Stewards, chiefly

The passing of the esteemed piper, leader and organizer Robert Stewart of Inveraray in May was a sad loss for piping. I can’t say that I knew him, but those who did had all-good things to say, and talked of him with reverence and respect and admiration.

My encounters with him were limited to competing at the Inveraray Games 10 or so years ago. I was impressed with the way he handled the large number of competitors as both the piping convener and steward for the competitions. I remember thinking that, without such an adept hand, the whole thing would be chaos instead of the fun and smooth-running event it was.

Stewarding takes a deft touch. It’s true that once pipers and drumming gain experience, they essentially know the drill and look after themselves. But good stewarding can turn a decent competition into one a soloist will return to again and again.

The best stewards are often those who played the game themselves. Former competitors have been there and understand how to improve a piper or drummer’s overall experience, while simultaneously looking after the necessities of the event itself.

Until about 1986, the Edinburgh City/Lothian & Border Police Pipe Band used to organize a popular indoor solo competition. It was popular with competitors, in large part, because the band’s members did the stewarding. They kept the events moving, but also were true to the definition of “steward”: one who manages and assists.

I would add empathy to that description. Too often piping and drumming stewards don’t fully appreciate their role and, instead of being empathetic with the competitors, are almost unfeeling by not first giving the soloist the benefit of the doubt, or deferring to the piper or drummer’s experience when they themselves haven’t walked the boards. Although stewards at times need to get tough, stewarding shouldn’t be considered a position of authority.

I understand that competitions can’t all have a fleet of Robert Stewarts managing events. We all do the best we can, and are always grateful to volunteers who step up and who strive to do a good job. Often, though, volunteer stewards aren’t aware of what they can do to make an event better for the competitor.

So here are a few tips for stewards:

– Get a briefing. If you’re new to stewarding, a run-down of dos and don’ts from the organizers is essential. Also, ask the judge how he/she likes to operate before the event starts.
– Talk to competitors. Introduce yourself and help them to feel at ease. These people have put a gazillion hours into preparing for the event you’re stewarding, and part of your role is to, if not keep them calm, not let them get any more anxious.
– Don’t just sit there. Some stewards are evidently told that their only task is to check off competitors on their list as they report to them. You need to get up and about and even ask competitors and other stewards if someone entered but not checked in is in fact present. Walk around keep competitors informed on what’s going on.
– The idea is participation. We want pipers and drummers to compete and enjoy their day, not to be unnecessarily DQed. Find ways to solve misunderstandings. Not permitting someone to compete should always be a last resort, only when it’s out of fairness to other competitors.
– Ask for feedback. After the event, ask the judge and a few competitors how you did, and ways you might improve.

Stewarding can differentiate a competition and a good steward improves “customer service” for the event and the association. What do you see as the most important aspects of stewarding?

Name games

Like at me!An attention-craving couple named their unfortunate baby “Like” last week and evidently alerted all the papers. Apparently they’re so obsessed with Facebook and being “unique” that they’re willing to subject their child to a lifetime of confusion and torment. I can’t imagine the cruel variants of poor Like’s name. (Well, actually, yes, I can.)

I’ve heard of piping and drumming people naming their pets after piping and drumming things. For example, the famous Ronnie Rollo had two dogs, one named “Captain,” the other “Carswell.” I’ve heard of an Australian piper being named after his parents’ Scottish hometown of Airdrie (“Good thing they weren’t born in Auchtermuchty,” the late great Big Ronnie Lawrie famously quipped while judging).

I suppose if the aforementioned couples’ “passion” for Facebook can be strong enough, then surely (don’t call me that) some piper or drummer will eventually name his/her progeny after something we do. The possibilities are great.

“Tachum” comes to mind as a good boy’s name, and “Edre” seems a nice choice for a girl. You could always give your spawn a first name starting with D and a middle name of “Throw,” thus “D. Throw.” (Of course, body type would dictate whether D. Throw will be of the heavy or light variety.)

One of the “_luath” embellishments, while inviting a nice nickname of Louie, presents certain pronunciation and spelling problems, which, believe me, get tedious. I’d see any of the “Taor_,” “Crun_” and “Lem_” having a masculine sound, so good for boys. But since Gaelic nouns are gender-agnostic, these potential forenames are AC/DC, as it were.

Like George Foreman, you could name all of your kids “Mach,” and thus “Mach 1,” “Mach 2,” “Mach 3” and so forth. Make Mach a middle and add a first-name beginning with A for a perfect “A. Mach.” Brill.

“Darado” has a certain ring to it, but one can conceive of the obvious horrible variations on that ground. When I was a toddler I listened to a record of folksongs by Burl Ives (the voice of the reindeer Rudolf, by the way, in the stop-action 1964 TV special), so that’s almost as good as “Birl,” which I would think would be a certain front-runner for many pipers.

I can hear the shouts from parents: “Get a grip, Grip!” “Doubling! Don’t let me show you the back of my hand!” “Nice job, Strike!”

On the drumming side, little “Flafla” works nicely for a girl, but beware of “Ratamacue,” unless you want the poor kid forever compared with vermin. “Roll” seems almost normal, but anything with “Diddle” would be going simply too far. If Tyler Fry ever had a kid we could reasonably expect him/her to be named “Flourish.”

Although I think that our passion (although I’m getting sick of people talking about their “passion” for every little thing – “I have a passion for garage doors.” Really??) for piping/drumming is unique enough on its own, I’m sure some procreating duet somewhere at sometime has named their offspring after an embellishment.

After all, what’s not to like?

Off your head

No Kidding.There has been a lot of news recently about concussion in sports. Here in the hockey-religious country of Canada, every other day some talentless goon clobbers a star like Sidney Crosby, potentially ending his career with a concussion. Research on repeated concussions causing dementia and brain atrophy and premature death has rattled the National Football League to the point where its very ability to continue may eventually come into question.

I got a pretty bad concussion in 2002. It was a freak accident. I work with a public relations agency, and at the time the PR firms and a few news agencies from around Toronto formed a softball league. Each team had to have a set number of male and female players, and “guest” players had to be somehow connected with the people on the team.

My team made it to the final, and the championship game was against the fine people of Reuters Canada. Reuters had a bunch of ringers on board, one of whom was at shortstop. This guy was taking the game – supposedly an all-fun, schlubby affair – far too seriously. He had an impressive arm, even though the girl playing first-base clearly had trouble catching his laser-beam throws. She actually would cower out of the way rather than try to catch it.

Of course I came up to bat in the first inning and grounded to the macho shortstop, who whipped the ball to the useless first-base-woman, who opted to protect her head instead of using her leather. As I was crossing the bag, the not-soft ball got me square on the head, just above my left ear. There were no helmets in our little fun league.

It was like a cannon going off in my ear. Momentum carried me forward, my legs buckled beneath me and I crashed to the ground. I was unconscious for only a few seconds, they told me, but there was blood coming from my ear and the whole left side of me was one giant scrape.

My teammates helped me up and we staggered to the side, where a bunch of us sat. Eventually Julie arrived and took me to the nearest hospital where – eventually – they did a CT scan, diagnosed concussion and told Julie to make sure I kept breathing in my sleep.

All of this was only a few days before I was to fly to Scotland to compete at the Northern Meeting. I was a complete mess. I could hardly walk, let alone practice, but somehow I drove myself to get on that plane. Missing Inverness, what with their draconian unwritten policy of chucking competitors out if they dare not turn up, was out of the question.

The flight was brutal. I remember forcing myself to stay awake for the overnight seven hours for fear of the air pressure doing me in. I even rented a car and drove the four hours from Edinburgh to Inverness.

I got through all of that and the day of the Gold Medal my scraped and bandaged knees were exposed, and I remember steadying myself on and off the stage at Eden Court. The weird thing was, I think it was the best tune I ever managed to play. It was “Nameless – Hiharin odin, hiharin dro,” which was set that year and, the best part was, people were coming up to me saying it was good, and there seemed to be that peer-buzz that all contestants hope for. When they say nothing, you generally get nothing. I remember Malcolm McRae – a hard piobaireachd man to please, if there ever were one – remarking to me, “Very good for a concussed piper,” which of course I clung to throughout the day (and still, evidently), even though perhaps what he really meant, in that backhanded way that pipers sometimes speak to one another, was, “For a non-concussed piper, that sucked.”

As seems so often the case when competitors get their hopes up, when the prizes were announced I got sweet FA. I departed the cursed place even more confused and fuzzy-headed than when I arrived. (One of the judges, who never actually ever competed himself, told me weeks later, only after I contacted him, that he had a problem with a few taorluaths. Oh. How informative.)

Comparisons of our competitive art with sport are frequent. There are many similarities, but perhaps the most striking is our mutual all-out drive to compete. After being conked on the head, hockey and football players force themselves back onto the ice or field for both the desire to be seen by their peers as a “gamer,” or for fear of losing their spot on the team. The mind wins over the body.

Despite common sense or doctors advising otherwise, we pipers and drummers also go to such extremes that it can be positively unhealthy. We’ve all seen competitors and ourselves let competition get the best of us.

Sometimes we just need to give our head a shake.

Sage advice

In piping and drumming, you never stop learning and realizing new perspectives, and my eyes were opened once again last November in a casual conversation with the great soloist, teacher, bagpipe-maker and reed craftsman, Murray Henderson. It was just a passing comment that he made regarding the Gold Medal success of his daughter, Faye, last August. He told me that he told her:

“If you are lucky enough to win a major event, always remember, you are still the same player as you drive home from the competition as you were going to it.”

After all of these years, that one comment rang true with me. Murray said that he tells all of his students this before a big event, and it’s such smart and clear advice that it’s hard to believe so many people don’t automatically understand it without being reminded.

To a fault, many competitive pipers and drummers almost incessantly chase prizes. On one hand, trying to win big events is motivation to practice. But over the centuries there have been not a few competitors who have quickly gained one big prize and then rapidly parlayed that success into a teaching and judging career.

A big win will open a door of opportunity with the piping and drumming masses who make the mistake of automatically assuming that being awarded a major prize is not just a stamp of approval of their technical skill, but also of their overall understanding of the art. It’s not so automatic.

The same mistake can be made in any art or sport that involves competition. The famously successful person who collects major accolades often does not understand exactly why he or she is so good. There are those extraordinary people in all walks of life who are supernaturally talented. They don’t seem to have to work as hard for prizes, or they blunder into awards one way or another.

So often the best teachers are those who have worked the hardest, striving to reach the top, learning and trying every angle or technique to put them over the edge. They make a life’s work of studying their art or sport as a student. So often, these people – not the big prizewinners – are the best teachers.

The truth is that in any Gold Medal competition probably 20 competitors have a realistic shot of winning the event on the day. There are those who are fortunate enough to win it seemingly without much effort or with a great deal of luck, and there are those who come back year after year after year working like dogs to learn all they are able to get that final edge. They acquire vast amounts of knowledge along the way.

“If you are lucky enough to win a major event, always remember, you are still the same player as you drive home from the competition as you were going to it.”

Sage advice from Murray Henderson. What piping/drumming words of wisdom have stuck with you?

The gold ring

Ring toss.If you’re like most, your piping and drumming “career” depends heavily on the attitude of your partner towards your hobby-avocation-obsession. I’ve seen my share of players in misery, beaten down by an overbearing spouse who can’t appreciate that there’s more to their life than him/her. They’re “not allowed” to go to certain band practices, competitions or even glorious band trips. They tut-tut and tsk-tsk, and think of your bagpipe or drum as tantamount to you having an affair.

Screw that.

Ideally, as said before, you find a soul-mate who also plays the pipes or drum, or comes from a family of pipers or drummers. He/she already speaks the language of piping and drumming, and understands your affliction. These folks have hit the relationship jackpot but, sadly, that’s a rare situation. Most spouses at best just tolerate it and learn to live with the tension.

The erosion of a relationship can be a slow creep. I’ve seen pipers/drummers’ marriages start out all hunky-dory, their partner hanging out with the band, happily coming to competitions. But gradually things get rocky, and, instead of attending practices or contests, the piper/drummer is pressured to go shopping, or look after the kids, or even (shudder) stay home to do yard work or some other mundane thing. It can get very unpleasant.

But how can we recognize these incompatible people before we get in too deep? With a shout-out to the movie “Diner,” here’s a 10-question quiz that you can administer to your prospective life-partner in the early stages. Keep track of the answers, because at the end you’ll have to tally them to take an ultimate read of who or what you’re dealing with.

Good luck. This could be life-changing.

Our anniversary conflicts with the most important pipe band competition of the year. What do you do?
A) Call the pipe-major to tell him/her that I can’t make it.
B) Demand that I stay home to have a “cozy” night at home watching chick-flicks.
C) Recognize that my pipe band is a passion, too, and suggest we celebrate another time.
D) Invite yourself along on the band trip so that we can “make a weekend of it.”

I walk through the door after a three-day piping/drumming weekend, my uniform stinking of beer and vomit. Your response is:
A) Oh, my God, go somewhere else to clean up before entering my house.
B) It’s your turn to clean the house/take the kids, I’m going out.
C) So, did you have fun?
D) Silence.

My practicing woke up the baby, so you say:
A) How often do you really need to play that?
B) It’s okay, the little one will just have to get used to it.
C) The baby must have heard that missed D-throw in the third part.
D) Maybe we should we soundproof your practice room.

Feeling terrible, I call you to say that it was me who botched the attack in the contest, which made my band lose. Your response:
A) What’s an attack?
B) That’s okay; it’s only a competition.
C) Oh, wow, I’m really sorry that the band lost.
D) Which MSR was it?

I suggest that we have a piper at the wedding, so you say:
A) How much does that cost?
B) But I want a sweet violin sonata as I walk down the aisle.
C) Yes, let’s ask [best piper friend/family member] to play.
D) Do you think we can get someone really good?

I need a new suit for work, and I also need a new kilt for solo competitions, and we can afford only one. Your advice is:
A) Maybe you should get an extra job to support this piping/drumming obsession of yours.
B) Can you not wear a suit in competitions?
C) Get the very best kilt you can – it’s a lifetime investment, after all.
D) Maybe a great business suit will help you get that promotion so we can afford that new kilt.

You show up after practice with the entire band ready to party at your house. What’s your reaction?
A) Chain the doors and call the police.
B) Quickly hide all the breakables.
C) Run to the supermarket for ice and munchies – it’s going to be a great few days!
D) Call your friends to invite them over – in for a penny, in for a pound, after all.

I was away at a competition over the weekend and didn’t call or text you. You say:
A) Is it too much to ask that you call me to say you love me?
B) What, did you drop your phone in your pint again?
C) But I was dying to hear the result!
D) I was worried about you.

Who won the World’s in 1964?
A) The what?
B) How the &^%& should I know?
C) Why, the Edinburgh City Police at Ayr, of course.
D) Let me just check the pipes|drums Big Prizes database . . .

The holidays are approaching fast. What gift are you considering getting me as a gift?
A) Power tools so that you can finally install my new closet shelving system.
B) A “pass” that allows you to go to any competition you like.
C) Not sure, but I’ll ask your piping/drumming friends for suggestions.
D) A gift card for that other hobby of yours.

Now, then, let’s tally up.

For every “C” answer give yourself three points. These indicate that you’ve found an ideal piping/drumming spouse who understands the game and appreciates your passion. You’ll have no trouble with him/her as you merrily continue your avocation.

Score two points for each time you answered “D.” While these aren’t ideal responses, they do indicate someone with compassion and practicality, or who knows enough not to say anything, or takes an interest in what you do.

For each time you answered “B,” you can have one point. These answers are a bit insensitive and uncaring, but they indicate a minimal effort to understand your passion, or at least a sense of humour.

For every “A” answer score zero points. Even one of these horrific answers is an indication that you’re messing with a potential piping sociopath, so out of touch with who you really are, who will be nothing but trouble in the years ahead.

25-30 points = you have found the ideal piping/drumming soul-mate. Marry that person now, rest and be thankful.
15-25 points = definitely worth investing more time with. With training and gentle mind-melding, the right seasoning and a little more blowing-in time, he/she could be a keeper.
Seven-14 points = akin to getting the red light at the Northern Meeting: unnerving, and a serious sign that this just won’t be a good performance and even a breakdown could be a likely event.
Six or fewer points = uh-oh. You’ve got an enemy of piping/drumming on your hands. Either give the person the old, “It’s not you, it’s my pipe band . . .” speech, or steel yourself for a life of hen-peckery.

Of course, the mere act of having to administer this quiz would probably hasten the end of the relationship anyway, so if you’re even considering using it, you probably already know the truth.

Next: revised wedding vows for the piper/drummer.

Tracks that inspired

A little later, c.1979, probably listening to Rush. Not 'Farewell to Kings' concert shirt.It’s safe to say that all pipers and drummers are inspired to play because of the playing of others. When we first hear a band or soloist perform, there’s something about the sound of the instrument that makes us want to do that. If we’re lucky, we’re exposed to quality playing from the very beginning, to set a benchmark for the standard that’s possible if, after quality instruction, we practice really hard.

About the only podcast I listen to regularly is National Public Radio’s “All Songs Considered.” If you like popular (mainly rock) music, I highly recommend it. They did a show recently called “Tunes That Got You Through Your Teens. It was a little maudlin at times but, as ever, it reminded me of the many hours I spent as an adolescent listening to . . . bagpipe music.

It got me thinking about the piping and pipe band recordings that inspired me to practice and, since that and baseball were about the only things I remember doing back then, I guess this music helped me “get through” my teens. Fortunately my Dad liked pipe music before I ever touched a practice chanter (a made-in-Pakistan, bought-in-Edinburgh sheesham wood model he gloppily glued back together at the neck after my brother – I’m sure it was my brother – anonymously sat on it), so as I learned I had some great examples of world-class playing to which I could aspire.

If I had to pick two tracks, though, that inspired me as a kid to practice it would be these (you can click on the links to hear a snippet):

“Lament for the Children”The Art of the Bagpipe – Pipe-Major John Burgess. Goodness knows where my father found this record from the 1950s featuring one of the all-time great figures in piping history. It’s from “Folk-Lyric Records” of Baton Rouge, Louisiana – about as far removed as you can get from Burgess’s stomping ground (although I’m confident he would have concocted a great time if he ever had a walkabout in Baton Rouge). I would listen to the full track repeatedly, and practically memorized the little story about Padruig Og MacCrimmon losing seven of his eight sons to plague in one year. Looking now at the list of tracks on the LP I see that I learned every one of the tune on the record and competed with many of them. No coincidence there.

Inspirational.“Jigs”The Pipes of Scotland – Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band – This was one of those compilation albums that Fiesta, another obscure American record company, co-opted from various LPs. The record featured the Edinburgh and Glasgow Police, the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders and Invergordon Distillery. I think the Edinburgh Police track must be from 1967’s Capital Parade, and it comprises “Banjo Breakdown,” “Butter Fingers” and “Caber Feidh.” It was Donald MacLeod’s “Butter Fingers” that got me. I couldn’t understand how they managed the fourth part with its staccato effect of going down the scale (the high-A’s lost in the drones), but I loved it and wanted to learn how to do that.

The lost effect of the album cover was important, too, with these albums: young Burgess in Cameron’s regalia; the mass of bands marching down Princes Street. For the longest time I wondered One small hitch for mankind.why the Edinburgh Police Pipe-Major, Iain McLeod, was hitching up his bag when such an important photo was taken, but that I also figured out later when introduced to the ignominy of the massed band.

The “All Songs Considered” show taps listeners for the tunes that got them through their teens. I could identify with most of them that were in sync with my teenage years, but they also included tracks from the 1990s that feel to me like they were just released. It’s all relative. While I still think of something like, say, Masterblasters, to be new, there are of course many who were in their adolescent years when the Victoria Police released the CD.

Every piper or drummer has recordings that saved them. Those are a few of mine. If you want to share yours, fire away.

Gold Medals and Scottish society

The unfairer sex.That we’re even talking about how remarkable it is that a female piper has finally won a Gold Medal at Oban or Inverness is more interesting to me than the milestone itself. Faye Henderson by all accounts deserved to win and was a popular choice among her fellow competitors and, to any solo piper I know, that’s crucial to satisfying one’s sense of accomplishment, and that’s really all that should matter.

But the traditions and mores of Scottish piping are long-held and, to those not part of their culture, it can be difficult to understand. Generally and relatively speaking, change is often slower to be accepted there.

Henderson’s win has resurrected the discussion about the Royal Scottish Pipers Society voting in 2008 to continue its tradition of being a men-only club. There are plenty of men-only and women-only and whatever-only clubs in every walk of life. By definition a “club” is restrictive and exclusionary. The complication, of course, is that members of this club of male “amateur” (read: not very good) pipers still judge top-level competitions, and so have a controlling stake in the UK solo piping scene.

Whether or not these RSPS judges are fit to pass accurate judgment on pipers who can play circles around them is perhaps less galling than is the perception that they might be predisposed towards male competitors. They’re part of a club that rejects female members, so making that leap isn’t so huge.

While women have competed in piping competitions forever, they’ve been allowed to participate in the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering only since 1975. These events are connected with “societies” – that is, upper-crust clubs for those of a certain pedigree, vocation or income-bracket similar to the Jolly Boys that comprise the RSPS. I don’t know much about the Highland Society of London beyond its Wikipedia listing, but I note that it’s made up of “Highland gentlemen resident in London,” and perhaps this sponsorship and tradition also had or has something to do with no woman winning their coveted prize until now.

We all like to think that the prize lists are fair. At least in associations outside of the UK there are sophisticated judging accreditation and accountability systems designed to create a degree of assurance that the competitions will be well assessed. If there’s a question of fairness, there’s a mechanism for addressing it.

But how many female pipers over the years have played well enough to earn a Gold Medal, only to have it denied because they didn’t get the benefit of the doubt? And we all know that, when it comes to the top piping, drumming and band competitions, the benefit of the doubt – splitting hairs based on personal preference or predilection – can be the difference between first and fifth.

Perhaps now everyone can just get on with it and once and for all stop pigeon-holing competitors as male or female, Scottish or not, white or not-white, military or civilian, rich or poor, Catholic or Protestant, Mason or not, and assess the music only with fairness, competence and objectivity.

Jottings from Glasgow

Roddy MacLeod addresses the gathering at the Glasgow City Chambers.A few stand-out memories and observations from a chock-a-block week in Glasgow. There are hundreds more, but these came to mind first when thinking back on the week. They’re in no particular order.

Bagad Brieg

After almost 30 years of attending the World’s I realized that I had not once listened to anything but Grade 1. So, this year, I decided to will myself away from the Grade 1 Medley Final, and take a look at the Grade 2 final. There were 12 bands in the event, and several performances would have stood up well in Grade 1. But the medley that caught my ear was that of Bagad Brieg from Brittany. I was glad that they finished third overall, because I wondered if their more creative selection might alienate potentially traditionalist judges. Brieg’s finish included an impressive delivery of Gordon Duncan’s “Pressed for Time,” an ingenious and difficult composition that few bands would tackle. Brieg to me stood out from the fairly predictable fare of some of its competition, and I won’t be surprised if they are the next Breton band approved for Grade 1 by the RSPBA.

Armagh Pipers Club

I heard a lot from this band of uillean pipes, whistles, banjo and bodhran during Piping Live! They play an eclectic variety of Celtic stuff in a very acoustic and unplugged manner. They were the background entertainment at a reception at the Glasgow City Chambers put on by the city’s Lord Provost (read: mayor) for people connected with Piping Live! pipes|drums is once again a media partner with the festival, so I scored an invitation. The Armagh Pipers Club played away at the corner of the room, and it was splendid.

Glasgow City Chambers

Over the years I’ve been within yards of the Glasgow City Chambers (read: city hall) thousands of times, but I’d never actually gone inside. What a building. The deep red Italian Carrara marble is everywhere and it is stunning. The building was made in 1888 and, I was told, Glaswegians complained about its cost. But they must have stopped complaining once they saw the completed building. I kept thinking of The Simpsons “Stonecutters” episode. I highly recommend you have a look next time you’re in Glasgow. They don’t make them like this no more.

Roddy MacLeod practicing

The redoubtable Helen Wilkinson of the National Piping Centre kindly allowed me to plug in to their Internet connection throughout the week. While all the action was happening outside, behind the scenes the NPC’s offices were inhabited by employees and volunteers keeping things running. There’s probably not a busier person in Glasgow than Piping Live! and National Piping Centre Director Roddy MacLeod. But one day when I was posting a news story, a somewhat frazzled Roddy came into the offices, and disappeared into a back room where he proceeded to . . . practice. He managed to squeeze in about 15 minutes of his own solo playing before being interrupted with the latest crisis. I continued to do my thing, but couldn’t help but enjoy the loveliness of his playing and pipe. How Roddy manages the NPC and Piping Live! while staying at the top of the solo game is beyond me. MBE indeed.

The RSPBA machine

I compared the band competition times in my program with the actual times the bands came on. There was never more than a minute either way. There may have been one or two lapses on the day, but the RSPBA is unbelievably good at executing events of this size. And it’s not just 230-odd bands; it’s more than 350 (by my count) actual band performances. The RSPBA is mind-bogglingly good at running the World’s like a Swiss watch.

Elderly humming Highlanders

I was reminded about the peculiar habit that old Scottish men have when a solo piper plays a Gaelic air or piobaireachd: they hum along, usually off-pitch, in this sort of murmuring style. You’ll be sitting there enjoying a recital by Angus MacColl or Willie McCallum or some other great, and when the player starts an air or urlar there emerges this weird sound from the audience. And usually, you can’t tell who it is who’s humming, but rest assured it’s one of the elderly Highland-looking dudes. Shut it!

Inert judges

Some ensemble judges feel it’s acceptable to assess each band as a whole from one spot. I’ve heard Bob Shepherd’s thoughts on being “static.” Fair enough. But I noticed in several circles at the World’s piping judges pretty much staying in one place. One judge in an event I listened to never ventured past the half-way mark at the top of the band on one side of the circle – for the entire contest. Another time I noticed all three – two piping and ensemble – listening for a good minute in a clump. With the size of today’s bands, this makes no sense. The piping judges should make an effort to stay away from one another to ensure variances on each side of the circle are heard. Mobility may be a factor with a few judges being relative stagnant, but I would think that the competitors deserve a more comprehensive listen. If judges are having a hard time getting around, perhaps they should retire – or at least use one of those electric carts.

Drinks vouchers

“Beer tickets” are standard at North American piping and drumming events. It’s a way to balance the revenues against sold product and safeguard against theft. The World’s was the first Scottish event that I’d seen the use of the system, and the “drinks vouchers” setup made getting served a breeze. The bed-sheet-size paper vouchers were a bit much, though. Could this be the first time ever that the RSPBA has adopted an idea from another country?

All told, it was a great week, and, as always, your observations are welcome.

In art, only hate itself should be hated

The only thing I really hate is hatred. When people say that they “hate” piobaireachd, a new pipe band medley, or, for that matter, any form of music or art, it bothers me. You can prefer one style more than another, or love a certain sound or sight, but why would anyone hate something as truly harmless as art?

You hear people in piping and drumming use the hate word frequently. “I hate that tune.” “I really hate what bass-sections are doing these days.” “I hate that band’s music.” It’s a word that, unfortunately, seems to be part of the piping and drumming tradition, perhaps borne of spite and envy and the ever-present need people seem to feel to compete on any level.

Some like to try to get a competitive edge by tearing down or belittling things they’re threatened by. Rather than minding only what they do themselves, they take a negative tack and discredit different approaches by using hateful language.

The other day I thought about different types of music. Like anyone else, I prefer some music more than others. But I can’t think of any music – whether classical, jazz, hip-hop or whatever – that I wouldn’t listen to and try to appreciate, if not enjoy.

My musical preferences run from hard rock to country to punk to bubblegum pop, even, and when it comes to music, I have many guilty pleasures. I was ridiculed mercilessly in the 1980s for admitting that I liked Debbie Gibson’s “Only In My Dreams” (which I maintain to this day is an intoxicating melody).

There is a sordid custom in piping to tear down that which threatens us. Dr. William Donaldson’s The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society is a seminal study of just such an example, in which piobaireachd was standardized by a group that set out to control the music in part by denigrating its history. The irony of ironies was that, when Donaldson’s book emerged, there was a strong and vocal attempt to – what else? – discredit his research, not to mention his training as a piper, each of which are impeccable.

There are those who are completely stuck in a hateful rut and, sadly, these folks all too often end up in positions of power. They try to eliminate things that threaten them by spreading hateful ideas, discrediting and belittling anything that is a challenge to their past and their status. They fancy themselves the protectors of some faith that really cannot exist in any art that wants to live in the present and future.

When it comes to art, the only thing to hate is hate itself.

Down under

Australia is a large, rich and diverse country with a large, rich and diverse piping and drumming scene.


Raising the chances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most excellent 2009

Orbital MetricHope everyone had a good Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or whatever you prefer to do.

I might have listened to more music than usual in the last year, since I find it more accessible than ever. In recent years I’ve listed my favourite five tracks and five albums, but this year I’ll just list my 10 personal favourite tracks from the year.

Perhaps I should have separate piping/drumming and non-piping/drumming lists, but mixing them up is part of the fun.

These are the ones that seem to have stood up best over the year, one or two coming in late in 2009 to make the cut, as it were. In order: 

  • “Satellite Mind” – Metric, from Fantasies – I’ve now played this song at least 100 times. Still sounds fresh and unbelievably catchy.
  • “The Cure” – Tegan and Sara, from Sainthood – Hey, nothing wrong with doing the 1980s even better.
  • “Ae Fond Kiss” – Wendy Stewart & Gary West, from Hinterlands – A lovely rendition of the Burns song, Stewart’s voice paired perfectly with the texture of West’s backing vocals, whistle and accompanying cello.
  • “Loaded”The Idle Hands, from The Hearts We Broke on the Way to the Show – More retro-’80s stylings in a Psychedelic Furs / Joy Division sort of way.
  • “Field of Gold” – Simon Fraser University, from Affirmation – Almost as moving on CD as it was on the night.
  • “Bull Black Nova” – Wilco, from Wilco (The Album) – My favourite track from one of my favourite group’s most recent album.
  • “Comme Des Enfants” – Coeur de Pirate, from Coeur de Pirate – If Annabel stays with the piano this could be her. I don’t really know or much care what the words mean, but they’re pure French charm. (Thanks, Lorna!)
  • “Cello Song” – The Books, from Dark Was the Night – Love this cover of the Nick Drake song, which actually would be great for a pipe band to adapt.
  • “A Thousand Curses on Love” – Bill Livingstone, from Northern Man – For most of August and September I could not get the waulking song base of this track out of my head. A good thing.
  • “Poyntzfield Reprise” – Manawatu Scottish, Twelve-Thousand Miles – by far my favourite track on this excellent pipe band studio album.

Just didn’t quite qualify: “Just Breathe” – Pearl Jam, from Back Spacer; “1901,” Phoenix, from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix; “Hell,” Tegan and Sara, from Sainthood; “Wilco,” Wilco, from Wilco (The Album); and “Captain Jack Murray,” John Mulhearn, from The Extraordinary Little Cough.

Those are mine. What are your favourites from 2009?

Musical ecosystem

Balanced on an axis.Every ecosystem reacts to foreign invaders. Earthly things merrily exist in their particular environment, change occurring over eons and epochs in Darwinian sloth . . . then suddenly a bunch of things come off a jet plane and all hell is unleashed.

Scotland is not called the Auld Country for nothing. The “New Town” in Edinburgh was first established 230 years ago, about the time that the United States was born. While Scotland’s cities are among the most modern in the world, and it’s the place where many great inventions were made, paradoxically there are centuries-old traditions that exist simply because they exist and that’s the way things have always been done.

The new worlds of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, by comparison have few traditions, and those that exist are years rather than centuries old. Religious holidays become commercial festivals; days of homage to great leaders are declared; musical trends start and stop every minute.

Thanks to jet travel and other technology, Scotland’s piping and drumming ecosystem has been infiltrated by foreign invaders, brought on partly by Scots themselves. The missionary work in the 1960s and ’70s of Seumas MacNeill, John MacFadyen, John MacLellan, the Balmoral Bobs, Donald MacLeod, Alex Duthart and others brought the gospel of good piping and drumming to the colonials. Other Scottish pipers and drummers, like John Wilson, Roddy MacDonald, James Barrie, James MacColl, Jim Kirkwood, James McIntosh and others – outright emigrated to the new world, and embraced the cultures of their new homes, profoundly improving things through their tireless teaching.

New world pipers and drummers not only worked to perfect their craft, but injected into it new traditions by consistently questioning why things are done the way they’ve always been done in Scotland for hundreds of years. Piping and drumming’s new world has readily tweaked and even thumbed its figurative nose at the traditions of the art. Those disruptions have usually not gone over too well in the Auld Country.

It’s a culture clash. While Scots are accustomed to maintaining traditions, the new world generally has less tolerance for doing things the same way. As such, the challenges to established piping / drumming ways over the last 30 years by and large have originated from outside of Scotland: the resurrection of the bass-section; the rise of summer schools; judging accreditation; solo grading systems; new light music compositions and styles; pushing the boundaries of the pipe band medley; “kitchenpiping”; aristocracy replaced by meritocracy . . .

As with everything, there are exceptions, but the large majority of biggest challenges and changes to piping and drumming traditions over the last 30 years have originated from outside of Scotland.

I’ve been a piper and bandsman in the United States, Scotland and Canada for decent amounts of time in each country. The three cultures treat change very differently. The struggles with change that piping and drumming has had, I believe, are largely due to a struggle of cultures. The Scottish piping ecosystem that existed and hardly changed for hundreds of years was significantly disrupted by an influx of foreigners, exiting jet planes with their new ideas and acceptance of change. It has been an invasion of fresh ideas to some, of pests to others.

The remaining traditions of piping and drumming – the MSR, the uniform, competition formats, to name a few – are sure to be challenged by the pressure to change. The mindsets of players from various countries vary, each with different ideas of what’s “acceptable” and what’s not. These clashes of cultures are responsible for the massive changes to our musical ecosystem that will continue faster than ever with the worldwide piping and drumming population explosion.

There can be no doubting that great changes have occurred since the advance of piping skills in North America and Down Under. Now, as piping and pipe bands go even more global – continental European countries and Asia, especially – how will these diverse cultures further impact upon the traditions and mores of our musical environment?

For the ages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the sun going down

Can't kid a kidder.April 1st is a day I always look forward to, since it’s a chance to have a little fun with the piping and drumming world. The key to a good April Fool’s joke is for it to be fairly topical and remotely believable, so that the many altruistic people among us fall for it.

This year’s was in the works for a few days, and Piobaireachd Society President Jack Taylor was in the know and signed off on the ploy, good sport that he is. He even provided the quote. What would Kilberry think?!

A differentiating feature of pipes|drums and the old Piper & Drummer is humour. At the end of the day it’s just music, and, if you stop to think about what we do and how seriously we so often take ourselves and all this competing, you just have to have a chuckle.

I sourced a few of the past April Fool’s stories, which are always only viewable for the one day, but I opened them up again just for today.

Tenor-drummers gird for world boycott

SLOT announces Greenpeace sponsorship

Hope you get a good laugh.

Can’t sing but I got soul

I had the good fortune to participate this week in a two-day workshop on mentoring and coaching – skills that everyone can use, not least of whom me. As part of the course, we watched a really good video put together by Ben Zander, the Music Director of the Boston Philharmonic.

Zander’s a whirlwind of charisma and positive energy, and it appears that he’s carved out a nice sub-career as a motivational guru. While I was watching the video, I thought about how many pipe-majors of premier bands might be able to transfer their leadership skills to self-help consulting.

In a sense, many already are motivational speakers, as we see guys like Richard Parkes, Terry Lee, Robert Mathieson and Bill Livingstone hired to conduct clinics. I’d imagine that many attendees go expecting to get some secret sauce for success and become better players or bands overnight. But in actuality I would think most leave these workshops simply feeling a whole lot better about what they do and what they need to do. They get motivated to improve.

There was one point in the Zander video where he has a cellist perform a difficult piece for the business people attending his seminar. She’s clearly a terrific player, and executes the piece technically perfectly. Zander applauds her for that, but then points out that, while her technique was brilliant, the piece lacked emotion. She was so concerned about getting it “right,” that she forgot to engage her audience, who were clearly impressed, but not emotionally moved.

He said, “Perfection is not to be gained at the cost of music.” I found this summarized perfectly what we pipers and drummers struggle with all the time. We’re so focused on getting it “right,” that we leave the audience cold. And then we’re often too quick to criticize a technically flawed performance that got an audience out of their seats and cheering.

It’s an age-old problem for us: how to encourage, recognize and reward music played with emotion and meaning and have the conviction to place more importance on those attributes rather than the “perfect” but soulless performance?

Tuning folk

Speak with forked tongue.I haven’t read a full copy of the digest, the Piping Times, for at least a decade, but when there’s a (usually mean-spirited) bit pertaining to pipes|drums or (rarely) me personally, people are prone to alert me to it, even though I’m invariably not interested. I gather there was something pertinent recently, and a few folks took it upon themselves to make sure that I knew about it . . . many thanks . . . I guess.

Ironically, Rab Wallace, the current Editor of the monthly, in the early 1980s said to me, “If you haven’t been slagged by Seumas, you haven’t made it in piping.” He was talking about Seumas MacNeill, the co-founder of the College of Piping and editor for almost 50 years of the aforementioned digest-sized periodical. Rab didn’t come up with the axiom himself;  I remember him quoting someone else.

In 1987 I took great delight when Seumas, in his report of the Northern Meeting, wrote that I must have “the worst tuning-notes in the business.” To my relief, he didn’t comment on the tune that I played, since he was apt to save his worst slagging for that. So, I figured that I might have finally made it as a piper when the Famous Seumas simultaneously let me have it and let me off the hook. MacNeill had a sharp but always entertaining pen.

“Ouch!” one pipes|drums reader said in a message alerting me to the reprint of the 1987 comment, in what I hazard to guess was a new attempt at a taunt. In fact, it it served as a pleasant reminder of a time when everything was a new adventure. I also know that “making it” as a solo piper requires a lot more than a MacNeillian barb.

Anyway, it also reminded me that, while it should have sweet FA to do with the result, what’s played while tuning is part of the overall performance. In 1987, I didn’t put much thought into tuning phrases and the like, and simply wanted to get the instrument in tune, which more often than I’d have liked didn’t happen. When I’m on the other side of the table, it’s irritating when a piper comes up at the tail-end of a 20-plus-competitor piobaireachd event and screws at his/her drones with an eternity of gibberish notes and no apparent game-plan. It does indeed set the teeth on edge, as Seumas wrote 20 years ago, and more than a few times the performance that I remember first after an event is someone playing interminable airs and things and never actually tuning an instrument, that would probably never stay in tune anyway.   

I have learned, though, that there is usually a correlation between pleasant tuning and tuneful performances. Those who have put thought into their tune-up, almost always have put a lot more thought into their instrument and their music.

Compose yersel’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Not one of us, I'm afraid . . .When I first went to Scotland as a competitor around the games and at Inverness and Oban in the early-1980s I was struck by many things, most of them very, very good.

The number of non-Scottish pipers back then was relatively few; the only other regular American competitors were Mike Cusack and Jim Stack, both of whom had spent time in Scotland learning the craft from people like John MacFadyen and John A. MacLellan.

But one thing that opened my eyes was the way a few of the locals would talk about piobaireachd or, more specifically, how outsiders played piobaireachd. Some seemed to have this idea that, if you weren’t Scottish, you automatically didn’t have the requisite musicality in your nature. As a result, some non-Scots players were deemed innately unmusical. They just didn’t have “the piobaireachd” and they never would.

Similarly, there were Scottish players from the Highlands who were said to have a kind of inborn ability to play piobaireachd better than those from Glasgow. And the few players who spoke Gaelic were treated by some as having a sort of magical musical gift, despite the fact that their pipes were never in tune and they couldn’t play a decent crunluath.

I thought then that it was a crock and I still think it’s a crock.

I was reminded of this when a few weeks ago I was told about yet another pipe band judge accusing a band of “not playing in the Scottish idiom.” In this instance, it was the Toronto Police playing in the MSR in the World’s Qualifier. Michael Grey mentioned it in a recent post on his blog.

Never mind the fact that his band is led by Ian K. MacDonald, one of the best MSR players on the planet; what eventually got me most about this familiar “lacking Scottish idiom” comment was when I realized that this score-sheet remark as far as I know is only thrown at non-Scottish bands by Scottish judges. Has a Scottish-based Grade 1 band ever been accused of “not playing in the Scottish idiom”? I doubt it.

The way I see it, such a sweeping and unfounded pejorative is more about where you come from than about the music you actually play.

The blanket “Scottish idiom” attack is an easy out for a judge. I suppose if a band played a traditional Chinese song in its medley it might be acceptable for an adjudicator to criticize a band for playing outside of “the idiom,” but an MSR? How can any Grade 1 band be accused of not playing a traditional Scottish MSR within the musical “idiom”? It boggles the mind.

Twenty-five years ago I noted that, regardless of how well they played and imitated traditional styles, some were made to feel like musical outsiders. It’s pathetic indeed that this sort of apparent discrimination still exists.


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