Break it down

“I broke down.”

These are the saddest of possible words a competitive solo piper has to say.

The ignominy of going off the tune and skulking from the competition stage (even if the “stage” might be a parking lot or a bumpy patch of grass in a farmer’s field) is perhaps unique to our wee club.

Is there another musical instrument where the performer, after making a mistake, simply stops and walks off? Sure, small children at violin recitals might get so petrified that they break down and cry. Despite the tune, I am certain there are no breakdowns with banjo players.

But I’m talking about experienced and fairly mature performers think the best option is to go away, deflated, sporran between their legs in shame.

I lost the bottle.

He crapped the bed.

She lost the plot.

I made a *&$% of it.

He broke down.

I think pipers might be singular in this respect. It is somehow acceptable for us just to bugger off rather than continue the performance with little or no chance of a prize. Notwithstanding a physical mishap, like a hole in the bag or a reed falling out, where the instrument is no longer playable, it’s part of our tradition, it seems, to flat-out give up the ghost rather than persevere.

The show must not go on.

“How did it go?” solo pipers ask each other. “I got through it,” is often the response, not saying it was good or bad, but only confirming that you didn’t break down, because it’s always a possibility that the person stopped playing part-way through.

Many years ago I had a spell at the games when I couldn’t seem to “get through” any event. I had the equivalent of what golfers refer to as “the yips.” I was playing well enough in practice, but as soon as I got out there my brain wouldn’t allow my body to work right. The traditional piper thing to do was and is to simply stop. The right thing to do would be to keep going no matter what, just to prove to yourself that you can indeed, “get through it.”

At least finishing – as hard as it might be – is something to be proud of. There is absolutely zero pride, I suggest, to be gained from breaking down.

The strange thing is that there is not an experienced piper at any time in history who has never had at least one breakdown in competition. Breakdowns seem to happen less these days, but they still occur even at the very highest levels in the very biggest competitions.

It’s another peculiar and questionable piping tradition: the breakdown.

So, let’s break it down: is it better to stop and slink off, or is it better to get back on it and finish the tune?

Hatred unwelcome

The Highland pipes draw attention. The volume and distinct sound of the instrument – especially when played poorly – get a reaction from people, so pipers are often seen in protests and parades.

Pipers who work their entire lives to be the best musicians they can be are invariably annoyed when “pipers,” who only want to be a spectacle by making as much kilty-noise as possible, go out and give the musical instrument and all of those who strive to be excellent musicians a bad rap.

It’s disturbing that things Celtic often seem to attract a certain racist element. Skinheads donning “utilikilts” and Celtic knot tattoos often add a noisy “piper” to the mix.

It makes my skin crawl.

The latest is a racist in Oregon who happens to use the Highland pipes to draw attention to his disgusting views and spitting vitriol. His MO seems to be to use Highland wear and the pipes to stand out from other hate-mongers, and, evidenced by the media attention he’s receiving, it seems to be working. (If you must investigate, you’re on your own – I won’t promote him any more than necessary here.)

Someone in the musical world of Highland piping needs to say it:

This hatred has absolutely no place in the culture of true pipers and drummers.

The world’s pipers and drummers are utterly and completely inclusive of all race, economic status, religion, sexual orientation and political belief. If you meet one who does not subscribe to inclusivity, kindly tell them to do us all a favour, take up the triangle and go away.

Real pipers and drummers enjoy and nurture the common bond that our music creates. We are colour-blind and completely tolerant – uninterested, actually – in what our fellow pipers and drummers believe, unless, of course, it is a “piper” or “drummer” who refuses to be part of that ethic. The only people we exclude are those who are not inclusive in their thinking.

Real pipers and drummers reject intolerance and racism. Those who embrace those things are not welcome.

Outlandish

OutlandishTo the general public, the sound of “the pipes” is increasingly becoming the sound of the uilleann pipes.

Thanks to the film and TV industry’s ever-rising preference on original scores for Ireland’s bagpipe as the sound of anything Scottish, the “great” Highland bagpipe is second-fiddle, as it were.

I’ve been watching the series Outlander recently, with all its costume changes, high cheekbones, and heaving bosoms. At first I was pleased to hear the Highland pipe in the spine-tingling opening stinger, deftly integrated with the Burn’s lyric to the “Skye Boat Song” melody. “Finally!” I thought. “The Highland pipes will be used throughout this series that celebrates Highland stuff.”

What a disappointment.

The uilleann pipes, lovely as they might be, are used throughout the series. There is hardly a Highland pipe to be heard or seen in the actual episodes. When they chase across the Scottish hills, it’s to the thrumming register of the bellows-blown Irish pipes. When the evil redcoat is dispatched, it’s to the soft tones of Ireland’s national bagpipe.

This has been going on for decades. Braveheart and Titanic were classic examples of uilleann pipes used as “Scottish” music. TV commercials for golf clubs depict Scottish folk and Irish pipes. The accurate use of the Highland pipe in Scotland themes is increasingly rare.

The traditional reason that the fickle Highland pipe chanter-scale can’t be integrated with other instruments no longer holds water. Today there are a multitude of solutions, from specially-pitched chanters, to synthesizer accompaniment, to post-production tweaking. If Miley Cyrus’s voice can be auto-tuned, surely the Highland pipe can be twerked . . . I mean, tweaked to accommodate any instrument, and vice versa.

Film and TV productions go to great lengths to be historically accurate. They painstakingly research the clothes and the speech of the period depicted. Yet, when it comes to the music, they conveniently go for the completely unauthentic sound.

Using uilleann pipes in a movie about Scotland is like a Gestapo officer in a World War II drama talking Ebonics.

It’s to the point where I am often asked by non-pipers about that “other Scottish bagpipe . . . the one that sits on the piper’s lap.” They mean the uilleann pipes, because they have seen and heard it so often in Scottish-themed shows.

There are exceptions, and I’m sure you will point out that Lorne MacDougall did the work on the Highland pipe in Brave. The exceptions are getting rarer.

But in the big scheme of things what can be done? Should Highland pipers be like Scotland itself, and resign ourselves to domination by another country’s persuasive charms? Perhaps the use of uilleann pipes in Outlander is subtle irony for the show itself: resistance is admirable, but, ultimately, futile.

I don’t know. How can we get the Scottish Highland bagpipe back into soundtracks and theme-songs for Scottish-themed programs and films?

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.

Making the grades

The second-most-important role of an association is upholding grading standards. We all know that the first is – or should be – promoting and teaching the piping, drumming and pipe band arts, but since every piping and drumming association that I know governs competition (with many, that’s all they do), the accurate maintenance of grading standards is key to the success of the organization and its members in its own region and around the world.

A reader recently wrote wondering how the whole grading system works. He was confused, since a few bands that won most everything last year and were declared aggregate champions in the association, were not upgraded. This year the bands are competing in the same grades. He tried to find details on the association’s website about how the grading process works, but, as with many pipe band associations, there was no information obviously available.

I have said before that grading should never be based entirely on competitive success within one association. Grading should be based solely on the world standard. It’s all good if a competitor wins everything locally in a grade, but if that grade’s standard is not commensurate with the rest of the world, that competitive success is relatively meaningless.

If the quality of the grade is not as good as, or maybe even better than, the benchmark set on a world stage, then it is the association’s responsibility to correct it by shifting bands or soloists to where they belong, regardless of competitive success. Too often bands and soloists are prematurely moved up when they don’t meet the true quality of the world standard. When that happens, the association just makes works the problem of a weak overall grade, and the quality of their scene is eroded.

But how best for an association to ensure that their own grade standards are in line with the world’s standard?

Start with the grading committee. As a member, you should know exactly who is on this committee, when they meet, and their process for making decisions. Go to your association’s website and look for that information. (If it is not there, your association has a problem, and you are not being served well as a member.)

Each of the members of the grading committee must be:

Experienced – they must have competed successfully at the highest levels. Anyone who has not walked the talk carries little or no respect with the members they assess.

Knowledgeable – competition success is one thing, but a well-rounded and multi-faceted competitive career is quite another. What level of repertoire do they have? Are strictly pipe band people making solo grading decisions (and vice versa)?

Informed – they need to have actually heard the competitors they’re assessing play. Do they have first-hand information on specific abilities, or are they simply looking at a results spreadsheet?

Current – are they listening to competitors in other jurisdictions? Do they travel to the top competitions to listen to the year’s best?

Inactive in competitionno one on a grading committee should be an active competitor. If current competitors are making grading calls at any level, members will be suspicious. Even if they recuse themselves from involvement with competitors in their own band or solo grade, it does not matter. Each grading committee member must not be perceived to be in conflict.

Lastly, it should go without saying (even though it had to be said recently) that no association should re-grade a member of another association. If there is a grading concern, associations must work together to resolve it. If a competitor’s grade is seen to be inaccurate when the band or soloist enters, then pick up the phone and speak with a knowledgeable and respected representative who has the above qualities, and work it out.

Accurate grading hinges on accurate standards. An association’s grading committee is responsible for the monitoring and upholding of those grading standards, and it starts with grading committee members who meet the standard of the committee itself.

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.

A gift

Rowland and Tirzah Berthoff, 1998Composing new music is the most significant thing we pipers and drummers can do. Recordings, winning competitions, performing in recitals and concerts – all good. But it’s the act of creating new music that has the most profound impact on the art.

In my real job, I work for songwriters and composers to uphold their creative rights. Being involved with all manner of musical genres, I appreciate that we pipers and drummers are not much different from the rest of the music industry.

I have realized, though, that in piping and drumming there is probably as much, if not more, original music creation than anywhere. Pipe bands through every level are under pressure to compose and arrange new content, and drum scores almost always have to be original. As a result, the idea of making new tunes and scores is instilled in every one of us from almost the beginning.

Just about every piper I know has tried their hand at composing a new tune, usually in the first few years of playing. Even if they’re not great or non-derivative compositions, pipers and drummers are able to make a new tune. The ability is in almost all of us.

There was a time when I fancied myself a decent composer, and I suppose I still do. Doing it well takes time and, since there’s no great demand and plenty of other things to do, composing hasn’t been a priority for a few decades now. But I made a few decent tunes that a few good friends published and a few good bands have actually played.

The great thing is that we can name our creations for people or events or places in our lives. In the late-1980s I composed a two-part strathspey and named it “Mrs. Campbell of Canna” for the late, truly great, Margaret Fay Shaw, who was (somehow) a friend of my family.

When I sent it to her, I never realized the reaction. She loved the pipes and she was a world scholar of Hebridean music, but this simple strathspey that I thought was okay bowled her over. She was truly touched, and hung a framed copy of the tune in the drawing room of Canna House. She asked me to play it each of the times when I saw her thereafter.

Young and naïve then, I only now realize the effect that an original composition created and named for a person can have on their spirit. Is there a greater honour that a person can receive than receiving a piece of art that is named for and inspired by them? Margaret Fay Shaw died at age 101 and her scholarly work lives on. But so will this tune. We pipers sometimes don’t fully appreciate that.

My daughter plays piano, and she’s pretty good and, like all kids, would be a lot better if she practiced more. I know that if she were to compose a little tune or song expressly for me, I would get weak at the knees and blubber like The Great One when he went to Los Angeles.

I’m not one to regret much. Life is what it is, and if you make on balance many more good decisions than not-so-good decisions, things go in a positive direction, so there’s not much point in wishing something wasn’t. As Beth Orton sings, “What are regrets? They’re just lessons we haven’t learned yet.”

But if there are two things that I regret, they’re that I did not compose and name a tune for my father or mother. Perhaps it was because I wanted to be sure each was good enough for others to want to play, or that I simply didn’t make it a priority, but it didn’t happen, and now it’s too late.

The lesson learned: if you are a piper of some experience, and your mother and father are still with you, you most certainly have the ability to compose a new tune and name it for your parents. It might not be a great tune, or even a good tune, but in their eyes I guarantee that they will be moved beyond tears. If you haven’t already, make them a tune.

While there’s time.

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.

Retirement hame

Quartet is a charming movie set in a grand retirement home for gifted musicians. Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and others star in the poignant comedy, with support from actual elderly famous musicians from the British stage. They long for what they once were as players and singers, but, the key is, instead of sinking into decrepitude alone and forlorn, they do it together, sharing their wistful memories of great performances, professional rivalries, multiple curtain-calls and standing ovations.

Their home is a stately Georgian mansion called Beecham House, in the idyllic English countryside, and the viewer assumes that the famous retirees have the means to pay for their care, but it’s apparent that there are major contributions to support the place and the lifestyle the old residents deserve.

They don’t just sit around moldering. They teach. They perform. They compose. They have a good time and, when one of them is down, they band together to pick him up.

What a thing it would be for our most accomplished retired pipers and drummers to have a grand home to go to, to live out the last years of their life among others who also lived the life. Perhaps set somewhere in rural Scotland, it could be a renovated castle supported by the piping and drumming community and a combination of private and government funding.

In return for all those Highland fling performances of his tune, perhaps the Marquis of Huntley could gift us his Aboyne Castle. Just the place.

Imagine the atmosphere. The retirement house would be like a Piobaireachd Society conference every day, except that every person there would be able to back up the talk with a career of playing ability that qualified them for residency. The home for old great players would enable drummers and bandsmen and women to relive memories, stay current with trends, and debate the past.

As in the movie, there could be regular recitals and workshops, kids visiting to learn from the masters, and for the masters to learn from the kids. An annual gala would bring in the Highland aristocracy (there is one, you know) ready to rip a cheque from their sporran to help things along.

There would be healthcare on-site, treating uncooperative fingers and wrists, and doctors to look after the mentally infirm with the dignity that they deserve. But most of all, the place would be a last band of brothers and sisters united by their common love of the art.

Some great pipers and drummers are fortunate to have the savings and the friends and family to lovingly look out for them into their dotage. Sadly, though, too many of our greats drop out of our own consciousness, and conclude their lives lonely and detached from piping and drumming society.

There should be a place for our greatest performers and authorities to go, if they wish, if they need to, to share their experiences one last time, for themselves, for all of us.

Event-full

Mash-up.If an alien from Mars – or even a first-time-travelling piper from Inverness – landed in the middle of the Friday solo circus at Maxville they would think they’d encountered a species of insane tartaned busy-bodies, running between myriad solo events, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, in a cacophonous din of piping pandemonium.

In North America we have far too many events, trying to cater to far too many people with far too little ability. There’s a solo event for everyone, it seems, from Flourishing Grade 4 Tenor, to Novice Piobaireachd, to split heats of Grade 2 Strathspeys & Reels, to dreary 6/8 marches, to a quaint old holdover from the 1970s for amateur quality pipers looking to scoop some cash called “Professional Over-45.”

And yesterday I received in my traditional paper-and-stamps post a written notice of my home association’s annual general meeting. I nearly put the anonymous envelop straight into the recycling bin, along with the junk mail that makes up 99 percent of the stuff through my mail slot, but decided to open it.

I’m both glad and sad that I did.

The Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario traditionally has its branches convene their own annual meetings, so that motions on rules can be tabled and voted on, so that they may be passed along for the consideration of the 40 or 50 folks who have the energy to turn up for the organization’s overall AGM in November. Four or five percent of the members on the day have the power to make 100 percent of the rules. It’s an antiquated system designed in the 1950s for an association that covers more than a million square kilometres that could only dream then of the technology we have today.

Among the motions from the branches this year: “. . . add a Grade 5 Piobaireachd event.” Split Grade 4 solo piping into 17-and-under and 18-and-older categories. “. . . add a Grade 3 Jig event.” A separate playoff event after heats.

More events for more people requiring more space, more time, more money, more judges, more stewards – all for less benefit.

It might seem that creating more events is a good thing. It’s not. We’re so busy trying to cater to every person who can scratch out a tune, that we foster the notion that “furthering” piping and drumming means creating more competitions. No. We advance our art by fostering its integrity, and that means that associations must ensure that we present it well, and sometimes – often, actually – that means showing less of it, but in a more impressive way.

Yes, amateur pipers and drummers should have a place to test their abilities to be inspired to improve, but we need to be judicious, and recognize that sometimes less is better.

The North American habit of creating a competition event for every piper and drummer of every interest and ability has to stop.

Nine p|d policies

Here are nine pipes|drums policies that you might not know about. We’d say they’re unwritten rules, but, since they’re written here, they’re not.

1. We don’t do competition critiques. pipes|drums has always been the first source for reports on competition results, but you will never find those wretched, self-indulgent, player-by-player, band-by-band critical rundowns that started with Seumas MacNeill’s 1940s Piping Times. They call them contest rundowns for a reason: they tend to run down everyone except the winner. It’s a tabloid technique: bash the best for being better than the writer. It’s sham schadenfruede. The result is the result. What we or anyone else personally thought of individual performances does not matter.

2. Advertisers don’t get preferential treatment. Businesses advertise with pipes|drums because it’s excellent marketing value. We reach more readers in a day than most magazines reach in a month and at a fraction of the cost for savvy marketers. If an organization receives editorial attention it’s because they are canny communicators doing interesting things.

3. Reviewers are unbiased experts. All product or event reviews are done by those who are as expert and unconnected as we can find. Those with a business interest in the product are not eligible, and we look for respected and current pipers or drummers who have no competitive connection.

4. We recruit the reviewers. pipes|drums always asks the experts, and any business who volunteers someone to do a critique of a concert or a product is gently told that it doesn’t work that way. Readers trust pipes|drums to tell it like it is with honesty and integrity.

5. We’re not selling anything besides editorial value. We’re not connected with a shop, or a school, or an association. We strive for professionalism, but pipes|drums is not our job. We don’t pocket any money from advertising and subscriptions. We plow back all of it into the publication and we give the rest to worthwhile, nonprofit piping and drumming initiatives. If the content is good, then the readers will read it. If the readers consider it valuable, a good number of them will subscribe. If the readership numbers continue to grow, organizations will advertise. It’s a simple and effective formula that works well.

6. Interviewees have the final edit. For every one of the more than 80 lengthy pipes|drums Interviews, the subject has been allowed to make final amendments before publication. We have always approached interviews as the story that the interviewee wants to tell. Amazingly, only a handful of times has an interview been changed substantially. Donald Shaw-Ramsay and John Kerr were the most severe, to the point where we suspected some sort of cognitive problem might have entered into the edits. The rest make very minor edits.

7. We rarely delete or edit comments. The times each year when we can’t accept a comment from a reader can be counted on one hand. We rarely have to edit them for being unfair. Our readers make intelligent comments, and monitoring them is very easy.

8. We compensate contributors. When an expert takes time to write for pipes|drums when we ask them to, we pay for their service. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s also not small – more than a judge would typically be paid for a full day. Many don’t accept it, and we’re happy either way.

9. We do it because you seem to enjoy it. We’ve been publishing pipes|drums for more than 25 years only because it’s fun to create something that many people like. Every week we receive thanks from strangers who are friends by way of association to the magazine. Those who don’t like it tend to be those who are paranoid we’re out to get them. We’re not; they are. Their loss. We hope they come around and decide to contribute just a little to piping and drumming instead of purely taking.

We’ve been at this longer than anyone else around today, and – at more than 5,000 all told – we’re pretty sure we’ve published more print and online magazine articles than any publication in piping and drumming history.

By sticking to the policies above we’ve been able to stay consistent and true to our readers. We hope that you continue to subscribe to and enjoy pipes|drums.

Piob band

More than ever I am convinced that the real future of piobaireachd is in pipe bands. For sure, ceol mor will continue to be played by solo pipers working to be the best ape of the current “authority” so as to gain the next prize, but listening to the Inveraray & District Pipe Band’s glorious rendition of “Catharine’s Lament” made me realize, once again, that piobaireachd is tailor made for pipe bands.

I say “once again” because every time a great pipe band takes a run at complete versions of the great music great things seem to happen. Even drummers like it. “The Old Woman’s Lullaby” by Invergordon Distillery in 1967. “The Desperate Battle” by Dysart & Dundonald, 1978. The 78th Fraser Highlanders and “Flame of Wrath,” 1998. “Field of Gold,” Simon Fraser University, 2009. “His Father’s Lament,” Toronto Police, 2009. “Cabar Feidh gu Brath,” 2011, Spirit of Scotland. “Queen Elizabeth II’s Salute,” ScottishPower, 2013. And Inveraray.

At Piping Live! this year the Piobaireachd Society presented a session on recently composed piobaireachds, and the organization’s attempts to welcome new settings and interpretations. It was nice to hear, and more power to them. But they seem to be missing the obvious: the pipe band. It’s the pipe band that takes the music that is in many ways an anachronism in the hands of the solo piper, and transforms ceol mor into the dynamic and vibrant and uplifting experience that it can be.

Most of bands mentioned above are led by great piobaireachd players and, in the case of Inveraray, they brought in six-time Clasp-winner Murray Henderson to orchestrate “Catharine’s Lament” with percussion and strings in a way that he always imagined it. Perhaps Murray heard it that way because that’s the way it was presented to him by Bob Nicol – sung with dynamics and swells and nuances that are simply impossible with a solo pipe. Add percussion, multi-layered harmony, tastefully arranged “other” instruments and piobaireachd reaches its musical potential.

Pipe bands clamor to create the next “suite,” and some, like the 78th Frasers and Toronto Police, have gone as far as to merge the original suite with the competition medley, with varying degrees of success. But a piobaireachd is really the original piping suite (and many pipe band suites could be classified as piobaireachd), so it all makes great sense.

If the Piobaireachd Society were smart – and indeed it’s full of brainy people – the next book in their Collection would be complete arrangements of ceol mor as played by great pipe bands. Right now we see the Argyllshire Gathering and Northern Meeting showcasing piobaireachd, with some judges doing their best to punish those who stray from the familiar. These are the annual navel-gazing celebrations of the big music that no more than a few hundred in the world truly care about. This is not a criticism; it’s fact. Piobaireachd as played by solo pipers is a competitive exercise rather than a musical advance.

If piobaireachd is to have a future beyond the stagnant renditions by solo pipers (and I include myself in that group), it is in pipe bands.

Five ways to improve the World’s

For what it is, the World Pipe Band Championships is a magnificent event. I’ve remarked before that it runs like a flawless Swiss watch, with thousands of moving parts and several rare jewels. Three-hundred-odd pipe band performances running on time, judges and stewards and administrators all knowing their role and doing their jobs. There is no bigger or better competition in the pipe band world.

But the World’s is at a crossroads. As the organization realized back in the late-1990s, they had a great product on their hands. The popularity of the contest with pipers and drummers from Canada, USA, France, New Zealand and just about everywhere in the world where pipe bands exist had grown so much that it finally dawned on the City of Glasgow to get on board in a serious way.

In a stroke of obvious entrepreneurial genius, Piping Live! was born 10 years ago. Events Glasgow partners with the RSPBA to stage the spectacle. If we are to believe the purported stats, tens of millions of pounds come into Scotland during World’s Week. It is a cash-cow for the local economy.

The World Pipe Band Championship is a great event, and it could be so much better, and so much more beneficial to the art overall and to the performers who make it the spectacle it is. The move to a two-day event shows that the RSPBA wants to try new approaches. It could be a spectacular success or a colossal failure, or even net-neutral, as they say, but at least they are trying.

Here are five more changes to improve it:

1. Transparency. We do not know how much the RSPBA charges the BBC to broadcast the event, or if it is given to Events Glasgow to negotiate. We just don’t know. As a broadcaster, by law the BBC must pay or negotiate a direct license with the organizers. The BBC doesn’t send eight tractor-trailers, miles of cable, dozens of technicians and an editing team back at head office to cover just anything. This is a mobile broadcast crew on the order of the Glastonbury Festival or T in the Park. There is a lot of money either unrealized or unaccounted for. It’s time to share the terms negotiated with the performers.

2. Bring the Grade 1 Final indoors. The SEC or the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall are prime venues to stage a 10-band Grade 1 Final. If a two-hour Pre-World’s concert with one band can sell out 2,000 £30 tickets, then certainly a four-hour World’s Final could command £60 a ticket. That’s a £120,000 gross. Do the Grade 1 Qualifier and all the other grades at Glasgow Green on Saturday, and then focus on a guaranteed dry Grade 1 Final on Sunday.

3. Pay-per-view. Again, the RSPBA, by selling or giving away the broadcast rights to the BBC could be missing a huge opportunity. The BBC is not allowed to charge viewers or listeners, so it’s all free. That’s nice, but the only way that is fair is if the BBC is paying the RSPBA at least as much as it could make from a pay-per-view broadcast. This year’s Saturday event is being streamed, not by the BBC, but privately, and that, too, is free. A pay-per-view streaming format each day where viewers purchase access for, say £10, at 10,000 viewers a day (a fraction of the number they contend logged in to the streamed broadcast last year), would bring in £200,000. And, if the viewers knew that the performers were being compensated fairly, they would be happy to pay a fair amount . . . so . . .

4. Share the wealth. Even without a ticketed indoor Final on pay-per-view streaming, the World’s is big money for the Scottish economy, and the license to broadcast the Grade 1 event is extremely valuable. The money must be shared with the performers. No performers; no money. The RSPBA can take an administrative share, but the rest should go towards prize money and appearance fees. The performers have a legal right to be compensated fairly, and saying that bands waive their right when they enter the competition is simply not legally true.

5. Promote the art. All pipe band associations contend that their first mandate is to “promote the art of piping and drumming” (or words to that effect). In truth, they are little more than competition-running machines. The RSPBA is by far the best in the world at keeping its competition machines finely tuned, but whether the World Pipe Band Championship or anything else they do truly promotes the art is debatable. The art is not solely competition. Fair enough, promote the competition as a product, but plow some of the money from the product into truly promoting the art through teaching, by taking it further afield, by promoting new and creative ways to present the music.

Many people still say that there is no money in all of this. Bollocks. Just look around. The week in Glasgow culminating in the glorious World Pipe Band Championships is huge money, and the performers deserve a fair share. Piping Live! by all accounts does a great job of compensating performers, and many bands are able to recoup some of their costs by playing during the festival.

We are not unique. Musicians of every kind can be and are exploited. Rock, rap, classical, pop, opera – you name the genre; all of them start off just happy to play and to have their music heard and they don’t know enough or are afraid to ask questions. We are really no different from the fledgling garage band who ignores their rights while others reap the benefits, until one day they realize they’re playing stadium gigs and can’t afford anything but fish suppers.

The irony is that we are not talking about greedy for-profit record labels. This is a nonprofit association that represents the will of its members and strives to create a fair and level playing field for all. Pipe band associations are not businesses, and they can be forgiven for missing business opportunities. They do a fantastic job of executing competitions, and now they need to catch up to the business end of the deal.

It’s now time to compensate fairly, once and for all, those who provide the product: the performers.

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.

The nerve

Considering the thousands upon thousands of competition performances we inflict on ourselves each year, instances of on-stage meltdowns are relatively very few. I’m not thinking of nervy breakdowns, but more of full-fledged panic-stricken collapses or sick-to-your-stomach upchucks. Maybe for that reason, the tales of such happenings become the stuff of legend.

The only time I actually witnessed it happen was at Alma, Michigan, in maybe 1980, when an unfortunate piper with a now-defunct Canadian Grade 2 band tossed his cookies in splashing style mid-MSR. It was a lovely sunny day, and I was sitting in the grass enjoying the band coasting along until there was a collective “Ahhh!” from the crowd, as if a firework exploded in the sky. The Scottish person next to me shouted, “He spewed! He spewed!” The band of course continued on with ever-deteriorating tone while the piper stood there, using his tie as a napkin. The human geyser faithfully replays in my mind’s eye in Guy Ritchie-like slow-motion.

The rest of the stories I’ve heard I can’t verify, since I wasn’t actually there. They might well be apocryphal, but I understand a well-known drummer back in the 1970s was competing in the World Solos and chundered on stage all over his drum. I’ve been told that the drummer carried on playing, never missing a beat, but with each stroke the stuff splattered on his piper and the judges.

He didn’t win.

The worst I’ve had to deal with is a dry mouth, but I’ve heard of other solo pipers – including one or two of history’s most successful – inducing their own sickness in the toilet before they went on at big competitions. Apparently it’s a common practice with concert pianists and violinists. No doubt it’s to calm an upset stomach, but most certainly it’s to mitigate risk. Blowing chunks down a blowpipe during “MacDougall’s Gathering” is not generally conducive to winning a Clasp.

Around these parts the legend of “Sally Sprinter” (not her real name) is well known. Apparently the poor dear lost her nerve and her lunch in the competition circle but, instead of regrouping and faking it, or at the least standing there while the band finished, she bolted right across the circle, through the crowd, into her car and went home – thus gaining her nickname.

They’re bound to happen more often than we know, these quiet upheavals in the face of sheer terror. And considering the live broadcasts and ever-heightening stress of the Grade 1 Final at the World Pipe Band Championships, it’s just a matter of time before the next legendary retching occurs. Not only will the event itself gain inevitable mythological proportions, but it could be rivalled by the BBC commentary.

“Oh, my word, Jackie! There it was! He heaved right into the reel there, and it looks like he had one too many boiled burgers and onions this morning . . . or maybe it was a bad pint!”

It’s inevitable and only natural, and a YouTube sensation just waiting to happen.

Untied united

Who the hell decided that pipers and drummers should wear ties? Probably the same Victorian sadist who dressed us in a one-inch-thick tunic, plaid, cross-belt, spats and feather-bonnet.
I’m sure that The Style Guy would have something to say about it, but the necktie is completely restrictive to pipers and a nuisance to drummers. No tailoring in the world can accommodate a neck that gains three inches with every blow, like some giant comical bullfrog. (I bet most of you have witnessed at least once someone in the crowd point at a band and say, “Wow! Look at that guy’s neck!” as a piper overflows his collar with each puff.) The tie flaps around the chanter and sticks while playing. There is no practical reason for it. It is inconducive  to making good music.

I’m all in favour of getting rid of ties, or at least making it more acceptable not to wear them in competition. They’ve been doing it for ages in Australia. And just as kilt-jackets were shucked off a decade ago at the World’s, so too should pipes be unknotted. Some associations even have it in their antediluvian rules that a necktie is a mandatory part of “Highland” dress. Associations are supposed to promote the arts of piping and drumming. They can start by loosening stupid rules like the necktie.

All this said, because I was an inveterate collector of things, I used to accumulate pipe band ties. That was in an era when custom-made band ties were something special, and usually something only the top-grade bands could afford, or make a priority. I still have a decent collection, and I wonder if someone out there has the equivalent of a T206 Honus Wagner trading card – maybe a 1968 Muirheads, or a ’75 Edinburgh City Police.

Trading pipe band ties was always fun and usually happened over many pints. Quartermasters must have gone crazy after big contests when every other player would swap ties. Because custom ties are commonplace through all the grades throughout the world, I doubt tie-swapping occurs much anymore. Custom ties are a dime-a-dozen. Some bands seem to change designs every few years. There’s nothing much special about them.

So all the more reason to call it a day on requiring pipers and drummers to perform while wearing these nuisance nooses. Let us stand united and untie ourselves from the tie.

Raising Hell

In 1978 I visited Canada for the first time, as a 14-year-old piping student from St. Louis at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The late Finlay MacNeill, a double Gold Medalist (for piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting and for Gaelic singing at the Mod), was the piping teacher. The great Wilson Young was the drumming teacher. I was required to learn some Gaelic, which I didn’t like because it took me away from practicing piping.

Almost all of the students were Canadian, and a vivid memory was going to a party one night at one of the residence halls. Over and over again there was a song I’d never heard before being played on the hi-fi record or eight-track tape machine. It was “Raise a Little Hell” by the Canadian group, Trooper, and it was all the rage in Canada that year.

It was my first exposure to Canadian music. I didn’t quite know what to make a song that said “hell,” but knew that it was catchy. At that same school, I remember both Barry Ewen and Neil Dickie, immigrant Scots who were both living in Nova Scotia at the time, came to the Gaelic College to compete, or do a recital, for us students.

They played what I thought were crazy tunes. Barry did a rendition of the accordion tune that Donald MacLeod adapted to the pipes, “The Hen’s March O’er the Midden,” with mind-blowing vibrato finger-trills in a variation. It was pure piping insanity. I can’t remember exactly what Neil played, but I do recall it being very different and adventurous.

I would return to St. Louis to become a fan of Canadian rock and pipe-music. Rush, April Wine, Neil Dickie, Trooper, City of Victoria, Clan MacFarlane – all were part of my late-1970s Midwestern years.

Destiny and luck I believe are informed by choices. I chose to come to Canada, largely to play Canadian-made pipe music on a world stage. I got to know Barry and Neil, and count both as good friends. I’ve been lucky to be a small part of some of the biggest changes in pipe music, much of which have come from Canada, and last year my backgrounds in piping, publishing and PR played big roles in starting the work I currently do with SOCAN, the Society of Composers, Authors & Music Publishers of Canada.

In November at our annual awards at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, nearly 35 years since my first visit to Canada at the Gaelic College and my first listen to Canadian music, things came full circle when I met Ra McGuire and Brian Smith, the Trooper-member-composers of “Raise a Little Hell,” and to whom SOCAN was presenting a National Achievement Award. McGuire and Smith seemed like two of the nicest guys you’d want to meet, and they were genuinely honoured and thrilled to receive the accolade.

I wanted to tell them about that party in 1978 in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton but, even if they had the time to listen, I wouldn’t have bored them with it and the fact that serendipity, fate, luck and conscious decisions all converged for me right then.

Nobody’s going to help you
You’ve just got to stand up alone
And dig in your heels
And see how it feels
To raise a little Hell of your own.

A few simple words to guide us.

Treadmill

The annual lists of Set Tunes for the big piobaireachd competitions are important to maybe a hundred people in the world. When you’re not competing in the Gold or Silver medals or one of the dozen or so elite competitors in the Senior events, the Set Tunes are, if anything, just a curiosity. I doubt anyone not in the current crop of hard core contestants is on the edge of their pipe box anxiously wondering what will be the chosen few.

I’ve been back at playing regularly these past months with the intention to have a walk around the boards this summer – just for fun. And “fun” is the operative word. Between the ages 19 and 40 I spent maybe 15 of those years playing at the tunes set for either the Silver or Gold medals. There were the very occasional own-choice years, and rare seasons when the lists were populated completely by melodic classics. By and large, though, these set tune lists featured two or three piobaireachds that I enjoyed playing and obvious choices, and the rest informed a process of deciding which was the easiest to memorize, get through accurately, and then hope for better options in next year’s list.

I remember Captain John MacLellan at a lesson saying “Abercairney’s Salute” must have been written by a personal piper who thought, “Hmmm, Abercairney’s birthday is tomorrow, so I’d better write a piobaireachd.” I would try to convince myself that dreary things like “The MacRaes’ March” and “Sobieski’s Salute” were great pieces of music, for why else would an esteemed organization like the Piobaireachd Society prescribe them for the Gold Medal? But in my heart I knew they sucked.

It seemed inevitable that I’d have things like that picked for me on the big days, while the one or two great classics I submitted went to someone else. Despite trying to convince myself that I didn’t care what they picked, it was always deflating. I always did better with tunes that were actually good music. But many were the times when I’d be puffed up, awaiting to know what tune they’d picked, thinking along the lines of, “Please be ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament,’ please be ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament,’ please be . . .” only to be punctured with some obtuse “Weighing From Land” type of thing.

I suppose it’s all part of the test, musical or psychological or a combination of the two. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard pipers talk about “trying to make something musical” out of a set piece of dreck, and there’s a sense of celebration when someone popular deservedly wins big with a great tune.

Perhaps sadly, every piper I know would be perfectly happy playing “Stairway to Heaven” if it meant winning a Highland Society of London Gold Medal.

It’s all to say that now without (as the great Hugh MacCallum described it) “the treadmill” of the set tunes, playing only piobaireachd that I really like to play is a new and liberating experience. I find that with each practice session, rather than having a mental checklist of tunes I must run another lap around, I can pick from 10 or so piobaireachds currently on the go. And then I’ll think of another tune I’d like to brush up and have a go at that. It’s long-forgotten fun.

Sometimes the lists look like they were put together by a preservation society rather than a music organization. For sure the piper who wins a big prize with “The Battle of Bealach nam Brog” (or “The Beelin’ Brogues,” as a friend calls it) will convince him or herself that it’s a musical masterpiece beyond reproach.

It’s all part of the mind game we agree to play, and the “test” we create for ourselves to bring life to the monotonous, all for the thrill of victory.

The market dictates

The TyFry company’s introduction of new tenor mallets claiming to be patently aerodynamic, balanced and a “new dawn” for the instrument – and available in a spectrum of bright colours – sparked lively dialog, debate and not a little consternation.

Piping and drumming still struggles with marketing and product development. We are borne of custom and tradition, and not a little Scottish austerity when it comes to drawing attention to one’s self, or outwardly selling hard. Even before new-world-style assertive marketing and promotion entered the fray, pipers and drummers lived a life of irony: one shan’t be seen to be showing off, but one must wear an ostentatiously colourful Victorian Highland get-up while (not) doing it.

Self-promotion is still a fine line to walk as a competing piper, drummer or pipe band. Pipers seen to be lobbying their ability are still tacitly knocked down a notch or two in the estimation of their peers. The tradition is to let playing ability do the talking. If the product is good, the tradition goes, then the judges will buy it.

We struggle with our own globalization. Makers of piping and drumming products compete in an ever-more-crowded market. “Innovation” when it comes to our instruments, music and apparel comes in microscopic steps. Foist too much change too quickly on too many and many will take the knee-jerk traditional reaction and reject it, cutting it down a peg or four.

Piping and drumming is used to dictating the market. This is what you will buy. This is all that is available. This is the way we do it. Don’t ask questions. Just do it like we always do it.

But the market now dictates piping and drumming. Makers of instruments, garb and tunes now take risks. They push things. They need to rise above the crowd, whether with bright colours or wind-tunnel-tested efficiency or tiny little Allen keys to adjust a carbon-fibre bridle. Changes that were once glacial, now happen in a single season. We are warming to globalization.

Day-Glo pink tenor mallets? Great! Aqua snare sticks? Wonderful! Red ghillie brogue laces, powder horns and a rack of medals on the chest? Good enough for John MacColl and John D. Burgess; good enough for me.

I would think that chanters can be made in a plastic of any colour, and that kids might be more prone to practice with a bright blue chanter than that black thing that everyone else has. I love the look that Boghall & Bathgate created with their orange drums and tenor mallets. I would have no trouble with a band playing chanters of any colour, or even a rainbow array. Bring it on. If the market likes them, they will sell. Things that were once simply not available, even unimaginable, are now marketed. We have choices.

No auld baldy bastard dictates to us.

The tradition that is perhaps hardest to break in piping and drumming is the one that says we must do things in a certain way. The customary notion that a very, very few dictate the music, the look and the instruments is increasingly a thing of the past.

The market is us, and we will tell it what to do.

As ithers see us

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

“To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church” is one of my favourite Robert Burns poems. The lines above, “translated” from the Scots to common English, are roughly, “Wouldn’t it be great if some divine power could give us the ability to see ourselves as others see us?”

There was a recent cartoon in The New Yorker magazine that to put the Highland pipes on the same level of abuse as the American banjo. We all know that the pipes are much maligned (mainly by those who only know them by the ear-wrecking sound of rank novices who refuse lessons, with no interest in improving, who insist on publicly displaying their inabilities – our own worst enemies), but the banjo? I always thought it added instant happiness to all genres of music, including its native bluegrass. Who doesn’t like the banjo?

The Internet and social media have made researching just about anything easy. Pick a topic and you can get a snapshot of what people think in a few keystrokes. In a sense, it gives us the power to see ourselves as others see us.

I have many continual searches set up for all kinds of things for work and piping and other hobbies, and use Tweetdeck to take a read of Twitter activity. Of course, I have a column for “bagpipe.” What’s found is generally a depressing series of jokes and abuse, often involving shoving drones up various orifices and well-worn jokes and myths about the instrument. (The one about a bagpipe originally being made from a sheep’s liver; the difference between chopping up an onion and a bagpipe – no one cries when it’s a bagpipe, and so forth).

But what about a banjo? How does the tweeting public view that instrument? Is there, as the cartoon suggests, the same level of abuse against it that we see hurled at our treasured bagpipe? Hardly. With few exceptions, and after weeding out references to Ashley Banjo, the vast majority of mentions are respectful and loving references. There are the odd mentions of hitting a cow’s backside with a banjo, but these aren’t against the banjo itself.

The accordion also seems to be mocked as an instrument. But a search of mentions on Twitter brings up pretty much nice stuff about France and bread shops and joyful ensembles. Like the banjo, there is the odd person who thinks it’s dorky but, unlike the Highland pipes, there is nowhere near the level of ignorant hatred that we endure.

I kind of hoped that a social media search of “banjo” and “accordion” would bring some degree of comfort that, yes, the pipes have common ground with a few other instruments in terms of public misperception. But, no, we might never change the thinking of the unwashed masses, and perhaps “to see oursels as ithers see us” isn’t quite so useful after all.

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