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.

 

Schooled

Scotland has resurrected piping and drumming to unprecedented new heights through widespread, accessible teaching. It’s an awesome and continuing success story, and the fruits of its strategy have become more and more evident with each passing year.

Just take a look at last week’s Shotts & Dykehead Juniors competition: 185 young pipers and drummers competing in a variety of solo events. Look at what’s to come in March when more than 800 piping and drumming students from at least 120 schools will participate in the eleventh Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships. And witness the steady growth in size and quality of Scotland-based pipe bands across all grades.

Teaching piping and pipe band drumming in private and public schools is now baked in to the Scottish curriculum. When 20 years ago playing the pipes might have been the epitome of nerdiness, today it’s cool-factor seems to have risen at least on par with playing bass in the school rock band.

It’s hard out there for the rest of the world to keep up, and it will only get more difficult.

As much as other piping and drumming regions of the world would love to have widespread teaching programs as part of public and private schools’ curriculum, it’s not realistic. Yes, there will be exceptions, such as St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario, or Knox College in Sydney, Australia.

But in countries like Canada and the United States that have been built with a diversity of immigrants, expecting that Highland piping and pipe band drumming will be taught in the public school system is as likely as India’s sitar or the Chinese erhu becoming part of the curriculum, equally excellent and deserving instruments though they might be. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the reality. It’s not impossible, just extremely unlikely.

Bands not based in Scotland are increasingly scrambling for players to keep up with both the numbers and standard of their Scottish counterparts. While the World Championships continue to be a draw for international bands in all grades, every year I see more of them bolstering rosters with available players from other groups, even from the cross-town rivals, just to meet the size standard, and hopefully also playing quality, when they get to Scotland.

Let me be clear: the Scots are doing the right thing for piping and drumming, and are not responsible in any way for the resulting challenges felt in the rest of the world. The grassroots teaching efforts by Scottish immigrants and visiting instructors that began some 50 or 60 years ago that brought piping and pipe bands in Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand to a world standard have been formally adopted by the home of piping and drumming but in a more organized and publicly supported way.

And barring some radical shakeup by unanticipated Sassenachs, the Scottish teaching infrastructure will only improve and expand. There will be a standard in each grade for Scottish bands, while visitors – including those at the top of their grade at home – more often than not will languish in the lower half.

While Scotland should celebrate and be congratulated for its teaching success, the rest of the world will need to find new ways to keep up. Idly expecting local bands or occasional individuals to do all the teaching using a variety of excellent, good or downright terrible methods will not be enough. Associations need to step up with organized programs and standards that make learning piping and drumming accessible to young students. They need to work with school districts to investigate at least the possibility of getting organized expert teaching into classrooms.

Associations should have recognized it 20 years ago, and some, including me, tried to get programs off the ground a decade or longer ago only to be rejected ultimately by executives and board members.

If the rest of the world is going to keep up, it’s no longer enough for piping and drumming societies and associations to be Highland games-running machines. They need to provide the fuel and the fire to keep the mechanism running.

 

Counter-attack

What in the name of Tom McAllister Sr. has happened to the pipe band attack?

Goodness, at any top-grade competition of any size you’re almost guaranteed to hear at least two bands completely eff up what was once a benchmark of pipe band quality.

Early E’s. Early drones. Mushy intonation. Epic squeals. Roaring basses. False starts. Double- and even triple-dunts. Scrabbling hands searching for holes. And that’s just the piping. I’m no drumming expert, but I can hear the sloppy rolls and wandering tempos between bass and snare lines and pipers.

Why is this happening? In an age when pipe bands are playing more technically challenging material on more reliable instruments than ever, one would think that an excellent attack in Grade 1 and Grade 2 is a given. So what’s changed?

I’ve thought more about it over the four years since writing this Blogpipe post, which took a rather lenient view of the attack. Perhaps it contributed to the laissez-faire attitude towards attacks, but I’m prepared to make other guesses as to the reasons for sloppy openings.

  • Judges don’t care that much. Today’s typical pipe band judge is far more enlightened than he or she was 15 or 20 years ago. Judges now see the big picture. This is good. After all, the attack is a relative microcosm of the performance, and hitting a band hard for one piper’s mistake is probably unduly harsh. However . . . shouldn’t excellent bands be expected to execute an excellent attack? Seems to me that blowing one should be seen as a major error — certainly not a showstopper, but enough to determine an otherwise fairly close decision. A cause is also . . .
  • Easy instant reeds. Top-grade bands with 20-plus pipers no longer need every piper to have a high-impact chanter sound. Instead of that 1985 McAllister composed of two short planks strapped together that take weeks to blow in by large fellows, pipe sections today play reeds that go right away, which can be blown by any player of any age and size. With the easy reeds, just add a bit of adrenaline and early E disaster is sure to strike, especially for . . .
  • Inexperienced players. There is such pressure for bands to have large sections that playing standards and experience are inevitably compromised by all but a very few groups. In at least three-quarters of the world’s Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands there are players who never would have got a game 20 years ago. They’re ushered in to fill the ranks and essentially “core” with the rest. They have less control of their instrument and less experience, and . . . see adrenaline comment above and, importantly . . .
  • Attacks aren’t practiced. Every piper and drummer older than 40 can remember going up and down at the band hall or in the parking lot practicing attacks over and over and over. You knew exactly how to punch an E at full pitch. The pipe-major would stand in front of the pipers and listen like a judge, with the ranks taking turns at the front. If you blew an attack, the whole band would have to do 10 more flawlessly or you couldn’t go home.

A top-tier Grade 1 band at the 2016 UK Championships had no fewer than three pipers clearly, blatantly, visibly, audibly screw-up the attack. The band finished second. In the big picture, they might well have deserved their placing, and might have been first without the blown start, what with their otherwise sublime performance.

Then again, shouldn’t a band of such high calibre be expected to get the attack right? Is such a meltdown really excusable? Doesn’t such a multiplicity of basic mistakes warrant a hard penalty? It’s one thing having a blip in the fifth part of “John Morrison, Assynt House,” but quite another having at least three pipers wreck an attack that should be expectedly good in a Grade 3 contest.

Poor attacks are everywhere, though. In 1985 10-out-of-10 attacks in Grade 1 and Grade 2 were generally the case. An early E could essentially torpedo a band’s hopes of winning. I am glad that we’ve moved past that sort of judging, but it would be great to return general excellence in this impressive technical aspect of a pipe band.

Tom McAllister Sr. is credited with developing the two-threes-and-an-E pipe band attack from what military brass bands would do. Before his time in the 1930s and ’40s, pipe bands sort of eventually kinda-sorta got the tune going. With each passing year now pipe bands seem to be going back to those haphazard roots.

Are judges turning a deaf ear to crappy attacks?

 

Regarding regrading

It’s regrading time, and that means associations all over the northern hemisphere are considering results and making decisions as to who should go up and down the competitive ladder.

Some bands and soloists prefer to force the matter by proactively and publicly proclaiming their intention to move up to the next grade, seemingly daring their association not to respect their wishes, “stifling” their ambition.

Others are more discreet, making a case quietly to their association, thus allowing the competitor and the association to save face if it doesn’t happen. They want to let the grading committee know their ambition, but they’re not out to make a fuss.

Still other competitors stay silent, preferring and trusting that due process will take its course. If it happens, it happens, and they’ll deal with it if and when it does.

All too often we look only at competition results. We see a band that won an aggregate championship or was even undefeated in their grade and assume it’s an automatic upgrade. They won everything, so of course they should go up!

But it is not automatic or, rather, it shouldn’t be.

Prizes are ideally an indication of quality, but certainly not the only factors. Prizes are a guide, and regrading should be only about exceeding or not meeting a grade’s standard based on a much wider view.

We all know jurisdictions that are seen as having a better or lesser quality of competition. A band that is used to winning their grade within their association’s competitions goes to another association’s event and gets nothing. Why? Because the standard is higher. And of course the opposite is true, when a band that is used to getting nothing dominates on a trip elsewhere.

This is what often gives the RSPBA fits. A winning Grade 4 band from [insert country here] wants to compete in Grade 4A at the World’s. Ideally, the RSPBA would simply accept the entry, having faith that the other association administers the grade according to a world standard. But more often than not, the RSPBA hems and haws and gets recommendations from trusted sources, and then assigns the band to Grade 4B. The RSPBA should not need to do this, but unfortunately it often has to, and is then compelled to regrade bands that aren’t even their members.

And, worse, the non-RSPBA band that cleans up at home in Grade 4 winds up getting nothing in Grade 4B in Glasgow. But the band then goes back home and demands an upgrade to Grade 3 and it’s granted. Anomaly. Bad judging. Weather. It happens frequently.

I’ve written before about the need for grading committees to be good at much more than simply looking at spreadsheets of results. They should go beyond their region and know and have experienced and have a feel for a world standard. No amount of winning or losing should automatically mean that a competitor deserves to be regraded.

In fact, a re-calibration of a grade is required when an association’s standard is not commensurate on a world level. Do re-calibrate, an association must make the difficult and courageous decision not to upgrade anyone, despite their excellent competition year. Re-calibrating a grade might also mean sending a few contestants down. Associations need to understand that this sort of tough love is for the good of the scene, and not strictly about satisfying the band or soloist’s desire.

To be sure, not agreeing to an upgrade that a band or soloist has requested can be considered as stifling their desire. I can see that. But it is far worse to officially upgrade a band or soloist knowing full well that 1) the overall standard of the association’s existing grade does not meet a world standard, and 2) upgrading them dilutes the standard of the higher grade.

Upgrading bands and soloists when an association knows that its grade standards are not in sync with the rest of the world only compounds problems. If a band or solo player is disgruntled having to remain in a grade until they exceed a world standard, they’re just as or even more likely to be demoralized losing week in and week out in their new grade where their fellow competitors who do meet the grade wonder why the upgraded band or soloist is even in it.

By undeservedly moving up competitors, a grading committee might make everyone feel good for a short time but, in reality, they only making things worse for the band or soloist, the grade-standard and the association that they are supposed to serve.

When it comes to grading, sometimes tough love is best.

 

Memories

I was reminded to remember a topic I’d forgotten to write about: memory. Specifically, the unwritten rule or tradition that pipers and drummers must memorize music.

As far as I know, there is no specific rule with any association that competitors must play from memory. But I often wondered what might happen if I walked up at some piobaireachd competition, plopped down a music stand with the score of the tune, and proceeded to play from it.

Would I be disqualified? I don’t think so, since there’s no rule that says it’s not allowed, let alone that I could by rights be DQed. Would the judge mark me down for reading from music? Again, no rule so that’s questionable. But anyone who would try it no doubt wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

There were times in my solo competing piping life when I’d have 15 piobaireachds on the go, most of which were tunes that were set for competitions that I would never have learned otherwise, mainly because I thought they sucked. Every piper who’s had to learn four or six or eight tunes from a list in which maybe three are truly attractive compositions knows what I’m talking about.

It’s a particular battle of will to memorize music you don’t like when practice time is short and the memorable melody is scant. You have to will yourself on, tricking your mind into memorizing the notes and phrases that come next, using mental cues – a bit like schoolkids making up acronymical sentences to help memorize obscure facts that will be on the test, e.g., A-B-D-B, A-D-B-B – “Anyone But Donald Ban, Agony Donald Ban Ban.” I’ve played tuneless tunes at Inverness or Oban that I would have a hard time today telling you how they start. (Ahemsobieskissalute.)

I admit that there was the rare time when I had a piobaireachd picked where my memory was a bit sketchy. It would be one of those dreadful obscure tuneless tunes that the judge also didn’t know well, so he’d be watching the score closely with his head down, which was a perfect opportunity to take an upside-down peek at the manuscript on the table.

There. I said it. Was that cheating? Not by the rules as they are written, so I still sleep well.

I noticed in a few photos of the recent Live In Ireland In Scotland concert that the snare drummers had the manuscripts to the scores in front of them. At last, I thought, common sense prevails, and good for them for putting the audience and the show before, in this case, a rather useless tradition of being expected to memorize music. It’s a mountain of material for musicians to squeeze in among their own band’s stuff, so of course play from the scores. I’m surprised the pipers didn’t as well.

I’ve poked around the rules of other music events. The International Tchaikovsky Competitions require material to be played from memory. But I couldn’t find many or any other examples. Even Drum Corps International, as far as I can see, expects memorized performances, but there doesn’t seem to be a rule. “The memorization of music is usually a matter of pride for the marching band, however bands that regularly pull from expansive libraries and perform dozens of new works each season are more likely to utilize flip folders,” according to a the Wikipedia entry for marching bands.

As pipe band music becomes increasingly complex, and the demands on top solo pipers rise, the tacit expectation that all music will be played from memory comes into question. Is it necessary? Will the performance improve when the score is there for reference? The old reliable memory lapse as a means to knock out a competitor might go away, thus making the judge’s task harder, but so what?

If I remember correctly, it’s more about the music and less about the memory.

 

In praise

Take thou the writing: thine it is. For who
Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal,
Held still the target higher, chary of praise
And prodigal of counsel who but thou?
So now, in the end, if this the least be good,
If any deed be done, if any fire
Burn in the imperfect page, the praise be thine.

I have always liked Robert Louis Stevenson’s dedication to his wife in his final novel, Weir of Hermiston, which he wrote at his estate on the island of Upolu in Samoa between fits of coughing up consumptive blood. Due to his sudden death, the novel was never completed, but fortunately he dedicated it before he was, as it were, done.

Behind almost every good piper or drummer is a partner who provides support, encouragement and inspiration. I’ve written before about the benefits of having an understanding spouse and family who understands or, better yet, participates in themselves, the strange affliction that is competitive piping and drumming. Conversely, we have all known pipers and drummers, some who became very good, who have been pressured to quit due to a badgering partner who insists that more attention be placed on other things – specifically, them.

We pipers and drummers can be self-centred. Some might say that the more selfish you are, the better you’ll be. We spend hours by ourselves perfecting our game. It’s generally a solitary conceit, and, if we’re lucky, the happiness that comes with success brings happiness to our family, who are made happy because we’re happy.

I see the partners around the games, whether in-person or at home in support. Invariably, successful pipers and drummers are buoyed by the unconditional love of others. How else would you be able or allowed or motivated to pursue so wholly such a flight of self-indulgent fancy as competitive piping and drumming than with a reassuring and compassionate partner at your side?

My greatest supporter by far has been by my side for 30 years now, and 20 years ago today, September 9,1995, for reasons that I still can’t comprehend or accept, she married me at Greyfriar’s Kirk in Edinburgh. She was radiant as ever, and she shines today, as she has every day 20 years on.

A brilliant scientist, a wonderful mother, a faithful companion, a beautiful woman – she  weakens my knees.

Chary of praise, effusive with common sense, she’s the correcting counterbalance to all that’s not right. With the lightest touch, she tips the scales in my favour.

Whether it’s the playing of pipes or the writing about it, she not only permits me, she encourages me to do my thing. She understands what I get from it. She’s happier when I am made happy by it, and, by that alone, she makes me happier.

She is comfort by my side. Fount of delight. She’s a rare jewel and my astonishingly good fortune and, if whatever I have done is the least good, it is she who deserves credit at least in equal measure.

Twenty years now, she holds still my target higher. The praise is hers.

 

Happy New You

I like making resolutions. Pipers and drummers especially I think can make a few new commitments at the beginning of the year, and here are a few suggestions, each of which have helped me as a piper.

Get in shape – pipers and drummers each play one of the most physical instruments there is. Add to that walking and being generally on your feet all day, hot summer weather, wearing 30 pounds of wool, and the occasional alcoholic beverage, and, if you’re not physically fit, the other piper or drummer who is has a considerable advantage. Ride a bike, take up jogging, do what it takes to improve your cardio stamina. Along with practicing your instrument, make exercise part of your daily routine, and you will have another edge over the flumpy haggis competing against you.

Learn a tune a week – expanding your repertoire will expand your skill. Every tune or score has new musical twists, and each will make you a better musician.

Seek out instruction – I often ask some of the world’s greatest pipers and drummers if they have a lot of requests for lessons, and invariably they say No. It seems that after a few years, the vast majority of pipers and drummers think they don’t need to learn anything more. Maybe people assume better pipers and drummers are too busy. They aren’t. Go get lessons. Go to summer schools. Learn from the best in-person.

Listen to soloists in the Professional grade – it continues to intrigue me that performances by some of the world’s top players are often ignored at Highland games. Make a point to watch, listen and learn from the best whenever you can. It’s a free lesson.

Subscribe to pipes|drums or other credible publication – if you’re reading this and you don’t have a $14.99 annual subscription to pipes|drums, sorry, but you or your parents have misplaced priorities. Being in-the-know, informed and knowledgeable are keys to well-rounded piping and drumming, and how-to articles like those by Jim McGillivray and Bob Worrall are invaluable.

Purchase things that have value – pay a fair price for piping and pipe band music. Whether scores to tunes and arrangements, commercial recordings or concerts and recitals, music has value. When you pay for it, you are playing your part in the music ecosystem. When you quietly take it without paying for it, you’re cheating your fellow piper/drummer. You’re stealing.

Ask for feedback – judges are happy to provide feedback after a contest. Gold Medallists and World Champions are just people. Don’t be afraid to approach them. Just be sure to bring your scoresheet. (While your performance is memorable to you, it’s not as clear to a judge who’s just assessed two-dozen others on the day.) Don’t look for compliments, but welcome criticism and advice.

Volunteer – get involved with your association. Attend monthly meetings and annual AGMs and contribute. Even if you’re not a natural leader, make yourself heard and available to help as you can.

If you pick just one or two of these resolutions and stick with them I guarantee you will be an even better piper or drummer.

Happy New Year!

Break it down

“I broke down.”

These are the saddest of possible words a competitive solo piper has to say.

The ignominy of going off the tune and skulking from the competition stage (even if the “stage” might be a parking lot or a bumpy patch of grass in a farmer’s field) is perhaps unique to our wee club.

Is there another musical instrument where the performer, after making a mistake, simply stops and walks off? Sure, small children at violin recitals might get so petrified that they break down and cry. Despite the tune, I am certain there are no breakdowns with banjo players.

But I’m talking about experienced and fairly mature performers think the best option is to go away, deflated, sporran between their legs in shame.

I lost the bottle.

He crapped the bed.

She lost the plot.

I made a *&$% of it.

He broke down.

I think pipers might be singular in this respect. It is somehow acceptable for us just to bugger off rather than continue the performance with little or no chance of a prize. Notwithstanding a physical mishap, like a hole in the bag or a reed falling out, where the instrument is no longer playable, it’s part of our tradition, it seems, to flat-out give up the ghost rather than persevere.

The show must not go on.

“How did it go?” solo pipers ask each other. “I got through it,” is often the response, not saying it was good or bad, but only confirming that you didn’t break down, because it’s always a possibility that the person stopped playing part-way through.

Many years ago I had a spell at the games when I couldn’t seem to “get through” any event. I had the equivalent of what golfers refer to as “the yips.” I was playing well enough in practice, but as soon as I got out there my brain wouldn’t allow my body to work right. The traditional piper thing to do was and is to simply stop. The right thing to do would be to keep going no matter what, just to prove to yourself that you can indeed, “get through it.”

At least finishing – as hard as it might be – is something to be proud of. There is absolutely zero pride, I suggest, to be gained from breaking down.

The strange thing is that there is not an experienced piper at any time in history who has never had at least one breakdown in competition. Breakdowns seem to happen less these days, but they still occur even at the very highest levels in the very biggest competitions.

It’s another peculiar and questionable piping tradition: the breakdown.

So, let’s break it down: is it better to stop and slink off, or is it better to get back on it and finish the tune?

Seven realizations in 2013

2013 was one of my more memorable years in piping, mainly because I was seeing things from a different but familiar perspective. Following a few springtime commitments, I took a break from judging, and, after eight years away, competed as a solo piper.

For the first time I didn’t have the self-inflicted burden of set tunes to crank through. It was true before, but, also for the first time, I practiced and competed with whatever I wanted to play. I was also free after competing in the morning to do whatever: go home, or stay around to listen to the bands.

Not soaking up an entire day judging 50 solo pipers and then 35-odd pipe bands was a nice change. Judging in Ontario is lonely and exhausting work; an assembly-line of competitors, each deserving close attention and specific and constructive feedback. Paradoxically, you’re thinking so much that there’s no time to think. So, this year I felt liberated from another self-induced burden, rewarding as it might be to try to give back to the community.

Looking back, there were several things I realized:

1. Tuned and steady are almost everything. If your pipe falls away even slightly, with all but the most courageous judges, you might as well forget it. Professional solo pipers who are in the prizes have impeccable, steady instruments. Wonderful music and technique more rarely than ever trump an untuned instrument.

2. Piping and drumming manufacturers have finally figured out marketing. Pipers and drummers will do anything to achieve the previous point, and makers of things know it. There is no end to what pipers will pay to gain a microscopic competitive edge. You make it; they’ll try it. The last decade has produced a dizzying array of products, each promising to deliver what you need. (Money-back-guarantees don’t appear yet to be widespread, though.)

3. Be ready to spend if you’re going to be a competing solo piper. (See points 1 and 2.) I compare solo piping to two other hobbies: golf and skiing. Each is expensive to maintain. Every year brings new equipment that promises to lower your score, allow you to turn more sharply, or steady your instrument. And, as with golf clubs and ski resorts, the price of participation in competitive piping is high. I handed over almost $500 this year to the PPBSO for the right to compete in five competitions. Low-income pipers and drummers are gradually being pushed out of the art.

4. One percent of the pipe bands control 100 percent of the pipe band scene. The world’s top pipe bands have more political and musical power than ever. As it goes with them, so it goes with the rest of the pipe band world. To some extent, this has always been so, but it seems today more pronounced than ever. Changes that should be made in the pipe band world, won’t be made unless a handful of pipe bands approve.

5. Tenor drumming jumped the shark. I’m not sure if it was a single episode akin to Fonzie jumping over man-eating sharks on water-skis, but it’s clear that pipe band tenor drumming at some point went just a bit too far, and there’s an overall retrenchment in the histrionics and pirouettes we’ve witnessed. Unlike Happy Days, the Tenor Drumming series won’t be cancelled, but it will continue in a more music-first manner.

6. The piping and drumming world is friendlier than ever. Particularly in the solo piping scene, pipers respect and support their fellow pipers, and there’s a spirit throughout of camaraderie. As I’ve said, we might thank social media for that, but I doubt there’s a more pleasant atmosphere at the games than among the Professional solo pipers, filling the time awaiting their turn to play with friendly and enlightening conversation.

7. Snide loses. The demise of hate-filled anonymous piping and drumming Internet forums is testament to point 6. Haters will hate, as they say, but we know who they are, and they will continue to be outed and ostracized from the community. Those who make personal attacks will quicker than ever find themselves without a band, out of solo circles, or, in the case of one well known attack, off of judging panels.

Those are a few of the things that I realized in 2013. I hope your year was full of realizations, and all the best to you and yours for a happy and prosperous 2014.

Ill-defined

Folded kilt.It was winter 1991 when the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band was down to about seven members and I was one of them. The pipe-major was taking a sustained break. The L-D had gone for good and most of the drummers went with him. Five survivors met on a freezing February night at a library in Toronto that provided practice space, and we discussed whether the band should fold or somehow beat on.

Keep in mind that not even four years earlier the band had won the World Championship, recorded Live In Ireland and another album and was unbeaten on the Ontario circuit for probably eight years. How quickly things had changed.

Obviously, the decision was to carry on. Too much passion and effort and commitment – by the surviving seven, anyway – had gone into the band’s 12-year history. We accepted that there were lean times ahead, and that we might not be as good, but we would stick in and at least die trying.

I’m certain that the word “merger” was never spoken. Ever. The band was the band, and if other players were out there, we’d simply have to find them. Where once the band was a club of snobs, a more open-door policy was adopted. Bill Livingstone came around, talented pipers and drummers came out of the woodwork and were welcomed, we hung out a shingle, and no rival bands were ransacked.

The next season saw the band drop back in quality, but the music and the drive were still there, along with the will to maintain the band’s spirit, which of course continues 23 years later in a newly distinct personality.

Perhaps today it’s different. Pipers and drummers are prone to look for the instant fix. If there’s not a satisfactory local option, then simply “join” a band far away, and occasionally fly in to practices and contests, and do the hard work in between times at home.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s proven to work to gain success in competition. But what other “success” is there? Is there true camaraderie? Is the band truly a part of a community? Is there more to a pipe band today than winning competitions? Has the definition of what a pipe band should be changed for good?

I’m afraid it has. The century-plus perseverance of community bands like Kirkintilloch or Wallacestone will be made ever more extraordinary as bands crumble and merge and speak of a 20-year history and a downturn in numbers as ample reasons to call it a day.

When a grim situation like that of the 1991 78th Frasers happens now, too many bands tend to fold like a cheap kilt. There must be more to the definition of a successful pipe band than a bunch of casual acquaintances winning prizes.

As ithers see us

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

“To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church” is one of my favourite Robert Burns poems. The lines above, “translated” from the Scots to common English, are roughly, “Wouldn’t it be great if some divine power could give us the ability to see ourselves as others see us?”

There was a recent cartoon in The New Yorker magazine that to put the Highland pipes on the same level of abuse as the American banjo. We all know that the pipes are much maligned (mainly by those who only know them by the ear-wrecking sound of rank novices who refuse lessons, with no interest in improving, who insist on publicly displaying their inabilities – our own worst enemies), but the banjo? I always thought it added instant happiness to all genres of music, including its native bluegrass. Who doesn’t like the banjo?

The Internet and social media have made researching just about anything easy. Pick a topic and you can get a snapshot of what people think in a few keystrokes. In a sense, it gives us the power to see ourselves as others see us.

I have many continual searches set up for all kinds of things for work and piping and other hobbies, and use Tweetdeck to take a read of Twitter activity. Of course, I have a column for “bagpipe.” What’s found is generally a depressing series of jokes and abuse, often involving shoving drones up various orifices and well-worn jokes and myths about the instrument. (The one about a bagpipe originally being made from a sheep’s liver; the difference between chopping up an onion and a bagpipe – no one cries when it’s a bagpipe, and so forth).

But what about a banjo? How does the tweeting public view that instrument? Is there, as the cartoon suggests, the same level of abuse against it that we see hurled at our treasured bagpipe? Hardly. With few exceptions, and after weeding out references to Ashley Banjo, the vast majority of mentions are respectful and loving references. There are the odd mentions of hitting a cow’s backside with a banjo, but these aren’t against the banjo itself.

The accordion also seems to be mocked as an instrument. But a search of mentions on Twitter brings up pretty much nice stuff about France and bread shops and joyful ensembles. Like the banjo, there is the odd person who thinks it’s dorky but, unlike the Highland pipes, there is nowhere near the level of ignorant hatred that we endure.

I kind of hoped that a social media search of “banjo” and “accordion” would bring some degree of comfort that, yes, the pipes have common ground with a few other instruments in terms of public misperception. But, no, we might never change the thinking of the unwashed masses, and perhaps “to see oursels as ithers see us” isn’t quite so useful after all.

Resolutions #9

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

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

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

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

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

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.

For the parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please please me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busked

Basking.You may have heard that Vancouver recently banned Highland pipes as a busker’s instrument. Following a story in one of Canada’s national newspapers, The Globe and Mail, there was enough hue-and-cry from pipers and drummers and enthusiasts around the world – not to mention the mayor of Vancouver – that the bylaw was rescinded.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. On one hand, Highland pipes should not be singled out for being too loud, since it’s no louder than many other instruments heard on the streets. On the other hand, what person who knows and appreciates good piping would want terrible “pipers” playing in public at all, let alone for hours on end?

The stated reason for the ban in Vancouver wasn’t about the poor quality of piping, it was about the volume of the pipes. But we all know what was going on: the Highland pipes once again were stereotyped and, as the latter Globe article leads with, “likened to the cries produced by a clowder of dying cats” (which begs the questions: Who knows what a bunch of dying cats really sounds like? and, Is “clowder” really a word?!).

Since moving to Canada 24 years ago, I can’t recall anyone here saying that they dislike the pipes. In fact, they tend to rave about it. Mention that you play the pipes and Canadians inevitably drift back to a ceremony like a wedding, funeral or graduation where the pipes transported them to an uplifting and poignant place.

That’s not to say that there aren’t Canadian bagpipe-haters out there. Obviously there are a few in Vancouver. But when I busked on Princes Street in Edinburgh for several years, every day every 15 minutes or so someone would walk by holding their ears or even stop to tell me how much they hate the pipes (Yes, okay, make your jokes now about my playing, but I was essentially practicing for the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting). Members of the Lothian & Borders Police even would move me along.

I’ve remarked before that busking is about the most honourable way to make money. People will pay you what they think your skill is worth. It’s a completely venerable profession. But I do understand that any music foisted on people who never requested it can be a nuisance. Inasmuch as I dislike Muzak or loudspeakers blaring from storefronts, I can see why some don’t want to be subjected to busking bagpipers, especially unskilled ones.

Maybe the solution is for accomplished pipers, when they hear a less-savvy piper playing in public, to kindly offer to tweak their reeds, or at least give their drones a few twists. The more people hear good-sounding pipes, the less inclined they’ll be to put us down.

Unforgettable

Unforgettable. [Photo:Linda Graham]I read about the rock legend Peter Frampton recovering his beloved 1954 Gibson Les Paul guitar after losing it 31 years ago when he thought it was destroyed in a cargo plane crash in Venezuela. (It begs the question of why he would put it on a cargo plane in the first place if it was so beloved, but never mind.)

Most pipers I know won’t part with their instrument at any time. When away from home, they keep it by their side, closely watch it or, at the very worst, ask a trusted friend to look after it while they go to the toilet. In a beer tent, they will leave it on a pile of pipes, knowing that pipers don’t steal from other pipers. I’ve known pipers to walk away from a flight when some idiot ticket agent insists that the case must be checked.

I’ve had a few embarrassing moments in piping. Maybe the most shameful was in the early-1990s at the old Fort Erie Games. Fort Erie always had a good beer tent and the weather was always hot and humid. Add those elements to solos in the morning, a McAllister band reed in the afternoon and a designated driver and . . . well . . . you know . . . one forgets.

There was no band practice – and no practicing of any kind – the next day. Or on the Monday. Band practice was on Tuesday night and it was then that I was overcome with panic. My pipes – at the time ivory and full nickel Lawries from the 1950s – were gone. The mind raced. I don’t know about you, but when I think I’ve forgotten something really important – passport, laptop . . . anniversary – I get a weird rush of blood to the head, dizziness and a strange sick sensation.

I can’t really remember what I did after tearing apart the house looking for them, but I eventually realized that I must have left them at the games park, under the big tree where the band tuned up. I remembered that much, anyway, and figured they were gone for good. With the band practice to start in a few minutes, I figured I go along anyway, and set to take what would come.

When I got there, it was of course Ken Eller who asked me if I had been looking for the box and contents that he happened to notice and gathered up before he left – since The Captain always but always closes down a beer tent. The feeling then was the exact opposite of the losing one. I’m not usually a hugging person, but I’m sure I hugged Kenny then. Once everyone stopped laughing, all was right again in the world.

Until I tried to blow up the pipes. They didn’t seem to work. At all. Another rush of blood to the head. Clearly, Kenny couldn’t let the joke end at giving me back the pipes. He had extracted all of my reeds – which I still consider a compliment. (I’m pretty sure he returned my chanter reed back when he couldn’t manage it. More on that theme another time.)

Given the circumstances, I’m amazed that more sets of pipes aren’t lost. We hear about the concert violinist who leaves his multi-million-dollar Stradivarius in a taxi. There must be a few good stories out there about lost bagpipes and their recovery.

Play well . . . or else

Fallout.The crimson-faced screaming pipe-major I think is mainly a thing of the past. There was once a tradition that I’d guess came from our roots in the military where the pipe-major would be a complete hard-assed martinet, getting in the faces of players, intimidating them into playing better . . . or something.

Civilian pipe bands have gradually lost their military traditions of #1 dress, regimented music and regimental sergeant-major-style leadership, giving way to a more congenial, team-building approach. Where once soldier-pipers and drummers had no choice but to put up with a bullying pipe-major and simply do as they’re told, I would think that pipers and drummers in civilian bands would likely tell an abusive leader to go stuff himself.

I’ve played in a total of five pipe bands in my life – four as a piper; one as a pipe-major. The ones in which I was a piper, the pipe-majors were friendly and accommodating, coaxing the best from their players through team-building and good music. Sure, they occasionally had a hissy-fit, and tried to time a tantrum for maximum effect, but they’d never humiliate someone in front of the whole band. In general they followed an essential rule of management: praise publicly; criticize privately.

I’ve only heard of pipe-majors who got in the face, or even struck, their players, and I could never understand why anyone would put up with that kind of leadership in a thing that’s supposed to be a hobby. Maybe it was accepted behavior for those who were hit or screamed at when they were children, or veteran soldiers whose idea of authority is tied to some sort of RSM-like brutality. I’m pretty sure today’s successful pipe-major needs to be liked in order to keep his or her players.

I found the recent BBC Northern Ireland documentary on Field Marshal Montgomery and St. Laurence O’Toole interesting in part because it provided insight into the leadership styles of Richard Parkes and Terry Tully. These are two pretty mild-mannered people, but it was a revelation to me how strict they can be with their bands. They clearly derive intensity from their players through an intense leadership style. I’m willing to bet that dozens of band leaders around the world, after watching the documentary, are trying to imitate their obviously effective approach to leadership, just as they try to recreate their music.

Some successful Grade 1 band pipe-majors leave the bellyaching to someone else. The P-M sedately keeps things in check, while the pipe-sergeant goes off his head shouting blue murder at pipers. Leading-drummers more often seem to be stern task-masters with their snare drummers, perhaps knowing that side-drummers tend to be loyal to them, and come to and go from bands along with their L-D. Their tolerance for shouting may be that much higher than that of a relatively more independent piper.

I don’t know. Does nonstop shouting work? Is it possible in today’s civilian bands to drive success by making players terrified of making a mistake? What’s the best way to maximize potential? What’s a modern-day pipe-major to do?

Easy image

Shiny, happy tenor.The current pipes|drums Poll attempts to discover how skilled pipers and drummers around the world (that is, the over-achieving musicians who follow the magazine) respond to the question, How long do you think it takes to become a pretty good tenor drummer? The results are interesting.

While the majority (about 32%) have so far answered “At least a few years,” the next-highest response, at about 24%, is “A day or two.”

Clearly, tenor drumming has an image problem.

I’ve coordinated these polls for many years. The high volume of participants means that after only a few hours the percentages are pretty much established. While it’s not scientific data, the p|d Poll is a very good basic gauge of the attitudes and perceptions of pipers and drummers on issues and topics of all kinds.

I really should take some tenor drumming lessons to find out for myself, but I have a hard time believing that I could become “pretty good” – to a standard defined by our competition-band format – after only a few days, even if I worked at it for 16 of each of the 24 hours. Or maybe I could. Maybe I’ll see if someone would be willing to teach me. It would at the very least make for humourous video content (particularly if I could wear a vintage leopard-skin apron).

But why would a full quarter of us think that it’s so easy? They say it takes seven years and seven generations to make a piper. That’s over-stating things, but my own experience was that I wasn’t a “pretty good” piper until at least a few years after I started. To become a pretty good pipe band snare drummer is at least as challenging. Is it because pipers and snare drummer often look like they’re in total agony in competition, drenched in sweat, while tenor drummers appear to be having so much effortless, smiling fun?

Goodness knows that tenor drumming is far more complicated and intricate today than it ever was, but should it be made even harder to satisfy possibly resentful pipers and snare drummers?

Or perhaps, to use that dreadful expression, it is what it is. Maybe it is relatively easy. Is that necessarily wrong? Maybe it’s not an image problem at all.

“Bass-Cam”

In 2010 “Glen-Cam” was first used and it still gets lots of inquiries. People seemed to like it a lot, as it was intended to provide an adjudicator’s perspective. And, now, I bring you “Bass-Cam.”

If you think about it, the rarest vantage-point in the pipe world is that of a bass drummer with a Grade 1 pipe band. There’s only one of them, and they tend to be pretty stable when it comes to staying with bands. So why not bring you this unique perspective?

Kindly agreeing this was Reagan Jones, keeper of the big drum (or, one of them, anyway) with the Grade 1 Toronto Police Pipe Band. The original intention was to get footage from the actual competition, but mechanical difficulties prohibited that (i.e., the freakin’ camera didn’t work!), but she was successful with a test-run, capturing the band’s final stages of tuning with a set of 4/4 marches.

Thanks to Reagan and her band for being such good sports and having some fun, even in the heat of competition and the heat of the 35-degree day.

And, so . . . here’s “Bass-Cam.”

Off your head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes we just need to give our head a shake.

Sage advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradiddle universe

Shutcho mouth!Truth be told, I was a snare drummer first. Yes, at the age of nine, when Flynn Park fifth-graders signed up for a musical instrument that they wanted to learn, I wound up with the drum.

My actual intention, like most boys, was to play the trumpet. But I remember gathering in the school cafeteria, and the music guy (who had a toupee that was more shag-carpet than hair) looking in our mouths like so many gift-horses, considering my under-bite and crooked teeth, and crushingly informing me that I would most certainly be getting braces, so the trumpet wasn’t practical.

Inconsolably sobbing, I was offered, maybe even assigned, the drum.

This was at least a year before I expressed interest in that other ultracool instrument, the Highland pipe. I set about getting completely underwhelming instruction in the drumming rudiments. I learned a flam and a paradiddle well before my hands were placed on a chanter.

The music guy didn’t actually do the drum teaching. Instruction was from an obviously very talented woman, who had the worst (or best, depending on your preference) arse-to-torso ratio of any person I’d ever seen – at age nine, anyway. She seemed to know every instrument there was, and I was her only drumming student at Flynn Park. I think she took at shower in pure Charlie perfume; such was her fragrant embrace around me when she worked my hands, trying to teach me the art of the roll, the ratamacue and the red-hot flamadiddle. It was all in the wrist, she cooed.

I vividly remember her frustration with me, her indolent, prepubescent percussionist, as we prepared for the big spring concert at which the little school orchestra would perform an outdoor show (pictured above). With her dimensions, one would suppose that she would go for “Hot Crossed Buns.” No sir-ee. She was determined to have us first-year squealers and bangers do a heartfelt rendition of the “Theme from Shaft,” which had been at the top of the 1971 charts.

She became completely exasperated with my inability to play the drumming interlude/solo that went ta-da-ta-da-taaaaa ta-da-ta-da-ta-daaaaaa ta-da-ta-da-taaaaa ta-da-ta-da-ta-daaaaaa at about 120 BPMs. I completely blew it in the concert (that no one but my diligent paparazzi Pop attended), and I can still see her shaking her head at me mid-performance, what with her giant hoop earrings, crispy pre-disco-era hair and upturned glossy hooker-red lips.

Amazingly, I continued to “play” the snare drum for another two years, much the same way that I continued to “learn” algebra. While doing that, I found my musical calling in piping, but there too I was an early wilter – the local band I was learning with, when I let it slip that I was a “drummer,” immediately tried to move me to that, to offset their dearth of bodies at the back end.

I’m sure that my Dad must have stealthily intervened and insisted that they keep teaching me piping, so I was rescued from the dregs of practice chanter students and eventually committed myself to actually trying. Early wilter turned late bloomer.

All told, I’m glad that I tried my hands at drumming. For me, what the instrument lacked in melody, it made up in theory. When I started the pipes, I could already understand note-values and time signatures, notwithstanding wondering where all the rests went. Because I sucked so bad at it, I appreciate just how difficult the instrument is.

I’ve occasionally considered picking up the sticks again. I’d love to experience for real a pipe band’s back-end. But, like my lovely first music teacher, it’s all in the rearing.

The gold ring

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

Screw that.

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

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

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

Good luck. This could be life-changing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, then, let’s tally up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: revised wedding vows for the piper/drummer.

Where are the leaders?

You go can lead. No, you lead. No, go right ahead . . .The post-season partings from premier pipe bands seem to increase every year. What’s perhaps more interesting is that these leadership vacancies appear to be increasingly difficult to fill. Pipe-Majors and Lead-Drummers resign and, more often than not these days, there’s no ready successor. Bands usually have to go searching for willing leaders. Some have even resorted to advertising.

Was this always the case? Not so long ago, it seems to me, every pipe band had numerous pipers and drummers looking for their shot at leadership. When there was a chance to become a P-M or L-D of a top-grade band, people would leap at the opportunity. Now it seems like talented players with potential leadership skills have to be persuaded to take on the job.

And the job today is ever more complex and difficult, even though the rewards are pretty much exactly the same as they were in 1947. Never mind having a great ear and musical talent, leading a modern top-grade band demands extraordinary “man-management” skills. Today’s Grade 1 pipe-majors and lead-drummers are supervising sensitive egos of skilled players who often would just as soon go elsewhere if you dare to look at them sideways.

Their role demands that they deal with terrific pressure to produce a professional-quality band while still trying to enjoy their hobby. It’s a full-time job that has to be completed during so-called free-time. In truth, managing people, instruments, music, logistics and who-knows-what-else is a full-time job that has the exact same return as ever before.

There’s no money in it. Unless you’re an extraordinarily rare case – like, for example, Terry Tully, Terry Lee, Richard Parkes or Bill Livingstone – there’s inevitably a coup d’état awaiting you down the road. You now have to manage twice as many players. The glory is whatever self-satisfaction you can derive from doing something well and, all too often, it’s a thankless job. Every year the investment is more but the return is the same. Further, you can do your absolute best and wholeheartedly believe in and love your band, only to have some anonymous, incompetent, cowardly idiot skewer you on the net. Who needs it?

But perhaps the two situations go hand-in-hand. The reluctant leader is almost always the best. He or she doesn’t pine for the job, but must be convinced to do it and, when coaxed to give it a try, all too often turns out to be really good at it.

By that token, beware the piper or drummer who’s looking for a leadership gig. There are of course exceptions, but one can’t help but notice those who bounce from band to band, looking for the next great thing. And why does the next great thing never happen for them? That’s right, because they’re leading it.

So maybe it’s understandable that natural born leaders today have to be discovered. They have to be cajoled and coaxed and persuaded to just try it, to tide the band over just for one season. They step up to help not because they want to help their ego, but because they want to help the band.

And with luck and a lot of care and feeding, they’ll learn to love the job and not run screaming from the ordeal they never really wanted in the first place.

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