Spirited & lively

Scott MacAulay, 2008.Once or twice each year of judging, something indelibly memorable occurs. Yes, there are good performances that stand out at almost every contest, but I’m thinking here about events that transcend the music, when circumstances converge to make a perfectly magical merger.

I was enjoying a morning of solo competitions this June at the Summerside Highland Gathering at the idyllic Prince Edward Island when one such event was conjured.

The College of Piping is always associated with its first director, the late Scott MacAulay. Scott was a good piping friend and a wonderful piper. His personality was larger-than-life. He found the party and upside in everything, it seemed, and when his life was cut down by cancer it was a huge loss for the scene. We will always miss him.

Scott discovered piobaireachd later than most. In the 1980s, when he was into his late twenties, he found ceol mor or, rather, ceol mor found him. A product of Lewis-born parents, and someone who seemed to enjoy things Hebridean and Gaelic way more than most, even as a teenager it seemed odd to me that Scott focused only on light music and pipe bands. But in the early-1980s he dived head-long into piobaireachd.

After, say, age 18, “discovering” piobaireachd is a difficult thing to do, not because the music can’t be learned, but because your fellow competitors and adjudicators might not take you seriously. Back then, anyway, a certain amount of ceol mor capital had to be banked before the prizes would be paid in dividends.

Scott was as smart a person as you could ever meet. A canny man, one might call him. He could size up a person or an entire room in a second, and work his way in with his incredible wit and charm. One could even say that he charmed his way into piobaireachd. Within a few years he had learned enough tunes and put his musical smarts and technical skills to work his way into the prizes.

He set his sights on winning a Silver Medal, which he did at the Northern Meeting in 1985 just a few years after taking on the big music. He learned up four Silver Medal tunes, and had particular success with “Queen Anne’s Lament.” Going around the Scottish games with him that summer, that tune seemed always to be picked – so often, in fact, that we started to refer to him jokingly as “Queen Anne,” which I remember him laughing at with his unique cackle.

But back to Summerside. Not wanting to lug my piobaireachd books to PEI, I managed to borrow a complete bound Piobaireachd Society Collection from the College. It turned out, though, that the big book had belonged to Scott, with his name custom-embossed on the front and spine in Scott’s typical spare-no-expense style. There were relatively few solo competitors, and some time between each, so I decided to browse through Scott’s old book to check out a few of the tunes I remembered he had played: “Sir James MacDonald of the Isles,” “The Company’s Lament,” and, of course, “Queen Anne’s.”

And then, in the Grade 1 Amateur Piobaireachd event, young Sarah Simpson of Cavendish, PEI, submitted her three tunes. “Queen Anne’s Lament” was one. So, here’s that special confluence of serendipity: College of Piping, misty day, Scott’s book, Scott’s tune. It had to be.

As she built the tune, I found myself rooting for her to see it through, for the pipe and nerves to hold. With a terrific instrument that featured a perfectly tuned and blown high-G, Sarah Simpson delivered a spectacularly musical and almost technically flawless rendition of Scott’s best tune.

Scott MacAulay was all spirit. For 10 minutes or so on that day, on that field, at that time, with that tune, his spirit happily returned.

For the parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please please me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crookit horns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pass the pipe

Breeding ground.There was a time when passing around a bagpipe to let anyone who could play and who wanted to “have a tune” was commonplace. It seemed like at any informal gathering of pipers there would be a bagpipe that was going well, and no one had any reservations about having a go.

It seems like that tradition has all but died away in this era of germaphobia. Passing the pipe has fallen victim to marketing’s discovery that creating a fear of unknown and unseen bacteria, and subsequently selling all manner of “germ-killing” products from hand sanitizer to dish soap to toothpaste, has worked to kill off our willingness to share a germ-infested blowpipe and pipe bag.

I’m not sure if passing around a single instrument at a party of harmonica players or clarinetists or Jew’s harpers has ever been a thing, but I do know that it was because of the pass-the-pipe tradition that I first had the opportunity to play a really good instrument. It was probably about 1978, and the bagpipe was Gordon Speirs’ MacDougall drones and Sinclair chanter. I had been used to playing a basic set of Hardies and some sort of newfangled plastic band chanter. To be sure, the tenors were tuning about a quarter-inch from the projecting mounts, if they were tuned at all.

Suddenly, when Gordon’s MacDougalls were passed to me I had under my arm a wondrous sound alive with resonance. Relative to my hurricane-like instrument, his pipe took almost no effort to blow. It stayed in tune. I could feel each note of the chanter on my fingers. I could have played all day on that instrument, and wanted it back as soon as I passed it to the next person. I had experienced a sound that I knew I wanted to achieve.

And, as far as I can remember, I didn’t get sick from any saliva-borne disease. Because of society’s fear of germs, I wonder how many kids today miss opportunities to play great instruments.

I was recently at a party where a good-going pipe was passed around. There were several excellent players there, but there were also a few lower-grade amateurs, and I noticed one kid in particular whose eyes seemed to light up, not with fear of catching a horrible canker sore, but with the feel and sound of a well set-up bagpipe.

I’d think that in this age when synthetic bags and reeds are more common than the virtual Petri dish that is sheepskin and cane, passing the pipe would be safer than ever. I do know that, back in 1978, the only thing I caught was a lifelong addiction to achieving good sound.

Unforgettable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mojo rising

Pipers and drummers, like many people today, sometimes have a sense of entitlement that’s out of whack with reality. Putting together pipes|drums Magazine is 99.99% gratifying, or at least neutral. But a few times a year I’m reminded just how selfish people can be – even in this worldwide little piping and drumming club where you naturally expect more from privileged members.

Last week the great piper Willie McCallum provided a lovely tribute to the late Alasdair Gillies. His article followed an equally moving piece by the equally great Colin MacLellan. They put a lot of thought and work into putting their thoughts down and, frankly, I put a lot of thought and effort into obtaining their articles. These are historical pieces following the unfair death of one of history’s greatest pipers.

I decided to make Colin’s tribute available to all visitors to pipes|drums, unlike almost all Features articles that are for reserved for paying subscribers. In the case of Willie’s piece, I chose to designate it for subscribers-only. (I’ve since switched Colin’s to subscriber-only.)

I received this e-mail message from someone I know of but believe I’ve never met. I omitted his/her name but I kept the rotten syntax:

Subject: Willie McCallum article about Alasdair

Andrew,

I can’t believe you have restricted this article to subscribers only.     This is an ultimate  bad move.     the one from Colin wasn’t restricted.  Why this one?

Bad, bad, bad, bad mojo

That was how my Monday morning started. The inference was that I somehow grievously wronged the memory of Alasdair Gillies by not making this tribute available to all for free.

Perhaps the judicious action would have been to press Delete and try to forget it, but anyone who knows me knows that that’s not my nature. Perhaps it’s a fault, but I tend to think there would never have been a pipes|drums if I just ignored things I perceive to be unfair. So, here’s how I responded:

Hi _____—

Sorry you don’t think the piece was worth including with a $15 annual subscription.

If you subscribe to any print magazines or newspapers, do you send similar angry messages about their “bad mojo” when they run extensive obituaries and tributes?

On the other hand, wasn’t it exceedingly generous that Colin MacLellan’s tribute was available to all?

What about thanking people like Willie McCallum or Colin or – heaven forbid – me, for putting this stuff together for you?

Perhaps you might consider your rather negative perspective.

A.

I don’t begrudge anyone expressing their opinion, however wrong it may be, but I tend to think that this was just an instance of someone’s sense of entitlement skewing their common sense, manners and decency. Incidentally, I haven’t heard from the person since.

Pipers and drummers today often bellyache about things that years ago would have been the stuff of fantastic dreams. $10.99 for an iPhone bagpipe tuner?! A pipe band concert in a grand hall for $40?! Too many ticketed events at Piping Live!?! Having to pay $15 for a year’s access to more than 4,000 original articles on a nonprofit online magazine?!

Bad, bad mojo indeed.

Put a golf tee in it

Just shut it.pipes|drums is all about creating constructive conversation and dialog, and I like to think that over the years many sensitive topics have seen sunlight after having been swept under the rug for ages. We’re getting there.

Reviews are always done by those who have the right combination of objectivity, detachment, respect and expertise to make their words count. People who sell the product or compete with the item or have some other vested interest – real or perceived – are avoided. It’s often difficult to find the right match, and sometimes the best potential reviewers have to decline because they’re too busy or just feel uncomfortable about the task. I like it when they say no, rather than deliver something that disappoints or is well past the product’s sell-by-date.

Increasingly, RSPBA judges are declining the invitation to review products or events. It’s not because they feel they’re biased, it’s because the association allegedly requires  that they get permission in advance to write or speak about anything to do with piping or drumming. So, some of our best and brightest apparently are afraid to share their insights with the piping and drumming world, and don’t want the hassle of requesting advance consent from the association.

What a shame.

In 2007 I wrote about pipe bands veering towards that wrong-headed tack. Fortunately most of them have lightened up a great deal since then, as they’ve realized the communications potential of  Facebook and Twitter and other means to share insights. When an organization disallows members from speaking about their passion, and using their common sense when doing so, they undermine trust. The band or association views it from a strictly negative perspective, cynically thinking that their member will somehow embarrass the group, rather than indirectly vaunting it with their intelligence.

Granted, no organization should have members go out and speak for the organization, but, when it comes to a musical art, all they have to do is tell them to stick strictly to talking about music. Then trust them to do so.

As I understand it from RSPBA judges, they might not be allowed to post anything related to piping or drumming on Facebook, on which most of them have an account. They allegedly shouldn’t post any videos or anecdotes or comment about any band performance anywhere without prior consent, or do any interviews without prior approval. Should they just keep their mouths shut and their fingers off their keyboard? If they play a recital they shouldn’t speak to the audience without clearing things first with 45 Washington Street? Put tape right across your entire hole?

Are their only unapproved comments those that they put down on score sheets?

It’s a case study in how to get the least from your best.

Easy image

Shiny, happy tenor.The current pipes|drums Poll attempts to discover how skilled pipers and drummers around the world (that is, the over-achieving musicians who follow the magazine) respond to the question, How long do you think it takes to become a pretty good tenor drummer? The results are interesting.

While the majority (about 32%) have so far answered “At least a few years,” the next-highest response, at about 24%, is “A day or two.”

Clearly, tenor drumming has an image problem.

I’ve coordinated these polls for many years. The high volume of participants means that after only a few hours the percentages are pretty much established. While it’s not scientific data, the p|d Poll is a very good basic gauge of the attitudes and perceptions of pipers and drummers on issues and topics of all kinds.

I really should take some tenor drumming lessons to find out for myself, but I have a hard time believing that I could become “pretty good” – to a standard defined by our competition-band format – after only a few days, even if I worked at it for 16 of each of the 24 hours. Or maybe I could. Maybe I’ll see if someone would be willing to teach me. It would at the very least make for humourous video content (particularly if I could wear a vintage leopard-skin apron).

But why would a full quarter of us think that it’s so easy? They say it takes seven years and seven generations to make a piper. That’s over-stating things, but my own experience was that I wasn’t a “pretty good” piper until at least a few years after I started. To become a pretty good pipe band snare drummer is at least as challenging. Is it because pipers and snare drummer often look like they’re in total agony in competition, drenched in sweat, while tenor drummers appear to be having so much effortless, smiling fun?

Goodness knows that tenor drumming is far more complicated and intricate today than it ever was, but should it be made even harder to satisfy possibly resentful pipers and snare drummers?

Or perhaps, to use that dreadful expression, it is what it is. Maybe it is relatively easy. Is that necessarily wrong? Maybe it’s not an image problem at all.

Awesome simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wanger

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, wangers! Start wanging!”

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

“Okay, now the song side! Sing!”

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

“Keep wanging wangers!”

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

“Onward! the saaaaiiilors cryyyy . . .”

“Good!”

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

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

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

“Keep on wanging, you wangers!”

“”Ooover the seeeea to Skyyyyye . . .”

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

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

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

Maxville memories

Even though it was my twenty-third in succession and twenty-seventh overall, each Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville is remarkable. I recently compared photos of last year’s event with one from the 1980s and was amazed at how much the piping and drumming and band competitions have grown.

Each year is memorable for different reasons. The exact years often blur, but the memories tend to stay clear. Here are a few of my stand-out positive recollections from the 2011 rendition of Maxville.

Alex Gandy, Maxville 2011.1. Alex Gandy’s March, Strathspey & Reel. I heard maybe six or seven players in the contest, but when I caught Alex’s performance I thought that it could stand up just about anywhere. It emerged the winner of the “Glengarry MSR” against a field of more than 20 other top-flight players. Everything about it was excellent, but most of all the content: Donald MacLeod’s “Duncan MacColl,” Allan MacDonald’s “Crann Tara,” and Fred Morrison’s version of “Alick C. MacGregor,” and compliments to judge Reay Mackay for having the moxie and knowledge to choose them. I’m not sure when the last time was when a competitor won three Professional solo piping events at Maxville, but it’s a rarity.

 

2. Acknowledging our over-achievers. Special Honourary Life Memberships to the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario were awarded to Reay Mackay and Ed Neigh for their decades of unflagging service to the cause. Bob Worrall and Michael Grey respectively paid tribute to these stalwarts of the art not at some small members-only event, but at the final massed bands ceremony before tens of thousands of pipers, drummers and others. This sort of thing needs to happen more, and I’m pretty sure that it will after starting with these deserving gents.

Maxville Grade 1 commemorative pin.3. Pins for winners. The good folks at the Glengarry games decided this year to create commemorative pins to give to each player in the 2011 North American Champion band. What a great concept. Maxville lost most of its great trophies in a fire several years ago, and marking the achievement this way is a certain treasure for every member, this year, of the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band. Pure class.

4. Logistical brilliance. Coordinating the more than 60 events (51 separate solo contests on Friday alone) is an almost superhuman feat that we often take for granted. There are folks out there at the crack of dawn getting things ready week in and week out in Ontario, and they deserve huge thanks. There are games that have a hard time getting three events to run on time. Sure, there were minor hiccups, but the PPBSO’s volunteer management team for this year’s Maxville deserves huge recognition and credit.

5. Trickle-down creativity. I’ve heard people disparage the Toronto Police Pipe Band’s adventurous medleys of the last few years, saying that, if people liked them then why more bands would immitating them. But my view is that the avant-garde or Haute Couture in art or fashion makes a strong style statement that is rarely imitated, but it instead inspires. It trickles down to become a trend a few years later. Listening to bands, many are now more creative and adventurous than ever, and many times at Maxville I heard inspiration in their new music. There’s a correlation.

Those are a few of my stand-out Maxville memories. What are yours?

“Bass-Cam”

In 2010 “Glen-Cam” was first used and it still gets lots of inquiries. People seemed to like it a lot, as it was intended to provide an adjudicator’s perspective. And, now, I bring you “Bass-Cam.”

If you think about it, the rarest vantage-point in the pipe world is that of a bass drummer with a Grade 1 pipe band. There’s only one of them, and they tend to be pretty stable when it comes to staying with bands. So why not bring you this unique perspective?

Kindly agreeing this was Reagan Jones, keeper of the big drum (or, one of them, anyway) with the Grade 1 Toronto Police Pipe Band. The original intention was to get footage from the actual competition, but mechanical difficulties prohibited that (i.e., the freakin’ camera didn’t work!), but she was successful with a test-run, capturing the band’s final stages of tuning with a set of 4/4 marches.

Thanks to Reagan and her band for being such good sports and having some fun, even in the heat of competition and the heat of the 35-degree day.

And, so . . . here’s “Bass-Cam.”

Great Big Bug

Like this.Solo pipers in outdoor contests have to contend with all manner of things. The bouncy castles, midges and starter’s pistols of Scotland. Oblivious passers-by wandering in between you and the judge at Ontario events. The odd mid-2/4 march dust-devil in the Midwest. They’re all a test of either our concentration or sanity or both. We shake our heads and carry on.

By far the most memorable thing to happen to me was at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville, Ontario. Anyone who has been to Maxville knows that it’s in the middle of farm country. In fact, many of the solo events back up onto fields, often bone-dry in the latter part of the hot and humid summer.

It was when I was playing a piobaireachd contest. The venerable Reay Mackay was judging. The tune was some dreary thing set for the Gold Medal competitions in Scotland, which I always played all summer, convincing myself that I liked some of the dreckiest pieces of dreck ever composed for the Highland pipe. This particular instance I think had me playing “The Rout of the MacPhees,” which isn’t exactly a toe-tapping melody, even in the hands of the world’s elite pipers.

But the tune was going quite well, I thought. Back then the Open Piobaireachd was invariably put out in the open, sun blazing down. I got to the first variation of the thing and the biggest freaking bug known to Glengarry County landed on my arm. As soon as this giant cicada or extraterrestrial grasshopper or flying kitten plunked itself on my bare left forearm I jumped about two feet, hands flailing off the chanter (shaddup!), drones in a heap.

“%*&% !!”

“What happened?!” Reay shouts.

“It was a Great Big Bug! A Great Big Bug landed on me! It was a Great Big Bug!” I said breathlessly.

“A Great Big Bug?! Really?” Reay says. “Here, just go off and collect yourself and we’ll let you play again.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course,” kindly Reay confirms. “I’ve never seen that happen when a Great Big Bug upsets a tune like that. Sure, I’ll tell the steward you can play later.”

Which is what happened. I went away, recollected myself, tried to get the vision and feel of the Great Big Bug out of my head, and hoped that I’d also get a chance to play a tune that bugged me less. (Not so; Reay Mackay said I had to play the same thing.)

I felt a bit sheepish about it, and a few fellow competitors told me it wasn’t fair. (Then go talk to Reay, I told them.) But being on the other side of the table, I can understand why a judge would do that. You tend to make a lot of non-piping judgment calls during the day, often about what a competitor’s intentions might be. I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt, and I try to do that with others when I think they deserve it.

The name of the game is fair play, Great Big Bugs included. What extraordinary circumstances have you encountered in your competition experiences?

Living salute

We pipers and drummers all too often pay tribute to those who contribute only after the person’s left us and we realize that it’s too late to show him or her the appreciation we have for the life-long contribution to the art. That’s not something unique to the piping and drumming world, of course, but perhaps we’re too caught up too often in our own competitive concerns to acknowledge the work of others.

 

 

The Georgetown Highland Games in Georgetown, Ontario, on June 11, 2011, was a rare exception. One of the games organizers had the good idea to pay tribute to Bill Livingstone and his nearly 50 years of work and accomplishment in the art. A few folks put the word out only a few days before the event, asking anyone who might be at the event who had played under Bill over the years to participate in a tribute at the massed bands ceremony at the end of the day.

A good number of folks gladly stepped up, and, led by new 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe-Major, Doug MacRae, played a mass rendition of “Lord Lovat’s Lament” and “The Mason’s Apron,” two tunes closely identified with Livingstone.

It was one of the nicer gestures I can remember seeing by the piping and drumming community. There are life memberships and posthumous tributes and trophies and things, but I would think an actual playing tribute is about as meaningful as it gets for someone who’s committed most of his life to the art, and, better yet, is around to hear it, still living strong.

10 words that should never appear on score sheets, but do

Competition score sheets, or “crit sheets,” are the primary way that a judge accounts for his or her result. They should provide feedback in a clear, constructive and, perhaps most important, respectful manner. Some judges are better than others at writing score sheets.

Constructing a good sheet takes an ability to multi-task (writing while listening takes practice and skill), and finding the right words with originality and specificity for at times dozens of performances over a day is far more exhausting than competing. Judging with constructive accountability is a hard, hard job.

But what isn’t hard is respecting the competitor. There’s something of a tradition in some quarters, particularly in pipe band judging, of being disrespectful to competitors. It’s like a Simon Cowell approach to “judging,” where the main objective seems to be to put artists in their place, reminding them who’s boss. It’s an old-fashioned and ignorant style of judging that, sadly, still happens today.

It often comes down to single words that can be so demeaning that even using them could be cause for suspension from a panel, reinstatement only after sensitivity training and/or completion of high school English. Alarmingly, the use of a few of these is actually encouraged in some quarters.

Here are 10 destructive words that I’ve seen on actual score sheets. In this day and age they should be banned from further use – the words and the judges.

“Vacuous” – imagine telling a band or soloist that their performance was “mindless” and “lacking in thought or intelligence.” This is what vacuous means. Has a judge stepped into a beer-tent and called a pipe-major “mindless” to his/her face? Didn’t think so.

“Dispassionate” – this $100 word is doing the rounds. It means “emotionally detached” and, perhaps ironically, is used in non-piping/drumming terms to describe someone rational or impartial. Is there a piping, drumming or pipe band competitor who is not passionate about their music? Seriously? How incredibly insulting.

An “exercise” – this seems to be a word that some judges use when they don’t personally prefer or understand a particular rhythm or melody. In this era of Rhythmic Fingerwork exercises does anyone really practice without attempting to be rhythmical?

“Devoid,” “insipid” – can you be more hurtful than telling someone passionate about their music that it’s devoid of something positive? I’m pretty sure judges who use either word don’t really know what they mean but, regardless, they can say the same thing using constructive language.

“Tuneless,” “unmusical” – these are cop-out words by judges who can’t constructively explain why they didn’t prefer a particular score or interpretation. They throw these destructive words with the intention, really, of saying, “Don’t ask me what I mean, it just was, and I know better, so shut up.”

“Mumbo-jumbo” – really? We know you’re tired and full of yourself and all, but you need to resist the temptation to sink to this sort of insulting language.

“Jungle-drumming” – this hyphenation is used by some judges who don’t like certain styles of bass-section drumming. J.K. McAllister I’m pretty sure coined the term “jungle-drumming,” or at least made it famous. Not only is it demeaning, it smacks of racism.

“Ignorant” – the only thing ignorant when it comes to this word being used on a crit-sheet is the judge, who is apparently ignorant of tact and respect and has apparently completely forgotten what it was like to be a competitor. A judge who uses this word may find his/her picture if they look up the definition.

Those are 10 words that seem to be in use by actual piping/drumming/pipe band judges. I hope that you haven’t been the victim of this stuff appearing on score sheets. And if in the future you receive one of these bombs I recommend that you send a copy of the sheet to your association to be sure that they are aware of it and deal with the offender.

When judges use this sort of language they’re really just bullying their way out of facing the truth: they’re not an effective judge of modern piping and drumming music, so they try to block its evolution by putting it down with insulting and demeaning language. Sometimes they might not even know the true meaning of the words they use. They don’t bother to look it up, just as they don’t bother to understand what today’s pipe bands are attempting to accomplish musically.

What other $100 words of judging destruction have you encountered?

Being arsed

Remote possibility.For as long as I can remember I’ve read reports on things piping and drumming that moan about the lack of young pipers and drummers attending this or that competition or performance. They usually say something like, “It’s too bad that more kids don’t bother to listen to these great players. They could have learned something.” It has always been thus.

But attending a screening of On The Day, the documentary about the one-off (so far, anyway) Spirit of Scotland project of 2008 this week got me thinking. It’s not just most of the kids and beginners who don’t bother to attend performances – it’s most pipers and drummers of any ability, age or level of experience.

The one-time screening last Wednesday at a really nice, easily accessed theatre with a state-of-the-art sound system drew a decent crowd, but only maybe 20 were pipers and drummers. Remember, this was in a city of four-million people that may be third only to Glasgow and Edinburgh for number of players. Tickets were $12.

Whether it’s a concert by the World Champions, or a recital by a Gold Medallist, or an invitational professional competition, or a unique movie about a unique pipe band project, the vast majority of pipers and drummers who could easily attend something pretty darned excellent just can’t be bothered. Why is this?

It couldn’t possibly be that so many of us don’t actually like the music – or could it? Over the years of asking prominent pipers and drummers to list their top-five CDs of all time, I’m always struck when they don’t list any piping or pipe band recordings. It’s rare when they do. They prefer to listen to “real life” music.

Is it because we’re so competitive that we can’t stop listening with a hyper-critical ear? Perhaps it’s just too hard for pipe band folk to divorce themselves from competition, and just enjoy the music. Given that we spend so much time zealously pursuing this music-sport-hobby, it’s intriguing that we can be so often passive about it.

But I realized, sitting there watching this truly historic event – the first time in piping and drumming history that a Hollywood-produced full-length movie was being shown in a real live cinema to real life people – that so many pipers and drummers couldn’t be arsed to be a part of it, much less enjoy it. I’m pretty sure that if it were a documentary about Simon Fraser University, or St. Laurence O’Toole, or Field Marshal Montgomery the interest, or lack of it, would be the same.

So, the next time I read (not in these pages, to be sure) that well-worn cliché bemoaning today’s apathetic youth ignoring great opportunities to enjoy leading exponents of the art, I will be reminded that it’s not just the kids who can’t be bothered, it’s just about all of us.

Sage advice

In piping and drumming, you never stop learning and realizing new perspectives, and my eyes were opened once again last November in a casual conversation with the great soloist, teacher, bagpipe-maker and reed craftsman, Murray Henderson. It was just a passing comment that he made regarding the Gold Medal success of his daughter, Faye, last August. He told me that he told her:

“If you are lucky enough to win a major event, always remember, you are still the same player as you drive home from the competition as you were going to it.”

After all of these years, that one comment rang true with me. Murray said that he tells all of his students this before a big event, and it’s such smart and clear advice that it’s hard to believe so many people don’t automatically understand it without being reminded.

To a fault, many competitive pipers and drummers almost incessantly chase prizes. On one hand, trying to win big events is motivation to practice. But over the centuries there have been not a few competitors who have quickly gained one big prize and then rapidly parlayed that success into a teaching and judging career.

A big win will open a door of opportunity with the piping and drumming masses who make the mistake of automatically assuming that being awarded a major prize is not just a stamp of approval of their technical skill, but also of their overall understanding of the art. It’s not so automatic.

The same mistake can be made in any art or sport that involves competition. The famously successful person who collects major accolades often does not understand exactly why he or she is so good. There are those extraordinary people in all walks of life who are supernaturally talented. They don’t seem to have to work as hard for prizes, or they blunder into awards one way or another.

So often the best teachers are those who have worked the hardest, striving to reach the top, learning and trying every angle or technique to put them over the edge. They make a life’s work of studying their art or sport as a student. So often, these people – not the big prizewinners – are the best teachers.

The truth is that in any Gold Medal competition probably 20 competitors have a realistic shot of winning the event on the day. There are those who are fortunate enough to win it seemingly without much effort or with a great deal of luck, and there are those who come back year after year after year working like dogs to learn all they are able to get that final edge. They acquire vast amounts of knowledge along the way.

“If you are lucky enough to win a major event, always remember, you are still the same player as you drive home from the competition as you were going to it.”

Sage advice from Murray Henderson. What piping/drumming words of wisdom have stuck with you?

Just in time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradiddle universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracks that inspired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are the leaders?

You go can lead. No, you lead. No, go right ahead . . .The post-season partings from premier pipe bands seem to increase every year. What’s perhaps more interesting is that these leadership vacancies appear to be increasingly difficult to fill. Pipe-Majors and Lead-Drummers resign and, more often than not these days, there’s no ready successor. Bands usually have to go searching for willing leaders. Some have even resorted to advertising.

Was this always the case? Not so long ago, it seems to me, every pipe band had numerous pipers and drummers looking for their shot at leadership. When there was a chance to become a P-M or L-D of a top-grade band, people would leap at the opportunity. Now it seems like talented players with potential leadership skills have to be persuaded to take on the job.

And the job today is ever more complex and difficult, even though the rewards are pretty much exactly the same as they were in 1947. Never mind having a great ear and musical talent, leading a modern top-grade band demands extraordinary “man-management” skills. Today’s Grade 1 pipe-majors and lead-drummers are supervising sensitive egos of skilled players who often would just as soon go elsewhere if you dare to look at them sideways.

Their role demands that they deal with terrific pressure to produce a professional-quality band while still trying to enjoy their hobby. It’s a full-time job that has to be completed during so-called free-time. In truth, managing people, instruments, music, logistics and who-knows-what-else is a full-time job that has the exact same return as ever before.

There’s no money in it. Unless you’re an extraordinarily rare case – like, for example, Terry Tully, Terry Lee, Richard Parkes or Bill Livingstone – there’s inevitably a coup d’état awaiting you down the road. You now have to manage twice as many players. The glory is whatever self-satisfaction you can derive from doing something well and, all too often, it’s a thankless job. Every year the investment is more but the return is the same. Further, you can do your absolute best and wholeheartedly believe in and love your band, only to have some anonymous, incompetent, cowardly idiot skewer you on the net. Who needs it?

But perhaps the two situations go hand-in-hand. The reluctant leader is almost always the best. He or she doesn’t pine for the job, but must be convinced to do it and, when coaxed to give it a try, all too often turns out to be really good at it.

By that token, beware the piper or drummer who’s looking for a leadership gig. There are of course exceptions, but one can’t help but notice those who bounce from band to band, looking for the next great thing. And why does the next great thing never happen for them? That’s right, because they’re leading it.

So maybe it’s understandable that natural born leaders today have to be discovered. They have to be cajoled and coaxed and persuaded to just try it, to tide the band over just for one season. They step up to help not because they want to help their ego, but because they want to help the band.

And with luck and a lot of care and feeding, they’ll learn to love the job and not run screaming from the ordeal they never really wanted in the first place.

In art, only hate itself should be hated

The only thing I really hate is hatred. When people say that they “hate” piobaireachd, a new pipe band medley, or, for that matter, any form of music or art, it bothers me. You can prefer one style more than another, or love a certain sound or sight, but why would anyone hate something as truly harmless as art?

You hear people in piping and drumming use the hate word frequently. “I hate that tune.” “I really hate what bass-sections are doing these days.” “I hate that band’s music.” It’s a word that, unfortunately, seems to be part of the piping and drumming tradition, perhaps borne of spite and envy and the ever-present need people seem to feel to compete on any level.

Some like to try to get a competitive edge by tearing down or belittling things they’re threatened by. Rather than minding only what they do themselves, they take a negative tack and discredit different approaches by using hateful language.

The other day I thought about different types of music. Like anyone else, I prefer some music more than others. But I can’t think of any music – whether classical, jazz, hip-hop or whatever – that I wouldn’t listen to and try to appreciate, if not enjoy.

My musical preferences run from hard rock to country to punk to bubblegum pop, even, and when it comes to music, I have many guilty pleasures. I was ridiculed mercilessly in the 1980s for admitting that I liked Debbie Gibson’s “Only In My Dreams” (which I maintain to this day is an intoxicating melody).

There is a sordid custom in piping to tear down that which threatens us. Dr. William Donaldson’s The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society is a seminal study of just such an example, in which piobaireachd was standardized by a group that set out to control the music in part by denigrating its history. The irony of ironies was that, when Donaldson’s book emerged, there was a strong and vocal attempt to – what else? – discredit his research, not to mention his training as a piper, each of which are impeccable.

There are those who are completely stuck in a hateful rut and, sadly, these folks all too often end up in positions of power. They try to eliminate things that threaten them by spreading hateful ideas, discrediting and belittling anything that is a challenge to their past and their status. They fancy themselves the protectors of some faith that really cannot exist in any art that wants to live in the present and future.

When it comes to art, the only thing to hate is hate itself.

No ask; no tell

Not Bob Nicol.The late great golf teacher, Harvey Penick, used to say something like, “Don’t give advice unless you’re asked.” Of course he was talking about golf, and the habit of some hacks who aren’t much better – or even far worse – than their playing partner of telling them what they’re doing “wrong.” Try moving your feet apart. Your grip looks bad. You’re taking your eye off the ball . . .

We face these irritating people in piping and drumming all the time. You’ll have finished your competition performance and some know-it-all will come up and start telling you what’s wrong and what you should do to fix it. Often these officious folks will be rank amateurs who couldn’t play their way out of the proverbial paper bag. Sometimes it will be busy-body professionals or judges, and they’re just as annoying.

The rule of thumb in piping, drumming and pipe bands should be: don’t offer your opinion or advice unless you’re invited to do so by the performer. If you break that rule, no matter who you might be or how good you are, you’re really just a dink.

I remember coming off the boards at the piobaireachd at Crieff games one year and practically being accosted by a famous teacher-judge-Claspy-piobaireachd-guy. He was almost breathless he was so anxious to tell me everything that I did “wrong” in my performance. I bit my tongue and let him bloviate at me, but I really wasn’t listening, much less interested, in his opinion. “Who the *%&# asked you?” was all that I was thinking.

There’s a famous story of a young Bill Livingstone who was similarly confronted at a Scottish games in the 1970s by Bob Nicol, half of the Balmoral Bobs. Nicol apparently ranted on at him about how dreadfully unmusical and “wrong” his tune was. Nicol, who was perhaps accustomed to Scottish pipers just politely accepting his unwelcomed counsel, was reportedly stunned and mystified by Livingstone’s response: “Well, that just fries my ass!

Judges are asked to provide their opinion of a performance via a scoresheet and/or the final result. Beyond that, they have no real business arrogantly lording unsolicited advice at competitors. No matter who you, it lacks tact.

It’s simple: Unless you’re asked, keep your advice to yourself.

Heavy-Cam

As a sequel to Glen-Cam, here’s Heavy-Cam. I asked a few of the heavy athletes at the Cambridge Highland Games if they’d be interested in donning my little video camera. They were more than willing, and Todd Turnbull of Hamilton, Ontario, kindly strapped it on while attempting an 11-foot-high toss of the 56-pound weight.

I had hoped to time things with the caber tossing, but the weight thing coincided with the break in my action. Maybe I’ll get that caber fare in the future.

I may approach a Highland dancer to wear the camera, but would worry that the strap might slip down over his/her eyes, which, come to think of it, would be excellent video.

Ladies and gents, here’s Heavy-Cam:

And here’s normal, third-party perspective video of Todd Turnbull on the same weight-toss attempt:

We pipers and drummers do our competition thing at the games, but all around are other contests – heavy events, dancing, sheepdogs, tug-o-war – with competitors just as passionate about what they do. Evidenced by the soaking-wet Heavy-Cam strap after Todd was done with it, these competitors put a lot of effort into their thing. Always appreciate new perspectives.

Thanks to Todd Turnbull for being such a good sport even in heated sporting competition. These athletes were very congenial and welcomed an outsider’s questions and slightly off-kilter idea. We pipers and drummers can be a stand-offish bunch, so we can learn from these friendly giants, too.

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