Covered classics

I like k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” the best. There’s Jeff Buckley’s, and I recently heard a great rendition by Francesco Yates, and of course there’s Leonard Cohen’s original, but, for me, it’s got to be k.d.

To riff on U2, it’s even better than the real thing.

The upcoming “Live In Ireland 87 In Scotland” concert got me thinking about the pipe band habit of being original, at least when it comes to medleys and concert material. Pipe bands of course play the same 2/4 marches, strathspeys and reels for set events as a matter of course, but have pipe bands ever – in competition or not – “covered” another pipe band’s work? I can’t think of an instance.

Sure, bands will take single tunes introduced by other bands and put their own spin on them, at least with a new percussion score, but entire medleys or suites first brought out by another pipe band? Never.

Even the reunion of players and some extra-special friends from the 1987 78th Fraser Highlanders’ concert in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, won’t be truly covering material, since you can’t cover music that you came out with originally.

But, it seems to me, it’s high time that pipe bands started to break down that unwritten rule that they can’t play creative material done by other bands. I would think it’s the next big step or trend for pipe bands: make a classic medley of the past new and exciting once again with a new arrangement with different harmonies, bridges, even subtle time signature and tempo tweaks to celebrate it again by, to use the American Idol cliché, “make it their own.”

To revisit the jazz composer Don Thompson’s “Journey To Skye” by the same group that did it first is fine, but I’d love to hear, say, Inveraray & District make it perhaps even better, with different harmonies and tempos, with a modern bass section arrangement. Or how about the medley that Victoria Police used to win the 1998 World’s updated and reinterpreted by, say, St. Laurence O’Toole? Or a 1980s Vale of Atholl concert suite done by Field Marshal Montgomery? Or go way back and take a selection from the 1960s Invergordon Distillery (“Old Woman’s Lullaby,” anyone?) and give it a modern makeover.

Or could a Grade 3 band of today take on the “Detroit Highlanders” Strathclyde Police medley of the 1980s? Why not? It’s excellent fundamental music that is eminently within the grasp of many modern mid-grade bands. It’s not sacred and untouchable; it’s music that deserves to be appreciated again in a new way.

I have heard people wonder often why some pipe band suite or other isn’t heard again. “If ‘The Megantic Outlaw’ was any good, then why do we never hear it today?” is a thought I’ve listened to not a few times. Whatever your personal opinion of that or any other piece of music associated closely with a particular pipe band, the reason their music isn’t heard again is simple: there’s an unwritten code that pipe bands don’t do that, that they always have to be 100 per cent original.

To be sure, it’s fun and challenging for a pipe band to create whole new medleys, but it doesn’t have to always be this way. There’s tons of room to be original with existing content, to resurrect well-kent classics, to make them your own.

In fact, if I were a band hoping to be noticed, or step up in the ranks, I would take a cue from budding pop stars. More often than not, they get noticed by doing a great cover of a well-known song. They eliminate the burden of having to rise up with their own material, knowing that songwriting can come, after they are discovered via their covers. Originality can come in many forms.

k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” does not diminish Leonard Cohen’s song one iota. She celebrates and honours it, just as Jeff Buckley did, putting a personal and fresh complexion on it, bringing it to another generation, and Francesco Yates does it again.

It’s all good, and it’s all possibly even better.

 

Blurred lines

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

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

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

I say no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De-mob

Social media has profoundly impacted the piping and drumming world. I wrote before about how technology platforms and gizmos have brought all of us closer together, and certainly I am an early adopter of digital whatevers if they move us forward.

Social media has made everyone sort of familiar with everyone else. For better or worse, it has broken down the mystique that our greatest bands and players once had. Just about everything is right there now for anyone interested. That hot new medley that was once debuted with a pent-up splash at the first contest is now pretty much old-hat, heard on recordings, seen on YouTube, the scores circulated by phone. Ten-time-Clasp-winner Dugald MacFarquhar is a “Friend.” You made a sassy comment to a famous drummer’s status update — you don’t really know him, but by chiming in you feel aligned with greatness.

We’re so familiar with everyone and everything vicariously on the Internet that, when we actually meet people or attend things in-person, there are hardly any surprises.

In general, technology has made us cozier. Our once rather cold, cold competition ground is now a lot lot warmer. There are fewer bitter rivalries. The arch-enemies who we’d previously willfully ignore are now Friends whose posts we Like.

But along with that new-found glow from social media has come a disturbing underbelly of animosity and vitriol and even hatred. In fact, it was there from the beginning of the net, starting with the wretched cesspool called alt.rec.musicmakers.bagpipe, an early newsgroup chat thing where anonymous crackpots would go to spread their vile, even psychopathic, bile.

Gradually, though, things like that and the horrible Delphi Beer Tent forum and occasional other sordid places lost out to saner people. Facebook, with its mostly positive, authentic temperament, is the platform of choice for the pipe band world.

But there is still awfulness out there. There remain those who will say horribly demeaning and even libelous things about our fellow pipers and drummers. Where once they would do that only anonymously, there are those who are actually willing to put their names to their invective via Facebook.

It generally happens when a sort of online mob-rule takes over good judgment. One idiot throws a rock, so another jerk breaks a window, and pretty soon mild-mannered and kind folk join the raging mob, take leave of their facilities and start lobbing personally-signed Molotov cocktails of flaming hate.

The difference is, these online glassings of our fellow pipers and drummers are there forever. No amount of deletions or apologies will remove the digital stain of their wrong-headedness. When they pressed Enter, no matter how many beers they had consumed or how many others egged them on, the fact that they made the decision to say what they said remains.

Forever.

It also can be hurtful and damaging beyond an intended schoolyard taunt. Some hateful comments are even actionable.

If you’re wondering if this post is about you, well, then it probably is.

I’m not suggesting the pipe band world should be the land of the Care Bears. Healthy debate and discussion and even the occasional heated argument allow us to grow. We’ll never like everything or everyone, but the least we pipers and drummers require and expect of each other is mutual respect.

There’s no place for mob-rule. After all, it’s music. But those who consciously and consistently press Enter to spew their hatred against others will get what they deserve: eventually they won’t be welcome in the club, which ultimately stands for good.

 

Shocks

The recent Shotts / Jim Kilpatrick developments are, to put it mildly, unfortunate for all – the band, the drummer and even the entire pipe band world.

I won’t go in to who I think is right and wrong, since I believe each party shares some right and some wrong. Based on what I know, I can see the pros and cons of each side of the situation. Besides, my opinion on who’s right and wrong does not matter one iota.

What is clear is that the timing of the developments couldn’t be worse. The return of Shotts & Dykehead from burning wreckage in 2012 to World’s winner in 2015 is one of the greatest pipe band success stories ever. To me, it ranks right up there with Inveraray & District’s rise from formation to Grade 1 contender in eight years, or Dysart & Dundonald’s redefining in the 1970s that a great pipe band could be made up of kids, taught from scratch, rather than wizened veterans slowly going through the ranks.

The Shotts move truly shocked the piping and drumming world. The reigning World Champion that seems to have done everything right suddenly acrimoniously parting ways with the greatest competitive pipe band drummer of all time?

Blockbuster, indeed.

The shock was predictable. What has been surprising to me is the fallout and public shaming on Facebook and Twitter. After nearly 50 years building them, Kilpatrick’s fans are legion, and many responded by taking his side of the story. The band’s side, despite the fact that it seems to have a golden touch when it comes to making all the right moves, seemed to be grasped, much less believed, by few.

Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia is more than 100 years old. Over its history the band has seen its share of contentious personnel changes. Greats like J.K. McAllister, Tom McAllister, Alex Duthart, Robert Mathieson and Jim Kilpatrick himself have been at the centre of band controversy, but their legend continued and continues. As ever, these things passed.

All bands make personnel challenges. It’s true that winning encourages camaraderie and “chemistry,” but even the winningest bands have their disputes, and even World Champions have to make tough decisions that, to the outsider, seem inconceivably stupid. Only from the inside can situations be understood completely, and even then complete understanding is a longshot.

Again, I appreciate both sides of the current situation, and I don’t side with one party or other. Each handled the communications of the matter as they saw fit, and no communication strategy – whether pipe bands, corporations or people – is ever perfect.

The band appears to think that the more it says the worse it will become. Despite 100-plus years of history, it knows that the here-and-now is what matters. No one will side with the 2015 version of Shotts just because they liked the McAllister-Duthart era.

Kilpatrick’s legend – in the here-and-now – is bigger than the band’s, and the band recognizes, I think, that it can’t win against the battalions of Kilpatrick supporters. Jim Kilpatrick also understands that he has a stronger and more interpersonal following, and they have mobilized in support of their hero.

But the public shaming and the figurative lynch mobs breaking out on social media are ridiculous and even embarrassing. Really? Is that what we pipers and drummers do to each other? I’ve never seen other pipers and drummers set out to destroy a band because of something it did, and it shouldn’t happen now, or ever.

Maybe I’m kidding myself, but social media public shaming of individuals is not what we pipers and drummers do. It’s unacceptable, immature and even cowardly behaviour.

It’s the quality of music that is played that matters. While people must respect others, it’s not a personality contest on the field or the concert stage. Plenty of nice people and plenty of jerks have won plenty of competitions. We are not judged on our conduct or character, we’re judged on quality of music. That said, we are just naturally nice and only in rare times do we allow emotion to get the worst of us.

I feel bad for Kilpatrick and Shotts in equal measure. Like 99% of pipers and drummers, they are good people. There might be hard feelings and upset, but I don’t believe that they want to harm anyone. Decisions and timing and communications can always be better, and if we expect perfection of anyone inevitably we will be disappointed.

Bands and people make decisions for many reasons, and unless we are there or those people, we will never know all of the details.

I hope that the Shotts band and Jim Kilpatrick can move on. No amount of hand-wringing or name-calling or Facebook grouping or public shaming by people will help.

Let’s get back to allowing the music to do the talking.

Merge method

MergerThe season’s over in the northern hemisphere. The World Championships and regional events are done and dusted. Pipe bands will take a break for a month or two, recharge the tuning metre, dry out the kitty litter, loosen the lugs, and give the fingers and wrists a rest.

Bands will also think about broader future plans, and not a few will wonder how on earth they’ll ever be able to reach whatever it is they’re aiming to reach competitively.

The World’s, good or evil, is the Holy Grail that many bands in every grade obsess over. The Svengali-like allure of succeeding at this one competition causes pipe bands to take serious, if not evasive, action, from currying favour with judges, to purchasing politically beneficial gear, to flying in temporary players, to – the most evasive of actions – merging with another band.

Much has been made in recent years when bands from Ontario haven’t made the Grade 1 Final, or don’t do well in other grades. After a drought of a few years, in 2014 the 78th Fraser Highlanders returned to the Final as the only Ontario Grade 1 representative, but this year’s contest again saw none of the three bands that played make it through.  Australian Grade 1 bands haven’t ventured to the World’s at all in recent years, and perhaps have similar intense expectations placed on them. Regions in almost every country, including Scotland, feel that they can and must do better and represent their area  on the world stage.

Cue inevitable thoughts of merger.

The solution might appear apparent: Not doing enough to “succeed” in Glasgow? Then merge bands to make a “super-band” that will march in to the Green and show everyone a thing or two. Enough of the shilly-shallying! Just get it or them together and Get. It. Done.

But for what? For the sake of getting into the Final? For maybe a fifth or sixth prize? Great. That’ll show them. Even winning a lower grade could result in an upgrade, and usually means a few years of toil in the new grade before the band takes the next step either up or down.

The cost of pipe band mergers almost always far outweighs the benefits. With rare exceptions, the wreckage caused by mergers of otherwise healthy bands has a long-lasting effect on pipe band scenes. In simplest terms, at least one band is killed off. The simple fact is that there is one less band to compete with or against in a local scene. That is never good for piping and drumming and, to me anyway, I’d rather have two competitive, good bands than a lone “super-band.”

In more complex terms, the irreplaceable camaraderie, spirit and commitment that built a band dies, too. That can have a profoundly subtle, lasting impact on a regional scene.

In the early-1990s someone had the idea to merge the once-mighty-but-then-fallen-on-lean-times Clan MacFarlane with the pretty healthyToronto Police. I wasn’t in either band, but my understanding from those who were in it was that a deal was struck that said, if the merger didn’t work out then Clan MacFarlane would go back to being a band again. It would re-emerge, as it were.

My recollection is that the get-together was quickly unsatisfactory, with power struggles, ill-will and, ultimately former Clan MacFarlane members jumping to other bands, making the merger relatively moot. The net result for the Toronto Police was that they gained a few players but were not much, if any, better off. Meanwhile, Ontario had lost a band and all its tradition and pride, and gained a whole lot of animosity and tension permeating the air for many years.

Just about all of the people involved with that merger have moved on to other things. To be sure, they are all good people, and no one is to blame for trying in good faith to improve. The Toronto Police band remains with hardly a piper or drummer remaining from 22 years ago, of course, still trying to get into the World’s Grade 1 Final but, from everything I can see, enjoying what they do as a band unto itself.

Clan MacFarlane, on the other hand, is just a memory.

There are rare exceptions. The 2011 merger of the Grade 2 Ottawa Police and Grade 2 Glengarry appears to have worked well on the competition field. The Stuart Highlanders absorbing Oran Mor could be cited. But these bands were not made instant world-beaters as a result. In each case the fact remains: one less band on the scene. I’m sure there is an argument that, without a merger, neither band would exist today, so there is that.

A merger is almost always an attempt at a quick-fix solution. Just combine bands and the road to whatever will be paved in gold. It never happens like that. The road will still be bumpy, the destination marginally closer at best. Meanwhile the detritus of a blown up band remains, inevitably years later causing people to wonder why that ever happened. And of course the regional competitive environment is weakened with at least one less band.

The shimmering prizes that merged bands pine for never come any more quickly. There are never quick fixes. There is no fast replacement for strong leadership, cameraderie, commitment, positive spirit, team-building and sheer hard work. All that glitters is not gold.

 

Awash in whisky

John D. Burgess was a legend, not only for his renowned ability as a piper, but for his wit, sartorial splendor and, at least equally at the top of the list, his mischief-making.

It’s impossible to put into words the man and the character he was. Suffice it to say, the piping world will never see his like again. His death just more than 10 years ago was a sad loss for piping.

I can’t say I knew him well, but my work on the Piper & Drummer / pipes|drums since the mid-1980s brought us together, and to have been able to call one of my greatest inspirations as a kid piper even an acquaintance was my honour and great fortune.

Burgess loved the “Trailing Drones” section of the magazine (then print-only) with its bits of gossip, hearsay, occasional red herring BS and, even most of all, the frequent many-a-true-word-said-in-jest content. At Inverness in the early 1990s or so Burgess took me aside in the upper foyer where the light music events used to take place, to let me know that he liked it and whispered in my ear that he was willing to be a source – to be an “Agent in the Field,” as he would say. He had his own team of operatives feeding him intel from his various fields.

He had no email or newfangled “Internet,” so he asked if he could phone me with his scoop. Occasionally I’d answer my line at work and it would a mischievous Burgess with a scandalously juicy tidbit. (For those with back-issues, you can have fun trying to identify the Burgess-isms that got in.)

“Helloo, Andrew, it’s John Burgessss . . . I have a message for Mr. Harry Tung. You tell Harry . . .” he would say in his carefully articulated and maybe a bit affected Highland accent, which was an important part of the extraordinary Burgess brand. I usually had no idea what he was talking about when he delivered his scoop, and he would never explain it, leaving me to trust him that it was rich scandal. So I would dutifully relay it to Harry and then edit whatever came back and hope not to get sued. It was all great fun.

On trips to the World Championships with the 78th Fraser Highlanders in the 1980s and 1990s (joined 1988, left after 1997) I would try then, as I do now, to do one or two significant interviews for this magazine.

I relayed a story many years ago, and was reminded of it recently. I think it bears repeating.

In 1994 Burgess agreed to do an interview, and I believe it is the only substantial published conversation he did in his life. I hired a car and drove from Glasgow to his home in Saltburn, very near Invergordon, about five hours away. I had imagined him to have a palatial estate, maybe with a gated driveway, and a couple of greyhounds at the door.

His home was nothing like that, but it by no means disappointed. A small seafront house overlooking the Moray Firth, several parked oil rigs off in the distance, the Black Isle, ancestral home of the John/G.S./D.R. McLennans on the other side. I was greeted warmly and humbly. He was of course well turned out, but inside the house there was hardly an indication that he was even a piper, no medals or trophies anywhere, and certainly no sign of this being the residence of the King of Highland Pipers.

It was a great, frank conversation, and by far the most memorable of the more than 100 interviews I’ve done. He was forthright and candid, and was taking the whole thing seriously. It was clear that he knew this would be a record of his life, and I was gratified that this little boy from Missouri was entrusted with his insights and stories.

I was at his house for maybe three hours. He provided sandwiches, biscuits and tea, and even offered a dram of really nice whisky that he kept in the house for guests even though he was teetotal for decades after successfully fighting his well-known debilitating addiction to alcohol.

When I was getting ready to go we talked a bit at his front door about the World Pipe Band Championships. He knew Bill Livingstone, of course, and I think had a fondness for him, as the only wit in piping that compares with Burgess’s I think is Livingstone’s. Burgess said that he had “a very good feeling” about the 78th Fraser not just doing well, but winning the World’s on the Saturday. I was taken aback. Here was John D. Burgess putting his money on the 78th Fraser Highlanders, a band that at the time had fallen down the ladder a bit and would have been happy simply to finish in the top-six.

Wow, I thought, wait’ll I get back to Glasgow to tell the guys!

“Yes, yes, you tell Mr. Bill Livingstone that John D. Burgess expects big things – big things! – on Saturday. In fact, let me get something for you to take back to the band.”

At this point Burgess went back inside and returned with an unopened bottle of malt whisky.

“You take this and bring it to the park on Saturday,” he said. “When you’re tuning up with the band, I want you to gather together all of the pipers, get out the bottle and, ever so gently, pour a drop or two on the hands of each piper. Rub it in well, and I guarantee that it will hasten the result you deserve.”

“Really?” I asked. “You think that will help?”

“Oh, yes. Ooohh, yes. You tell Bill that John Burgess recommends it,” he said with his twinkling eyes.

I was sold. The five-hour drive back to Glasgow probably took three, and I arrived to the band breathless with my excitement about the King of Highland Pipers’ prediction and explained his prescription for winning with whisky. Bill and the rest of the pipers were sold.

Saturday came. I put the special Burgess bottle in my pipe case, and kept it at the ready. Without actually testing the effects of whisky on the hands beforehand, the 14 or 15 pipers gathered around, hands extended and I had the honour of putting a splash of it on everyone’s mitts.

The band had a good following then, and in those early-Internet days bands had secrets that would only be known if you witnessed them. Members of other bands would clamour around far more than they do today, trying to divine techniques and tricks. I remember noticing a few WTF?! expressions from those looking on as we rubbed our hands together with the water of life and miracle cure for not-winning. If it happened today, there would be a dozen crappy videos of it and probably something of a pipe band meme.

I believe Burgess actually made the trip to the World’s that day for a promotional appearance with a bagpipe maker, and I suspect he was somewhere around watching this gullible group actually fulfilling what must have been one of his most unlikely mischievous tricks.

Assuming you have never played with whisky on your fingers, you’ll be wondering what the effect was. None of us in the band actually tested it in advance (that might have spoiled the magical powers), and to think that any band – let alone a contending Grade 1 group – would do this blindly at the biggest competition of the year perhaps speaks to the sorry desperation that we competitive pipers and drummers suffer. Thankfully, whisky isn’t sticky, and pretty well evaporates, probably a bit like rubbing alcohol.

How did we play? I think it was okay, but nothing noticeably added as a result of the golden nectar being applied. I’m not even sure where we ended up in the final result.

But I do remember this event, and the unique, mischievous and fun spirit that was John D. Burgess.

 

New rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye. Tough tune.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What we do

Tartan_LinkedInSocial media is a melting pot for piping and drumming. Twenty years ago, unless you played in a band with someone, or hung out with them in solo circles, or maybe went to a piping and drumming summer school, you’d hardly know anything substantial about anyone.

Facebook is the default social “platform” (ugh word) for our “community.” It’s a friendly place, where “positivity” (ugh) is encouraged, and things are generally hunky-dory. Twitter is far less popular with us, perhaps since it’s more a place of terse thoughts and quick links than photos of a fluffy white westie that looks nothing, nothing at all like her owner.

Used to be that competition rivalry produced automatic suspicion and general dislike between bands. Now, I think largely because of social media and the fact that people tend to bounce between bands, everyone seems to get along just grand all together. It’s all one big massed-band, where we wish each other the best: Play well! That was awesome! Great job! Your competition rival could be playing next to you in a week, so you’d better be nice, and use your emoticons wisely. 😉

I’m all for informed and fair opinion, but if Seumas MacNeill published today the savage and one-sided commentary he routinely wrote from his bully pulpit in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, he would be flayed alive on social media. Woe betide anyone making unfair personal attacks on pipers and drummers these days.

Social media has made us all “friends” and “followers.”

But LinkedIn provides an interesting new element for pipers and drummers. We share the common ground and camaraderie of piping, drumming and pipe bands, and we don’t much care what we do in real life – that is, life outside of piping and drumming.

Many pipers and drummers are a “connection” on my LinkedIn account, and there I can discover what these friends actually do for a living.

  • Alumni Officer at Queen’s University Belfast
  • Mental Health Nurse Consultant at City of Toronto
  • Supply Chain Specialist Sales at Oracle
  • Managing Director at Revolution Technologies

Where we normally see each other in terms of bands and playing, on LinkedIn you suddenly see people in strange work attire, listing accomplishments and jobs that don’t include contests and bands.

  • Technical Sales Representative at Dawn Food Products
  • Director of Engineering at SwiftStack Inc.
  • Senior Legal Counsel at Auditor General of Canada
  • President & CEO at LBMX Inc.

It can be a bit jarring, if not comforting, that they lead actual real lives with real challenges that go beyond whether they’ll make a blooter in the MSR.

  • Senior Systems Analyst at University of British Columbia
  • VP, Creative Director at Rivet
  • U.S. Immigration Lawyer
  • Sales Coordinator/Graphic Artist at Sportfactor Inc.

While Facebook has made piping and drumming a friendly melting pot of mostly golly-gee friendliness, LinkedIn is a reality snapshot.

  • Head of Marketing Communications at Kames Capital
  • Health, Safety & Environmental Co-ordinator at National Oilwell Varco
  • Global RA Director at GE Healthcare, Life Sciences
  • Lecturer at San Jose State University

There are, of course, a number of my LinkedIn connections who list piping and drumming teaching or businesses as their employment, and that too is something that has been a major positive change in the last 20 years. But it’s the real-world jobs that interest me – the accomplished, avocational pipers and drummers who are also accomplished professionals in a completely different vocation.

  • Advancement Officer at Canadian Museum of Nature
  • Owner at The Railstop Restaurant
  • Executive Director at Music Nova Scotia
  • Research Assistant at Syracuse University

Thinking about it, I’m not sure if something like Piping Live! would be as successful without social media. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, I’d have had a hard time imagining hanging out with the suspicious characters from rival bands. You’d pretty much keep to your own kind, and hope the other guys got the worst of the weather. Sad, but true.

There’s a whole helluvalotta respect today for each other.

After all, it’s what we do.

 

Easy prizes, or challenging fun?

Play easy and boring music well, or play harder and interesting stuff and have more fun?

It’s an age-old quandary for lower grade pipers and pipe bands. Almost every judge would say (over and over again), play tunes that your hands or your pipers and drummers can manage better.

For time immemorial, judges will sit or stand there at virtually every competition and wonder, usually several times throughout the day, why oh why that piper or pipe band is throwing away the competition trying to play a tune or tunes that they simply can’t manage. Or, perhaps more accurately, wondering why they don’t play far easier stuff to get better results.

You would think that after a hundred-odd-years of competition, competitors would learn that playing easier stuff better would more likely produce better results. So why is it that season after season pipers, drummers and pipe bands come out playing stuff that’s too difficult?

The answer: it’s more fun.

It’s more fun because it’s a bigger musical challenge. I would venture to bet that many lower-grade bands recognize that if they were to play easy tunes all year long, they’d lose their members’ interest. Practices would become monotonous, and bored members would pressure the pipe-major to make things more interesting by engaging members with more challenging stuff.

But, but . . . the name of the game is to win, right? Why risk sacrificing winning for the sake of a few musical challenges?

It’s counter-intuitive, but that kind of sacrifice (the prize for the musical experience) is exactly what we need more of – pipe bands most of all. Producing engaging and interesting music – even if it’s not played to the competitor’s potential – is better for the art than interminably cranking out boring, repetitive tunes that no one, but no one, really wants to hear again.

The choice of playing easy tunes for better results or harder tunes for more fun is one of the great strategies of our competitive game. Allowing pipers, drummers and bands the freedom to make that choice adds spice and variety to our contests. Associations might think they’re practicing tough love by prescribing tunes for lower grade competitors, but they’re not.

When I was a kid, one of the first four-part 2/4 marches I was given to play was “Abercairney Highlanders.” The late Gordon Speirs said I would get far more out of that technical challenge than playing some boring, easier thing that would lose my interest. Yes, I wouldn’t make a great job of it, but it would help my hands and give me an opportunity to expand my horizons. And, I think it worked.

After years of the RSPBA’s MAP restrictions for lower-grade bands, the dividends, if in fact there are any, are difficult to see. Lower-grade “overseas” bands still regularly come to the World’s and do well. Requiring kids to play “Corriechoille” ad infinitum for a year I suggest drives more of them away than retains their interest in the art.

And, I will say it again: requiring contestants to play certain tunes is far less about the art and learning than it is about making judging easier. And that is no good for anyone, except of course the judges.

Pipers, drummers and pipe bands need to learn to challenge themselves, expand their horizons, take musical chances, and understand that there are things far more important than winning. “Play simple better” might work in competition, but, in reality, it goes only so far.

Toeing a fine line

Pressuring bands to compete only in sanctioned contests makes some sense. The RSPBA’s most recent alleged request – some use the word “bullying” – that bands not compete at the new Spring Gatherin’ has brought the topic to the fore. Should bands toe the line for their association by competing only in events that adhere completely to the association’s rules and regulations?

My answer: it depends.

It depends on whether an association is truly looking out for its members’ wishes, by demonstrating a willingness to bend when it makes sense. An association that summarily rejects any event that wants to try something new for the enjoyment and benefit of the competitors and the audience will rub most member-bands the wrong way. And when the association’s rationale isn’t communicated to members, it causes further ill-will. Silence is always met with contempt.

Associations today face many quandaries. Chief among them is the dilemma of representing both the interests of their members and adapting to the interests of the events that they want to sanction. A pipe band association is, to some degree, a union. They are unions of pipers and drummers so that their interests are represented; so that they can expect to attend contests and not be blindsided by unfair rules or unqualified judges; so that there is continuity from contest to contest.

But there is a big difference between solidarity and protectionism. Associations need to tread very carefully when they are faced with events hoping to do things a little differently, but with the cooperation of and supervision (to some degree) by the association. Non-standard contests certainly want meaningful and equitable competitions that pipers and drummers take seriously, but not at the cost of diluting the attractively different nature of what they’re trying to do.

The RSPBA isn’t the only association that apparently pressures or even requires members to compete at only sanctioned competitions. The Western United States Pipe Band Association is said to have it in their rules of membership. The Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario has been heavily criticized by some of its members for not getting together with events that refuse to play by their rules. The PPBSO has not pressured, much less suspended, any bands for participating in these events, but the inference is there that, every time a member band competes at one it weakens the union and slackens the association’s leverage to negotiate. I get that.

There’s no clear solution. The hard line is disliked by most members, and the softer approach makes members wonder why these non-standard events can’t be fully sanctioned for aggregate points. The current pipes|drums Poll shows that about 90% of readers agree that pipe bands anywhere have the right to compete anywhere without threat of suspension by their home association.

The key is partnership and patience. Summarily rejecting with no explanation contests that try new things is certainly the wrong approach. Associations have to maintain an element of partnership, working with people – most of all their own members – rather than being perceived to be obstinately unwilling to change.

In short, every association must somehow always represent the wishes of its members, and never be considered wagging an authoritative finger at them, telling them that the association knows best. Intransigence and inflexibility have no place in the modern piping and drumming world, which risks burning down completely if it doesn’t adapt and change.

Associations are the pipers and drummers. The church is the congregation; not the preacher or the elders or the building. If an association loses sight of that truth, and is seen to act only in the interests of its leaders and officials, it’s in big trouble.

Shake up or shut up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Video killed the pipe band star

Making an album with a top-grade pipe band used to be a big deal. The vinyl LPs of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s by bands like the Edinburgh City Police, Shotts & Dykehead, Glasgow Police and Dysart & Dundonald were coveted objects around the emerging pipe band world, at least with this kid growing up in America’s heartland.

The cardboard jacket would list the tunes, the composers and, most importantly, the members of the band. There they’d be: the names of the superstars who were actually members of a great pipe band who were actually performing on the music spinning round and round the turntable. The pipers and drummers were stars; the pipe-major and leading-drummer were superstars.

It used to be a dream for many pipers and drummers to get into a Grade 1 band and cut an album, in a studio, to see your very own name on glorious cardboard.

But, then, a bunch of things happened.

In 1987 the 78th Fraser Highlanders made Live In Ireland. It’s still the greatest pipe band album of all time, according to the majority, and it was the first major commercial live pipe band recording. It captured energy and excitement from the band and audience, happily trading those massively positive intangibles for the occasional playing blooter or tuning blemish.

So, fairly quickly the pipe band world realized that, rather than anguish for days in an expensive recording studio trying to make a clinically perfect recording with a “pipe band” that might in reality be whittled down to five or six of the best pipers and a handful of drummers, a band can put on a concert and capture it all in one take – get that energy and be forgiven because it’s live.

And digital emerged at about the same. Vinyl gave way to CDs. Recording technology became far less expensive and a cottage industry of CD makers enabled just about any pipe band to make a CD. The “album” itself became a bit commonplace.

And now the pipe band album – live or studio – is on the brink of extinction. Every other pipe band enthusiast with a phone is posting video of every band at every competition on every video platform. There’s still a strong desire for high-quality audio/video, but the exclusivity of being on a commercial recording is lost in the throng of questionable “content” out there.

I suppose being on the World’s BBC streaming broadcast is as close as we come these days to recording stardom. Definitely hitting more people in more places with more pipe band music than ever, but it’s all so anonymous. With video reproductions, apart from the P-M and L-D, the individual band members are never highlighted.

They’re just nameless there in the circle huffing away. There’s hardly a kid in America’s heartland or anywhere else who knows or cares who these accomplished pipers and drummers are. In online video there are no names of musicians, no stories to read on the album cover, no details about the tunes and arrangements – no real glamour.

It’s more inclusive to have all that sketchy video (and even poorer quality audio) content out there for every band and every competition on earth, but it results in a lot of “So what?”

We have more, more, more, but we’ve also lost achievement that used to be exclusive and inspirational.

Why pipe sections are bigger

Why are pipe sections so big? It’s the great question of this particular era of pipers and drummers, and there’s no sign of the issue going away any time soon. It’s a quandary that virtually every competing band in every grade faces.

Be big or go home.

In 1993 I interviewed the great Iain MacLellan, former pipe-major of the Glasgow/Strathlcyde Police Pipe Band and owner of 12 World Championships. This was just before the dawn of plastic or fibre drone reeds, moisture systems and synthetic bags. Back then it was still all cane and sheepskin, and the number of serious options for chanter reeds was maybe three – McAllister, Shepherd and Warnock, and with all of those a piper needed to know how to work with them. Achieving a sound was an art.

While he certainly had excellent pipers during his tenure, in the interview MacLellan spoke about the requirement that his pipers over all else had to be able to create, manage and sustain tone. So, the guys in his bands had to have a combination of excellence in tone and technique.

Twenty-one years on, the tone challenge has been made immeasurably easier to meet through advancements in the instrument. Anyone who has listened to an amateur solo piping event or Grade 4 band competition hears tone that two decades ago was the stuff of at least two grades higher. Their quality of technical and musical playing is probably about the same but, by and large, the sound of almost every competition piper or pipe band today is relatively pleasant.

Today, for pipe bands, finding pipers with a good-sounding pipe is not the big deal it once was.

I also hear amateur solo pipers who play in top-grade bands who, technically, never would have got a game in Grade 1 in 1990. They wouldn’t have had the technical ability and musical finesse to be accepted. If they had the temerity to ask to join, they would have been kindly told the band was “full up.”

I’d venture to say that there’s hardly a competition band today that would turn away a player who’s within the broad technical scope required. Chances are, they have a pipe and tone that can meet the grade. There’s no longer such a thing as “full up.”

Smaller bands demand tighter unison. A quartet can’t afford a slip or anything but perfect sync. With every piper added, the needed precision wanes incrementally. Iain MacLellan’s pipe section of 12 or 14 demanded precision of playing.

A pipe section of 24, 25 or 30 is not nearly as stringent. Some bands at the top certainly appear to have wonderful unison, but there are still pipers in even the best bands who never would have made the cut in the same top-tier band 20 years ago.

So, it makes perfect sense for a modern band of any grade to build as large a pipe section as possible. Not only is it impressive, but it’s naturally more forgiving in terms of unison lapses and even mistakes. An added benefit is that large sections are built-in insurance against collapse. Two or three pipers leaving in 1990 would mean hard times for a band; for many bands today, it’s hardly a problem.

Advances in bagpipe “technology” have produced better sounding and steadier instruments, easier to tune and keep in tune, opening the doors to playing in grades two decades ago that would have been well above a piper’s ability. A bigger pipe section naturally covers up technical problems that would have been glaring in 1990.

That’s why pipe sections today are bigger.

Repetition, repetition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instant replay

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

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

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

Fast-forward 40 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I Am Proud to Play a Pipe

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

Making the grades

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each of the members of the grading committee must be:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspirational wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reciprocity and respect. Please.

The debacle that the RSPBA created by taking upon itself to upgrade the Stuart Highlanders to the ultimate level of Grade 1 is one for the ages.

The Scottish organization’s former Chairman, Kevin Reilly, agreed when he represented the RSPBA at the 2005 Alliance of North American Pipe Band Associations’ (ANAPBA) annual summit that they would stop the practice of regrading bands that aren’t their members. That was after his organization refused to recognize the WUSPBA-member Prince Charles Pipe Band as Grade 1. Just weeks before the 2001 World Championships the RSPBA insisted they move to Grade 2, only to upgrade them in 2002. For the better part of a decade, Prince Charles fought for their survival, and only this year rebounded in Grade 2.

Let’s look at what’s happened since 2005 when Reilly said his organization would regrade only its own members.

In 2007, the RSPBA upgraded the Robert Malcolm Memorial to Grade 1, causing massive turmoil within the Simon Fraser University organization, which subsequently lost nearly the entire band to the then Grade 3 Triumph Street Pipe Band.

In 2008, EUSPBA-member Oran Mor had to compete in Grade 2 after the RSPBA decided they didn’t meet their standard, then decided in 2009, after the band paid its penance in Grade 2 at the World’s, that the band was in fact good enough for Grade 1.

In 2010 the RSPBA put the EUSPBA-member Grade 1 City of Washington down to Grade 2, following a single MSR at the World Championships, when the band’s small pipe section should have by any measure been at least several bands from the bottom. The band struggled for members since and  this year can’t get out. It could be the end for CoW.

This year, after the aforementioned Oran Mor fell on hard times, folded and joined up with the EUSPBA-member Grade 2 Stuart Highlanders, the RSPBA – apparently without anyone official actually hearing the band – decided seemingly unilaterally that the band should be Grade 1. According to EUSPBA President Eric MacNeill, his association never consulted with the RSPBA, and wasn’t even asked for their opinion about the matter. The RSPBA simply went ahead and did it.

There are those who insist that it is the RSPBA’s prerogative to uphold the standards of their competitions. I agree that they, just like every association, must do that – but only with their own members.

Every other pipe band organization on earth practices reciprocity. That is, they respect the gradings of recognized sister-associations. If there is a concern, every other organization works together to express concerns and work it out discreetly and amicably, before or after the event. It is part of the checks and balances process that takes place every off-season around the world.

If the PPBSO, for example, unilaterally insisted next week that a Grade 2 EUSPBA-member band had to compete in Grade 1 at the North American Championships, it would probably result in the resumption of the War of 1812.

But at least the band could more practically cancel its plans to attend. The RSPBA must know that an “overseas band” (as they continue to pejoratively call any non-British band at the World Championships) by the time they enter the contest would have paid for airfare and put deposits down for accommodation. It’s a done deal, and regraded bands are over a barrel.

Days after the news of the RSPBA’s promotion of the Stuart Highlanders to Grade 1 (while the EUSPBA maintains their Grade 2 position), the band finishes third overall in a three-band Grade 2 competition. The RSPBA would have been able, predictably, to say the result was an aberration, if it weren’t for the fact that one of the RSPBA’s most respected and senior judges, Joe Noble, himself had other Grade 2 bands ahead of the Stuarts. The Ottawa Police are not planning to compete at the World’s, otherwise they also logically would be upgraded by the RSPBA. New York Metro has entered the World’s in Grade 2, and I am certain that they’re awaiting the proverbial other brogue to drop.

The RSPBA had to know that Noble was judging at Fair Hill. Other associations are required to go through the RSPBA, and not deal directly with the judges, when they want to fly in one of their adjudicators. RSPBA judges accepting gigs abroad get in trouble if they don’t follow protocol. With that, couldn’t the RSPBA simply have waited a week for the knowledgeable Noble’s report on the Grade 2 standard, and then, if they insist, make a grading call?

What a fascinating, freaking mess.

Maybe 20 years ago the RSPBA might have had a legitimate concern about the occasional band with other associations not meeting their own standard. But in 2014, it’s just plain meddling. It’s also incredibly disrespectful to these associations that are often – not always – better governed, better run and far more transparent than the self-anointed mothership at 45 Washington Street, Glasgow.

The RSPBA should rescind its upgrade of the Stuart Highlanders on Monday, admit it erred, and apologize to the Stuarts and the EUSPBA. If history is any indication, there’s more chance of the World’s being moved to Tahiti this August. But here’s hoping they do the right thing.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that a cadre of non-member bands have suffered significantly or folded completely after their grade was changed by the RSPBA. Let’s hope the Stuart Highlanders can weather this storm and somehow become stronger for it. Let’s also hope it’s the last time that the RSPBA decides what’s worst for a non-member band.

“Musical”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Double-dip

The New Zealand Championships again brought to light the growing practice of pipers and drummers playing in multiple bands in the same grade in the same year. Almost unthinkable 10 years ago, the custom is now commonplace, with pipe bands playing within the rules (or the lack of one) and, essentially, gaming the release and transfer system.

On the surface, temporarily switching bands in the off-season seems harmless, and when compared with, say, civil war in Syria, it is. But in our little pipe band world, the idea of splitting time between competing bands is an erosion of healthy competition. It’s also another symptom of the large numbers condition.

To stress, I’m not talking about people flying in to play in the only band they play in. That’s just a longer distance to travel to play in one band. Go for it.

What I’m talking about is the practice of learning the music, submitting release and transfer documentation to the home association, and hopping on a few planes to contribute your talents during the northern hemisphere’s off-season, and once the contest is over, rejoining the original band. At first blush, it seems like a harmless thing to do for those talented and wealthy enough to pull it off. But, on closer look, it simply compounds a problem that is becoming more significant every year.

As discussed a few times now, bands across all grades – and especially Grade 1 – are under pressure to field large numbers. Bigger is seen by many judges as better, or at least more impressive, and “impressive” is often correlated with “better.” Ratcheting up a pipe section by a few good players promotes presence. Pipe-majors and leading-drummers can’t be blamed; they’re only responding to pressure that has gone unregulated by associations by their inaction to establish maximum numbers. One band sees another band doing it, so they do the same, and now southern hemisphere bands even recruit fly-in temps in Glasgow in August.

Imagine working a few times a year for a company that is otherwise your direct business competitor. Or lending your football talent to a team in the same league when your usual side isn’t participating in a tournament. These examples wouldn’t happen without you being fired or thrown off the squad. It only happens in the pipe band world because we don’t disallow it, associations have encouraged it (through inaction on maximum numbers), and our changed sense of competitive ethics have enabled it.

It’s a tough thing to regulate, since accurate roster tracking is almost impossible, and currently relies mainly on trust – and bands ratting out their competition. But it seems to me that all the RSPBA needs to do to address the situation is establish a policy that says something like, “A playing member of the organization may only compete with one band in a grade in a calendar year.” That is, you can’t play with another band in the same grade until January 1st.

For sure, there are positive claims that come from double-dipping, always from pipers and drummers and bands that do it. People have explained away the practice by contending it builds camaraderie and allows them to experience new pipe band scenes. That’s lovely, but it comes across as scrambling for reasons.

I’ve actually received a number of messages from players in Grade 1 New Zealand bands that fly in members from their competition. They have expressed their agreement that it should stop, but also understand that it’s being done for their short-term success because it is within the rules.

All this is not to say that any piper, drummer or band is at fault. Double-dipping is simply a response to worldwide pressure to create bigger bands. The inaction of the RSPBA when it comes to creating caps on section or roster sizes is the real reason.

A rule is needed. One band, one grade, one year.

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.

Less is more

In 2006 this blog first raised the growing issue of large pipe band section sizes being ultimately detrimental to the health of pipe bands themselves. Eight years have gone by, and the topic has been raised repeatedly, with another call in July for the RSPBA to do something to address the problem.

In 2011, I wrote and published a feature article on the World Pipe Band Championships’ anicillary negative effect on the pipe band world in general, a chief example being the growing size of pipe bands paradoxically diminishing the scene overall.

Last month, one of the great pipe band institutions, the former World Champion Dysart & Dundonald, decided, for all purposes, to cease to operate. It wasn’t the only reason, but the fact the band’s numbers were way down and the ability to build them up again to compete against the top tier in Grade 2 was unlikely in the near-term, informed their decision to release all of their players.

It’s not just Grade 1 and Grade 2. Larger bands in the lower grades are increasingly dominating, making judging comparisons ridiculous, as the formidable “presence” of a large, reasonably well tuned pipe band almost always trumping the clarity of technique and tone of a very-well-tuned small group with small numbers.

While pipe bands around the world continue to gaze longingly at being competitive at the World’s, they ever-increasingly look for quick-fix solutions to their numbers, such as recruiting even more players from afar and merging with the cross-town rivals. Bands are bigger; bands are fewer. Local Highland games suffer as they are no longer worth the logistical effort and cost to bring everyone together

Pipe bands today play at fewer events, simply because they have to be selective for financial reasons, or simply to save face because, even though they could compete with the minimum numbers from the local members, they don’t want to put out a group that does not reflect their full complement.

And the RSPBA, so far, has done nothing. It’s up to them because their rules influence every association, whether they pertain to music, format, judging, or section sizes.

As the World’s turns, so does the pipe band world.

Placing reasonable limits on rosters for the 2015 season through all grades will almost immediately reinvigorate the world pipe band scene. It will make almost all members of large bands do one of two things: practice all the harder to keep their spot, or, face the music, and join or form another band. There could be a very small minority who fall off completely because their interest in almost solely social, and they see competing as a necessary evil, but the world passed these folks by long ago anyway.

I’ve competed at the World’s with a band of 25 pipers, and it is a certain thrill. The energy created is terrific. I’ve also competed with a pipe section of 12 that won the MSR event at the World Championships. The precision and tone were similarly thrilling. I’ve also seen two bands that were inspirations to me when I was younger collapse in the last year. That’s not so thrilling.

There are reports that the RSPBA is in fact going to address the situation, and will try to put through roster / registration limits. If they finally do that, they will need to be prepared to fight the good fight, and do what’s best for the pipe band world. There will be dogged resistance by some of the most powerful and successful people and bands around.

But if the RSPBA takes a courageous stand they should know that bands will get even better. There will more of them. And they will be judged on a far more level field.

Or, they can waste another year of inaction at everyone’s peril. It’s time to lead.

Registration

Forgotten Password?