Saint Angus

Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart,
You’re shaking my confidence daily.
Oh, Cecilia, I’m down on my knees,
I’m begging you please to come home.

Paul Simon’s hit, “Cecilia,” from 1970 is at first or hundredth listen assumed to be about a girlfriend, but it’s also, he admits, about St. Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music in the Catholic tradition. One of the greatest songwriters ever, it’s as lyrically genius as pop music ever gets, while being incredibly simple. (But please don’t get me started on Foo Fighters’ dreadful and derivative “St. Cecilia”.)

As a songwriter relying on the whim of the muse, Simon’s lyric has him begging to Cecilia to stay with him, knowing how quickly the muse can vanish, and how fast she can reappear. It reminds me of many U2 songs about girls (“Mysterious Ways,” anyone?) that are actually about the Virgin Mary. Every U2 concert is a big prayer service and most of the audience doesn’t realize or care. I digress.

But it got me thinking that, while piping and drumming is of course music, and Cecilia could sort of look after us, maybe we need our own patron saint.

Looking around, there doesn’t appear to be anything officially declared.

I’m not a religious person, but I appreciate spirituality. Paul Simon was raised Jewish, as I was raised Presbyterian, and I believe he’s not religious,either, but perhaps errs on the side of spirituality.

I defy even the archest atheists who have visited Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona on a sunny day with beams of fantastical yellows, reds and blues raying in through his gorgeous windows, bifurcated by the massive sequoia-like beams, not to feel spiritually moved. It’s so beautiful it makes one’s eyes well with tears.

Given that spirituality is a good thing, it wouldn’t hurt to have a Patron Saint of Piping & Drumming. But who or what? There’s no apparent Catholic saint who played a bagpipe. There are depictions of pipers in various abbeys and kirks, but these are only gargoyles and the odd seraphim.

St. Andrew I guess would be a natural, but he’s a bit predictable. In North America, anyway, St. Patrick is much appreciated for his big pipe band money-making day in March, but that a bit tacky. St. Philemon the Piper is the only allusion to it, but the “pipe” in this context appears to be a flute, not a bagpipe. After Ireland, St. Columba was all about the Highlands and Islands, so he’s getting there, but it’s a bit too close for comfort between Celtic and Rangers supporters.

So, with the lack of existing options, and the problems with religiosity, could we not collectively anoint one of our own as a “saint”? There are pipers and drummers in our history that seemed to perform miracles of music.

Saint Angus? Saint Padrick Og? Saint Donald Mor? Saint Alex? Saint Willie? Saint Donald? Saint G.S.? Saint Alasdair? Saint Gordon? Saint Captain John? Saint Seumas?

I doubt any of these greats were 100% pure, but no piper or drummer I know of is. And the histories of most “real” saints are often filled with violence and evil-deeds. I mean, killing snakes and serpents by today’s standards isn’t very nice.

There’s been more than one piper or drummer who’s said a little prayer at the line or during a tune or would commit him or herself to God in return for the creation of just one divine tune that would be played in perpetuity by the piping world ad infinitum, Gloria in excelsis Deo.

We could use a little divine intervention these days to keep us on the straight and narrow. Even if it’s all hokum, it sure can’t hurt to have a little talisman in the sporran, a superstition for moral support, or, when no one else out there seems to care, a piping and drumming saint who’s got your back.

Jubilation!
She loves me again!
I fall on the floor and I’m laughing.

 

Schooled

Scotland has resurrected piping and drumming to unprecedented new heights through widespread, accessible teaching. It’s an awesome and continuing success story, and the fruits of its strategy have become more and more evident with each passing year.

Just take a look at last week’s Shotts & Dykehead Juniors competition: 185 young pipers and drummers competing in a variety of solo events. Look at what’s to come in March when more than 800 piping and drumming students from at least 120 schools will participate in the eleventh Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships. And witness the steady growth in size and quality of Scotland-based pipe bands across all grades.

Teaching piping and pipe band drumming in private and public schools is now baked in to the Scottish curriculum. When 20 years ago playing the pipes might have been the epitome of nerdiness, today it’s cool-factor seems to have risen at least on par with playing bass in the school rock band.

It’s hard out there for the rest of the world to keep up, and it will only get more difficult.

As much as other piping and drumming regions of the world would love to have widespread teaching programs as part of public and private schools’ curriculum, it’s not realistic. Yes, there will be exceptions, such as St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario, or Knox College in Sydney, Australia.

But in countries like Canada and the United States that have been built with a diversity of immigrants, expecting that Highland piping and pipe band drumming will be taught in the public school system is as likely as India’s sitar or the Chinese erhu becoming part of the curriculum, equally excellent and deserving instruments though they might be. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the reality. It’s not impossible, just extremely unlikely.

Bands not based in Scotland are increasingly scrambling for players to keep up with both the numbers and standard of their Scottish counterparts. While the World Championships continue to be a draw for international bands in all grades, every year I see more of them bolstering rosters with available players from other groups, even from the cross-town rivals, just to meet the size standard, and hopefully also playing quality, when they get to Scotland.

Let me be clear: the Scots are doing the right thing for piping and drumming, and are not responsible in any way for the resulting challenges felt in the rest of the world. The grassroots teaching efforts by Scottish immigrants and visiting instructors that began some 50 or 60 years ago that brought piping and pipe bands in Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand to a world standard have been formally adopted by the home of piping and drumming but in a more organized and publicly supported way.

And barring some radical shakeup by unanticipated Sassenachs, the Scottish teaching infrastructure will only improve and expand. There will be a standard in each grade for Scottish bands, while visitors – including those at the top of their grade at home – more often than not will languish in the lower half.

While Scotland should celebrate and be congratulated for its teaching success, the rest of the world will need to find new ways to keep up. Idly expecting local bands or occasional individuals to do all the teaching using a variety of excellent, good or downright terrible methods will not be enough. Associations need to step up with organized programs and standards that make learning piping and drumming accessible to young students. They need to work with school districts to investigate at least the possibility of getting organized expert teaching into classrooms.

Associations should have recognized it 20 years ago, and some, including me, tried to get programs off the ground a decade or longer ago only to be rejected ultimately by executives and board members.

If the rest of the world is going to keep up, it’s no longer enough for piping and drumming societies and associations to be Highland games-running machines. They need to provide the fuel and the fire to keep the mechanism running.

 

#MeToo

I can only imagine what it’s like for female pipers and drummers to persevere in what is still a male-dominated – and often dominating – avocation. It’s a topic that has interested me for many years, going back to the 1990s when I worked to pull together a piece on females in piping.

It wasn’t easy then to get women to speak to the issue, and it’s still a difficult subject to discuss openly, many seemingly afraid of rocking a boat or jeopardizing their band’s or their own chances with judges and “authorities” – which are heavily weighted to males.

For sure, much has changed since the 1970s when women were still prohibited from competing at the major solo competitions until Patricia Innes (Henderson), Rhona MacDonald (Lightfoot), and Anne Stewart (Spalding) broke the gender barrier in 1976. Top-grade Scottish pipe bands disallowed female members until Ontario’s Gail Brown courageously stepped into the World Champion Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia in 1973.

It would take another 31 years before a woman would be awarded a Highland Society of London Gold Medal, when Faye Henderson broke the glass ceiling at Oban in 2010, not coincidentally following in the trail-blazing footsteps of her co-pioneering mother.

Back then, I wrote a blog post on the topic of pigeon-holing males and females, but the piping and drumming world remains a disproportionately male-dominated place, replete with its share of crass macho-shiteheads who continue to operate as if it’s an old-boys club. Only 20 years ago there were bands that not only wouldn’t allow women into their ranks, but would not even allow them to get on the bus. Maybe there still are.

The Royal Scottish Pipers Society only a few years ago voted to accept women as members, perhaps recognizing that they risked becoming a complete anachronism in addition to being hopelessly discriminatory. I don’t know how many women have been accepted as members, or have even been invited or applied. They might have jumped that shark decades ago.

If pipes|drums readership analytics are an indicator, about 25% of the world’s pipers and drummers are female, yet women are under-represented in associations’ executives, directors and judges, often woefully so. As far as I know, the RSPBA has one active female adjudicator. Of the Solo Piping Judges Association’s 52 judges listed on its website, a grand total of two are women.

The excuses are many. Well, there aren’t that many women who are qualified. Well, they just don’t seem to be interested. Well, they don’t have time, what with looking after their families. Well, they can’t physically blow a good instrument or carry a heavy drum. Well, their fingers are too short. Well, their wrists are too weak. Well, they’re moody. Well, they’re always complaining. Well . . .

The truth is, piping and drumming is still not the inclusive place that it must be. The challenges that women are faced with are systematic, insidious and, mostly, considered endemic. “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is,” I have been told by some great female pipers, resigned to having to put up with both blatant and tacit discrimination at practices and competitions. We males might not even recognize it, but it is there, often in subtly demeaning ways, and sometimes in quite awful insults – or worse – that probably force women to quit the scene altogether rather than put up with it.

And then we have the audacity to wonder why there aren’t more females who rise to the top.

The #MeToo social media campaign should be eye-opening to any sentient male. Personally, I have been astounded and saddened to see so many female piper or drummer friends of all ages come forward to divulge publicly that they have been the victim of emotional or physical abuse. I can safely assume that at least some or even many of those experiences have been around piping and drumming. Horrifying as it is, I know that there have been Harvey Weinsteins among us.

But, like thoughts and prayers, sadness and astonishment won’t solve anything on their own. We need to take action.

  1. All piping and drumming associations and pipe bands need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against any member discriminating against any minority – female; non-white; LGBTQ.
  2. Members of associations must sign an agreement to uphold its zero-tolerance policy in order to become members and maintain membership.
  3. Associations must actively strive to reach and maintain gender parity between its leaders and judges and its membership.
  4. Associations must adopt a safe and private process to allow its members to report acts of harassment, bullying or discrimination.
  5. Members and leaders who have been found to breach the policy should be suspended or, if warranted, banned for life.

Some organizations might already have similar policies and rules but, given that it’s hard to agree on obviosities like teachers not judging pupils or family not judging family, I suspect not.

Piping and drumming comes from all-male military roots, but chalking up discriminatory behavior to “just the way it is” is no longer acceptable. It never should have been acceptable in the first place.

We’re a slow-moving and change-averse lot, but implementing these policies, and altering our habitual way of thinking, can no longer wait.

 

Remember empathy

Why do many judges forget what it was like to be a competitor?

This came up the other day in a conversation about judging, competing, and judges. The current flap by a vocal minority about the Solo Piping Judges Association and Competing Pipers Association’s policies against teachers judging pupils and pupils playing for teachers, respectively, in the face of the fact that almost 80 percent of pipers and drummers appear to feel that teachers should not judge their students, re-raises the centuries-old debate that we thought was finally put to rest several years ago.

  • Is there a competitor out there who feels equally good about winning a prize whether their teacher is or isn’t judging?
  • Is there a competitor out there who, when a fellow competitor wins a prize when their teacher is on the bench (whether comprising one or several adjudicators), has zero disdain?
  • In the history of piping and drumming, has there ever been a competitor who was 100% okay with those situations?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, I encourage you to comment, so that I can understand your rationale.

Considering that all credible judges were once competitors, how can it be that some of them suddenly forget what it was like to compete? They seem to forget that they once swore oaths under their breath, ground their teeth, or at least rolled their eyes when their fellow competitor got a prize with their teacher judging, or didn’t sheepishly dread collecting an award given out when their tutor was on the pen.

The forgetfulness extends to other annoying judging behavior, like distracting a competitor with tapping feet and excessive writing, sarcastic or overly negative comments on scoresheets, or otherwise putting a player on edge before or during their performance.

Perhaps it’s learned. As much as they dislike it, competitors see teachers judging pupils, so they think it’s okay to serve their own interests when they have the opportunity to “give back” and judge. Some players distracted by judges think it’s their turn to get their own back when they join the bench. They give as good as they got. It’s an unfortunate cycle perpetuated by a few – unless guidance, policies, and rules are finally offered and implemented to break the generational pattern of entrenched tradition.

There is a fundamental truth so often forgotten: just like associations, adjudicators are there to serve not themselves, but the competitors. A judge’s experience as a competitor should inform his or her behaviour as a judge. Remembering what it was like to be a competitor – recognizing the constant significant problems and minor pet-peeves that accompanied their competition experience – is essential to being an excellent adjudicator.

Is there an age that I haven’t reached when pipers and drummers forget what it was like to be a competitor and they look out for only their self-interests? Does some sort of amnesia set in at 55? 60? 70? If there is, please let me know and I will try to remember to give my head a shake when the time comes.

Adjudicators are there to serve the competitors. They render and account for their decisions based on their knowledge, experience and adherence to policies and rules. Those policies and rules are and should be informed by the collective interests of the competitors, not the judges. If almost 80 percent of competitors agree that teachers should not judge students, then that is their will, and it should be respected. Adjudicators should never forget where they came from and what they went through to get where they are.

Among an excellent judge’s skills is empathy.

 

Maxville memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What judges want

Sitting adjudicating an amateur solo piping competition the other day, I got to thinking again about the competitors, so many of them so anxious and apprehensive.

Playing before a judge who’s going to judge your music is a weird thing to subject yourself to, but it’s what we do. It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the table that I appreciated that I had it all wrong for all those years as a competitor.

Competitors generally have the wrong idea about judges. I know I did, especially when I was younger.

I can only speak with certainty for myself as a judge, but I like to think that these things apply to any right-minded and decent adjudicator.

So here are a few tips for competitors as to what judges actually want when they’re judging you.

  1. Judges want you to play as well as you can. This is the most important thing to know. Any decent judge is rooting for you to play well, or at least to your personal best. I think many competitors mistakenly think that judges rejoice every time you make a mistake. Not true.
  2. Judges were once on your side of the table. Every adjudicator (except for a few anachronisms from a different era who still judge in the UK despite every competitor preferring that they don’t) has been a competitor. We know what you’re going through. It’s not easy. We can empathize.
  3. You will be given the benefit of the doubt. I know that if I wasn’t sure about something that I thought I heard, I will assume it was my mistake, not yours.
  4. Don’t tip your hand. If you make a mistake keep going. Don’t draw attention to it. If you played the wrong tune or got the parts mixed up, never assume the judge noticed or even knew, so don’t proactively confess to it. While I admire your honesty, I’d shake my head at you drawing attention to your error.
  5. Don’t start unless you’re satisfied with the sound. Unless there’s a tuning time-limit, don’t start until you are completely happy with the sound of your instrument. This happens a lot: competitors feeling like they have to start, and knowingly begin with their drones out of tune. True, labourious tuning for no real reason is irritating, but if you are struggling to get your drones in tune or your instrument isn’t quite settled, take the time to get it right. As long as it’s not against the rules, no decent judge will penalize you for tuning, but you will be criticized negatively for an out-of-tune instrument. The memory of long tuning evaporates with the actual competition performance.
  6. We want you to want to play. Connected with #5, judges can tell when a player simply does not want to play. They’ll tune for ages not because their instrument needs it, but because they’re procrastinating. If you’re going to compete, wanting to actually perform is the first step. Maybe you’re a masochist, but if you hate competing, don’t compete.
  7. It’s all about you. Judges are there to serve the competitor. We’re not trying to distract you, and we are (or should be) conscious of how we operate, when we write, tap our feet, or play along with you. My least favourite judges were the few who thought it was all about them, with histrionics designed to draw attention away from the performance, ticking off every mistake they heard just to show others that they heard it, too. (Did they count up all the ticks or something to decide their prize-winners?)  It should never be about the judge; it’s all about you.
  8. It’s never personal. Reacting to not being in the prizes, thinking that a judge must not like you as a person, can be an automatic human response. No, they just preferred other performances over yours. Judges are ambivalent as to who wins; they only care what wins.
  9. Judges want you to be happy. It’s music, but we so often are miserable playing it in competition because of anxiety. Make the music that you love. It’s something out of nothing and then it’s only a memory. Consciously making and enjoying music is a miracle that distinguishes us from other animals. Make a good memory. Enjoy yourself.

It can take many years for competitors to understand these things, and sometimes that understanding only comes when you’re on the other side of the table.

I hope they might positively change your perspective the next time you compete.

 

Club sorta

Pipers and drummers (mostly pipers) traditionally bemoan the fact that the general public doesn’t listen seriously to what we do. We put so much into our music and performances; we live and breathe pipe music and get frustrated when non-pipers or drummers or who aren’t family or friends (call them “outsiders”) don’t turn up for even our greatest events.

It’s particularly true of piobaireachd and piobaireachd players. Here’s the most sophisticated and hallowed music we have, yet no one else seems to care.

But here’s the thing: when outsiders actually do come to piping, pipe band and, especially, piobaireachd competitions and recitals we tend to think they’re freaks, and treat them with suspicion. It’s plain weird to us that any outsider would be a keen enthusiast of piobaireachd music.

It’s a club that’s by us and for us, and we actually prefer the exclusivity.

Some years back, there was a group of burlap-and-Birkenstock-wearing folkies who’d come out to the games around Ontario. They’d arrive in the early morning, find the Open Piobaireachd contest, and plant themselves in the grass, quietly listening to each player with closed eyes and gently swaying bodies absorbing the music.

I think there were two women and two men. They’d never ask any questions. They didn’t bother anyone. They were visibly happy people. The pipers would murmur among themselves wondering who they were, but I can’t remember anyone actually speaking to or even welcoming them. Looking back, I certainly should have. They dressed like Hippies, but they were seen as freaks because they actually, truly enjoyed piobaireachd – and they were not connected with the scene or the music in any obvious way.

And there was another older gentleman in other years. He had scraggly long hair and wore a tweed flat-cap. He’d also listen to the piobaireachd events, and actually record them on his cassette deck. Since these contests rarely if ever actually informed listeners what was being played, the gent would make a point to ask the name of the piobaireachd you’d played when you’d finished. He too was considered some sort of freak, simply because he loved music that I guess we thought that only players in the club by rights should appreciate.

Those piobaireachd enthusiasts eventually stopped turning up. I hope they’re okay, and I’m sorry that I didn’t make them feel more welcome. Ultimately, it’s our loss.

My friend and one-time band-mate Iain Symington wrote a terrific little hornpipe called “The Piobaireachd Club.” It was named after the group of pipers (me included) in our band who competed in piobaireachd events. Within the band we were seen as elitist, I guess, perceived to shut out other pipers for not knowing about the hiharin-hodorin. We all got along, but the Piobaireachd Club was a running joke within the pipe section.

So, we even ostracize within our own groups, and perhaps we like it that way. We lament the lack of attention from outsiders, but we rarely welcome them into our club.

I suppose excluding people is what defines a club, but if we want it the other way we’d be wise to try to bring in outsiders  – or at least make them feel welcome as guests.

 

Vintage years

Happy New Year to all. Here’s to a prosperous and healthy 2017.

A two-week holiday break provided time to go through stuff in storage in the basement, closets and cupboards. This always leads to finding nostalgic items that tear at the heart as to whether to keep, donate to charity, recycle or simply chuck out.

I came across a few bottles of wine that somehow never got drunk, and perhaps just as well. Among them were a red and a white that were part of a fundraising project for the now-vintage 78th Fraser Highlanders. They would have been from about 1990. They weren’t good to begin with and, 26 years later, they’re probably paint-remover. I ain’t opening them for fear of the evil spirits that might escape.

It got me thinking about pipe bands and raising money. Despite winning the World Championship a few years before, several popular concerts, albums, and a solid flow of prize-money, that edition of the band was perpetually rag-tag and chronically skint. There was never any monetary sponsorship, and trips to Scotland were generally paid out of your pocket, unless you were skint yourself and an important piece of the puzzle, then you could get some assistance.

Goodness knows how someone like me who was at the time living in a basement apartment, waiting tables or, perhaps by then, making $17,000/year as an assistant editor at a small publishing company was able to afford it, but I never asked for a subsidy.

It’s probably much the same today with most bands, but today it’s possible to sell merchandise and raise money online. Back then bands had to come up with creative ways to make ends meet.

So, 78th Fraser Highlanders “wine” was contrived. I didn’t come up with the concept, but I liked it, since that era of the band was known locally for a piobaireachd-playing faction of the group having little picnics at the Ontario games, eating roasted Cornish hen, aged cheeses and cellared wines. The band wine was a bit of a joke that probably only we got.

As is the case with most fundraisers like this, it’s mostly band members and their families who ever buy the stuff. (That was true, I know, of a later effort to sell – get this – frozen chicken.) I dutifully plunked down money I didn’t have for the plonk that I obviously never drank. Maybe I’ll sell the antique bottles in the Classifieds – with a warning never, ever to ingest, much less dribble over your hands before competing . . . but that’s another story.

A concept that I came up with a little later was “Friends of the Frasers.” The band at the time was loved by many and just as many thought it was a snobby club (see picnics and band-member Iain Symington’s excellent hornpipe “The Piobaireachd Club”), so, for both groups we wanted to try to get them on board, warm things up. Anyone could support and feel part of the band by becoming a Friend of the Frasers for, I think, $20. You’d get a certificate and an enamel pin and the (as far as I know) unfulfilled promise that their name would be listed on a forthcoming album. In essence, a fan club.

We were of course ridiculed by the usual haters, but shortly after I was gratified to see bands around the world starting their own “Friends” program. It’s equivalent today to begging for money on Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platform. I remember the pipe-major being not too pleased when a jealous naysayer – who’s unfortunately still around doing his chronic naysaying and bellyaching – made a sarky comment about the Friends program in print.

(Obviously, the 2017 vintage 78th Fraser Highlanders has absolutely nothing to do with all that, and I have nothing to do with them, apart from admiring the current band and looking forward to hearing their music when I have the opportunity. I am sure that their fundraising is far more sophisticated.)

Just like back then, there are scant few pipe bands with decent financial sponsorship. There are many more of the upper-grade bands today that receive discounted or free gear from bagpipe, reed and drum makers in exchange for the endorsement value. In 1990, discounts or rebates were rare, no matter who you were, mainly because the band instrument markets were near-cornered by makers like Sinclair, McAllister and Premier. I believe the 78th Frasers got free drums from the Australian start-up Legato, and that might have been one of the first of its kind. The group got by like most bands: with grit, passion, and the occasional desperate and maybe cockamamie money-maker.

Wine? Frozen chicken? I’d love to hear about other inventive, if not pathetic, fundraising programs and gimmicks your band has deployed to help make ends meet. Every band has them, so feel free to share with the comment system below.

Until then, cheers!

 

Setting free

Maybe it’s time to change completely how competitors, judges and planners approach piobaireachd competitions.

A hundred-thirteen years ago the Piobaireachd Society was formed. Before 1903 the music was scattered around in multiple settings by various visionaries and pioneers. The publications were expensive. They were hard to get. There was no such thing as a photocopier, much less an Internet, so, if the art was going to be judged and “promoted,” it made certain sense to create standard versions of the music.

Right or wrong, the Piobaireachd Society (or maybe more accurately Archibald Campbell and his allies) attempted to come up with agreeable single settings of tunes, releasing every few years a new edition of its Collection. The music contained notes about alternative settings, which we can read today, but very few pipers dared to play those alternatives in competition.

The Piobaireachd Society promoted, or certainly encouraged, adherence to their settings – and thus promoted the sale of those printed books – in the major competitions. The judges expected them. If you played anything else, the judges would almost certainly chuck you out. You might not get even a listen.

It didn’t help that many, if not the strong majority, of the judges were aristocrats – “society” folk who couldn’t play their way into a juvenile band, never mind out of one.

In essence, the onus was on the competitors to prepare pretty much what the judges expected. There was no expectation that judges should be prepared with anything but the PS Collection or the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor.

In about 1994 a thing called the Internet hit the piping world, and in 2000 a thing called the Set Tunes Series broke new piobaireachd ground. The piobaireachd scholar and nine-years pupil of Robert Nicol Dr. William Donaldson approached pipes|drums with an idea.

He recognized that here was a far-reaching online publication available for free to all who wanted to read it. The Internet presented a readily available platform for all these piobaireachd manuscripts that heretofore were only available to those rare few lucky enough to possess the printed books, or who might live near the National Library of Scotland.

And these old collections are in the public domain. That is, there are no restrictions as to reprinting them in digital form. As genius ideas are prone to be, it was obvious.

So each year Donaldson and pipes|drums worked to put together the Set Tunes Series. His thoughtful analysis considered all known published settings of each tune set each year for the major gatherings. Suddenly, it was all there at a keystroke. Pipers had access to all settings. They could easily pick and learn. There was no real need to adhere to the standardized Piobaireachd Society setting just because it was the one most readily

Now, 16 years after pipes|drums and Willie Donaldson recognize the opportunity and actually made it happen, the Piobaireachd Society itself and things like Steve Scaif’s digital republishing of the old piobaireachd collections provide an online library of these public domain collections.

Judges, players and contest organizers have access to all of it, for free. Not only that, but today’s piobaireachd judges are vastly more musically sophisticated than the non-playing toffs who once lorded their ignorance over musical geniuses who needed a standard setting of a tune in order to determine who best stayed on the prescribed track.

The onus has just about shifted away from expecting competitors to adhere to a single printed setting, to the judges, who can today be reasonably expected to come prepared with all of the settingsof piobaireachds on their iPad. Whatever the competitor throws at them, they can be ready with the score.

Is the very notion of the Piobaireachd Society encouraging pipers to play settings from their Collection severely outdated? Is it time instead simply to come up with a list of tunes, and supply the names of and links to the collections where settings can be found?

Competitors can then learn whatever setting they want without fear. Judges with their iPads loaded with all of the public domain collections can be well prepared to assess the musical rendition put forward, bringing the contests in many ways back to the thriving, musical cornucopia that they probably were before 1903.

It’s all there to take in. We are no longer encumbered by inaccessible collections. We have knowledgeable, enlightened and tech-savvy judges well capable of accepting and interpreting renditions that have been tamped down – largely by necessity – for more than 110 years.

Is it time to simply stop this boring business of seeing who can ape the exact same notes and style and phrasing of the other guy?

Time to set the settings free.

 

Games guide

More often than not, Highland games and contests put on by non-piping/drumming groups have little or no idea as to how to run the events to achieve the best experience for competitors. Some contests of course get the oversight of associations.

Those that work with the RSPBA and PPBSO, at least, secure a turnkey solution, in which everything from entries to stewards to judges is run by the association, and standards are adhered to. While variety is sacrificed, there is something to be said for event-to-event continuity.

But around the world, the majority Highland games have the ability to create their own versions of contests, handle entries and hire judges. For them, here’s a well-intentioned checklist from a competitor’s perspective.

Map out space for events, and then extend by another 50%. Our instruments are loud. Competitors need room to hear themselves. Judges need room to hear competitors. Do whatever it takes to ensure that there is as little “bleed” of sound between events as possible. And never have a huge unused and off limits area adjacent to a competing and tuning space where pipers and drummers are bumping into each other. It makes us mad.

Keep out the interlopers. Do your best to keep out stray animals, children and oblivious others by roping off competition areas. Nothing fancy. Just a few stakes and some  rope will remind the punters not to wander into our space. Actual platforms for players are an authentically Scottish touch.

Account for tuning. The best competitions usually have the ample space for tuning. Pipe bands need an hour to prepare before they compete. Every solo competitor needs at least 20 minutes. It’s an assembly line process, and most pipers, drummers and bands know the drill. But they need space far enough removed from events and fellow competitors to get ready by listening to their instruments, not fighting for the lone tree.

Good stewards = efficiency. Competitors love a contest that runs smoothly. They expect an order-of-play that actually runs in order. Stewards can keep things moving while still using common sense. Upper grades pretty much run themselves due to experienced players, but it’s vital that stewards are trained and prepped for their role. Standing there waiting for amateur contestants to magically show up when their turn to play comes is a fantasy.

Shade and shelter. Venues with trees are almost always more popular with players. Shade on sunny days is a precious commodity for pipers and drummers wearing 10 pounds of thick wool, working to keep a fickle instrument in tune. Roasting on a wide open field will reduce the next year’s entry. Rain is tough to work with, but an indoor contingency plan for competitors, who often travel hundreds of miles to attend your event, is ideal. Rather than have them suffer through heaving rain to complete a massed band that no one is watching, bite the bullet and cancel it. And never, ever keep travel money from bands if they miss a massed bands finale because of weather that threatens their safety or health.

Don’t chintz on medals. I understand that purchasing dozens of amateur medals is a hassle, but it doesn’t need to be. Today there are myriad manufacturers that can design and create custom, quality medals at a fraction of what it used to cost. You just need to budget and plan a little more in advance. Putting thought into medals means you’re being thoughtful with pipers and drummers. They will take note.

Shake up the judging. It might be easier for you simply to hire the same judges every year, but competitors dislike this intensely. They want variety in the form of opinions. If at the end of your event a judge gets out his/her datebook and pressures you to hire him/her next year because his/her calendar “fills up fast,” don’t do it. Work to get other judges and the pipers, drummers and bands will appreciate it.

Say thanks. It’s simple, and pipers and drummers should thank you, but you saying thanks to us goes a long way towards returning next year.

In sum, if you please the competitors by addressing the above, you will have more and better competitors who enter, and that will elevate the stature of your event and gain more respect from the piping and drumming community.

More respect, more entries, bigger gate receipts, more success for everyone.

You might have additional recommendations, from a competitor’s perspective for competition organizers, so feel free to share them.

 

No middleman

One of the worst traditions in solo piping (and occasionally solo drumming) is the idea of a “senior” or more esteemed middle judge on a bench of three.

Many will know what I’m talking about, but in case you don’t it goes like this: the judge who sits in the middle is often deemed to be loftier or more important. It’s often predicated on age or experience, but it can also be by having won bigger prizes in competition or being seen to know more than the others.

Sometimes it’s none of that and one judge simply has a massive ego that the other two can’t be bothered battling over.

Whatever it is, the practice should be stopped.

Why? Because it tends to put a false sense of importance or priority into the minds of the competitors and judges, and that should never be true. Every judge has an equal say, so has equal importance, and the perception of a “senior” judge communicates the wrong thing.

I’m not easily intimidated, but I cannot remember judging on a solo bench of three when I felt that all three weren’t equal, and have been fortunate to work with folks whose egos don’t get the best of themselves, much less try to throw around their “senior” weight. I have been on benches (none recently) when I and/or another judge have, attempting to be polite and respectful, offered the middle spot to the older fellow. I have served on benches when that gesture of politeness has been declined, and my esteem for those people rose even higher. Sometimes placement of judges is pure happenstance.

The last two times I served as a judge for the George Sherriff Amateur Invitational something excellent happened: there were three events, so we swapped places for each, one of us taking a turn in the middle. It helped to communicate to all that no one judge’s opinion counted any more or less than another’s.

I’m not sure how the tradition started, but I would guess that it’s another holdover from the age of “society” folks like “Kilberry” or “Rothiemurchus” lording their opinions as near-non-players over accomplished competing pipers whose playing ability they could only dream of matching. It was probably the guy with the most money or titles or letters or land who got the position of “authority” in the middle. The richer they were, the more power they had, even when they couldn’t tell a darado from their own flatulence.

We’re so past that sort of thinking today it’s not funny. All competitors are considered equals before, during and after an event, and the judges should be equals, too. Yes, on an odd-numbered bench someone has to be in the middle, but it’s time to stop assuming that that person is “senior.”

The new rule to follow for benches: alphabetical by last name, left-to-right as the competitors face them.

Done.

 

Memories

I was reminded to remember a topic I’d forgotten to write about: memory. Specifically, the unwritten rule or tradition that pipers and drummers must memorize music.

As far as I know, there is no specific rule with any association that competitors must play from memory. But I often wondered what might happen if I walked up at some piobaireachd competition, plopped down a music stand with the score of the tune, and proceeded to play from it.

Would I be disqualified? I don’t think so, since there’s no rule that says it’s not allowed, let alone that I could by rights be DQed. Would the judge mark me down for reading from music? Again, no rule so that’s questionable. But anyone who would try it no doubt wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

There were times in my solo competing piping life when I’d have 15 piobaireachds on the go, most of which were tunes that were set for competitions that I would never have learned otherwise, mainly because I thought they sucked. Every piper who’s had to learn four or six or eight tunes from a list in which maybe three are truly attractive compositions knows what I’m talking about.

It’s a particular battle of will to memorize music you don’t like when practice time is short and the memorable melody is scant. You have to will yourself on, tricking your mind into memorizing the notes and phrases that come next, using mental cues – a bit like schoolkids making up acronymical sentences to help memorize obscure facts that will be on the test, e.g., A-B-D-B, A-D-B-B – “Anyone But Donald Ban, Agony Donald Ban Ban.” I’ve played tuneless tunes at Inverness or Oban that I would have a hard time today telling you how they start. (Ahemsobieskissalute.)

I admit that there was the rare time when I had a piobaireachd picked where my memory was a bit sketchy. It would be one of those dreadful obscure tuneless tunes that the judge also didn’t know well, so he’d be watching the score closely with his head down, which was a perfect opportunity to take an upside-down peek at the manuscript on the table.

There. I said it. Was that cheating? Not by the rules as they are written, so I still sleep well.

I noticed in a few photos of the recent Live In Ireland In Scotland concert that the snare drummers had the manuscripts to the scores in front of them. At last, I thought, common sense prevails, and good for them for putting the audience and the show before, in this case, a rather useless tradition of being expected to memorize music. It’s a mountain of material for musicians to squeeze in among their own band’s stuff, so of course play from the scores. I’m surprised the pipers didn’t as well.

I’ve poked around the rules of other music events. The International Tchaikovsky Competitions require material to be played from memory. But I couldn’t find many or any other examples. Even Drum Corps International, as far as I can see, expects memorized performances, but there doesn’t seem to be a rule. “The memorization of music is usually a matter of pride for the marching band, however bands that regularly pull from expansive libraries and perform dozens of new works each season are more likely to utilize flip folders,” according to a the Wikipedia entry for marching bands.

As pipe band music becomes increasingly complex, and the demands on top solo pipers rise, the tacit expectation that all music will be played from memory comes into question. Is it necessary? Will the performance improve when the score is there for reference? The old reliable memory lapse as a means to knock out a competitor might go away, thus making the judge’s task harder, but so what?

If I remember correctly, it’s more about the music and less about the memory.

 

Blurred lines

What shouldn’t judges write on a scoresheet? It’s a more complex question than it sounds.

Adjudicators are encouraged to provide constructive criticism regarding the performance, the key word being “constructive.” We know that comments that are designed to do nothing more than be hurtful are destructive and are probably a result of deep-rooted self-loathing on the judge’s part. We all agree that those comments shouldn’t be written.

But what about the “regarding the performance” aspect of the unwritten code of comments? Should judges provide comments that aren’t about the performance, however well-intentioned they might be?

I say no.

No matter how well-intentioned comments like “Tip: don’t tune for so long,” or “Get your kilts pressed!” might be, a scoresheet is not the place for advice that does not relate directly to the performance being assessed. By writing peripheral advice on the sheet, the message is that rumpled kilts or lengthy tuning had an impact on the decision, and one thing is very clear in our game: the performance and only the performance matters in the result rendered by the judge.

I recently saw a piping scoresheet from the legendary J.K. McAllister for a Grade 1 band competing at the World’s in the 1980s. On this piping scoresheet he wrote mocking comments about the tenor drumming: “Where are the Indians?” sarcastically communicating that he did not like the percussion. At the end of the sheet he wrote something to the effect that his sarky comment in no way impacted his piping decision.

Perhaps that’s true, but that he wrote such a hurtful and unconstructive (never mind his apparent racial insensitivity) remark immediately makes everyone in the band think that, yes, the drumming did indeed impact his decision, and that’s wholly inappropriate. Forty years later it still suggests that.

The band would have been well within its rights to lodge a formal complaint about McAllister. Muirhead & Sons was the only band to take action against Jock the Lum, starting a petition of Grade 1 bands to have him removed, but found itself suspended for several months, reinstated only after submitting a snivelling letter of apology. Muirheads was then — coincidentally, I’m sure — consistently put down by McAllister. So complainers thought twice thereafter.

As much as it might irritate me personally when a piper tunes to D or plays three slow airs or a band looks slovenly or whatever, these things almost always have no bearing on the way they played, and thus on my decision. But if a piper’s instrument went out of tune, then I have been known to suggest that he/she might have used another minute to tune, if that might have helped the performance. If a band’s untucked shirts got in the way of players’ hands, resulting in mistakes, then a comment about untucked shirts is relevant. If obtrusive drumming caused confusion in the pipe section, then comment away.

If a contestant wants friendly advice, I’m happy to provide it, but only if they ask. Otherwise you’re circumventing the piper or drummer’s teacher, and that is rarely if ever appropriate. Some might think this opinion is a bit pedantic, but it’s important that feedback about the performance is strictly about the performance.

So, keep the comments pertinent to the performance. Anything on the sheet not directly about the performance, no matter how well-intentioned, is impertinent and suggests that matters that don’t matter matter.

New rules

I’m a moderate fan of Real Time with Bill Maher, and really like his “New Rules” segment. Spending two days judging an assembly line of competitors at Maxville, there’s hardly time enough to think about anything else between performances, but there’s enough collective moments to come up with a few new rules that we should apply to what we do.

New Rule: any solo piping or snare competitor who elects to warm up within 50 feet of a contest area should be given the choice between immediate disqualification or a public shirtless flogging by a fleet of tenor drummers wielding mallets dipped in Branston Pickle. I mentioned this in 2009, and it still astonishes me how apparently vacant-minded some players can be, oblivious to their surroundings and Competing Etiquette 101.

New Rule: every band competition should have an announcer who introduces the contestant, provides background, informs the crowd about what’s going on, and so forth. Graeme Ogilvie, who announces at the arena at Maxville each year, should give workshops. He’s a master of providing just the right amount of detail without boring people or insulting the competitors.

New Rule: any piper in a piobaireachd contest who tunes to a slow air will be required to play “Farewell To Nigg” 1000 times over without mistakes before he/she is permitted to compete again. Stop, stop, sweet fancy Moses, stop the slow air insanity.

New Rule: once the competitor starts, shut the ^&%* up. I can understand the occasional uninitiated loudmouth who doesn’t know protocol the first time at a contest, but the number of pipers, drummers and even association officials who yap away at volume within 10 feet of the person or band competing is appalling. Those caught doing this get to choose between paying a $200 fine payable to the impacted competitor or having their mouth washed out with 10-year-old Airtight Seasoning.

New Rule: for any piper who’s played more than three years, no more tuning your drones while sounding D. I understand the theory about tuning with D: it is the truest note played with one hand. But it sounds horrible. A good piper tunes to high-A and shows off his/her control and mastery of the instrument. Penalty for tuning with D: must administer one-handed thigh massages to heavy athletes in afternoon.

Those are a few new rules that I thought of over the weekend. You must have more, so fire away.

 

Hard

An unwritten rule of competition: no one is rewarded for difficulty. There are no bonus points for playing hard tunes. There are points for playing hard, medium or easy tunes well.

There are points taken away for playing hard stuff poorly, and on a related note, no judge is going to let you off easy for making a hack of a tough tune, just because, well, it’s so hard.

I remember some years ago playing in a band. In the winter someone had the idea that we should play “Eileen MacDonald.” It’s a clever and relatively obscure, jig written by Charlie Williamson. It’s a whole lotta handful for a top soloist, let alone a whole pipe section.

We toiled away at the four-tentacled thing through the winter and spring, chanters getting slapped relentlessly with marveslously syncopated combinations. We worked and worked at it, because, aside from it being a good tune, it was so impressively hard. Goddamit, we’d show them!

The contest season carried on and the band did well, but it seemed like we weren’t getting much attention, let alone extra credit, for the amazingly difficult four-parted jig.

We played the medley with “Eileen MacDonald” at the World’s. I can’t remember the result, so it must not have been a memorable prize. What I do remember, though, is after we played, the late great Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald had listened to the performance, and a few of us spoke to him afterwards.

Angus, in his famously surprising-for-a-big-man high-pitched voice with one slightly raised eyebrow remarked, “Aye, ‘Eileen MacDonald.’ Tough tune.”

One comment from one solo piper. All that diligent practice to play a very difficult tune well came down to one comment. That was it.

“Aye. Tough tune.”

And I can’t remember a judge ever writing anything to the effect that he/she was impressed or that the tune was even positively noticed. I’m certain there were comments about the tricky passages not being quite together. Easy pickings for a piping judge.

Was it the right thing to do? In hindsight, I would say it wasn’t. It’s a clever jig, and the composition itself is unique. But is it so musically brilliant that it’s irreplaceable in a medley? Do people pine for a band or soloist to play it? Don’t think so.

In solo competition, we all submit tunes that might be deemed difficult. I admit that as a competitor and a judge I know what it’s like to submit or have submitted to me three or four tunes, and the one more difficult tune gets picked – not because it’s the musically superior tune, but simply because, Well, it’s your funeral, buddy.

If the idea is to win the competition, why put yourself at a disadvantage? I remember a lesson with Captain John MacLellan. We were discussing what light music to put in for solo events. We were trying to determine tunes that might suit me better than others. Since he said I had a stronger top-hand, I suggested “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran.” In his rather straightforward manner the good Captain said something that always stayed with me. “Why play six parts when four will do?”

Now, I readily admit that that comment was made 25 years ago, and to me, an American going round the Scottish games trying to “get in.” I wasn’t playing in the Silver Star. But I think the message was clear: Why make it any harder for yourself?

As a judge a few weeks ago a young piper submitted “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.” Nice tune, but no more technically difficult than the other three he put in, so I picked it and he played it. There were enough problems with it by the crunluath variation that he wasn’t in the running, but he then commenced to play an unexpected open fosgailte variation. I say unexpected, because most pipers wouldn’t do that. The tune is far more often played without one. Unlike a few remaining piobaireachd pedants who insist that this is “wrong,” I’m fine with anyone playing it if they want. It’s music.

But why play it? In competition, why would you tack on a very difficult variation at the end of the tune when it’s completely optional? Is it an attempt to get extra credit? Do they steadfastly believe that the tune is incomplete without it? As I said, I don’t think bonus points exist in piping and pipe band competitions, and insisting that it must be played is as pedantic as someone insisting that it should not be played. It’s optional.

Rather than help, the open fosgailte variation was not played well this time, so it actually made matters worse for the competitor, again supporting my argument that there are no potential positives that I can think of, and only probable negatives.

Unlike diving or spelling bees or freestyle skiing, there’s no reward for technical difficulty in what we do, and nor should there be. One person’s “hard” is another’s “easy” in our music. But the question – or perhaps debate – remains: Why play six when four will do? Why play “Eileen MacDonald” when another jig is just as compelling musically and less demanding technically?

I’m sure there are flaws in my argument, so feel free to point them out. In the meantime, I’ll keep slapping my chanter trying to get the syncopation right.

 

Shake up or shut up

The grand old Crieff Highland Games deciding, at least this year, to drop solo piping competitions from its day in August is certainly a shame for piping tradition, but it’s  emblematic of the challenges facing event organizers — and us.

I wrote about this very threat nine years ago. We pipers and drummers like our competitions. And the large majority of us like our competitions to be just so: piobaireachd, MSR, five-seven-minute medleys, and so forth. We like our assembly-line of contestants. We dislike any more muss or fuss than the predictable: judges and stewards, no fanfare, nothing but closed backs-to-the-audience circles, no inquisitive outsiders who are not part of the club daring to ask just what the heck we’re doing.

Despite occasional attempts by associations to be more audience-accommodating, such suggestions, motions or trials, with rare exceptions, have been historically shut down. Just keep doing what we’ve always done, and screw the rest.

It’s the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

We rely on events like Crieff to supply us with a place to compete. And when places like Crieff make the tough decision to drop events that are, to non-pipers and drummers, rigid, mysterious, repetitious and, let’s be honest, boring, we act surprised, as if we are somehow owed something.

Well, we are entertainers of sorts who are willing to perform for free, but, in truth, we are owed nothing.

Highland games and Scottish festivals are businesses. They might be for-profit and nonprofit, but they are businesses at least looking to break even. To do that, like every business, they must offer a product that people like. If solo piping and pipe band competitions are not attractive products, why on earth would a business offer them? Because they owe us something? Give your head a shake.

It’s simple. We can increasingly continue to hold our own events that are supported by the competitors themselves via membership dues and entry fees, or we can help Highland games to offer a better product. For the former, we can play “Blair Drummond” ad infinitum, and all will be good. For the latter, we have to be flexible and creative; we need to be prepared to entertain non-pipers and drummers better and work creatively with Highland games to break down that wall of mystery between our wee club of pipers and drummers and the general public. They might be interested and like the music, just not hours and hours of what, to them, becomes the Same. Damned. Thing.

I’m all for both kinds of events. We can continue to hold our anachronistic competitions for ourselves. But for our “public” events, we have to help ourselves by creating a better product.

And if we’re unwilling to create a more sellable product for the games, we have only ourselves to blame when they drop piping, drumming and pipe band competitions.

If we don’t help ourselves by trying to help them, they owe us nothing.

 

Fond farewell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

It’s time for Scottish solo piping reform

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

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

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

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

Um, okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Repetition, repetition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Instant replay

recorderThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Great Tape Scandal of Inverness. In 1974, Bill Livingstone’s second-prize in the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal was rescinded after Lezlie Webster (nee Patterson) produced a tape recording of his tune, conclusively proving that Livingstone “went wrong” in his performance.

No fault of Lezlie, of course. She was and is a keen piper who was simply capturing the big contest as an early-adopter of portable recording technology (which we can assume was some giant reel-to-reel magnetic machine that ran off of a car battery).

It was a famous event. Seumas MacNeill wrote a pithy and scathing report in his inimitable style saying that recording devices found on listeners should be “smashed into little bits.” Presumably he feared that using recordings would upset the time-honoured tradition of judges working from pure concentration and super-human memory. Bill Livingstone is probably still chagrinned, even though he went on to far bigger and far better first-prizes over an illustrious solo career.

Fast-forward 40 years.

Today, solo piping competitions are recorded by everyone and their grandmother – and that’s no exaggeration. Anyone with a mobile phone can record any contest digitally. If they tried to smash every device into little bits, there’d be hell to pay.

But the judging tradition of relying on concentration and memory continues. Why is this?

There is not a self-respecting competitor out there who would feel good about winning a prize because their major error was missed. And absolutely no piper feels good about a fellow competitor coming away victorious due to an inadvertent adjudication oversight.

In most sports, technology is quickly making major mistakes by officials things of the past. Reviewing uncertain calls is a reality in tennis, baseball, football, soccer and even in the time-honoured self-policing game of golf. And the competitors want it. They like it. They want the right decisions to be made. Too much time, energy and money are wrapped up in competing not to use it.

A piping judge today can easily come equipped with a tablet computer with virtually every setting of every piobaireachd published. He or she can simply press Record before each contestant. If, at the end of the event, he or she was not sure if a player “went off it,” it takes a few minutes to have a listen and be assured that the result in that regard was accurate and free of NMEs – “no major errors.”

If an adjudicator feels it’s too onerous or too much responsibility or above his or her pay-grade to record the tunes, it could be the job of the steward. Or, if it’s a major event with a “reader” – a non-adjudicator whose job is simply to follow the score – that reader should also be a “recorder.”

The technology has been available for years. It’s smaller, more reliable and easier to use than ever. Competitions should use it. Time to join the 1990s.

 

Keeping score

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

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

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

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

That is truly ridiculous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am Proud to Play a Pipe

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

Inspirational wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Musical”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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