In this age

The RSPBA recently “aged out” three of its judges. Dixie Ingram, Joe Noble and Ian Wood each reached the age of 75, so they can no longer serve on the Scottish association’s panel.

(I have no idea if any of these gentlemen wanted or thought it best to retire. They’re only this year’s examples and, by the way, to each of you, thank you for your long service to pipe bands.)

My understanding of the RSPBA’s rules about judges and age is that, once an adjudicator turns 70, he or she has met the official retirement age. But after 70 they can apply annually if they want to continue, confirming their health and continuing ability to judge. The application is considered by the association’s Adjudicators’ Panel Management Board and then approved by the Board of Directors, all young whippersnappers, I’m sure.

I don’t know how they assess. Perhaps the 70-plus judges have to show that they can walk around a large circle in allotted time period. Maybe they have one of those sound-proof beeping booths with the 1960s headphones, asking adjudicators to raise their hand when they hear various pitches and tones. (If not, please consider as part of the general accreditation exam, including a bit to recognize notes that are sharp or flat . . .)

It’s sort of like driving licenses for old folks, but far less a matter of life-and-death. One slip of the pen might bury a band, but that’s better than a four-thousand-pound automobile careening into oncoming traffic. As far as I know, after age 70 people in the UK can re-sit driving exams every three years until they can’t.

However, for RSPBA judges, officials and directors, at age 75 that’s it. No choice in the matter. Your career of standing out there, often in the horizontal rain, is over, no matter how young a 75-year-old you might be. No more cups of tea and watercress sandwiches for you. No more £75 daily fee. The powerful salad days are over, you ancient person!

Of course, there are different degrees of aging, depending on diet, exercise, financial situation and genes. You can lose hearing, of course, which would be a major detriment to judging if it can’t be adequately remedied with increasingly sophisticated in-ear aides.

You can lose mobility, making you less able to walk around a band to hear the one piper in the corner who’s blootering along. (Then again, there’s no requirement for a judge to move at all, and some able-bodied folks like to wear out one patch of grass all afternoon, some never budging from their wee hut.)

I’d be careful with the hard-and-fast age 75 deadline (as it were). People today are overall in far better shape than they were even 20 years ago. There are wildly different versions of 75. Our top pipers and drummers are successfully competing and performing longer than ever, often because their professional piping and drumming careers built on teaching and selling stuff depend on upholding their “brand,” and the best personal brand marketing in this particularly industry is playing well publicly. So they’re finding ways to keep going.

There will be more and more top exponents of the art who, like Bill Livingstone, ultimately decide to pack it in only when they’re well into their seventies, leaving just a handful of years for the world to benefit from their adjudication wisdom, even if they might be twice the physical fitness and an order of magnitude more knowledgeable and qualified than judges half their age.

The RSPBA might want to examine its ageist policy. Categorically sending still-spry judges off to the figurative glue factory is ill-advised, that is, in this day . . . and age.

 

#MeToo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Remember empathy

Why do many judges forget what it was like to be a competitor?

This came up the other day in a conversation about judging, competing, and judges. The current flap by a vocal minority about the Solo Piping Judges Association and Competing Pipers Association’s policies against teachers judging pupils and pupils playing for teachers, respectively, in the face of the fact that almost 80 percent of pipers and drummers appear to feel that teachers should not judge their students, re-raises the centuries-old debate that we thought was finally put to rest several years ago.

  • Is there a competitor out there who feels equally good about winning a prize whether their teacher is or isn’t judging?
  • Is there a competitor out there who, when a fellow competitor wins a prize when their teacher is on the bench (whether comprising one or several adjudicators), has zero disdain?
  • In the history of piping and drumming, has there ever been a competitor who was 100% okay with those situations?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, I encourage you to comment, so that I can understand your rationale.

Considering that all credible judges were once competitors, how can it be that some of them suddenly forget what it was like to compete? They seem to forget that they once swore oaths under their breath, ground their teeth, or at least rolled their eyes when their fellow competitor got a prize with their teacher judging, or didn’t sheepishly dread collecting an award given out when their tutor was on the pen.

The forgetfulness extends to other annoying judging behavior, like distracting a competitor with tapping feet and excessive writing, sarcastic or overly negative comments on scoresheets, or otherwise putting a player on edge before or during their performance.

Perhaps it’s learned. As much as they dislike it, competitors see teachers judging pupils, so they think it’s okay to serve their own interests when they have the opportunity to “give back” and judge. Some players distracted by judges think it’s their turn to get their own back when they join the bench. They give as good as they got. It’s an unfortunate cycle perpetuated by a few – unless guidance, policies, and rules are finally offered and implemented to break the generational pattern of entrenched tradition.

There is a fundamental truth so often forgotten: just like associations, adjudicators are there to serve not themselves, but the competitors. A judge’s experience as a competitor should inform his or her behaviour as a judge. Remembering what it was like to be a competitor – recognizing the constant significant problems and minor pet-peeves that accompanied their competition experience – is essential to being an excellent adjudicator.

Is there an age that I haven’t reached when pipers and drummers forget what it was like to be a competitor and they look out for only their self-interests? Does some sort of amnesia set in at 55? 60? 70? If there is, please let me know and I will try to remember to give my head a shake when the time comes.

Adjudicators are there to serve the competitors. They render and account for their decisions based on their knowledge, experience and adherence to policies and rules. Those policies and rules are and should be informed by the collective interests of the competitors, not the judges. If almost 80 percent of competitors agree that teachers should not judge students, then that is their will, and it should be respected. Adjudicators should never forget where they came from and what they went through to get where they are.

Among an excellent judge’s skills is empathy.

 

River crossing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more catchy tune.

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

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

 

Touch blackwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What judges want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Browbeating retreat

Why are you out to get us? You seem to have it in for me. Why are you so unfair? You’re biased!

Watching the new US President going at the American intelligence agencies, the media and pretty much anyone or anything that he doesn’t agree with reminded me of how a few rare pipers, drummers and bands, almost always in the upper grades, can sometimes treat judges.

At least one of the President’s objectives in accusing people and things of being “unfair” or “biased” is clear: he wants them to doubt themselves and, he hopes, overcompensate the next time by giving him a more favourable decision or story.

Accusing journalists of under-reporting terrorism is designed to stoke fear by having media go out, research what they’ve reported, and publish a long list of terrorism coverage, thus achieving the objective of highlighting a long list of big and small terrorist acts, scaring the bejeezuz out of people. Mission accomplished.

As a piping and pipe band judge I have been accused a few times over the last 15-odd years of judging by paranoid bands (and the rare soloist) of being somehow biased against them. I can remember a few frustrated competitors – almost always competing in the top grades – casually or even confrontationally accusing me of not treating his/her band fairly. “Why are you out to get us?” “Why are you so unfair?” “You’re biased!” “Why don’t you like us?” “What do we have to do to get a prize off of you?”

After the initial, WTF moment passes, I ask them to provide examples. Generally, they won’t or can’t. When they do point to a performance in which they think they were hard done, I ask them to refer to the scoresheet as an account of my decisions. It might also be a simple response: “Next time, play better than the others.” When I ask if they listened to the whole contest, invariably the answer is no.

To be sure, there are a few genuinely corrupt judges in the piping and drumming world, but, as I’ve said many times, I don’t care who wins or gets a prize as long as it’s fair and deserved. I’ve never asked to judge anything and never will.

But a few veteran pipers and drummers will take this passive-aggressive or confrontational strategy with an objective to have you doubt yourself or want to make amends, so that next time you might bum them up a bit to get them off your back and prove that you’re not against them. It’s a psychological game. Some perhaps sociopathic competitors have even made a career out of it. Why? It tends to get results with weak judges who, in actuality, doubt their ability to get the result right and account for it convincingly with credibility.

And then there are judges whose top priority is maintaining friendships through judging. Getting the result correct is secondary. They’ll throw an undeserving player or band a prize just to keep up appearances, keep friendships, get judging gigs. I guarantee that this happens. It drove me crazy as a competitor and it drives me crazy as a judge. The judge overcompensates and next time out put that whinging competitor up a few places so that they remain friends while at the same time shutting their yap for a season.

The browbeating competitor tries to suss out the less-confident or more pliable judges, and will be relentless in their accusatory lobbying. Why? Because it apparently works in our little world where some judges are less afraid of losing respect than “friends.”

Obviously there is little comparison between the level of bullying and intimidation that goes on in federal politics and our little piping and drumming world. The point is that, sadly, browbeating can get results. It’s up to the objective and confident judges among us to respond to these sorts of tactics with confidence and integrity, continuing to do the right thing going forward.

 

The next big thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Trumped up

So music acts and politicians are boycotting the Donald Trump inauguration. I admire them for standing firm on their political beliefs, and can understand why musicians might feel that performing at an event could be seen to support the new regime, which might be bad for their image and alienate the majority of their fan-base.

The non-competing Washington DC Fire Department Emerald Society Pipes & Drums and others were invited to perform at in the parade on January 20th, and apparently gladly accepted. Some pipers and drummers have criticized and even insulted these bands for their decision to participate.

The hoo-ha reminded me of course of pipe band competitions – specifically, prize-giving ceremonies.

Anyone who’s competed long enough has been in or encountered a band that gets in high dudgeon about results and threatens to boycott an event or a judge or something that they feel strongly about. For people who routinely welcome criticism about the music we passionately make, we’re an awfy thin-skinned lot. Some of the seemingly toughest talkers and most seasoned players can dish it out, but have a tissue-paper epidermis.

I remember several instances in my own playing career when a result came out at the massed bands or march-past and the band (or, more accurately, some members of it) that I was in stomped off the field in knee-jerk protest. I recall many times when prominent solo and band players confronted specific judges about results, including a few ugly incidents. I can recall a few instances when emotion and disappointment got the better of me, and I took up a result with a judge. Not my finest moments, and each time I later apologized for my crime of heat-stroked passion.

I recall playing with a band in Scotland in the 1980s at a small contest for colliery bands when we got on our high horse because a judge closely associated with one of the other bands entered was on the pen. Our plan was to get all tuned-up and sounding great, play to the line, and then fall out in protest. Well, word got out about our crafty “We’ll show them!” plan, we were threatened with suspension by the RSPBA well before we even had the pipes out, so we buckled, played the event, and the judge in question of course made sure the other band won. We drowned our sorrows and humiliation in the pub.

The truth is, like a democratic election, when we decide to compete we should accept the result – provided, of course that it was fairly run. We know who the judges are and, while we might not always agree with them, if we agree to play for them, we should accept whatever they mete out.

Stomping off a field simply because you don’t like the result is childish. You agreed to enter and perform in the contest, so walking off in protest might seem like the passionately acceptable thing to do at the time, but it’s not.

On the other hand, if a competitor feels strongly that a result was unfair, or a judge’s results are corrupt and not simply disagreeable, I admire bands and soloists who take a stand by working to address the problem with their association. If that doesn’t work, I have a lot of time for competitors who vote with their feet and refuse to participate in events that they feel will have an illegitimate result.

But it’s not always that easy and, in fact, such civil disobedience is rare in our game, mainly because – weirdly – as in the example above, associations invariably side with their judges, rather than their members. The repercussions that come with taking a principled stand can be great, even bullying, and certainly frustrating, at times to the point of competitors talking about “starting a new association.”

If you have a problem with a competition, don’t play in it, build a case, and work with your association to correct the problem. Don’t spit the dummy after you competed and, certainly, don’t begrudge your fellow pipers and drummers for their decision to participate.

 

Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Oldies

The music you liked when you were younger is the music you will prefer for the rest of your life. That’s an oversimplification, and there are exceptions, but, by and large it’s true of most people.

And so, too, with pipe band judges.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by the lamentably slow pace of change in pipe band competition music and style, look no further than the relatively inflexible and stubborn judge. Just as that 50-plus-year-old guy or gal on the pen goes home after the contest, opens a can of Tartan Special and puts on that LP of Cliff Richard from 1980, they’re having a hard time getting their ears around your band’s “crazy” medley.

If they hear the latest song by Drake or The Weeknd they instantly flip the radio station (not streaming, of course) and tut-tut, “That’s nae music.” It’s a knee-jerk response, and to them there are no two ways about it. “Big Country! Now that was a band!” It is a truism of every generation: what was cool growing up carries forward as their definition of likable or acceptable music later in life.

Again, I generalize. There are exceptions. I have encountered a small number of judges my age or older who relish new music – both pop and pipe band. They have open and tolerant ears, and enjoy the surprise and delight of hearing new stuff. Sure, like me they still like the familiar music of their formative years, but they move on and treat every new song or tune as yet another fun possibility. Invariably, these people get bored quickly. They embrace change, optimistically considering it as continual improvement rather pessimistically seeing the threat of messing with a good thing. Leave well enough alone.

I like to count myself among the easily bored and change-welcoming. At age 53 I listen to new music all day as part of my job, but I have always loved hearing new music and discovering new artists. I get bored with piping when I hear or play the same things over and over and over again. Without question, I understand the competition conceit of playing familiar music flawlessly, and that can be intriguing and interesting. Striving for perfection in competition can salvage 10,000 maniacal airings of “Blair Drummond.” But, regarding the content itself, I would far prefer to hear the new than the old.

It seems to me that we need more judges with such a mindset. Perhaps pipe band accreditation exams should include a tolerance test of the unfamiliar. Not necessarily measure how much a prospective judge likes new music; just how much he or she  will  tolerate it. An intolerant judge is a bad judge, so test how open-minded they are. Hell, ask them to name a few of their favourite musicians or non-pipe bands. If they respond only with things like “The Beatles” or “The Stones” or “The Who” – great though they each might be – maybe they’re better to go rust away elsewhere than inflict their intransigence on us.

Mainly because of the judging, our art evolves more slowly than a lead zeppelin. Pipe bands want to win so they err on the side of caution, terrified that intractable adjudicators will put “new” music in its place as self-appointed gatekeepers of the craft and preservationists of an art and era that they grew up with.

If we’re going to move things forward, let’s make sure that our judges are musically open-eared and tolerant. It’s the right thing to do.

 …new…

Counter-attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are judges turning a deaf ear to crappy attacks?

 

Fall out

David Murray’s reported (but as it turned out, incorrect) passing got me thinking again about the military and piping. Looking back, I believe Murray is the last of the pure military men who had a major influence on the judging of piping competitions.

This is no slight against great pipers like Gavin Stoddart, Brian Donaldson, Gordon Walker, Niall Matheson, Stuart Sampson, Michael Gray and others who combined a decorated military career with piping. Long after retiring from the military, they remain terrific contributors to the art, and there will continue to be great pipers who also serve in the military.

But Lieutenant-Colonel David Murray isI think the last of a long era when big piping competitions and military events were confused and even conflated. The Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering until the 2000s routinely saw competitors currently serving in the military, actually on-duty at these events or even around the Scottish games. In some cases, such as with Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald and Major Gavin Stoddart in the 1970s and 1980s, soldier-pipers were ordered to compete, to go out and win medals to make the Scots Guards or Royal Scots or other Scottish regiment look good.

On-duty military competitors were commonplace and part of Scotland’s solo piping tradition for at least a hundred years. It was just the way things were. But as solo piping moved from being largely connected with the military, to being a thing mainly for civilians, the glorious sight of soldiers competing in the immaculate uniform of their regiment dwindled.

And the judges were almost all men who had served with the military, often as commissioned officers, such as David Murray. The UK practiced military conscription until the late 1950s, when the required two-year “National Service” began to be phased out. Anyone born after 1939 did not have to do their stint, and 1960 was the last year for the demobilization of National Service, or “De-Mob.” In fact, if my calculations are right, Iain MacLellan and Andrew Wright are the very last of the great pipers (and now judges) who went through National Service.

So, at solo competitions throughout the UK, judges on the benches very often did their service or were commissioned officers with a Scottish regiment. There would be a lot of talk with the competitors that so-and-so was with the Camerons or Scots Guards or Dragoon Guards or Seaforths, so anyone with [insert regiment here] might be listened to with a different ear – and not necessarily to their advantage. An officer judging a soldier when he knows the competitor is there to do well for his regiment? It’s a bit like the pipe-major judging his own pipe band and those competing against it.

The infamous “ordering off” in 1991 of the late and truly great Corporal Alasdair Gillies, Queen’s Own Highlanders, by (retired) Lieutenant-Colonel David Murray, Queens’ Own Cameron Highlanders, was a bizarre conflation of events. Was this a military exercise or a civilian solo competition? Was Gillies on duty? Did Murray have the right to order him or any competitor off stage? What might have happened if Alasdair were to have given Murray a two-fingered salute and carried on with his tune?

Alasdair being commanded to stand down in the middle of the Gold Medal competition has gone down in history as a permanent part of piping lore. In truth, this kind of confusion routinely happened in smaller ways. Military men who were competing were on some sort of different plane than the rest of us and, if anyone bothered to stop to think about it, someone might or should have called BS on the whole exercise. But, like so much in piping and drumming, it was just the way it was, and you’d better not ask questions if you want to get the benefit of the doubt, which is so crucial in contests that come down to slicing hairs.

At any rate, Lieutenant-Colonel D.J.S. Murray’s death this to me marks the end of a hundred-odd years at least, when civilian piping competitions and military events were confused. It’s for the better that we’ve moved on, but I will still miss the charm and pageantry of immaculately decked-out pipers strutting their stuff before their military superiors, providing a fascinating extra dimension to these events, holdovers from a bygone era.

 

Both ways

The current shemozzle between City of Whitehorse and the Pipe Bands Australia is another example of pipers, drummers, judges and associations wanting and even demanding to have things both ways.

Pipers and drummers have always grumbled about judges and results, and they always will. Except for rare examples of public outbursts, pipers and drummers and pipe bands for about 100 years kept their cranky verbal complaints within the band hall or the beer tent.

Then, along came the Internet. Now competitors could post comments and photos on public platforms. Wretched cesspools like the Delphi Forum or alt.music.makers.bagpipes were early places for libellous rants, almost always under pseudonyms. When Facebook and Twitter came about, they enabled players to publish photos and welcomed unmoderated and unfiltered comments.

(pipes|drums and this blog provide a platform for comments but, unlike Facebook and Twitter, comments are moderated. Regardless of whether the identity of the commenter is known or not, libellous or ad hominem comments can be edited or outright rejected before they appear. But probably 99% of comments submitted have been deemed fair, so they are published.)

“Free speech” is generally protected in western societies. People can say whatever they please (with the exception of hate speech, physical threats, things that might cause public harm, or the like), and the temptation to publicly criticize judges and their decisions on social media is great. There is a notion that there are “private” sections of Facebook, so postings on such areas are exempt from being considered “public.”

But that’s no different from thinking that a printed pamphlet in the 1950s exclusively for members of a group is “private” and thus exempt from the laws of libel. It’s fanciful to think that any part of the Internet is truly private, and it simply would not hold up as an excuse if libellous material is posted, even if the true intention is for these comments to be private. It is still public dissemination.

Pipe band adjudicators are routinely paid to teach workshops for bands that they have judged or will adjudicate. There are no rules against this, and it’s something of a tradition. There are bands that regularly have judges who assess them at the World Championships as paid instructors or outright guests on long expensive trips, even if a judge’s resume as a player or teacher is paltry. Everyone is aware of this game that some bands and associations play. It is perfectly within rules and policies, and the rationale goes that the best judges are also the best teachers, so therefore they should be permitted to teach and judge bands.

There are also adjudicators who have no compunction wearing merchandise, uniform parts, or even complete uniforms of bands that they judge. Pipe band judges must have played with top bands at some point. Amazingly, some haven’t even invested in a kilt other than the band they used to play with, the same band they might assess on the weekend. The judge might well have left the band on bad terms, but the immediate appearance is that there is some sort of bias.

Again, there are no rules against this. But whether teaching bands or wearing their gear, the optics are terrible. A judge is inviting criticism and contempt by being so tone deaf or provocative (or both) as to be publicly appearing to endorse one band over another. A judge’s decision-making might be as pure as Roddy MacLeod’s high-A, but going around wearing, say, a t-shirt of a band that they judge will inevitably tarnish their reputation in the eyes of some people or bands that they adjudicate.

The solo piping world is a little more advanced than the band world. Judges and competitors in major solo circuits like those in Scotland and Ontario are requested to divulge who their students/teachers are. Judges are asked to refrain from judging pupils, and vice-versa. It’s not always upheld, but at least there is an attempt to control the optics of bias, and entrust judges and competitors to police themselves. When pupils receive prizes from their teachers, even if they are well deserved, those who are aware of the relationship tend not to take the result seriously. A teacher-judge will often try to excuse it away by saying, “Well, I’m harder on my pupils when I judge them,” as if that self-correction is any fairer than being biased in favour of their student. Either way, it’s terribly unfair to the competitor and denigrates the result.

As always, the perception of bias is as bad as bias itself.

Pipers, drummers, judges and associations often want it both ways. Many competitors want to be able to criticize adjudicators “privately,” and can’t understand when an association or judge takes umbrage when they find out when things went public. They then more often than not try to explain it away when they are caught.

And many judges want it both ways. They want to be paid for workshops for bands that they adjudicate, and they get in high-dudgeon when other bands perceive them to be biased. Judges wear ties and ball caps and even kilts of bands that they judge, then protest greatly when competitors dare to insinuate that there’s something amiss. Some judges seem to think that it’s unfair that their results and decision-making are discussed publicly. Sorry, but when you sign up to judge, you agree to put yourself out there. You can’t have it both ways.

And associations are seen to be looking out for the interests of their elected and appointed officials and judges, rather than the pipers and drummers who comprise their membership. Associations often appear to take a default stance that “their” people are exempt from criticism, so dissension inevitably arises within the membership – the very people an association is supposed to represent.

Associations can greatly help themselves by putting policies and conduct codes in place that strongly advise judges not to 1) judge competitors that they teach, and 2) be seen to prefer one band over another by wearing their uniform parts or merchandise.

Judges can greatly help themselves by picking one or the other: if they want to judge, they’ll have to give up accepting paid workshops for the bands that they adjudicate, or, if they continue to teach bands they should recuse themselves from judging that band for at least a year. And judges should choose to wear things that don’t blatantly appear to endorse a particular band. If they insist on doing those things, they’d better strap on their asbestos kilt because they will be flamed in band halls, in beer tents and, of course, on the Internet.

Competitors can help themselves by using common sense. Judges judge. They make judgement calls. Ultimately, after a contest only one competitor will be truly happy with a judge’s decision. A strong majority of adjudicators are simply doing their unbiased best, and judging is a lonely, thankless task. Contestants should default to the side of accepting and learning from results and moving on. If there is a real reason with accompanying evidence to be concerned about an adjudicator’s perceived bias (as in the behaviours above), then competitors should use official channels to file a confidential complaint. There are processes in place. That’s what an association is for. If members are worried about repercussions on the contest field when they raise a real concern, then they should work to change their elected leaders.

Pipers and drummers and bands are the associations, not the judges and administrators. Associations represent the competitors first and foremost, and if there is just cause for concern – such as a breach of a rule, policy or code of conduct – then the matter should be heard accordingly and in confidence. If the judge is an administrator or executive within the organization then, again, the adjudicator should recuse him/herself from the investigation.

Too often we want things both ways, expecting to be pleased both ways. This is impossible. Impasses occur, and we get away from what we’re all supposed to be doing: having fun in an equitable, fair and collegial atmosphere.

And that is the only way to want it.

 

Setting free

Maybe it’s time to change completely how competitors, judges and planners approach piobaireachd competitions.

A hundred-thirteen years ago the Piobaireachd Society was formed. Before 1903 the music was scattered around in multiple settings by various visionaries and pioneers. The publications were expensive. They were hard to get. There was no such thing as a photocopier, much less an Internet, so, if the art was going to be judged and “promoted,” it made certain sense to create standard versions of the music.

Right or wrong, the Piobaireachd Society (or maybe more accurately Archibald Campbell and his allies) attempted to come up with agreeable single settings of tunes, releasing every few years a new edition of its Collection. The music contained notes about alternative settings, which we can read today, but very few pipers dared to play those alternatives in competition.

The Piobaireachd Society promoted, or certainly encouraged, adherence to their settings – and thus promoted the sale of those printed books – in the major competitions. The judges expected them. If you played anything else, the judges would almost certainly chuck you out. You might not get even a listen.

It didn’t help that many, if not the strong majority, of the judges were aristocrats – “society” folk who couldn’t play their way into a juvenile band, never mind out of one.

In essence, the onus was on the competitors to prepare pretty much what the judges expected. There was no expectation that judges should be prepared with anything but the PS Collection or the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor.

In about 1994 a thing called the Internet hit the piping world, and in 2000 a thing called the Set Tunes Series broke new piobaireachd ground. The piobaireachd scholar and nine-years pupil of Robert Nicol Dr. William Donaldson approached pipes|drums with an idea.

He recognized that here was a far-reaching online publication available for free to all who wanted to read it. The Internet presented a readily available platform for all these piobaireachd manuscripts that heretofore were only available to those rare few lucky enough to possess the printed books, or who might live near the National Library of Scotland.

And these old collections are in the public domain. That is, there are no restrictions as to reprinting them in digital form. As genius ideas are prone to be, it was obvious.

So each year Donaldson and pipes|drums worked to put together the Set Tunes Series. His thoughtful analysis considered all known published settings of each tune set each year for the major gatherings. Suddenly, it was all there at a keystroke. Pipers had access to all settings. They could easily pick and learn. There was no real need to adhere to the standardized Piobaireachd Society setting just because it was the one most readily

Now, 16 years after pipes|drums and Willie Donaldson recognize the opportunity and actually made it happen, the Piobaireachd Society itself and things like Steve Scaif’s digital republishing of the old piobaireachd collections provide an online library of these public domain collections.

Judges, players and contest organizers have access to all of it, for free. Not only that, but today’s piobaireachd judges are vastly more musically sophisticated than the non-playing toffs who once lorded their ignorance over musical geniuses who needed a standard setting of a tune in order to determine who best stayed on the prescribed track.

The onus has just about shifted away from expecting competitors to adhere to a single printed setting, to the judges, who can today be reasonably expected to come prepared with all of the settingsof piobaireachds on their iPad. Whatever the competitor throws at them, they can be ready with the score.

Is the very notion of the Piobaireachd Society encouraging pipers to play settings from their Collection severely outdated? Is it time instead simply to come up with a list of tunes, and supply the names of and links to the collections where settings can be found?

Competitors can then learn whatever setting they want without fear. Judges with their iPads loaded with all of the public domain collections can be well prepared to assess the musical rendition put forward, bringing the contests in many ways back to the thriving, musical cornucopia that they probably were before 1903.

It’s all there to take in. We are no longer encumbered by inaccessible collections. We have knowledgeable, enlightened and tech-savvy judges well capable of accepting and interpreting renditions that have been tamped down – largely by necessity – for more than 110 years.

Is it time to simply stop this boring business of seeing who can ape the exact same notes and style and phrasing of the other guy?

Time to set the settings free.

 

Proudly independent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corruption of any sort should be exposed.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Games guide

More often than not, Highland games and contests put on by non-piping/drumming groups have little or no idea as to how to run the events to achieve the best experience for competitors. Some contests of course get the oversight of associations.

Those that work with the RSPBA and PPBSO, at least, secure a turnkey solution, in which everything from entries to stewards to judges is run by the association, and standards are adhered to. While variety is sacrificed, there is something to be said for event-to-event continuity.

But around the world, the majority Highland games have the ability to create their own versions of contests, handle entries and hire judges. For them, here’s a well-intentioned checklist from a competitor’s perspective.

Map out space for events, and then extend by another 50%. Our instruments are loud. Competitors need room to hear themselves. Judges need room to hear competitors. Do whatever it takes to ensure that there is as little “bleed” of sound between events as possible. And never have a huge unused and off limits area adjacent to a competing and tuning space where pipers and drummers are bumping into each other. It makes us mad.

Keep out the interlopers. Do your best to keep out stray animals, children and oblivious others by roping off competition areas. Nothing fancy. Just a few stakes and some  rope will remind the punters not to wander into our space. Actual platforms for players are an authentically Scottish touch.

Account for tuning. The best competitions usually have the ample space for tuning. Pipe bands need an hour to prepare before they compete. Every solo competitor needs at least 20 minutes. It’s an assembly line process, and most pipers, drummers and bands know the drill. But they need space far enough removed from events and fellow competitors to get ready by listening to their instruments, not fighting for the lone tree.

Good stewards = efficiency. Competitors love a contest that runs smoothly. They expect an order-of-play that actually runs in order. Stewards can keep things moving while still using common sense. Upper grades pretty much run themselves due to experienced players, but it’s vital that stewards are trained and prepped for their role. Standing there waiting for amateur contestants to magically show up when their turn to play comes is a fantasy.

Shade and shelter. Venues with trees are almost always more popular with players. Shade on sunny days is a precious commodity for pipers and drummers wearing 10 pounds of thick wool, working to keep a fickle instrument in tune. Roasting on a wide open field will reduce the next year’s entry. Rain is tough to work with, but an indoor contingency plan for competitors, who often travel hundreds of miles to attend your event, is ideal. Rather than have them suffer through heaving rain to complete a massed band that no one is watching, bite the bullet and cancel it. And never, ever keep travel money from bands if they miss a massed bands finale because of weather that threatens their safety or health.

Don’t chintz on medals. I understand that purchasing dozens of amateur medals is a hassle, but it doesn’t need to be. Today there are myriad manufacturers that can design and create custom, quality medals at a fraction of what it used to cost. You just need to budget and plan a little more in advance. Putting thought into medals means you’re being thoughtful with pipers and drummers. They will take note.

Shake up the judging. It might be easier for you simply to hire the same judges every year, but competitors dislike this intensely. They want variety in the form of opinions. If at the end of your event a judge gets out his/her datebook and pressures you to hire him/her next year because his/her calendar “fills up fast,” don’t do it. Work to get other judges and the pipers, drummers and bands will appreciate it.

Say thanks. It’s simple, and pipers and drummers should thank you, but you saying thanks to us goes a long way towards returning next year.

In sum, if you please the competitors by addressing the above, you will have more and better competitors who enter, and that will elevate the stature of your event and gain more respect from the piping and drumming community.

More respect, more entries, bigger gate receipts, more success for everyone.

You might have additional recommendations, from a competitor’s perspective for competition organizers, so feel free to share them.

 

No middleman

One of the worst traditions in solo piping (and occasionally solo drumming) is the idea of a “senior” or more esteemed middle judge on a bench of three.

Many will know what I’m talking about, but in case you don’t it goes like this: the judge who sits in the middle is often deemed to be loftier or more important. It’s often predicated on age or experience, but it can also be by having won bigger prizes in competition or being seen to know more than the others.

Sometimes it’s none of that and one judge simply has a massive ego that the other two can’t be bothered battling over.

Whatever it is, the practice should be stopped.

Why? Because it tends to put a false sense of importance or priority into the minds of the competitors and judges, and that should never be true. Every judge has an equal say, so has equal importance, and the perception of a “senior” judge communicates the wrong thing.

I’m not easily intimidated, but I cannot remember judging on a solo bench of three when I felt that all three weren’t equal, and have been fortunate to work with folks whose egos don’t get the best of themselves, much less try to throw around their “senior” weight. I have been on benches (none recently) when I and/or another judge have, attempting to be polite and respectful, offered the middle spot to the older fellow. I have served on benches when that gesture of politeness has been declined, and my esteem for those people rose even higher. Sometimes placement of judges is pure happenstance.

The last two times I served as a judge for the George Sherriff Amateur Invitational something excellent happened: there were three events, so we swapped places for each, one of us taking a turn in the middle. It helped to communicate to all that no one judge’s opinion counted any more or less than another’s.

I’m not sure how the tradition started, but I would guess that it’s another holdover from the age of “society” folks like “Kilberry” or “Rothiemurchus” lording their opinions as near-non-players over accomplished competing pipers whose playing ability they could only dream of matching. It was probably the guy with the most money or titles or letters or land who got the position of “authority” in the middle. The richer they were, the more power they had, even when they couldn’t tell a darado from their own flatulence.

We’re so past that sort of thinking today it’s not funny. All competitors are considered equals before, during and after an event, and the judges should be equals, too. Yes, on an odd-numbered bench someone has to be in the middle, but it’s time to stop assuming that that person is “senior.”

The new rule to follow for benches: alphabetical by last name, left-to-right as the competitors face them.

Done.

 

Memories

I was reminded to remember a topic I’d forgotten to write about: memory. Specifically, the unwritten rule or tradition that pipers and drummers must memorize music.

As far as I know, there is no specific rule with any association that competitors must play from memory. But I often wondered what might happen if I walked up at some piobaireachd competition, plopped down a music stand with the score of the tune, and proceeded to play from it.

Would I be disqualified? I don’t think so, since there’s no rule that says it’s not allowed, let alone that I could by rights be DQed. Would the judge mark me down for reading from music? Again, no rule so that’s questionable. But anyone who would try it no doubt wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

There were times in my solo competing piping life when I’d have 15 piobaireachds on the go, most of which were tunes that were set for competitions that I would never have learned otherwise, mainly because I thought they sucked. Every piper who’s had to learn four or six or eight tunes from a list in which maybe three are truly attractive compositions knows what I’m talking about.

It’s a particular battle of will to memorize music you don’t like when practice time is short and the memorable melody is scant. You have to will yourself on, tricking your mind into memorizing the notes and phrases that come next, using mental cues – a bit like schoolkids making up acronymical sentences to help memorize obscure facts that will be on the test, e.g., A-B-D-B, A-D-B-B – “Anyone But Donald Ban, Agony Donald Ban Ban.” I’ve played tuneless tunes at Inverness or Oban that I would have a hard time today telling you how they start. (Ahemsobieskissalute.)

I admit that there was the rare time when I had a piobaireachd picked where my memory was a bit sketchy. It would be one of those dreadful obscure tuneless tunes that the judge also didn’t know well, so he’d be watching the score closely with his head down, which was a perfect opportunity to take an upside-down peek at the manuscript on the table.

There. I said it. Was that cheating? Not by the rules as they are written, so I still sleep well.

I noticed in a few photos of the recent Live In Ireland In Scotland concert that the snare drummers had the manuscripts to the scores in front of them. At last, I thought, common sense prevails, and good for them for putting the audience and the show before, in this case, a rather useless tradition of being expected to memorize music. It’s a mountain of material for musicians to squeeze in among their own band’s stuff, so of course play from the scores. I’m surprised the pipers didn’t as well.

I’ve poked around the rules of other music events. The International Tchaikovsky Competitions require material to be played from memory. But I couldn’t find many or any other examples. Even Drum Corps International, as far as I can see, expects memorized performances, but there doesn’t seem to be a rule. “The memorization of music is usually a matter of pride for the marching band, however bands that regularly pull from expansive libraries and perform dozens of new works each season are more likely to utilize flip folders,” according to a the Wikipedia entry for marching bands.

As pipe band music becomes increasingly complex, and the demands on top solo pipers rise, the tacit expectation that all music will be played from memory comes into question. Is it necessary? Will the performance improve when the score is there for reference? The old reliable memory lapse as a means to knock out a competitor might go away, thus making the judge’s task harder, but so what?

If I remember correctly, it’s more about the music and less about the memory.

 

Covered classics

I like k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” the best. There’s Jeff Buckley’s, and I recently heard a great rendition by Francesco Yates, and of course there’s Leonard Cohen’s original, but, for me, it’s got to be k.d.

To riff on U2, it’s even better than the real thing.

The upcoming “Live In Ireland 87 In Scotland” concert got me thinking about the pipe band habit of being original, at least when it comes to medleys and concert material. Pipe bands of course play the same 2/4 marches, strathspeys and reels for set events as a matter of course, but have pipe bands ever – in competition or not – “covered” another pipe band’s work? I can’t think of an instance.

Sure, bands will take single tunes introduced by other bands and put their own spin on them, at least with a new percussion score, but entire medleys or suites first brought out by another pipe band? Never.

Even the reunion of players and some extra-special friends from the 1987 78th Fraser Highlanders’ concert in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, won’t be truly covering material, since you can’t cover music that you came out with originally.

But, it seems to me, it’s high time that pipe bands started to break down that unwritten rule that they can’t play creative material done by other bands. I would think it’s the next big step or trend for pipe bands: make a classic medley of the past new and exciting once again with a new arrangement with different harmonies, bridges, even subtle time signature and tempo tweaks to celebrate it again by, to use the American Idol cliché, “make it their own.”

To revisit the jazz composer Don Thompson’s “Journey To Skye” by the same group that did it first is fine, but I’d love to hear, say, Inveraray & District make it perhaps even better, with different harmonies and tempos, with a modern bass section arrangement. Or how about the medley that Victoria Police used to win the 1998 World’s updated and reinterpreted by, say, St. Laurence O’Toole? Or a 1980s Vale of Atholl concert suite done by Field Marshal Montgomery? Or go way back and take a selection from the 1960s Invergordon Distillery (“Old Woman’s Lullaby,” anyone?) and give it a modern makeover.

Or could a Grade 3 band of today take on the “Detroit Highlanders” Strathclyde Police medley of the 1980s? Why not? It’s excellent fundamental music that is eminently within the grasp of many modern mid-grade bands. It’s not sacred and untouchable; it’s music that deserves to be appreciated again in a new way.

I have heard people wonder often why some pipe band suite or other isn’t heard again. “If ‘The Megantic Outlaw’ was any good, then why do we never hear it today?” is a thought I’ve listened to not a few times. Whatever your personal opinion of that or any other piece of music associated closely with a particular pipe band, the reason their music isn’t heard again is simple: there’s an unwritten code that pipe bands don’t do that, that they always have to be 100 per cent original.

To be sure, it’s fun and challenging for a pipe band to create whole new medleys, but it doesn’t have to always be this way. There’s tons of room to be original with existing content, to resurrect well-kent classics, to make them your own.

In fact, if I were a band hoping to be noticed, or step up in the ranks, I would take a cue from budding pop stars. More often than not, they get noticed by doing a great cover of a well-known song. They eliminate the burden of having to rise up with their own material, knowing that songwriting can come, after they are discovered via their covers. Originality can come in many forms.

k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” does not diminish Leonard Cohen’s song one iota. She celebrates and honours it, just as Jeff Buckley did, putting a personal and fresh complexion on it, bringing it to another generation, and Francesco Yates does it again.

It’s all good, and it’s all possibly even better.

 

Blurred lines

What shouldn’t judges write on a scoresheet? It’s a more complex question than it sounds.

Adjudicators are encouraged to provide constructive criticism regarding the performance, the key word being “constructive.” We know that comments that are designed to do nothing more than be hurtful are destructive and are probably a result of deep-rooted self-loathing on the judge’s part. We all agree that those comments shouldn’t be written.

But what about the “regarding the performance” aspect of the unwritten code of comments? Should judges provide comments that aren’t about the performance, however well-intentioned they might be?

I say no.

No matter how well-intentioned comments like “Tip: don’t tune for so long,” or “Get your kilts pressed!” might be, a scoresheet is not the place for advice that does not relate directly to the performance being assessed. By writing peripheral advice on the sheet, the message is that rumpled kilts or lengthy tuning had an impact on the decision, and one thing is very clear in our game: the performance and only the performance matters in the result rendered by the judge.

I recently saw a piping scoresheet from the legendary J.K. McAllister for a Grade 1 band competing at the World’s in the 1980s. On this piping scoresheet he wrote mocking comments about the tenor drumming: “Where are the Indians?” sarcastically communicating that he did not like the percussion. At the end of the sheet he wrote something to the effect that his sarky comment in no way impacted his piping decision.

Perhaps that’s true, but that he wrote such a hurtful and unconstructive (never mind his apparent racial insensitivity) remark immediately makes everyone in the band think that, yes, the drumming did indeed impact his decision, and that’s wholly inappropriate. Forty years later it still suggests that.

The band would have been well within its rights to lodge a formal complaint about McAllister. Muirhead & Sons was the only band to take action against Jock the Lum, starting a petition of Grade 1 bands to have him removed, but found itself suspended for several months, reinstated only after submitting a snivelling letter of apology. Muirheads was then — coincidentally, I’m sure — consistently put down by McAllister. So complainers thought twice thereafter.

As much as it might irritate me personally when a piper tunes to D or plays three slow airs or a band looks slovenly or whatever, these things almost always have no bearing on the way they played, and thus on my decision. But if a piper’s instrument went out of tune, then I have been known to suggest that he/she might have used another minute to tune, if that might have helped the performance. If a band’s untucked shirts got in the way of players’ hands, resulting in mistakes, then a comment about untucked shirts is relevant. If obtrusive drumming caused confusion in the pipe section, then comment away.

If a contestant wants friendly advice, I’m happy to provide it, but only if they ask. Otherwise you’re circumventing the piper or drummer’s teacher, and that is rarely if ever appropriate. Some might think this opinion is a bit pedantic, but it’s important that feedback about the performance is strictly about the performance.

So, keep the comments pertinent to the performance. Anything on the sheet not directly about the performance, no matter how well-intentioned, is impertinent and suggests that matters that don’t matter matter.

New rules

I’m a moderate fan of Real Time with Bill Maher, and really like his “New Rules” segment. Spending two days judging an assembly line of competitors at Maxville, there’s hardly time enough to think about anything else between performances, but there’s enough collective moments to come up with a few new rules that we should apply to what we do.

New Rule: any solo piping or snare competitor who elects to warm up within 50 feet of a contest area should be given the choice between immediate disqualification or a public shirtless flogging by a fleet of tenor drummers wielding mallets dipped in Branston Pickle. I mentioned this in 2009, and it still astonishes me how apparently vacant-minded some players can be, oblivious to their surroundings and Competing Etiquette 101.

New Rule: every band competition should have an announcer who introduces the contestant, provides background, informs the crowd about what’s going on, and so forth. Graeme Ogilvie, who announces at the arena at Maxville each year, should give workshops. He’s a master of providing just the right amount of detail without boring people or insulting the competitors.

New Rule: any piper in a piobaireachd contest who tunes to a slow air will be required to play “Farewell To Nigg” 1000 times over without mistakes before he/she is permitted to compete again. Stop, stop, sweet fancy Moses, stop the slow air insanity.

New Rule: once the competitor starts, shut the ^&%* up. I can understand the occasional uninitiated loudmouth who doesn’t know protocol the first time at a contest, but the number of pipers, drummers and even association officials who yap away at volume within 10 feet of the person or band competing is appalling. Those caught doing this get to choose between paying a $200 fine payable to the impacted competitor or having their mouth washed out with 10-year-old Airtight Seasoning.

New Rule: for any piper who’s played more than three years, no more tuning your drones while sounding D. I understand the theory about tuning with D: it is the truest note played with one hand. But it sounds horrible. A good piper tunes to high-A and shows off his/her control and mastery of the instrument. Penalty for tuning with D: must administer one-handed thigh massages to heavy athletes in afternoon.

Those are a few new rules that I thought of over the weekend. You must have more, so fire away.

 

Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye. Tough tune.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Haves and have-nots

There are those pipe bands that have and those that have not. And increasingly there are competitions and Highland games that have and have not. The size and success of bands and competitions are linked.

June 23rd was one of the more ironic and remarkable days of piping and drumming news that I can remember. Within hours of one another, the Virginia Tattoo folks proudly announced that two “have” bands – Inveraray & District and ScottishPower – would be flown in to the April 2016 event in Norfolk. Big, successful, wonderful bands that are having all expenses paid to the sunny and warm southeast USA to play in the first annual big extravaganza.

Nice news. What’s not to like?

An hour or so later came a rather different message from the good people who organize the 150-year-old competition in northern California, referred to fondly as “Pleasanton.” This somewhat dire announcement outlined that hoping for top-grade bands to get to their event, each bringing upwards of 40 members, has become unrealistic for the bands to pay for, and impossible for the contest to underwrite. So, Pleasanton’s solution is to reset their own rules. Three invited Grade 1 bands would be limited to competing with no more than eight pipers and seven drummers total.

Interesting, but not a little sad.

Thanks to the proliferation of the numbers game – not just in Grade 1, but really across all grades – larger bands have to be far more selective about where they travel. If their way is paid, as with Inveraray and ScottishPower, or the event is a must-attend, many  simply can’t get to most events. Unless a competition like the World’s or Maxville has built up its stature, events have to find the money to attract bands with prizes or travel subsidies or both to get them out.

The irony is that when bands have size enough to be competitive, they can no longer get to events to do what they want to do: compete.

John Biggar, with the cooperation of the Western United States Pipe Band Association, has created a new event: the small band competition, which is pretty much a step back to 1975 or so when bands of eight, three, two and one were not only acceptable, they were common.

Pleasanton used to have it all, attracting full-sized Grade 1 bands to finish their season in northern California. Today, this very successful event is left having to not just reinvent itself but reinvent pipe band rules to continue its success.

It’s a ridiculous state of affairs, but that’s what it has come to.

Because so many bands prepare for the World Championships, it will take the RSPBA to evoke positive change. Otherwise, we will see competitions like Pleasanton take things into their own hands by creating events that more bands can attend, that the event itself can afford. But those events will need to work with associations to bend their rules, and, as we saw in Northern Ireland with the Spring Gatherin’, that’s not always possible, or even likely.

I’ve written over the last 15 years (for example, here, here, here, here, here) about the dangers of allowing band sizes to expand unchecked. For sure, large bands make for interesting sounds and sights, but it invites situations like we’re seeing now, where there are not only have and have-not bands, but there are have and have-not competitions.

Twenty years ago, most Scottish pipe bands would compete at about 15 contests a year. Now most get out to maybe eight, five of those the major championships. The larger size of bands makes it difficult to get to an event with a full complement of players, so they pick and choose. I see top-grade bands scraping for players to boost numbers, bringing in pipers 15 years retired, fielding kids with experience no higher than Grade 4, pressured to feature at least seven across the front at virtually any cost.

I think the majority of bands would support reasonable limits of section sizes — not tiny bands of eight, four and one, but maybe 18, eight, four and one for Grade 1; 15, seven, four and one for Grade 2; and so on. There would be better quality bands. There would be more bands. There would be more bands to attend competitions. Bands could afford to get to more competitions.

Other than hurting a few feelings for a few days when lesser players are cut loose (to become better players in other bands), I can’t really think of a single good reason not to limit section sizes.

The situation is capitalistic. Survival of the fittest and all that. But, to me, the piping and drumming world needs a more social approach. We need to level the playing field by putting a reasonable limit on numbers across all grades, so that we can continue doing what we do and make the business of competition sustainable.

 

Easy prizes, or challenging fun?

Play easy and boring music well, or play harder and interesting stuff and have more fun?

It’s an age-old quandary for lower grade pipers and pipe bands. Almost every judge would say (over and over again), play tunes that your hands or your pipers and drummers can manage better.

For time immemorial, judges will sit or stand there at virtually every competition and wonder, usually several times throughout the day, why oh why that piper or pipe band is throwing away the competition trying to play a tune or tunes that they simply can’t manage. Or, perhaps more accurately, wondering why they don’t play far easier stuff to get better results.

You would think that after a hundred-odd-years of competition, competitors would learn that playing easier stuff better would more likely produce better results. So why is it that season after season pipers, drummers and pipe bands come out playing stuff that’s too difficult?

The answer: it’s more fun.

It’s more fun because it’s a bigger musical challenge. I would venture to bet that many lower-grade bands recognize that if they were to play easy tunes all year long, they’d lose their members’ interest. Practices would become monotonous, and bored members would pressure the pipe-major to make things more interesting by engaging members with more challenging stuff.

But, but . . . the name of the game is to win, right? Why risk sacrificing winning for the sake of a few musical challenges?

It’s counter-intuitive, but that kind of sacrifice (the prize for the musical experience) is exactly what we need more of – pipe bands most of all. Producing engaging and interesting music – even if it’s not played to the competitor’s potential – is better for the art than interminably cranking out boring, repetitive tunes that no one, but no one, really wants to hear again.

The choice of playing easy tunes for better results or harder tunes for more fun is one of the great strategies of our competitive game. Allowing pipers, drummers and bands the freedom to make that choice adds spice and variety to our contests. Associations might think they’re practicing tough love by prescribing tunes for lower grade competitors, but they’re not.

When I was a kid, one of the first four-part 2/4 marches I was given to play was “Abercairney Highlanders.” The late Gordon Speirs said I would get far more out of that technical challenge than playing some boring, easier thing that would lose my interest. Yes, I wouldn’t make a great job of it, but it would help my hands and give me an opportunity to expand my horizons. And, I think it worked.

After years of the RSPBA’s MAP restrictions for lower-grade bands, the dividends, if in fact there are any, are difficult to see. Lower-grade “overseas” bands still regularly come to the World’s and do well. Requiring kids to play “Corriechoille” ad infinitum for a year I suggest drives more of them away than retains their interest in the art.

And, I will say it again: requiring contestants to play certain tunes is far less about the art and learning than it is about making judging easier. And that is no good for anyone, except of course the judges.

Pipers, drummers and pipe bands need to learn to challenge themselves, expand their horizons, take musical chances, and understand that there are things far more important than winning. “Play simple better” might work in competition, but, in reality, it goes only so far.

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