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.

 

Maxville memoir

Aways good to get back to Maxville for the Glengarry Highland Games, despite the usual scramble to get out of town before the holiday weekend traffic hits Toronto. Here are a few stand-out memories taken away from my two days.

Drew Mackay’s “Clan Campbell’s Gathering” – she walked the Intermediate Amateur Piobaireachd and might well have won the Senior Amateur with a terrific rendition of this fun tune (or as fun as piobaireachd can be). The best tune I heard all weekend. This young woman has a huge piping future ahead of her.

Brannagh O’Donnell – it’s always an unexpected treat to encounter a really good piper whom you have absolutely no idea about or have never encountered, and Brannagh, who’s a member of the Grade 2 Scotia-Glenville, might have had the best instrument that I heard all weekend. She was on her way perhaps to winning the Grade 1 Strathspey & Reel when she had an unfortunate misstep. Absolutely effortless hands and a fine musical touch.

Andrea Boyd – I wish I had heard her “Lord Lovat’s Lament,” which she played to win the Piobaireachd Society Gold Medal (Canada) after many years of narrowly missing the prize, and I was pleased for her that she finally gained the award. Chasing certain solo prizes can often be frustrating, and the relief can be palpable. Her fellow competitors seemed to enjoy her success. Andrea’s one of the nicest and hardest-working people in piping. Like.

Mother nature – it’s often said that Maxville is either sweltering sun or massive thunderstorms. Friday was more the former, while rain always threatened, while Saturday was cooler but a solid half-hour of heavy horizontal rain impacted not a few competing bands. Moments like those ones judging bands with your back to the windy rain, doing all you can to keep the scoresheets dry make for a theatre of the absurd. I couldn’t help think that while all this was heaving down on 400 Squadron, it was a like a tactical group of helicopters blowing in on a mission in a stormy sea.

Lillian Livingstone – as Bill was working through the constant long line of fans to get their signed copy of his Preposterous memoir, there was Lily waiting patiently in support and partnership with her husband of almost 50 years. There’s never been a more loving and mutually committed couple in the world of piping. As Bill alludes to in his book, everything – the bagpipes, the bands, the book, even the preposterous horse-drawn carriage ride as the games’ Honoured Guest – would have been impossible without Lily.

All females. After more than 30 Maxvilles, memories can tend to melt together, but each of them stands out for a few specifics. Out of many other good things at this year’s, for me, these rose above.

 

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.

 

Quelle reprise

The now double-homage to the anniversary of the 78th Fraser Highlanders “Live In Ireland” concert in Ballymena in 1987 is much deserved and, evidently, attractive to many people who wanted to live or relive the event.

That music was made famous 30 years ago. Three decades have passed. In normal life, that’s a long time. In pipe band music life, apparently, that was yesterday.

Since then, what has changed musically? The popularity of the pipe band “suite” as a concept appears to have waned, since “Journey To Skye” seemed to initiate interest in such a concept. Today’s bands are of course tonally and technically better than ever. But musically? There’s not a whole lot truly new going on in terms of structures and time signatures or taking our music in a different direction.

Considering that mainstream music since 1987 has seen the rise and fall of Post-Punk, Grunge, Alt-Country, K-Pop, Hip-Hop, Acid Jazz and whatever else, our musical genre is relatively stagnant. To be sure, this is not necessarily a bad thing for those who like tradition and repetition.

Certainly pipe bands have done some neat things in bits and pieces. But when I try to think of a similar one-time musical event to the 1987 concert that might be as deservedly replicated on stage 10, 20 or 30 years later, I’m at a loss.

Again, I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. I’m just saying.

The closest thing might be the Victoria Police’s “Masterblasters” concert. Or maybe Vale of Atholl’s “Live ‘n Well” show. But these, as good as they were, made nowhere near the mark of the 78th Frasers’ event, and probably would not attract the kinds of interest and paying customers we’ve seen in the last year with the Frasers Redux. (Maybe kids go around loving FMM’s “RE:CHARGED” or Inveraray & District’s “Ascension” concert recordings; I’m not sure.)

And consider, too, that much of the material that was considered so groundbreaking in 1987 was actually taken from non-pipe band sources. Alan Stivell, Horselips, Don Thompson. There were adaptations and derivations galore. So, a case can be made that, even in 1987, pipe bands weren’t innovating on their own, but innovating by adapting successful ideas from other musical domains – not quite on the poppy level of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, but still derived and adapted. It’s still innovation, but, like just about all new art, it’s not totally original.

In those pre-Internet analog days, pipe bands doing such things were a novelty, certainly in the UK. The 78th Frasers had by 1987 been playing most of that stuff for years, some carrying over from the City of Toronto Pipe Band in the 1970s. But listeners further afield than Ontario hadn’t heard it in any big way, and certainly not in a pipe band concert.

(Let’s not speak of the of the odd Scottish pipe-major who came to Ontario to judge, cassette recorder attached to his belt, returned to Scotland and introduced new musical ideas to his band, allegedly not giving them due credit. But I digress . . .)

Even the same 78th Fraser Highlanders couldn’t quite tune in to a similar zeitgeist with their own following concerts, these built from material they had actually invented almost entirely from scratch. Items like “The Megantic Outlaw” and “The Immigrants’ Suite” were received well, but I doubt many people still have those recordings on repeat, at least to the degree of “Live In Ireland.” Then again, I have never heard any other pipe band play “Journey To Skye.”

The Toronto Police’s adventurous avant-garde medleys of the aughts were interesting and courageous, but not terribly well received by judges or the pipe band world at large. No one that I know of has played them since or even tried anything as adventurous, mainly because they were proven to be generally and admittedly detrimental to winning. The relatively outrageous music distinguished the band for being, well, courageous, and attracted personnel to a band that wanted to do musical things differently. In that sense, the music met an important objective, especially considering the group at the time was on the brink of collapse due to small numbers.

Is something as impactful as “Live In Ireland” even possible today? The groundbreaking, fearless attitude of it seems to have vanished, as bands and businesses have so much money wrapped up in competition that they dare not try to over-accelerate glacial musical change. Every time they do, some dickhead judge puts them in their place, which, come to think of it, I think was one the big reasons that the 78th Fraser Highlanders lost its musical fearlessness by the 1990s.

Three decades later, is there only one concert and one recording that can be held up as musically door-opening, that actually took hold of people in a major way?

In truth, that musical door is still open only a crack.

 

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…

The vaulting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

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.

For namesakes

Having a tune named after you is a wonderful gesture. I can’t think of a more thoughtful and kind gift than a piece of music inspired by life and friendship.

I’ve been thinking about this custom for a few weeks now. Pipers, at least as much as any musicians, create music. Based on a recent pipes|drums poll, some 70 percent of us have tried our hand at composing. I think the majority of pipers will write something – usually a simple 6/8 march or slow air – pretty much as soon as they have figured out a few tunes on the practice chanter.

The initial desire to compose is usually, I believe, driven by the desire to do something nice for someone. “Hey, mom, listen to this tune I wrote and named after you!” And mom listens to little Angus’s well-intentioned composition, and, like the dilapidated piece of pottery made as a Mother’s Day present in Grade 2 art, it melts mom’s heart.

I’ve had the great fortune to have two tunes named for, or about, me: “A.W. Berthoff’s Reel” by my longtime friend Michael Grey, and “Berthoff’s Birl” by the legendary Pipe-Major Robert Mathieson. I am privileged, and not a little lucky, that both of these compositions are excellent works by two of history’s most-played pipe music makers. And to actually play Rab’s hornpipe with a Grade 1 band was a rare gift. I believe that both these tunes are good enough to pass the ultimate test of success: they will still be played well, well after I’m well played-out.

But what of the not-so-lucky? I’m thinking of those great individuals who truly deserve to have a great tune named after them, and instead get something they and everyone else would just as soon never hear again, ever. The “composer,” with all good intentions, attempts to honour a famous piper or drummer with what they think is a tune befitting the honouree. They will proudly play them their tune, and then keenly ask if they like it. And because the answer is invariably positive, they will then announce, “Well, I have named after YOU!”

And then there’s two-seconds-feels-like-eternity pause, identical to the pause when a present is unwrapped, the giver excitedly looking on, the recipient finding a horrible hand-knitted hat that will be worn once that day and never, ever again.

“Oh, thank you! That’s wonderful.” [Deep sigh.]

But the difference between the ugly hat and the crappy tune is that, with the tune in your name, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal. The unwritten code of piping is that, once there’s a serious –as opposed to little Angus’s first try – tune named for you, that’s it. You’re done. You really shouldn’t have another. (There are exceptions. Peter MacLeod wrote a few tunes named “Donald MacLean.” Apparently some of these originally had different names; MacLeod frequently fell out with folk, and would change the title.)

There is perhaps only one safeguard to getting a quality tune named for you: commission it. Quietly contract one of the several established composers of great pipe music to compose a tune in your name, with a money-back guarantee, and perhaps a non-disclosure agreement that he/she will never divulge that you paid for it. The composer will have to pretend for life that the tune was a consensual act of love, mutually accepted by each party, who just said Yes to the proposition.

Shallow? Vacuous? Shameful? Perhaps. But at least your name and memory will have a lot better chance of lasting forever with a better piece of music, a gift that keeps on giving.

 

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.

Fond farewell

Two years ago, after about eight years away from it, I was looking for a piping change, so had another go at solo competition. I’d stopped shortly after my mother died suddenly in 2003, having lost the desire to keep at it, and, then, too, needing a change.

Going back to solo piping at age 48 was a combination of desires. I wanted to see if I could still play to the standard and I thought it would be more interesting to be among solo pipers, who share a unique bond of understanding, empathy and respect.

That first season back was okay, but re-understanding the solo competition instrument and the set-up, the myriad choices of bags and reeds and moisture gubbins and gizmos was in itself a new art to master. It was particularly humid summer around these parts in 2013, and wrestling with a natural bag and wetness made things interesting. But some decent prizes came around – enough to keep me at it.

The 2014 competition season was fun. I made some changes to the instrument, figured out the right moisture controlling combination, and got up and submitted tunes I particularly enjoyed playing. Even though I was practicing less, I was playing as well as ever I could remember, though the memory can play tricks on you, as we all know.

People say that they “don’t have time” to do things. That’s never true. There is always time to do whatever you wish in life. Saying you don’t have time for something is really saying you don’t make that something a priority over other things. There is time; you just have to decide how to prioritize it with the other stuff. People might be amazed at those who seem to “have the time” to get things done. I tend to believe they’re more often envious of another’s better ability to prioritize.

Competitive solo piping is a mainly selfish conceit. No one but you particularly cares about your prizes. If you’re lucky and good enough, you might occasionally compete before an appreciative audience, but far more often there’s no one listening but the judge, or a few fellow competitors half-paying attention. That’s just the way it is.

I thought that after the 2014 season I’d simply keep it going. But a few weeks away from practicing turned into a few months, and, after several months of not practicing, getting game-ready is hard. The Highland pipe is maybe the most physically demanding of musical instruments. In some way, you’re as much an athlete as you are a musician.

My priorities changed again. I had and have the time to practice, but I have chosen not to. What am I trying to prove that I haven’t proven already to myself and to anyone who might care? At 51, did I want to risk being that guy: the competitor whose skills have eluded him but doesn’t realize what’s happened and gamefully presses on, fingers flailing and failing, pipers mumbling about the bumbling, wondering, Why’s he still at it?

I’ve written before about stopping while the goin’s are still good. The last time I competed was in the Professional Piobaireachd on Saturday, August 2, 2014, at Maxville, Ontario. I was last to play, before a judge, a steward, one or two passers-by, and a lot of bugs. The tune was “The Old Men of the Shells” – one that I have always enjoyed playing. The instrument held. The mind stayed focused. The hands didn’t fail. The smell of fresh-cut grass filled the early afternoon air in the bright Glengarry County sunshine. The thump of bass drums was in the distance, but all felt quiet, the music taking me at least to another place in space and time. And later I was uplifted again by the result.

I can’t think of a better way to end a solo competition career. It’s all I could ever ask of the instrument, or of the music, or of myself. It’s a high that only the brethren of pipers can understand, and the right note, I think, on which to say farewell to the boards. If I haven’t always been good to them, they have certainly been good to me.

So, thank you to anyone who might have listened to me compete since 1976. Thank you for your comments. Thank you to all teachers. Thanks to my long-gone-now parents for the support and spurring me on. Thanks to every fellow competitor and the unique camaraderie of solo pipers. Thank you to the stewards. Thank you to the organizers of the contests. Thanks to the reedmakers, bag-makers and whoever it was in 1936 why made those drones in the old R.G. Lawrie shop. Thanks to the people who created the music. Thank you to the judges who lent their ear and their knowledge. Thanks to the family who put up with the practice.

I’ll remember the thrill and joy of competing well. Thanks.

 

It’s time for Scottish solo piping reform

The Scottish solo piping scene is a singular beast. While Scotland invented the idea of Highland pipers competing with subjective music judged by “authorities,” there’s really no other country on earth that still uses its system.

And, famously like the old TV show Seinfeld, the Scottish “system” is no system at all.

There are no rules that are applied to more than one competition, let alone a whole circuit. There are no defined grades from contest to contest. There are no training or accreditation processes for judges. There’s frequently not even an order of play on the day. Goodness – judges don’t even have to be accountable to competitors for their decisions and guys who never competed and wouldn’t win a prize in a Grade 3 contest in Arkansas are entrusted to assess performances that they could only dream about delivering.

There is the Competing Pipers Association, run by active competing pipers, almost all of whom are afraid to upset the hierarchy of acclaimed judges, for fear of repercussions on the boards. Borne of the Joint Committee for Judging (or associated with it, I’m still unclear), there is the new Scottish Piping Judges Association, which seems to be trying to do what’s best for judges, but appears to be detached from the competitors in the CPA. The first move of the SPJA is to create milquetoast conflict of interest “guidelines” that appear to say, Declare your conflict, but, well, go ahead and judge if you must.

Um, okay.

Unlike all other piping areas, and pure pipe band organizations like the RSPBA, the solo piping competitors in Scotland have little if anything to do with judging or rules. In Scotland there is almost total separation in the solo piping scene of the powerful from the masses. It is anything but a democratic or member-driven process in Scotland. Everywhere else, the members – the pipers (and drummers) – make the rules by electing or appointing the leaders, by putting through motions, and by voting on rules and policies.

Scotland does none of that essential democratic work and, as a result, it’s a largely haphazard and often inequitable scene. The absence of rules are part of the charm and tradition of solo piping in Scotland, which is okay for tourists, but alarmingly frustrating for those competing in it. The rest of the world’s piping scenes long ago created and opted for something better.

Twenty-five years or so ago when I last did the Scottish games circuit, I knew the drill. After realizing the “system” is no system, and navigating the scene by making connections, playing the game, and, for lack of a better phrase, working it, I thought then that by 2015 reform would have occurred in the shape of amateur grading, criteria for and accreditation of judges, and continuity of rules. In essence – a format adopted by almost the entire rest of the world.

Instead, virtually nothing has changed in Scotland. It’s stuck in a time-warp. Calum Piobaire would fit in comfortably if he came back from the dead to compete at Luss or Lochearnhead or even the Argyllshire Gathering, but he’d also be grumbling still about the familiar inequities and those with power pushing around the pipers.

There are certainly faults and problems with piping and drumming associations around the world. But the key difference is that those faults and problems are in the control of the members – the competitors. They can affect change. The only religion I practice is the religion of piping, and the congregation ultimately changes the church. The congregation is the church. Or it should be. If it isn’t, it’s time to reform the church.

The judging side in the UK seems to want to affect change. The pipers definitely want change. But the fact is this: until there is one association that brings competitors and judges and administration under one roof (with competitors by virtue of their large majority determining their own rules, policies, guidelines and structures), the Scottish solo scene will be stuck in that charming, traditional rut, that few but the tourists seem to think is ideal.

Wipe the slate. Combine the CPA with the SPJA and JCJ and the still fledgling CLASP amateur competing pipers effort and create the Scottish Highland Pipers Association or the Highland Pipers Association or Bruce Og or whatever you want to call it. Allow the members – the large majority of them the pipers themselves – to govern the judging and the rules, as they are set by the members through voting and via the leaders whom they elect and appoint.

The man or woman to lead that reform could well earn a place in the Top 20 Pipers in History.

Until then, the antiquated Scottish system of no system will just see more and more disconnection between judges, competitors and organizers, while the rest of the world continues to do things better.

 

Happy New You

I like making resolutions. Pipers and drummers especially I think can make a few new commitments at the beginning of the year, and here are a few suggestions, each of which have helped me as a piper.

Get in shape – pipers and drummers each play one of the most physical instruments there is. Add to that walking and being generally on your feet all day, hot summer weather, wearing 30 pounds of wool, and the occasional alcoholic beverage, and, if you’re not physically fit, the other piper or drummer who is has a considerable advantage. Ride a bike, take up jogging, do what it takes to improve your cardio stamina. Along with practicing your instrument, make exercise part of your daily routine, and you will have another edge over the flumpy haggis competing against you.

Learn a tune a week – expanding your repertoire will expand your skill. Every tune or score has new musical twists, and each will make you a better musician.

Seek out instruction – I often ask some of the world’s greatest pipers and drummers if they have a lot of requests for lessons, and invariably they say No. It seems that after a few years, the vast majority of pipers and drummers think they don’t need to learn anything more. Maybe people assume better pipers and drummers are too busy. They aren’t. Go get lessons. Go to summer schools. Learn from the best in-person.

Listen to soloists in the Professional grade – it continues to intrigue me that performances by some of the world’s top players are often ignored at Highland games. Make a point to watch, listen and learn from the best whenever you can. It’s a free lesson.

Subscribe to pipes|drums or other credible publication – if you’re reading this and you don’t have a $14.99 annual subscription to pipes|drums, sorry, but you or your parents have misplaced priorities. Being in-the-know, informed and knowledgeable are keys to well-rounded piping and drumming, and how-to articles like those by Jim McGillivray and Bob Worrall are invaluable.

Purchase things that have value – pay a fair price for piping and pipe band music. Whether scores to tunes and arrangements, commercial recordings or concerts and recitals, music has value. When you pay for it, you are playing your part in the music ecosystem. When you quietly take it without paying for it, you’re cheating your fellow piper/drummer. You’re stealing.

Ask for feedback – judges are happy to provide feedback after a contest. Gold Medallists and World Champions are just people. Don’t be afraid to approach them. Just be sure to bring your scoresheet. (While your performance is memorable to you, it’s not as clear to a judge who’s just assessed two-dozen others on the day.) Don’t look for compliments, but welcome criticism and advice.

Volunteer – get involved with your association. Attend monthly meetings and annual AGMs and contribute. Even if you’re not a natural leader, make yourself heard and available to help as you can.

If you pick just one or two of these resolutions and stick with them I guarantee you will be an even better piper or drummer.

Happy New Year!

Why pipe sections are bigger

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

Be big or go home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why pipe sections today are bigger.

Repetition, repetition

RepeatSignPipe bands and solo pipers are generally reluctant to introduce unfamiliar tunes into their competition repertoire. It’s usually regarded as an unnecessary risk to unveil a medley of all, or even half, newly minted, previously unheard content. When it comes to MSRs, those of us who have been around a few years have heard “The Clan MacRae Society,” “Blair Drummond” and “Mrs. MacPherson” ten-thousand times.

But why is this? I repeat: Why is this?

I read an interesting article last spring on the National Public Radio Shots blog about repetition and familiarity in music. “Not only does every known human culture make music, but also, every known human culture makes music [in which] repetition is a defining element,” the piece said.

Essentially, the premise is that repetition in music works because of what’s known as the mere exposure effect. People are generally tense when it comes to the unfamiliar. Humans through millions of years of self-preservation are naturally suspicious and wary of change. Only after a while, when we get to know someone or something through repetition and familiarity, we tend to warm up to them.

It’s a fascinating little piece that produced a eureka moment for me and pipe music. Pipe music is similar to other music. The rock song that we didn’t much like the first time gets better and better with repeated listens. More frequently the instant likeability of a new song is due to that song being a lot like a familiar song – derivative, even. (I was happy to remember that I alluded to that in a review of a St. Thomas Episcopal School Pipe Band CD almost 15 years ago.) Record labels often encourage their artists to go after a familiar and popular sound. Why? It’s more likely to be liked.

We know, too, that pipe music derived from Gaelic song, which some feel is in part derived from birdsong. It’s music that repeats itself, through a communal chant while waulking cloth, or a curlew repeating its song to attract a mate, or “Cameronian Rant” riffing on the same theme for eight or 20 parts, or the hypnotic effect of a piobaireachd like “The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy.”

Bands that have competed with a wholly new set of tunes can only hope that the judges will do the unnatural thing and react positively. Like it or not, it’s instinctive to reject altogether unfamiliar music, no matter how well it’s performed. We can admire the artistic effort, but, if we don’t like the music, pretty much no amount of tuning, unison and tone will overcome that natural rejection.

And that is why pipe bands and solo pipers stay with the familiar. They want to succeed, and to succeed, the music – on the whole – must be liked. And to be liked, it bears repeating.

And that is why substantial change in styles of pipe music takes generations to take hold. At best, a band that values winning (and what’s the point of competing if you don’t want to win?) might throw in a few original, but certainly derivative, tunes in a medley, or make a jig out of a well-kent strathspey’s melody-line.

Certainly and, perhaps, sadly, ScottishPower intertwining “A Flame of Wrath” in a medley tempted some fate. It’s a familiar piece to any solo piper, but, the trouble is, there are very few serious competitive solo pipers who are RSPBA adjudicators. Judging from the results, I think many adjudicators must have been dumb-struck because, to them, it was for all purposes unfamiliar and they reacted naturally. If the band stays with it in 2015, the overall reaction to the now familiar music will likely be friendlier. They should warm up to it.

The rare instances of pipe bands that competed with non-derivative, completely original, “avant-garde” selections (78th Fraser Highlanders “Megantic Outlaw” 1991; Toronto Police medleys 2008-2013) might have been noble and ingenious efforts to push the art ahead quickly and dramatically on the competition field, but accepted that the art was more important than the winning. There are exceedingly few competitors who will voluntarily reduce their chances of competition success to make a musical point.

And so our art, because it is so wrapped up in competition, progresses at a snail’s pace. Each new generation of pipers discovers “Blair Drummond” or “Itchy Fingers” and enjoys the first few thousands plays at least. The few who stay with competition for three of four decades find that, at an advanced age, it’s very unlikely that musical change can be effected when new generations of wide-eared young pipers and drummers keep coming in, marveling at every last over-played note of “Cameronian Rant.”

We relish the familiar. Repetition gains familiarity, which in turn gains warmth and acceptance, and if familiarity breeds contempt, by that time, it’s too late to effect serious change.

Sadly, sadly, it is forever, forever so-so.

Keeping score

Scoresheets or crit-sheets have never been a regular thing at UK solo piping competitions. I remember arriving at Montrose Games in 1983, an awestruck 19-year-old from St. Louis playing at the “senior” solo competition on a brilliant, sunny day at the links.

My bass drone stopped while tuning for the Strathspey & Reel (cane, sheep, wet, overplayed), so I slunk off, too frightened to take it out and flick it in front of Old Jimmy MacGregor, who might have been too, um, under the weather to notice. Never mind. I thought that I played pretty well in the March, and keenly waited around for the result.

Nothing for naïve me. But I remember being surprised that, not only was there no ranking order of finish past third, there weren’t even scoresheets. I was told that such things weren’t done in Scotland. I eventually got used to it, but always had a sense of miff as to what I did right or wrong, or why I was in or, more often than not, not in the prizes.

Thirty-one years later and, but for a few experiments with CPA B- and C-Grade events, there is no system of feedback for solo competitors in the UK.

That is truly ridiculous.

As with pipe bands, every solo competitor deserves to know how an adjudicator accounted for his or her decision. They don’t need or even want a “lesson,” or to be given helpful hints for the next time, as I have heard scoresheets reasoned away by many UK judges. Instead, competitors should at least come away from an event knowing that each judge’s decision was more than arbitrary.

The lack of feedback and accountability in the UK has at times propped up truly shallow, and even nonexistent, piping pedigrees from not a few adjudicators over the last century who, if they had to account for their decisions by providing constructive and informed criticism, would have been exposed as the frauds they were. The aristocratic “society” types who didn’t or wouldn’t know a phrase from a pheasant could simply draw up a prize list and go home.

Today, even, the best a competing solo piper in the UK can do is ask and hope for feedback from the judges. I once did that after I got nothing for what I fancied was a really good tune at the Northern Meeting. Days after the event I emailed one of the judges (who was someone who had never competed himself), and he responded with comments about how my taorluaths from D weren’t good. That might well have been the case – with another piper. The tune I actually played had no taorluaths from D.

In every other piping jurisdiction, not only are scoresheets mandatory, but judges only become judges after amassing a long history of competition success, learning feedback techniques, and proving that they can produce accurate and constructive scoresheets. It works. And if a judge were to write on a scoresheet criticisms about technique that didn’t even exist in the performance, he or she would be held to account.

Over the next few weeks many of the world’s greatest solo pipers will converge on Oban and Inverness. Some will come away with a prize or two. Most will get nothing. But the majority of those competing will receive no accounting for the result from the adjudicators.

The old world of piping should join the new world order, where formal feedback and accountability aren’t just nice to have, they’re essential aspects of a well-run and fair competition.

And not only do they account for judge’s decisions, scoresheets weed out the judging imposters.

I Am Proud to Play a Pipe

I am proud to play a pipe.
I understand the world’s most misunderstood instrument.
In conflict I am the charge up a hill, the landing on the beach, the Flowers of the Forest.
Pipers have fought and died as pipers, for the freedom to play a pipe.
When I play tunes from wartime, I seek to know their story, their inspiration, their authors.
I am a wedding, a graduation, a party, a funeral.
I am competitive edge, and the drive to improve.
I play hundreds of tunes from memory, every one of them different.
From nine notes I make thousands of songs and millions of memories.
I’ve heard every joke: what’s worn, what’s far, far away, and I politely play along.
I will patiently try to inform the misinformed, and gently correct the stereotypes.
I respect every piper, regardless of skill; strive to learn from those better.
I give advice only when asked, always constructively.
Every other piper is a friend, regardless of ability, age, gender or persuasion.
In competition my only concern is for myself or my band.
Selfish but selfless, I want to win but wish only the best to my rivals.
I’m magnanimous in victory and congratulatory in defeat.
Win or lose, I will celebrate with my fellow competitors, appreciating that they did not decide the result.
I will never be the mythical drunken piper.
If I see another piper in need of a helping hand, I will extend it.
My door is always open to any piper who needs a place to stay.
Every judge for whom I play, I will accept their decision.
I respect other piping ways and the ways of other pipers.
As a piper, music played well is always my first goal.
I learn and respect the history of piping and the legacy of those who preceded me.
The Highlands and Islands of Scotland are piping Mecca and always will be.
I will respect and strive to understand piobaireachd, the genesis of pipe music.
I work to improve the piping world, and volunteer my time to my association as I am able, because my association is made up of those just like me.
I am a reluctant leader, and I shun those who seek power to the detriment of my art.
As a piper, I accept and cherish that I will always be the piper to non-pipers.
I wear the kilt proudly, but know that it is less important than good piping.
I will tune my instrument, and learn to keep it in tune, never satisfied until it stays.
I will respect and appreciate drummers, knowing that they could choose to play elsewhere but have chosen the pipes as their partners in time.
I play the pipes, the most misunderstood instrument there is.
I am proud to play a pipe.

Inspirational wall

A wall of images of pipers and drummers who have done extraordinary things.

Every one of us was inspired to start playing, and every one of us should have inspiration to keep playing.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and for everyone it’s a different set of circumstances. It could be an innate competitive instinct. Inspiration can come from your parents, or from a friend who motivates you to play on. It could be from the thrill of pressure and the adrenaline and endorphins released in competition or on stage.

I’m inspired by many sources to keep at it. The music itself is certainly inspirational: the thrill of chasing technical and musical excellence, to constantly get better, to learn new tunes.

I have always been inspired by the playing of others. The great players who came before and who I’ve been fortunate enough to hear, or even compete with.

The photo is of a wall in my basement office / practice space. On the wall are the covers of each of the print magazines that I put together, from 1988 until going all-online in 2008. Each of the covers features someone whom I personally admire and from whom I am inspired.

P-M Angus MacDonald. Murray Henderson, Ronnie Lawrie. Bill Livingstone. Ian Duncan. Tom Speirs.

Whenever I practice or teach a lesson or write something like this, I gain impetus to continue, to strive to reach the lofty abilities and contributions that these folks achieved in their careers.

Donald Shaw-Ramsay. Jim McGillivray. Jack Taylor. Andrew Wright. Donald MacPherson.

All of them made – and many still make – extraordinary contributions to the art, whether it was the elevation of playing standards, creative compositions, business ingenuity, academic research, or any number of things that merited an exclusive interview.

John Burgess. Bob Worrall. Tom Brown. Seumas MacNeill. Wilson Young. J.K. McAllister.

The wall of course has carried on figuratively with many more cover story interviews via the online publication, accessible to far more people in many more places. The faces of these many interview subjects are a constant inspiration to me.

Iain MacLellan. Jim Kilpatrick. Ken Eller. James Troy. John Wilson. Tom McAllister . . . many more.

I highly recommend having your own inspirational images of great pipers and drummers to motivate you even more to practice, compose, teach or any other beneficial thing you might be doing with the art.

“Musical”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last tune and chorus

If you could choose, what would be the last tune that you ever play? The  last words in life of the famous are often quoted, and I’m sure that many of us hope to utter something profound or telling on our deathbed, as in the movies. Based on a few unfortunate experiences, it doesn’t seem to happen that way, but it’s a nice thought.

It seems to me, though, that we pipers and pipe band drummers should hope to play our favourite tune, or at least something meaningful, the last time we play with the band or the big pipes. At the risk of sounding morbid, I frequently think after a practice session or a competition event, that that tune could be the last tune of my life.

Not that I have any reason to believe that I’m going to kick off any time soon – any more than at any other time, at least – but I try to be conscious of living and doing things as if there is no time to waste. I like doing nothing from time to time as much as the next person (that, too, can be living life to the fullest), but I tend to have a do-it-now personality. It helps with productivity and getting things done.

Carpe diem, and all that.

I can’t recall anyone remarking on a person’s last tune in life. But I’d like to imagine that John D. Burgess had a nice run through “In Praise of Morag” or his classic arrangement of “P-M George S. Allan.” Maybe G.S. McLennan reeled off “The Little Cascade” before he finally lost the lung capacity for the big pipe. Or Captain John MacLellan recorded his “Phantom Piper of the Corrieyarrick,” always trying to help future pipers.

For myself, I’m not sure what I like to play last – the most meaningful tune to me that concludes a piping life. If I had a tune closely associated with me by others, it would be that. But I don’t believe that’s the case.

So, I think I’d like to play something I associate with others. “Lament for Mary MacLeod” was my non-piping dad’s favourite (it reminded him of the classic theme to “Jesus Christ, Superstar”), and I like it a lot, too, so that would be nice. Or perhaps “Lochanside” or “Highland Brigade at Magersfontein,” my personal two favourite tunes of all time. Or maybe “Edinburgh City Police,” in honour of my father-in-law. Or Michael Grey’s wonderful “Annabel,” which he wrote for my daughter. Or Bill Livingstone’s brilliant tribute to my lovely bride, “Greyfriar’s Julie.”

I don’t know. Not all of them could be played last every time I practice. But I find it an interesting thought, and, thinking about it, being spoiled for choice is suggestive of life’s richness.

May we all live forever, but, if you could have it your way, what might be your final tune?

Masons’ April

My first real introduction to the Masons was in 1983 and I didn’t even know it. A naive 19-year-old American piper at the Argyllshire Gathering, I thought that Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay simply had a strange handshake. When I was introduced to him and shook his hand, he sort of tickled my palm. I didn’t think much of it, but when I saw him the next day and he spat on his hand before shaking mine, I thought it a bit queer.

“You idiot,” a more canny piping friend said to me when I told him that MacNeill had a strange handshake. “He’s trying to find out if you’re a Mason.”

“A what?”

“A Mason. A member of the Masonic Order of [I don’t know].”

My only knowledge of the Masons up until then was as a fan of Monty Python, and their “How to Recognize a Mason” sketch. They were dressed in black tie and tails, so I figured it was some bizarre aristocratic thing about the UK class system, along the lines of their “Upperclass Twit of the Year” skit.

My Canadian friend went on to explain that, in piping, being a Mason helped you win prizes, and that in order to win a World Pipe Band Championship, the pipe-major had to be a Mason. Rumour had it then and for a good long time after, that that tenet was actually true and verifiable. I’ve asked several people who I believe do know to expand on it and, to a person, they refuse to say. They don’t deny it; they simply stay silent. And silence almost always means acceptance.

I was even told about a prominent piper who joined the Masons for the sole purpose of winning more prizes, and, looking at his incredible record, it certainly did not hurt.

There are many American Freemasons, to be sure, but the so-called “secret society” seems to be far more prevalent and popular in Commonwealth countries. To me, the idea then and now that anyone is awarded a prize for anything but his or her performance is repulsive.

But apparently it still happens. In fact, I have been told by someone I trust and who is deeply entrenched in the Scottish solo scene that the benefit of the doubt “70 per cent of the time” will go to a known Mason piper from a judge who is a brother (forgive me, Masons, if that’s the wrong term). And apparently there are a lot of Masons who populate the benches of solo competitions.

I don’t know for sure. And I guess the only way that one could know is by becoming a Mason, but doing that requires a vow of silence and secrecy, so I wouldn’t be able to spill the beans on threat of punishment by running the gauntlet of spanking with a cricket bat or wet noodles or something.

So, you can see how the tradition of the Masons continues in piping, since our other big tradition is sweeping serious problems under the rug and pretending they don’t exist.

I have nothing at all against anyone having their club with their rules. If the Royal Scottish Pipers Society wants to ban women from joining, that is their prerogative. If the Masons want to hold their meetings and get off on their rituals, fill your apron. Just don’t foist it on others.

And foisting it on others is what happens when delicate and subjective music competitions are swayed by anything but the musical performance itself.

For sure, the Masons do a lot of great things. They contribute to communities and charities, they volunteer their time. They are good people. This is simply a topic of conversation in piping and drumming based on my experience and what I have been told by those I trust. If it is indeed a practice or a problem, then sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant. If members of the Masons are offended by the perception simply being raised for the first time (that I am aware of) in a public forum in piping, then I guess that can’t be helped.

I am sure that readers know more about this and have had many more Masonic encounters in piping than me. Feel free to fill us in. Any Masons who want to refute it, you’re welcome.

And your identity can be secret.

Look at me!

Self-promotion is a touchy thing in piping and drumming. Tradition tells us that we accept our success and failure in equal measure. Apart from handshakes, fist-pumps and back-slaps at the prize announcement, publicly celebrating a victory has always been frowned upon, just as much as outwardly harping about a result to anyone but band-mates and trusted friends.

Thanks to social media, all that seems to be changing. Open up Facebook and you’re likely to see pipers and drummers flaunting and vaunting their wins, usually in a tacky and clunky way:

  • “Really pleased with my first in the March and 2nd in the Piob today! Congrats to all other prize-winners!”
  • “A great day and really humbled to finish ahead of gold medallist ____. Great competition!”
  • “Piper of the Day! Well done to all!”
  • “Thoroughly enjoyed judging today with [much more famous and accomplished person].”

Selfies of people wearing their own medals or in front of their trophies right after the contest even five years ago would have been unheard of. It’s pretty common now, as the “Look at me!” nature of social media has eroded piping and drumming’s tradition of letting only others and your playing itself do the promoting.

The generation of pipers and drummers that has grown up with social media, the unseemly notion of being famous simply for being famous, and “success” often determined by self-promotion is now coming into prominence as top-level prize-winners. Our tradition of magnanimous tact – quietly accepting success and failure – is being chucked out the window. Discreetly enabling and encouraging others to do your publicity is quickly becoming a bygone art.

The Look at me! culture of social media is changing the customary self-effacing nature that pipers and drummers have learned for centuries.

Magnanimous in defeat; gracious in victory: a piping and drumming tradition that we should keep.

Memorial Bell

My daughter’s great-great-grand-uncle is the great, great composer of grand pipe tunes and hero of the Boer War, John McLellan, DCM, of Dunoon, identified by all as the creator of some of our greatest tunes: “Lochanside,” “Southall,” “The Memorial Bells of Inveraray,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein,” and “The Road to the Isles,” to name a few.

He was born in Dunoon, Scotland, in 1875, and pictured here is the bell he played with as a baby.

My father-in-law, Martin Wilson, Jock McLellan’s grand-nephew, gave it to us 13 years ago when my daughter was born. The bell has been in the family for probably 135 years, at least. It’s a cherished possession.

I was giving a lesson the other day with a very promising 11-year-old piper, and we were going over “Lochanside.” Pointing out and talking a little about the composer of the tune, I went to find his bell, and, sure enough, it produced a certain, “That’s cool!” from young Kerry.

We rang it, as one does with bells, and for the first time I realized that this bell might well have magical musical powers, considering that it was probably the first instrument that wee Jock McLellan played. Surely it imparted simple tones to him so that he would eventually compose tunes that are magical for their simplicity of melody.

There’s something to this. I wonder if John McLellan’s DNA is still on the bell, which he must have sooked on, teething in his pram around the streets of Dunoon, round the Black Park, over to the side of Loch Loskin, and down Argyll Street.

Memorial bell, indeed.

Seven realizations in 2013

2013 was one of my more memorable years in piping, mainly because I was seeing things from a different but familiar perspective. Following a few springtime commitments, I took a break from judging, and, after eight years away, competed as a solo piper.

For the first time I didn’t have the self-inflicted burden of set tunes to crank through. It was true before, but, also for the first time, I practiced and competed with whatever I wanted to play. I was also free after competing in the morning to do whatever: go home, or stay around to listen to the bands.

Not soaking up an entire day judging 50 solo pipers and then 35-odd pipe bands was a nice change. Judging in Ontario is lonely and exhausting work; an assembly-line of competitors, each deserving close attention and specific and constructive feedback. Paradoxically, you’re thinking so much that there’s no time to think. So, this year I felt liberated from another self-induced burden, rewarding as it might be to try to give back to the community.

Looking back, there were several things I realized:

1. Tuned and steady are almost everything. If your pipe falls away even slightly, with all but the most courageous judges, you might as well forget it. Professional solo pipers who are in the prizes have impeccable, steady instruments. Wonderful music and technique more rarely than ever trump an untuned instrument.

2. Piping and drumming manufacturers have finally figured out marketing. Pipers and drummers will do anything to achieve the previous point, and makers of things know it. There is no end to what pipers will pay to gain a microscopic competitive edge. You make it; they’ll try it. The last decade has produced a dizzying array of products, each promising to deliver what you need. (Money-back-guarantees don’t appear yet to be widespread, though.)

3. Be ready to spend if you’re going to be a competing solo piper. (See points 1 and 2.) I compare solo piping to two other hobbies: golf and skiing. Each is expensive to maintain. Every year brings new equipment that promises to lower your score, allow you to turn more sharply, or steady your instrument. And, as with golf clubs and ski resorts, the price of participation in competitive piping is high. I handed over almost $500 this year to the PPBSO for the right to compete in five competitions. Low-income pipers and drummers are gradually being pushed out of the art.

4. One percent of the pipe bands control 100 percent of the pipe band scene. The world’s top pipe bands have more political and musical power than ever. As it goes with them, so it goes with the rest of the pipe band world. To some extent, this has always been so, but it seems today more pronounced than ever. Changes that should be made in the pipe band world, won’t be made unless a handful of pipe bands approve.

5. Tenor drumming jumped the shark. I’m not sure if it was a single episode akin to Fonzie jumping over man-eating sharks on water-skis, but it’s clear that pipe band tenor drumming at some point went just a bit too far, and there’s an overall retrenchment in the histrionics and pirouettes we’ve witnessed. Unlike Happy Days, the Tenor Drumming series won’t be cancelled, but it will continue in a more music-first manner.

6. The piping and drumming world is friendlier than ever. Particularly in the solo piping scene, pipers respect and support their fellow pipers, and there’s a spirit throughout of camaraderie. As I’ve said, we might thank social media for that, but I doubt there’s a more pleasant atmosphere at the games than among the Professional solo pipers, filling the time awaiting their turn to play with friendly and enlightening conversation.

7. Snide loses. The demise of hate-filled anonymous piping and drumming Internet forums is testament to point 6. Haters will hate, as they say, but we know who they are, and they will continue to be outed and ostracized from the community. Those who make personal attacks will quicker than ever find themselves without a band, out of solo circles, or, in the case of one well known attack, off of judging panels.

Those are a few of the things that I realized in 2013. I hope your year was full of realizations, and all the best to you and yours for a happy and prosperous 2014.

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