Solitary confinement

I’ve said before that Highland piping is often a solitary pursuit that attracts introverts. The lone piper. Solo competition. Hours of isolated practice at home. Maybe nowhere in our art is independence more evident than in our music creation.

An estimate based on a lifetime of observation is that 99% of pipe music is written by a lone composer. Music creation in our world is thriving, driven by an ever-present thirst for the new by competition pipe bands. A band with a strong composer in its ranks has a great advantage.

I work in the songwriting, composing and music publishing side of the music industry. Our piping and drumming world is a model of creativity. But it’s also a relative outlier in that our composers don’t truly collaborate with each other to make tunes together.

Songwriters (also usually introverts), on the other hand, actively seek out new ideas from their peers. They attend song camps with other writers. They trade notes, as it were, and concepts for new music. Their publishers will put together writers from disparate genres and styles to see what happens. They chip away at their stuff, adding a word here, a key change there. They experiment with different idioms. They are almost always totally open to working together to create a better or more widely appealing work.

The exceptions to pipe music composers writing in solitude are generally the instances of a composer tacking on a few parts to an existing tune. Donald MacLeod did it a lot with traditional pieces, to the point where we attribute “The Wee Man from Skye,” for example, to him as the sole composer, when in fact it’s his arrangement. Piping schools will sometimes have an entire class compose a tune, coming up with phrases and changes together. Mainly because these pieces are written by relatively inexperienced pipers, they’re generally not great (read: terrible) compositions, but well intentioned and educational though they might be.

I was once in a band where, like most bands, we’d sit around the table with practice chanters in the winter and trade ideas on music possibilities for the next season. There were several composers in the band. They’d pitch new compositions, and the rest of the pipe corps would suggest a note change here, a timing improvement there, or even a collective Ugh! on first-listen of some or other hopeless piece. The group as a whole was a good editing machine. It was collaborative and, in many instances, it was a co-writing process. The tune got better when rattled around the ears of others.

Tunes that go through an editing process are almost invariably better. I don’t know what G.S. McLennan’s writing process was, but I would guess that he would, as I understand Donald MacLeod did, bounce tunes off of carefully chosen trusted pipers for their opinions and suggestions and then make many amendments and revisions before declaring a piece “final.” And no piece of music is ever final, anyway.

Composers who collaborate will often realize that they’re better off trashing a tune altogether. On their own, they might not twig that it’s too close to another piece designed around our nine notes, or that the new tune is unplayable or, um, unappealing.

Most composers do seek advice and suggestions about their draft work, but rarely if ever would they give credit to another piper as a co-writer, whereas in songwriting and composing in other genres it wouldn’t only be expected, it would be legally prudent. There’s a saying in the songwriting industry: “Change a word, get a third.”

How many pipe music composers sit down with one or more other composers to create a tune from scratch? Are there bands out there where the pipers sit around that winter table and collectively create a tune needed for the new medley? Or do all bands expect “the composer” in the band to come up with something great on his or her own?

I know that most of us are introverts who, perhaps paradoxically, like being in a spotlight, letting our music speak for us. But when it comes to new compositions, taking the cue from successful songwriters and seeking real collaboration could well pay better dividends for the art.

 

Quelle reprise

The now double-homage to the anniversary of the 78th Fraser Highlanders “Live In Ireland” concert in Ballymena in 1987 is much deserved and, evidently, attractive to many people who wanted to live or relive the event.

That music was made famous 30 years ago. Three decades have passed. In normal life, that’s a long time. In pipe band music life, apparently, that was yesterday.

Since then, what has changed musically? The popularity of the pipe band “suite” as a concept appears to have waned, since “Journey To Skye” seemed to initiate interest in such a concept. Today’s bands are of course tonally and technically better than ever. But musically? There’s not a whole lot truly new going on in terms of structures and time signatures or taking our music in a different direction.

Considering that mainstream music since 1987 has seen the rise and fall of Post-Punk, Grunge, Alt-Country, K-Pop, Hip-Hop, Acid Jazz and whatever else, our musical genre is relatively stagnant. To be sure, this is not necessarily a bad thing for those who like tradition and repetition.

Certainly pipe bands have done some neat things in bits and pieces. But when I try to think of a similar one-time musical event to the 1987 concert that might be as deservedly replicated on stage 10, 20 or 30 years later, I’m at a loss.

Again, I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. I’m just saying.

The closest thing might be the Victoria Police’s “Masterblasters” concert. Or maybe Vale of Atholl’s “Live ‘n Well” show. But these, as good as they were, made nowhere near the mark of the 78th Frasers’ event, and probably would not attract the kinds of interest and paying customers we’ve seen in the last year with the Frasers Redux. (Maybe kids go around loving FMM’s “RE:CHARGED” or Inveraray & District’s “Ascension” concert recordings; I’m not sure.)

And consider, too, that much of the material that was considered so groundbreaking in 1987 was actually taken from non-pipe band sources. Alan Stivell, Horselips, Don Thompson. There were adaptations and derivations galore. So, a case can be made that, even in 1987, pipe bands weren’t innovating on their own, but innovating by adapting successful ideas from other musical domains – not quite on the poppy level of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, but still derived and adapted. It’s still innovation, but, like just about all new art, it’s not totally original.

In those pre-Internet analog days, pipe bands doing such things were a novelty, certainly in the UK. The 78th Frasers had by 1987 been playing most of that stuff for years, some carrying over from the City of Toronto Pipe Band in the 1970s. But listeners further afield than Ontario hadn’t heard it in any big way, and certainly not in a pipe band concert.

(Let’s not speak of the of the odd Scottish pipe-major who came to Ontario to judge, cassette recorder attached to his belt, returned to Scotland and introduced new musical ideas to his band, allegedly not giving them due credit. But I digress . . .)

Even the same 78th Fraser Highlanders couldn’t quite tune in to a similar zeitgeist with their own following concerts, these built from material they had actually invented almost entirely from scratch. Items like “The Megantic Outlaw” and “The Immigrants’ Suite” were received well, but I doubt many people still have those recordings on repeat, at least to the degree of “Live In Ireland.” Then again, I have never heard any other pipe band play “Journey To Skye.”

The Toronto Police’s adventurous avant-garde medleys of the aughts were interesting and courageous, but not terribly well received by judges or the pipe band world at large. No one that I know of has played them since or even tried anything as adventurous, mainly because they were proven to be generally and admittedly detrimental to winning. The relatively outrageous music distinguished the band for being, well, courageous, and attracted personnel to a band that wanted to do musical things differently. In that sense, the music met an important objective, especially considering the group at the time was on the brink of collapse due to small numbers.

Is something as impactful as “Live In Ireland” even possible today? The groundbreaking, fearless attitude of it seems to have vanished, as bands and businesses have so much money wrapped up in competition that they dare not try to over-accelerate glacial musical change. Every time they do, some dickhead judge puts them in their place, which, come to think of it, I think was one the big reasons that the 78th Fraser Highlanders lost its musical fearlessness by the 1990s.

Three decades later, is there only one concert and one recording that can be held up as musically door-opening, that actually took hold of people in a major way?

In truth, that musical door is still open only a crack.

 

Browbeating retreat

Why are you out to get us? You seem to have it in for me. Why are you so unfair? You’re biased!

Watching the new US President going at the American intelligence agencies, the media and pretty much anyone or anything that he doesn’t agree with reminded me of how a few rare pipers, drummers and bands, almost always in the upper grades, can sometimes treat judges.

At least one of the President’s objectives in accusing people and things of being “unfair” or “biased” is clear: he wants them to doubt themselves and, he hopes, overcompensate the next time by giving him a more favourable decision or story.

Accusing journalists of under-reporting terrorism is designed to stoke fear by having media go out, research what they’ve reported, and publish a long list of terrorism coverage, thus achieving the objective of highlighting a long list of big and small terrorist acts, scaring the bejeezuz out of people. Mission accomplished.

As a piping and pipe band judge I have been accused a few times over the last 15-odd years of judging by paranoid bands (and the rare soloist) of being somehow biased against them. I can remember a few frustrated competitors – almost always competing in the top grades – casually or even confrontationally accusing me of not treating his/her band fairly. “Why are you out to get us?” “Why are you so unfair?” “You’re biased!” “Why don’t you like us?” “What do we have to do to get a prize off of you?”

After the initial, WTF moment passes, I ask them to provide examples. Generally, they won’t or can’t. When they do point to a performance in which they think they were hard done, I ask them to refer to the scoresheet as an account of my decisions. It might also be a simple response: “Next time, play better than the others.” When I ask if they listened to the whole contest, invariably the answer is no.

To be sure, there are a few genuinely corrupt judges in the piping and drumming world, but, as I’ve said many times, I don’t care who wins or gets a prize as long as it’s fair and deserved. I’ve never asked to judge anything and never will.

But a few veteran pipers and drummers will take this passive-aggressive or confrontational strategy with an objective to have you doubt yourself or want to make amends, so that next time you might bum them up a bit to get them off your back and prove that you’re not against them. It’s a psychological game. Some perhaps sociopathic competitors have even made a career out of it. Why? It tends to get results with weak judges who, in actuality, doubt their ability to get the result right and account for it convincingly with credibility.

And then there are judges whose top priority is maintaining friendships through judging. Getting the result correct is secondary. They’ll throw an undeserving player or band a prize just to keep up appearances, keep friendships, get judging gigs. I guarantee that this happens. It drove me crazy as a competitor and it drives me crazy as a judge. The judge overcompensates and next time out put that whinging competitor up a few places so that they remain friends while at the same time shutting their yap for a season.

The browbeating competitor tries to suss out the less-confident or more pliable judges, and will be relentless in their accusatory lobbying. Why? Because it apparently works in our little world where some judges are less afraid of losing respect than “friends.”

Obviously there is little comparison between the level of bullying and intimidation that goes on in federal politics and our little piping and drumming world. The point is that, sadly, browbeating can get results. It’s up to the objective and confident judges among us to respond to these sorts of tactics with confidence and integrity, continuing to do the right thing going forward.

 

Trumped up

So music acts and politicians are boycotting the Donald Trump inauguration. I admire them for standing firm on their political beliefs, and can understand why musicians might feel that performing at an event could be seen to support the new regime, which might be bad for their image and alienate the majority of their fan-base.

The non-competing Washington DC Fire Department Emerald Society Pipes & Drums and others were invited to perform at in the parade on January 20th, and apparently gladly accepted. Some pipers and drummers have criticized and even insulted these bands for their decision to participate.

The hoo-ha reminded me of course of pipe band competitions – specifically, prize-giving ceremonies.

Anyone who’s competed long enough has been in or encountered a band that gets in high dudgeon about results and threatens to boycott an event or a judge or something that they feel strongly about. For people who routinely welcome criticism about the music we passionately make, we’re an awfy thin-skinned lot. Some of the seemingly toughest talkers and most seasoned players can dish it out, but have a tissue-paper epidermis.

I remember several instances in my own playing career when a result came out at the massed bands or march-past and the band (or, more accurately, some members of it) that I was in stomped off the field in knee-jerk protest. I recall many times when prominent solo and band players confronted specific judges about results, including a few ugly incidents. I can recall a few instances when emotion and disappointment got the better of me, and I took up a result with a judge. Not my finest moments, and each time I later apologized for my crime of heat-stroked passion.

I recall playing with a band in Scotland in the 1980s at a small contest for colliery bands when we got on our high horse because a judge closely associated with one of the other bands entered was on the pen. Our plan was to get all tuned-up and sounding great, play to the line, and then fall out in protest. Well, word got out about our crafty “We’ll show them!” plan, we were threatened with suspension by the RSPBA well before we even had the pipes out, so we buckled, played the event, and the judge in question of course made sure the other band won. We drowned our sorrows and humiliation in the pub.

The truth is, like a democratic election, when we decide to compete we should accept the result – provided, of course that it was fairly run. We know who the judges are and, while we might not always agree with them, if we agree to play for them, we should accept whatever they mete out.

Stomping off a field simply because you don’t like the result is childish. You agreed to enter and perform in the contest, so walking off in protest might seem like the passionately acceptable thing to do at the time, but it’s not.

On the other hand, if a competitor feels strongly that a result was unfair, or a judge’s results are corrupt and not simply disagreeable, I admire bands and soloists who take a stand by working to address the problem with their association. If that doesn’t work, I have a lot of time for competitors who vote with their feet and refuse to participate in events that they feel will have an illegitimate result.

But it’s not always that easy and, in fact, such civil disobedience is rare in our game, mainly because – weirdly – as in the example above, associations invariably side with their judges, rather than their members. The repercussions that come with taking a principled stand can be great, even bullying, and certainly frustrating, at times to the point of competitors talking about “starting a new association.”

If you have a problem with a competition, don’t play in it, build a case, and work with your association to correct the problem. Don’t spit the dummy after you competed and, certainly, don’t begrudge your fellow pipers and drummers for their decision to participate.

 

Refuge

Piping and drumming and pipe bands are a refuge from the real world – at least, they should be.

I have always enjoyed having a piping alter-ego. Through school piping was almost completely separate from that world. Different friends. Different mood. Almost a completely different identity. I was and am “Andy” at school and with family, and “Andrew” in piping. Old school friends and family still call me Andy and can’t imagine me as piping Andrew, and vice versa.

In work that separation of solitudes has carried over. My piping life is not my professional life, and that continues to work well for me. Colleagues know that I’m a piper, and some pipers and drummers might know what I do for a living, but that’s about the extent of it. I want to keep it that way.

Piping and drumming is a melting pot of people. You hang out with those of virtually every profession, religion, political leaning, sexual orientation and age. If that stuff affects how you see your fellow pipers and drummers, you’ve picked the wrong hobby. Doctors and lawyers play shoulder-to-shoulder with students and janitors. Politics or religion or class should never come up. You might go years without knowing these things about your band-mates, and, when you do learn of them, it should be with a shrug.

It wasn’t always that way. Until maybe the 1960s, competing piping and drumming and pipe bands were very much divided by class, especially in the UK. In general, the “working” class and military non-commissioned officers did the competing, while the “professional” class or aristocracy did the judging. The likes of John MacFadyen (headmaster of a private school) and Seumas MacNeill (lecturer in physics at Glasgow University) facilitated change in 1950s. By the 1960s, the likes of lawyers and bankers were competing in Scotland, and, today, there is little if any distinction between anyone in piping and drumming. A few years ago the serving Attorney General of the United States – seventh in line to the Presidency – was a member of a pipe band in Washington, DC. Not too long ago even females were banned from competing. Today gay and straight pipers and drummers are equals.

World-altering and divisive issues like Brexit and the US election have got many people up-in-arms. Thanks in large part to social media, more of us wear our emotions and beliefs on our digital sleeves. We might know more about our band-mate’s personal leanings than ever before, and it risks dividing us, when we should be united by our music and common goals to be better at it.

Perhaps a few ground rules are in order for pipers, drummers and pipe bands:

Keep your non-musical personal beliefs to yourself – Religion and real-world politics have no place in piping and drumming. We can all worship at the altar of G.S. McLennan and my vote will usually be for the Donald MacLeod composition but, beyond the music, keep the other stuff airtight.

How well you can play is your only status – your ability as a piper or drummer is all that matters. Your playing does the talking. Your real-world social or professional status doesn’t matter one bit in the band or among your fellow pipers and drummers. How much you make or your piety are worthless when it comes to delivering an MSR.

We “Like” and “Follow” all pipers and drummers – this is real socializing that cannot be replaced by social media. We are real people in real time making real music. Piping and drumming is a truly social network.

Keep it light – remember, we are trying to get away from the heavy load and stress of our jobs and all the world’s problems. Climate change and the Middle East are big deals, but the band and the games are for piping and drumming – and that’s it. Have a laugh. Raise a glass to all that musical common ground. This is sanctuary from everything else that troubles you.

It’s my hope that piping and drumming will continue to be exempt from the “real” world. It’s our world, our culture, our freedom to be equals, our place to relieve stress and let off steam through a musical distraction, striving for excellence. We need now more than ever for piping and drumming and pipe bands to shelter us from the real world, if only for a few hours each week.

It’s an untouchable refuge from the stress of everyday life, a place to take solace in the fact that we are united through music.

 

Oldies

The music you liked when you were younger is the music you will prefer for the rest of your life. That’s an oversimplification, and there are exceptions, but, by and large it’s true of most people.

And so, too, with pipe band judges.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by the lamentably slow pace of change in pipe band competition music and style, look no further than the relatively inflexible and stubborn judge. Just as that 50-plus-year-old guy or gal on the pen goes home after the contest, opens a can of Tartan Special and puts on that LP of Cliff Richard from 1980, they’re having a hard time getting their ears around your band’s “crazy” medley.

If they hear the latest song by Drake or The Weeknd they instantly flip the radio station (not streaming, of course) and tut-tut, “That’s nae music.” It’s a knee-jerk response, and to them there are no two ways about it. “Big Country! Now that was a band!” It is a truism of every generation: what was cool growing up carries forward as their definition of likable or acceptable music later in life.

Again, I generalize. There are exceptions. I have encountered a small number of judges my age or older who relish new music – both pop and pipe band. They have open and tolerant ears, and enjoy the surprise and delight of hearing new stuff. Sure, like me they still like the familiar music of their formative years, but they move on and treat every new song or tune as yet another fun possibility. Invariably, these people get bored quickly. They embrace change, optimistically considering it as continual improvement rather pessimistically seeing the threat of messing with a good thing. Leave well enough alone.

I like to count myself among the easily bored and change-welcoming. At age 53 I listen to new music all day as part of my job, but I have always loved hearing new music and discovering new artists. I get bored with piping when I hear or play the same things over and over and over again. Without question, I understand the competition conceit of playing familiar music flawlessly, and that can be intriguing and interesting. Striving for perfection in competition can salvage 10,000 maniacal airings of “Blair Drummond.” But, regarding the content itself, I would far prefer to hear the new than the old.

It seems to me that we need more judges with such a mindset. Perhaps pipe band accreditation exams should include a tolerance test of the unfamiliar. Not necessarily measure how much a prospective judge likes new music; just how much he or she  will  tolerate it. An intolerant judge is a bad judge, so test how open-minded they are. Hell, ask them to name a few of their favourite musicians or non-pipe bands. If they respond only with things like “The Beatles” or “The Stones” or “The Who” – great though they each might be – maybe they’re better to go rust away elsewhere than inflict their intransigence on us.

Mainly because of the judging, our art evolves more slowly than a lead zeppelin. Pipe bands want to win so they err on the side of caution, terrified that intractable adjudicators will put “new” music in its place as self-appointed gatekeepers of the craft and preservationists of an art and era that they grew up with.

If we’re going to move things forward, let’s make sure that our judges are musically open-eared and tolerant. It’s the right thing to do.

 …new…

March pastiche

This summer I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting a part of that UK pipe band scene tradition at competitions called the “march past.”

For those who might not know, the march past is essentially this: at the end of the day of competitions, the six Grade 1 or Grade 2 bands that competed first in the draw take position about 20 yards from a “reviewing stand” in the middle of the park. Each band takes turns playing a set of 6/8 marches, while every other competing band in every other grade separately marches in step to the 6/8s.

When each band goes by the reviewing stand, the drum-major or pipe-major does a quasi-military salute to a designated “chieftain of the day,” usually a local dignitary or minor celebrity. The D-M or P-M shouts or, in some cases, shrieks, “Band! Eyes . . . right!” and all members of their band are then supposed to look lovingly to their right at the chieftain, while the D-M or P-M does his/her best Benny Hill-style open-hand British military salute. Each band looks at the chieftain for a few bars of the tune, and then looks forward as they indeed march past.

After you see 50 or so bands do this, it starts to get comical. I believe that every band that competes has to do it, or faces disqualification. Centre bands are not compensated for their extra time, musical performance or, since most of them have come straight from the beer tent after quaffing several pints in rapid succession, strained bladders.

At major championships in the UK, where there can be more than 200 bands, the march past ceremony can take literally hours. It is, in a word, interminable, particularly for the unfortunate centre bands, who are standing there for the entire parade, and then for the eventual announcement of prizes, which on its own can take an hour, with comments from the honoured chieftain, announcements of all manner of drum-major awards and at least nine grades of pipe band results.

During the two-plus hours of the march past some desperate pipers and drummers sneak off the field for a pee. They’re apparently not supposed to do this, but it’s better than the old kilted kneel-down to let it go in a puddle right there and then behind the bass drum while band mates stand shotty (something I have only heard about), so officials seem to look away from the ignominious parade of pishing.

One could die of exposure or boredom or muscle atrophy from these things. You don’t know what will come first: the end of the march past or the end of the world. It is mental and physical torture, worse by many magnitudes than any massed bands event, which are familiar to those in North America.

Massed bands are certainly no great hell, but at least there is some entertainment value in them for the non-playing public, who are often attracted to the grand finale spectacle of thousands of pipers and drummers playing “Amazing Grace” and counter-marching up and down the field en masse to “Scotland the Brave” or some other musical potboiler. What’s more, bands in North America understand that it is the massed bands more than the competitions themselves that please the paying public. If a band does not participate in massed bands it forfeits its travel allowance. There is a decent correlation between massed bands, the paying public and compensation for performers.

The massed bands ceremony of course could be improved, but it is miles better than the march past. I’ve participated so far in three march pasts at three championships in 2016, two as a member of one of the centre bands. I hadn’t done that since the 1980s, and nothing had changed. They were exactly the same somnambulant torment as ever, with the same crowd of confounded or dozing grannies on the sidelines who, by the thirtieth band, could not care less about the next Grade Whatever ranks of disinterested players doing their best (or worst) imitations of soldiers or Benny.

I recognize that the march past is a tradition borne of an era when pipe bands were either of the military itself or populated with veterans. Back then, the march past actually meant something and looked impressive and – maybe most importantly – in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s would comprise a small fraction of the number of bands a major championship boasts these days.

Today, pipe bands have grown well beyond their honourable military roots. Bands and march pasts have nothing to do with the military, and is there any other musical hobby where civilians pretend to be soldiers?

If the lengthy march past was originally a way to buy time while administrators tabulated results, that too is history, since a database or spreadsheet today completes the task in a microsecond.

A march past is a pastiche, like a crazy nightmare, band after band inexorably coming at you, seemingly never-ending. It’s a zombie apocalypse. A trail of tears. A death march. Night of the Kilted Dead.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But can’t the custom be replaced with something else? For the pleasure of the paying public, the organizers of competition can provide better value. If not for the improved sanity of pipers and drummers, then there must be something else that will reduce the number of urinary tract infections caused by straining to hold it three hours after swilling multiple pints in the beer tent.

As with many questionable traditions, all it takes sometimes is someone to ask a simple and constructive question in order to evoke positive change.

So, here it is: Is the march past a relic that can be replaced with something more satisfying to all?

Right? Aye?

Aye’s right.

 

A non-Scots guide to Scotland

As the summer gathers steam so too do the plans of North American, Australian, Kiwi, South African, European and other non-Scottish pipers and drummers making their pilgrimage to our musical Mecca . . otherwise known as Scotland.

Some of us have been there many times, even lived and worked there for extended periods, playing around the Scottish games and with bands. Most will be relative newbies to the wild and wonderful home of Highland piping and pipe band drumming. For them in particular, here’s a brief list of well-intentioned tips to help get what you deserve musically and avoid receiving the judging equvalent of a Glasgow kiss.

Shut up about the weather. Yes, it rains. A lot. It can also be gloriously sunny. Scots generally like to complain about their own weather, but they hate to hear you brag about how hot and sunny it was when you left Podunk, Iowa, and your ruminations about why you left behind your wonderful summer for “all this rain.” Instead, convert your dank misery into bright optimism. Think of being battered down by horizontal rain at your pre-World’s band practice as the authentic Scottish experience! Bagpipes were made for the Scottish weather. Embrace the wet.

The food: shut it! Scottish cuisine is what it is: delicious! Contrary to 25 years ago, Scotland is full of wonderful restaurants serving exquisitely prepared food and drink. But they are often too expensive for the average travelling pipe bander. Most will subsist on cheap pub food and fried whatever from the chippy. Live a little. Ignore your diet for a week, and for God’s sake keep your lip buttoned down about your disdain for the deep-fried “Cheese-and-Burger” surprise.

Never, ever ask a Scot, “How can you live here?” It’s a small island nation, and in general things are more expensive than where you’re from. But the Scots live good, fulfilling lives and their standard of living might actually be better than yours in many ways (universal health care, majestic scenery, bike lanes . . .). And their standard of piping and drumming is positively better. No one is interested in your bragging about how gas costs half as much where you’re from or that you can buy a bunch of broccoli for a dollar back at home.

Stop with the lame Scottish accent. For some reason North Americans in particular like to put on a Scottish accent when they’re visiting Scotland. They’ll even say things like “aye,” and “ya ken,” and “pure dead brilliant.” Would non-Jewish folks go on holiday to Israel and make attempts at Yiddish? Oy vay! Enough with being such a putz. Speak normally, whatever your normal might be, and keep the Gardener Willie impression to your inside voice.

Watch what you wear. This one is tricky. Some residents of Scotland enjoy wearing shorts, shades, flowered shirts and flip-flops (standard Majorca holiday attire) when the sun’s out. But even though that might be the official state uniform of Florida, you as a visitor wearing that stuff in Glasgow will look like a goof. Stick to a more conservative ensemble, otherwise it comes across as slightly disrespectful.

Scotland rules. If you are competing in Scotland you are implicitly accepting their rules – or lack of them. You won’t always like that you don’t get scoresheets at most solo events, or that the guy judging your band at the World’s didn’t ever play at anything better than a Grade 3 standard, or that your band was disqualified because the pipe-major didn’t say “Quick March” at the command, or that the march past comprises two hours of bladder-busting boredom, or that . . . well, you get the drift. It’s their house so you accept their rules and customs.

Flagism. Since “overseas” bands started competing in Scotland in the 1960s, for some reason they often like to wave their flags. Pipe bands are – or should be – neutral. You are no more the national pipe band of America or Australia or Brittany than, say, Shotts & Dykehead is of Scotland, and you don’t see them with a saltire adorning their bus. These music competitions are only about music, not bragging rights for a country. If nations were ever to assemble pipe bands comprising their very best players for a Pipe Band Olympics, then that might be the time for flags. Until then, leave your maple leafs, stars and bars and tricolours at home.

Be humble. You might arrive acting like you’re going to open a big can of whoop-ass on the Scots, but, if you do, you’re going to get schooled big time. There’s a fairly well-known non-Scottish piper who’s earned the acronym nickname around the Scottish solo circuit of “CTHB,” or “C^&% Thinks He’s Burgess.” This is not the sort of name you want. Be quiet and let your playing do the talking.

In short (but not in shorts and flip-flops), you’re a guest. Imagine a guest coming to your home and telling you how much better the weather, the food, the rules, the whatever are at home. You wouldn’t want them back.

Happy, respectful travels.

 

Pipecycle

Some know that I like cycling and bikes. I don’t compete or anything, and am mainly a commuter cyclist, and I’ve ridden to work at least a few times a week year-round for about a dozen years now. Depending on the route I choose, it’s either a 25km or 34km ride each way.

I also like to accomplish as many things as possible at once. “Multitasking” is a word that suggests that, but it also implies that you don’t do any one thing well. But cycling to work achieves numerous things really well: physical fitness, travel, mindfulness, environmentalism, one less car, saving money, alertness, eating four meals a day . . . I recommend it.

I also like the idea of overlapping hobbies. I’m a baseball fan, and about six years ago master frame-builder Hugh Black at True North Cycles in Fergus, Ontario, designed and built a custom, old-style lugged steel frame and built up a one-of-a-kind fixed gear bike that riffs on the St. Louis Cardinals. I’ve been riding “The Redbird Express” ever since. Like Rothesay, she’s a bute.

Drone_slide_smallBut I’ve had in mind for many years the idea of combining piping with cycling. What if we could create a ride inspired by the 1936 silver-and-ivory R.G. Lawries I play? About a year ago I finally went back to Black with the idea.

We went with a hand-built titanium frame. In homage to our nine notes, the bike would be a nine-speed, with a nine-gear cassette and a single chain ring. The frame was powder-coated in a colour to match blackwood, and some of the components would be painted ivory, and the rims plain silver. To inspire Hugh, I left him with a piece of old silver-ivory Robertson drone that the late Gordon Speirs once loaned/gave to me when I broke a tenor pin on my first Hardie pipes.

We took another cool step: I took photos one of the engraved silver slides on my Lawries. Hugh sent me the raw titanium piece for the head tube, and I contacted David Davidse of Toronto, who is one of the world’s top silver engravers. He does a lot of work with reproduction replacement mounts for vintage pipes, as well as engraved mounts for new instruments.

David determined the titanium was suitable for engraving (some grades are too hard and brittle), and he sized-up the engraving on my slide perfectly for the head tube of the bike.

Hugh Black then got to work putting everything together and, finally, I took delivery of what could well be the first and only bagpipe bike. (If you’re a cyclist and interested in the components, just drop me a note and I’ll send them to you.)

BagpipeBike_ (2)_medHere she is, a flying drone of sorts, ready to slide through the streets and bike paths of Toronto, humming along at 485 or higher.

Sharp!

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

Hatred unwelcome

The Highland pipes draw attention. The volume and distinct sound of the instrument – especially when played poorly – get a reaction from people, so pipers are often seen in protests and parades.

Pipers who work their entire lives to be the best musicians they can be are invariably annoyed when “pipers,” who only want to be a spectacle by making as much kilty-noise as possible, go out and give the musical instrument and all of those who strive to be excellent musicians a bad rap.

It’s disturbing that things Celtic often seem to attract a certain racist element. Skinheads donning “utilikilts” and Celtic knot tattoos often add a noisy “piper” to the mix.

It makes my skin crawl.

The latest is a racist in Oregon who happens to use the Highland pipes to draw attention to his disgusting views and spitting vitriol. His MO seems to be to use Highland wear and the pipes to stand out from other hate-mongers, and, evidenced by the media attention he’s receiving, it seems to be working. (If you must investigate, you’re on your own – I won’t promote him any more than necessary here.)

Someone in the musical world of Highland piping needs to say it:

This hatred has absolutely no place in the culture of true pipers and drummers.

The world’s pipers and drummers are utterly and completely inclusive of all race, economic status, religion, sexual orientation and political belief. If you meet one who does not subscribe to inclusivity, kindly tell them to do us all a favour, take up the triangle and go away.

Real pipers and drummers enjoy and nurture the common bond that our music creates. We are colour-blind and completely tolerant – uninterested, actually – in what our fellow pipers and drummers believe, unless, of course, it is a “piper” or “drummer” who refuses to be part of that ethic. The only people we exclude are those who are not inclusive in their thinking.

Real pipers and drummers reject intolerance and racism. Those who embrace those things are not welcome.

Outlandish

OutlandishTo the general public, the sound of “the pipes” is increasingly becoming the sound of the uilleann pipes.

Thanks to the film and TV industry’s ever-rising preference on original scores for Ireland’s bagpipe as the sound of anything Scottish, the “great” Highland bagpipe is second-fiddle, as it were.

I’ve been watching the series Outlander recently, with all its costume changes, high cheekbones, and heaving bosoms. At first I was pleased to hear the Highland pipe in the spine-tingling opening stinger, deftly integrated with the Burn’s lyric to the “Skye Boat Song” melody. “Finally!” I thought. “The Highland pipes will be used throughout this series that celebrates Highland stuff.”

What a disappointment.

The uilleann pipes, lovely as they might be, are used throughout the series. There is hardly a Highland pipe to be heard or seen in the actual episodes. When they chase across the Scottish hills, it’s to the thrumming register of the bellows-blown Irish pipes. When the evil redcoat is dispatched, it’s to the soft tones of Ireland’s national bagpipe.

This has been going on for decades. Braveheart and Titanic were classic examples of uilleann pipes used as “Scottish” music. TV commercials for golf clubs depict Scottish folk and Irish pipes. The accurate use of the Highland pipe in Scotland themes is increasingly rare.

The traditional reason that the fickle Highland pipe chanter-scale can’t be integrated with other instruments no longer holds water. Today there are a multitude of solutions, from specially-pitched chanters, to synthesizer accompaniment, to post-production tweaking. If Miley Cyrus’s voice can be auto-tuned, surely the Highland pipe can be twerked . . . I mean, tweaked to accommodate any instrument, and vice versa.

Film and TV productions go to great lengths to be historically accurate. They painstakingly research the clothes and the speech of the period depicted. Yet, when it comes to the music, they conveniently go for the completely unauthentic sound.

Using uilleann pipes in a movie about Scotland is like a Gestapo officer in a World War II drama talking Ebonics.

It’s to the point where I am often asked by non-pipers about that “other Scottish bagpipe . . . the one that sits on the piper’s lap.” They mean the uilleann pipes, because they have seen and heard it so often in Scottish-themed shows.

There are exceptions, and I’m sure you will point out that Lorne MacDougall did the work on the Highland pipe in Brave. The exceptions are getting rarer.

But in the big scheme of things what can be done? Should Highland pipers be like Scotland itself, and resign ourselves to domination by another country’s persuasive charms? Perhaps the use of uilleann pipes in Outlander is subtle irony for the show itself: resistance is admirable, but, ultimately, futile.

I don’t know. How can we get the Scottish Highland bagpipe back into soundtracks and theme-songs for Scottish-themed programs and films?

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.

Raising Hell

In 1978 I visited Canada for the first time, as a 14-year-old piping student from St. Louis at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The late Finlay MacNeill, a double Gold Medalist (for piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting and for Gaelic singing at the Mod), was the piping teacher. The great Wilson Young was the drumming teacher. I was required to learn some Gaelic, which I didn’t like because it took me away from practicing piping.

Almost all of the students were Canadian, and a vivid memory was going to a party one night at one of the residence halls. Over and over again there was a song I’d never heard before being played on the hi-fi record or eight-track tape machine. It was “Raise a Little Hell” by the Canadian group, Trooper, and it was all the rage in Canada that year.

It was my first exposure to Canadian music. I didn’t quite know what to make a song that said “hell,” but knew that it was catchy. At that same school, I remember both Barry Ewen and Neil Dickie, immigrant Scots who were both living in Nova Scotia at the time, came to the Gaelic College to compete, or do a recital, for us students.

They played what I thought were crazy tunes. Barry did a rendition of the accordion tune that Donald MacLeod adapted to the pipes, “The Hen’s March O’er the Midden,” with mind-blowing vibrato finger-trills in a variation. It was pure piping insanity. I can’t remember exactly what Neil played, but I do recall it being very different and adventurous.

I would return to St. Louis to become a fan of Canadian rock and pipe-music. Rush, April Wine, Neil Dickie, Trooper, City of Victoria, Clan MacFarlane – all were part of my late-1970s Midwestern years.

Destiny and luck I believe are informed by choices. I chose to come to Canada, largely to play Canadian-made pipe music on a world stage. I got to know Barry and Neil, and count both as good friends. I’ve been lucky to be a small part of some of the biggest changes in pipe music, much of which have come from Canada, and last year my backgrounds in piping, publishing and PR played big roles in starting the work I currently do with SOCAN, the Society of Composers, Authors & Music Publishers of Canada.

In November at our annual awards at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, nearly 35 years since my first visit to Canada at the Gaelic College and my first listen to Canadian music, things came full circle when I met Ra McGuire and Brian Smith, the Trooper-member-composers of “Raise a Little Hell,” and to whom SOCAN was presenting a National Achievement Award. McGuire and Smith seemed like two of the nicest guys you’d want to meet, and they were genuinely honoured and thrilled to receive the accolade.

I wanted to tell them about that party in 1978 in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton but, even if they had the time to listen, I wouldn’t have bored them with it and the fact that serendipity, fate, luck and conscious decisions all converged for me right then.

Nobody’s going to help you
You’ve just got to stand up alone
And dig in your heels
And see how it feels
To raise a little Hell of your own.

A few simple words to guide us.

The market dictates

The TyFry company’s introduction of new tenor mallets claiming to be patently aerodynamic, balanced and a “new dawn” for the instrument – and available in a spectrum of bright colours – sparked lively dialog, debate and not a little consternation.

Piping and drumming still struggles with marketing and product development. We are borne of custom and tradition, and not a little Scottish austerity when it comes to drawing attention to one’s self, or outwardly selling hard. Even before new-world-style assertive marketing and promotion entered the fray, pipers and drummers lived a life of irony: one shan’t be seen to be showing off, but one must wear an ostentatiously colourful Victorian Highland get-up while (not) doing it.

Self-promotion is still a fine line to walk as a competing piper, drummer or pipe band. Pipers seen to be lobbying their ability are still tacitly knocked down a notch or two in the estimation of their peers. The tradition is to let playing ability do the talking. If the product is good, the tradition goes, then the judges will buy it.

We struggle with our own globalization. Makers of piping and drumming products compete in an ever-more-crowded market. “Innovation” when it comes to our instruments, music and apparel comes in microscopic steps. Foist too much change too quickly on too many and many will take the knee-jerk traditional reaction and reject it, cutting it down a peg or four.

Piping and drumming is used to dictating the market. This is what you will buy. This is all that is available. This is the way we do it. Don’t ask questions. Just do it like we always do it.

But the market now dictates piping and drumming. Makers of instruments, garb and tunes now take risks. They push things. They need to rise above the crowd, whether with bright colours or wind-tunnel-tested efficiency or tiny little Allen keys to adjust a carbon-fibre bridle. Changes that were once glacial, now happen in a single season. We are warming to globalization.

Day-Glo pink tenor mallets? Great! Aqua snare sticks? Wonderful! Red ghillie brogue laces, powder horns and a rack of medals on the chest? Good enough for John MacColl and John D. Burgess; good enough for me.

I would think that chanters can be made in a plastic of any colour, and that kids might be more prone to practice with a bright blue chanter than that black thing that everyone else has. I love the look that Boghall & Bathgate created with their orange drums and tenor mallets. I would have no trouble with a band playing chanters of any colour, or even a rainbow array. Bring it on. If the market likes them, they will sell. Things that were once simply not available, even unimaginable, are now marketed. We have choices.

No auld baldy bastard dictates to us.

The tradition that is perhaps hardest to break in piping and drumming is the one that says we must do things in a certain way. The customary notion that a very, very few dictate the music, the look and the instruments is increasingly a thing of the past.

The market is us, and we will tell it what to do.

Tomorrow never knows

Will Highland pipes ever have a Ravi Shankar? The great Indian sitarist died last week at the age of 92 and the entire world seemed to take notice, paying tribute to his life.

But would we have ever known about him, or even the sitar itself, had it not been for the Beatles in 1960s going all guru-India, George Harrison learning to play a bit and then incorporating sitar into a few songs? Probably not.

To take nothing away from Shankar’s obvious skills as a virtuoso sitar player, but I would bet that back then and ever since there were a dozen or more sitar players just as good. Harrison more than likely heard the sitar while tripping on acid and asked the maharishi, “Hey, Sexy Sadie, who’s the best sitar player in India?”

A few paisley-clad photo ops later with Ravi imparting his wisdom to the mystical Beatle, and George Martin had no choice but to allow the sound into “Norwegian Wood,” “Love You To,” and “Within You Without You.”

As a relatively ghetto-ized ethnic instrument, the sitar is perhaps not unlike the Highland pipe. In the 1960s and ’70s the sitar might have been heard on obscure folk LPs, but it was not part of the mainstream until the Beatles attracted millions of people to embrace it.

Maybe the pipes are waiting for a similar big break. What if the biggest pop act of today decided to make a serious pitch towards the pipes? What if Coldplay or U2 or the “Gangnam Style” dude sought out the greatest piper and hung out with him in the Highlands, surrounded by media, dressed in tartan, committed to making several songs that featured the GHB?

Imagine Stuart Liddell or Roddy MacLeod or Willie McCallum tripping with the Edge or Chris Martin or PSY beside the MacCrimmon Cairn as they diligently worked together on the scale and G-gracenotes, and then produced several massive hits that brought the pipes into worldwide acceptance as a “serious” instrument.

The pipes have been used in pop music, in one-off ways. But the pipes haven’t been an ongoing part of really big pop music, not in a Beatles/Harrison manner, with a champion for the sound, becoming synonymous with the instrument, played seriously and respectfully.

Sometimes an instrument just needs a big break.

Gifts

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

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

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

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

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

Travelling band

All the young dudes.I think every pipe band dreams at some point about doing “a tour.” The glamourous concept of the rock n roll lifestyle, hitting stops along the way, rolling into towns to do a show, partying all night, then hitting the road again for the next concert.

Hello, Cleveland!

British military bands are the only ones in our musical realm that can hit the road – they’re ordered to do so and the government coordinates the venture, which is as much about entertaining as it is about waving the flag. The problem with a civilian pipe band is, of course, no one has the vacation time to commit to such a thing. We all work for a living, and playing in the band isn’t a realistic income source.

The mythical rock n roll road lifestyle seems to have taken hold of several professional pipers and drummers (“professional” meaning they make a living from teaching and performing) for the first time with the “Pipes n Sticks on 66” tour planned for April. Mike Cole, Stuart Liddell, Jim Kilpatrick, Willie McCallum and Angus MacColl seem to be the first to make fantasy reality by tracking the famous old US Highway glamourized so often in song to get their kicks in a mini-bus, stopping along the way, fighting off the chicks and hoping a roadie or two will look after their gear.

It’s all part of our rock n roll fantasy: five guys in their forties (mostly) in search of the dream and the bleary lifestyle of the troubadour and the stories that will inevitably be told from the trip. To most, Bon Scott notwithstanding, Highland pipes are about as far removed from rock n roll cool as can be imagined, so the tour is a great story on its own. It should get a number of curiosity-seekers wondering if Stuart Liddell will play vintage Henderson Stratocaster drones.

We pipers and drummers secretly wish we could be rock stars. Instead we play mostly traditional music, clad in 20 pounds of wool, often standing in the rain on a farmer’s field before a crowd of family and bored friends. Some may shake their head at the Pipes n Sticks on 66 tour, but I think most of us deep down know that these guys are ticking off a box on their list of things to do before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

It’s the stuff that rock n roll dreams are made of.

Fixing holes

Wait'll Yoko has her say . . .Every top pipe band needs a composer and, ideally, it has two. I’ve been reading Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music-The Definitive Life by Tim Riley. My mother was a big fan of The Beatles, and some of my first musical memories are (along with my dad’s fondness for Jimmy Shand records) listening repeatedly to Rubber Soul and Revolver on our green wool living room rug. One of the first movies I saw in an actual theater was Yellow Submarine. I would have been five.

I know my Beatles, but Riley’s book opened my eyes wider to the Lennon-McCartney composing dynamic. The two were supreme collaborators and, more importantly, they were big-time rivals. Outdoing one another with musical originality was implicit.

Lennon showed McCartney his trippy “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and McCartney answered back within days with his nostalgic Liverpool memory with “Penny Lane.” McCartney’s maudlin 4/4 “Michelle” received a quick caustic 6/8 comeback from Lennon in “Norwegian Wood.”

At least until Magical Mystery Tour, they injected themselves into each other’s compositions. But from then on they drifted apart musically and emotionally. Almost all of the songs were still fantastic, but they lacked that certain Beatles brilliance when they worked collaboratively – for example, compare the collaborative “A Day in the Life” with the Lennon-only “Revolution.” (Incidentally, apparently McCartney’s “Fixing a Hole” is about him solving the gap in Lennon’s “A Day in the Life,” with the “woke up, fell out of bed” section.)

You can see a similar dynamic with other great composing partnerships in their heydays: Jagger & Richards; Simon & Garfunkel; Page & Plant. When they worked well together, they challenged one another with different thinking, and made otherwise predictable songs incredibly distinctive compositions. Their compositional styles pretty much mirror their very different personalities. The competitive and personal friction between them paid off.

Bands in the top grades are under pressure to be original. Just about every band with a distinct musical identity has a composer/arranger either in the ranks or on the outside funneling pieces to them. Bands that have two or more composers and arrangers who collaboratively debate, prod and critique each other’s works I would think have an advantage.

But that sort of constructive collaboration is usually stoked by a rivalry and competitive spirit. Goodness knows, pipers and drummers are driven by competition. But rivals often eventually fall out. They stop collaborating. They stop caring what the other thinks. They go their separate musical ways.

But as long as competitive composers can appreciate each other’s input, they and their bands should make the most of it. Great things happen when opposites attract.

True-love giving

“Twelve drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping” . . . these are maybe the greatest connections to piping and drumming we have when it comes to bridging to the non-playing public. Everyone loves “The 12 Days of Christmas.” It’s the “Scotland the Brave” of Christmas Carols.

I’m not sure about your part of the world, but it seems that Christmas windows at big department stores have made a comeback in Toronto. That’s nice. I’d hate to think that kids never get the chance to gaze dreamily at the mechanized glittering windows before they become completely inured to consumerism. It used to be that department store Christmas windows were a marvel of technology; now, they’re a quaint throwback to the days of Hornby trainsets and Meccano.

The fancy Holt-Renfrew store on Bloor Street this year has a really clever series of windows that have a fashionista take on “The 12 Days.” Their interpretation of 11 Pipers Piping is quite brilliant: 10 female mannequins in plaid/tartan with “drones” sticking out of their designer handbags. Get it? Bag-pipes. (The eleventh mannequin appears to be a man smoking a pipe, to keep everyone honest, since I’d imagine about one out of every eleven Holts customers is male.)

Sadly, the 12 Drummers window is made up of mannequins in a tin soldier motif. Drummers can be many things, while pipers to most punters, at least in the western world, are Highland bagpipers. Ed Neigh said many years ago that pipe bands must be eternally grateful to drummers, who have so many other musical options, but instead chose to play in, of all things, a pipe band.

Every year you see financial calculations of how much it would cost to buy or rent the entire 12 Days. For the 12 drummers, they always seem to go with a marching band of some kind, while the cost of 11 pipers is mainly that which the local pipe band would charge for what today would often mean about half of its pipe section. I’d imagine that hiring 11 of SFU or Field Marshal Montgomery’s pipe section would set you back at least a thousand dollars, or about the price of five decent gold rings — six if you throw in both Lees and a Parkes.

Swans, a partridge in a pear tree, geese a laying – all very doable, and I’d bet you could wait around Westminster to get 10 Lords to leap on their tea break. I’m not sure what eight farm-girls go for what with the cost of their dairy cows, or if eight wet-nurses are even possible in this age and day.

“Eleven pipers piping”: a true gift to our art.

Flatten the grass

BzzzzzzBzzzzzplop . . . . . . BzzzzzBzzzzzplop  EEEEEEEELike many other people I’ve been listening to Ceremonials, the new disc by Florence + the Machine. Of course, it reminds me of a great pipe band. Florence Welch’s powerful, instant-on voice makes me think of a pipe chanter, except one with a three-octave range, multi-layered, with complex harmonies and counter-melodies textured in.

I just read that her new album has hit the number-one spot in the UK charts, so there must be a market for BIG music that carries certain sameness, and which is highly infused with Celtic style, crazy outfits and wispy heather visions of the moors. She also often uses lots of lower-toned drums, often in rhythmical, chant-like ways, which fits with the current sound of many bands.

Bill Livingstone once talked about listening to the 1980s vintage Strathclyde Police when they were “in full sail,” conjuring an image of a clipper meeting the waters head-on with wind. The pipe band-sailing ship analogy is even more apt today with much larger bands developing huge visual and sonic power.

I could see Florence + the Machine doing something with a pipe band, just as I could hear a pipe band covering one or two of her songs in a concert. Our music is often criticized by outsiders for always sounding the same with unwavering loudness and a dearth of dynamics. But there is no denying that a pipe band at its best produces impressive and beautiful energy that, as George Campbell would say, “flattens the grass.”

I’ve also read some criticism of Ceremonials, contending that the songs remain the same from track-to-track. But Florence Welch clearly works within a formula that rings true with many people. Sometime, pipe bands try too hard to be something they are not and can never be. Instead of working with what they have, they strive to overlay pipes and drums with other stuff, seemingly never content with, It is what it is.

I’m not saying for a second that there is anything wrong with that. I’m a vocal proponent of pushing the boundaries. But some artists are able to hit upon a formula without ever becoming formulaic. They recognize what they’ve been given, their limitations, and get on with making the most of them.

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