The market dictates

The TyFry company’s introduction of new tenor mallets claiming to be patently aerodynamic, balanced and a “new dawn” for the instrument – and available in a spectrum of bright colours – sparked lively dialog, debate and not a little consternation.

Piping and drumming still struggles with marketing and product development. We are borne of custom and tradition, and not a little Scottish austerity when it comes to drawing attention to one’s self, or outwardly selling hard. Even before new-world-style assertive marketing and promotion entered the fray, pipers and drummers lived a life of irony: one shan’t be seen to be showing off, but one must wear an ostentatiously colourful Victorian Highland get-up while (not) doing it.

Self-promotion is still a fine line to walk as a competing piper, drummer or pipe band. Pipers seen to be lobbying their ability are still tacitly knocked down a notch or two in the estimation of their peers. The tradition is to let playing ability do the talking. If the product is good, the tradition goes, then the judges will buy it.

We struggle with our own globalization. Makers of piping and drumming products compete in an ever-more-crowded market. “Innovation” when it comes to our instruments, music and apparel comes in microscopic steps. Foist too much change too quickly on too many and many will take the knee-jerk traditional reaction and reject it, cutting it down a peg or four.

Piping and drumming is used to dictating the market. This is what you will buy. This is all that is available. This is the way we do it. Don’t ask questions. Just do it like we always do it.

But the market now dictates piping and drumming. Makers of instruments, garb and tunes now take risks. They push things. They need to rise above the crowd, whether with bright colours or wind-tunnel-tested efficiency or tiny little Allen keys to adjust a carbon-fibre bridle. Changes that were once glacial, now happen in a single season. We are warming to globalization.

Day-Glo pink tenor mallets? Great! Aqua snare sticks? Wonderful! Red ghillie brogue laces, powder horns and a rack of medals on the chest? Good enough for John MacColl and John D. Burgess; good enough for me.

I would think that chanters can be made in a plastic of any colour, and that kids might be more prone to practice with a bright blue chanter than that black thing that everyone else has. I love the look that Boghall & Bathgate created with their orange drums and tenor mallets. I would have no trouble with a band playing chanters of any colour, or even a rainbow array. Bring it on. If the market likes them, they will sell. Things that were once simply not available, even unimaginable, are now marketed. We have choices.

No auld baldy bastard dictates to us.

The tradition that is perhaps hardest to break in piping and drumming is the one that says we must do things in a certain way. The customary notion that a very, very few dictate the music, the look and the instruments is increasingly a thing of the past.

The market is us, and we will tell it what to do.

As ithers see us

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

“To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church” is one of my favourite Robert Burns poems. The lines above, “translated” from the Scots to common English, are roughly, “Wouldn’t it be great if some divine power could give us the ability to see ourselves as others see us?”

There was a recent cartoon in The New Yorker magazine that to put the Highland pipes on the same level of abuse as the American banjo. We all know that the pipes are much maligned (mainly by those who only know them by the ear-wrecking sound of rank novices who refuse lessons, with no interest in improving, who insist on publicly displaying their inabilities – our own worst enemies), but the banjo? I always thought it added instant happiness to all genres of music, including its native bluegrass. Who doesn’t like the banjo?

The Internet and social media have made researching just about anything easy. Pick a topic and you can get a snapshot of what people think in a few keystrokes. In a sense, it gives us the power to see ourselves as others see us.

I have many continual searches set up for all kinds of things for work and piping and other hobbies, and use Tweetdeck to take a read of Twitter activity. Of course, I have a column for “bagpipe.” What’s found is generally a depressing series of jokes and abuse, often involving shoving drones up various orifices and well-worn jokes and myths about the instrument. (The one about a bagpipe originally being made from a sheep’s liver; the difference between chopping up an onion and a bagpipe – no one cries when it’s a bagpipe, and so forth).

But what about a banjo? How does the tweeting public view that instrument? Is there, as the cartoon suggests, the same level of abuse against it that we see hurled at our treasured bagpipe? Hardly. With few exceptions, and after weeding out references to Ashley Banjo, the vast majority of mentions are respectful and loving references. There are the odd mentions of hitting a cow’s backside with a banjo, but these aren’t against the banjo itself.

The accordion also seems to be mocked as an instrument. But a search of mentions on Twitter brings up pretty much nice stuff about France and bread shops and joyful ensembles. Like the banjo, there is the odd person who thinks it’s dorky but, unlike the Highland pipes, there is nowhere near the level of ignorant hatred that we endure.

I kind of hoped that a social media search of “banjo” and “accordion” would bring some degree of comfort that, yes, the pipes have common ground with a few other instruments in terms of public misperception. But, no, we might never change the thinking of the unwashed masses, and perhaps “to see oursels as ithers see us” isn’t quite so useful after all.

Resolutions #9

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow never knows

Will Highland pipes ever have a Ravi Shankar? The great Indian sitarist died last week at the age of 92 and the entire world seemed to take notice, paying tribute to his life.

But would we have ever known about him, or even the sitar itself, had it not been for the Beatles in 1960s going all guru-India, George Harrison learning to play a bit and then incorporating sitar into a few songs? Probably not.

To take nothing away from Shankar’s obvious skills as a virtuoso sitar player, but I would bet that back then and ever since there were a dozen or more sitar players just as good. Harrison more than likely heard the sitar while tripping on acid and asked the maharishi, “Hey, Sexy Sadie, who’s the best sitar player in India?”

A few paisley-clad photo ops later with Ravi imparting his wisdom to the mystical Beatle, and George Martin had no choice but to allow the sound into “Norwegian Wood,” “Love You To,” and “Within You Without You.”

As a relatively ghetto-ized ethnic instrument, the sitar is perhaps not unlike the Highland pipe. In the 1960s and ’70s the sitar might have been heard on obscure folk LPs, but it was not part of the mainstream until the Beatles attracted millions of people to embrace it.

Maybe the pipes are waiting for a similar big break. What if the biggest pop act of today decided to make a serious pitch towards the pipes? What if Coldplay or U2 or the “Gangnam Style” dude sought out the greatest piper and hung out with him in the Highlands, surrounded by media, dressed in tartan, committed to making several songs that featured the GHB?

Imagine Stuart Liddell or Roddy MacLeod or Willie McCallum tripping with the Edge or Chris Martin or PSY beside the MacCrimmon Cairn as they diligently worked together on the scale and G-gracenotes, and then produced several massive hits that brought the pipes into worldwide acceptance as a “serious” instrument.

The pipes have been used in pop music, in one-off ways. But the pipes haven’t been an ongoing part of really big pop music, not in a Beatles/Harrison manner, with a champion for the sound, becoming synonymous with the instrument, played seriously and respectfully.

Sometimes an instrument just needs a big break.

Sheepish

Highland pipers and pipe band drummers owe so much to . . . sheep. And it’s high time we thanked them.

The bag: nothing beats a natural sheepskin under the oxter (or so say the purists, traditionalists, superstitious, discerning or  paranoid; take your pick). Flocks of pipe bags go in and out of makers such as Begg and Bowes, and even support a rather smelly fellsmongering industry in China.

The tunes: “Shepherd’s Crook,” “Ca’ the Ewes,” and “The Ewe wi’ the Crookit Horn” (not really about sheep at all, but the inspiration’s there). We used to commemorate sheep in one way or another, but we’ve been quiet recently. Call it a silence of the lambs. Here’s a call to the Armstrongs, Sauls and Greys of the world to pay homage to these blissfully ignorant creatures that make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of all of us.

Seasoning: did you know that Airtight Seasoning is made of mostly lanolin? What’s lanolin, you might ask? It’s a by-product of sheep and, strangely or obviously, depending on your perspective, absorbs moisture . . . or something . . . making it a perfect ingredient for soaking up slavers. Sheep stand out there in the rain, seemingly impervious to a soaking. It only makes sense that this animal, which does not demand an Inverness cape, should contain a substance that makes getting wet tolerable.

Drum skins: okay, so these are no longer made from super-stretched sheepskin, but they used to be. The poor old sheep made original pipe band drumming possible, and some purists (see pipe bag above) pine for the days of rope-tensioned drums with true “skins.”

The 20 pounds of wool we must wear: Pipers and drummers, unless they come from Brittany or Pakistan, in order to compete are almost always required to don a garment from head-to-toe made from the hair of at least a small family of sheep. This is a reasonable idea when lowing a lament in the horizontal rain in the north of Scotland, but quite absurd in 40-degree heat in July in Chicago or February in Sydney. All the same, thank you, sheep, for making us so colourfully uncomfortable.

Powder Horns: Donald Cameron famously had one, and the late, great John D. Burgess acquired and jauntily sported it, only after Donald MacLeod memorialized it in one of the greatest jigs ever written.

Trophies: some of the world’s greatest piping trophies are designed somewhat bizarrely using the curly horn of a ram that ended up mutton. The overall trophy at the Glenfiddich Invitational – perhaps the biggest award in the solo piping world – is an award for the horny, who are of course turned on by piping perfection.

Haggis: let’s not forget this staple of the serious piper and drummer’s diet. While it’s completely acceptable for regular people to consume putrid hotdogs and bio-engineered Chicken McNuggets, the mere mention of “haggis” sends punters into mock-convulsive retching, even though it’s made from all-organic innards and oats wrapped in an ex-sheep’s stomach.

So let’s all say, Thank you, sheep! You make our art all the more interesting and notorious.

On the beat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pipe for the people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busked

Basking.You may have heard that Vancouver recently banned Highland pipes as a busker’s instrument. Following a story in one of Canada’s national newspapers, The Globe and Mail, there was enough hue-and-cry from pipers and drummers and enthusiasts around the world – not to mention the mayor of Vancouver – that the bylaw was rescinded.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. On one hand, Highland pipes should not be singled out for being too loud, since it’s no louder than many other instruments heard on the streets. On the other hand, what person who knows and appreciates good piping would want terrible “pipers” playing in public at all, let alone for hours on end?

The stated reason for the ban in Vancouver wasn’t about the poor quality of piping, it was about the volume of the pipes. But we all know what was going on: the Highland pipes once again were stereotyped and, as the latter Globe article leads with, “likened to the cries produced by a clowder of dying cats” (which begs the questions: Who knows what a bunch of dying cats really sounds like? and, Is “clowder” really a word?!).

Since moving to Canada 24 years ago, I can’t recall anyone here saying that they dislike the pipes. In fact, they tend to rave about it. Mention that you play the pipes and Canadians inevitably drift back to a ceremony like a wedding, funeral or graduation where the pipes transported them to an uplifting and poignant place.

That’s not to say that there aren’t Canadian bagpipe-haters out there. Obviously there are a few in Vancouver. But when I busked on Princes Street in Edinburgh for several years, every day every 15 minutes or so someone would walk by holding their ears or even stop to tell me how much they hate the pipes (Yes, okay, make your jokes now about my playing, but I was essentially practicing for the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting). Members of the Lothian & Borders Police even would move me along.

I’ve remarked before that busking is about the most honourable way to make money. People will pay you what they think your skill is worth. It’s a completely venerable profession. But I do understand that any music foisted on people who never requested it can be a nuisance. Inasmuch as I dislike Muzak or loudspeakers blaring from storefronts, I can see why some don’t want to be subjected to busking bagpipers, especially unskilled ones.

Maybe the solution is for accomplished pipers, when they hear a less-savvy piper playing in public, to kindly offer to tweak their reeds, or at least give their drones a few twists. The more people hear good-sounding pipes, the less inclined they’ll be to put us down.

What musical milestones?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bling on the sound

Bulls-eye.Are pipes with more expensive ornamentation better instruments? It’s an age-old question. Bagpipe makers invariably insist that there’s no difference in craftsmanship between entry-level drones and those fully mounted in chased sterling silver, but only they know the truth.

My own feeling is that you get what you pay for and it only stands to reason that, the more a customer invests in the instrument, the more care is taken with its creation. It’s pretty much true of every industry: the luxury model generally lasts longer with fewer problems and better customer satisfaction. A manufacturer wouldn’t be around for very long if the higher-margin product – which is almost always the more expensive one – didn’t foster customer satisfaction and loyalty to the brand.

It’s probably why you just don’t see any Gold Medallists competing with a set of circa 1976 orangey-plastic-mounted Grainger & Campbell drones.

I remember one year in the 1970s when my dad – a child of the Great Depression who saved everything, collected things and always seemed to think he was one bad decision away from the soup line – took me to shop for a new car. In his lifetime, he purchased maybe three automobiles, so this was a big occasion. The model he was interested in came with a radio as standard equipment, but my father thought it was an unnecessary expense that he had no interest in buying, since he never listened to the radio, anyway.

He would only buy the car, he insisted at first, if they removed the radio. It was only when they finally got through to him that it would actually cost him more to have it taken out, since it was factory-installed. So he begrudgingly left it, in all its AM-only glory, but his stance was that all cars were the same, so buy the cheapest thing possible. He’d then spend a lot of time going back and forth to the mechanic to have problems fixed.

His compulsive frugality probably had much to do with my opposite attitude about purchases: buy the very best product that you can realistically afford, even if it means waiting until you have the money. And, until you can afford the best, make do without.

Bagpipe makers will maintain the premise that all of their instruments are created equal in terms of bores and wood quality and workmanship. It’s something of a tradition, and I wonder if it’s the right thing for them to do. The mounts on Highland pipes serve a functional purpose: ferules and caps protect and bind the wood that might otherwise crack and chip; projecting mounts are like bumpers – again protecting the precious wood. Lucky for pipe-makers, it’s a great opportunity to use different materials that vary in their blinginess.

If I were a marketing strategist for a bagpipe maker, my plan would be to include even more superior craftsmanship with the more adorned instrument. In fact, I would position the expense being for, first, the better musical instrument, and then many of the bells and whistles would be factory-installed, but a few extra “packages” could be bought. Take a page from the auto industry.

That’s not to say that my entry-level instruments would be poorly made – on the contrary. I would simply emphasize the fact that those who purchase the all-chased-silver model would also get the very best, darkest, most seasoned blackwood, made by hand by the most experienced turner or, if it’s a CNC machine spinning it out, finished with the discerning eye and talent of a recognized expert human being. A “premium” instrument is more about premium sound and performance as it is about decoration. People will ooh and ah over your 7-Series BMW, but the thing also performs like a rocket. No contest.

I’m not a bagpipe maker, and they know their target markets best. But I am a marketer, and something tells me that the traditional approach to pipe-making, in which all instruments are said to perform equally well, and pricing is only determined by decoration, might well be the wrong way about the whole business.

 

 

Crookit horns

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

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

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

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

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

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

True-love giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flatten the grass

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pipe bands: not hot

All nat-roo-al.Sitting here in the sun on the beach in various degrees of sobriety as my AADD gradually evaporates, various thoughts float by. Here’s one: are pipe bands better suited to colder climates?

Most of us would rather perform and compete in temperate climates but, when it comes to the world’s top-quality pipe bands, generally, the colder the climate, the higher the density of good bands. It seems to be true on both sides of the equator.

The closer the climate is to that of Scotland, it seems, the more likely you are to find a higher standard of playing. There are exceptions, and by no means is this a rule. It just appears to be true, at least today. It may change in the future.

If there is a case to be made for this premise, it’s probably because the Highland bagpipe was designed and tweaked over hundreds of years to work best in a mainly damp, temperate climate like Scotland’s. There’s a reason why sheepskin bags and cane reeds were ultimately chosen for the bagpipe in Scotland: they work the best.

As the popularity of the pipes and pipe bands has spread to other areas, so too have the gizmos and “technology” created in an attempt to tame the instrument. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the more non-Scottish the climate, the more likely you are to find thingamabobs to help players overcome problems presented by the instrument as it was designed for play in Scotland.

And now it seems that bands – at least those serious about competing in Scotland – are realizing that synthetic-whatevers possibly aren’t ideal for getting the best sound in the instrument’s native land. Plastic what-nots may be a great solution in Timbuktu, but they don’t necessarily adapt well to Glasgow.

The drier or hotter the climate, it seems, the more pipe bands are at a disadvantage. The Highland bagpipe in its natural form is not designed for a warmer arid environment and bands unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your perspective) enough to be in these places face an uphill battle.

Sticks and Stones

Sympathy for the devil's instrument.Lately I’ve noticed a few music podcasts talking about a nice “drone” effect in some new songs. It seemed strange, since I couldn’t recall anyone outside of piping or beekeeping mentioning drones before.

I was reading the excellent autobiography Life by rock legend Keith Richards (thanks, Briana!) recently, and came upon a passage in a part of the book where he discusses the distinctive sound he created with the Rolling Stones. It’s a result of “open” tuning he took from southern blues guitar technique in which only five strings are used and they’re tuned very differently. Examples of the sound can be heard on “Street Fighting Man,” “Brown Sugar,” “Gimme Shelter” and many other Stones’ songs. Keef writes:

The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes – the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It’s tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time. And because it’s electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work. And if you’re working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it. While actually you’re not playing. It’s there. It defies logic. And it’s just lying there saying, “$%&# me.” And it’s a matter of the same old cliché in that respect. It’s what you leave out that counts. Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other. And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position that note is still ringing. And you can even let it hang there. It’s called the drone note. Or at least that’s what I call it. The sitar works on similar lines – sympathetic ringing or what they call sympathetic strings. Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of what you are trying to do. It’s the drone.

So, essentially, the secret to the Rolling Stones’ distinctive sound is what Highland pipers have known forever. The allure of a well-tuned drone sound was borrowed, it seems by blues guitarists and then co-opted by Richards who, judging by what he writes above, pretty much kept it a secret.

There’s little wonder then why hardly any other band sounds like the Rolling Stones and no instrument on earth sounds like the Highland pipe.

Paradiddle universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please don’t try this at home

God only knows how kids find time to practice today. There’s so much more to do today for everyone. It’s no wonder that every other kid is accused of having attention deficit disorder. Life itself is one giant distraction.

But I’m sure I had – and may well still have – ADD. I not so long ago brought to you a few photos of me as a spotty adolescent regaling strange folk on the pipes. Here are a few more, which serve to underscore the mystery of how on earth I ever survived as a piper.

Life's a lark.As mentioned, my dad would take pictures of everything we kids would do. But, looking at these photos, who can blame him? If he didn’t go and die on me, I would ask him today what might have been going through his head when he saw me doing these things with my practice chanter. A few possibilities:

“I wonder if this is healthy for that boy . . .”

“That can’t be good for posture . . .”

“. . . Is there another instrument that allows such a slacker attitude?”

The image above is pretty self-evident: me twittering away at a crossing-noise-rich rendition of “Highland Laddie” or something. There’s that 1976 commemorative St. Louis Cardinals’ cap again, and you’ll remember the low-rise Converse sneakers. The hairstyle would be courtesy of my mother’s home barber kit – or, rather, a result of me avoiding it.

Stargell's a bum!The photo at left is classic “multitasking” – before the woeful word was ever invented. One can have too many hobbies and, for me, it was and always will be piping and baseball. Note the Cardinals vs. Pirates game on the little black-and-white Magnavox TV. This would most certainly have been on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, since only a handful of games were actually broadcast in 1979, or whenever this was taken. My parents loved cats. They (the cats, that is) had the run of the house, and here one is enjoying my own caterwauling while washing behind her ears, indicating that a rain delay was imminent.

I’m sure that Willie McCallum or Roddy MacLeod never practiced as kids with such an appalling lack of focus, evidenced of course by the difference in the their solo success and mine. I’m certain that their dads never allowed them to merrily do things half-way.

But, there you are. My practiced ability to do several things at once may be my problem, but, as I sit here doing three things at once, I hope it’s to your benefit.

Been there

All uphill from here.We all have to start somewhere, and this week I’ve been carried back to my earliest days as a piper as I’ve been going through and scanning family photos that my dad left behind. I’ve actually taken a full 10 days of vacation to work through them, since he was a keen amateur photographer and, perhaps because he was a professor of history and wanted to keep a record of things for history’s sake, he pretty much took a photo of everything. Everything.

He missed the digital photography age, and used only film. But he never used print film; strictly slide film, and would pick out the best to have enlarged. He used slide photography like we use digital – no big deal if you mess up the shot. The result is about 40 years of slides, numbering I think about 15,000 images. That’s a lot scanning, but it’s kind of now or never.

Hell? Hello? Is this thing on?But here are a few shots of my first years on the pipes, circa 1976-’77. I think the one of me with the natty plaid shirt on is the very day that my new R.G. Hardie pipes arrived directly from Glasgow. I remember the bag loosely tied to the stocks, and made of cowhide as thick and tough as beef jerky. My dad was upset that they sent it with the wrong tartan bag cover – MacFarlane, not some family sett.

My dad, ever the promoter of his kids, used to volunteer me for various piping performances. I’m not sure exactly what these two events were, but see the people in the one of me playing in the parking lot. Next stop: The Argyllshire Gathering.They are almost totally oblivious to the noise going on around them, even the gents merrily having a conversation within a few feet of me. Note the 1970s pimp-chic with the guy with hat. Maybe they’re hoping that, if they ignore it, it will go away. Maybe it’s an event for the hearing impaired.

The one with the guy in the clever robin’s-egg-blue suit is a wonder. It looks like the Jim Jones Cult needed an official piper to lead the members to something. I don’t remember any Let's play ball instead . . .Kool-Aid being served, thank goodness.

The other is perhaps the first day of spring warm enough for me to regale the neighbors (American spelling, since it was in the USA) with my sight-reading stop/start tunage. I’m wearing the St. Louis Cardinals’ retro 1876 cap in honor (US) of the 100th anniversary of the National League, brown corduroys and yet another tartan shirt. That’s my friend Nathaniel Heidenheimer in the Giants’ cap probably a bit freaked out by the scene: me squalling away on the imitation-ivory-grinding Hardies; my dad snapping away at his own hobby; Nathaniel frozen, wondering where to look.

But we all start somewhere and I think we’ve all been there. The instrument begins as a lark, progresses into obsession, then, if you’re lucky, transforms into a passion. We persevere.

Dead lament

Pure dead brilliant, that.The newspaper image of the late motorcycle fanatic dead and embalmed astride his bike as a fulfillment of his last wish gave me the heebie-jeebies this morning. But, then again, why should it? Dead is dead, and the usual supine “sleeping-inside-the-coffin” pose is every bit as disturbing, when you think about it. Death is creepy, no matter what.

So why not encourage people to have a final image of you doing what you love to do? I suppose for some people their favourite pastime is sleeping, so the pancake-makeup casket thing is appropriate. But, given that so many of us pipers and drummers are obsessed with our hobby (our “avocation” as Michael Grey once aptly described it to me), perhaps one of us will include instructions in our will to kit us out in Highland dress, prop us up and somehow attach the instrument to us in  a lifelike pose.

Since wearing dark sunglasses is okay for motorcycles but taboo for piping/drumming competitors, we could conveniently have our eyes closed, looking for the life (or death) of us like we’re really into the music. I suppose it would be a challenge to stand a cadaver upright and keep the hands on the chanter or the sticks, but we’ll leave that to the morticians to negotiate.

I remember in the 1970s Ian Cohen, a friend in the now-defunct Invera’an band (he still plays with the current St. Louis Caledonian Pipe Band, I think) with a last name at the time as unlikely as my own for a piper, had “George” – a life-size mannequin that stood in his living room in number-one dress. It was a bit creepy, but also wonderfully campy. (A decade ago I gave up trying to convince Julie to get me a mannequin for my birthday or Christmas, on which to hang my kilty gear when not in use. “Not in ma hoose!”) George would be there watching over us as we played vinyl LPs of the latest Shotts album on his Marantz turntable.

One of the most selfish things I’ve ever heard of in piping is Robert Reid’s famous wish that all of his piping manuscripts and what-nots should be buried with him. I suppose he didn’t want to share his secrets with anyone. Perhaps like Donald Shaw Ramsay making wholesale deletions of truly helpful material in the interview I did with him in 1989, maybe he rationalized it by contending that he had to learn the hard way so no one else should have it easier. Unfortunately for Reid, some people’s lasting impression of him as a result of his miserly wish is of a bitter and unsharing man, which may explain why the Cameron-MacDougall-Gillies style is all but dead, at least relative to the all-sharing MacDonald-Nicol-Brown approach. 

Anyway, there are many in the piping and drumming world whose identity as a person is piping or drumming. Their instrument is as much a part of them as that guy’s motorcycle was. So what better way to create a lasting impression than making the final image the one that defines you?

Bagpipes: instant celebration machine

Chapmen billiesHappy New Year to all, and here’s hoping that 2010 is a great one for everybody.

There’s probably not a person out there who’s at times at a loss for what to do on New Year’s Eve. Statistically, those who hit the town for big public countdowns are few, and rare with those, ahem, of a certain age. A piper-friend of mine said that his daughter ridiculed her parents for not having any New Year’s Eve plans, when of course the solution is right under his blowstick.

Pipers have it easy, if they want it. The ability to play the pipes is a license to hold a celebration virtually any time, any place. At least in Toronto, everyone likes the pipes. I can’t remember meeting anyone here who says that they dislike the instrument, and in fact most non-players enthusiastically say that they LOVE the sound and almost always connect it with an emotional memory: a wedding, a funeral, the 48th at the Leafs’ home openers, the sound of a piper playing across the lake at their cottage in August, or even New Year’s.

Where I live we like to invite a few drouthy neibors over for a cup of kindness, and then seconds after midnight go outside for a round of “Auld Lang Syne,” “Scotland the Brave” . . . and then inevitably, by request, a reprise of “Auld Lang Syne” on the street. People come from their houses, glasses charged, wishing everyone the best. Last year it was minus-17° for a risky one-minute, in-and-out, blackwood crackling performance; this year a balmy 3° kept folks around for a good half-hour. The pipes at New Year are now an annual tradition.

At least once a year, the tone of your pipes can be guaranteed to ring – ring in the New Year, anyway – fou and unco happy. Orrabest.

Most excellent 2009

Orbital MetricHope everyone had a good Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or whatever you prefer to do.

I might have listened to more music than usual in the last year, since I find it more accessible than ever. In recent years I’ve listed my favourite five tracks and five albums, but this year I’ll just list my 10 personal favourite tracks from the year.

Perhaps I should have separate piping/drumming and non-piping/drumming lists, but mixing them up is part of the fun.

These are the ones that seem to have stood up best over the year, one or two coming in late in 2009 to make the cut, as it were. In order: 

  • “Satellite Mind” – Metric, from Fantasies – I’ve now played this song at least 100 times. Still sounds fresh and unbelievably catchy.
  • “The Cure” – Tegan and Sara, from Sainthood – Hey, nothing wrong with doing the 1980s even better.
  • “Ae Fond Kiss” – Wendy Stewart & Gary West, from Hinterlands – A lovely rendition of the Burns song, Stewart’s voice paired perfectly with the texture of West’s backing vocals, whistle and accompanying cello.
  • “Loaded”The Idle Hands, from The Hearts We Broke on the Way to the Show – More retro-’80s stylings in a Psychedelic Furs / Joy Division sort of way.
  • “Field of Gold” – Simon Fraser University, from Affirmation – Almost as moving on CD as it was on the night.
  • “Bull Black Nova” – Wilco, from Wilco (The Album) – My favourite track from one of my favourite group’s most recent album.
  • “Comme Des Enfants” – Coeur de Pirate, from Coeur de Pirate – If Annabel stays with the piano this could be her. I don’t really know or much care what the words mean, but they’re pure French charm. (Thanks, Lorna!)
  • “Cello Song” – The Books, from Dark Was the Night – Love this cover of the Nick Drake song, which actually would be great for a pipe band to adapt.
  • “A Thousand Curses on Love” – Bill Livingstone, from Northern Man – For most of August and September I could not get the waulking song base of this track out of my head. A good thing.
  • “Poyntzfield Reprise” – Manawatu Scottish, Twelve-Thousand Miles – by far my favourite track on this excellent pipe band studio album.

Just didn’t quite qualify: “Just Breathe” – Pearl Jam, from Back Spacer; “1901,” Phoenix, from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix; “Hell,” Tegan and Sara, from Sainthood; “Wilco,” Wilco, from Wilco (The Album); and “Captain Jack Murray,” John Mulhearn, from The Extraordinary Little Cough.

Those are mine. What are your favourites from 2009?

Anti-manufacturing

Pipes need clarity.I finally found time to take my primary set of pipes to master craftsman Thomas Doucet in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for refurbishment. Thomas reconditioned the dilapidated John Wilson MacDougall of Aberfeldy set liberated after 30 years from his widow, and subsequently sold for $13,000 to Troy Guindon. Doucet has established a name for himself for his meticulous attention to detail, and to the traditional and painstaking methods of bagpipe-making, so I’ve entrusted him with these 1936 silver-and-ivory Lawries.

In addition to refinishing them, Thomas will correct wear in the middle bass-section, nip a few hairline cracks before they get worse, polish bores and recreate to Lawrie specs a matching blowpipe with wide-aperture plastic insert.

Interestingly, Thomas isn’t a piper, and seemed to come about his business somewhat by happenstance, learning the trade by working with the late Jack Dunbar, who of course learned his trade at Peter Henderson’s in Glasgow.

Coincidentally, I’d been reading Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand by James Barron. The book tracks the manufacture of a single $90,000 piano from the point of order, to the sourcing of wood, through every minute aspect of the labourious process until the nine-foot-long instrument’s completion. At the end you understand why the Steinway brand carries such gravitas and luxury – not to mention why the company’s flagship model is so freaking expensive.

While Steinway since 1853 was often enticed to employ new manufacturing methods and technologies, the company steadfastly resisted, at least when it came to their more major instruments. Almost all of the dozens of stages of manufacture are the same as they were 156 years ago. While Japanese piano-makers were gobbling market-share, Steinway resolutely decided to adhere to what they now refer to as “anti-manufacturing.”

I like this notion. While new technologies are developed to streamline processes and, presumably, push out more product with lower manufacturing costs to make more money, when it comes to great musical instruments, craftsmanship is everything.

It seems to me that most bagpipe-making through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s may have been seduced by new technologies, and that’s why you infrequently see a top player with an instrument of that vintage.

But there are top soloists today playing drones from the last 10 years made using “anti-manufacturing” processes – that is, the traditional ways developed and perfected by MacDougall, MacRae, Henderson and Lawrie.

In an age of cheap, convenient, disposable product everywhere we turn, the bagpipe industry is again being led by those who commit to quality, sacrificing prosperity for the sake of the superior.

What are you playing?

What an eye-opener the survey of solo pipers was for me. Being around it, you get a general sense of what’s being played, but to do an analysis and find out exactly what’s preferred was not only educational but fun.

Of course, the only real way to do such a survey is to promise that names won’t be used, and that’s why I think the response rate was unexpectedly good. I’m glad that people by-and-large feel confident that their secrets may be shared, but not their name.

Until a reader from North Carolina sent me the brilliantly obvious question via e-mail, I never even thought to check my spreadsheet to see if a piper actually played the exact combined set-up of the most popular makes and models. Amazingly (or not), no one puts together all of the leading items to create some sort of super-pipe. The sum of the parts does not necessarily equal the whole . . . or something.

That’s because the Highland bagpipe is still a very individual instrument. We can harp on about how every pipe sounds the same at the top-level, but it’s obviously not true, since the subtleties between chanters, reeds, drones and so forth are a matter of personal preference and taste.

The variety evidenced in the first-ever instrument survey just goes to show: for all the technology and new materials, the bagpipe and its players, even at the very top level, are as fickle as ever.

I’d be interested to hear from readers about what you’re playing, and whether this sort of survey has changed your mind about your instrument set-up.

From a frenzied Maxville Friday

Maxed out.Even when assessing about 90 performances over eight hours, as was the case last Friday on “Amateur Day” at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville, one can’t help but think of a few things in between players:

1. The RSPBA is seen by everyone – and rightly so – as a master organizer of pipe band events. They set the standard, and it’s a very high one indeed. But the PPBSO must be given huge credit for efficiently coordinating close to 300 solo competitors in a single day across about 50 events. This is a staggering amount of work, and the behind-the-scenes preparation and scheduling is as complex as it gets. The work of the judges is nothing compared with that of the administrators and stewards. If you were there and forgot to thank a few people, you may want to start with thank-you messages to PPBSO President Bob Allen and Administrator Sharon Duthart, who can then forward your thanks to Chief Steward Andy Donachie, Barb MacRae, Lloyd Dicker, your contest stewards and any others who deserve the praise.

2. When, oh, when will all solo pipers and drummers respect their fellow competing colleagues (and the judges) and tune up at least 50 metres away? The number of pipers – even a few in the Professional grade – who have to be told to move further away always amazes me. Sure, there are a lot of players, but there’s also a massive area. Please, find out from the steward who’s before you, tell the steward that you will be at that tree way over there, keep an eye on the contest, and mosey on over when the person before you is done. It’s simple!

3. Enough of the saluting business. I know it’s force-of-habit with some, but unless you’re in the military and the judge is an officer, the custom of saluting the judge is over. At ease!

4. Tell the judge your name and remember the names of your tunes. Most judges know many or most of the competitors, but, unless you’re certain the judge knows you, it would help if you said who you are. And then have the names of your tunes ready. Write them down if your memory fails when you’re nervous. Standing there tapping your forehead trying to recall the other march while your instrument is going flat doesn’t do you any good.

5. If the judge is still writing the previous competitor’s scoresheet, don’t just stand there! Feel free to keep your pipes warm and play something pleasant (but never anything you might play in the competition), all the time keeping an eye on the judge for when he/she is ready for you. This actually reduces your tuning time and increases your chances that your instrument will stay in tune . . . provided it once was.

6. Start only when your pipes are in tune. As long as you haven’t been screwing at your drones for more than five minutes, it’s okay to take a few more seconds to get them right. But don’t start tuning them until at least 20 seconds after you’ve started. But if five minutes have passed and you still can’t get them right, just get on with it. That dog just ain’t gonna sit.

7. It’s music; enjoy it. I know it’s easier said than done, but it kills me to see young kids so nervous about competing that they seem to forget that it’s music they’re playing. It’s a musical instrument. It’s art. Concentrate on enjoying the music that you are creating, and just do the best you can. Think of why you first took up the instrument. It was the music, right? There’s no such thing as a flawless performance, so you might as well accept that and have fun.

Just a few thoughts from the busiest day of solo piping and drumming yet known to humankind.

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