Greater expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last tune and chorus

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

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

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

Carpe diem, and all that.

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

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

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

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

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

Masons’ April

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

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

“A what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And your identity can be secret.

Look at me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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 5 O’clock Tune

The British Army doesn’t already have a memorial to pipers and drummers killed in action over the country’s long history of wars? I guess I assumed that there was one somewhere, since there are so many tales of the heroism of courageous pipers, like George Findlater at the Heights of Dargai or Bill Millin at Normandy, who risked everything for the sake of motivating the troops with a tune. (And let’s not forget about the pipers and drummers killed by the English when they were fighting for an independent Scotland, but I digress.)

That there does not appear to be a record of pipers and drummers killed in conflict is also strange. After all, these soldiers were there, yes, as soldiers, but most of them carried a specific and important distinguishing role as pipers and drummers. There are probably records of orderlies killed in action, but none for pipers?

And the British Army won’t even contribute to a memorial? I can just hear it. “Well, if we do that then we’ll have to make one for orderlies, and then one for cooks, and then where does it end?”

Anyway, it’s all good. I hope enough funds are collected for a memorial cairn at Redford Barracks. But here’s a better proposal:

Build a memorial cairn for pipers and drummers killed in action, and erect it at Edinburgh Castle where so much piping history and teaching has occurred. And, like the traditional 1 O’clock Gun that’s fired from the Castle ramparts every afternoon of every day, create a tradition of a “5 O’clock Tune.” Every day of the year, like clockwork, an army piper appears at the cairn at 5 pm to play a lament.

What a great thing this would be for piping and the British Army. Hordes of tourists would collect at 5 o’clock for the daily tune. They can snap photos and perhaps even learn a little about piping and hear how a good Highland pipe sounds. The British Army can showcase how thoughtful it is, and shed positive light on one of its great traditions to, eventually, millions of people around the world.

“The 5 O’clock Tune.” The British Army can thank me later.

Resolutions #9

New Year’s resolutions are usually about improving on a personal shortcoming or two. Pipers and drummers have no shortage of those, since improvement and striving towards perfection is really what the competition thing is all about. We want to be the best we can be.

I like to make a resolution or two at New Year. This year it’s to listen to more live music – that is, more non-piping/drumming live music.  That and play my pipes every single day.

If you’re stuck for a New Year’s resolution, why not look to broaden your appreciation of things in the piping and drumming world? Some of us tend to put down the things that we don’t understand, or discredit what threatens us, which is completely unfair. Here are a few resolution suggestions:

  • For the person who “hates” piobaireachd – resolve to learn a piece of ceol mor, memorize it, and play it on the pipes. Start with a copy of Piobaireachd Fingerwork, earn the ceol mor rudiments and, even if you’re not a piper, understand how it works. I guarantee your “hate” will turn to appreciation.
  • For those who don’t take tenor-drumming seriously – try it. Get yourself a set of tenor mallets and learn just a bit of flourishing technique. You’ll have a more positive outlook on the difficulty of the art.
  • If you think stewarding is easy – volunteer with your association to help with a contest or two. Find out what the challenges are, and then offer to make positive suggestions to make it better.
  • Sign your real name to every online comment you make – that’s all. You’ll feel a lot better.
  • For the piper who can’t understand why his/her band lags in ensemble – pick up a pair of snare sticks and take a year’s worth of lessons. You’ll start to hear the snare work completely differently, and can help bridge the gap between sections.
  • If you think your association doesn’t serve you well enough – attend branch meetings and discover just how much spare-time work these volunteers put into trying to make things happen for members like you. Don’t have the time? First resolution lesson: be like them and make time.
  • For the person who rarely likes his/her band’s medley – try your hand at composing a tune or arranging harmony. Who knows? You might be a composer-arranger-genius in hiding.
  • Can’t understand why scoresheets don’t always have great feedback? – resolve to put on a solo piping CD, put two minutes between each track and during that time write a crit-sheet. You’ll appreciate just some of the pressure that piping, drumming and pipe band judges undergo accounting for their decisions in writing.
  • Volunteer to write an article for pipes|drums – I happen to have inside information that your story ideas are always welcomed.

The best resolutions are those that make both you a better person and the world a better place. Here’s to a happy and healthy and improved year ahead.

Personality crisis

I’m pretty sure I know the main reason why competitive pipers and drummers are so often in disagreement about our avocation: it’s about a clash of two distinct types of personalities: it’s the creative versus the analytical.

The current pipes|drums Poll asks, “What do you like most about piping/drumming?” and readers can answer one of either “The creativity,” or “The competition.” It’s an admittedly unscientific attempt to determine how many of us are drawn to the artistic or the analytical sides of what we do. And polling shows that we’re 50/50. (Actually, about 52% chose “the competition,” but chances are the creative types are bending the polling rules, while the analyticals rigidly stick to them, because that’s what they do.)

We are involved in competition that uses art as sport and this has forever caused friction. We attempt to create “rules” to more equitably assess what piper or drummer or band wins a purely subjective event.

Take for example the recent stramash over Bagad Brieg’s six-second time overrun in their medley in the Grade 2 qualifying round at this year’s World’s. The error was either missed altogether or intentionally overlooked, and the band went on to compete in the Final, finishing third and winning the drumming.

In the ensuing discussion on the matter (during which,notably, both Brieg and the RSPBA have been deathly silent), opinions seemed to be split along 50/50 arty vs. anal divides. Those drawn to the artistic side more than likely couldn’t care less about such a perceived impropriety. “Six seconds? Who cares? They deserve the prize.”

The analytical folks who are drawn first to the competition side of our thing, are spitting with outrage that a band could be allowed to get away with such an infraction. “Even it were one-second – throw them out!”

It’s a fascinating case study in the tension we face at every competition, due much to different essential personality types. The artistic creators are in need of a platform for their art, and often settle for the competition stage. The serious composers more often than not become worn down eventually by competition and rules being placed on their creations. They might continue to compete, but in their hearts they probably don’t much care about the result.

The competitive analytical types just want to compete and get a result based on “the rules.” They don’t care much about what they play, only playing it well enough to win. They struggle with a judge liking something for purely subjective “musical” reasons, seeming to ignore pseudo-objective criteria like tone, attacks and time.

And inartistic analyticals seem to gravitate to bureaucracy. They love joining associations and gaining power so that they can create and uphold rigid rules. They’re often not even pipers or drummers, and instead are enthusiasts drawn in by sons or daughters doing the playing.

As with everything, there are exceptions. I admit that these are generalizations. But I think there’s something to this essential struggle of personality types. Look around and see what the rule-sticklers do for a living. More often than not they’re in professions that involve numbers and black-and-white yes/no options. The artistic types are usually in jobs that require flexible creativity. And if each type is unhappy about their work, it’s often because they’re doing something that doesn’t match their personality.

Arty readers will likely see this as an interesting take on our struggle, even if they don’t agree. The analyticals probably enjoyed the stats in the second paragraph but never got past the third.

Gifts

I stumbled across this photo that my dad took in 1978. He snapped pictures of everything. My dad used a camera then almost like we do today in the digital age. He used slide film because it was cheaper, and he’d print only the good ones. Every few weeks he’d hold a “slide show” and force us grumpy kids to suffer through his images when we would rather be outside running reckless.

This is Christmas 1978, when Jimmy Carter was President and disco raged and computers still ran on punch cards. My father always got a photo of the presents under the tree, and you’ll maybe notice here the presence of things for my sisters, an 8-track stereo, a suitcase (?!) and a piping record – specifically an LP by Donald MacLeod. I was 15 then, and had been at the pipes for three years. I didn’t have to put piping and pipe band records on any list; they’d always just appear. (Like T.J. Eckleburg eyes, MacLeod symbolically peers over the top of boxes of model trains, the other shared hobby that my dad nurtured.)

These Donald MacLeod records were hard to find then and rare today. God knows how my dad sourced them in the days of stamped letters and “surface mail.” MacLeod made two of these records on a trip to New Zealand in the ’70s, and they had very limited release. Apart from these, I don’t believe that he made any other commercial recordings, even though he might be the most recorded piper in pre-digital history through his broadcasts and instructional tapes.

At any rate, do kids in 2012 even ask for or get piping and pipe band CDs for Christmas or their birthday? Have recordings, like photos, become so throw-away and commonplace that the sheer volume of them here, there and everywhere make them undesirable? I don’t know.

I do know that I still have those Donald MacLeod vinyl records and all of the 35,000-plus slides that my dad took and meticulously saved. I’ve scanned the slides and the records to digital formats. Gifts that keep on.

Spirited & lively

Scott MacAulay, 2008.Once or twice each year of judging, something indelibly memorable occurs. Yes, there are good performances that stand out at almost every contest, but I’m thinking here about events that transcend the music, when circumstances converge to make a perfectly magical merger.

I was enjoying a morning of solo competitions this June at the Summerside Highland Gathering at the idyllic Prince Edward Island when one such event was conjured.

The College of Piping is always associated with its first director, the late Scott MacAulay. Scott was a good piping friend and a wonderful piper. His personality was larger-than-life. He found the party and upside in everything, it seemed, and when his life was cut down by cancer it was a huge loss for the scene. We will always miss him.

Scott discovered piobaireachd later than most. In the 1980s, when he was into his late twenties, he found ceol mor or, rather, ceol mor found him. A product of Lewis-born parents, and someone who seemed to enjoy things Hebridean and Gaelic way more than most, even as a teenager it seemed odd to me that Scott focused only on light music and pipe bands. But in the early-1980s he dived head-long into piobaireachd.

After, say, age 18, “discovering” piobaireachd is a difficult thing to do, not because the music can’t be learned, but because your fellow competitors and adjudicators might not take you seriously. Back then, anyway, a certain amount of ceol mor capital had to be banked before the prizes would be paid in dividends.

Scott was as smart a person as you could ever meet. A canny man, one might call him. He could size up a person or an entire room in a second, and work his way in with his incredible wit and charm. One could even say that he charmed his way into piobaireachd. Within a few years he had learned enough tunes and put his musical smarts and technical skills to work his way into the prizes.

He set his sights on winning a Silver Medal, which he did at the Northern Meeting in 1985 just a few years after taking on the big music. He learned up four Silver Medal tunes, and had particular success with “Queen Anne’s Lament.” Going around the Scottish games with him that summer, that tune seemed always to be picked – so often, in fact, that we started to refer to him jokingly as “Queen Anne,” which I remember him laughing at with his unique cackle.

But back to Summerside. Not wanting to lug my piobaireachd books to PEI, I managed to borrow a complete bound Piobaireachd Society Collection from the College. It turned out, though, that the big book had belonged to Scott, with his name custom-embossed on the front and spine in Scott’s typical spare-no-expense style. There were relatively few solo competitors, and some time between each, so I decided to browse through Scott’s old book to check out a few of the tunes I remembered he had played: “Sir James MacDonald of the Isles,” “The Company’s Lament,” and, of course, “Queen Anne’s.”

And then, in the Grade 1 Amateur Piobaireachd event, young Sarah Simpson of Cavendish, PEI, submitted her three tunes. “Queen Anne’s Lament” was one. So, here’s that special confluence of serendipity: College of Piping, misty day, Scott’s book, Scott’s tune. It had to be.

As she built the tune, I found myself rooting for her to see it through, for the pipe and nerves to hold. With a terrific instrument that featured a perfectly tuned and blown high-G, Sarah Simpson delivered a spectacularly musical and almost technically flawless rendition of Scott’s best tune.

Scott MacAulay was all spirit. For 10 minutes or so on that day, on that field, at that time, with that tune, his spirit happily returned.

For the parents

The world of piping and drumming can be a strange and unusual place for the non-piping/drumming parents of young kids becoming involved with the art. As a child of a mother and father who knew nothing about the mysterious and exclusive club before allowing their boy to become involved, I recognize now how difficult it can be, even more so after teaching young pipers who are plunging into our pool of competition, decorum and tradition.

So, here are a few tips especially for the parents of young pipers and drummers who might be struggling with the decision as to whether to allow their boy or girl to continue with what will become a life-long involvement.

Piping/drumming prepares them for life. Your son or daughter will be surrounded by adults from every background, every profession, every ability. They will learn to conduct themselves in a mature way, and have the benefit of weekly interaction with very smart people. Religion or social status does not exist in piping and drumming. The music is the great equalizer. Your boy or girl is more likely to appreciate people for their skills and character, rather than discriminate or prejudge.

Piping/drumming creates lifelong friendships. Your child will meet other kids his/her age within the band, at competitions and at summer schools. These friendships will last forever. And wherever your son or daughter goes, he/she will find instant friends in the piping community.

Your child will always be “the piper” or “the pipe band drummer.” Do not underestimate the value of being in this exclusive club. It will help your kid stand apart from all of the other mundane hobbyists. Listing “bagpipes” on a university application or resume will be noticed and remembered, and virtually everyone has some sort of positive piping-related connection. It’s an immediate common-bond.

If all else fails, there’s always piping/drumming. Once your child becomes good at his/her art, it is a constant safety net. Your kid can always find paid gigs or teach beginners either part-time or even professionally. Piping at ceremonies is increasingly popular. And once your child learns rudiment-based pipe band drumming, other drumming will be easy in comparison.

Your child will learn to fail. Sounds strange, but it’s a great skill to possess. I’ve said before that even Willie McCallum or Jim Kilpatrick – winningest competitors who they may be – have had far more non-first-prizes. In our competition-based world, your boy or girl will learn to accept defeat, learn from mistakes, and work harder to be better next time. Unlike junior’s football team or dance group, there are no medals in piping/drumming for those who don’t earn a prize.

Competition is preparation for real-life pressure. Standing solo before a wizened judge can be a knee-shaking thing. Delivering when your band-mates are counting on you is even more nerve-racking. At the beginning, you might consider this unnecessary pressure for your child, but understand that each time he/she competes and improves with each event is practice for that university interview, the class presentation, the job interview or the seminar for colleagues. Once you’ve stood at the trigger at the World Pipe Band Championships, or climbed the boards at a big solo event, that real-life stuff is cake.

It’s music. Because of the competition-driven nature of what we do, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that your child is making music. It’s art from nothingness. Like fireworks, it’s beautiful for a second, and then it’s gone forever. And your kid is creating it to the best of his or her ability. Don’t ever forget that that is a true miracle more valuable than anything above.

So, I hope these points are of use to parents of young pipers or drummers delving into our little world that, once seen in a bigger view, is full of benefits for life in general.

Please please me

Show me your mother's Freudian slip.It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that solo pipers are an odd lot. A more solipsistic pastime I can’t imagine: playing for prizes that almost no one on earth – except the piper him/herself – gives a damn about. I’m not condemning it; it is what it is, as they say, and there’s nothing wrong with pushing one’s self to be the best he/she can be, whether it’s solo piping, golf or basket-weaving. It’s what we humans do, and who is anyone to get in the way of someone’s good time?

I’ve heard many very good, even great, solo competition pipers say that he or she doesn’t or didn’t actually enjoy competing. It’s a lonely and self-absorbed hobby, fraught with tension and anxiety and pressure. Even for the greatest pipers, the times that you’re first are far, far less frequent than when you’re second, third, fourth or not in the list at all.

I don’t think I ever really enjoyed competing, either. It was more like I became an adrenaline junkie, perhaps tricking myself into looking forward to each event being done, rather than enjoying the performance itself. (Yes, I know what a few of you nice people are thinking: You weren’t the only one looking forward to the end.) The blessed end would justify the means.

My daughter has been playing the piano now for five or six years. She’s getting pretty good but, like almost all kids and their instruments, she despises practicing. With luck, the correlation between playing the piano and the pure magic of making music will sink in. If not, I hope she’ll stop, but I think she’s pressing on for fear of disappointing her parents whose hearts leap up when they hear her play.

Looking back, I wonder if my raison-d’pipe was to please my dad, who absolutely cherished my piping. Again, like many children, I cruelly tried to keep him from it, and I’ll regret that forever. But I will always remember his thrill at various contests he attended when that illusive prize came my way. As a parent, I understand that feeling.

He died in 2001 (congestive heart failure), and my mother in 2003 (car crash). It was a year or so after that when my obsession with solo competition piping died, too. I’m pretty sure now that I must have in my subconscious felt like there was no one except myself left to play for, so I stopped. What was the point? I could still play with a band (in a band, your band-mates appreciate what you do), and continue to learn new tunes, play for my personal enjoyment, and do some teaching. But I think the treadmill that the boards had become got unplugged because there was no one left to please.

We pipers and drummers are psychological case studies, every one of us. The desire to please parents can make presidents, start wars and even win Clasps.

A pipe for the people?

Truly humble.The death of the “fabulous Donald MacPherson” (as Seumas MacNeill described him) was made even more poignant by the announcement of the available-for-sale of the Lawrie drones and Hardie chanter with which he won just about all of his prizes. If John Wilson’s dilapidated MacDougall drones went for $13,000, who knows what price MacPherson’s instrument will realize? $15,000? $20,000?

The truth is that the instrument is not just a bagpipe of one well-off piper’s dreams, but a historical piece that would be better shared by as many people as possible, whether as part of a permanent museum collection, or, even better, an instrument that could be loaned out to deserving and needy players.

I know that some organizations in the classical music world purchase world-class violins and cellos and then rent or loan them to artists who otherwise could not possibly afford to purchase such an instrument. Now, these instruments I believe are generally valued at hundreds-of-thousands, if not millions, of dollars. We all know that a decent violin bow can cost $10,000 or more, so the parallels with Highland pipes perhaps separate there.

But wouldn’t it be great if the late, great Donald MacPherson’s pipes could be acquired by a venerable organization like, say, the National Piping Centre, and then loaned each year to a deserving young piper? “The MacPherson Prize Pipe” could become the most meaningful award going in the piping world, making a true difference to a young player’s career. The MacPherson family could realize the value of the instrument in monetary terms that they truly deserve, but the piping world becomes the true beneficiary.

In truth, a bagpipe is only as good as the player. No one will ever again attain the distinct sound that Donald MacPherson achieved and, chances are, the highest bidder will be a player who can only dream of having the ability to walk on a professional-grade competition platform.

Donald MacPherson’s piping legacy will live in the memory of his performances, the standard he set with his sound, and the tunes that he wrote. Making his pipes accessible to deserving players would be a true reflection of his humble and giving character.

What musical milestones?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crookit horns

Sweetheart . . .Why are there no pipe tunes about love with gushy titles along the lines of “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose”? Sure, we have “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart” and “The Clumsy Lover,” but the first is named after a cow and a brown hill and the latter is perhaps an unfortunate pre-Viagra-era experience.

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and I’d bet not a few tunes were composed for loved-ones and presented on the day. But I’d also bet they have bland, modest titles consisting of the lover’s name, e.g., “Donella Beaton.” “Betty Hardie.” “Lily Christie.” Zzzz.

Burns knew how to rip a good bodice now and again in his poetry, so it’s not like there isn’t a tradition of lusty overtures in Scottish art. But we pipers keep things positively Puritanical in our tunes. Like Donald MacLeod’s “Cockerel in the Creel,” we dance around the topic, rather than say what we really mean. What’s “Tam Bain’s Lum” really about, anyway?

One hears endlessly how the Highland pipes are full of passion and ceremony. We celebrate battles and commemorate deaths and marvel at ewes wi’ crookit horns (ooh-er!), but when it comes to outward displays of affection, we’re as inverted as a good cane bass drone reed. (Which reminds me of a great anecdote about synthetic reeds and, um, “marital aids” . . . )

So, let’s start with piobaireachd. There are salutes, laments, battles and gatherings – all a bit dour. “In Praise of Morag” is hardly lusty and, besides, wasn’t “Morag” supposedly Bonnie Prince Charlie in drag? I recommend we create a new ceol mor category that suggests something a lot more passionate, even suggestive, for tunes written especially for significant others. It will be our very own heart-shaped box of a tune.

But what would that be? A sonnet? A lovesong? A fawning? A stalking? Your suggestions are welcomed.

Awesome simplicity

Mingus.“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

“Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

The great jazz cat Charles Mingus famously said these things back in the day. He was speaking particularly about his own music; it also applies to ours.

My favourite tunes – bagpipe or other – invariably have extraordinarily simple, memorable melodies. They’re uncluttered and pure in their distinctive structure and sound. “Lochanside,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Lament for Mary MacLeod,” “In My Life,” “The Little Cascade,” “A Case of You,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein” . . .

We pipers play a rather complicated instrument, and many composers – especially those just starting out – seem to think that complexity is the root of cleverness. As listeners we can’t help but be impressed by our fastest-handed players doing things that we can only dream of. We associate clever with complicated.

But we’re moved by the simple. The simple stays with us. A blur of notes and impressive technicalities generally leave us cold, while pure memorable melody puts us in the mood for more.

Pipe bands have a particularly difficult time with this concept. The temptation is to impress with “innovation” rather than wow with sound. The real challenge is to present the pipe band’s complicated intricacies in a simple and meaningful manner that resonates long after the sound stops. The task is made yet harder when snare drummers are rewarded for technical rather than musical achievement, and complicated yet again when bass sections are inserted into places they’re really not needed.

Maybe it’s because our music is so simply nine notes that we strive to over-complicate it. We gild the lily. Perhaps it’s overcompensation for what we feel we lack in terms of octaves and dynamics and time-signatures, but it’s the simple, and the confidence to be awesomely simple, that sustains.

Great Big Bug

Like this.Solo pipers in outdoor contests have to contend with all manner of things. The bouncy castles, midges and starter’s pistols of Scotland. Oblivious passers-by wandering in between you and the judge at Ontario events. The odd mid-2/4 march dust-devil in the Midwest. They’re all a test of either our concentration or sanity or both. We shake our heads and carry on.

By far the most memorable thing to happen to me was at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville, Ontario. Anyone who has been to Maxville knows that it’s in the middle of farm country. In fact, many of the solo events back up onto fields, often bone-dry in the latter part of the hot and humid summer.

It was when I was playing a piobaireachd contest. The venerable Reay Mackay was judging. The tune was some dreary thing set for the Gold Medal competitions in Scotland, which I always played all summer, convincing myself that I liked some of the dreckiest pieces of dreck ever composed for the Highland pipe. This particular instance I think had me playing “The Rout of the MacPhees,” which isn’t exactly a toe-tapping melody, even in the hands of the world’s elite pipers.

But the tune was going quite well, I thought. Back then the Open Piobaireachd was invariably put out in the open, sun blazing down. I got to the first variation of the thing and the biggest freaking bug known to Glengarry County landed on my arm. As soon as this giant cicada or extraterrestrial grasshopper or flying kitten plunked itself on my bare left forearm I jumped about two feet, hands flailing off the chanter (shaddup!), drones in a heap.

“%*&% !!”

“What happened?!” Reay shouts.

“It was a Great Big Bug! A Great Big Bug landed on me! It was a Great Big Bug!” I said breathlessly.

“A Great Big Bug?! Really?” Reay says. “Here, just go off and collect yourself and we’ll let you play again.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course,” kindly Reay confirms. “I’ve never seen that happen when a Great Big Bug upsets a tune like that. Sure, I’ll tell the steward you can play later.”

Which is what happened. I went away, recollected myself, tried to get the vision and feel of the Great Big Bug out of my head, and hoped that I’d also get a chance to play a tune that bugged me less. (Not so; Reay Mackay said I had to play the same thing.)

I felt a bit sheepish about it, and a few fellow competitors told me it wasn’t fair. (Then go talk to Reay, I told them.) But being on the other side of the table, I can understand why a judge would do that. You tend to make a lot of non-piping judgment calls during the day, often about what a competitor’s intentions might be. I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt, and I try to do that with others when I think they deserve it.

The name of the game is fair play, Great Big Bugs included. What extraordinary circumstances have you encountered in your competition experiences?

Living salute

We pipers and drummers all too often pay tribute to those who contribute only after the person’s left us and we realize that it’s too late to show him or her the appreciation we have for the life-long contribution to the art. That’s not something unique to the piping and drumming world, of course, but perhaps we’re too caught up too often in our own competitive concerns to acknowledge the work of others.

 

 

The Georgetown Highland Games in Georgetown, Ontario, on June 11, 2011, was a rare exception. One of the games organizers had the good idea to pay tribute to Bill Livingstone and his nearly 50 years of work and accomplishment in the art. A few folks put the word out only a few days before the event, asking anyone who might be at the event who had played under Bill over the years to participate in a tribute at the massed bands ceremony at the end of the day.

A good number of folks gladly stepped up, and, led by new 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe-Major, Doug MacRae, played a mass rendition of “Lord Lovat’s Lament” and “The Mason’s Apron,” two tunes closely identified with Livingstone.

It was one of the nicer gestures I can remember seeing by the piping and drumming community. There are life memberships and posthumous tributes and trophies and things, but I would think an actual playing tribute is about as meaningful as it gets for someone who’s committed most of his life to the art, and, better yet, is around to hear it, still living strong.

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