New rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Haves and have-nots

There are those pipe bands that have and those that have not. And increasingly there are competitions and Highland games that have and have not. The size and success of bands and competitions are linked.

June 23rd was one of the more ironic and remarkable days of piping and drumming news that I can remember. Within hours of one another, the Virginia Tattoo folks proudly announced that two “have” bands – Inveraray & District and ScottishPower – would be flown in to the April 2016 event in Norfolk. Big, successful, wonderful bands that are having all expenses paid to the sunny and warm southeast USA to play in the first annual big extravaganza.

Nice news. What’s not to like?

An hour or so later came a rather different message from the good people who organize the 150-year-old competition in northern California, referred to fondly as “Pleasanton.” This somewhat dire announcement outlined that hoping for top-grade bands to get to their event, each bringing upwards of 40 members, has become unrealistic for the bands to pay for, and impossible for the contest to underwrite. So, Pleasanton’s solution is to reset their own rules. Three invited Grade 1 bands would be limited to competing with no more than eight pipers and seven drummers total.

Interesting, but not a little sad.

Thanks to the proliferation of the numbers game – not just in Grade 1, but really across all grades – larger bands have to be far more selective about where they travel. If their way is paid, as with Inveraray and ScottishPower, or the event is a must-attend, many  simply can’t get to most events. Unless a competition like the World’s or Maxville has built up its stature, events have to find the money to attract bands with prizes or travel subsidies or both to get them out.

The irony is that when bands have size enough to be competitive, they can no longer get to events to do what they want to do: compete.

John Biggar, with the cooperation of the Western United States Pipe Band Association, has created a new event: the small band competition, which is pretty much a step back to 1975 or so when bands of eight, three, two and one were not only acceptable, they were common.

Pleasanton used to have it all, attracting full-sized Grade 1 bands to finish their season in northern California. Today, this very successful event is left having to not just reinvent itself but reinvent pipe band rules to continue its success.

It’s a ridiculous state of affairs, but that’s what it has come to.

Because so many bands prepare for the World Championships, it will take the RSPBA to evoke positive change. Otherwise, we will see competitions like Pleasanton take things into their own hands by creating events that more bands can attend, that the event itself can afford. But those events will need to work with associations to bend their rules, and, as we saw in Northern Ireland with the Spring Gatherin’, that’s not always possible, or even likely.

I’ve written over the last 15 years (for example, here, here, here, here, here) about the dangers of allowing band sizes to expand unchecked. For sure, large bands make for interesting sounds and sights, but it invites situations like we’re seeing now, where there are not only have and have-not bands, but there are have and have-not competitions.

Twenty years ago, most Scottish pipe bands would compete at about 15 contests a year. Now most get out to maybe eight, five of those the major championships. The larger size of bands makes it difficult to get to an event with a full complement of players, so they pick and choose. I see top-grade bands scraping for players to boost numbers, bringing in pipers 15 years retired, fielding kids with experience no higher than Grade 4, pressured to feature at least seven across the front at virtually any cost.

I think the majority of bands would support reasonable limits of section sizes — not tiny bands of eight, four and one, but maybe 18, eight, four and one for Grade 1; 15, seven, four and one for Grade 2; and so on. There would be better quality bands. There would be more bands. There would be more bands to attend competitions. Bands could afford to get to more competitions.

Other than hurting a few feelings for a few days when lesser players are cut loose (to become better players in other bands), I can’t really think of a single good reason not to limit section sizes.

The situation is capitalistic. Survival of the fittest and all that. But, to me, the piping and drumming world needs a more social approach. We need to level the playing field by putting a reasonable limit on numbers across all grades, so that we can continue doing what we do and make the business of competition sustainable.

 

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?

Forward

The 2015 World’s format is backwards.

It’s hard to fault the organizers for having another go at the 2014 format: Friday only Grade 1 qualifying; Saturday is the Grade 1 Final and everything else.

It’s an opportunity missed. But in a few years it will go like this – guaranteed:

On Saturday, all bands compete at Glasgow Green in qualifiers and/or finals, except all Grade 1 bands entered competed in two heats in Medley and MSR events to determine a final round of 10 or 12.

All winners and Grade 1 finalists are announced at a wonderful march-past.

Then, on Sunday, those 10 or 12 Grade 1 Finalists compete in an afternoon MSR (if they insist), and a Medley at night at a ticketed indoor venue like the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall or SECC.

Charge £25 for the MSR. Clear the packed hall, and then £40 for the Medley and announcement – or £55 for the combined deal. At an average gate of, say £60, with a certain packed hall for each event of 2,800, that’s approximately £175,000 in ticket sales. People pay £30 for one Grade 1 band for two hours; they will pay at least that for four-plus hours of a dozen bands.

The Sunday event is hosted by Bob Worrall and A. John Wilson, tag-teaming in their inimitable styles. When one is not on stage, the other is in the broadcast booth with Jackie. BBC Scotland (or whatever broadcaster bids the highest amount for the valuable broadcast rights, which would be on the order of £50,000-75,000, given the overall value of the event) mounts at least seven cameras in the hall, and conducts behind-the-scenes shots and interviews as bands tune and leave.

The RSPBA can take, say, £10,000, the hall gets maybe £5,000, the stewards and compilers get £1,000, each judges gets his/her usual £75 and a Jaffa cake, and the remaining £180,000 or so goes to the bands and the composers and arrangers – those whose terrific music is the valuable product being sold.

People will argue that there’s not enough room at these venues to handle 10-12 bands tuning. That’s incorrect. As with top-flight solo competitions, there will be two designated tuning areas. Each band has exactly 40 minutes to tune in the building, and that’s bags of time for these elite groups in a controlled, indoor environment.

Sunday might be problematic for some religious people, just as Saturday is for some others, and perhaps Friday is for even others. I completely respect those with religious beliefs, but if they conflict with the quasi-religion of pipe bands, well, they’ll just have to choose which is more important. The shops are open on Sunday, after all.

I’m confident that this format will eventually happen. It’s the obvious thing to do.

The benefits of Saturday outdoor World’s and a Sunday indoor Grade 1 Final World Championship are obvious to me:

  • The Friday is freed up again for Piping Live!
  • All of the bands get to compete on Saturday.
  • Those not competing on Sunday (and maybe also those who are) can celebrate Saturday night.
  • Nearly 4,000 total enthusiasts can enjoy the indoor Grade 1 Final nirvana on Sunday in cozy comfort.
  • The world’s greatest bands can show their stuff without the threat of being drenched with horizontal rain, equalizing the conditions.
  • Bands compete in concert formation.
  • Judges hear and see everything.
  • Audience gets the pipe band listening experience of a lifetime.
  • The broadcaster can create an even better production (and sell pay-per-view, if they like) for those who prefer to watch the stream.
  • The bands and composers can share in the substantial licensing rights.

And the Grade 1 World Championship can have the venue and conditions and spotlight that it truly deserves – finally.

Instant replay

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

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

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

Fast-forward 40 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Keeping score

Scoresheets or crit-sheets have never been a regular thing at UK solo piping competitions. I remember arriving at Montrose Games in 1983, an awestruck 19-year-old from St. Louis playing at the “senior” solo competition on a brilliant, sunny day at the links.

My bass drone stopped while tuning for the Strathspey & Reel (cane, sheep, wet, overplayed), so I slunk off, too frightened to take it out and flick it in front of Old Jimmy MacGregor, who might have been too, um, under the weather to notice. Never mind. I thought that I played pretty well in the March, and keenly waited around for the result.

Nothing for naïve me. But I remember being surprised that, not only was there no ranking order of finish past third, there weren’t even scoresheets. I was told that such things weren’t done in Scotland. I eventually got used to it, but always had a sense of miff as to what I did right or wrong, or why I was in or, more often than not, not in the prizes.

Thirty-one years later and, but for a few experiments with CPA B- and C-Grade events, there is no system of feedback for solo competitors in the UK.

That is truly ridiculous.

As with pipe bands, every solo competitor deserves to know how an adjudicator accounted for his or her decision. They don’t need or even want a “lesson,” or to be given helpful hints for the next time, as I have heard scoresheets reasoned away by many UK judges. Instead, competitors should at least come away from an event knowing that each judge’s decision was more than arbitrary.

The lack of feedback and accountability in the UK has at times propped up truly shallow, and even nonexistent, piping pedigrees from not a few adjudicators over the last century who, if they had to account for their decisions by providing constructive and informed criticism, would have been exposed as the frauds they were. The aristocratic “society” types who didn’t or wouldn’t know a phrase from a pheasant could simply draw up a prize list and go home.

Today, even, the best a competing solo piper in the UK can do is ask and hope for feedback from the judges. I once did that after I got nothing for what I fancied was a really good tune at the Northern Meeting. Days after the event I emailed one of the judges (who was someone who had never competed himself), and he responded with comments about how my taorluaths from D weren’t good. That might well have been the case – with another piper. The tune I actually played had no taorluaths from D.

In every other piping jurisdiction, not only are scoresheets mandatory, but judges only become judges after amassing a long history of competition success, learning feedback techniques, and proving that they can produce accurate and constructive scoresheets. It works. And if a judge were to write on a scoresheet criticisms about technique that didn’t even exist in the performance, he or she would be held to account.

Over the next few weeks many of the world’s greatest solo pipers will converge on Oban and Inverness. Some will come away with a prize or two. Most will get nothing. But the majority of those competing will receive no accounting for the result from the adjudicators.

The old world of piping should join the new world order, where formal feedback and accountability aren’t just nice to have, they’re essential aspects of a well-run and fair competition.

And not only do they account for judge’s decisions, scoresheets weed out the judging imposters.

I Am Proud to Play a Pipe

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

Making the grades

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each of the members of the grading committee must be:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masons’ April

My first real introduction to the Masons was in 1983 and I didn’t even know it. A naive 19-year-old American piper at the Argyllshire Gathering, I thought that Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay simply had a strange handshake. When I was introduced to him and shook his hand, he sort of tickled my palm. I didn’t think much of it, but when I saw him the next day and he spat on his hand before shaking mine, I thought it a bit queer.

“You idiot,” a more canny piping friend said to me when I told him that MacNeill had a strange handshake. “He’s trying to find out if you’re a Mason.”

“A what?”

“A Mason. A member of the Masonic Order of [I don’t know].”

My only knowledge of the Masons up until then was as a fan of Monty Python, and their “How to Recognize a Mason” sketch. They were dressed in black tie and tails, so I figured it was some bizarre aristocratic thing about the UK class system, along the lines of their “Upperclass Twit of the Year” skit.

My Canadian friend went on to explain that, in piping, being a Mason helped you win prizes, and that in order to win a World Pipe Band Championship, the pipe-major had to be a Mason. Rumour had it then and for a good long time after, that that tenet was actually true and verifiable. I’ve asked several people who I believe do know to expand on it and, to a person, they refuse to say. They don’t deny it; they simply stay silent. And silence almost always means acceptance.

I was even told about a prominent piper who joined the Masons for the sole purpose of winning more prizes, and, looking at his incredible record, it certainly did not hurt.

There are many American Freemasons, to be sure, but the so-called “secret society” seems to be far more prevalent and popular in Commonwealth countries. To me, the idea then and now that anyone is awarded a prize for anything but his or her performance is repulsive.

But apparently it still happens. In fact, I have been told by someone I trust and who is deeply entrenched in the Scottish solo scene that the benefit of the doubt “70 per cent of the time” will go to a known Mason piper from a judge who is a brother (forgive me, Masons, if that’s the wrong term). And apparently there are a lot of Masons who populate the benches of solo competitions.

I don’t know for sure. And I guess the only way that one could know is by becoming a Mason, but doing that requires a vow of silence and secrecy, so I wouldn’t be able to spill the beans on threat of punishment by running the gauntlet of spanking with a cricket bat or wet noodles or something.

So, you can see how the tradition of the Masons continues in piping, since our other big tradition is sweeping serious problems under the rug and pretending they don’t exist.

I have nothing at all against anyone having their club with their rules. If the Royal Scottish Pipers Society wants to ban women from joining, that is their prerogative. If the Masons want to hold their meetings and get off on their rituals, fill your apron. Just don’t foist it on others.

And foisting it on others is what happens when delicate and subjective music competitions are swayed by anything but the musical performance itself.

For sure, the Masons do a lot of great things. They contribute to communities and charities, they volunteer their time. They are good people. This is simply a topic of conversation in piping and drumming based on my experience and what I have been told by those I trust. If it is indeed a practice or a problem, then sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant. If members of the Masons are offended by the perception simply being raised for the first time (that I am aware of) in a public forum in piping, then I guess that can’t be helped.

I am sure that readers know more about this and have had many more Masonic encounters in piping than me. Feel free to fill us in. Any Masons who want to refute it, you’re welcome.

And your identity can be secret.

Look at me!

Self-promotion is a touchy thing in piping and drumming. Tradition tells us that we accept our success and failure in equal measure. Apart from handshakes, fist-pumps and back-slaps at the prize announcement, publicly celebrating a victory has always been frowned upon, just as much as outwardly harping about a result to anyone but band-mates and trusted friends.

Thanks to social media, all that seems to be changing. Open up Facebook and you’re likely to see pipers and drummers flaunting and vaunting their wins, usually in a tacky and clunky way:

  • “Really pleased with my first in the March and 2nd in the Piob today! Congrats to all other prize-winners!”
  • “A great day and really humbled to finish ahead of gold medallist ____. Great competition!”
  • “Piper of the Day! Well done to all!”
  • “Thoroughly enjoyed judging today with [much more famous and accomplished person].”

Selfies of people wearing their own medals or in front of their trophies right after the contest even five years ago would have been unheard of. It’s pretty common now, as the “Look at me!” nature of social media has eroded piping and drumming’s tradition of letting only others and your playing itself do the promoting.

The generation of pipers and drummers that has grown up with social media, the unseemly notion of being famous simply for being famous, and “success” often determined by self-promotion is now coming into prominence as top-level prize-winners. Our tradition of magnanimous tact – quietly accepting success and failure – is being chucked out the window. Discreetly enabling and encouraging others to do your publicity is quickly becoming a bygone art.

The Look at me! culture of social media is changing the customary self-effacing nature that pipers and drummers have learned for centuries.

Magnanimous in defeat; gracious in victory: a piping and drumming tradition that we should keep.

A gift

Rowland and Tirzah Berthoff, 1998Composing new music is the most significant thing we pipers and drummers can do. Recordings, winning competitions, performing in recitals and concerts – all good. But it’s the act of creating new music that has the most profound impact on the art.

In my real job, I work for songwriters and composers to uphold their creative rights. Being involved with all manner of musical genres, I appreciate that we pipers and drummers are not much different from the rest of the music industry.

I have realized, though, that in piping and drumming there is probably as much, if not more, original music creation than anywhere. Pipe bands through every level are under pressure to compose and arrange new content, and drum scores almost always have to be original. As a result, the idea of making new tunes and scores is instilled in every one of us from almost the beginning.

Just about every piper I know has tried their hand at composing a new tune, usually in the first few years of playing. Even if they’re not great or non-derivative compositions, pipers and drummers are able to make a new tune. The ability is in almost all of us.

There was a time when I fancied myself a decent composer, and I suppose I still do. Doing it well takes time and, since there’s no great demand and plenty of other things to do, composing hasn’t been a priority for a few decades now. But I made a few decent tunes that a few good friends published and a few good bands have actually played.

The great thing is that we can name our creations for people or events or places in our lives. In the late-1980s I composed a two-part strathspey and named it “Mrs. Campbell of Canna” for the late, truly great, Margaret Fay Shaw, who was (somehow) a friend of my family.

When I sent it to her, I never realized the reaction. She loved the pipes and she was a world scholar of Hebridean music, but this simple strathspey that I thought was okay bowled her over. She was truly touched, and hung a framed copy of the tune in the drawing room of Canna House. She asked me to play it each of the times when I saw her thereafter.

Young and naïve then, I only now realize the effect that an original composition created and named for a person can have on their spirit. Is there a greater honour that a person can receive than receiving a piece of art that is named for and inspired by them? Margaret Fay Shaw died at age 101 and her scholarly work lives on. But so will this tune. We pipers sometimes don’t fully appreciate that.

My daughter plays piano, and she’s pretty good and, like all kids, would be a lot better if she practiced more. I know that if she were to compose a little tune or song expressly for me, I would get weak at the knees and blubber like The Great One when he went to Los Angeles.

I’m not one to regret much. Life is what it is, and if you make on balance many more good decisions than not-so-good decisions, things go in a positive direction, so there’s not much point in wishing something wasn’t. As Beth Orton sings, “What are regrets? They’re just lessons we haven’t learned yet.”

But if there are two things that I regret, they’re that I did not compose and name a tune for my father or mother. Perhaps it was because I wanted to be sure each was good enough for others to want to play, or that I simply didn’t make it a priority, but it didn’t happen, and now it’s too late.

The lesson learned: if you are a piper of some experience, and your mother and father are still with you, you most certainly have the ability to compose a new tune and name it for your parents. It might not be a great tune, or even a good tune, but in their eyes I guarantee that they will be moved beyond tears. If you haven’t already, make them a tune.

While there’s time.

Less is more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retirement hame

Quartet is a charming movie set in a grand retirement home for gifted musicians. Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and others star in the poignant comedy, with support from actual elderly famous musicians from the British stage. They long for what they once were as players and singers, but, the key is, instead of sinking into decrepitude alone and forlorn, they do it together, sharing their wistful memories of great performances, professional rivalries, multiple curtain-calls and standing ovations.

Their home is a stately Georgian mansion called Beecham House, in the idyllic English countryside, and the viewer assumes that the famous retirees have the means to pay for their care, but it’s apparent that there are major contributions to support the place and the lifestyle the old residents deserve.

They don’t just sit around moldering. They teach. They perform. They compose. They have a good time and, when one of them is down, they band together to pick him up.

What a thing it would be for our most accomplished retired pipers and drummers to have a grand home to go to, to live out the last years of their life among others who also lived the life. Perhaps set somewhere in rural Scotland, it could be a renovated castle supported by the piping and drumming community and a combination of private and government funding.

In return for all those Highland fling performances of his tune, perhaps the Marquis of Huntley could gift us his Aboyne Castle. Just the place.

Imagine the atmosphere. The retirement house would be like a Piobaireachd Society conference every day, except that every person there would be able to back up the talk with a career of playing ability that qualified them for residency. The home for old great players would enable drummers and bandsmen and women to relive memories, stay current with trends, and debate the past.

As in the movie, there could be regular recitals and workshops, kids visiting to learn from the masters, and for the masters to learn from the kids. An annual gala would bring in the Highland aristocracy (there is one, you know) ready to rip a cheque from their sporran to help things along.

There would be healthcare on-site, treating uncooperative fingers and wrists, and doctors to look after the mentally infirm with the dignity that they deserve. But most of all, the place would be a last band of brothers and sisters united by their common love of the art.

Some great pipers and drummers are fortunate to have the savings and the friends and family to lovingly look out for them into their dotage. Sadly, though, too many of our greats drop out of our own consciousness, and conclude their lives lonely and detached from piping and drumming society.

There should be a place for our greatest performers and authorities to go, if they wish, if they need to, to share their experiences one last time, for themselves, for all of us.

Nine p|d policies

Here are nine pipes|drums policies that you might not know about. We’d say they’re unwritten rules, but, since they’re written here, they’re not.

1. We don’t do competition critiques. pipes|drums has always been the first source for reports on competition results, but you will never find those wretched, self-indulgent, player-by-player, band-by-band critical rundowns that started with Seumas MacNeill’s 1940s Piping Times. They call them contest rundowns for a reason: they tend to run down everyone except the winner. It’s a tabloid technique: bash the best for being better than the writer. It’s sham schadenfruede. The result is the result. What we or anyone else personally thought of individual performances does not matter.

2. Advertisers don’t get preferential treatment. Businesses advertise with pipes|drums because it’s excellent marketing value. We reach more readers in a day than most magazines reach in a month and at a fraction of the cost for savvy marketers. If an organization receives editorial attention it’s because they are canny communicators doing interesting things.

3. Reviewers are unbiased experts. All product or event reviews are done by those who are as expert and unconnected as we can find. Those with a business interest in the product are not eligible, and we look for respected and current pipers or drummers who have no competitive connection.

4. We recruit the reviewers. pipes|drums always asks the experts, and any business who volunteers someone to do a critique of a concert or a product is gently told that it doesn’t work that way. Readers trust pipes|drums to tell it like it is with honesty and integrity.

5. We’re not selling anything besides editorial value. We’re not connected with a shop, or a school, or an association. We strive for professionalism, but pipes|drums is not our job. We don’t pocket any money from advertising and subscriptions. We plow back all of it into the publication and we give the rest to worthwhile, nonprofit piping and drumming initiatives. If the content is good, then the readers will read it. If the readers consider it valuable, a good number of them will subscribe. If the readership numbers continue to grow, organizations will advertise. It’s a simple and effective formula that works well.

6. Interviewees have the final edit. For every one of the more than 80 lengthy pipes|drums Interviews, the subject has been allowed to make final amendments before publication. We have always approached interviews as the story that the interviewee wants to tell. Amazingly, only a handful of times has an interview been changed substantially. Donald Shaw-Ramsay and John Kerr were the most severe, to the point where we suspected some sort of cognitive problem might have entered into the edits. The rest make very minor edits.

7. We rarely delete or edit comments. The times each year when we can’t accept a comment from a reader can be counted on one hand. We rarely have to edit them for being unfair. Our readers make intelligent comments, and monitoring them is very easy.

8. We compensate contributors. When an expert takes time to write for pipes|drums when we ask them to, we pay for their service. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s also not small – more than a judge would typically be paid for a full day. Many don’t accept it, and we’re happy either way.

9. We do it because you seem to enjoy it. We’ve been publishing pipes|drums for more than 25 years only because it’s fun to create something that many people like. Every week we receive thanks from strangers who are friends by way of association to the magazine. Those who don’t like it tend to be those who are paranoid we’re out to get them. We’re not; they are. Their loss. We hope they come around and decide to contribute just a little to piping and drumming instead of purely taking.

We’ve been at this longer than anyone else around today, and – at more than 5,000 all told – we’re pretty sure we’ve published more print and online magazine articles than any publication in piping and drumming history.

By sticking to the policies above we’ve been able to stay consistent and true to our readers. We hope that you continue to subscribe to and enjoy pipes|drums.

Best ever

Field Marshal Montgomery is the best quality competition pipe band in history.

You can take your six straight Strathclyde Polis World’s.

You can have your Muirhead’s myth.

You can pretend that the 78th Frasers journeyed to the sky.

Yuze can be heppy with your 1998 Victoria Police.

But nothing, but no band, compares with the quality that Field Marshal Montgomery has produced this year. The closest band to this year’s FMM is last year’s FMM.

That’s not to say that the previous-mentioned bands were not each great in their own time and, depending on your personal measure of greatness, might be ranked ahead for other things. But for the pure depth of clarity of tone, tuning, unison and musical delivery, there has been none more consistently better than Field Marshal.

And the wonderful thing is, there will be a better band than the current FMM in the future – maybe the near future – and some will look back at the 2013 Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band, just as some look back wistfully at the 1980s Strathclyde Police, the 1960s Muirhead’s, the 1970s Edinburgh City Police, the 1980s 78th Frasers, and so on and so forth, and insist that the 2010s vintage Field Marshal was still the best in history. And they will be wrong.

It might well be that the next iteration of Field Marshal or one of the other bands currently nipping at the back of their ghillies will be even better, but, rest assured, some band in the future will be even better.

Every generation has difficulty imagining that things could possibly top the current best. The mind and memory play tricks and fool us into self-convincing ourselves that back in the day there was nothing like such-and-such. It’s a tradition as old as MacCrimmon (Donald ban, not Euan), and it too will continue.

But in 2013 those who were fortunate enough to hear Field Marshal Montgomery in-person can say, yes, they heard the very best that ever was.

At least for now.

Piob band

More than ever I am convinced that the real future of piobaireachd is in pipe bands. For sure, ceol mor will continue to be played by solo pipers working to be the best ape of the current “authority” so as to gain the next prize, but listening to the Inveraray & District Pipe Band’s glorious rendition of “Catharine’s Lament” made me realize, once again, that piobaireachd is tailor made for pipe bands.

I say “once again” because every time a great pipe band takes a run at complete versions of the great music great things seem to happen. Even drummers like it. “The Old Woman’s Lullaby” by Invergordon Distillery in 1967. “The Desperate Battle” by Dysart & Dundonald, 1978. The 78th Fraser Highlanders and “Flame of Wrath,” 1998. “Field of Gold,” Simon Fraser University, 2009. “His Father’s Lament,” Toronto Police, 2009. “Cabar Feidh gu Brath,” 2011, Spirit of Scotland. “Queen Elizabeth II’s Salute,” ScottishPower, 2013. And Inveraray.

At Piping Live! this year the Piobaireachd Society presented a session on recently composed piobaireachds, and the organization’s attempts to welcome new settings and interpretations. It was nice to hear, and more power to them. But they seem to be missing the obvious: the pipe band. It’s the pipe band that takes the music that is in many ways an anachronism in the hands of the solo piper, and transforms ceol mor into the dynamic and vibrant and uplifting experience that it can be.

Most of bands mentioned above are led by great piobaireachd players and, in the case of Inveraray, they brought in six-time Clasp-winner Murray Henderson to orchestrate “Catharine’s Lament” with percussion and strings in a way that he always imagined it. Perhaps Murray heard it that way because that’s the way it was presented to him by Bob Nicol – sung with dynamics and swells and nuances that are simply impossible with a solo pipe. Add percussion, multi-layered harmony, tastefully arranged “other” instruments and piobaireachd reaches its musical potential.

Pipe bands clamor to create the next “suite,” and some, like the 78th Frasers and Toronto Police, have gone as far as to merge the original suite with the competition medley, with varying degrees of success. But a piobaireachd is really the original piping suite (and many pipe band suites could be classified as piobaireachd), so it all makes great sense.

If the Piobaireachd Society were smart – and indeed it’s full of brainy people – the next book in their Collection would be complete arrangements of ceol mor as played by great pipe bands. Right now we see the Argyllshire Gathering and Northern Meeting showcasing piobaireachd, with some judges doing their best to punish those who stray from the familiar. These are the annual navel-gazing celebrations of the big music that no more than a few hundred in the world truly care about. This is not a criticism; it’s fact. Piobaireachd as played by solo pipers is a competitive exercise rather than a musical advance.

If piobaireachd is to have a future beyond the stagnant renditions by solo pipers (and I include myself in that group), it is in pipe bands.

Champion Juveniles

The RSPBA’s decision to hold the Juvenile band competition in the number-one arena at the World Pipe Band Championships at Glasgow Green on Sunday at 10 am is a stroke of brilliance.

While the stands are not likely to be full, the experience of playing in the crucible of pipe bands will be an experience that these young pipers and drummers will remember for the rest of their lives.

In reality, a good number of players in Juvenile pipe bands decide not to go much further after their time in the band or the school is up. Inevitably some – if not most – become interested in other things, and drift away from piping and drumming.

My bet is that, with this single act of generosity and decency, the RSPBA will motivate at least four or five kids, who otherwise would have moved on, to stay with it after experiencing the distinct thrill of playing in the big arena.

I hope that the Juvenile bands get the full-on BBC treatment, complete with Bob Worrall and Jackie Bird repartee, and sweeping camera close-ups of faces, fingers and sticks in the glow of warm sunshine. These bands are a treat to hear, as pipes|drums took the time to video the contest at the 2011 World Championships.

It makes sense, after all. Many contend that there are only two World Champions: the winner in Grade 1 and the winner in Juvenile. Whether one agrees with that philosophy or not, putting the spotlight on these impressive bands on the biggest day on the piping and drumming calendar, is a bold and smart decision that truly promotes the art of piping and drumming.

Ceol Competition Cam

Time to strap on the Compettion Cam (also known as the Glen Cam, the Bass-Cam and the Heavy-Cam . . . so far) for a different perspective on competing – which is actually a very familiar one to anyone who has competed. Thanks to Pete Aumonier and Jim Murdoch for being such good sports.

For those who have never competed on the Ontario circuit, this is pretty much what it’s like having an early draw during the summer.

All in good fun.

RIP Grade 2?

Grade 2 is on life support. The number of pipe bands competing in the grade around the world is dropping so fast that they could be declared an endangered species.

Ten – 10 – Grade 2 bands competed at the European Championships at Forres, Scotland, last week. Granted, the event was (in the minds of UK-based bands, anyway) hard to get to. But there were only 13 competing at the British at Bathgate in May.

In Ontario where only several years ago there were at least six in Grade 2, there are now two. The BCPA has two. There are four Grade 2 bands in the EUSPBA; the WUSPBA and MWPBA have none. The grade is becoming superfluous.

I wrote about this a few years back in a two-part feature piece about how the World Pipe Band Championships are in fact ironically damaging pipe band scenes around the world. The pressure on Grade 1 bands to maintain and grow ever-expanding pipe-, snare- and bass-sections has resulted in players jumping from Grade 3 and even Grade 4 bands right into Grade 1. They leave the organizations that are trying to rise through the grades in favour of faster perceived glory in Grade 1.

The larger pipe band organizations with an organized training system and feeder bands more often than not have a policy about associated bands not reaching Grade 2, and, if they are allowed to reach Grade 2, then they are not allowed to go any further.

In Ontario, watching the 18-piper Ottawa Police compete against the seven-piper 400 Squadron is strange. All credit to Ottawa for building a world-class Grade 2 band by merging with the now-defunct Glengarry Grade 2 band a few years ago, but it’s an embarrassment of riches. And full credit goes to 400 Squadron for sticking in there, and regularly producing a very well-set sound with tight unison, which is, after all, the first order of business, whatever the size of the band. It’s not a competition to see who can be loudest or visually most impressive.

But who wants to judge that? Do you go for a well set and clean sound of seven pipes, or a rich and fulsome presence of 18? I honestly do not know which I would pick, and I’m glad I didn’t have to. Both bands are playing within the rules, but juxtaposing a band of almost 30 with one of 14 is borderline comical.

I have said several times over the last 10 years that the RSPBA needs to implement maximum numbers for sections. The RSPBA has to do it, because, with the all-out infatuation with competing at the World’s in just about every grade, no other association will place such numbers restrictions on their member bands. So, everyone else has to wait for the RSPBA to make a move and cap the numbers.

The great Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe-Major Richard Parkes said in his 2007 interview that a pipe section of 20 was “a good number.” SFU P-M Terry Lee 10 years ago cited 17 as “the magical number.” We all know what has happened.

To be sure, the best bands are producing wonderful sounds with pipe sections larger than 24 and snare and bass sections bigger than 10 and seven. But would they be that less wonderful if they had to compete with no more than 20 pipes, eight snares and six in the bass section? I don’t think so, and, besides, I’d be willing to make the sacrifice in return for the dividends it will pay to the world’s pipe band scenes overall.

Capping pipe sections at 20 in Grade 1, and, say, 17 in Grade 2, 15 in Grade 3 and so on, would immediately create dozens of new pipe bands around the world. Grade 2 most of all would be reinvigorated, as players released from Grade 1 bands would reorganize into altogether new bands or join existing Grade 2 bands.

A cap on numbers would also virtually eliminate the ridiculous situations of judges trying to compare a band of 18 pipers with a band of seven. It would create a fairer playing field for Grade 2 bands in more remote areas that simply can’t field large numbers. It would also create several new Grade 1 bands.

Failing section-size caps, a significant adjustment of Grade 1 and a broad relegation of bands back to Grade 2 is the other solution. Cut Grade 1 in half and make it a truly elite level of maybe 12 bands worldwide.

But a recalibration of Grade 1, and thus Grade 2 (and Grade 3, for that matter), is unlikely to happen. A member-driven association would have a hard time telling a good 20 per cent of its members that they’re going back to Grade 2, and the organizers of the competitions it runs that they will have fewer Grade 1 bands.

So, let’s watch the 2013 World’s and the massive bands in Grade 1 one last time, and ask that this fall the RSPBA does the right thing for everyone – including their own UK scene – and place reasonable maximum numbers on competing sections and rosters.

We can then watch the dividends pay off for the good of our art.

How many more?

Piping and pipe bands have a reputation problem. It’s called booze. But it’s not just reputation; it’s reality.

Our connection with alcohol is part of our tradition. The image of the drunken Scotsman, the piper downing a dram – these are as predictable with the general public as tartan and “Amazing Grace.”

Virtually every competition, concert or band practice ends with alcohol. For sure, it’s an essential social aspect of what we do. It’s one of my personal favourite parts of the piping scene, and I am not for an instant suggesting we stop enjoying ourselves in moderation.

I’m not sure that in reality pipers and drummers have any worse a problem with booze than other musicians. Just about every club or community likes to share a drink among friends and, in that sense, we’re like everyone else.

What I’m talking about is recognizing, confronting and helping those with serious alcohol dependency problems. I’m sure that you know at least one or two pipers or drummers who are probable or full-fledged alcoholics.

Our drinking tradition is also a tradition where it is customary to sweep problems under the rug. We turn a blind-eye to those with serious alcohol problems and, in fact, we often encourage them. We buy them drinks. We coax them. Just one more. Give us a tune. Have another.

For every world famous piper who dies of alcoholism or suicide due to its associated depression and relentless demons, there are far more we never hear about. When it happens, not much is said except for the euphemism that he “died suddenly.”

Thankfully there are those among us who have recognized their problem and, with the support of others, work every day to stay sober. To a person, those pipers and drummers I know who are recovering alcoholics struggle at social settings to decline offers from their drinking pipers and drummers to “go ahead . . . one won’t hurt you.”

In 1987 I wrote an editorial about this very same topic in the then Canadian Piper & Drummer. Living in Edinburgh at the time, I happened to run into a group of Queen’s Own Highlanders off-duty soldiers on a night on the town. One of them was a prominent piper who expressed his extreme displeasure with the piece, accusing me of “ruining all the fun.”

I understand that others will not like this being talked about again here. It needs to be said. I am bothered greatly that we traditionally tend to sit there and watch our friends be destroyed by this disease, and some of us even egg it on. If there are those who feel that these things should not be spoken of, well, I’m afraid that you’re part of the problem.

This isn’t about stopping the fun. We can coexist with alcohol, and this blog even uses an image of whisky as symbolic of discussing various sides of what we do and who we are as pipers and drummers. This post is about friends who might need help.

Alcoholism and depression will continue to affect pipers and drummers just as they will continue to impact all other walks of life. Addiction and illness will not go away. But at least let’s all of us try to do something about it by eliminating the taboo of talking.

That starts by confronting the problem, discussing it, and reaching out to help each other.

Six kinds of pipers

After many years of judging solo piping competitions, one tends to notice trends. In places like Ontario where it’s typical to critique more than 50 performances in a morning, you can’t help but start to see certain types of competition personalities come forward. I say amateur, because the professional contestants all tend to be of a workmanlike, get-it-done-and-move-on consistency, whereas the amateurs are much more of a mixed lot of attitudes.

By and large, amateur competitors are fairly non-descript and don’t fit any of the types below. But for roughly the other half I think there are five basic distinct characters. These personalities don’t necessarily mean that they are better or worse as pipers, and for sure each performance is assessed on its own merits. The traits tend to be seen before and after the actual tune or tunes.

1. The Name-Dropper. Without fail, there is at least one amateur competitor in every event who someway, somehow slips in the name of his/her teacher. “I got this from Rory MacDingle,” the player will say. I’m pretty sure it’s an attempt to intimidate. The player’s letting you know who will be reviewing the scoresheet, or, if you criticize the tune you therefore criticize the teacher. There must be some sort of sociopathic thing here.

2. The I-Don’t-Really-Want-to-Player. There are always one or two whom you just know don’t really want to compete. They tune forever. They can’t remember the names of their tunes. They’re visibly forcing themselves to do it. Hard to understand why they’re self-inflicting such misery.

3. The Inflated. These folks have a certain strut to their demeanor that belies their true abilities. Often they have impressive and well-practiced tuning phrases. They’ve studied the pros and ape their pre-tune routines. They inevitably elevate the judge’s expectations only to perform at a grade-level that’s less than required.

4. Mr. Piobaireachd. These are usually older amateurs who spend a lot of money travelling to two-week schools and weekend workshops to be instructed by the world’s best. God love ’em. They almost always dress to the nines and have the latest silver-mounted instruments, drone valves, drying gizmos, and gold-plated $300 reeds. They have the music they want to convey rattling in their head, but little of the technical ability to deliver it. These folks keep the piping economy growing. They always fancy themselves hard-core piobaireachd aficionados and are often also . . .

5. The Obscure. These pipers just love submitting tunes that no one else plays, or has even heard of. The tunes are published, but no one else ever learned them, much less played them in competition. “What do you have today?” “I will be playing ‘The Ogilvies’ Gathering.’ ” “The what?” ” ‘ The Gathering of the Ogilvies,’ and here is the music if you don’t know it.” They then produce a photocopy of the manuscript. This often includes crazy notation on phrasing, with circled cadences and arrows to single notes that say “HOLD!!!

6. The Whatever . . . These competitors are maybe the most confounding. They’re aloof and carry on like they don’t really care at all. Strangely, they almost always have great potential, and either don’t realize their hidden talent or are just too lazy to cultivate it. They’re not nervous; just completely apathetic. They usually vanish from the scene altogether after a few years.

Your observations will vary. These six personality-types give otherwise excruciatingly bland competitions variety and spice. If you know of others, feel free to suggest in a comment.

Untied united

Who the hell decided that pipers and drummers should wear ties? Probably the same Victorian sadist who dressed us in a one-inch-thick tunic, plaid, cross-belt, spats and feather-bonnet.
I’m sure that The Style Guy would have something to say about it, but the necktie is completely restrictive to pipers and a nuisance to drummers. No tailoring in the world can accommodate a neck that gains three inches with every blow, like some giant comical bullfrog. (I bet most of you have witnessed at least once someone in the crowd point at a band and say, “Wow! Look at that guy’s neck!” as a piper overflows his collar with each puff.) The tie flaps around the chanter and sticks while playing. There is no practical reason for it. It is inconducive  to making good music.

I’m all in favour of getting rid of ties, or at least making it more acceptable not to wear them in competition. They’ve been doing it for ages in Australia. And just as kilt-jackets were shucked off a decade ago at the World’s, so too should pipes be unknotted. Some associations even have it in their antediluvian rules that a necktie is a mandatory part of “Highland” dress. Associations are supposed to promote the arts of piping and drumming. They can start by loosening stupid rules like the necktie.

All this said, because I was an inveterate collector of things, I used to accumulate pipe band ties. That was in an era when custom-made band ties were something special, and usually something only the top-grade bands could afford, or make a priority. I still have a decent collection, and I wonder if someone out there has the equivalent of a T206 Honus Wagner trading card – maybe a 1968 Muirheads, or a ’75 Edinburgh City Police.

Trading pipe band ties was always fun and usually happened over many pints. Quartermasters must have gone crazy after big contests when every other player would swap ties. Because custom ties are commonplace through all the grades throughout the world, I doubt tie-swapping occurs much anymore. Custom ties are a dime-a-dozen. Some bands seem to change designs every few years. There’s nothing much special about them.

So all the more reason to call it a day on requiring pipers and drummers to perform while wearing these nuisance nooses. Let us stand united and untie ourselves from the tie.

Raising Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few simple words to guide us.

The market dictates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No auld baldy bastard dictates to us.

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

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

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