Please don’t try this at home

God only knows how kids find time to practice today. There’s so much more to do today for everyone. It’s no wonder that every other kid is accused of having attention deficit disorder. Life itself is one giant distraction.

But I’m sure I had – and may well still have – ADD. I not so long ago brought to you a few photos of me as a spotty adolescent regaling strange folk on the pipes. Here are a few more, which serve to underscore the mystery of how on earth I ever survived as a piper.

Life's a lark.As mentioned, my dad would take pictures of everything we kids would do. But, looking at these photos, who can blame him? If he didn’t go and die on me, I would ask him today what might have been going through his head when he saw me doing these things with my practice chanter. A few possibilities:

“I wonder if this is healthy for that boy . . .”

“That can’t be good for posture . . .”

“. . . Is there another instrument that allows such a slacker attitude?”

The image above is pretty self-evident: me twittering away at a crossing-noise-rich rendition of “Highland Laddie” or something. There’s that 1976 commemorative St. Louis Cardinals’ cap again, and you’ll remember the low-rise Converse sneakers. The hairstyle would be courtesy of my mother’s home barber kit – or, rather, a result of me avoiding it.

Stargell's a bum!The photo at left is classic “multitasking” – before the woeful word was ever invented. One can have too many hobbies and, for me, it was and always will be piping and baseball. Note the Cardinals vs. Pirates game on the little black-and-white Magnavox TV. This would most certainly have been on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, since only a handful of games were actually broadcast in 1979, or whenever this was taken. My parents loved cats. They (the cats, that is) had the run of the house, and here one is enjoying my own caterwauling while washing behind her ears, indicating that a rain delay was imminent.

I’m sure that Willie McCallum or Roddy MacLeod never practiced as kids with such an appalling lack of focus, evidenced of course by the difference in the their solo success and mine. I’m certain that their dads never allowed them to merrily do things half-way.

But, there you are. My practiced ability to do several things at once may be my problem, but, as I sit here doing three things at once, I hope it’s to your benefit.

Been there

All uphill from here.We all have to start somewhere, and this week I’ve been carried back to my earliest days as a piper as I’ve been going through and scanning family photos that my dad left behind. I’ve actually taken a full 10 days of vacation to work through them, since he was a keen amateur photographer and, perhaps because he was a professor of history and wanted to keep a record of things for history’s sake, he pretty much took a photo of everything. Everything.

He missed the digital photography age, and used only film. But he never used print film; strictly slide film, and would pick out the best to have enlarged. He used slide photography like we use digital – no big deal if you mess up the shot. The result is about 40 years of slides, numbering I think about 15,000 images. That’s a lot scanning, but it’s kind of now or never.

Hell? Hello? Is this thing on?But here are a few shots of my first years on the pipes, circa 1976-’77. I think the one of me with the natty plaid shirt on is the very day that my new R.G. Hardie pipes arrived directly from Glasgow. I remember the bag loosely tied to the stocks, and made of cowhide as thick and tough as beef jerky. My dad was upset that they sent it with the wrong tartan bag cover – MacFarlane, not some family sett.

My dad, ever the promoter of his kids, used to volunteer me for various piping performances. I’m not sure exactly what these two events were, but see the people in the one of me playing in the parking lot. Next stop: The Argyllshire Gathering.They are almost totally oblivious to the noise going on around them, even the gents merrily having a conversation within a few feet of me. Note the 1970s pimp-chic with the guy with hat. Maybe they’re hoping that, if they ignore it, it will go away. Maybe it’s an event for the hearing impaired.

The one with the guy in the clever robin’s-egg-blue suit is a wonder. It looks like the Jim Jones Cult needed an official piper to lead the members to something. I don’t remember any Let's play ball instead . . .Kool-Aid being served, thank goodness.

The other is perhaps the first day of spring warm enough for me to regale the neighbors (American spelling, since it was in the USA) with my sight-reading stop/start tunage. I’m wearing the St. Louis Cardinals’ retro 1876 cap in honor (US) of the 100th anniversary of the National League, brown corduroys and yet another tartan shirt. That’s my friend Nathaniel Heidenheimer in the Giants’ cap probably a bit freaked out by the scene: me squalling away on the imitation-ivory-grinding Hardies; my dad snapping away at his own hobby; Nathaniel frozen, wondering where to look.

But we all start somewhere and I think we’ve all been there. The instrument begins as a lark, progresses into obsession, then, if you’re lucky, transforms into a passion. We persevere.

The hardest grade is 2

Sticky.History demonstrates that the most difficult pipe band grade is Grade 2. I’m not talking about winning (although that’s hard, too); I’m talking about long-term survival.

This year – in North America, anyway – we’ve seen the demise or apparent demise of no fewer than three Grade 2 bands. Midlothian Scottish, Niagara Regional Police and, most recently, the Hamilton Police all seem to be belly-up. Also fairly recently we’ve seen Grade 2 bands exceed in the grade, get promoted to Grade 1, and then eventually crumble or recede back into Grade 2.

While many Grade 2 bands may have had a lengthy history before dissolving, their struggles to maintain and continue might be harder than bands in any other grade. If you consider that most pipers and drummers’ ultimate goal is to play with a successful Grade 1 band, the pressure on a Grade 2 band to hold on to personnel and keep things glued together is enormous.

And now with pressure on Grade 1 and 2 bands to field a pipe section of at least 15 quality players to have a fighting chance, it’s even harder. A Grade 2 band might have a feeder system, but often the best pipers from Grade 3 bands leapfrog Grade 2 to get to the premiership. And the days of sticking it out with a Grade 2 band, resolutely waiting for or dreaming for years about when the band might go to Grade 1, seem to be all but over. Grade 2 players increasingly just don’t have the patience or loyalty. (Those who do are to be admired, and eventually they will become known for their dedication, commitment and principles.)

There are exceptions, of course, and the obvious example is Inveraray & District. But there, too, time will tell if that band can withstand the pressures of Grade 1, especially when the group comprises so many young members, some of whom will inevitably go on to college and university or move away. But placing ahead of House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead in an event in your first competition is a very good start, as nothing maintains a band like winning.

And of course there are Grade 3 bands continually moving in to Grade 2 (see Aughintober, Howard Memorial, Killen, Linlithgow, Penatangore, Stuart Highlanders, Williamwood . . .) but they, too, will face the extraordinary pressures of the grade.

I’ve said before that Grade 2 is, perhaps ironically, the most entertaining and competitive grade. There bands have the ability to stretch out their creativity with a lot less risk, and generally there are far more bands than Grade 1 that have a realistic chance of winning the contest. Just my observation, but personnel in Grade 2 bands also seem to have more fun – maybe because they know it might not last.

The solution? There probably isn’t one. I think that perhaps limiting the roster numbers of Grade 1 bands would help the world pipe band scenes, but that’s unlikely to occur until the RSPBA does it first. Besides, the pressures of Grade 2 didn’t start when Grade 1 bands began fielding pipe sections of more than 20; but they did seem to get worse.

Today maybe the best way to survive as a Grade 2 band is not to be a Grade 2 band for long. The bands that can race through the grade in one, two or, at most, three years, and carry the winning momentum and enthusiasm into Grade 1 may ultimately be the only bands that endure.

A fine thing, chance

I remember 20 years ago doing the annual pilgrimage to Glasgow for the usual, compelling World’s self-flagellation. We all snickered at a rival band, as word got out that they had engaged a sports-psychologist to help them prepare and focus for the big event.

Rumours were widespread that this band was prohibited from consuming even a drop of alcohol, and when it became known that each of the rival band’s members was issued a large bottle of Evian water to keep them hydrated on the flight, well, it was all just too much.

This was not what pipe bands were about! It was taking things far too seriously. Hydration?! A sports shrink?! They were sapping the fun from the annual Glasgow week in humbug.

Our laughter was fueled by many pints and self-satisfaction that we were having a much more fun time than those guys.

That is, until we had our sporrans handed to us on a platter at the competition, and the focused, sober, fun-sapped band marched off to a night of boozy celebration with a high prize. No fun. At that point I’m sure every member of my band would have gladly traded all the pints and mockery for a guaranteed prize, but nothing much changed the next year, and nor did I necessarily want it to.

How things have changed. Today’s most respected pipe bands are the ones that run like musical machines. Every one of them is looking for a competitive edge, whether it’s hiring a sports-psychologist, abstaining from booze, or simply eating and sleeping properly before the contest.

Sure, there are still some old-world good-time-Charlies whose idea of a good pipe band is an under-achieving social group of partiers. But ask up-and-coming pipers and drummers what bands they dream of playing with, and they’ll almost always list the bands with the highest degree of musical and competitive discipline and focus. Fun, to them, is musical commitment through competition or concert success or, ideally, a combination of both.

The culture of competing pipe bands has changed irrevocably since 1990, and I think it actually started on that specific trip. Some may pine for the old days – and I may actually be one who does – but the reality is that, today, nothing is left to chance.

Kids these days

So much to do.When it comes to piping and drumming, kids have it a lot harder today. I’ve come to this conclusion after once again trying to get back into a more regular routine of practicing. I say “trying” because, inevitably, that routine is more like a sporadic, when-I-can-block-out-all-other-distractions-and-temptations, series of sessions that gradually, slowly, maybe, do the job.

When I was learning to play in the 1970s and ’80s, distractions and temptations consisted of games of corkball, kickball, capture-the-flag or kick-the-can; building the occasional model airplane or boat; a train set; or the baseball Game of the Week on TV on summer Saturday afternoons. Sure, there were moments of getting up to no good with friends, but, by and large it was easy to find time to practice. In suburban St. Louis there wasn’t much else to do and, however nerdy piping may have been, it was something to do that was at least marginally less boring.

Maybe because it was so routine, I hardly remember practicing at all. But it must have been a lot. I do remember practicing exercises while watching one of the three or four TV channels (until my mother would turn off “that idiot box”), or listening to ballgames on the radio, or, yes, doing homework. When it comes to multi-tasking (read: ADD), I was an early adopter. I’m still prone to playing scales while doing something else, but I really don’t recommend it – you end up doing both half-way and, evidently, years later you won’t remember any of it.

It amazes me that there are any kids pursuing piping or drumming today – and it’s positively astonishing, come to think of it, that the boys and girls who do somehow become committed to or afflicted by it are playing at a standard that is, overall, better than ever. The siren-songs constantly blaring from the Internet, or the 500-channel TV universe, or video games, or alluring retail temptations that are positively everywhere one would think would make today’s young piper or drummer a rare breed indeed.

So, my hat is off to every young player out there who today has the focus and commitment to do this crazy, still very nerdy, thing.

Back in my day, we had it a lot easier.

Getting an edge

Kiss it goodbye.What is it about age and nerves? When you would think that doing stuff would get easier as you get older, it gets more difficult. Anyone older than 30 marvels at kids who seem to have no inhibition or anxiety at all.

Skiing the other day for the first time this season reminded me of the fearlessness of kids. Even children who are novice skiers plow down the hill seemingly without regard to anything but fun, while the experienced adults take every precaution to ensure things are just-so before heading down the slope. My nine-year-old daughter, still only just getting the hang of keeping her skis parallel, was eager to take on a(nother) black diamond run with me. Persuaded to share something marginally less steep, she nonetheless zoomed past, laughing all the way.

Judging solo competitions you get a clear view of anxiety’s relationship with age. Most of the kids come up with hardly a thought about failure, and occasionally seem so aloof to the whole business that you wonder why they’re even doing it. Not a care in the world. Meanwhile, some adults routinely quake in their brogues, visibly trembling as they struggle sometimes to . . . just . . . get . . . through . . . it.

Nearly five years ago I blogged about “performance enhancing” drugs, and former Major League Baseball player Mark McGwire’s recent admission that he took steroids and human growth hormone to help his career along reminded me of it. (Unfortunately, the many comments to that post aren’t viewable, since when the blog moved to a new platform there was no way to import them to the current system.)

Whether nerve-calming beta-blockers actually enhance a piper or drummer’s performance is debatable. For all but a freakish few, a major part of the piping performance challenge is controlling one’s nerves, and, in general, the older you get, the better you become, and the better you become, the more pressure you put on yourself to live up to expectations and standards. Obviously there are unmedicated pipers and drummers who know how to control their fear, and being fearless is all about being confident, without feeling the need to prove anything to anyone.

Slumps are common in sports, and they’re surprisingly common in competitive piping and drumming. A lot more common than purple patches, anyway. As that great St. Louisan, Yogi Berra, said, “Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical.”

I’m not sure how many top players take prescription beta-blockers. I can’t recall anyone in the game actually admitting to it, so I’d imagine that there could be a perceived stigma to it, as if it’s performance enhancing or “cheating.”

Or is it?

Handy

Pleased to meet me.If I had lots more time, along with analyzing products made in Pakistan (see recent blog) I’d love to do an assessment of pipers’ hands. Seriously. My theory is this: pipers with smaller hands are usually more accurate and faster players.

It sounds ridiculous, and for certain there are guys with big hands who can really play. I tend to shake hands with a lot of pipers, and it seems like several times a year I’ll greet a really excellent player and notice to myself how small his or her hands are. Could there be a correlation?

Great, less-tall pipers certainly prop up the theory: Donald MacLeod, Gordon Walker, G.S. McLennan, Bill Livingstone, Donald MacPherson, Angus MacColl, Iain Morrison, Jim McGillivray . . . these hands have moved the piping world. There are also many taller great pipers with surprisingly small hands. When I see the nimble digits of, say, Bruce Gandy, there’s just a distinct quality and accuracy to the embellishments.

I remember Murray Henderson, certainly one of the greatest pipers of the last 100 years, saying at a summer school that he had to practice extra-long because of his unusually big hands. He said something about how it takes a lot of work to move his long fingers. So, as someone who could palm a basketball at age 13, maybe Murray’s joke gave me a subconscious complex as a piper. (Goddam genetics stacked against me; all my freakishly large-handed dad’s fault!)

So, perhaps one day I’ll get to this study of pipers’ hands. In the meantime, I’ll try to control the wringing.

A gift

Four scrawling birds.My Mother and Father, gone now, when it came to our worthy interests, would do anything to support my brother and sisters. My Dad was a child of the Depression and my Mom a Glasgow Blitz evacuee, so they knew what doing without was like. For my Dad, the next economic crash was always just round the corner, and his austerity with money had no limits. But if my brother needed a top-of-the-line acoustic guitar, they found a way. A sterling silver flute for my older sister? It became so.

And when it was time to move from my set of imitation-ivory-mounted 1975 Hardie drones to a vintage R.G. Lawrie instrument, well that, too, happened without question. They wouldn’t throw money at things that they considered frivolous or mind-rotting, like a colour TV or a microwave, but if it involved the arts, second-best just was not acceptable.

The first few years of my scrawling away at the practice chanter and the aforementioned pipes (which I remember eventually arrived directly from the 1970s-era Renfrew Street shop replete with the wrong tartan bag-cover and a laughable hide bag that was as tough as a Rottweiler’s chewy-toy; back then non-UK pipers truly got the crap products and service), they would always get me a few piping-related things at Christmas. But, not being in the piping club, they didn’t exactly know what comprised a “good” piping product, the things that a well-taught kid, already sensitive to piping peer-pressure, would really welcome.

I appreciated their attempts, and they tried their best. But when you’re hoping for the latest LP from Shotts and under the tree sits The Best of Scotland’s Military Pipes & Drums, well, it’s hard for a moody 13-year-old to keep a smiley façade. After a few years of Christmastime guesswork, they realized that this piping thing is a club that only playing members can comprehend, and demanded explicit details from me as to what piping stuff I needed to uncover further whatever unknown talent I might have.

My Dad, as an inveterate collector, started collecting for and giving to me. Pretty much any in-print pipe music book was acquired, including all of the Piobaireachd Society releases, the Kilberry Book and the large Guards, Queen’s Own and Irish Rangers collections. He would place orders for all of the best vinyl records, solo and band, so those of Burgess, the Edinburgh Police, Dysart, Donald MacPherson, John MacFadyen – you name it – were played non-stop on our crackly lo-fi record-player. (When I got to the eighth grade, I realized I had missed crucial years of pop music and was woefully out of step with normal kids.)

As a historian, he knew how to get research material, so my Dad set about collecting every magazine on piping and drumming there was. Eventually every issue of the Piping Times was his/mine, as were the International Piper, the North American Scotsman, the Piper & Dancer Bulletin, the Pipe Band and several periodicals that flamed out after a few issues. I can’t remember doing much schoolwork between the ages of 12 and 18. Instead I pored through these magazines, played the proverbial grooves off of piping records, and spent hours on end playing tunes from books.

I can imagine all the parents of young pipers struggling to figure out what to give their sons and daughters who have consumed this weird Airtight-flavoured piping Kool-Aid at this time. They should know that their support some day will be realized as the greatest gift.

Navel gazer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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