller and bespoke.

Third, I’m led to believe that the material is far more stable than blackwood. That is, it can be made to more exacting specifications with true laser precision. It’s also not going to warp and crack like wood over time. No need for wood oil and humidity-controlled rooms and pipe boxes.

Fourth, moisture is hardly a factor today. The advent and constant perfection of moisture control systems, plastic and carbon-fibre drone reeds, and synthetic bags virtually eliminate problems with condensation building up in cold or over-played instruments.

Fifth, plastic chanters are by far in the majority. In the 1970s when War-Mac came on the scene with grey, synthetic chanters, purists poo-pooed them – until Shotts & Dykehead started to win. The tone misperceptions that might have existed at the solo level have been broken down. Synthetic chanters have won Gold Medals and Clasps for at least 15 years.

Sixth: apart from the initial manufacture of acetyl and other plastics, it’s environmentally neutral and, presumably, even recyclable. Picture trading in your set of acetyl pipes and getting a recycling credit toward your next purchase.

To be sure, there are bands that still use blackwood chanters, and more power to them. Whatever works. But they’re certainly not using blackwood out of principle.They’re using blackwood because they prefer the sound and feel. I’m sure they’d just as soon play plastic chanters if they thought they sounded and felt better.

In fact, no one particularly cares what materials are used anymore. Whatever sounds the best will do the best. I don’t know a judge out there who pre-judges because of instrument materials.

If I were a bagpipe maker I would speed along this process with some canny marketing. Sponsor a top-tier solo piper and/or band to compete with synthetic drones. Don’t tell anyone. Just let them win with the instrument, then have a big reveal and watch the orders pour in.

It is completely realistic to expect that it will be commonplace for bands to have matching drones, something that I believe when Dysart & Dundonald’s pipe section played cheap model Kintail drones because the band’s pipe-major had a hand in the Kintail business.

I’m old enough to be familiar with the movie The Graduate. “One word: plastics.”

 

Vintage years

Happy New Year to all. Here’s to a prosperous and healthy 2017.

A two-week holiday break provided time to go through stuff in storage in the basement, closets and cupboards. This always leads to finding nostalgic items that tear at the heart as to whether to keep, donate to charity, recycle or simply chuck out.

I came across a few bottles of wine that somehow never got drunk, and perhaps just as well. Among them were a red and a white that were part of a fundraising project for the now-vintage 78th Fraser Highlanders. They would have been from about 1990. They weren’t good to begin with and, 26 years later, they’re probably paint-remover. I ain’t opening them for fear of the evil spirits that might escape.

It got me thinking about pipe bands and raising money. Despite winning the World Championship a few years before, several popular concerts, albums, and a solid flow of prize-money, that edition of the band was perpetually rag-tag and chronically skint. There was never any monetary sponsorship, and trips to Scotland were generally paid out of your pocket, unless you were skint yourself and an important piece of the puzzle, then you could get some assistance.

Goodness knows how someone like me who was at the time living in a basement apartment, waiting tables or, perhaps by then, making $17,000/year as an assistant editor at a small publishing company was able to afford it, but I never asked for a subsidy.

It’s probably much the same today with most bands, but today it’s possible to sell merchandise and raise money online. Back then bands had to come up with creative ways to make ends meet.

So, 78th Fraser Highlanders “wine” was contrived. I didn’t come up with the concept, but I liked it, since that era of the band was known locally for a piobaireachd-playing faction of the group having little picnics at the Ontario games, eating roasted Cornish hen, aged cheeses and cellared wines. The band wine was a bit of a joke that probably only we got.

As is the case with most fundraisers like this, it’s mostly band members and their families who ever buy the stuff. (That was true, I know, of a later effort to sell – get this – frozen chicken.) I dutifully plunked down money I didn’t have for the plonk that I obviously never drank. Maybe I’ll sell the antique bottles in the Classifieds – with a warning never, ever to ingest, much less dribble over your hands before competing . . . but that’s another story.

A concept that I came up with a little later was “Friends of the Frasers.” The band at the time was loved by many and just as many thought it was a snobby club (see picnics and band-member Iain Symington’s excellent hornpipe “The Piobaireachd Club”), so, for both groups we wanted to try to get them on board, warm things up. Anyone could support and feel part of the band by becoming a Friend of the Frasers for, I think, $20. You’d get a certificate and an enamel pin and the (as far as I know) unfulfilled promise that their name would be listed on a forthcoming album. In essence, a fan club.

We were of course ridiculed by the usual haters, but shortly after I was gratified to see bands around the world starting their own “Friends” program. It’s equivalent today to begging for money on Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platform. I remember the pipe-major being not too pleased when a jealous naysayer – who’s unfortunately still around doing his chronic naysaying and bellyaching – made a sarky comment about the Friends program in print.

(Obviously, the 2017 vintage 78th Fraser Highlanders has absolutely nothing to do with all that, and I have nothing to do with them, apart from admiring the current band and looking forward to hearing their music when I have the opportunity. I am sure that their fundraising is far more sophisticated.)

Just like back then, there are scant few pipe bands with decent financial sponsorship. There are many more of the upper-grade bands today that receive discounted or free gear from bagpipe, reed and drum makers in exchange for the endorsement value. In 1990, discounts or rebates were rare, no matter who you were, mainly because the band instrument markets were near-cornered by makers like Sinclair, McAllister and Premier. I believe the 78th Frasers got free drums from the Australian start-up Legato, and that might have been one of the first of its kind. The group got by like most bands: with grit, passion, and the occasional desperate and maybe cockamamie money-maker.

Wine? Frozen chicken? I’d love to hear about other inventive, if not pathetic, fundraising programs and gimmicks your band has deployed to help make ends meet. Every band has them, so feel free to share with the comment system below.

Until then, cheers!

 

Counter-attack

What in the name of Tom McAllister Sr. has happened to the pipe band attack?

Goodness, at any top-grade competition of any size you’re almost guaranteed to hear at least two bands completely eff up what was once a benchmark of pipe band quality.

Early E’s. Early drones. Mushy intonation. Epic squeals. Roaring basses. False starts. Double- and even triple-dunts. Scrabbling hands searching for holes. And that’s just the piping. I’m no drumming expert, but I can hear the sloppy rolls and wandering tempos between bass and snare lines and pipers.

Why is this happening? In an age when pipe bands are playing more technically challenging material on more reliable instruments than ever, one would think that an excellent attack in Grade 1 and Grade 2 is a given. So what’s changed?

I’ve thought more about it over the four years since writing this Blogpipe post, which took a rather lenient view of the attack. Perhaps it contributed to the laissez-faire attitude towards attacks, but I’m prepared to make other guesses as to the reasons for sloppy openings.

  • Judges don’t care that much. Today’s typical pipe band judge is far more enlightened than he or she was 15 or 20 years ago. Judges now see the big picture. This is good. After all, the attack is a relative microcosm of the performance, and hitting a band hard for one piper’s mistake is probably unduly harsh. However . . . shouldn’t excellent bands be expected to execute an excellent attack? Seems to me that blowing one should be seen as a major error — certainly not a showstopper, but enough to determine an otherwise fairly close decision. A cause is also . . .
  • Easy instant reeds. Top-grade bands with 20-plus pipers no longer need every piper to have a high-impact chanter sound. Instead of that 1985 McAllister composed of two short planks strapped together that take weeks to blow in by large fellows, pipe sections today play reeds that go right away, which can be blown by any player of any age and size. With the easy reeds, just add a bit of adrenaline and early E disaster is sure to strike, especially for . . .
  • Inexperienced players. There is such pressure for bands to have large sections that playing standards and experience are inevitably compromised by all but a very few groups. In at least three-quarters of the world’s Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands there are players who never would have got a game 20 years ago. They’re ushered in to fill the ranks and essentially “core” with the rest. They have less control of their instrument and less experience, and . . . see adrenaline comment above and, importantly . . .
  • Attacks aren’t practiced. Every piper and drummer older than 40 can remember going up and down at the band hall or in the parking lot practicing attacks over and over and over. You knew exactly how to punch an E at full pitch. The pipe-major would stand in front of the pipers and listen like a judge, with the ranks taking turns at the front. If you blew an attack, the whole band would have to do 10 more flawlessly or you couldn’t go home.

A top-tier Grade 1 band at the 2016 UK Championships had no fewer than three pipers clearly, blatantly, visibly, audibly screw-up the attack. The band finished second. In the big picture, they might well have deserved their placing, and might have been first without the blown start, what with their otherwise sublime performance.

Then again, shouldn’t a band of such high calibre be expected to get the attack right? Is such a meltdown really excusable? Doesn’t such a multiplicity of basic mistakes warrant a hard penalty? It’s one thing having a blip in the fifth part of “John Morrison, Assynt House,” but quite another having at least three pipers wreck an attack that should be expectedly good in a Grade 3 contest.

Poor attacks are everywhere, though. In 1985 10-out-of-10 attacks in Grade 1 and Grade 2 were generally the case. An early E could essentially torpedo a band’s hopes of winning. I am glad that we’ve moved past that sort of judging, but it would be great to return general excellence in this impressive technical aspect of a pipe band.

Tom McAllister Sr. is credited with developing the two-threes-and-an-E pipe band attack from what military brass bands would do. Before his time in the 1930s and ’40s, pipe bands sort of eventually kinda-sorta got the tune going. With each passing year now pipe bands seem to be going back to those haphazard roots.

Are judges turning a deaf ear to crappy attacks?

 

The vaulting

The late, great Prince we know kept a “vault” of thousands of his unreleased songs that he recorded over the last 35 years. Music industry vultures are already circling overhead, eager to get their talons into this musical meat while it’s still warm.

There’s a reason why they’re in a vault: Prince didn’t think they were worth releasing to the public. He had the good sense to put out only what he thought was his best work, since that’s what he would be known for, even after death.

I would think the songs in the vault were preserved like a personal scrapbook, or to revisit and glean ideas or improve to make them ready for public consumption. Prince was a man who cared more about his integrity and reputation, and would never sacrifice his definition of scruples for an extra buck. He even changed his name to a symbol, foregoing tens of millions of dollars in sales at the height of his career, just to make a principled statement to the record label and publisher that he believed cheated him.

Our best pipe music composers I think are just as discerning. When it comes to our music creators, we sometimes mistake “prolific” with “successful.” While Donald MacLeod published a boat-load of great compositions and arrangements, my sense is that he either chucked out or put into his own “vault” many times more tunes that he personally thought were inferior. I think the same would be true of G.S. McLennan, Roderick Campbell, Willie Lawrie, John MacColl and Gordon Duncan, to name a few long-gone writers.

It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.

I’m sure that most of our best living composers adhere to this. In many ways, they are better editors than composers, at least when it comes to the ratio of tunes they think are worthy of public hearing to those that aren’t. No one needs to know just how many crappy tunes they write to get a few gems. If Donald MacLeod and G.S. are renowned today for consistent brilliance, and the truth was that they wrote 10 duds for every good one, let’s not spoil things. That’s the way they wanted it. Rifling their “vaults” for unpublished manuscripts would be a disservice to their reputation and legacy. I like the perception that these guys never wrote a bad tune.

That said, I know of at least one living composer who has maybe five tunes that almost everyone in the world plays, and he claims that he has composed and finished only about 10 tunes total in his life. His “vault” numbers five tunes and his ratio of good-to-bad is one-to-one. That’s incredible discipline and a case study in meticulous judiciousness.

I would think the late Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald might have been of a similar ilk. He published few of his compositions but he had some serious hits: “Kalabakan,” “Lt.-Col. D.J.S. Murray,” “Turf Lodge,” “Alan MacPherson, Moss Park” . . . his ratio of good-to-bad must have been superb.

On the other hand, we all have seen since the advent of self-publishing the penchant by some composers to put out seemingly anything and everything – the proverbial throwing against the wall to see what sticks. They might be “prolific,” but no one really plays their music except perhaps the band they happen to play with, so how good are they as composers or editors?

I salute Prince for keeping things in reserve. Discretion and valour, as they say. He was as good an editor as he was a writer, and the two qualities need to go hand-in-hand if you want to leave your name and reputation etched in stone – even if it’s just a symbol.

 

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.

 

Awash in whisky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hard

An unwritten rule of competition: no one is rewarded for difficulty. There are no bonus points for playing hard tunes. There are points for playing hard, medium or easy tunes well.

There are points taken away for playing hard stuff poorly, and on a related note, no judge is going to let you off easy for making a hack of a tough tune, just because, well, it’s so hard.

I remember some years ago playing in a band. In the winter someone had the idea that we should play “Eileen MacDonald.” It’s a clever and relatively obscure, jig written by Charlie Williamson. It’s a whole lotta handful for a top soloist, let alone a whole pipe section.

We toiled away at the four-tentacled thing through the winter and spring, chanters getting slapped relentlessly with marveslously syncopated combinations. We worked and worked at it, because, aside from it being a good tune, it was so impressively hard. Goddamit, we’d show them!

The contest season carried on and the band did well, but it seemed like we weren’t getting much attention, let alone extra credit, for the amazingly difficult four-parted jig.

We played the medley with “Eileen MacDonald” at the World’s. I can’t remember the result, so it must not have been a memorable prize. What I do remember, though, is after we played, the late great Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald had listened to the performance, and a few of us spoke to him afterwards.

Angus, in his famously surprising-for-a-big-man high-pitched voice with one slightly raised eyebrow remarked, “Aye, ‘Eileen MacDonald.’ Tough tune.”

One comment from one solo piper. All that diligent practice to play a very difficult tune well came down to one comment. That was it.

“Aye. Tough tune.”

And I can’t remember a judge ever writing anything to the effect that he/she was impressed or that the tune was even positively noticed. I’m certain there were comments about the tricky passages not being quite together. Easy pickings for a piping judge.

Was it the right thing to do? In hindsight, I would say it wasn’t. It’s a clever jig, and the composition itself is unique. But is it so musically brilliant that it’s irreplaceable in a medley? Do people pine for a band or soloist to play it? Don’t think so.

In solo competition, we all submit tunes that might be deemed difficult. I admit that as a competitor and a judge I know what it’s like to submit or have submitted to me three or four tunes, and the one more difficult tune gets picked – not because it’s the musically superior tune, but simply because, Well, it’s your funeral, buddy.

If the idea is to win the competition, why put yourself at a disadvantage? I remember a lesson with Captain John MacLellan. We were discussing what light music to put in for solo events. We were trying to determine tunes that might suit me better than others. Since he said I had a stronger top-hand, I suggested “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran.” In his rather straightforward manner the good Captain said something that always stayed with me. “Why play six parts when four will do?”

Now, I readily admit that that comment was made 25 years ago, and to me, an American going round the Scottish games trying to “get in.” I wasn’t playing in the Silver Star. But I think the message was clear: Why make it any harder for yourself?

As a judge a few weeks ago a young piper submitted “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.” Nice tune, but no more technically difficult than the other three he put in, so I picked it and he played it. There were enough problems with it by the crunluath variation that he wasn’t in the running, but he then commenced to play an unexpected open fosgailte variation. I say unexpected, because most pipers wouldn’t do that. The tune is far more often played without one. Unlike a few remaining piobaireachd pedants who insist that this is “wrong,” I’m fine with anyone playing it if they want. It’s music.

But why play it? In competition, why would you tack on a very difficult variation at the end of the tune when it’s completely optional? Is it an attempt to get extra credit? Do they steadfastly believe that the tune is incomplete without it? As I said, I don’t think bonus points exist in piping and pipe band competitions, and insisting that it must be played is as pedantic as someone insisting that it should not be played. It’s optional.

Rather than help, the open fosgailte variation was not played well this time, so it actually made matters worse for the competitor, again supporting my argument that there are no potential positives that I can think of, and only probable negatives.

Unlike diving or spelling bees or freestyle skiing, there’s no reward for technical difficulty in what we do, and nor should there be. One person’s “hard” is another’s “easy” in our music. But the question – or perhaps debate – remains: Why play six when four will do? Why play “Eileen MacDonald” when another jig is just as compelling musically and less demanding technically?

I’m sure there are flaws in my argument, so feel free to point them out. In the meantime, I’ll keep slapping my chanter trying to get the syncopation right.

 

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!

Why pipe sections are bigger

Why are pipe sections so big? It’s the great question of this particular era of pipers and drummers, and there’s no sign of the issue going away any time soon. It’s a quandary that virtually every competing band in every grade faces.

Be big or go home.

In 1993 I interviewed the great Iain MacLellan, former pipe-major of the Glasgow/Strathlcyde Police Pipe Band and owner of 12 World Championships. This was just before the dawn of plastic or fibre drone reeds, moisture systems and synthetic bags. Back then it was still all cane and sheepskin, and the number of serious options for chanter reeds was maybe three – McAllister, Shepherd and Warnock, and with all of those a piper needed to know how to work with them. Achieving a sound was an art.

While he certainly had excellent pipers during his tenure, in the interview MacLellan spoke about the requirement that his pipers over all else had to be able to create, manage and sustain tone. So, the guys in his bands had to have a combination of excellence in tone and technique.

Twenty-one years on, the tone challenge has been made immeasurably easier to meet through advancements in the instrument. Anyone who has listened to an amateur solo piping event or Grade 4 band competition hears tone that two decades ago was the stuff of at least two grades higher. Their quality of technical and musical playing is probably about the same but, by and large, the sound of almost every competition piper or pipe band today is relatively pleasant.

Today, for pipe bands, finding pipers with a good-sounding pipe is not the big deal it once was.

I also hear amateur solo pipers who play in top-grade bands who, technically, never would have got a game in Grade 1 in 1990. They wouldn’t have had the technical ability and musical finesse to be accepted. If they had the temerity to ask to join, they would have been kindly told the band was “full up.”

I’d venture to say that there’s hardly a competition band today that would turn away a player who’s within the broad technical scope required. Chances are, they have a pipe and tone that can meet the grade. There’s no longer such a thing as “full up.”

Smaller bands demand tighter unison. A quartet can’t afford a slip or anything but perfect sync. With every piper added, the needed precision wanes incrementally. Iain MacLellan’s pipe section of 12 or 14 demanded precision of playing.

A pipe section of 24, 25 or 30 is not nearly as stringent. Some bands at the top certainly appear to have wonderful unison, but there are still pipers in even the best bands who never would have made the cut in the same top-tier band 20 years ago.

So, it makes perfect sense for a modern band of any grade to build as large a pipe section as possible. Not only is it impressive, but it’s naturally more forgiving in terms of unison lapses and even mistakes. An added benefit is that large sections are built-in insurance against collapse. Two or three pipers leaving in 1990 would mean hard times for a band; for many bands today, it’s hardly a problem.

Advances in bagpipe “technology” have produced better sounding and steadier instruments, easier to tune and keep in tune, opening the doors to playing in grades two decades ago that would have been well above a piper’s ability. A bigger pipe section naturally covers up technical problems that would have been glaring in 1990.

That’s why pipe sections today are bigger.

Break it down

“I broke down.”

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

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

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

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

I lost the bottle.

He crapped the bed.

She lost the plot.

I made a *&$% of it.

He broke down.

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

The show must not go on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Outlandish

OutlandishTo the general public, the sound of “the pipes” is increasingly becoming the sound of the uilleann pipes.

Thanks to the film and TV industry’s ever-rising preference on original scores for Ireland’s bagpipe as the sound of anything Scottish, the “great” Highland bagpipe is second-fiddle, as it were.

I’ve been watching the series Outlander recently, with all its costume changes, high cheekbones, and heaving bosoms. At first I was pleased to hear the Highland pipe in the spine-tingling opening stinger, deftly integrated with the Burn’s lyric to the “Skye Boat Song” melody. “Finally!” I thought. “The Highland pipes will be used throughout this series that celebrates Highland stuff.”

What a disappointment.

The uilleann pipes, lovely as they might be, are used throughout the series. There is hardly a Highland pipe to be heard or seen in the actual episodes. When they chase across the Scottish hills, it’s to the thrumming register of the bellows-blown Irish pipes. When the evil redcoat is dispatched, it’s to the soft tones of Ireland’s national bagpipe.

This has been going on for decades. Braveheart and Titanic were classic examples of uilleann pipes used as “Scottish” music. TV commercials for golf clubs depict Scottish folk and Irish pipes. The accurate use of the Highland pipe in Scotland themes is increasingly rare.

The traditional reason that the fickle Highland pipe chanter-scale can’t be integrated with other instruments no longer holds water. Today there are a multitude of solutions, from specially-pitched chanters, to synthesizer accompaniment, to post-production tweaking. If Miley Cyrus’s voice can be auto-tuned, surely the Highland pipe can be twerked . . . I mean, tweaked to accommodate any instrument, and vice versa.

Film and TV productions go to great lengths to be historically accurate. They painstakingly research the clothes and the speech of the period depicted. Yet, when it comes to the music, they conveniently go for the completely unauthentic sound.

Using uilleann pipes in a movie about Scotland is like a Gestapo officer in a World War II drama talking Ebonics.

It’s to the point where I am often asked by non-pipers about that “other Scottish bagpipe . . . the one that sits on the piper’s lap.” They mean the uilleann pipes, because they have seen and heard it so often in Scottish-themed shows.

There are exceptions, and I’m sure you will point out that Lorne MacDougall did the work on the Highland pipe in Brave. The exceptions are getting rarer.

But in the big scheme of things what can be done? Should Highland pipers be like Scotland itself, and resign ourselves to domination by another country’s persuasive charms? Perhaps the use of uilleann pipes in Outlander is subtle irony for the show itself: resistance is admirable, but, ultimately, futile.

I don’t know. How can we get the Scottish Highland bagpipe back into soundtracks and theme-songs for Scottish-themed programs and films?

Ivory trade

The ivory debacle currently impacting pipers has taken the piping world by storm, with pipers everywhere wondering if they should travel with their ivory-mounted drones for fear of them being confiscated by an over-zealous border dude looking to ramp up his quota of seized contraband.

I support an all-out ban on elephant ivory for anything. I don’t like the fact that ivory is featured on the 80-year-old pipes that I play, which were made when early plastic or Bakelite was more expensive than the seemingly endless supply of cheap tusks from far away Africa, so there’s a lot of it on a lot of sets of older pipes.

I don’t know of a serious piper anywhere who ever salivated over anything but the sound of vintage drones. Ivory? Silver? Nickel? Whatever. Give me tone over anything, and, if you think about it, pricing vintage drones by adornment is sort of misguided. If they sound equally good, there should be no more premium placed on ivory than on yellowed early plastic.

Safe to say, this situation will not improve. This is about making ivory socially unacceptable to use or own in any form. No exceptions. The theory goes that, simply by having an antique chess set with ivory pieces, or wearing an old coat made from Russian snow leopard fur, or owning a set of 1936 silver and ivory Lawries, one is implicitly condoning the exploitation of endangered species for frivolous consumption.

I’m no fan of fur, but I have one of those musquash or muskrat sporrans mainly because I like the traditional look and am led to believe that it was repurposed Highland roadkill. Seems sensible to me to let that poor dead critter live another life on my crotch. (Wait, that didn’t come out right . . .)

But, back to the point, a piper who has only a vintage ivory-mounted instrument – unless he or she plans to never leave the country – has three choices: retrofit the pipes with imitation ivory or silver, or acquire another instrument. The first option is abhorrent and gives me the heebie-jeebies. It would be like turning a mint 1965 E-Type Jaguar into a hybrid to save fuel, or sawing the legs off a fine Chippendale table to make a stool.

Buying another set of pipes would be easy, by comparison. But if I knew of a pipe maker that I personally thought could exceed or even match the long-term quality of what I play now, I might have gone for them already. The ideal would be sourcing another set of vintage pipes, but which do not feature ivory, but these pre-1950 sets of all-silver Hendersons or Lawries are endangered species on their own.

If I were a bagpipe maker I would be all over this. To be sure, there’s not a self-respecting maker who likes to see any pipes lost, but as business people they should be gearing up marketing campaigns to woo those affected, who are now considering their options. There will be a growing need, and those who are already in the business of duplicating vintage drones I would think are in a particularly advantageous position.

I’m one of those people affected. I don’t plan to travel outside of my home country with the pipes I play now. It’s simply not worth it. Like hundreds of other pipers, I’m suddenly considering my options – and saving up for what I might have to purchase.

This unfortunate situation has one bright side: it is good for the piping and drumming economy.

“Musical”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Piob band

More than ever I am convinced that the real future of piobaireachd is in pipe bands. For sure, ceol mor will continue to be played by solo pipers working to be the best ape of the current “authority” so as to gain the next prize, but listening to the Inveraray & District Pipe Band’s glorious rendition of “Catharine’s Lament” made me realize, once again, that piobaireachd is tailor made for pipe bands.

I say “once again” because every time a great pipe band takes a run at complete versions of the great music great things seem to happen. Even drummers like it. “The Old Woman’s Lullaby” by Invergordon Distillery in 1967. “The Desperate Battle” by Dysart & Dundonald, 1978. The 78th Fraser Highlanders and “Flame of Wrath,” 1998. “Field of Gold,” Simon Fraser University, 2009. “His Father’s Lament,” Toronto Police, 2009. “Cabar Feidh gu Brath,” 2011, Spirit of Scotland. “Queen Elizabeth II’s Salute,” ScottishPower, 2013. And Inveraray.

At Piping Live! this year the Piobaireachd Society presented a session on recently composed piobaireachds, and the organization’s attempts to welcome new settings and interpretations. It was nice to hear, and more power to them. But they seem to be missing the obvious: the pipe band. It’s the pipe band that takes the music that is in many ways an anachronism in the hands of the solo piper, and transforms ceol mor into the dynamic and vibrant and uplifting experience that it can be.

Most of bands mentioned above are led by great piobaireachd players and, in the case of Inveraray, they brought in six-time Clasp-winner Murray Henderson to orchestrate “Catharine’s Lament” with percussion and strings in a way that he always imagined it. Perhaps Murray heard it that way because that’s the way it was presented to him by Bob Nicol – sung with dynamics and swells and nuances that are simply impossible with a solo pipe. Add percussion, multi-layered harmony, tastefully arranged “other” instruments and piobaireachd reaches its musical potential.

Pipe bands clamor to create the next “suite,” and some, like the 78th Frasers and Toronto Police, have gone as far as to merge the original suite with the competition medley, with varying degrees of success. But a piobaireachd is really the original piping suite (and many pipe band suites could be classified as piobaireachd), so it all makes great sense.

If the Piobaireachd Society were smart – and indeed it’s full of brainy people – the next book in their Collection would be complete arrangements of ceol mor as played by great pipe bands. Right now we see the Argyllshire Gathering and Northern Meeting showcasing piobaireachd, with some judges doing their best to punish those who stray from the familiar. These are the annual navel-gazing celebrations of the big music that no more than a few hundred in the world truly care about. This is not a criticism; it’s fact. Piobaireachd as played by solo pipers is a competitive exercise rather than a musical advance.

If piobaireachd is to have a future beyond the stagnant renditions by solo pipers (and I include myself in that group), it is in pipe bands.

Ceol Competition Cam

Time to strap on the Compettion Cam (also known as the Glen Cam, the Bass-Cam and the Heavy-Cam . . . so far) for a different perspective on competing – which is actually a very familiar one to anyone who has competed. Thanks to Pete Aumonier and Jim Murdoch for being such good sports.

For those who have never competed on the Ontario circuit, this is pretty much what it’s like having an early draw during the summer.

All in good fun.

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.

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