Yes comment

Sting like a sharp B.So 72 per cent of pipes|drums readers feel that those who post comments to articles should put their true name to them. I’d guess that most of those who make up that 72 per cent are people who don’t generally post comments, since everyone can provide their real name.

Online publications struggle with this. I haven’t seen any newspaper or magazines sites that allow comments also require that commenters provide their real name. It’s interesting, though, that major newspapers and magazines diligently check to ensure that the writer of a letter-to-the-editor in their printed version is truly the author, and would rarely allow a “name held by request,” much less a pseudonym.

It’s a quandary. It’s still all about dialogue, but it’s also about credibility. Some would say that they don’t pay attention to comments made by people who don’t include their true name, but what about a public meeting? Unknown people stand up to make valid comments all the time, and folks still listen, don’t they?

It’s all about the subject matter and the delivery. Piping and drumming used to shout down or ignore dissenting or unpopular views by sweeping them under the rug until they went away. That’s changed, mainly due to new mechanism to exchange ideas without fear of reprisal.

I’d love to authenticate every comment to every pipes|drums story before enabling them, but would wonder whether 1) it would dissuade people from commenting, and 2) take too much time for too little return.

Also, I haven’t studied it, but have a feeling that a much higher proportion of pipes|drums commenters put their name to their post than is true of forums. I’m pleased every time that highly credible people like Bill Livingstone, Alistair Dunn, Donald MacPhee, Duncan Millar, Jim Kilpatrick, Bruce Gandy and many other famous folks have no trouble backing their frequent comments with their name.

Just like more mortal pipers and drummers try to imitate their playing, I’d hope that people also emulate their sense of integrity.

A list

By the right, check, mark.So pipes|drums readers feel that the greatest pipe-major of all time – at least for competition-oriented bands – is Richard Parkes of Field Marshal Montgomery, followed closely by Iain MacLellan, Glasgow/Strathclyde Police and, also close, SFU’s Terry Lee. All great choices, and the entire list is a who’s-who of legendary names, each making a great mark on our history.

Of course, if military pipe-majors were included, then one would have to consider the likes of Willie Ross, G.S., Donald MacLeod, John MacDonald (Inverness), Angus MacDonald, John A. MacLellan, Jock McLellan (Dunoon), Willie Lawrie . . . and on and on.

But sticking to those who focused on the competition racket, the poll I think captured all of those who had won a World’s, and the hope was that readers would consider other merits.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a proponent of constructive change for the better. So, a pipe-major’s impact and legacy beyond winning a bunch of prizes would play a heavy role in my choices. Here are my personal picks for the top five competition-oriented pipe-majors of all time:

1. Tom McAllister Sr. – this may surprise readers, but to me Tom Sr. is the George Washington, John A. MacDonald or Sir Robert Walpole of the modern pipe band world. I mean, McAllister Sr. was the one who came up with the two-three-paced-rolls-and-an-E introduction, revolutionizing the way pipe bands played together. He is the founding father of the pipe band as it is defined today.

2. Donald Shaw Ramsay – DSR was the man with the vision to expand the pipe band repertoire. Before he came along, it was stuff played over and over, and Ramsay was the first to suggest that pipe bands could actually do more than march along the street or compete with an MSR – bands could actually put on a show for non-pipers / drummers, complete with things in – gasp! – compound time.

3. Bill Livingstone – while Ramsay prompted a change to adopt a soloist’s expanded repertoire, Bill Livingstone in the 1970s and ’80s sent pipe bands into completely uncharted waters. “Deadrock” pushed musical boundaries and buttons, adapting content from Ireland, England and Hebridean Scotland, while expanding the notion that top bands should introduce completely original content. A great leader also looks to the greatness of those around him, and Livingstone’s ability to embrace the ideas within his bands is a leadership quality that is often overlooked. Add to that the first non-Scottish band to win, and the virtual invention of the pipe band concert format that bands imitate today, and he makes my top-three.

4. Iain MacLellan – of course there are the 13 World Championship wins, likely never to be equaled, but to me Iain MacLellan was the Donald MacPherson of the pipe band world. He elevated the idea of tone to a completely new level with his Glasgow/Strathclyde Police bands with a clarity unrivaled for more than a decade. He was the first to make precision tuning a science, literally blowing bands off the park. MacLellan not only set the new standard for sound, he raised it to a level that wouldn’t be matched until, arguably, the Victoria Police in 1998.

5. Iain McLeod – I was surprised that McLeod garnered only 2 per cent of votes, leaving him near the bottom in the results. McLeod’s Edinburgh City Police was the first true superstar pipe band, touring the world throughout the 1960s and ’70s, with the first pipe section comprising all elite players. McLeod picked up Ramsay’s trend towards expanded repertoire, and set the stage for the modern pipe band concert format. Five World titles are nothing to sneeze at, either.

So, those are my top-five pipe-majors. It was difficult to choose, and by no means should the accomplishments of the rest be minimized. I might change my mind in a year, or tomorrow and would have no trouble respecting anyone else’s preferences and reasoning. They’re all great pipe-majors, and may well make your list, which you are of course encouraged to submit.

What are you playing?

What an eye-opener the survey of solo pipers was for me. Being around it, you get a general sense of what’s being played, but to do an analysis and find out exactly what’s preferred was not only educational but fun.

Of course, the only real way to do such a survey is to promise that names won’t be used, and that’s why I think the response rate was unexpectedly good. I’m glad that people by-and-large feel confident that their secrets may be shared, but not their name.

Until a reader from North Carolina sent me the brilliantly obvious question via e-mail, I never even thought to check my spreadsheet to see if a piper actually played the exact combined set-up of the most popular makes and models. Amazingly (or not), no one puts together all of the leading items to create some sort of super-pipe. The sum of the parts does not necessarily equal the whole . . . or something.

That’s because the Highland bagpipe is still a very individual instrument. We can harp on about how every pipe sounds the same at the top-level, but it’s obviously not true, since the subtleties between chanters, reeds, drones and so forth are a matter of personal preference and taste.

The variety evidenced in the first-ever instrument survey just goes to show: for all the technology and new materials, the bagpipe and its players, even at the very top level, are as fickle as ever.

I’d be interested to hear from readers about what you’re playing, and whether this sort of survey has changed your mind about your instrument set-up.

Credit piping

I owe a lot to piping. In fact, I would say that almost all of the best things in my life are due, in some way, to the fact that I decided to take up the instrument at age 11. If you’ve played a long time with any kind of commitment, I’d guess that you too owe a lot to piping.

I’m thinking this now because today’s my fourteenth wedding anniversary. More on that later.

I had truly dreadful grades in high school. I was bored by every subject but English, and always did my homework at school because I was so busy practicing or playing with the band. But it was piping that got me into Macalester College, because it had a piping program and they thought I’d help it (little did they know). Macalester is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the United States (according to a recent New York Times’ survey), and they still support a very good Grade 3 band.

And Macalester had (and maybe still has) a program with the University of Stirling, so, despite my now mediocre grades, they thought – because I was a piper – that I deserved to spend my third year there “studying.” Somehow I did okay there, but most of my time was committed to playing with Polkemmet, getting lessons from truly great people, and practicing all. the. time.

After that I spent more time in Scotland, and it was there I met Julie Wilson, daughter of Martin, longtime piper with the Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band. Julie played with Craigmount High School and then the Grade 2 Deeside Ladies while she was at Aberdeen University studying to become the neuroscientist she is. Credit piping.

Because of piping, I managed to be accepted as an immigrant to Canada, because piper-friends pulled for me in ways I’ll never be able to re-pay. And my first job in Toronto was through, yes, a piper in the band I joined here. Credit piping.

Then piping got me my first “career” job because a real publisher was so impressed that I worked to publish and edit a piping and drumming magazine just because I liked it, so he hired me. And that led to my next career direction. The eye of my current boss – whose father was from Uist – was caught by the reference to bagpipes on my CV. Credit piping.

After 14 years of marriage and 25 years of being together, Julie and I have much to show for it, most prized of all is the cheeky and brilliant (takes after J.) Annabel, fount of delight. The three of us understand, I think, just how serendipitous piping has been to our lives.

I’m often asked why on earth I do all this pipes|drums / Piper & Drummer / blogpipe stuff, especially when I don’t pocket a penny from it. First answer is because I enjoy it, and as long as many others enjoy it, I’ll keep doing it. The other answer is that, in some ways, it’s a debt of gratitude for all of the above, repaid word-by-word.

Touchy subjects

Not a few pipes|drums readers have contacted me about the recent p|d Poll question, “Should full-time bagpipe-makers be allowed to judge pipe band competitions?” Other versions of the bagpipe-makers-judging query have been posed before on the Poll over the years, and it’s of course a hot topic. Always has been; always will be – even if some sort of rule(s) were established to address the matter.

Several readers coyly wanted to know what prompted the question. That’s an easy answer, of course: the results of the Grade 2 competition at the 2009 Scottish Championships last week.

Bob Shepherd was the ensemble judge of the Grade 2 competition. He makes bagpipes and chanters. (I played one for several years and still play a Shepherd reed that’s been going strong for more than a decade.) Shepherd’s reputation as a judge, teacher, pipe-major and all-round remarkable person precedes him.

For the most part the two piping judges seemed to agree on the placings of bands. The band that won the contest, Inveraray & District, had two firsts in piping, a first in drumming, and an eighth in ensemble from Shepherd.

Now, I was not at the competition so I of course didn’t hear Inveraray. I also have no idea what make of chanters or bagpipes or drums or reeds the band plays. For all I know, the band did something horribly wrong with its ensemble. I don’t really care.

But thanks to the RSPBA’s publishing of all judges’ marks, we know that Inveraray received a 1,1 (piping), 1 (drumming) and 8 (ensemble) scoring. We can also see that Seven Towers had 8, 9, 9 and 1; MacKenzie Caledonia received 12, 19, 11 and 3; and Central Scotland Police got marks of 17, 16, 15 and 2.

So, the question was posed in the Poll, causing concern with a few people (several from bagpipe dealers), as if asking a simple, albeit sensitive, question were taboo in the world of piping and drumming. Many other tough questions also have been posed, and many new ones are still to come. Bring them on; let’s get things out in the open so that we can gain better understanding.

I suppose debating touchy subjects is still unthinkable with some old-school folks. There is something of a tradition in our art that prefers to sweep things under the rug rather than discuss them in the open. pipes|drums rejects that tradition. Only by asking questions will we ever get answers.

The reason that tough questions are traditionally not asked elsewhere may be because many people seem to have an interest in not asking them; sweep it under the rug and leave well enough alone. pipes|drums doesn’t sell anything but subscriptions and advertising, and those funds are plowed back into the publication or given to worthwhile not-for-profit causes, so I think we might be more free to evoke constructive conversation about sensitive issues that have been unaddressed for decades.

I’m interested to hear what others think about bringing sensitive matters that have existed for decades, even centuries, in piping and drumming out into the open.

(By the way, the last time I looked, the answer to that particular question from 74 per cent of respondents was “No.”)

A request: please keep any comments on the subject of discussing sensitive topics. Anything off-topic won’t be posted. Thanks.

See the sun going down

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

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

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

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

Tenor-drummers gird for world boycott

SLOT announces Greenpeace sponsorship

Hope you get a good laugh.


Tannoy.A few days ago I posted a tweet on Twitter (@pipesdrums) or status update on Facebook (I can’t remember) that said, “Hilarious how people with so little experience have no problem proclaiming themselves experts before unknowing people.” I was prompted to post that because of the incessant “authoritative” tweets by someone not from the piping/drumming scene who I know has almost zilch experience. She simply does not know what she’s talking about, but says it anyway dozens of times every day on Twitter, Facebook and anywhere else she can get away with it unchallenged.

Ever since emerged in the mid-1990s as the first piping/drumming “forum,” the scene has been shaken by the fact that everyone can spread their opinion widely, no matter what their level of experience.

As I have said for many years, I like that. Encouraging dialog by pipes|drums and Blogpipe readers is an example of that attitude. Provided comments stay within the stated policy, no matter how discordant or ignorant I may think they are, they will stand.

But I was surprised at the number of people who responded online or in a “dm” (to use the social media parlance) to me personally about my little tweet. Clearly I’m not alone in that thinking.

There are those with seriously little experience and knowledge who see the Internet as a great way to try to carry off an inflated persona, who preach to the even-more-ignorant, and who have strangely built up their reputation in piping/drumming not by what they know and have done, but by what they spew online as gospel. They strive to strike a tone of authority, when they should be realistically deferential and humble. These are the people who “talk a good tune” (an expression that I love and which has been around solo piping circles forever). Because of the net we’ve grown used to all this spew, and, just like everywhere else, it has become an accepted part of the culture.

Around 1990, just before the Internet took hold, a very prominent piper commented to me that he couldn’t stand massed-bands / march-pasts because inevitably there would be one or two near-beginner-level piper-oafs who would wander over to him and other famous people, not to learn something, but simply to be seen talking with him. They would try to discuss high-level topics, name-dropping all the way, and they just would not go away. His pre-Internet peeve is really no different from what happens online, except since the mid-’90s it’s magnified thousands of times over.

On the other hand, there are the majority who choose to learn, who practice humility, whether it’s on the net or at massed-bands. They strike the right tone with what they say and how they say it. In more ways than one, they know who they are.

Turn and face the strain

The pipes|drums Polls have been going on for more than a decade now, and they’re all archived here. It’s sometimes a challenge to think of something new, and readers have saved my mind-blank more than once with a good suggestion. I always look forward to seeing the results. Even though the poll isn’t scientific, I’m pretty sure that the results are at least reflective of the overall opinion of the world’s pipers and drummers.

The recent one that asked “How many times should a person by allowed to change bands in a year?” brought another surprising result, with some 56 per cent of people saying that they feel that pipers and drummers should be permitted to switch bands only once in a year.

Time was when changing bands was a fairly major event. As is the case in major team sports, it’s now rare in the pipe band world to find people who spend their entire career with one band. But over the last decade especially the idea of competing in the off-season with a band in the other hemisphere has taken hold with some. Pipers and drummers from New Zealand or Australia might compete with a UK or Canadian band at the World’s, just as folks from the northern hemisphere might hook up with an Antipodean band for their championship, as was the case at least week’s New Zealand Nationals.

It’s all perfectly within the rules. I’ve played with bands that have benefited from such guest players, and I have no particular stand on the issue. But, it appears that a majority of pipers and drummers do. By limiting a person to only one transfer in the year, it means that the back-and-forth approach would be difficult to manage. Once a player changed bands, that would be it for the next 12 months.

If such a rule were enacted, I wonder how it might change things. Would it make the pipe band world more loyal or less fun?

The people’s band

Hands off.Maybe it was all the bad news mounting. Maybe the pipe band world had had just about enough, thank you, and this was just too much. But public reaction to the apparent threat to the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band was nothing short of phenomenal. The members of the band have been under pressure for the last few years, with new police management seemingly giving them stick for committing too much time to being great musicians, and too much devotion to ensuring the band was a symbol of excellence that was representative of the excellence of the Strathclyde Police force itself.

Friends of the band worked the media to communicate the story of the band’s threatened status, and when news of the dire situation hit on pipes|drums and then the Glasgow Herald the piping and drumming world reacted with a 24-hour PR wildfire. I’ve never seen anything like it. Before Facebook group petitions were even a day old the force had reacted and quelled the angry mob, publicly assuring us that it’s status quo with the band, at least for now. We will hold them to that.

Sponsorships start and stop. Bands come and go. When established top-grade bands go under the response is generally a few days of disappointment and sadness by most, but the issue is generally quickly put out of mind, as other bands become the beneficiaries of the suddenly available talent.

But why was the Strathclyde Police situation different? Perhaps it’s this: Apart from the fact that the band is more than 120 years old and the winner of dozens of championships, the Strathclyde Police more than any other top band is a band that belongs to the people.

Certainly the people of Scotland’s Strathclyde region pay taxes that go to the funding of the police and thus the band, but anyone who has visited Glasgow also has a financial stake in the band. Those who have gone to the World’s or Piping Live! or Celtic Connections or just a visit to see auld auntie Senga in Knightswood have helped to sponsor the band. They may not realize it, but the Polis are truly a band of the people. We all help to fund it.

So when our band is threatened, it’s reasonable that we all get our collective back up and set about the folk messing with our investment. We’ll give you what for.

I saw somewhere online a suggestion that each person employed by the Strathclyde Police force could just give another pound each year to go towards the band. In truth, all of us who have spent any money in Glasgow have helped to sponsor this band. Our vested interest. Our band.

Bass-section or mid-section? A ruling

Percussion section is a good name when pipe bands aren't judged.The surge in popularity of pipe band tenor-drumming might well be the most talked about topic of the last 10 years in our world. There’s no denying that the change that has been brought to bands through the development and use of more tuned drums has been profound. Love it, hate it or ambivalent to it, this section’s importance is here and it’s not likely to diminish any time soon.

But, what to call this evolved aspect of pipe bands? Traditionally, the drums that weren’t the snares were referred to as the “bass-section.” I guess that was because that “section” always, at a minimum, included a bass-drum. Before 1995 or so there would be one, maybe two or, at most, three tenor-drummers, some often not even audibly playing the drum. Bands often competed with no tenors at all.

The bass back then was the undisputed focal point of the section. So “bass-section” made sense.

These days, tenor drums of various sizes and tones, while not yet required, are at least expected in a competing pipe band. Upper-grade bands bring out three, four, five and even as many as nine drums in these burgeoning sections.

So, it makes sense that the appropriate name for this part of the band is “mid-section.” That name is inclusive of all the instruments found in the section today, and leaves room for who-knows-what instruments will be added tomorrow. Further, the section doesn’t yet lead the band, and is in middle of it – at least in today’s typical formation – so the “mid” is descriptive of where they stand.

I’ve heard traditionalists who take umbrage at the use of “mid-section,” demanding that “bass-section” continue to be used. But the truth is these sections are a bunch of differently pitched drums in the middle of the band. Others make the apt point that the bass and tenors are simply part of the “drum-section,” so that term should be used. Ideally that would make sense, but, so far, anyway, pipe band drumming judges (who are always snare-drummers) don’t appear ready or, many contend, qualified to judge today’s tenor-drumming. Bass and tenors are clearly a separate-but-integrated aspect of pipe band competition, and thus deserve a separate descriptor.

So, at least here, “mid-section” it will be.

Ad newseam

We salute your change.Quite a few pipes|drums readers sent a heads-up about the drum-major with the Cleveland Cleveland Firefighters Memorial Pipes & Drums quitting his band after he got in trouble for “making eye-contact” (read: winking and waving like Benny Hill) with President Obama at last week’s inaugural parade. Apparently, protocol strictly forbids even looking at the new president, although the Chosen One waved or winked or whatever back at John Coleman.

(It reminded me of the rock-star, Prince, 20 years or so ago, communicating with his “people” during his tour only by telepathy. No one was allowed to speak to him, including his girlfriend at the time, Sheena Easton, who was soon dumped for not being able to know what her wee purple man was thinking . . .)

Similar to the previous discussion on advertising acceptance, deciding what qualifies as pipes|drums news can be a difficult call. While “Colemangate” grabbed the attention of entertainment-focused outlets like CNN and “Good Morning, America,” I didn’t think it deserved the attention of pipes|drums. It wasn’t about piping / drumming; it was about one person’s breach of protocol.

Potentially, the “news” that could have been reported on pipes|drums could have been about the attention that the story got from mainstream news sources – the news becoming the news, if you follow, but still I didn’t think the story was about piping and drumming. Never mind that it was a drum-major, it had nothing to do with the actual playing of a bagpipe or pipe band drum.

Piping and drumming-related things occasionally garner mainstream attention. Often, it’s a piper who gets arrested for “noise pollution” when playing in public, or it’s some regulation that says that bagpipes are potentially dangerous to workers or soldiers’ hearing.

Personally I find that stuff tedious and I think most readers do, too. But occasionally, like when the mainstream media sensationalized Hugh Cheape’s 2008 book about the Highland bagpipe as being a relatively modern invention, it crosses into pipes|drums news territory.

If Obama had covered his ears, rolled his eyes and declared pipe bands Satanic when the Cleveland band marched past, well, then that would have been a pipes|drums story. But a drum-major doing what he did didn’t qualify as piping and drumming news, and the mainstream coverage of it was not about piping and drumming, either.

Qualifying quality

Meet your maker.At least twice a month for the last 20 years I’ve received inquiries about advertising from companies based in Pakistan. These outfits say that they make Highland pipes, but also list Uilllean pipes, custom pipe-banners, reeds, drums and all manner of things associated with pipers and drummers. And for 20 years I’ve consigned all of those messages to trash.

But they keep asking, and each time a message gets through my junk filter, I feel a pang of guilt. After all, they’re just trying to make a living at making stuff that clearly a segment of the piping and drumming population wants. The Pakistani companies’ money is just as good as that from any other business, and perhaps it would make sense to allow them to advertise. pipes|drums can always use more support to plow back into the not-for-profit magazine.

My first practice chanter was made in Pakistan from sheesham wood that was painted black. It tasted funny. My dad, bless him, picked it up at some shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, along with Captain John MacLellan’s revised Logan’s Tutor, with the hope that maybe one of us kids would take it up. For the next year it lay around the house. One of us sat on it, and the thing snapped from the F hole on down. My dad dutifully glued it back together.

The following summer I expressed an interest in learning after hearing the Toronto Gaelic Society Pipe Band playing in number-one-dress at a festival in Earth City, Missouri, in July, on an asphalt parking-lot under broiling sunshine. My first lessons were on that Pakistani chanter, my left thumb sticking to the syrupy glue that dear old dad used for his earnest repair job. I was onto a Hardie chanter after a few months.

I don’t know how many serious pipers started with a Pakistani practice chanter, but there must be a fair few. The knee-jerk reaction is to think that whatever is made there is not up to the minimum standard that readers of pipes|drums demand, but I have seen some made-in-Pakistan custom banners and embroidered items and thought they were pretty good. But perhaps to a professional embroiderer they’re just as inferior as the pipes.

Is it wrong not to allow Pakistani companies to advertise?

Sincerely, Anonymous

Would Mary Ann Evans have been as successful had she not written under the name 'Mary Ann Evans'?Ever since the newfangled Internet machine was first applied to piping and drumming way back in 1994 with the (truly sordid) chat group, our little world has been frequently miffed and confused about those who speak publicly, but wish to remain anonymous. Forums, blogs and an online magazine like pipes|drums give everyone the power to speak their opinion, and choose whether or not they want their true identity to be attached.

It frequently frustrates those with a high sense of integrity. Pipers and drummers who have the courage and conviction to put their real name to what they say in public often get into high dudgeon when they read the pointed and controversial – and often just simply muck-raking – opinions of posters using pseudonyms.

Of course, the piping and drumming world is not unique in this regard. Have you ever visited a major newspaper’s online edition? Take the New York Times, Scotsman or Evening Times, for examples. Readers are allowed to post anonymously, and even publications considered the most reputable in the world welcome dissent, agreement and everything in between, provided it’s fair comment and not slanderous or libelous.

pipes|drums takes that stance. The thinking is that it’s far better to open the discussion to all – anonymous or not – than to have no discussion, which, as the major dailies understand, is pretty much what would happen if every reader’s identity had to be verified and listed before anything was posted. Web 2.0 discussion is not like traditional letters-to-the-editor, which are closely vetted for authorship and veracity. That’s not a conversation at all, but instead just a one-time rejoinder.

The piping and drumming world is far more open today than it was 15 years ago. Results are openly debated, competition requirements are openly critiqued, the moves of associations are subject to open criticism. We discuss musical issues like never before. While a group of judges may condone a new musical approach, the players of the world may hate it, and vice versa. This lively and open dialog and debate simply did not happen before 1994.

There are still some places where they still seem to try to sweep sensitive matters and clear injustices under the rug, but that approach will eventually catch up to them when they discover their membership has turned on them, and it will be ugly.

As long as it’s not slanderous and is “fair comment” (don’t ask me to define it; I just know it when I see it), then opinions should be welcomed, whether it’s on the Internet or at an AGM. It’s understandable that we pipers and drummers are reluctant to put our names to strong or unpopular opinions. We compete in subjective competition system built on years of slow-moving musical custom and tradition. Rocking the boat may alienate those in charge (executives, board-members, judges, teachers, stewards . . .) who usually don’t like to be criticized, and who theoretically have the power to put down any uprisings they deem not in their interest. And some still do.

Fortunately, even with the preponderance of anonymous commenters on the Net, there are always the true courageous leaders with a conviction to confront the piping and drumming world’s “authorities” and its traditions and mores, unafraid of being identified. It takes integrity and guts to take on the establishment, especially one that’s so entrenched and used to being able to control the players, whether it’s through threat of disqualification, a clipboard hammering or simply creating a century of piobaireachd settings that everyone has to play just so if they want to get a prize.

That sort of abuse of power is unfortunately how the competitive piping and drumming world often operated for its first 200 or so years – until the Internet came along, giving power to everyone and anyone to espouse boat-rocking opinion without revealing their identity.

Similarly, from time to time pipes|drums is criticized for using sources who speak on condition of anonymity. This is a long-established practice still used by any credible publication. Essentially, an anonymous source enables a publication to include sensitive third-party opinion that otherwise might get someone into trouble, whether it’s with a criminal, a business, a political regime . . . or a pipe band association. Readers of The Times, to use that example again, trust the paper’s long-established credibility and integrity to report honestly. When the publication uses an anonymous source, readers have faith in the journalist’s professionalism to use that content truthfully.

pipes|drums often puts together predictions and honours. It started years ago as fun and innocuous features, but some people apparently take them extremely seriously. I guess that’s a credit to the publication’s integrity, or perhaps people are just so bored that they have nothing else to talk about. Rather than me single-mindedly choosing these things, I far prefer to stay out of them altogether. So, the approach has been to assemble panels of experts from various areas, and invite them to vote and contribute their thoughts, with assured anonymity.

I would love to announce grand panels of named experts, just as I would love everyone to put their true name to their comments on pipes|drums, and will try to convince people to agree to that when the time comes.  But, unfortunately, my feeling is that the real, subjective world of competitive piping and drumming still makes it impossible to require the inclusion of true identities and still have an honest dialog.

I’m sure some who pine for the old days would prefer no dialog at all to allowing anonymous contributors. Again, looking back at the sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality that pervaded the pre-Internet era, we are far better off to allow intelligent pipers and drummers to provide their intelligent and fair comments anonymously than to say nothing.

Judgment calls

Kill the ref!Accusations of bias run rampant throughout our particular brand of piping and drumming. The more focused on competition the piper or drummer is, the more it seems he/she thinks everyone has an agenda to promote, hidden or not.

Over the last few decades of putting together publications for pipers and drummers I have had a fair share of accusations of bias thrown at me: I’m a piper, so therefore I must not like drummers. I have played in a few bands; thus I must be promoting them. I play piobaireachd, so I’m suspected of disrespecting those who don’t. I live in North America, so therefore I must be anti-UK. I reside in Canada, therefore I’m anti-American. I live in Ontario, so some from other provinces assume they don’t get fair treatment. It’s all about Toronto . . . I have a bias against those not living in the west end of the city . . . I’m against shorter people . . .

And so it goes. I’ve dealt with the (usually anonymous) accusations by just continuing to do what my heart tells me is right, and creating the kinds of publications that I think people want to read. That’s all it ever was and ever will be. Readership keeps increasing, so I have to assume I’m doing something right.

By profession I work in public relations. I understand that, from relationships, people can do more good things. It follows that I generally approach people I know – those I’ve played in bands with, grown up with, competed against, received instruction from – to contribute articles, as long as I know them to be fair-minded and I respect their opinions and intelligence. It helps me when they express an interest in writing. Nonetheless I’m always delighted when people I don’t know contact me with an idea for an article they’d like to see or contribute, and over the years some of my favourite stuff has resulted from just such unplanned contact. (See Willie Donaldson.)

I try my hardest to be fair and objective when it comes to content on pipes|drums. I’m aware of accusations of bias, but I guarantee that I have no other agenda to promote than providing a publication that as many people as possible will enjoy. No one likes propaganda. There are times when I catch myself almost overcompensating, thinking I shouldn’t include articles that truly merit publication because a small minority of cynically competitive readers will suspect me of bias.

That was the dilemma I faced with the recent New Year’s Honours story. The overwhelming feedback from the panel was that the Spirit of Scotland – based on news value – should be named the Band of the Year, and that Roddy MacLeod – based on overall contributions to the scene – deserved to be Piper of the Year. Uh, oh, I thought. I’m in SoS, so what will people think if they’re named?

But, ultimately, I did the right thing and gave those that deserved the accolades – under the conditions of the system for determining the honours, whether that system is good or bad. In the meantime I tried to grow an extra layer of thick skin, but fully prepared to accept any fallout.

It’s the same predicament that a good judge finds him/herself in. The very worst judge is one who overcompensates and doesn’t award a prize to a deserving competitor for fear of being accused of bias. Our system is such that we truly respect only the opinions of people – judges, teachers, magazine editors, and association leaders – who have also done the business as competitors and performers, who understand the vagaries and challenges of competitive piping and drumming because they have experienced it. Those who talk a good tune have little credibility. Consequently our judges, teachers, editors will always be accused of bias by some, simply because their history as a player is known and there for cynical connections to be made.

Good judgment sometimes requires an element of self-editing, making sure that you do the truly right thing when you’re tempted to overcompensate and do wrong. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

On second thought . . . no, I don’t . . . but I will anyway.

Competitive instinct

Competition wins . . .The interview I did with Donald Shaw Ramsay nearly 20 years ago is one of the most memorable – perhaps for the wrong reasons.

 The legendary former Pipe-Major of Invergordon Distillery and Edinburgh City Police pipe bands just happened to be on an August, 1989, flight from Glasgow to Toronto, and I was returning from the World’s on the same plane.

I didn’t know Ramsay, and only had seen photos of when he was a much younger man, but someone recognized him and pointed him out to me. I boldly introduced myself to the great Ramsay in the departure lounge, told that I put together a piping magazine and asked if he would be interested in passing the travel-time with an impromptu interview. I had heard that his favourite subject was DSR; thankfully, he was all for talking about himself for a few hours.

I can’t remember why I had a tape recorder with me, but I did, so we agreed to meet on the plane. He had an aisle seat in economy. A nice lady agreed to change places with me, so I sat across the aisle from him, and, in between passings of bladder-bursting passengers and trolley-pushing attendants, we chatted on tape. It was an exciting interview, and I was thrilled to get the chance to speak candidly with the famous man.

A few weeks later, once the interview was transcribed, I was in for a shock. I sent (back then, by post) the proposed final text to him, only to get back a marked-up version of which entire sections, and maybe even whole pages, were deleted. It was as if he couldn’t even remember doing the interview, and, sure enough, a year or so later I was told by someone who knew him that he claimed he didn’t realize the conversation was being recorded and that he claimed he never agreed to an interview. Bizarre.

But, back to the editing process . . . When I received his edited version I called him up to discuss it, since deleting major chunks of a lengthy article inflicts havoc on the planning of a printed magazine. Among the passages he wanted excised were hundreds of words of insightful and helpful advice to up-and-coming players and pipe-majors.

Totally confused, I asked him why he would want to remove that material. He replied with, something to the effect of, “I had to learn the hard way, so why should I make it any easier for others?”

I couldn’t believe it then, and the comment remains one of the most amazing things I’ve heard. I’ve spent almost 20 years trying to understand why, at age 65, he would not want to help others by passing on some of his knowledge.

Perhaps there were other reasons for such a strange decision, but I tend to think that it was because Ramsay, like so many pipers and drummers, was so competitive that he just couldn’t see past the feeling of possessing some insight that he wanted to keep from the competition.

I was reminded recently that the ultra competitive piping and drumming world remains just so today. I often ask the leaders of today’s top bands to share their knowledge. Thankfully, the large majority are more than pleased to do so. But still very occasionally I get a DSR-like response from those who just can’t overcome their competitive instinct, and would rather take their knowledge to the grave than share it with “the competition.”

The give and take

pipes|drums isn’t my job, but I do strive for professionalism. One of the hardest things about it, though, is reporting on the news of the death of a friend. Inevitably, as we get older, that sort of close-to-home news will become increasingly common.

Yesterday was a rough day for the piping world, and especially for Ontario. I think that almost everyone who knew Scott MacAulay and Willie Connell would have been aware of their illnesses and that the odds of long-term survival were not good. In that sense, we were dreading but anticipating the bad news, but it hit nonetheless hard.

After ensuring that relatives are aware of the news, the 10 minutes that it takes to write the news story are for me something of an emotionless blur. I try to be professional, and distance myself from my personal upset and focus on the task at hand. But after the news is published, I’m immediately hit with sadness and reflection. It sinks in, but the sorrow starts to give way to appreciation when mutual friends start chiming in by phone and e-mail about fun times and fond memories.

That’s what yesterday was like after I heard of Scott’s passing. I cycled home from work as usual through the bustle of downtown Toronto traffic only to be punched again with the news of Willie Connell’s death. And the draining process of matter-of-fact reporting giving way to reflection started all over again.

I take solace in the fact that pipes|drums has become a focal point for the world’s pipers and drummers. That people can and do share their memories  of and tributes to those who have left us is a comfort, and it’s the dialogue aspect of the online magazine that I personally like the most. I know that Scott was a big fan of the magazine, and loved to monitor the lively debate. I also know that Willie was often at odds with some (if not most!) of the magazine’s non-old-school opinions, but I know that he, too, followed the discussions closely.

These two people gave a lot to me, and I am glad that, in whatever small way, I was able to provide something for them in return.

Piping alive

In Glasgow just now, part of the 42 per cent of p|d readers (according to the current poll) who are also here. So far the weather’s been mainly dry, and not a bolt of lightning to be seen. Piping Live! is in full swing just now. Drumming for Drinks went on today, and the kick-off concert was tonight at the Royal Glasgow Concert Hall. 

I’m back at the band thing for the first time in a few years, and I must say it’s a lot better to be playing and here than not and here. It’s a lot of fun, with a great atmosphere of all-gain. After months of practicing in isolation, with only MP3 files and sheet music as company, it’s great to hear it come together.

With everything that’s going on, I don’t have much time to commit to the site, but I’ll do my best. Stay tuned!


Hmmm, a new piping rag has arrived in the snail-mail. Let’s read the report of this competition that happened three months ago and that everyone has already discussed ad infinitum on the net, watched videos of, and has already said every conceivable thing there is to say . . .

Plonker & District – good uptake to march. Good going here. Top hands a bit iffy in reel? Don’t like the tom-tom tenor drumming. Not my cup of tea. Crap.

Lumberyard & Son – what are they thinking with that opener? Not enough cane in those drones. Squeals hurting this band. Should get new chanters and reeds. Couldn’t smell any seasoning wafting from the circle. Crap.

Bloomers of Cardenden – not as good as I’ve heard them before. Tempi not like I used to play them in 1979. Didn’t like the tartan. Did I see the pipe-major hitch up his bag? Crap.

. . . and so on. That’s a slightly exaggerated parody, but this sort of absolute dreck has been the bane of piping “journalism” forever. It goes on today, even in these supposedly more enlightened times. I said this before, but it’s worth remarking on it again. For some strange reason people think that it’s okay to crack on our very best competitors after the competition is done, as if people can’t listen to the whole thing on the net and judge for themselves. As if anyone even gives a toss what the writer thinks about the competition as a non-player / non-judge.

What’s worse is that these bitter reports are usually by people who haven’t played in a decent band for decades, or been asked to judge a decent band competition, or, I would guess, even been asked to join a decent band.

Not on pipes|drums. Ever.


Good times . . .

A long time has passed since I recorded a pipe band competition. When I was a kid I would haul around this bulky cassette apparatus to places like Alma, Michigan, to capture the Grade 1 bands. I still have those somewhere. I then progressed to a Sony Professional system, which for a while was state-of-the-art for handheld remote analog recordings.

But I recently picked up a little device that makes very high-end digital audio captures – not really for my own interest, but for yours. I used it for the first time at Kincardine yesterday. Being on the roster of a band, I recused myself from judging the Grade 1 event, which allowed me to record the contest. The files – 128-bit MP3 format – are very good, and I hope pipes|drums readers/listeners enjoy them.

Interesting, too, that in sync with my plans Michael Grey wrote about the change in the speed of piping and pipe band information due to technology. Like him, I remember well the days when news of results from Scotland would come not hours or even days after the event, but sometimes months in the form of the Pipe Band or Piping Times magazines when I used to read them.

To be honest, I felt a bit of a tube being one of the recording geeks, but I think the trade-off is small price to pay. I plan to bring more of these to the magazine as I can coordinate them.


I hope that pipes|drums and Blogpipe readers like the new design and all the new features. For various reasons it had to be migrated to a new web developer partner, and I decided that, since all that was happening, then new features should be added at the same time.

That was in November 2007 and it has taken this long to get it done. Recoding thousands of items and migrating data from one language to another, fixing code and such like are things I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But here we are.

Among the things we’re still working on are all the comments posted to the previous version of Blogpipe. Uploading those to the new platform is a work-in-progress, but we’ll get there eventually.

Anyway, I really hope people enjoy the new site. It will always be non-profit effort, which causes some people to ask me, Why do you do it? I wonder about that myself, at times, but I think it’s in the blood.

I grew up with the sound of my history professor dad pounding (and often swearing) away at his Smith-Corona typewriter, writing articles and books and reviews and lectures and letters-to-the-editor. He always had something to say and he would usually say it in writing and he would always sign his name to it.

So, if you want to blame or thank someone for all this publishing stuff, he’s your target.

Personally, I’m thanking him.

Navel gazer

Nice navel!I was thinking the other day about the old adage, “No one ever says on their deathbed, ‘Gee, I wish I had worked harder.'”

I wonder if that can be applied to piping and drumming. Do pipers and drummers ever sit there when they’ve retired from the game and think, “Jings, I wish I had practiced more and spent more nights and days and weekends with the band.”

I have met a lot of players who left family behind every weekend and several nights a week for scores or years while they went out to seek their self-centred goals of competition glory. They seem downright wistful when they talk about how their kids grew up and moved out of the house before they knew it.

It’s a huge quandary for many people. For those who have families, who want to pursue their hobby while at the same time being there for the spouse and kids, the best, and perhaps only, solution is to get them involved in the hobby. This strategy works well when the spouse is also a piper or drummer, but, if not, it generally doesn’t work.

I sometimes mistakenly fancy that the practice time that I gave up after “retiring” from solo competition has been committed totally to family. Truth is, I replaced much of that time with working on your pipes|drums, keyboarding away in the basement office, on the deck, in the kitchen, wherever and whenever I can.

Does our hobby / avocation / affliction attract a peculiarly self-centred personality-type? And, if so, are non-self-centred people destined not to be as good at piping and drumming as those who are?

Good results

I swear that the last week was the busiest of my life, but I seem to be say that every week these days. The blog’s been a shade neglected as a result, but I’m doing a bit of catching up with all things pipes|drums this weekend.

Someone recently asked me why there are relatively few results articles posted for piping and drumming competitions in the United States. Good question. The answer: people don’t send them in.

Within hours of people getting home from contests in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, e-mail arrives with the outcome. For the major pipe band and solo events over the year that I’m not at I try to arrange for an agent-in-the-field to call with or text results as they’re announced. If I’m at a contest, I’ll take the time to write down results.

All the rest I figure that, if no one sends in the results, then it can’t be that important, so I don’t get too fussed, since no one else is. But, in general, if people send in the news, it will be published – provided the event isn’t too miniscule.

It also helps me a great deal when people provide them in a cut-and-paste format that follows the p|d style: top grades first, prizes one through five in that order, tunes and judges included, if possible. My heart sinks when I receive results in ALL CAPS. That means I have to re-enter everything. Believe me, that gets really tedious.

People love to see results, and they love to go back years later and see them. Lots of stuff gets posted on ephemeral forums, but eventually these will vanish into the ether, and they’re not searchable. Contest results have always been an important aspect of the hobby. The pipes|drums online archive of results is massive.

So, anyone from the United States (or anywhere else, for that matter) who might wonder why they don’t see their name in pipes|drums lights after they enjoy the day of their competition life at a particular competition, the answer is simple: no one bothered to send them.


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