Just talk

You first.Sometime in the last decade, I made an offer to the then executive officer of the RSPBA to develop a public relations plan. No charge. Perhaps ironically, he never responded, much less took me up on the proposal. It frustrated me then, as it does now, to see piping and drumming associations make fundamental communications mistakes. While these mistakes have incited a lot of news content – some of it quite extraordinary – over the years to any media outlet with enough courage to report it, many of the errors could have been avoided by doing just a few things differently.

I’ve worked in public relations for almost 20 years. I’ve done okay in the profession, working with one of North America’s top agencies, currently as a senior-vice-president. My company has gained more PR industry awards than any agency in Canada. I don’t intend to brag; it’s just to say that others seem to think I often know what I’m doing when it comes to communications.

To be sure, the RSPBA’s communications problems aren’t unique. In fact, they exist with most, if not all, piping and drumming organizations that largely rely on passionate unpaid volunteers to make the right decisions and make the time to implement them. There’s no denying that effective communications take expertise, experience and time. Those elements aside, most of it comes down to plain old common sense.

So, again, in good faith, here are a few essential tips for communicating effectively. Maybe a few piping and drumming organizations – associations, committees, bands, clubs, panels – will find them useful.

1. Silence is treated with suspicion and eventually contempt. In today’s instant messaging world, people expect open, honest, transparent dialog. When nothing is said the inference is that something’s being hidden. When questions go unanswered, contempt is created.

2. Mistakes happen; own up to them, apologize, learn from them and become better. No organization is perfect. We all make mistakes. But an association that doesn’t acknowledge or attempts to obfuscate its errors inevitably damages its reputation. The truth will out, so get in front of it. Don’t sit back and hope no one notices. The practice of sweeping problems under the rug thinking that they’ll just go away doesn’t hold up any more. It may be out of sight and out of mind, but it will continue to get smellier and stinkier and eventually become a suffocating stench when it’s uncovered.

3. Trust people. Last time I checked, piping/drumming was still music, enjoyed by those with a passion for it. It’s all good. Suspecting everyone of having some ulterior motive or a hidden agenda is counter-productive. Trust is returned with trust.

4. Earn trust. Members need to be confident that their opinions will not result in political repercussions. With unhealthy associations, open criticism is rare because members are afraid that some corrupt judge or executive will retaliate on the contest field. An environment of constant constructive dialog must be nurtured. It will take years to change, in some cases, the decades-old tradition of fear, but it can and must happen if you’re going to lead. Clamp down on conflict-of-interest and communicate that it will not be tolerated in any shape – real or perceived.

5. The “association” is the members, not its executive, music board or judges. Like a church, the “church” is not the preacher or the cathedral, it’s the congregation. An organization that loses touch with its members is destined to fail, or, like leaders of political parties, will be overthrown by the will of constituents. Always act in the best interests of the members. If you don’t know what their collective best interests are, refer to point 4.

6. Be accessible and responsive. Customer service is for many of today’s businesses the only real differentiator. There’s always an option to do something else. An association’s customers are its members. Treat them like a customer: with respect, good manners and appreciation. Viewing the membership as a giant headache or insinuating that they’re always wrong – as some associations seem to these days – will alienate them. You might be the only Wal-Mart in town, but if you neglect your customers they’ll eventually go shopping elsewhere.

7. Communicate your good news. Piping and drumming organizations do far more things right than wrong. They sometimes wonder why no one acknowledges their accomplishments. The reason is simple: you didn’t bother to tell anyone, and/or you didn’t respond to inquiries. Talk. (See point 1.)

8. Take criticism seriously. Organizations should welcome and even invite criticism. Ask members for their feedback, and consider all of it. You will identify trends, and you can prioritize what needs to be fixed first. (See point 2.)

9. Measure your “brand.” Do you know what your organization represents to members? To outsiders? To the people you want to reach? Are you even recognized for anything? Ask a cross-section of various audiences to describe your organization or band in three words. You’ll be amazed at what you discover, positive and negative – or even that they’ve never even heard of you. Only by listening, knowing and accepting can you improve.

10. Embrace change. A stubborn, obstinate organization that is unwilling to adapt to changing times or the desires of its members will eventually become a dinosaur. Associations often mistakenly think that their job is to protect the past, to control the music by rejecting suggestions to do things differently. In fact, any organization with vitality needs to face and embrace the future.

Perhaps these points will help a few foundering piping and drumming organizations whose problems often are a result of poor communication. As a member, contemplate how well your association, band or group manages these points.

It’s a different world today, and the piping and drumming traditions of the 1900s – ignoring and denying problems, sweeping troubles under the rug, silence and contempt – are unacceptable in 2010.

Wait, a second

Looks pretty good to everyone else . . .Second is the hardest prize; you win gold and lose silver; always a bridesmaid . . . Watching the Winter Olympics there’s been a lot of talk about the heartbreak of not-quite-winning, and the fractional seconds and centimeters between glory and “defeat.”

We pipers and drummers are of course used to all that. The greater the competition’s stature, the less satisfactory any prize but first can be. Kids take gleeful pride in their third- and fourth-prizes in amateur and junior competitions. Grade 4 bands relish even a mention in the list. But, when it comes to the Professional Solo or Grade 1 band events, there’s often more disappointment than joy with the competitors who placed, but didn’t “win.”

As the Olympics remind us, that’s not right. Just qualifying to be good enough to compete at the highest level of athletic sport or piping/drumming competition is a massive accomplishment on its own. The competitors who don’t meet that lofty standard – probably 99 per cent of people who compete in the sport or art – are envious of just the achievement of competing at the top tier. They’d covet just being good enough to play in a Grade 1 band or at the Professional solo level, and any prize, to them, would be dreamy cake-icing.

It’s a bitter reality: the better you become, the more disappointing competition can be. Part of the reason why there’s disappointment is the pathological competitive drive required to reach the top tier. You keep pushing and pushing to be better and better, so, of course second-prize even at the loftiest level is tantamount to losing. It’s a necessary competitive mindset.

But the overall piping and drumming culture mistakenly and unhealthily plays in to that first-or-lost attitude.

It doesn’t help when we continually tear down our own. The sordid and spiteful tradition of ripping everyone but the winner continues in some fusty, old-think places. That sort of Sunday Morning Quarterback analysis is at least useless, if not downright mean. We should celebrate the winners, but we should also continually vaunt our best and brightest.

It’s interesting to me that, during these Olympics (which granted are receiving far more attention in Canada than anywhere else), it’s the favoured competitors who didn’t quite rise to the top who usually take things the hardest. While the disappointed athletes have on occasion sobbed inconsolably over their “loss,” the public cheers them on, proud of their achievements and their extraordinary dedication, commitment and talent.

We pipers and drummers can learn from that.

Touchy subjects

Not a few pipes|drums readers have contacted me about the recent p|d Poll question, “Should full-time bagpipe-makers be allowed to judge pipe band competitions?” Other versions of the bagpipe-makers-judging query have been posed before on the Poll over the years, and it’s of course a hot topic. Always has been; always will be – even if some sort of rule(s) were established to address the matter.

Several readers coyly wanted to know what prompted the question. That’s an easy answer, of course: the results of the Grade 2 competition at the 2009 Scottish Championships last week.

Bob Shepherd was the ensemble judge of the Grade 2 competition. He makes bagpipes and chanters. (I played one for several years and still play a Shepherd reed that’s been going strong for more than a decade.) Shepherd’s reputation as a judge, teacher, pipe-major and all-round remarkable person precedes him.

For the most part the two piping judges seemed to agree on the placings of bands. The band that won the contest, Inveraray & District, had two firsts in piping, a first in drumming, and an eighth in ensemble from Shepherd.

Now, I was not at the competition so I of course didn’t hear Inveraray. I also have no idea what make of chanters or bagpipes or drums or reeds the band plays. For all I know, the band did something horribly wrong with its ensemble. I don’t really care.

But thanks to the RSPBA’s publishing of all judges’ marks, we know that Inveraray received a 1,1 (piping), 1 (drumming) and 8 (ensemble) scoring. We can also see that Seven Towers had 8, 9, 9 and 1; MacKenzie Caledonia received 12, 19, 11 and 3; and Central Scotland Police got marks of 17, 16, 15 and 2.

So, the question was posed in the Poll, causing concern with a few people (several from bagpipe dealers), as if asking a simple, albeit sensitive, question were taboo in the world of piping and drumming. Many other tough questions also have been posed, and many new ones are still to come. Bring them on; let’s get things out in the open so that we can gain better understanding.

I suppose debating touchy subjects is still unthinkable with some old-school folks. There is something of a tradition in our art that prefers to sweep things under the rug rather than discuss them in the open. pipes|drums rejects that tradition. Only by asking questions will we ever get answers.

The reason that tough questions are traditionally not asked elsewhere may be because many people seem to have an interest in not asking them; sweep it under the rug and leave well enough alone. pipes|drums doesn’t sell anything but subscriptions and advertising, and those funds are plowed back into the publication or given to worthwhile not-for-profit causes, so I think we might be more free to evoke constructive conversation about sensitive issues that have been unaddressed for decades.

I’m interested to hear what others think about bringing sensitive matters that have existed for decades, even centuries, in piping and drumming out into the open.

(By the way, the last time I looked, the answer to that particular question from 74 per cent of respondents was “No.”)

A request: please keep any comments on the subject of discussing sensitive topics. Anything off-topic won’t be posted. Thanks.

Special tweets

Rockin' robin.pipes|drums is always keen to push boundaries and try new things. Tomorrow, April 4th, will be another first for us, when we attend the Toronto Indoor Games, and provide Twitter updates throughout the day from @pipesdrums.

We added a Twitter feed to Blogpipe a few days ago, so any “tweets” (a really twee term, but so be it) are automatically fed to the section of the blog. If you’re so inclined, you can follow the Twitter updates throughout the day either via the blog or directly from Twitter.

I signed up for Twitter last year and didn’t do much with it until recently. I’ve been a Facebook user for a few years, and find that much more interesting. While Facebook engages friends more with pictures and personality, Twitter is more of a push thing, where people and companies can deliver thoughts and links to those who are interested. My Twitter posts are automatically uploaded to my Facebook status, so that’s another way to follow and comment.

I don’t for a second presume that anyone is particularly interested in whatever random thoughts I might have, but, if you are, then so be it. I’m happy to provide them if there’s a chance is prompts useful dialog.

This little experiment tomorrow may be the bomb (as the kids, I think, still say) or, then again, it might just bomb. It does come on the heels of the April Fools story about judges texting and Twittering while competitors play. I won’t be doing that, but will try to provide a little bit of insight into the day. I’ll be interested to see what the reaction will be.

I’ll look forward to your comments and/or your Twitter responses to posts throughout the day. Nothing ventured . . .

See the sun going down

Can't kid a kidder.April 1st is a day I always look forward to, since it’s a chance to have a little fun with the piping and drumming world. The key to a good April Fool’s joke is for it to be fairly topical and remotely believable, so that the many altruistic people among us fall for it.

This year’s was in the works for a few days, and Piobaireachd Society President Jack Taylor was in the know and signed off on the ploy, good sport that he is. He even provided the quote. What would Kilberry think?!

A differentiating feature of pipes|drums and the old Piper & Drummer is humour. At the end of the day it’s just music, and, if you stop to think about what we do and how seriously we so often take ourselves and all this competing, you just have to have a chuckle.

I sourced a few of the past April Fool’s stories, which are always only viewable for the one day, but I opened them up again just for today.

Tenor-drummers gird for world boycott

SLOT announces Greenpeace sponsorship

Hope you get a good laugh.

Passing notes

Going Home.Yesterday brought bad news of yet more Canadian casualties in Afghanistan. Warrant Officer Dennis Raymond Brown from the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, Corporal Dany Oliver Fortin from the 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron and Corporal Kenneth Chad O’Quinn from the 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Headquarters and Signals Squadron were killed when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb, one of the devices that they had just finished clearing.

Their deaths bring the total number of Canadians killed in Afghanistan to 111, and each time a soldier makes the supreme sacrifice the media coverage in Canada is widespread. And so too is the sound of the pipes.

Each “ramp ceremony” – the military procedure that begins the repatriation of the fallen – has a solo piper from the Canadian Forces, and always a very good one at that. The Canadian Forces clearly knows that only excellent piping will do when paying allegiance to excellent service. Fraser Clark, a Captain with the Canadian Forces’ Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (KPRT), Task Force 1-08, wrote about the experience passionately last August in a pipes|drums feature story that I hope everyone reads again.

If there were ever a positive to these sacrifices, it’s the small fact that millions of Canadians are exposed to the sound of the instrument as it should be.

The people’s band

Hands off.Maybe it was all the bad news mounting. Maybe the pipe band world had had just about enough, thank you, and this was just too much. But public reaction to the apparent threat to the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band was nothing short of phenomenal. The members of the band have been under pressure for the last few years, with new police management seemingly giving them stick for committing too much time to being great musicians, and too much devotion to ensuring the band was a symbol of excellence that was representative of the excellence of the Strathclyde Police force itself.

Friends of the band worked the media to communicate the story of the band’s threatened status, and when news of the dire situation hit on pipes|drums and then the Glasgow Herald the piping and drumming world reacted with a 24-hour PR wildfire. I’ve never seen anything like it. Before Facebook group petitions were even a day old the force had reacted and quelled the angry mob, publicly assuring us that it’s status quo with the band, at least for now. We will hold them to that.

Sponsorships start and stop. Bands come and go. When established top-grade bands go under the response is generally a few days of disappointment and sadness by most, but the issue is generally quickly put out of mind, as other bands become the beneficiaries of the suddenly available talent.

But why was the Strathclyde Police situation different? Perhaps it’s this: Apart from the fact that the band is more than 120 years old and the winner of dozens of championships, the Strathclyde Police more than any other top band is a band that belongs to the people.

Certainly the people of Scotland’s Strathclyde region pay taxes that go to the funding of the police and thus the band, but anyone who has visited Glasgow also has a financial stake in the band. Those who have gone to the World’s or Piping Live! or Celtic Connections or just a visit to see auld auntie Senga in Knightswood have helped to sponsor the band. They may not realize it, but the Polis are truly a band of the people. We all help to fund it.

So when our band is threatened, it’s reasonable that we all get our collective back up and set about the folk messing with our investment. We’ll give you what for.

I saw somewhere online a suggestion that each person employed by the Strathclyde Police force could just give another pound each year to go towards the band. In truth, all of us who have spent any money in Glasgow have helped to sponsor this band. Our vested interest. Our band.

Bass-section or mid-section? A ruling

Percussion section is a good name when pipe bands aren't judged.The surge in popularity of pipe band tenor-drumming might well be the most talked about topic of the last 10 years in our world. There’s no denying that the change that has been brought to bands through the development and use of more tuned drums has been profound. Love it, hate it or ambivalent to it, this section’s importance is here and it’s not likely to diminish any time soon.

But, what to call this evolved aspect of pipe bands? Traditionally, the drums that weren’t the snares were referred to as the “bass-section.” I guess that was because that “section” always, at a minimum, included a bass-drum. Before 1995 or so there would be one, maybe two or, at most, three tenor-drummers, some often not even audibly playing the drum. Bands often competed with no tenors at all.

The bass back then was the undisputed focal point of the section. So “bass-section” made sense.

These days, tenor drums of various sizes and tones, while not yet required, are at least expected in a competing pipe band. Upper-grade bands bring out three, four, five and even as many as nine drums in these burgeoning sections.

So, it makes sense that the appropriate name for this part of the band is “mid-section.” That name is inclusive of all the instruments found in the section today, and leaves room for who-knows-what instruments will be added tomorrow. Further, the section doesn’t yet lead the band, and is in middle of it – at least in today’s typical formation – so the “mid” is descriptive of where they stand.

I’ve heard traditionalists who take umbrage at the use of “mid-section,” demanding that “bass-section” continue to be used. But the truth is these sections are a bunch of differently pitched drums in the middle of the band. Others make the apt point that the bass and tenors are simply part of the “drum-section,” so that term should be used. Ideally that would make sense, but, so far, anyway, pipe band drumming judges (who are always snare-drummers) don’t appear ready or, many contend, qualified to judge today’s tenor-drumming. Bass and tenors are clearly a separate-but-integrated aspect of pipe band competition, and thus deserve a separate descriptor.

So, at least here, “mid-section” it will be.

Ad newseam

We salute your change.Quite a few pipes|drums readers sent a heads-up about the drum-major with the Cleveland Cleveland Firefighters Memorial Pipes & Drums quitting his band after he got in trouble for “making eye-contact” (read: winking and waving like Benny Hill) with President Obama at last week’s inaugural parade. Apparently, protocol strictly forbids even looking at the new president, although the Chosen One waved or winked or whatever back at John Coleman.

(It reminded me of the rock-star, Prince, 20 years or so ago, communicating with his “people” during his tour only by telepathy. No one was allowed to speak to him, including his girlfriend at the time, Sheena Easton, who was soon dumped for not being able to know what her wee purple man was thinking . . .)

Similar to the previous discussion on advertising acceptance, deciding what qualifies as pipes|drums news can be a difficult call. While “Colemangate” grabbed the attention of entertainment-focused outlets like CNN and “Good Morning, America,” I didn’t think it deserved the attention of pipes|drums. It wasn’t about piping / drumming; it was about one person’s breach of protocol.

Potentially, the “news” that could have been reported on pipes|drums could have been about the attention that the story got from mainstream news sources – the news becoming the news, if you follow, but still I didn’t think the story was about piping and drumming. Never mind that it was a drum-major, it had nothing to do with the actual playing of a bagpipe or pipe band drum.

Piping and drumming-related things occasionally garner mainstream attention. Often, it’s a piper who gets arrested for “noise pollution” when playing in public, or it’s some regulation that says that bagpipes are potentially dangerous to workers or soldiers’ hearing.

Personally I find that stuff tedious and I think most readers do, too. But occasionally, like when the mainstream media sensationalized Hugh Cheape’s 2008 book about the Highland bagpipe as being a relatively modern invention, it crosses into pipes|drums news territory.

If Obama had covered his ears, rolled his eyes and declared pipe bands Satanic when the Cleveland band marched past, well, then that would have been a pipes|drums story. But a drum-major doing what he did didn’t qualify as piping and drumming news, and the mainstream coverage of it was not about piping and drumming, either.

Qualifying quality

Meet your maker.At least twice a month for the last 20 years I’ve received inquiries about advertising from companies based in Pakistan. These outfits say that they make Highland pipes, but also list Uilllean pipes, custom pipe-banners, reeds, drums and all manner of things associated with pipers and drummers. And for 20 years I’ve consigned all of those messages to trash.

But they keep asking, and each time a message gets through my junk filter, I feel a pang of guilt. After all, they’re just trying to make a living at making stuff that clearly a segment of the piping and drumming population wants. The Pakistani companies’ money is just as good as that from any other business, and perhaps it would make sense to allow them to advertise. pipes|drums can always use more support to plow back into the not-for-profit magazine.

My first practice chanter was made in Pakistan from sheesham wood that was painted black. It tasted funny. My dad, bless him, picked it up at some shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, along with Captain John MacLellan’s revised Logan’s Tutor, with the hope that maybe one of us kids would take it up. For the next year it lay around the house. One of us sat on it, and the thing snapped from the F hole on down. My dad dutifully glued it back together.

The following summer I expressed an interest in learning after hearing the Toronto Gaelic Society Pipe Band playing in number-one-dress at a festival in Earth City, Missouri, in July, on an asphalt parking-lot under broiling sunshine. My first lessons were on that Pakistani chanter, my left thumb sticking to the syrupy glue that dear old dad used for his earnest repair job. I was onto a Hardie chanter after a few months.

I don’t know how many serious pipers started with a Pakistani practice chanter, but there must be a fair few. The knee-jerk reaction is to think that whatever is made there is not up to the minimum standard that readers of pipes|drums demand, but I have seen some made-in-Pakistan custom banners and embroidered items and thought they were pretty good. But perhaps to a professional embroiderer they’re just as inferior as the pipes.

Is it wrong not to allow Pakistani companies to advertise?

Sincerely, Anonymous

Would Mary Ann Evans have been as successful had she not written under the name 'Mary Ann Evans'?Ever since the newfangled Internet machine was first applied to piping and drumming way back in 1994 with the (truly sordid) alt.rec.music.makers.bagpipers chat group, our little world has been frequently miffed and confused about those who speak publicly, but wish to remain anonymous. Forums, blogs and an online magazine like pipes|drums give everyone the power to speak their opinion, and choose whether or not they want their true identity to be attached.

It frequently frustrates those with a high sense of integrity. Pipers and drummers who have the courage and conviction to put their real name to what they say in public often get into high dudgeon when they read the pointed and controversial – and often just simply muck-raking – opinions of posters using pseudonyms.

Of course, the piping and drumming world is not unique in this regard. Have you ever visited a major newspaper’s online edition? Take the New York Times, Scotsman or Evening Times, for examples. Readers are allowed to post anonymously, and even publications considered the most reputable in the world welcome dissent, agreement and everything in between, provided it’s fair comment and not slanderous or libelous.

pipes|drums takes that stance. The thinking is that it’s far better to open the discussion to all – anonymous or not – than to have no discussion, which, as the major dailies understand, is pretty much what would happen if every reader’s identity had to be verified and listed before anything was posted. Web 2.0 discussion is not like traditional letters-to-the-editor, which are closely vetted for authorship and veracity. That’s not a conversation at all, but instead just a one-time rejoinder.

The piping and drumming world is far more open today than it was 15 years ago. Results are openly debated, competition requirements are openly critiqued, the moves of associations are subject to open criticism. We discuss musical issues like never before. While a group of judges may condone a new musical approach, the players of the world may hate it, and vice versa. This lively and open dialog and debate simply did not happen before 1994.

There are still some places where they still seem to try to sweep sensitive matters and clear injustices under the rug, but that approach will eventually catch up to them when they discover their membership has turned on them, and it will be ugly.

As long as it’s not slanderous and is “fair comment” (don’t ask me to define it; I just know it when I see it), then opinions should be welcomed, whether it’s on the Internet or at an AGM. It’s understandable that we pipers and drummers are reluctant to put our names to strong or unpopular opinions. We compete in subjective competition system built on years of slow-moving musical custom and tradition. Rocking the boat may alienate those in charge (executives, board-members, judges, teachers, stewards . . .) who usually don’t like to be criticized, and who theoretically have the power to put down any uprisings they deem not in their interest. And some still do.

Fortunately, even with the preponderance of anonymous commenters on the Net, there are always the true courageous leaders with a conviction to confront the piping and drumming world’s “authorities” and its traditions and mores, unafraid of being identified. It takes integrity and guts to take on the establishment, especially one that’s so entrenched and used to being able to control the players, whether it’s through threat of disqualification, a clipboard hammering or simply creating a century of piobaireachd settings that everyone has to play just so if they want to get a prize.

That sort of abuse of power is unfortunately how the competitive piping and drumming world often operated for its first 200 or so years – until the Internet came along, giving power to everyone and anyone to espouse boat-rocking opinion without revealing their identity.

Similarly, from time to time pipes|drums is criticized for using sources who speak on condition of anonymity. This is a long-established practice still used by any credible publication. Essentially, an anonymous source enables a publication to include sensitive third-party opinion that otherwise might get someone into trouble, whether it’s with a criminal, a business, a political regime . . . or a pipe band association. Readers of The Times, to use that example again, trust the paper’s long-established credibility and integrity to report honestly. When the publication uses an anonymous source, readers have faith in the journalist’s professionalism to use that content truthfully.

pipes|drums often puts together predictions and honours. It started years ago as fun and innocuous features, but some people apparently take them extremely seriously. I guess that’s a credit to the publication’s integrity, or perhaps people are just so bored that they have nothing else to talk about. Rather than me single-mindedly choosing these things, I far prefer to stay out of them altogether. So, the approach has been to assemble panels of experts from various areas, and invite them to vote and contribute their thoughts, with assured anonymity.

I would love to announce grand panels of named experts, just as I would love everyone to put their true name to their comments on pipes|drums, and will try to convince people to agree to that when the time comes.  But, unfortunately, my feeling is that the real, subjective world of competitive piping and drumming still makes it impossible to require the inclusion of true identities and still have an honest dialog.

I’m sure some who pine for the old days would prefer no dialog at all to allowing anonymous contributors. Again, looking back at the sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality that pervaded the pre-Internet era, we are far better off to allow intelligent pipers and drummers to provide their intelligent and fair comments anonymously than to say nothing.

Judgment calls

Kill the ref!Accusations of bias run rampant throughout our particular brand of piping and drumming. The more focused on competition the piper or drummer is, the more it seems he/she thinks everyone has an agenda to promote, hidden or not.

Over the last few decades of putting together publications for pipers and drummers I have had a fair share of accusations of bias thrown at me: I’m a piper, so therefore I must not like drummers. I have played in a few bands; thus I must be promoting them. I play piobaireachd, so I’m suspected of disrespecting those who don’t. I live in North America, so therefore I must be anti-UK. I reside in Canada, therefore I’m anti-American. I live in Ontario, so some from other provinces assume they don’t get fair treatment. It’s all about Toronto . . . I have a bias against those not living in the west end of the city . . . I’m against shorter people . . .

And so it goes. I’ve dealt with the (usually anonymous) accusations by just continuing to do what my heart tells me is right, and creating the kinds of publications that I think people want to read. That’s all it ever was and ever will be. Readership keeps increasing, so I have to assume I’m doing something right.

By profession I work in public relations. I understand that, from relationships, people can do more good things. It follows that I generally approach people I know – those I’ve played in bands with, grown up with, competed against, received instruction from – to contribute articles, as long as I know them to be fair-minded and I respect their opinions and intelligence. It helps me when they express an interest in writing. Nonetheless I’m always delighted when people I don’t know contact me with an idea for an article they’d like to see or contribute, and over the years some of my favourite stuff has resulted from just such unplanned contact. (See Willie Donaldson.)

I try my hardest to be fair and objective when it comes to content on pipes|drums. I’m aware of accusations of bias, but I guarantee that I have no other agenda to promote than providing a publication that as many people as possible will enjoy. No one likes propaganda. There are times when I catch myself almost overcompensating, thinking I shouldn’t include articles that truly merit publication because a small minority of cynically competitive readers will suspect me of bias.

That was the dilemma I faced with the recent New Year’s Honours story. The overwhelming feedback from the panel was that the Spirit of Scotland – based on news value – should be named the Band of the Year, and that Roddy MacLeod – based on overall contributions to the scene – deserved to be Piper of the Year. Uh, oh, I thought. I’m in SoS, so what will people think if they’re named?

But, ultimately, I did the right thing and gave those that deserved the accolades – under the conditions of the system for determining the honours, whether that system is good or bad. In the meantime I tried to grow an extra layer of thick skin, but fully prepared to accept any fallout.

It’s the same predicament that a good judge finds him/herself in. The very worst judge is one who overcompensates and doesn’t award a prize to a deserving competitor for fear of being accused of bias. Our system is such that we truly respect only the opinions of people – judges, teachers, magazine editors, and association leaders – who have also done the business as competitors and performers, who understand the vagaries and challenges of competitive piping and drumming because they have experienced it. Those who talk a good tune have little credibility. Consequently our judges, teachers, editors will always be accused of bias by some, simply because their history as a player is known and there for cynical connections to be made.

Good judgment sometimes requires an element of self-editing, making sure that you do the truly right thing when you’re tempted to overcompensate and do wrong. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

On second thought . . . no, I don’t . . . but I will anyway.

Tuning folk

Speak with forked tongue.I haven’t read a full copy of the digest, the Piping Times, for at least a decade, but when there’s a (usually mean-spirited) bit pertaining to pipes|drums or (rarely) me personally, people are prone to alert me to it, even though I’m invariably not interested. I gather there was something pertinent recently, and a few folks took it upon themselves to make sure that I knew about it . . . many thanks . . . I guess.

Ironically, Rab Wallace, the current Editor of the monthly, in the early 1980s said to me, “If you haven’t been slagged by Seumas, you haven’t made it in piping.” He was talking about Seumas MacNeill, the co-founder of the College of Piping and editor for almost 50 years of the aforementioned digest-sized periodical. Rab didn’t come up with the axiom himself;  I remember him quoting someone else.

In 1987 I took great delight when Seumas, in his report of the Northern Meeting, wrote that I must have “the worst tuning-notes in the business.” To my relief, he didn’t comment on the tune that I played, since he was apt to save his worst slagging for that. So, I figured that I might have finally made it as a piper when the Famous Seumas simultaneously let me have it and let me off the hook. MacNeill had a sharp but always entertaining pen.

“Ouch!” one pipes|drums reader said in a message alerting me to the reprint of the 1987 comment, in what I hazard to guess was a new attempt at a taunt. In fact, it it served as a pleasant reminder of a time when everything was a new adventure. I also know that “making it” as a solo piper requires a lot more than a MacNeillian barb.

Anyway, it also reminded me that, while it should have sweet FA to do with the result, what’s played while tuning is part of the overall performance. In 1987, I didn’t put much thought into tuning phrases and the like, and simply wanted to get the instrument in tune, which more often than I’d have liked didn’t happen. When I’m on the other side of the table, it’s irritating when a piper comes up at the tail-end of a 20-plus-competitor piobaireachd event and screws at his/her drones with an eternity of gibberish notes and no apparent game-plan. It does indeed set the teeth on edge, as Seumas wrote 20 years ago, and more than a few times the performance that I remember first after an event is someone playing interminable airs and things and never actually tuning an instrument, that would probably never stay in tune anyway.   

I have learned, though, that there is usually a correlation between pleasant tuning and tuneful performances. Those who have put thought into their tune-up, almost always have put a lot more thought into their instrument and their music.

Competitive instinct

Competition wins . . .The interview I did with Donald Shaw Ramsay nearly 20 years ago is one of the most memorable – perhaps for the wrong reasons.

 The legendary former Pipe-Major of Invergordon Distillery and Edinburgh City Police pipe bands just happened to be on an August, 1989, flight from Glasgow to Toronto, and I was returning from the World’s on the same plane.

I didn’t know Ramsay, and only had seen photos of when he was a much younger man, but someone recognized him and pointed him out to me. I boldly introduced myself to the great Ramsay in the departure lounge, told that I put together a piping magazine and asked if he would be interested in passing the travel-time with an impromptu interview. I had heard that his favourite subject was DSR; thankfully, he was all for talking about himself for a few hours.

I can’t remember why I had a tape recorder with me, but I did, so we agreed to meet on the plane. He had an aisle seat in economy. A nice lady agreed to change places with me, so I sat across the aisle from him, and, in between passings of bladder-bursting passengers and trolley-pushing attendants, we chatted on tape. It was an exciting interview, and I was thrilled to get the chance to speak candidly with the famous man.

A few weeks later, once the interview was transcribed, I was in for a shock. I sent (back then, by post) the proposed final text to him, only to get back a marked-up version of which entire sections, and maybe even whole pages, were deleted. It was as if he couldn’t even remember doing the interview, and, sure enough, a year or so later I was told by someone who knew him that he claimed he didn’t realize the conversation was being recorded and that he claimed he never agreed to an interview. Bizarre.

But, back to the editing process . . . When I received his edited version I called him up to discuss it, since deleting major chunks of a lengthy article inflicts havoc on the planning of a printed magazine. Among the passages he wanted excised were hundreds of words of insightful and helpful advice to up-and-coming players and pipe-majors.

Totally confused, I asked him why he would want to remove that material. He replied with, something to the effect of, “I had to learn the hard way, so why should I make it any easier for others?”

I couldn’t believe it then, and the comment remains one of the most amazing things I’ve heard. I’ve spent almost 20 years trying to understand why, at age 65, he would not want to help others by passing on some of his knowledge.

Perhaps there were other reasons for such a strange decision, but I tend to think that it was because Ramsay, like so many pipers and drummers, was so competitive that he just couldn’t see past the feeling of possessing some insight that he wanted to keep from the competition.

I was reminded recently that the ultra competitive piping and drumming world remains just so today. I often ask the leaders of today’s top bands to share their knowledge. Thankfully, the large majority are more than pleased to do so. But still very occasionally I get a DSR-like response from those who just can’t overcome their competitive instinct, and would rather take their knowledge to the grave than share it with “the competition.”

Sniping

Hmmm, a new piping rag has arrived in the snail-mail. Let’s read the report of this competition that happened three months ago and that everyone has already discussed ad infinitum on the net, watched videos of, and has already said every conceivable thing there is to say . . .

Plonker & District – good uptake to march. Good going here. Top hands a bit iffy in reel? Don’t like the tom-tom tenor drumming. Not my cup of tea. Crap.

Lumberyard & Son – what are they thinking with that opener? Not enough cane in those drones. Squeals hurting this band. Should get new chanters and reeds. Couldn’t smell any seasoning wafting from the circle. Crap.

Bloomers of Cardenden – not as good as I’ve heard them before. Tempi not like I used to play them in 1979. Didn’t like the tartan. Did I see the pipe-major hitch up his bag? Crap.

. . . and so on. That’s a slightly exaggerated parody, but this sort of absolute dreck has been the bane of piping “journalism” forever. It goes on today, even in these supposedly more enlightened times. I said this before, but it’s worth remarking on it again. For some strange reason people think that it’s okay to crack on our very best competitors after the competition is done, as if people can’t listen to the whole thing on the net and judge for themselves. As if anyone even gives a toss what the writer thinks about the competition as a non-player / non-judge.

What’s worse is that these bitter reports are usually by people who haven’t played in a decent band for decades, or been asked to judge a decent band competition, or, I would guess, even been asked to join a decent band.

Not on pipes|drums. Ever.

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