I don’t buy it

The commercial recordings of the World Pipe Band Championships are now being sold, and, as always, the performers don’t get a red pence for their work. Not a penny, dollar, punt, pound or centime for their efforts. pipes|drums has discussed the legalities of this at length, and brought the issue to the fore several years ago but, sadly, no progress has been made. Not a single word of explanation from either the RSPBA or the record company.

So, it’s time for individuals to stop buying the products and instead rip copies from a single source, and it’s time that the CD and DVD dealers stop purchasing from the record company and distributor. The reality is that every time we purchase these products we in effect take money out of the pockets of the artists who deserve – by law – their fair share. It’s simply not right.

It’s most remarkable to me that we all perpetuate the problem by turning a blind eye. Every off-season there’s some hue and cry from the bands that the practice ignores performers’ legal right to negotiate compensation, but as the days creep closer to the summer and the World’s itself the protests dwindle for fear of rocking a competition boat.

So I figure the only way to trigger change is not to purchase the products. If you’re desperate to hear these recordings, invest instead in software that will allow you to record the BBC’s streamed video so that you can play that original content again and again. (At least the BBC doesn’t charge anyone for the content.) Or, if you buy a copy of the CD, upload the content to a music file sharing site for all to take freely.

Once and for all, let’s stop buying these for-profit products until a legal agreement is reached with the performers. Until then, we’re just adding to the problem.

Dead men don’t wear plaid

Land of maits.This is a story about a tartan. Not just any tartan, but the tartan that I have worn the most since 1983 when I happened upon a very fine kilt in Fort William, Scotland, where I spent the night before competing at the Glenfinnan games (got nothing) as a wide-eyed 19-year-old.

While killing time meandering around the town I came across a Highland wear place. It was my intention to get a kilt while I was in Scotland as a third-year student at the University of Stirling studying pipin . . . er . . . I mean, English. I went into this place without meaning to buy anything, but there was a kilt lying there in a tartan that I very much liked. I asked about it, and the manager (who I recall was a bit of a dink, probably beaten down by American tourists like me all day) said that it had been made for a man who quite unfortunately died before he could claim it or, I suppose, be buried in it.

It was a bit ghoulish, but what the hay, I tried it on, and it fit perfectly. So I somehow cashed in enough traveler’s cheques to take it away later that evening. The tartan was Maitland. As far as I could recall, I’d never seen it before, and in the 27 years I’ve worn the kilt I have rarely seen it on others.

That’s because the tartan is exclusive to those with a direct link with the Maitland “clan.” My dad discovered this when he tried to find a tie in the same tartan. One has to prove one’s right to wear the tartan before a mill will weave it, he found out. So, being the historian he was, he researched my Scottish mother’s genealogy and discovered a relative named Maitland.

I’d forgotten all that until I’d decided this summer to replace the now frayed and faded kilt with an exact replica. When the kiltmaker took the order to the mill, they refused to run it for fear of being fined for breaking the rule of the Earl of Lauderdale, the head of Clan Maitland.

So, I have had to go through the process of formally joining the Clan Maitland Society. Its North American branch is headquartered – of course – in Las Vegas. I submitted my case and application, and after a month or so, I received a letter of welcome from Lauderdale himself: “Greetings, Kinsman!”

I like this. Anyone in theory can wear any tartan he or she chooses, and that’s originally what I intended to do, but we Maitlands carefully protect ours. None of this commonplace plaid for us!

I’ve played in at least one band that had a quite extraordinary tartan that became a symbol or brand of the band itself, but gradually other bands started to wear it, so my idea was to have an exclusive tartan custom designed and registered, which is what happened. (I left the band before I ever actually wore it.) Other bands, like FMM and SFU, have followed suit, creating their very own exclusive look.

But I wonder whether any of these bands protect their trademark tartan as steadfastly with weavers as my very own Clan Maitland, with an earl upholding the rite.


Ungraded.The Montreal games’ decision to forgo piping and drumming competitions due to the expense is telling. Like everyone else, I’m disappointed. But I also understand the economic challenges of holding a full slate of band and solo piping and drumming contests, and I can’t fault them for deciding not to go ahead with them this year.

Rather than pay a lot more to have the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario mobilize their turnkey operation of contests, with standardized judges, stewards and rules, Montreal is reportedly spending about half as much money simply to hire four or five top grade bands to perform a mini-concert on the day. I’ve been told that each invited band will receive a flat-fee of between $4,000 and $5,000 for their musical stint, which, I also have been told, would last no more than an hour. That’s a festival of pipe band music.

And that’s pretty good going for the fortunate few bands and the paying customers. It’s Pipebandpalooza. As a listener I’d want to attend Montreal to hear this festival of pipe banding, even more so than the usual full day of competition. Montreal can do this for that fairly inexpensive rate because the bands involved will be competing the day before at the North American Championships, a few hours’ drive away, in Maxville, Ontario. I’d think that other events without performers essentially already there would have trouble getting so many bands without paying a lot more for travel, but they could probably get two bands at double the fee.

So, this is the new quandary that I think we will see more and more of around the world. Highland games really only want the sound of pipes and drums. They don’t necessarily desire the peculiar cultural phenomenon of our little competition club, which is, as I’ve said many times before, not exactly attractive to the non-playing punter. The stuff we play for competition is technically demanding, tailored for clearer critical analysis, but it’s just not interesting to the large majority of those who don’t have a vested stake in it.

The reality is, if I were organizing a Highland games I think I’d be tempted to do what Montreal has done. I’d put on a pipe band show that’s accessible to and fun for non-players – the ticket-buying public who I need to be a viable operation.

But there’s still plenty of room for piping and drumming competitions as we know them. After all, pipers and drummers have repeatedly confirmed that they like these events, and don’t necessarily want to compromise or corrupt what we do to become a show for non-players. As a result, I’m seeing more Highland games opt out of the whole massive competition thing, but I’m also noticing more self-sustaining piping and drumming contests, held on their own, without the trappings of heavy events, dancing, sheepdog trials and a sanctioning pipe band association. The two formats are gradually going their separate ways.

As far as I can see, the World’s is the most successful example of the self-sustaining event. Anecdotal evidence and observation tells me that there are very few listeners at the World’s who don’t have a vested interest in the competition. The competitors alone attract about 7,000 people, and their friends and family bring attendance way up. As a result, it’s basically self-sustaining, provided it remains popular with competitors. Either way, events that are based purely on piping and drumming competition are scalable – they can expand and contract with the entry. (Note the May 29th Kingston, Ontario, event.) Just find a field, park or parking lot, tell everyone in your organization that there’s a competition, gather start-up funding, and charge everyone for admission, entry-fees and parking. Bob’s yer uncle.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that the familiar competition format is in danger of collapse. I do think, though, that, if we continue to reject the notion of changing our system radically, then we’ll just go our separate ways. There will the self-sustaining, competition-only events, and there will be the Highland games that hire guest bands to entertain the crowds. Montreal’s Pipebandpalooza (and they can pay me later for the name) is just a first radical start to the inevitable change.

Just talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image that

You're great. No, you're great.Most famous pipers and drummers have very few photographs of themselves. I know this to be true because of the struggle it almost always has been over the last 22 years to get images from interview subjects. Digital cameras are changing that but, still, older luminaries generally produce, if we’re lucky, a handful of blurry snaps, often of them in a crowd or playing in a band – slim pickings to support these in-depth, multi-parted features.

You’d assume that the opposite would be true, at least with pipers and drummers whose fame was gained mainly through solo competition. I can’t think of many things that are as self-centred as solo competition, since the whole point of the exercise is to be noticed, liked and rewarded by others. I’m not criticizing it, and I competed in solo events for a long time (and may yet again), but the reality is that chasing solo prizes is a total naval-gazing, narcissistic, self-indulgent conceit. No one except you much cares where you rate in the prizes.

And the irony doesn’t stop at a lack of photos. I find that the majority of pipers and drummers are loath to draw attention to themselves. They generally prefer to hide, and not discuss their experiences or success, much less take pride in their prizes.

Why is this? Maybe it’s due to a Scottish tradition of pious humility, but the last thing most pipers and drummers want to be accused of is self-promotion. Those who do are accused of wearing the proverbial fur coat and nae knickers. There are great exceptions (and, again, that’s okay with me) whom we won’t name here, but marketing does not come easily to the majority of us.

Things are slowly changing, though, and I think we can credit the non-Scottish influence for a rise in marketing and promotional prowess or, at least, willingness. Self-promotion is perhaps more culturally acceptable to Canadians, Australians, Kiwis and, certainly, Americans. Consequently, piping and drumming is coming out of its shell, albeit at the pace of tortoise.

As an American learning not just piping, but the culture of piping, I realized that one does not outwardly promote one’s self at the risk of being accused of trying to curry favour. One sets expectations low, and humility and not a little self-flagellation is generally in order at competitions. Those who come off the boards gloating about how well they played are doomed to fail, either when the prizes are announced or in their fellow competitors’ eyes.

But back to the photo-deficiency of famous pipers and drummers. There are only a scant few images of, say, John McLellan, Dunoon, or Willie Lawrie or Roddie Campbell. From that era, we generally can thank the military for the photos that do exist. Granted, cameras and photographs were relatively few and expensive then, but I tend to think that these humble pipers would have few pictures of themselves today, even if they had an account on Facebook.


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.


When I was maybe 14, after attending a piping summer school (or “camp” as the kids often refer to them now), I was told by an instructor (from the Brown-Nicol Camp) that “that” Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor was complete rubbish, and that only the Piobaireachd Society Collection would do.

Well okay then. I loyally relayed this information to my parents, who, as ever, dutifully did whatever was needed for their child and found the money to secure the 13 separate PS books (all that were published at the time). This was an expensive proposition, but they did it anyway. Not only that, but after a year of carting around these separate volumes, they got them professionally bound in one of those hulking tomes that I’ve used since

Today, a complete, 15-book, bound PS Collection costs about $500. They’re occasionally awarded as a prize at amateur piping competitions like the Sherriff Memorial, and I’ve heard competitors say that the big book is to them even more valuable and practical than a prize chanter or set of drones. The bound collection I received (complete with Angus Nichol’s calligraphic dedication) for winning the MacGregor Memorial way-back-when remains a treasure.

I understand from the president’s message that the PS books aren’t selling well these days. It’s not surprising, since people are used to a more a la carte approach to music. Most people I know download from iTunes just the track that they like, and not the whole CD. When it comes to bagpipe music, they generally either go to PipeTunes.ca to snag that tune they specifically want, or get a photocopy from a friend if the tune was published eons ago in Ross or Edcath. They should buy the whole collection but the reality is those people have been in the minority for decades now.

The thinking applies to the PS books: why buy a $25 Book 12, full of stuff you’d rather not hear, let alone play, when the only tune you really want is “Lament for the Harp Tree”?

If the Piobaireachd Society really wants to further the playing and accessibility of ceol mor, it would 1) offer the tunes individually, 2) make the music available online in pdf format, and 3) provide it for free.

The Piobaireachd Society could still offer its printed books or the entire, bound Collection at a break-even price. That’s fair. But perhaps it’s time the society also made the non-copyright music available in electronic form as part of its membership, or even free to everyone and anyone who wants it. Seems to me that that would foster the organization’s fundamental goal to “encourage the study and playing of Piobaireachd” like never before.

Facebook TMI

FB TMIIf a generation’s label lasts five years these days, then this must be “Generation Facebook.” A recent blog-post by Michael Grey prompted me to think, as his writing (words and music) is prone to do. It seems that much of the piping and drumming world, just like much of the world in general, is “on” Facebook.

I’ve been at it for three years or so, and don’t tend to do too much with it, except follow friends, link p|d stories and tweets. My interest in FB tends to rise and fall.

But lately I’ve noticed some late-adopters to Facebook from the piping world. Some of these, I’ve also noticed, are quite prominent pipers and drummers who are still active, to be sure, but whose glory years were maybe back in the 1970s and ’80s – well before Generation FB.

I wrote a few years ago about venturing to Scotland for the very first time (as a piper) in 1983, and heading to the Skye Gathering at Portree, and seeing the late, great John D. Burgess. Yes, he, too, was human, although his playing to me was super-human. It was a thrill to see and hear him, Iain MacFadyen, Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald, John MacDougall and others after years of reading about them and listening to their recordings.

To some extent, I’m finding that Facebook is sapping the mystique from superstar pipers and drummers, especially when they post stuff that portrays them as the regular people they really are. On one hand, it’s great that they can connect to the mortals but, on the other hand, the excitement that I felt in 1983 of actually seeing and meeting these people is irreplaceable. For me it was like finally seeing Bob Gibson pitch and Lou Brock steal a base after forever gazing at their baseball cards.

I don’t know. Something just doesn’t quite sit that well with me seeing the legends of piping and drumming carving turkeys or sitting around in their jammees with their family on Christmas day on their Facebook page. It spoils a mystique.

There’s a lot to be said for maintaining an air of mystery, and some of the greatest figures in piping and drumming history were, not coincidentally, some of the most enigmatic. There’s a fine boundary to be drawn between modesty and TMI.


Pipes need clarity.I finally found time to take my primary set of pipes to master craftsman Thomas Doucet in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for refurbishment. Thomas reconditioned the dilapidated John Wilson MacDougall of Aberfeldy set liberated after 30 years from his widow, and subsequently sold for $13,000 to Troy Guindon. Doucet has established a name for himself for his meticulous attention to detail, and to the traditional and painstaking methods of bagpipe-making, so I’ve entrusted him with these 1936 silver-and-ivory Lawries.

In addition to refinishing them, Thomas will correct wear in the middle bass-section, nip a few hairline cracks before they get worse, polish bores and recreate to Lawrie specs a matching blowpipe with wide-aperture plastic insert.

Interestingly, Thomas isn’t a piper, and seemed to come about his business somewhat by happenstance, learning the trade by working with the late Jack Dunbar, who of course learned his trade at Peter Henderson’s in Glasgow.

Coincidentally, I’d been reading Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand by James Barron. The book tracks the manufacture of a single $90,000 piano from the point of order, to the sourcing of wood, through every minute aspect of the labourious process until the nine-foot-long instrument’s completion. At the end you understand why the Steinway brand carries such gravitas and luxury – not to mention why the company’s flagship model is so freaking expensive.

While Steinway since 1853 was often enticed to employ new manufacturing methods and technologies, the company steadfastly resisted, at least when it came to their more major instruments. Almost all of the dozens of stages of manufacture are the same as they were 156 years ago. While Japanese piano-makers were gobbling market-share, Steinway resolutely decided to adhere to what they now refer to as “anti-manufacturing.”

I like this notion. While new technologies are developed to streamline processes and, presumably, push out more product with lower manufacturing costs to make more money, when it comes to great musical instruments, craftsmanship is everything.

It seems to me that most bagpipe-making through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s may have been seduced by new technologies, and that’s why you infrequently see a top player with an instrument of that vintage.

But there are top soloists today playing drones from the last 10 years made using “anti-manufacturing” processes – that is, the traditional ways developed and perfected by MacDougall, MacRae, Henderson and Lawrie.

In an age of cheap, convenient, disposable product everywhere we turn, the bagpipe industry is again being led by those who commit to quality, sacrificing prosperity for the sake of the superior.

Other worldly

GlobularThe 2009 World’s is done and dusted, and all that’s left is the celebrating by a relative few and the crying by most competitors. Competition notwithstanding, everyone who was there – physically or virtually – should be able to remember the event fondly. It is an extraordinary thing, and every year it seems to improve incrementally.

I’ve been on the administration and planning side of large events, and can appreciate just how much work goes in to them. Much of that effort comes from unappreciated volunteers, and that this year’s World’s again ran like clockwork is a true credit to the contest-running machine that is the RSPBA. I don’t envy any organizers who take it upon themselves to stage a big-time event for anxious and naturally contentious competitors. It’s inevitable that they’ll have to take far more stick for minor inconsistencies than kudos for the majority of achievements. So here’s my big congratulations to them, and you perhaps might want to do the same.

A few thoughts post-event:

Internet streaming: While straining to hear the Grade 1 bands (even from on of the best vantage-points there was), and wondering whether that mistake I detected was real or just the whistling wind or rain, I couldn’t help but think that listening to the BBC’s live webcast at home through a high-speed connection in high-definition on a 55-inch plasma TV with surround-sound speakers would be altogether better. While this high-quality access is a great step ahead and a boon to everyone, it’s probably not in the RSPBA’s best interests. They’re essentially freely giving away their most valuable product – the one many paid $50 all-told to hear live. I heard about not a few competitors even watching the webcast from their bus instead of fighting the crowds to hear. Pay-per-view makes sense, but by law the BBC can’t do that. Thanks to funding by UK taxpayers, the Beeb is commercial- and income-free. The BBC has played an integral role for years in the recording and broadcast of the World’s, and changing this to a private, revenue-based company that could then coordinate pay-per-view is a daunting thought. It will be interesting to see what happens.

The Qualifier. Get rid of it. I know that the Q was essentially something that the competitors originally demanded more than a decade ago. But 10 years back there were maybe 12 bands that had almost no chance to get a prize, so the Q was an easy way to weed them out. Now, though, I would say that the number of certain also-rans is maybe down to five Grade 1 bands. With that, it’s time to have every band go through a one-day medley qualifier for a final the next day. That means a two-day World’s, at least for Grade 1. But it would make the playing field more level, ensuring no band in the final has to compete three times – a massive disadvantage.

Bring it inside: Assuming Internet streaming will continue, why not bring the Grade 1 competition indoors? The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall seats 2,500. The Scottish Exhibition Centre even more. Sell tickets for a premium price, and put the bands, judges and audience in a warm, controlled, acoustically excellent environment.

The 78th Fraser Highlanders. Along the lines of the above points, aside from the actual final result, that the 78FH did not qualify was probably the biggest news of the day. Based on what I heard, I don’t think they deserved to go through. That said, bands competing in the heavy rain before 10 am were at a massive disadvantage. To think that this band finished fourth in the World’s Final only two years earlier, and two weeks before played well enough to win the North American Championship. The weather is luck-of-the-draw, for sure, but what sort of music competition hoses down a few random competitors with ice-water while they’re playing? It’s reminiscent of a scene from Wipeout.

The  Medley: Expand it. Five-to-seven minutes is too short. I don’t think Scottish-style bands are ready for the 15-miunute Breton approach, but they are certainly ready for 10 minutes. Unless they adopt a Toronto Police-style suite (and so far that methodology clearly isn’t being emulated by other bands), a seven-minute cap invites limited ability to expand creatively. As is, bands are essentially restricted to chopping and changing tunes with a degree of sameness, and several medleys that I heard seemed to be just getting started when they had to end. An additional 40 per cent of time will promote creativity and allow the pipe band art to evolve musically.

Repeat medleys: I can understand why bands will be tempted to play the same medley year-after-year (and year-after-year-after-year in a few cases), but it’s a let-down when they do. The top bands set musical trends, and same-old, same-old – while perhaps played to perfection – seems just a bit irresponsible and not a little lazy. Music fans look forward to the next release by their favourite artist. The top bands have their followers whom they shouldn’t disappoint. Maybe there should be a rule requiring bands to submit an altogether different medley every year.

Bass-sections: It’s time to get serious about how this increasingly important element of the band is judged. Ensemble and drumming judges need to be fundamentally trained to understand how bass-sections work, and then one or both of them need to be required to assess them, or else there needs to be a separate bass-section judge. As it stands, I tend to think that bass-sections are simply ignored by too many judges. Or perhaps judges don’t know what to listen for. While much of it is tastefully musically wonderful, some of the stuff going on with upper-level Grade 1 bands’ bass-sections is questionable, unmusical and even comical.

Judges: The criteria for who becomes a judge at the top level needs to be improved. That prerequisite needs to include a minimum number of years played at the Grade 1 level. I would suggest using the PPBSO’s stipulation of a minimum of 10 years to be eligible to be an A-level adjudicator (i.e., to be allowed to judge Grade 1 or Grade 2). Juried competition is only as good as the judges, and the adjudicators must have the respect of the competitors. In our game, that respect comes from having done it on the field and not just talking it in a lower-grade band hall. I’m certain that those who don’t fit the minimum experience level are very nice people. It’s nothing personal. It is, though, something essential.

Some may instantly read all this as a dump on the RSPBA. It’s not. The RSPBA and all associations aren’t about a bunch of executives and administrators. Associations are the members. It’s up to the members to demand changes, to raise motions at branch meetings and AGMs and have the courage to make what we do – and by virtue what the associations do – better. It’s up to us.

The noble prize

Fair dues..‘The Gathering’ was a solo piping competition held recently at the National Piping Centre Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. Sponsored by Homecoming Scotland, which is, according to its website, “an events programme celebrating Scotland’s great contributions to the world.” The initiative seems to be doing many things that tie-in with piping and drumming, including the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ August concert in Stornoway, Lewis, and the various Road to the World’s events to draw attention to The Big One at Glasgow Green that every single reader of pipes|drums knows about all too well.

The Gathering solo competition apparently offered substantial (for solo piping, anyway) prize money. Someone doing well at the contest stood to come away with more than £1,500, or about $3,000. That’s right up there with, if not better than, the most prominent invitational events.

Quite right. The pipers in that competition are the very best in the world, our elite musicians. Stuart Liddell, Willie McCallum, Angus MacColl, Greg Wilson, Gordon Walker, Euan MacCrimmon, Niall Stewart and Bruce Gandy I’m sure rose to the occasion before a good-sized crowd of a hundred or so enthusiasts.

But compare that event with the biggest pipe band contests. The 2008 World Champion received £1,000. The first-prize in Grade 1 at Maxville isn’t too much more than that.

I’ve never heard any band once say anything terribly negative about either the World or the North American Championships’ prize-money. No band goes to those events to become rich on the day.

But, considering the overall strides that the solo piping world has made when it comes to prize money and judges’ compensation at its more prestigious contests, something is just not right when the top pipe band competitions lag behind. After all, the big band contests draw crowds and CD sales of tens-of-thousands, and many bands invest tens-of-thousands just to get there.

Overall, the solo piping world is rapidly outpacing the pipe band world when it comes to organization and compensation. Why that is, I’m not sure, but would be interested to hear your thoughts.

The people’s band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


Burn, baby, burn.

This is a lengthier post, but I hope you still read it.

There has been some hand-wringing in Ontario and other parts of North America lately over apparent declining interest in our “product.” While some Ontario Highland games, like Maxville and Fergus, are thriving with bigger-than-ever crowds, others, like Chatham and Sarnia, have recently closed shop.

Jim McGillivray recently described it as “Rome burning,” which might be over-stating things a shade. For the last 10 years, he and others have called out for a reinvigoration or even reinvention of our product – the thing that we sell to Highland games organizers.

The RSPBA and the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario sell a turn-key product to events. For a flat fee, these associations will come in and run all of the piping, drumming and band competitions, and stage the massed band or march-past spectacles. As anyone who has been to several RSPBA or PPBSO events can attest, they’re pretty much the same format from contest to contest.

Most other associations have a different model. They will “sanction” designated competitions that agree to allow them to coordinate the judging and advise on competition formats and some recruitment of competitors. In essence, they ensure that competitions are of a certain quality. But games organizers can much more easily stage creative and different events, so variety from contest to contest is greater. It’s a more competitive and capitalistic approach. Over time, competitors gravitate to the events that are run the best and are the most fun to attend.

But what about the idea of our “product”? What actually is the product that we have to sell?

Here’s a fact we should all face: ultimately, the general, non-playing public does not much like bagpipe music. Let’s accept it. The average person is not drawn to our music for more than a few minutes because, in its usual style, it’s not very accessible or understandable or, dare I say it, enjoyable. This has always been so.

Our musical product has not seriously changed in 100 years. Medleys are more adventurous, but the large crowds that listen to the top-grade competitions at the World’s and Maxville do not comprise the general public; they are the same competitive pipers and drummers and friends and family who have always listened. It’s a captive audience that has grown over many decades. The more competitors a competition can attract, the bigger the crowds listening to the competitions.

The large general public that attends Fergus and Maxville doesn’t much pay attention to the competitions. They come out for the Highland dancing, the caber tossing, the sheepdogs and the grand spectacle of the massed bands. We can, and probably should, add 15-minute freestyle Grade 1 band events in concert formation, but I still think that the general public won’t really care. Performing facing the audience makes sense, but droves of punters aren’t suddenly going to appear because of it.

New competition formats could freshen things for pipers and drummers, however, the competition music will still be relatively inaccessible, because it will inevitably at least compromise when it comes to arguments about “Scottish idiom” and technical complexity that we identify as necessary in order to have a serious competition. At the end of the day, no competitive pipers and drummers want to do away with competition. It’s what they do. Most of us are competitors and get off on winning. Relatively few of us are frustrated artists.

I think that our non-competition “product” for the games still works. It can be tweaked to offer more variety and showmanship, but, if so, that product inevitably will have to leave out many of the lower-grade bands, and allow the more practiced and accomplished higher-grade bands to do the work, and they will want compensation.

The people who cry out for a sweeping change invariably are those who have been around the longest. They’re bored because they have heard and done it all before, hundreds of times.

But I don’t hear competitors younger than 30 express the same desire for sweeping change, because, just as it was for the now jaundiced veterans 30-odd years ago, our competition format is addictive and alluring to a certain type of piper and drummer who spends years getting it. (I also have never heard anyone from the UK suggest that their Rome is burning, but maybe that’s a different story.)

It’s a quandary. Do we accept that the music we play is arcane and boring to the vast majority of non-players and alter it so dramatically (I’m picturing other instruments, marching formations, electronica, light shows . . .) to attract a big general-public crowd? Or do we continue along the same course, mainly pleasing ourselves and our friends and family?

And, if it’s the latter, why not hold our own competitions that subsist on our own dues and entry-fees, holding them in parking lots and fallow farmers’ fields? Why can’t associations therefore move away from being competition machines and instead become event promoters?

I’ve never been to Rome, but I understand that today it’s an awesome place that respects the old while celebrating the new. Perhaps our Rome needs to burn for us to get better.


Wait till the Tri-State area sees my evil Drone-a-nator!It’s winter, it’s cold, there’s not a lot of piping and drumming going on, we’ve said everything there is to say about the Blessed Camaraderie of Tenor Drummers . . . so it’s time for a list.

Here are my favourite TV shows, although I confess that, because of time and watching live baseball almost every day from April to November, I catch up on some of these shows by DVD.

  1. Madmen. This is brilliant TV, especially for someone who works in marketing. A real study of a period just before so many societal things were about to change.
  2. 30 Rock. Funniest. Show. Ever. Me want foooood!
  3. Frontline. I never know when this deadly serious PBS program is on, but when I happen upon it it’s always riveting stuff.
  4. The Office. This has recently come close to a shark-jump (the episode where they get locked inside the building was relatively lame), but it’s still brilliant character acting and timing.
  5. Phineas & Ferb. While reading the morning’s news, I end up watching this show many weekday mornings with Annabel. P&F features maybe my favourite cartoon character ever, Doofenshmirtz, head of Evil Incorporated, and the voice of Ashley Tisdale as the borderline personality disorder-afflicted sister, Candace. When I was a kid all we had was total crap like Speed Racer.

Copy that

This image is approved public domain, smarty.Ian Whitelaw, in his review of Simon McKerrell and Finlay MacDonald’s new collection, makes matter-of-fact reference to bands photocopying music. At the front of the book itself there’s a message that says, “It is illegal to photocopy this book.”


Ian’s just mentioning a reality and I’m sure is the last person to circumvent copyright. Regardless, copying music for “educational purposes” is perfectly legal. Similarly, I don’t think Simon and Finlay are terribly concerned about one-off copies of tunes, and perhaps are thinking of wholesale recreation of the entire book.


Ever since the Haloid Company invented xerography, this battle has gone on. Since Bill Livingstone first cautioned us in his first collection in the 1980s, many other publishers of pipe music have included pleas to pipers that say in so many words: “If you like stuff in this book, then purchase it.”


I welcome every new collection. But I also wonder if new books of music are old-think. Do many people download entire CDs of music? Most people I know (but not me, generally) go to iTunes or PlanetPipe or wherever and purchase the one or two things they like.


Jim McGillivray’s pipetunes.ca takes advantage of this new reality. His site is a growing resource for pipers looking for that one piece of music that they really want, without having to pay $30 for the whole collection. And ever since David Glen started compiling tunes, there has always been a certain amount of filler in those pricey works. Even Donald MacLeod’s collection has some (very) occasional duff stuff.


And most composers I think just want their music played. Distribution is usually the hard part, and some I know believe that the more widely distributed it is – purchased or not – the higher the odds that it will be played. And when original copyright music is played, the composer makes the more significant money.


I think I’ve covered this before, but it’s worth saying again, especially with the irony between the statement in the book and the comment in the review. It’s really all about getting it out there.


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