Ceol Competition Cam

Time to strap on the Compettion Cam (also known as the Glen Cam, the Bass-Cam and the Heavy-Cam . . . so far) for a different perspective on competing – which is actually a very familiar one to anyone who has competed. Thanks to Pete Aumonier and Jim Murdoch for being such good sports.

For those who have never competed on the Ontario circuit, this is pretty much what it’s like having an early draw during the summer.

All in good fun.

Six kinds of pipers

After many years of judging solo piping competitions, one tends to notice trends. In places like Ontario where it’s typical to critique more than 50 performances in a morning, you can’t help but start to see certain types of competition personalities come forward. I say amateur, because the professional contestants all tend to be of a workmanlike, get-it-done-and-move-on consistency, whereas the amateurs are much more of a mixed lot of attitudes.

By and large, amateur competitors are fairly non-descript and don’t fit any of the types below. But for roughly the other half I think there are five basic distinct characters. These personalities don’t necessarily mean that they are better or worse as pipers, and for sure each performance is assessed on its own merits. The traits tend to be seen before and after the actual tune or tunes.

1. The Name-Dropper. Without fail, there is at least one amateur competitor in every event who someway, somehow slips in the name of his/her teacher. “I got this from Rory MacDingle,” the player will say. I’m pretty sure it’s an attempt to intimidate. The player’s letting you know who will be reviewing the scoresheet, or, if you criticize the tune you therefore criticize the teacher. There must be some sort of sociopathic thing here.

2. The I-Don’t-Really-Want-to-Player. There are always one or two whom you just know don’t really want to compete. They tune forever. They can’t remember the names of their tunes. They’re visibly forcing themselves to do it. Hard to understand why they’re self-inflicting such misery.

3. The Inflated. These folks have a certain strut to their demeanor that belies their true abilities. Often they have impressive and well-practiced tuning phrases. They’ve studied the pros and ape their pre-tune routines. They inevitably elevate the judge’s expectations only to perform at a grade-level that’s less than required.

4. Mr. Piobaireachd. These are usually older amateurs who spend a lot of money travelling to two-week schools and weekend workshops to be instructed by the world’s best. God love ’em. They almost always dress to the nines and have the latest silver-mounted instruments, drone valves, drying gizmos, and gold-plated $300 reeds. They have the music they want to convey rattling in their head, but little of the technical ability to deliver it. These folks keep the piping economy growing. They always fancy themselves hard-core piobaireachd aficionados and are often also . . .

5. The Obscure. These pipers just love submitting tunes that no one else plays, or has even heard of. The tunes are published, but no one else ever learned them, much less played them in competition. “What do you have today?” “I will be playing ‘The Ogilvies’ Gathering.’ ” “The what?” ” ‘ The Gathering of the Ogilvies,’ and here is the music if you don’t know it.” They then produce a photocopy of the manuscript. This often includes crazy notation on phrasing, with circled cadences and arrows to single notes that say “HOLD!!!

6. The Whatever . . . These competitors are maybe the most confounding. They’re aloof and carry on like they don’t really care at all. Strangely, they almost always have great potential, and either don’t realize their hidden talent or are just too lazy to cultivate it. They’re not nervous; just completely apathetic. They usually vanish from the scene altogether after a few years.

Your observations will vary. These six personality-types give otherwise excruciatingly bland competitions variety and spice. If you know of others, feel free to suggest in a comment.

Sheepish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

What musical milestones?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Let er dangle

The Livingstone Sr. Invitational assembled the usual excellent piping talent with the usual small crowd of solo piping devotees, familiar handful of young learner-pipers and the customary consternation by older pipers (me included) as to why, oh, why more enthusiasts and learners don’t bother to attend these state-of-the-art demonstrations of musical excellence.

Nevermind. Of note was a relatively older roster of competitors. Of the eight, I believe all but a few were younger than 30, and most were older than 35. That the winner, Bruce Gandy (age 39) may have been (marginally) the oldest may say something, too, about the current condition of top-drawer solo piping in North America – or at least those who want to travel to this contest.

By far the youngest of the lot was Gordon Conn of Calgary. I’m not certain of his age, but I’d say he’s probably 19 or 20. Gandy, Grey, Troy et al.’s performances were all excellent, but I would say that the most memorable playing for me on the night was the hornpipe and jig that young Gordon threw down.

Kids today seem to set as the solo piping light music benchmark not what might win a Silver Star (although I’m sure that’s important, too), but what guys like Stuart Liddell and Fred Morrison can do with their hands. While most competitors in this own-choice light music event went with tried-and-true hornpipes and jigs (e.g., “The Man From Skye,” “Allan MacPherson,” “Donald Cameron’s Powder-Horn”) , taking a calculated conservative strategy, Conn chose tunes that would allow him to – as the late, great Scott MacAulay would have said – “Let ‘er dangle.”

That Conn’s hornpipe (“Mr. and Mrs. J. Duncan’s Golden Wedding”) and jig (“Karen Nuttall”) were composed, respectively, by Gordon Duncan and Scott MacAulay, pipers who left us far too early, I know carried some additional meaning to not a few people attending.

I liked that Gordon Conn executed the tunes in an edgy, seat-of-the-pants style – exactly the way the composers of the tunes would have done it themselves. They were pipers who lived on the edge of the moment, and objective number-one was always fun.

Damn the prize. Scott and Gordon I’m certain would have loved to see Gordon Conn, a young piper with a huge career ahead of him, do what he did.

Raising the chances

Shophie had to make a choice.Most solo piping competitors I think have a strategy when it comes to the tunes they choose and how they submit them. Of course, I’m talking about the higher levels of competition, where competitors have to put in more than one tune, and not thinking so much of submitting tunes that suit one’s hands or that the piper enjoys playing. Those are givens.

I’m thinking about the strategy involved with getting the tune you want to play chosen by the judge. When you submit four or more tunes, there are always one or two that you would hope to be picked, or, perhaps, one or two you hope aren’t picked. Consequently, pipers have their personal strategies for increasing/decreasing the odds.

Most would never admit it, though. If asked what you’re hoping to play, the standard answer has bravado: “Oh, I have no preference.” That’s supposed to communicate a combination of readiness and humility. It’s a subliminal warning-shot to a fellow competitor that you’re well-practiced, confident and ready for anything, while also trying to trick your own mind that you’ll accept what comes.

In piping and drumming, getting one’s hopes up – whether expecting a certain prize, favourable treatment from a judge or having a preferred tune picked – is ill-advised, and only sets you up for certain disappointment. A good rule of thumb for competing is, Expect the worst.

But you might be able to improve the odds. Here are some of the things that I either did as a competitor or as a judge notice others doing, attempting to get preferred tune(s) chosen from a list:

  • Name your preferred tune first. When you tell the judge your tunes, the first one should be the one that you want to play. It often gets chosen for the simple reason that the judge remembers it because he/she’s thinking about it as you rhyme off the rest of the list. And, as we all know, many judges have ADD or frequently simply lose the plot.
  • Increase the odds by including obscure stuff. Most judges pick stuff they know, mainly because they don’t want to be caught out. When two of the four tunes in your list are little-known and seldom-heard, chances are the judge won’t choose them. I used to submit a really good but obscure tune by G.S. McLennan called “Castle Toward.” I can’t remember it ever being picked.
  • Conveniently “forget” the names of the ones you don’t want to play. This happens a lot. A competitor just can’t remember the third or fourth tune in his/her list. They stammer and stall, and then it suddenly comes to them. Most judges are kind, so will probably not pick it because they assume you don’t want to play the tune or don’t actually know it.
  • Be cute. For example, if your last name is “MacDonald,” it might be a good idea to put in “The MacDonalds Are Simple,” or “John MacDonald of Glencoe,” or something else with “MacDonald” in the title. You see this quaint humour all the time. Judges think they’re funny and casual when they tell competitor Trixie McDonald, “Oh, well, we’ll just have to have ‘Mrs. MacDonald of Dunach,’ now, won’t we, haw, haw.”
  • Look for connections. Since there aren’t many competition tunes with “Berthoff” in the title, in addition to it being a fantasic tune I used to submit “Edinburgh City Police” in my marches, because judges often knew that my father-in-law played with that band for 25 years. As a competitor, I remember more than one nod-and-wink on the boards. You might want to choose tunes that relate to your hometown, band, teacher or some other connection.

Those are a few strategies that I’ve noticed and/or used myself. They might work for you but, then again, they might not – never count on anything in competitive piping and drumming.

Funraising

Use when needed.Because pipes|drums is non-profit, funds from subscriptions and sponsors that remain after site development and hosting costs are taken care of go to other worthy, non-profit piping/drumming causes. The other day the pipe-major of a Grade 3 band asked if a few subscriptions might be donated to a silent auction to help the group get to Scotland. Of course! Happy to help, and it’s good for pipes|drums, too, since almost all subscribers re-up year after year.

That’s not a monetary donation, of course, but it got me thinking about donations to piping/drumming causes in general, and then about what more associations could offer for sale to members beyond membership itself.

I think folks are looking for ways to create new and interesting approaches to competitions. There’s the “Pipe-Majors’ Wheel of Fortune” in the Edinburgh area that is extremely clever. I haven’t been to it, but I understand it’s great fun, with competitors spinning the wheel to see what they have to play – or even if they have to tell a joke.

What if a group put on a competition / fundraiser where competitors could purchase vouchers as part of the event? There could be “Play Again” cards that pipers and drummers could purchase to use if they cocked up the first attempt, sort of like Monopoly’s “Get out of Jail Free” card.

Or how about purchasing a loan of some great player’s pipes or drum for the event? Imagine being able to use someone like Bruce Gandy’s pipes for a day. Or maybe buying a voucher that you can use to have the judge tune your drum or drones. Or buy the right to move up a place or two in the prizes, should you make the list.

The fun fundraising possibilities are endless.

Ho-ho-ho

They call it a purple patch when you happen upon a sustained streak of good fortune, and over the course of the last three months Stuart Liddell has had one of the greatest purple patches for solo pipers in recent memory.

Since August he’s won the Dunvegan Medal, the Clasp at the Northern Meeting, the Glenfiddich Championship and London’s Bratach Gorm and Gillies Cup. Those are four of the very biggest prizes there are in piping.

So hearing Stuart play, jet-lagged and all, this past Friday in Hamilton, anyone familiar with his record probably realized that here was a guy at the top of his form, just coming off a sustained streak of big wins. (That there were only 30 or so people there to hear him out of a metropolitan area of about 10-million is a post for another time).

Who knows? Stuart’s purple patch may even carry on through the next year or even decade. But that night hearing him play right now was a rare treat. He’s known as much for his pipe band leadership as he is for his piobaireachd as he is for his competition light music as he is for his creativity as he is for his blinding hands as he is for his great sense of humour.

Here’s a sample from the night. Ho-ho-ho, indeed.

Worth a song

Copy that.A friend of mine the other day said that at his daughter’s solo singing competitions every competitor is required to present to the judges original scores of the song he/she is to perform. That is, not photocopies or handwritten things, but actual published and purchased sheet-music.

Here’s a rule of a vocal competition that I found:

Upon arrival at the festival, two copies of performance selections must be provided for the clinicians. The use of photocopies is forbidden. Photocopies of permanently out of print material must be accompanied by a letter of permission from the publisher (or legal copyright holder).

Solo light music piping competitions are generally assessed from memory, and occasionally someone will provide sheet music of an obscure tune. But I would say that, at least in my experience, there are four or five competitors in every light music event who play something questionable, leaving me wondering whether the piper got it wrong or is just playing a different version.

Providing scores might avoid those doubts, but, perhaps more importantly, it would help our own publishing industry if competitors, as with serious vocal competitions, were required to present actual purchased published manuscripts in order to participate. It would mean that all pipers would have to purchase collections, and not rely on photocopies and scans.

If it’s good enough for serious singing contests, shouldn’t it be good enough for us?

For the ages

Good crop.Ever wondered why there are always these clever new tunes all the time by young upstart composers? I got to thinking about it last week after downloading venerable old rocker Neil Young’s latest album, Fork in the Road.

I’ve been a fan of Neil Young ever since I gave Harvest to my friend, David Swihart, for his twelfth birthday in 1975. I figured if the ultra-cool Dave liked it then it must be good, so I got a copy for myself. Most people think 1972’s Harvest is Young’s greatest album, and I would agree. I played the proverbial grooves off of it. He was 26 when he wrote most of the songs, and they remain as fresh as ever today.

Not so for his new album. I can’t hear anything remarkable about it, except for some of the cloying “creativity” about green automobiles and such like that’s positively cringe-worthy. He sounds like he’s just going through the motions, forcing himself to compose and release material even when a good friend probably would have told him not to.

Why is it that so often the new musical ideas come from the young? You would think it’s the other way around, since older musicians will have built up a greater bank of knowledge therefore, one would think, should be less prone to repeating the past.

For sure, there are great exceptions. U2 still creates fresh, new, catchy material. Beethoven was in his fifties when he was composing his ninth and final (and some say best) symphony. I picture the MacCrimmons being pretty old geezers at their compositional peaks. On the other hand, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney haven’t written a memorable song in 30 years, yet keep pushing out derivative stuff. I keep hoping beyond hope that they somehow return to the freshness they displayed in the 1960s and ’70s. And through the history of pipe-music publishing, the popular productivity of prominent composers usually dwindles once they turn 40.

I used to work at composing pipe-tunes. A few of them appear in the collections of friends, and I would say that two or three of them might be worth playing, although there’s nothing really remarkable about any of them. But I haven’t composed anything for at least 15 years and have little desire to try again, even though I constantly have ideas for doing things with existing music by others.

The idea that I’d really like to pursue is a study of the ages of pipers when they composed their most successful material and had their greatest output-volume. I’d be willing to bet most of piping’s greatest compositions were from those younger than 30. (If anyone wants to tackle that project, drop me a line.)

Compose yersel’

The pipes|drums music archives.I was just re-visiting the comments posted in response to the review of The Warning Collection, a compilation of tunes (some of which are very fine) by Paul Hughes and his friends. James MacHattie makes a really good point; one that I’ve thought about in the past. James points out the attraction of a site like Jim McGillivray’s pipetunes.ca, which is essentially an iTunes for pipe tunes.

Instead of forcing people to buy a whole book, pipetunes allows people to pick and choose only the compositions that they want. It’s a great idea, since it also allows composers with a really good one-off tune to get it out there, without having to wait years to compile 50 or more compositions, scrape together enough money for expensive printing, and then hope that they sell enough books to at least break even.

About 10 years ago I compiled a book comprising almost-lost tunes by some of the greatest composers of the past. I spent a lot of time researching the old collections, playing through stuff by Roddie Campbell, John McLellan (Dunoon), James Center, Willie Lawrie and others, and picking out the ones that I thought should be preserved. The book did quite well, and I put the profits into a fund and eventually just put the money towards the development of pipes|drums. It was a long and painstaking process. Setting the tunes myself with the engraving software du jour made my right hand teeter on the brink of overuse syndrome.

Would I do it again? Probably not – at least not in print form.

But there is something to be said for a complete book of music. When it comes to music on iTunes, I almost always download the whole album. Most artists whom I listen to still put lots of thought into assembling a cohesive product, with a logical, musical sequence of songs, and, more often than not, my favourite songs on the album aren’t the big hits.

I still like to page through collections of pipe music, and I don’t really mind the chaff among the wheat – or the “potatoes,” as Simon McKerrell refers to tunes that aren’t really up to snuff. It’s all up to the compiler/composer. If Donald MacLeod or Willie Ross had nonchalantly allowed potatoes into their collections, they probably would not have the same stature that they carry today as collector-composers for the ages.

In their day, music “engraving” was actual engraving. Some poor engraver would actually pound out the music on sheets of metal. It was an expensive and time-consuming process, and the number of revisions were usually limited, hence the mistakes that we see in the older collections. Older collections were usually backed by actual music publishers, like Mozart-Allan and Paterson’s. You needed to be a big-time famous piper before they would entertain investing in your collection.

Music collections today, whether print or electronic, can still have the same quality through-and-through, provided the composer-compiler has a sense of purpose and a clear eye for their place in posterity. But for everyone else, there’s always the one-off route.

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