As ithers see us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow never knows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes an instrument just needs a big break.


No one but the most cold-hearted competitors among us like to see the collapse of a pipe band. When it’s a band with such a storied, long history as the Edinburgh City Police, which by all accounts decided on November 29, 2012, that 130 years is enough, it’s a punch to the guts.

Disbanding happens fairly often, and every year it seems to happen more frequently.

The reasons for a band calling it quits are many, and to generalize such a complex matter is risky. But the most frequent and significant factor I think is this: the lack of a succession plan – that is, when the pipe-major decides to retire or resign, or even when he or she is forcibly removed from office, there is not a well-prepared and identified successor for the job.

And often it is the most successful bands that are hit the hardest when the pipe-major leaves. More often than not there is not a clearly defined, recognized and, most importantly, groomed person to take over. Time and time again we see very well established bands in a lurch when their leader of 10, 15, even 25 years departs. They scramble for a solution. They usually put out the call for “interested parties” to apply, then they go through a laborious review of candidates, ultimately settling on an untested outsider, who needs years to settle in. Though it’s logical to assume it would be the case, the pipe-sergeant is often not the slam-dunk heir.

In fact, the leadership handover should be exactly that: a handover. The new leader should be a familiar and obvious choice who has been with the band for years, who has worked side-by-side with the pipe-major, who brings continuity and consistency to the inner-traditions and culture that has made the group successful.

The last 40 years are littered with top-tier Grade 1 pipe bands that lost their pipe-major and quickly fell to and stayed in the lower-tier. Many of them eventually collapsed altogether. Here are a few: David Urquhart Travel, Vale of Atholl, Muirhead & Sons, Red Hackle, Dysart & Dundonald, Clan MacFarlane, Black Bottle, Clan Gregor, Woolmet & Danderhall, Bilston Glen, Polkemmet and now, of course, Lothian & Borders Police.

Exceptions are few: a near-dead Shotts & Dykehead was rescued in the late-1980s by Robert Mathieson and Jim Kilpatrick to rise to five World’s wins. ScottishPower made a smooth transition from Roddy MacLeod to Chris Armstrong. Strathclyde Police have clawed back to the top-tier under Duncan Nicholson and Eric Ward. And, certainly, the Vale and Dysart might reach the top-tier again.

But in general bands founder after their established and successful leader leaves. They languish in the lower-half of the grade, often go from leader to leader and, sadly, too frequently decide to dissolve the band rather than muddle through the process of continually rebuilding in a pipe band environment where pipers and drummers are impatient for success, and the talented will go elsewhere if the results don’t come fast.

No matter how successful or committed the pipe-major or leading-drummer, that person’s first order of business should be to prepare his or her successor, make clear to all who that successor is, and work with that heir-apparent to impart the leadership skills required for the job. Yes, that designated successor might get fed up waiting for the chance to lead and move on but, when that happens, a new successor should be selected and groomed – and everyone in the band should know about the choice.

Pipe bands are not much different from businesses. An organization’s style and culture are defined by the leader who gets to pick who’s on the team, who fits the style and culture, who brings the strengths to the group. That leader also needs to have the confidence and integrity to know that change is inevitable, and looking after the group as a whole, even when he or she is no longer part of it, is central to the job.

Regardless of how prize-winning or secure your band is today, ask yourself who the next pipe-major or leading-drummer is. If you’re not sure, perhaps it’s time to resolve that problem before it creates a catastrophe.

It starts with a succession plan.

Bully for you

When will we stop bullying each other? When will we stand up to bullies? Or, at least, when will we treat each other with basic courtesy? The publication of the third Scots Guards Collection is just another example of our tradition of skirting not only the law, but common decency, when it comes to the rights of composers.

We keep falling back on the “there’s no money in it” excuse, as if to say that it’s not worth the bother to respect one another unless there’s serious poundage involved. That the British Army and a well-established music publishing company puts out the biggest single collection of light music since, well, since Scots Guards II, and doesn’t even ask many rights-holding composers for permission to reprint their works, is inexcusable.

It’s another example of bullying that the piping and drumming world has endured and practiced itself since the beginning. The attitude and MO has been, Don’t bother with legalities, formalities and common decency – they can’t and won’t do anything about it, anyway, so let’s just keep the poor composers and performers down.

Whether it’s a major broadcaster, a publishing company, or our very own associations, they know that they won’t be challenged. Not only is there too much political risk in terms of competition repercussions, but, if you actually complain, you will simply be left out of the CD, the DVD, the TV show, the book, the streaming – all the places in which they know we crave and cherish inclusion.

It’s an insidious practice, and, by accepting it, we teach every new generation of pipers and drummers that it’s acceptable behavior. Young players just grow up thinking, Well, that’s just how it’s done. Don’t ask questions. Don’t stand up to the bully; it will just make things worse. Live in fear and maybe the bully will lose interest.

And then there’s the reasoning that we should be grateful for people actually reproducing our performances and copyright works. Don’t complain, or else they might not do it, as if they’re all nonprofits.

Again, the truth is that they produce these products because they make money. They claim that they are making no money from these illegal works, and they won’t open their books, so we have to take their claims at face value. Scots Guards III is priced at about $75 retail – great value because of its great content. Dealers would purchase it from the publisher for about $40, probably less. The publisher has a deal with the British Army, probably about $20 of each sale to retailers going to the military.

In addition to my professional life, I can use my own publishing experiences as a guide. I published a collection of music some years back, and within a month I had broken even. Everything after that was profit, which I plowed into other nonprofit piping projects. Similarly, without making a strong-sell on advertising and subscriptions, pipes|drums operates in the black. How? We develop the content that we think people are willing to pay for, which builds an audience that advertisers want to reach.

If it were not for the quality content, the product does not work. As a nonprofit, it allows us to cover costs and donate and sponsor other worthwhile and nonprofit things. And part of our costs is paying for quality content. Every solicited writer is offered compensation for their work. The content has value, and those who produce the content should be remunerated for it.

If it were a cash drain, pipes|drums would not happen. It simply would not exist because it would not make any sense. And this is true of CDs, DVDs, broadcasts, books and other products. If you have the content quality, then you have the quality product. And those who provide the content must agree to the terms of the deal, whether cash or licensing or simply a, “Sure, the exposure is enough of a return for me.”

Schoolyard bullying is in the news a lot these days. Kids are being coached on it. Parents are wising up to it. Isn’t it time that pipers and drummers stopped bullying each other, and started facing up to and exposing those who bully us?


“The Battle of the Somme,” “The Taking of Beaumont Hamel,” “The Heights of Casino,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein,” “The Heights of Dargai,” “The Bloody Fields of Flanders” . . . there are dozens more great Highland pipe compositions that were inspired during wartime.

Our art is rich with music that should remind us of the sacrifices made, enabling us to freely play pipes and drums and discuss matters of piping and drumming without fear every time we play or hear them.

November 11th is a day when piping-rich nations collectively pause to think and appreciate. But all pipers and drummers should realize that we were given an extra gift because of these horrific conflicts – and remember with our music.

Personality crisis

I’m pretty sure I know the main reason why competitive pipers and drummers are so often in disagreement about our avocation: it’s about a clash of two distinct types of personalities: it’s the creative versus the analytical.

The current pipes|drums Poll asks, “What do you like most about piping/drumming?” and readers can answer one of either “The creativity,” or “The competition.” It’s an admittedly unscientific attempt to determine how many of us are drawn to the artistic or the analytical sides of what we do. And polling shows that we’re 50/50. (Actually, about 52% chose “the competition,” but chances are the creative types are bending the polling rules, while the analyticals rigidly stick to them, because that’s what they do.)

We are involved in competition that uses art as sport and this has forever caused friction. We attempt to create “rules” to more equitably assess what piper or drummer or band wins a purely subjective event.

Take for example the recent stramash over Bagad Brieg’s six-second time overrun in their medley in the Grade 2 qualifying round at this year’s World’s. The error was either missed altogether or intentionally overlooked, and the band went on to compete in the Final, finishing third and winning the drumming.

In the ensuing discussion on the matter (during which,notably, both Brieg and the RSPBA have been deathly silent), opinions seemed to be split along 50/50 arty vs. anal divides. Those drawn to the artistic side more than likely couldn’t care less about such a perceived impropriety. “Six seconds? Who cares? They deserve the prize.”

The analytical folks who are drawn first to the competition side of our thing, are spitting with outrage that a band could be allowed to get away with such an infraction. “Even it were one-second – throw them out!”

It’s a fascinating case study in the tension we face at every competition, due much to different essential personality types. The artistic creators are in need of a platform for their art, and often settle for the competition stage. The serious composers more often than not become worn down eventually by competition and rules being placed on their creations. They might continue to compete, but in their hearts they probably don’t much care about the result.

The competitive analytical types just want to compete and get a result based on “the rules.” They don’t care much about what they play, only playing it well enough to win. They struggle with a judge liking something for purely subjective “musical” reasons, seeming to ignore pseudo-objective criteria like tone, attacks and time.

And inartistic analyticals seem to gravitate to bureaucracy. They love joining associations and gaining power so that they can create and uphold rigid rules. They’re often not even pipers or drummers, and instead are enthusiasts drawn in by sons or daughters doing the playing.

As with everything, there are exceptions. I admit that these are generalizations. But I think there’s something to this essential struggle of personality types. Look around and see what the rule-sticklers do for a living. More often than not they’re in professions that involve numbers and black-and-white yes/no options. The artistic types are usually in jobs that require flexible creativity. And if each type is unhappy about their work, it’s often because they’re doing something that doesn’t match their personality.

Arty readers will likely see this as an interesting take on our struggle, even if they don’t agree. The analyticals probably enjoyed the stats in the second paragraph but never got past the third.

Attack: stop

By most accounts, Pipe-Major Tom McAllister Sr. of Shotts adopted from military brass bands the rolls, drones, EEEE attack that pipe bands have used for about 75 years. Before then pipe bands apparently scrambled their way to eventually playing a recognizable melody. Thanks, Auld Tom.

For decades the “attack” and the clean cut-off were significant parts of an adjudicated performance. Blow the attack or the stop and chances were you’d blow the contest. They were easy pickings for judges who assessed things with a negative ear – that is, looking for technical cons rather than musical pros.

As this year’s World Championship has shown, a bad attack today is hardly death. The world’s greatest bands regularly survive an early E or a trailing drone, and even epic scrabbling at the bag and chanter has gone on to win major titles.

Quite right; it’s all relative. An early E by my calculation is about a half-second of a selection that lasts between three-and-a-half and seven minutes. That’s about 0.02% to 0.01% of the total performance, give or take a few hundredths of a percentage point. Further, the bad attack is usually by a solitary piper, not the entire band.

Unison, expression, tuning, musicality, creativity, originality, orchestration, balance – these are the far more important, all-encompassing, sustaining aspects of the overall pipe band performance. A perfectly blown and executed attack is a thing of beauty, and definitely creates a more positive first impression, but a perfect attack occurs about once in every 20 performances.

It’s good that we have perfection as a standard to strive for, but when it comes to the traditional pipe band attack, very good is now good enough, good is okay, and even poor isn’t the end of the world. I tend to think our more relaxed consideration of attacks and cut-offs is all about a new sense of enlightenment in pipe band performance and music: first, reward the good; then, tally up the bad.

As Andrew Wright famously said about piobaireachd, “I’d rather reward someone who went off the tune than someone who was never on it.” So, too, with the pipe band attack. Get going decently and move on to the good stuff.

For the parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please please me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pipe for the people?

Truly humble.The death of the “fabulous Donald MacPherson” (as Seumas MacNeill described him) was made even more poignant by the announcement of the available-for-sale of the Lawrie drones and Hardie chanter with which he won just about all of his prizes. If John Wilson’s dilapidated MacDougall drones went for $13,000, who knows what price MacPherson’s instrument will realize? $15,000? $20,000?

The truth is that the instrument is not just a bagpipe of one well-off piper’s dreams, but a historical piece that would be better shared by as many people as possible, whether as part of a permanent museum collection, or, even better, an instrument that could be loaned out to deserving and needy players.

I know that some organizations in the classical music world purchase world-class violins and cellos and then rent or loan them to artists who otherwise could not possibly afford to purchase such an instrument. Now, these instruments I believe are generally valued at hundreds-of-thousands, if not millions, of dollars. We all know that a decent violin bow can cost $10,000 or more, so the parallels with Highland pipes perhaps separate there.

But wouldn’t it be great if the late, great Donald MacPherson’s pipes could be acquired by a venerable organization like, say, the National Piping Centre, and then loaned each year to a deserving young piper? “The MacPherson Prize Pipe” could become the most meaningful award going in the piping world, making a true difference to a young player’s career. The MacPherson family could realize the value of the instrument in monetary terms that they truly deserve, but the piping world becomes the true beneficiary.

In truth, a bagpipe is only as good as the player. No one will ever again attain the distinct sound that Donald MacPherson achieved and, chances are, the highest bidder will be a player who can only dream of having the ability to walk on a professional-grade competition platform.

Donald MacPherson’s piping legacy will live in the memory of his performances, the standard he set with his sound, and the tunes that he wrote. Making his pipes accessible to deserving players would be a true reflection of his humble and giving character.

Crookit horns

Sweetheart . . .Why are there no pipe tunes about love with gushy titles along the lines of “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose”? Sure, we have “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart” and “The Clumsy Lover,” but the first is named after a cow and a brown hill and the latter is perhaps an unfortunate pre-Viagra-era experience.

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and I’d bet not a few tunes were composed for loved-ones and presented on the day. But I’d also bet they have bland, modest titles consisting of the lover’s name, e.g., “Donella Beaton.” “Betty Hardie.” “Lily Christie.” Zzzz.

Burns knew how to rip a good bodice now and again in his poetry, so it’s not like there isn’t a tradition of lusty overtures in Scottish art. But we pipers keep things positively Puritanical in our tunes. Like Donald MacLeod’s “Cockerel in the Creel,” we dance around the topic, rather than say what we really mean. What’s “Tam Bain’s Lum” really about, anyway?

One hears endlessly how the Highland pipes are full of passion and ceremony. We celebrate battles and commemorate deaths and marvel at ewes wi’ crookit horns (ooh-er!), but when it comes to outward displays of affection, we’re as inverted as a good cane bass drone reed. (Which reminds me of a great anecdote about synthetic reeds and, um, “marital aids” . . . )

So, let’s start with piobaireachd. There are salutes, laments, battles and gatherings – all a bit dour. “In Praise of Morag” is hardly lusty and, besides, wasn’t “Morag” supposedly Bonnie Prince Charlie in drag? I recommend we create a new ceol mor category that suggests something a lot more passionate, even suggestive, for tunes written especially for significant others. It will be our very own heart-shaped box of a tune.

But what would that be? A sonnet? A lovesong? A fawning? A stalking? Your suggestions are welcomed.

Independent thought

The indomitable Scottishry.The real possibility of an independent Scotland has been all over the news in Canada because of Canada’s similar (but not really comparable) situation with Quebec. On Facebook I see all sorts of pipers and drummers – Scottish and not – appearing to support the idea of Scotland as a nation.

I was brought up to back the Scottish Nationalist Party. My parents were close friends with James Halliday, leader of the SNP from 1956-’60. From about the age of four on my American dad kitted out me and my brother and sisters with badges, posters, stickers and t-shirts with SNP slogans with the ingenious thistle-ribbon emblem (still one of my favourite logos anywhere).

When I went to the University of Stirling for a year in 1983-’84 there was a club day. My main reason for being in Scotland was of course piping, but I figured I should try to do something else. There was a table for the university’s SNP Club, staffed by fairly radical-looking students. Clackmannanshire is a traditional SNP stronghold, and my mother was born in Tillicoultry, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll join up.

I went to a few meetings that I remember consisted of a lot of callow raving about the English and the “Westminster government.” After a month or two came the club’s election of officers. As with many volunteer groups, lots of people were nominated as president, but no one accepted.

It was then when they tried to convince me – an American – to be the president of the University of Stirling’s Scottish Nationalist Party Club. It was also then that I realized how absurd this was. I wasn’t Scottish. I played the pipes and had a Scottish mother and liked to read Hogg and Burns and Stevenson, but that was as close as I could be. I understood at that moment that I had no business getting involved with serious Scottish politics. It was the last meeting I attended.

We non-Scottish pipers and drummers tend to think we have a right to be Scottish. Because we play the Highland pipes and strap on the kilt most weekends and often visit the country and usually enjoy a dram and a bit of haggis, we make the mistake that we can get involved with Scottish politics, and fancifully support the very serious concept of Scotland as a separate nation.

A great thing about piping and drumming is that these arts are a great equalizer. Lawyers mingle with high school students. A police officer plays next to a dentist. A refuse collector can also be a genius composer. An Obama supporter can serve a member of the Tea Party as a pipe-major – and not even know it. We get along because we’re equalized by a common passion for music.

I like the notion of an independent Scotland, but I also respect the serious implications of such a move. “The indomitable Irishry” was how Yeats described his countrymen, and that has always stuck with me. But just because I play the bagpipes doesn’t entitle me to campaign for the SNP. It’s up to the real Scots to decide for themselves, and everyone else should just stick to the music.

Fixing holes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play well . . . or else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put a golf tee in it

Just shut it.pipes|drums is all about creating constructive conversation and dialog, and I like to think that over the years many sensitive topics have seen sunlight after having been swept under the rug for ages. We’re getting there.

Reviews are always done by those who have the right combination of objectivity, detachment, respect and expertise to make their words count. People who sell the product or compete with the item or have some other vested interest – real or perceived – are avoided. It’s often difficult to find the right match, and sometimes the best potential reviewers have to decline because they’re too busy or just feel uncomfortable about the task. I like it when they say no, rather than deliver something that disappoints or is well past the product’s sell-by-date.

Increasingly, RSPBA judges are declining the invitation to review products or events. It’s not because they feel they’re biased, it’s because the association allegedly requires  that they get permission in advance to write or speak about anything to do with piping or drumming. So, some of our best and brightest apparently are afraid to share their insights with the piping and drumming world, and don’t want the hassle of requesting advance consent from the association.

What a shame.

In 2007 I wrote about pipe bands veering towards that wrong-headed tack. Fortunately most of them have lightened up a great deal since then, as they’ve realized the communications potential of  Facebook and Twitter and other means to share insights. When an organization disallows members from speaking about their passion, and using their common sense when doing so, they undermine trust. The band or association views it from a strictly negative perspective, cynically thinking that their member will somehow embarrass the group, rather than indirectly vaunting it with their intelligence.

Granted, no organization should have members go out and speak for the organization, but, when it comes to a musical art, all they have to do is tell them to stick strictly to talking about music. Then trust them to do so.

As I understand it from RSPBA judges, they might not be allowed to post anything related to piping or drumming on Facebook, on which most of them have an account. They allegedly shouldn’t post any videos or anecdotes or comment about any band performance anywhere without prior consent, or do any interviews without prior approval. Should they just keep their mouths shut and their fingers off their keyboard? If they play a recital they shouldn’t speak to the audience without clearing things first with 45 Washington Street? Put tape right across your entire hole?

Are their only unapproved comments those that they put down on score sheets?

It’s a case study in how to get the least from your best.

Easy image

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

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

Clearly, tenor drumming has an image problem.

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons earned

Ethical dilemmae.There’s a hardly a person out there who has not at one time won a prize when their teacher was judging, and I would be willing to bet that of the 99 per cent of pipers and drummers who have been rewarded by their instructor, nearly all of them felt a bit regretful.

I know I have.

1984. I had been living in Scotland, spending my third year of college at the University of Stirling. I had the extreme good fortune to be taken on as a regular pupil by someone of prodigious knowledge and renown strictly for piobaireachd, and another even more renowned person for light music. (Why I didn’t occasionally seek one for the other music, I don’t know, but that’s another story.) I also was lucky enough to access the prodigious knowledge of another prominent person for a few weekends in the fall of 1983.

I had been preparing all year for the Silver Medal. The event in 1984 called for contestants to submit six of their own choice of tunes. I keenly learned up the tunes set for the Gold Medal contests, since it was all good. I got all of these from my main piobaireachd teacher. I’d been playing well enough over the summer to pick up prizes around the games.

But then the judges for the Silver Medal were revealed in July. At the time I was extremely excited to learn that not one, not two, but all three of my teachers would be on the Silver Medal bench at Inverness. Since I believed that the teacher/pupil/judge connection was an acceptable part of the game, I figured that I had hit the jackpot. What great luck!

After getting nothing at Oban, Inverness came around. I was the first to play after the lunch break. I thought that I played as well as I possibly could, which is all you can hope to do. The result was announced, and I was first. All three of them told me later that their decision was unanimous.

While I felt that I deserved the prize, I also felt awkward at the time and ever since about the award. I knew then as I know now that many prizes big and small have been won with teachers judging their students. As far as I know, there’s no rule anywhere against the practice, and only “policies” with some organizations that asks teachers to avoid judging their pupils.

I’ve written before that the practice of teachers judging their students is inevitable, since the best teachers make the most knowledgeable judges and vice-versa. Maybe tellingly, I came up with that thesis when I was actively competing. People often find ways to reconcile such dilemmas in ways that suit us at the time.

I’ve since changed my mind. Teachers judging pupils can and should be avoided. If for nothing else, a teacher should avoid the practice for this fundamental reason: it’s not fair to the pupil. It’s not fair because the student may well have deserved the prize, and probably did, but his or her peers – every one of them – will have at least a shade of doubt.

I don’t for a second think that back in 1984 my teachers were anything but ethical and honest, and my sense of ethics may differ substantially from others. I respect other opinions. I also think that the ethical sense of players, teachers and judges have changed over the last three decades.

But all too often I sense teachers accept judging pupils for what appears to be a selfish reason: to further their own reputation as a teacher via the success of their student. The better the pupil does, the better the instructor appears.

Some players dodge the issue by saying that a judge who’s judging them isn’t really an “instructor” because they see them only periodically, or receive only casual feedback. That may be so, but, as a friend recently pointed out, the player is quick to list the very same person as a “teacher” in their autobiographical sketches.

Some judges dodge the issue with the well-worn contention that, if you prohibit teachers from judging their pupils, there won’t be enough judges to go around. I don’t believe that. It just takes adroit planning and full disclosure. Judges need to tell organizers who they’re teaching, and then let them organize events accordingly.

Competitions are about the competitors, not the judges. Teachers should not put their students in such compromising situations. Ironically, prizes won by students of judges are an injustice to the pupil who needs to be seen to earn prizes fairly, strictly on his or her own merits.

And declining to judge pupils in contests could be one of the most important lessons an instructor can teach.

Great Big Bug

Like this.Solo pipers in outdoor contests have to contend with all manner of things. The bouncy castles, midges and starter’s pistols of Scotland. Oblivious passers-by wandering in between you and the judge at Ontario events. The odd mid-2/4 march dust-devil in the Midwest. They’re all a test of either our concentration or sanity or both. We shake our heads and carry on.

By far the most memorable thing to happen to me was at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville, Ontario. Anyone who has been to Maxville knows that it’s in the middle of farm country. In fact, many of the solo events back up onto fields, often bone-dry in the latter part of the hot and humid summer.

It was when I was playing a piobaireachd contest. The venerable Reay Mackay was judging. The tune was some dreary thing set for the Gold Medal competitions in Scotland, which I always played all summer, convincing myself that I liked some of the dreckiest pieces of dreck ever composed for the Highland pipe. This particular instance I think had me playing “The Rout of the MacPhees,” which isn’t exactly a toe-tapping melody, even in the hands of the world’s elite pipers.

But the tune was going quite well, I thought. Back then the Open Piobaireachd was invariably put out in the open, sun blazing down. I got to the first variation of the thing and the biggest freaking bug known to Glengarry County landed on my arm. As soon as this giant cicada or extraterrestrial grasshopper or flying kitten plunked itself on my bare left forearm I jumped about two feet, hands flailing off the chanter (shaddup!), drones in a heap.

“%*&% !!”

“What happened?!” Reay shouts.

“It was a Great Big Bug! A Great Big Bug landed on me! It was a Great Big Bug!” I said breathlessly.

“A Great Big Bug?! Really?” Reay says. “Here, just go off and collect yourself and we’ll let you play again.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course,” kindly Reay confirms. “I’ve never seen that happen when a Great Big Bug upsets a tune like that. Sure, I’ll tell the steward you can play later.”

Which is what happened. I went away, recollected myself, tried to get the vision and feel of the Great Big Bug out of my head, and hoped that I’d also get a chance to play a tune that bugged me less. (Not so; Reay Mackay said I had to play the same thing.)

I felt a bit sheepish about it, and a few fellow competitors told me it wasn’t fair. (Then go talk to Reay, I told them.) But being on the other side of the table, I can understand why a judge would do that. You tend to make a lot of non-piping judgment calls during the day, often about what a competitor’s intentions might be. I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt, and I try to do that with others when I think they deserve it.

The name of the game is fair play, Great Big Bugs included. What extraordinary circumstances have you encountered in your competition experiences?

Sign language

U-turn.Here’s a piece of simple advice that I hope will help your next event: Invest in decent signage.

You can have the best piping/drumming competition, your Highland games might be a wonderful little gem, your gala evening might ultimately be great fun, but your first chance to impress is with a well-made sign.

I cringe every time I see hand-written directional signs on flimsy pieces of paper at otherwise high-profile piping competitions. Or, how many times have you driven to a Highland games and barely detected a wobbly board with spray-painted lettering and maybe an arrow for where to turn? Or, worse, tried to find an event that completely forgot to make signage?

It’s unprofessional and immediately implies that the organizers forgot to sweat the details. It makes me want to go home, and, I would bet, not a few people opt to do something else instead of take their chance on this apparently amateur event.

And, while it’s pretty easy to do-it-yourself, it’s an even better choice to set aside a few dollars and some time to invest in signage designed and made by a professional company. By making them reusable, your small investment will be a one-time effort with long-term results.

Signs. Good signs. Simple. Effective. Inexpensive. Professional. A lasting first-impression.

Living salute

We pipers and drummers all too often pay tribute to those who contribute only after the person’s left us and we realize that it’s too late to show him or her the appreciation we have for the life-long contribution to the art. That’s not something unique to the piping and drumming world, of course, but perhaps we’re too caught up too often in our own competitive concerns to acknowledge the work of others.



The Georgetown Highland Games in Georgetown, Ontario, on June 11, 2011, was a rare exception. One of the games organizers had the good idea to pay tribute to Bill Livingstone and his nearly 50 years of work and accomplishment in the art. A few folks put the word out only a few days before the event, asking anyone who might be at the event who had played under Bill over the years to participate in a tribute at the massed bands ceremony at the end of the day.

A good number of folks gladly stepped up, and, led by new 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe-Major, Doug MacRae, played a mass rendition of “Lord Lovat’s Lament” and “The Mason’s Apron,” two tunes closely identified with Livingstone.

It was one of the nicer gestures I can remember seeing by the piping and drumming community. There are life memberships and posthumous tributes and trophies and things, but I would think an actual playing tribute is about as meaningful as it gets for someone who’s committed most of his life to the art, and, better yet, is around to hear it, still living strong.

Lament for the union

Strength in numbers.Here’s a wildcat thought: piping and drumming associations are unions. Well, we all know they’re not, strictly speaking, but maybe it’s time we all thought of them that way. There could be great up-side if we did.

Every association I know contends that its central purpose is to promote, further, enhance . . . whatever the piping and drumming arts. If that’s true, then shouldn’t every piper and drummer get behind the greater group for the greater good? We all too often think of associations as a requirement to compete, a necessary step simply to take part in the events that are our primary performance platform.

In fact, we should want to be a member of an association primarily to further what we do – to promote our own arts in a long-range, big-picture perspective.

The trouble is, associations may claim that their fundamental mandate is to further our art, but they often lose sight of that objective. Too many associations think that they’re in the business of running competitions, like a kind of one-product company. They may run competitions exceedingly well, but is that really for the greater good of the art? Is it to an association’s long-term benefit to do little or nothing else but administer competitions?

Companies that have one product and don’t diversify are almost always doomed eventually to fail. Once the popularity of their one thing wanes, they’re left with nothing to sell. The corporate graveyard is filled with the ghosts of one-product companies that failed to diversify, leapfrog the competition or satisfy the expanding needs of their customers.

Associations therefore need to refocus and fulfill their core goal of furthering our arts in as many ways as possible. Pipers and drummers who don’t receive more in return on their investment than being part of a competition-running-machine will eventually look elsewhere. They won’t want to be part of a “union” that is a nothing more than a condition to compete.

If we think of associations as unions, and if associations deliver on their core promise, we can leverage strength-in-numbers. If we work like the unions of actors and musicians, eventually all events where pipers and drummers perform will be required to work through our associations.

But it has to start with the associations. They have to do more than administer competitions. They have to diversify their products, extend ROI for their members and be seen as the right thing for the art. If that happens, then card-carrying members will rally around the union, and solidarity will prevail.

Why not?

Stewards, chiefly

The passing of the esteemed piper, leader and organizer Robert Stewart of Inveraray in May was a sad loss for piping. I can’t say that I knew him, but those who did had all-good things to say, and talked of him with reverence and respect and admiration.

My encounters with him were limited to competing at the Inveraray Games 10 or so years ago. I was impressed with the way he handled the large number of competitors as both the piping convener and steward for the competitions. I remember thinking that, without such an adept hand, the whole thing would be chaos instead of the fun and smooth-running event it was.

Stewarding takes a deft touch. It’s true that once pipers and drumming gain experience, they essentially know the drill and look after themselves. But good stewarding can turn a decent competition into one a soloist will return to again and again.

The best stewards are often those who played the game themselves. Former competitors have been there and understand how to improve a piper or drummer’s overall experience, while simultaneously looking after the necessities of the event itself.

Until about 1986, the Edinburgh City/Lothian & Border Police Pipe Band used to organize a popular indoor solo competition. It was popular with competitors, in large part, because the band’s members did the stewarding. They kept the events moving, but also were true to the definition of “steward”: one who manages and assists.

I would add empathy to that description. Too often piping and drumming stewards don’t fully appreciate their role and, instead of being empathetic with the competitors, are almost unfeeling by not first giving the soloist the benefit of the doubt, or deferring to the piper or drummer’s experience when they themselves haven’t walked the boards. Although stewards at times need to get tough, stewarding shouldn’t be considered a position of authority.

I understand that competitions can’t all have a fleet of Robert Stewarts managing events. We all do the best we can, and are always grateful to volunteers who step up and who strive to do a good job. Often, though, volunteer stewards aren’t aware of what they can do to make an event better for the competitor.

So here are a few tips for stewards:

– Get a briefing. If you’re new to stewarding, a run-down of dos and don’ts from the organizers is essential. Also, ask the judge how he/she likes to operate before the event starts.
– Talk to competitors. Introduce yourself and help them to feel at ease. These people have put a gazillion hours into preparing for the event you’re stewarding, and part of your role is to, if not keep them calm, not let them get any more anxious.
– Don’t just sit there. Some stewards are evidently told that their only task is to check off competitors on their list as they report to them. You need to get up and about and even ask competitors and other stewards if someone entered but not checked in is in fact present. Walk around keep competitors informed on what’s going on.
– The idea is participation. We want pipers and drummers to compete and enjoy their day, not to be unnecessarily DQed. Find ways to solve misunderstandings. Not permitting someone to compete should always be a last resort, only when it’s out of fairness to other competitors.
– Ask for feedback. After the event, ask the judge and a few competitors how you did, and ways you might improve.

Stewarding can differentiate a competition and a good steward improves “customer service” for the event and the association. What do you see as the most important aspects of stewarding?

10 words that should never appear on score sheets, but do

Competition score sheets, or “crit sheets,” are the primary way that a judge accounts for his or her result. They should provide feedback in a clear, constructive and, perhaps most important, respectful manner. Some judges are better than others at writing score sheets.

Constructing a good sheet takes an ability to multi-task (writing while listening takes practice and skill), and finding the right words with originality and specificity for at times dozens of performances over a day is far more exhausting than competing. Judging with constructive accountability is a hard, hard job.

But what isn’t hard is respecting the competitor. There’s something of a tradition in some quarters, particularly in pipe band judging, of being disrespectful to competitors. It’s like a Simon Cowell approach to “judging,” where the main objective seems to be to put artists in their place, reminding them who’s boss. It’s an old-fashioned and ignorant style of judging that, sadly, still happens today.

It often comes down to single words that can be so demeaning that even using them could be cause for suspension from a panel, reinstatement only after sensitivity training and/or completion of high school English. Alarmingly, the use of a few of these is actually encouraged in some quarters.

Here are 10 destructive words that I’ve seen on actual score sheets. In this day and age they should be banned from further use – the words and the judges.

“Vacuous” – imagine telling a band or soloist that their performance was “mindless” and “lacking in thought or intelligence.” This is what vacuous means. Has a judge stepped into a beer-tent and called a pipe-major “mindless” to his/her face? Didn’t think so.

“Dispassionate” – this $100 word is doing the rounds. It means “emotionally detached” and, perhaps ironically, is used in non-piping/drumming terms to describe someone rational or impartial. Is there a piping, drumming or pipe band competitor who is not passionate about their music? Seriously? How incredibly insulting.

An “exercise” – this seems to be a word that some judges use when they don’t personally prefer or understand a particular rhythm or melody. In this era of Rhythmic Fingerwork exercises does anyone really practice without attempting to be rhythmical?

“Devoid,” “insipid” – can you be more hurtful than telling someone passionate about their music that it’s devoid of something positive? I’m pretty sure judges who use either word don’t really know what they mean but, regardless, they can say the same thing using constructive language.

“Tuneless,” “unmusical” – these are cop-out words by judges who can’t constructively explain why they didn’t prefer a particular score or interpretation. They throw these destructive words with the intention, really, of saying, “Don’t ask me what I mean, it just was, and I know better, so shut up.”

“Mumbo-jumbo” – really? We know you’re tired and full of yourself and all, but you need to resist the temptation to sink to this sort of insulting language.

“Jungle-drumming” – this hyphenation is used by some judges who don’t like certain styles of bass-section drumming. J.K. McAllister I’m pretty sure coined the term “jungle-drumming,” or at least made it famous. Not only is it demeaning, it smacks of racism.

“Ignorant” – the only thing ignorant when it comes to this word being used on a crit-sheet is the judge, who is apparently ignorant of tact and respect and has apparently completely forgotten what it was like to be a competitor. A judge who uses this word may find his/her picture if they look up the definition.

Those are 10 words that seem to be in use by actual piping/drumming/pipe band judges. I hope that you haven’t been the victim of this stuff appearing on score sheets. And if in the future you receive one of these bombs I recommend that you send a copy of the sheet to your association to be sure that they are aware of it and deal with the offender.

When judges use this sort of language they’re really just bullying their way out of facing the truth: they’re not an effective judge of modern piping and drumming music, so they try to block its evolution by putting it down with insulting and demeaning language. Sometimes they might not even know the true meaning of the words they use. They don’t bother to look it up, just as they don’t bother to understand what today’s pipe bands are attempting to accomplish musically.

What other $100 words of judging destruction have you encountered?

Sage advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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