In art, only hate itself should be hated

The only thing I really hate is hatred. When people say that they “hate” piobaireachd, a new pipe band medley, or, for that matter, any form of music or art, it bothers me. You can prefer one style more than another, or love a certain sound or sight, but why would anyone hate something as truly harmless as art?

You hear people in piping and drumming use the hate word frequently. “I hate that tune.” “I really hate what bass-sections are doing these days.” “I hate that band’s music.” It’s a word that, unfortunately, seems to be part of the piping and drumming tradition, perhaps borne of spite and envy and the ever-present need people seem to feel to compete on any level.

Some like to try to get a competitive edge by tearing down or belittling things they’re threatened by. Rather than minding only what they do themselves, they take a negative tack and discredit different approaches by using hateful language.

The other day I thought about different types of music. Like anyone else, I prefer some music more than others. But I can’t think of any music – whether classical, jazz, hip-hop or whatever – that I wouldn’t listen to and try to appreciate, if not enjoy.

My musical preferences run from hard rock to country to punk to bubblegum pop, even, and when it comes to music, I have many guilty pleasures. I was ridiculed mercilessly in the 1980s for admitting that I liked Debbie Gibson’s “Only In My Dreams” (which I maintain to this day is an intoxicating melody).

There is a sordid custom in piping to tear down that which threatens us. Dr. William Donaldson’s The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society is a seminal study of just such an example, in which piobaireachd was standardized by a group that set out to control the music in part by denigrating its history. The irony of ironies was that, when Donaldson’s book emerged, there was a strong and vocal attempt to – what else? – discredit his research, not to mention his training as a piper, each of which are impeccable.

There are those who are completely stuck in a hateful rut and, sadly, these folks all too often end up in positions of power. They try to eliminate things that threaten them by spreading hateful ideas, discrediting and belittling anything that is a challenge to their past and their status. They fancy themselves the protectors of some faith that really cannot exist in any art that wants to live in the present and future.

When it comes to art, the only thing to hate is hate itself.

Trad. and true

Until posting a few Glen-Cam videos of Ontario-based Grade 3 bands competing recently, I hadn’t much thought about the trend toward creativity creeping into the lower grades. We’ve all taken note of the move to experimenting with the music in Grade 1, perhaps best exemplified by the Toronto Police band’s trailblazing, and some might say button-pushing, medleys of the past three seasons, but I have been struck by the creativity coming through in Grade 3 and Grade 4 selections.

It makes sense, since creativity isn’t exclusive to those with technical ability. Sure, the better bands can better execute the creative, and are on the whole more listened-to by the piping and drumming public than bands in the lower grades. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be every bit as creative.

It was the comments to the videos that got me thinking. I’d never really thought that there was some divine right to be musically creative, that you have to serve time as a piper or drummer, moving up the grades, before being permitted to challenge convention. Of particular interest to me was the notion that, in Scotland, the concept that pipe- and pipe band music comes naturally, because one is around it, essentially, from birth, as part of the country’s artistic culture. You play that music because that music is what is played, and that’s that. You don’t question it. It just is.

How easy and worry-free that must be. So many non-Scottish bands tear at themselves, questioning why they do what they do, wonder what they can do to improve it or do it differently. It’s either dissatisfaction or boredom or a combination of the two. Or it’s a result of rejecting the idea that competitive pipe bands are more sport than art, and that art isn’t art unless conventional wisdom is bucked and creativity tapped.

And that, possibly, is where the philosophies of Scotland and the rest of the world collide. There are exceptions, of course – several noteworthy Scottish bands that love to push the musical envelope; several non-Scottish bands that stick to the familiar. I’m not saying I like one approach more than another, and full credit goes to fine music, whatever it is.

But there are those who are quite happy doing what we do in piping and pipe bands because that’s just what we do, so why change it? Don’t get all worked up over being different. Play your stuff, play it as well as you can, and work to perfect it. Why mess with a good thing? You’re just making yourself miserable.

The other side of course revels in the challenge to create, even if it means being miserable or, on the contrary, delighting in being different and pushing buttons and challenging convention. Just as the bread-in-the-bone conventionalists can’t understand what all the creative fuss is about, the chronically uneasy artisans in the crowd can’t imagine a pipe band world where you play the same thing again and again and again, like three decades of “Donald Cameron,” “Cameronian Rant” and “Pretty Marion” that was Shotts & Dykehead’s trademark from the 1960s to the 1980s.

So much of the musical quandaries we’re facing now in pipe bands are not a result of taste, but of cultures colliding.  It started when the first non-UK band sailed to Scotland to test their mettle, and came back questioning if that was all there was. The pursuit of perfection to them had to include musical innovation as well.

For a long time the thing to do was to imitate the Scots and everything they did, doing everything just so and just the same, contest after contest, year after year. After a while, that approach just doesn’t sit well with New World thinking.

Perfect pitch

Outta there!Referees, umpires and judges can make mistakes. Every competition that requires an element of human officiating is subject to human error.

The technically “perfect” game (for non-baseball fans this is a game in which one side never reaches first-base; it’s happened only 20 times in the 130-year history of Major League Baseball) pitched by Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers the other night was nullified by a mistake in judgment by highly-respected veteran umpire, Jim Joyce. On what should have been the final, 27th-straight batter grounding out, Joyce ruled the batter safe at first, thus spoiling the rare perfect game and the no-hitter.

Baseball fans immediately wondered whether the umpire’s decision would be overturned by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, by overwhelming video evidence that the umpire erred, but Bud Selig decided against that. He contended that “the human element” is an integral part of the game, so the decision would stand, even though he, the umpire, Galarraga and everyone even remotely interested knows that it was in fact the twenty-first perfect game. What a shame.

The age of instant recording has also affected piping and drumming competitions. It probably started in 1974 when Bill Livingstone famously had his second-prize revoked in the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting when a listener in the audience cannily produced a tape recording showing that he had made some note mistakes. After the results were announced, upon hearing the recorded evidence the judges convened and decided to alter their list. Much hue and cry ensued, but it probably helped to put a spotlight on Bill, who went on, as we all know, to greater things.

Today instant replay is more than ever a factor. Video from pipe band competitions is available within hours of even the least significant of contests. More than once, there have been some visual things – blown attacks, hitched bags, dropped sticks – that seemed to have not been noticed by the judges.

There’s a school of thought with many judges that it’s only what’s heard that ultimately matters. Who cares about false fingering if you can’t hear it? A piper might not “get up,” but if it didn’t affect the sound, then what difference does it make? Didn’t that bass drummer play just fine with one mallet? The bagpipe sounded great without a middle-tenor going, so why get all worked up?

There are other judges who feel that these technical “errors” should be punishable. If you can see the mistake, then it should be duly assessed. The assumption is that if you detect it with your eyes, there must be some negative impact on the sound.

The Sunday morning quarterbacking that now goes on on YouTube is bigger than ever. This is the pipe band world’s version of instant replay, and perhaps it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that results can be altered by the officials, if the oversight is grievous enough. But that’s unrealistic.

What is realistic is a post-event conversation between judges before each submits his/her final result. In effect, this is as close as we should come to reviewing the recording to share notes to increase the likelihood of a fair result being rendered. The consultative judging process acknowledges that our competitions are subject to the human element, that mistakes might be made and that no one is perfect.


If you’re on the side of expanding our pipe band music, is there a better place to try that than Las Vegas? Vegas “is what it is,” as they say, but, really, it’s the most untraditional place on earth. I shouldn’t say that. Its tradition is this: no tradition.

As pipes|drums reported, the planners of the April 2011 $2-million pipe band gamble are considering creating a Grade 1 “Concert” competition event in addition to the traditional Medley and decrepit MSR events. They’re being super-accommodating, asking the bands themselves for their thoughts as to how the Concert competition could work. There’s really no need.

It’s Vegas, baby. If there were ever a place simply to see what happens, and let bands do whatever-the-heck they want, this is it. Personally, I would not have any problem with a band of Elvis impersonators, or a couple of Bengal tigers, or scantily clad showgirls tarting up their tartan show. Musically, bands can simply let ‘er dangle (as I write that, I’ll always hear Scott MacAulay’s voice), and go for it. Set a limit on time, but only for scheduling reasons. Fifteen minutes, no-holds-barred. Maybe require that Highland pipes have to be used at least some of time – but that’s it.

A few years ago there was talk, and even negotiations, with Florida’s Disneyworld to create the pipe band extravaganza that Vegas subsequently landed. It seemed like a good idea, until it became evident that the good people at Disney just saw it as a large group to pay to get into their theme park. For all they seemed to care, it could be a trombone festival, just as long as you brought your money.

At the time, there was something odd to me about placing a pipe band competition in the land of Mickey Mouse and Goofy, but it’s even more counter-intuitive to hold it in Las Vegas. If I were to identify a place on earth that is the polar opposite of the traditional Scottish world of piping and drumming, it would have to be Las Vegas.

Please, don’t mistake me. I think this is a golden opportunity. I love juxtaposing things in surprising and counter-intuitive ways. Mash-ups are one of the most interesting developments in music and the arts as a whole.

I have nothing against Las Vegas, but there’s a reason why its art museum closed in 2008. The only culture that people who go to Vegas want is no culture at all. Hold an anything-goes Concert event, have fun, let it all hang out for a weekend. Let it happen in Vegas.

And whether it then stays in Vegas is up to the pipe band world to decide.

Crazy AGM Head

Let it all out.Paltry attendance by members at annual general meetings of associations seems to be a worldwide dilemma. Every year that I’ve been in piping and drumming I’ve seen, heard or read about people bemoaning the apparent apathy of members when a small percentage turns out for their AGM. (In fact, come to think of it, pipers and drummers don’t generally go to any piping and drumming events at which they aren’t actually a performer, which may tell you something about us.)

The recent PPBSO AGM was another case-in-point. Thirty-five of the association’s 1200-odd membership attended, or about three per cent. And, of those there, about half held an official role with the organization. It’s almost traditional for members not to attend these things.

I’ve made the PPBSO AGM now for 21 straight years, mainly because of my role either in publishing or with the Music Board. I have to admit, though, that it is one of my least favourite days of the year. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is, and I would suspect that that’s true of most who attend. They’re mostly there out of a sense of propriety or duty.

It’s odd to me that, with people so passionate about their piping/drumming avocation, they’re apparently so apathetic when it comes to meetings where significant rules and policies can often be determined and leadership is decided. Pipers and drummers inherently kvetch and moan their whole lives about judging and rules and results, but when it comes time to do something about them, they’d just as well stay home. Funny, that.

Maybe it’s the off-putting phenomenon of individuals who come out of the woodwork seemingly with the sole intent to make a fuss. There are always one or two people at AGMs who are very outspoken, but no one seems to know who they are or even recall seeing them before, never mind knowing if they’re even actually involved with piping and drumming. They make a scene at the AGM, then go away for 12 months. After a year or two, they go away for good.

At AGMs of publicly traded organization this occurs, too. As long as you own one share of a public company, you have the right to attend its AGM and have your views made known and your vote counted. You can stand up and make Steve Ballmer sleepless in Seattle if you own a bit of Microsoft.

There’s something about AGMs that tempts people – me included – into becoming argumentative and, at times, insensitive. Call it Crazy AGM Head. The affair this past Saturday was actually very congenial and relatively sedate, but I’ve seen meetings at which I swear folks came close to having a coronary right there, veins pulsing out of their forehead as they try to shout down one another. It’s probably the passion for the art kicking in, or maybe it’s a habitual need to perform. Whatever the case, after these meetings I’m sometimes a shade embarrassed of my conduct.

I understand why people wouldn’t want to dedicate a Saturday to such a thing. It’s not fun, and at times it can be downright difficult. But, ultimately, when measured against the big picture of a lifetime of commitment and dedication to piping and drumming, attending annual general meetings is relatively small pain for the greater good.

Dumb luck

Call me the tumbling dice.“Good luck,” we pipers and drummers say to each other as we go off to compete. But should luck have anything to do with it? Shouldn’t luck be at least minimized as much as possible when it comes to trying to establish an equitable competition where all performers compete under the same conditions?

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), luck is a traditional element in what we do. The concept of good fortune, serendipity or old-fashioned superstition pervades everyday human life. But, when we can, we humans try to mitigate the risk of bad luck by making the right choice.

I got to thinking about the luck factor while at this year’s World’s. As is habit, I figured that the bands competing in the unpredictable Glasgow rain were simply unlucky. One of the five or so Grade 1 bands that were soaked managed to survive and get through to the Final, but the rest I guess had to chalk up at least part of the outcome to bad luck.

Similarly, competitors will talk about having “good luck” with who’s judging or, more accurately, who’s not judging. Whether a band or a solo player, some judges are seen to have a bias for or against some competitors. You’re “lucky” if you have no perceived adversaries with a clipboard or on a bench.

Then there’s the luck of the draw. Playing later is preferred by most competitors, unless there’s a group of favourites clumped early-on. Then it’s lucky to compete along with them. Maybe if Field Marshal Montgomery had the luck of being drawn later – as was SFU’s good luck – the result might have been different. Maybe.

It seems to me that the role of luck should be controlled, if at all possible. By-and-large, competitors dislike leaving things to chance, so why not work to reduce the risk, especially for big competitions? If judges are seen to have biases, why not poll the competitors – as the CPA did about 10 years ago – to find out who they consider to be the fairest and most knowledgeable adjudicators? If playing later is considered advantageous, shouldn’t a seeding system be implemented? If weather is a factor, then maybe consider moving a stratospherically high-stakes event like the Grade 1 World Championship to an indoor or covered venue.

The next few weeks will see the Gold Medal, Clasp and Silver Star solo piping competitions at Oban and Inverness. These events used to be held outside, often in freezing, lashing rain. For decades now they’ve been held in indoor facilities, where at least that element of luck has been eliminated. While the Argyllshire Gathering still subjects Thursday A- and B-Grade competitors to the weather, the bouncy castle and the bad-luck pop of a starter’s pistol, the top solo piping and drumming contests are all indoors. These events are also working to ensure that only judges from a preferred list with no teaching or family perceived conflicts arising.

While “luck” is simply part of life, we try to control things that can be controlled. It’s what we humans do. Tradition should give way to common sense.

Other worldly

GlobularThe 2009 World’s is done and dusted, and all that’s left is the celebrating by a relative few and the crying by most competitors. Competition notwithstanding, everyone who was there – physically or virtually – should be able to remember the event fondly. It is an extraordinary thing, and every year it seems to improve incrementally.

I’ve been on the administration and planning side of large events, and can appreciate just how much work goes in to them. Much of that effort comes from unappreciated volunteers, and that this year’s World’s again ran like clockwork is a true credit to the contest-running machine that is the RSPBA. I don’t envy any organizers who take it upon themselves to stage a big-time event for anxious and naturally contentious competitors. It’s inevitable that they’ll have to take far more stick for minor inconsistencies than kudos for the majority of achievements. So here’s my big congratulations to them, and you perhaps might want to do the same.

A few thoughts post-event:

Internet streaming: While straining to hear the Grade 1 bands (even from on of the best vantage-points there was), and wondering whether that mistake I detected was real or just the whistling wind or rain, I couldn’t help but think that listening to the BBC’s live webcast at home through a high-speed connection in high-definition on a 55-inch plasma TV with surround-sound speakers would be altogether better. While this high-quality access is a great step ahead and a boon to everyone, it’s probably not in the RSPBA’s best interests. They’re essentially freely giving away their most valuable product – the one many paid $50 all-told to hear live. I heard about not a few competitors even watching the webcast from their bus instead of fighting the crowds to hear. Pay-per-view makes sense, but by law the BBC can’t do that. Thanks to funding by UK taxpayers, the Beeb is commercial- and income-free. The BBC has played an integral role for years in the recording and broadcast of the World’s, and changing this to a private, revenue-based company that could then coordinate pay-per-view is a daunting thought. It will be interesting to see what happens.

The Qualifier. Get rid of it. I know that the Q was essentially something that the competitors originally demanded more than a decade ago. But 10 years back there were maybe 12 bands that had almost no chance to get a prize, so the Q was an easy way to weed them out. Now, though, I would say that the number of certain also-rans is maybe down to five Grade 1 bands. With that, it’s time to have every band go through a one-day medley qualifier for a final the next day. That means a two-day World’s, at least for Grade 1. But it would make the playing field more level, ensuring no band in the final has to compete three times – a massive disadvantage.

Bring it inside: Assuming Internet streaming will continue, why not bring the Grade 1 competition indoors? The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall seats 2,500. The Scottish Exhibition Centre even more. Sell tickets for a premium price, and put the bands, judges and audience in a warm, controlled, acoustically excellent environment.

The 78th Fraser Highlanders. Along the lines of the above points, aside from the actual final result, that the 78FH did not qualify was probably the biggest news of the day. Based on what I heard, I don’t think they deserved to go through. That said, bands competing in the heavy rain before 10 am were at a massive disadvantage. To think that this band finished fourth in the World’s Final only two years earlier, and two weeks before played well enough to win the North American Championship. The weather is luck-of-the-draw, for sure, but what sort of music competition hoses down a few random competitors with ice-water while they’re playing? It’s reminiscent of a scene from Wipeout.

The  Medley: Expand it. Five-to-seven minutes is too short. I don’t think Scottish-style bands are ready for the 15-miunute Breton approach, but they are certainly ready for 10 minutes. Unless they adopt a Toronto Police-style suite (and so far that methodology clearly isn’t being emulated by other bands), a seven-minute cap invites limited ability to expand creatively. As is, bands are essentially restricted to chopping and changing tunes with a degree of sameness, and several medleys that I heard seemed to be just getting started when they had to end. An additional 40 per cent of time will promote creativity and allow the pipe band art to evolve musically.

Repeat medleys: I can understand why bands will be tempted to play the same medley year-after-year (and year-after-year-after-year in a few cases), but it’s a let-down when they do. The top bands set musical trends, and same-old, same-old – while perhaps played to perfection – seems just a bit irresponsible and not a little lazy. Music fans look forward to the next release by their favourite artist. The top bands have their followers whom they shouldn’t disappoint. Maybe there should be a rule requiring bands to submit an altogether different medley every year.

Bass-sections: It’s time to get serious about how this increasingly important element of the band is judged. Ensemble and drumming judges need to be fundamentally trained to understand how bass-sections work, and then one or both of them need to be required to assess them, or else there needs to be a separate bass-section judge. As it stands, I tend to think that bass-sections are simply ignored by too many judges. Or perhaps judges don’t know what to listen for. While much of it is tastefully musically wonderful, some of the stuff going on with upper-level Grade 1 bands’ bass-sections is questionable, unmusical and even comical.

Judges: The criteria for who becomes a judge at the top level needs to be improved. That prerequisite needs to include a minimum number of years played at the Grade 1 level. I would suggest using the PPBSO’s stipulation of a minimum of 10 years to be eligible to be an A-level adjudicator (i.e., to be allowed to judge Grade 1 or Grade 2). Juried competition is only as good as the judges, and the adjudicators must have the respect of the competitors. In our game, that respect comes from having done it on the field and not just talking it in a lower-grade band hall. I’m certain that those who don’t fit the minimum experience level are very nice people. It’s nothing personal. It is, though, something essential.

Some may instantly read all this as a dump on the RSPBA. It’s not. The RSPBA and all associations aren’t about a bunch of executives and administrators. Associations are the members. It’s up to the members to demand changes, to raise motions at branch meetings and AGMs and have the courage to make what we do – and by virtue what the associations do – better. It’s up to us.

Contesting age-limits

She doesn't look 60.Like just about everyone else, I was cheering for 59-year-old Tom Watson to win the Open Championship at Turnberry July 19th. It was a feel-good story and a nice change to all-Tiger-all-the-time. It prompted me to think about our own competitions, of course, and I started comparing Watson’s situation with those that we’ve seen through the years in solo piping.

While I wanted Watson to win, I also reminded myself that the guy already has five Open Championship victories. That’s five more than the vast majority of the field, most of whom are decades younger. I don’t feel sorry for him one bit; he can go back to Kansas and kiss his five replica claret jugs.

As good a player as he is, the eventual winner, 36-year-old Stewart Cink, had never before won a major championship. I liked it when Cink’s young family poured onto the 18th green for a group hug. His win clearly meant a massive amount to the Cinks.

The Royal & Ancient, the organization that governs pro golf in the UK, last year lowered the age-limit at the Open to 60. Ironically, their rationale was that it would allow a few more younger players to compete, to have a shot at golf glory. Besides, almost all of those older than 60 who would compete in the Open are former-winners who qualify through their 25-year exemptions. I suppose they could get in through the truly open qualifying system, but that’s unlikely.

The Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering – solo piping’s quasi-equivalents to the Open Championship – about 15 years ago decided to get tougher with older competitors in the Gold and Silver medal competitions. “Old” in their book apparently was (and still is, as far as I know) about 35 or 40 – an age when some pipers actually reach their prime piobaireachd-playing years. Highland Society of London Gold Medals have certainly been won by pipers older than 40, but usually after being several times in the prize-lists.

Oban and Inverness decided to reject entries from older applicants who had not previously won any or many prizes in the Gold Medal events. This allowed them to accept more entries from those 25-and-younger players who had done well around the (Scottish) games and/or in the Silver Medal, without managing to win that automatic qualifier.

Around 1998, after eight years of not competing or even entering Inverness and Oban, my entry to the Gold Medals was rejected. I was miffed at the time, but decided I’d go round the Scottish games instead, try to collect a few prizes and regain some cred, and re-apply the next year. It all worked out, and I was accepted again in 1999 and hit it as hard as I could (until 2005 after my entry was rejected following my having to bow out of Inverness when my mother died suddenly).

While I was peeved at the time, I actually think that the age policy makes a certain amount of sense. After a while, others should be given the chance to win their spot in history. If there are a limited number of spots for competitors – as with Oban, Inverness and golf’s Open Championship – then older players highly unlikely to win should be culled, if they don’t stand down on their own. It’s a tough call in a contest that can only be won once, but it’s ultimately good for the art and the sport.

Additionally, solo piping and drumming have a number of competitors who have won some top prizes numerous times, repeatedly experiencing the glory. I’m not sure that I agree, but there is an argument to be made that the Tom Watsons of our own solo world, might want to step back, enjoy their personal accomplishments, and make room for more of the next generation to have their shot at glory.

Tying a bridle

Woa there, little dawgie.Is it time to create a new competition event for pipe bands? Blogpipe and pipes|drums readers will be well versed in the debate, controversy and, unfortunately, occasional invective about the Toronto Police Pipe Band’s two “medleys.” (I won’t recap what they’re all about, but, if you’re not sure, just poke around the site for awhile and you’ll begin to understand.)

Pipe band people are almost equally divided between liking or disliking it, and many have a hard time juxtaposing something so musically different against the familiar idea of a pipe band “medley.” Judges have admitted that it is a difficult challenge to compare them and thus judge accurately, if such a notion is possible in trying to adjudicate any subjective art.

So, is it time to start a whole new pipe band event? Or, perhaps more accurately, is it time to put musical requirements on the “traditional medley” so as to better allow the existing anything-goes medley to thrive?

Non-UK associations have been challenged to expand musically, simply because of the pressure that the World Pipe Band Championships exerts on their bands. Bands resist most rule changes that may prevent them from preparing for their August Glasgow experience. If it doesn’t happen in the RSPBA, it tends to be rejected everywhere else.

But it seems to me that we can work around this roadblock. At the Grade 1 level, playing requirements could still be two MSRs. Associations that call for bands to submit two medleys, could reduce that to one. Then, a new event could be brought in: the “Freestyle Medley.” It could be an anything-goes piece that lasts maybe up to 10 minutes, with any instruments, provided at least some of them are Highland bagpipes and drums. Bands could assemble however they please.

But how, then, to ensure that “traditional” medley event is preserved? This would be difficult, if not impossible, since there’s nothing much traditional about the structure of non-Toronto Police medleys. Perhaps bands would be required to play only tunes from the familiar Highland piping categories. Maybe an RSPBA-like rule to start with certain tune-types? Perhaps providing a set list of tunes that could be played?

The challenge is more about what a band can’t do, than what it can.

In the 1970s there was resistance when the medley was introduced. But look at what it has done for the art. As the medley evolved bands were pressured to be different and innovative. Where once they feared not having original material, most bands now have budding composers within their ranks itching to create new stuff. Had it not been for the pipe band medley, today’s most famous tune-makers might be unknown and untapped talent. By allowing and encouraiging a freestyle / anything-goes category, a whole new level of creativity would certainly emerge, and that’s good for the livelihood of the art.

Personally, I’m against the idea of formally creating a third band competition category. I have no trouble with keeping the current medley format anything-goes. But it’s clear that not everyone feels the same way.

Perhaps it’s time to seriously consider opening things up, while simultaneously tying things down.

Bloomsday scenario

It’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, after the Georgetown games and the latest musical-envelope-pusher from the Toronto Police. Just like last year when the band came out with it’s “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions,” the comments are again flying around about the band’s “Idiomatica” entry.

I hesitate to call it a medley, since a musical medley, by Webster’s definition, is “a musical composition made up of a series of songs or short pieces,” rather than a cohesive single composition, which I believe “Idiomatica” is meant to be. You can’t call it a “selection” either, as that also involves, I think, selecting various existing tunes, much like a musical medley. Call it a piece, an opus or even an oeuvre.

Semantics aside, it’s bloody difficult to compare what the Toronto Police played against the more familiar formats of other bands in the contest. The pipe band “medley” has evolved more or less on its own, usually by bands dipping one timid toe at a time in the musical froth, trying a “different” tune here, an unusual rhythm there. Heaven forfend that a judge might react negatively.

There are actually very few musical requirements placed on a band in the rules of the world’s pipe band associations. The RSPBA has by far the most strictures, forcing bands to start with a “quick-march” at a certain minimum tempo and with the familiar three-paced rolls and a mandatory E.

The only musical requirement that I know for a Grade 1 pipe band medley under PPBSO rules is that it must be between five and eight minutes long. There are no stipulations as to what should be played or how many of the band’s pipers and drummers (or other instrumentalists, for that matter) can play at one time. In fact, there’s nothing to say that the band couldn’t just stand there, tacit, for five minutes, in homage to Chares Ives or something.

If the Toronto Police didn’t have the musical clean-slate that the PPBSO membership prefers, perhaps they wouldn’t compete with their new pieces, unless it were to make a one-time, “Thelma and Louise”-like statement. I gather they were fully prepared to go down in a blaze of glorious disqualification had they been able to play in the Final at last year’s World’s.

I like that bands are free to push musical buttons and boundaries. I can also appreciate those who feel that it shouldn’t be allowed, that such challenges to the familiar are too much of an affront to our musical “tradition,” whatever that is. It’s a healthy, difficult debate.

After all the talk of the Toronto Police’s “Good Intentions” piece, I was eager to see how many bands might follow suit with their own brave attempts to explore their own new musical limits. So far, I haven’t heard or heard of any other bands anywhere in the world making such an attempt. (Please let me know if there are.) In fact, I’m noticing the direct opposite: bands harking back to material, styles and structures of the 1970s and ’80s, particularly the once-hackneyed-now-retro seamless transition from strathspey-to-jig or jig-to-strathspey.

I might be wrong, but while a lone band is aggressively blazing new musical ground, others seem to be retreating into the past, with the old being new again. Whether that’s a conscious rejection, or just plain happenstance, again, I don’t know.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.


Really cauld bum.Every contest is interesting, but the one recently at Kingston, Ontario, was particularly remarkable. The growing event is still relatively small, with 16 bands competing, and it’s independently run – that is, not sanctioned by an association like the PPBSO. That means it’s free to do what it wishes in terms of events, playing criteria and judging.

Never averse to trying new things, I like shaking things up, particularly in the fairly same-old-same-old pipe band world. Scott Bell, the chief organizer at Kingston, decided they’d try something new with pipe band judging.

They would have only three judges: two pipers and one drummer, but each of the judges would judge only from the perspective of ensemble. That is, no focusing solely on sections, and instead the ears would be trained on the band as a whole. I understand that the competitors were aware of the concept when they entered. I certainly hope so!

Most experienced pipe band adjudicators I know will admit that judging ensemble is far more difficult than judging piping or drumming. To concentrate on the whole band is surprisingly harder, since distractions are inevitable and all around. The tone of the chanters, blowing, intra-section unison, mistakes, robotic tenor-drummers . . . all such aspects can distract from concentrating on the band’s music as a sum total.

The judges were of course allowed to consult with one another at the end of each event, and it was interesting to hear our differing perspectives. There were a few instances of a band with clearly the best pipe section or drum corps, but not the best overall integration of the two – and vice-versa.

So, there were occasional dilemmas about what constituted a better pipe band. Should the emphasis be on the pipe or on the band? Is it possible to be the best band while being the third- or fourth- or even fifth-best pipe section? Is that right? I’m pretty sure that a few bands did much better/worse under the all-ensemble-judging approach, and whether that’s right or wrong I’m still undecided.

But I am leaning towards a more balanced approach, in which every judge considers the band as a whole – ensemble – as well the specific element that he/she is judging. So, perhaps do away with the ensemble-only judge altogether, and instead have everyone assess ensemble as maybe half of the overall score, with piping, snare-drumming and mid-section specifics as the other 50 per cent of the mark from each of the judges.

I also think it’s important to hold occasional events that try new things, unencumbered by association rules and tradition. It’s quite possible that this seemingly little event in small-town Kingston, Ontario, made a giant leap for band-kind.

Touchy subjects

Not a few pipes|drums readers have contacted me about the recent p|d Poll question, “Should full-time bagpipe-makers be allowed to judge pipe band competitions?” Other versions of the bagpipe-makers-judging query have been posed before on the Poll over the years, and it’s of course a hot topic. Always has been; always will be – even if some sort of rule(s) were established to address the matter.

Several readers coyly wanted to know what prompted the question. That’s an easy answer, of course: the results of the Grade 2 competition at the 2009 Scottish Championships last week.

Bob Shepherd was the ensemble judge of the Grade 2 competition. He makes bagpipes and chanters. (I played one for several years and still play a Shepherd reed that’s been going strong for more than a decade.) Shepherd’s reputation as a judge, teacher, pipe-major and all-round remarkable person precedes him.

For the most part the two piping judges seemed to agree on the placings of bands. The band that won the contest, Inveraray & District, had two firsts in piping, a first in drumming, and an eighth in ensemble from Shepherd.

Now, I was not at the competition so I of course didn’t hear Inveraray. I also have no idea what make of chanters or bagpipes or drums or reeds the band plays. For all I know, the band did something horribly wrong with its ensemble. I don’t really care.

But thanks to the RSPBA’s publishing of all judges’ marks, we know that Inveraray received a 1,1 (piping), 1 (drumming) and 8 (ensemble) scoring. We can also see that Seven Towers had 8, 9, 9 and 1; MacKenzie Caledonia received 12, 19, 11 and 3; and Central Scotland Police got marks of 17, 16, 15 and 2.

So, the question was posed in the Poll, causing concern with a few people (several from bagpipe dealers), as if asking a simple, albeit sensitive, question were taboo in the world of piping and drumming. Many other tough questions also have been posed, and many new ones are still to come. Bring them on; let’s get things out in the open so that we can gain better understanding.

I suppose debating touchy subjects is still unthinkable with some old-school folks. There is something of a tradition in our art that prefers to sweep things under the rug rather than discuss them in the open. pipes|drums rejects that tradition. Only by asking questions will we ever get answers.

The reason that tough questions are traditionally not asked elsewhere may be because many people seem to have an interest in not asking them; sweep it under the rug and leave well enough alone. pipes|drums doesn’t sell anything but subscriptions and advertising, and those funds are plowed back into the publication or given to worthwhile not-for-profit causes, so I think we might be more free to evoke constructive conversation about sensitive issues that have been unaddressed for decades.

I’m interested to hear what others think about bringing sensitive matters that have existed for decades, even centuries, in piping and drumming out into the open.

(By the way, the last time I looked, the answer to that particular question from 74 per cent of respondents was “No.”)

A request: please keep any comments on the subject of discussing sensitive topics. Anything off-topic won’t be posted. Thanks.

Worth a song

Copy that.A friend of mine the other day said that at his daughter’s solo singing competitions every competitor is required to present to the judges original scores of the song he/she is to perform. That is, not photocopies or handwritten things, but actual published and purchased sheet-music.

Here’s a rule of a vocal competition that I found:

Upon arrival at the festival, two copies of performance selections must be provided for the clinicians. The use of photocopies is forbidden. Photocopies of permanently out of print material must be accompanied by a letter of permission from the publisher (or legal copyright holder).

Solo light music piping competitions are generally assessed from memory, and occasionally someone will provide sheet music of an obscure tune. But I would say that, at least in my experience, there are four or five competitors in every light music event who play something questionable, leaving me wondering whether the piper got it wrong or is just playing a different version.

Providing scores might avoid those doubts, but, perhaps more importantly, it would help our own publishing industry if competitors, as with serious vocal competitions, were required to present actual purchased published manuscripts in order to participate. It would mean that all pipers would have to purchase collections, and not rely on photocopies and scans.

If it’s good enough for serious singing contests, shouldn’t it be good enough for us?

Turn and face the strain

The pipes|drums Polls have been going on for more than a decade now, and they’re all archived here. It’s sometimes a challenge to think of something new, and readers have saved my mind-blank more than once with a good suggestion. I always look forward to seeing the results. Even though the poll isn’t scientific, I’m pretty sure that the results are at least reflective of the overall opinion of the world’s pipers and drummers.

The recent one that asked “How many times should a person by allowed to change bands in a year?” brought another surprising result, with some 56 per cent of people saying that they feel that pipers and drummers should be permitted to switch bands only once in a year.

Time was when changing bands was a fairly major event. As is the case in major team sports, it’s now rare in the pipe band world to find people who spend their entire career with one band. But over the last decade especially the idea of competing in the off-season with a band in the other hemisphere has taken hold with some. Pipers and drummers from New Zealand or Australia might compete with a UK or Canadian band at the World’s, just as folks from the northern hemisphere might hook up with an Antipodean band for their championship, as was the case at least week’s New Zealand Nationals.

It’s all perfectly within the rules. I’ve played with bands that have benefited from such guest players, and I have no particular stand on the issue. But, it appears that a majority of pipers and drummers do. By limiting a person to only one transfer in the year, it means that the back-and-forth approach would be difficult to manage. Once a player changed bands, that would be it for the next 12 months.

If such a rule were enacted, I wonder how it might change things. Would it make the pipe band world more loyal or less fun?

Saner heads

His beak can hold more than his belly can.Several years ago I judged a band competition in Ontario and was faced with a situation that most adjudicators dread. In fact, it was the first contest in which I was on ensemble, having gone through the accreditation process the previous spring.

It was the Grade 1 competition, which consisted of three bands. All of the bands played well. It was a medley event, and Ontario rules state that bands must submit two selections, and draw at the line with the ensemble judge present for the one they should play.

One of the bands came to the line, clearly wanting to get on with it because it was a scorching day. The pipe-major reached into the bag, and pulled out the #1 chip. In Ontario, the content of the selections is printed on each score sheet, the tunes being provided by the band with its entry. But because of a database glitch, the selections were reversed on the score sheet for each band, so the one that the band thought is #1 was printed as #2, however bands were made aware of the issue. So, the content of the #1 selection was really printed on the score sheet as the #2 entry. In essence, a band drawing #1 would have to play #2.

As the ensemble judge, I reminded each pipe-major at the line of that discrepancy. But this one band’s pipe-major was clearly in a hurry, and turned to start his group without realizing the reversal and that I was pointing out the other medley on the score sheet. Strictly speaking, the band played the wrong selection and thus a rule was broken . . . sort of.

Immediately after the band played, the judges got together, and we discovered that we all had noticed the band’s “error.” What to do?

We quickly agreed that we would go ahead and judge the entire contest as we would if there were no problem. We also agreed that, after that, we would alert the head of the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario about what occurred, since, ultimately, any penalty would be an Executive decision.

As judges, we made a recommendation to the President, which was to tell all of the bands what had happened, and allow the competitors to decide what they’d prefer to do. If the band at fault wanted to give up its prize, then they could do that; if the other two bands preferred not to move up a place for such a shallow reason (a move that we thought was likely), then that was fine, too. But it had the potential to be an ungodly embarrassment for everyone involved. Was it really worth it?

To my surprise at the time, the PPBSO president decided not to do anything. He was willing to let sleeping dogs lie, feeling that, even though a rule was broken, it made little sense to us to crack down on it. It just wasn’t worth the certain ill will. The band that made the mistake didn’t appear to do it intentionally. The PPBSO was also at least partly to blame because of the database problem, swapping the medleys on the score sheets.

I’m reminded of that situation because of the current issue with the RSPBA’s “international” judges being suspended. Just like any organization, the RSPBA has a right to enforce its rules strictly. If the rule is that sample score sheets must be provided from a judge’s home association, then so be it.

But, like the situation I described above, is it worth it? Ultimately, does it make sense to doggedly follow a rule that was broken due to any number of faults – chief among them, perhaps, resting with the association itself? Yes, an organization’s role is to enforce the rules, but leadership’s role is to determine when exceptions are warranted.

Some will no doubt feel that the band should have been disqualified, just as some will think that the RSPBA did the right thing. But I learned from that awkward circumstance at that competition that, every so often, punishing people for breaking a rule can in the broader scheme of things do more harm than good.

Sometimes, those who suffer the most when rules are rigidly enforced are the competitors and the art, and it’s better to quietly sort things out behind the scenes and just get on with it for the good of all concerned.

Can touch that

Strange bedfellows.Watching the Grammy’s last night, I really liked all the “mash-ups” with artists. Al Green and Justin Timberlake and Keith Urban. Jay-Z with Coldplay. And of course the unlikely pairing of Alison Krauss (bluegrass) and Robert Plant (Zep) winning Album of the Year.

All that and Kid Rock’s adapting Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sacred “Sweet Home Alabama” riff and assembling a new song’s theme and lyric around it got me thinking of course about pipe music.

If it’s okay now in pop music to mix-and-match tidbits of songs and styles, then why not pipe music? It’s traditional that pipe music composers never-ever-never borrow from what’s gone before. If a new tune sounds even remotely similar to something else, let alone replicates an entire phrase, then it’s crapped on, pissed over and consigned forever to the garbage pail. The “composer” is often tagged as unoriginal and may never live down the label.

But why not take the Oasis route, and readily admit that, yes, they borrow heavily from the Beatles? A decade ago the Gallagher brothers took a “So what? We love the Beatles, so we like to sound like them” open stance. Couldn’t the next step for creative pipe music composers be one of adapting or reprising phrases from well know tunes and putting them into a new context?

It goes against our unwritten and heretofore sacrosanct law that new pipe music must always be 100% original, but, so what? Is there anything wrong with a great composer like, say, Bruce Gandy or R.S. MacDonald echoing a snippet of “The Little Cascade” (to use a random example) and admittedly integrating it into a new composition? A new composer could give full credit to G.S. McLennan or even a living composer, negotiate royalties, and start something new and fresh by adapting something old and familiar.

When pop music artists first started sampling the work of others and integrating the bits into their songs (remember the rancour between MC Hammer and Rick James over “Can’t Touch This” and “Super Freak”?) it was met with controversy and lawsuits. Over the last 20 years, though, composers like Lynyrd Skynyrd have learned that it’s usually a good thing when a current artist wants to resurrect your music in something new. Not only does it rekindle interest, but it also makes you money. It’s all good.

I think that could be a really interesting experiment. Perhaps our tradition of stringently adhering to the all-original all-the-time rule of composition should be relaxed. Can’t we borrow from, echo and give credit to the past, and still be creative, adventurous and respectful?

Ad newseam

We salute your change.Quite a few pipes|drums readers sent a heads-up about the drum-major with the Cleveland Cleveland Firefighters Memorial Pipes & Drums quitting his band after he got in trouble for “making eye-contact” (read: winking and waving like Benny Hill) with President Obama at last week’s inaugural parade. Apparently, protocol strictly forbids even looking at the new president, although the Chosen One waved or winked or whatever back at John Coleman.

(It reminded me of the rock-star, Prince, 20 years or so ago, communicating with his “people” during his tour only by telepathy. No one was allowed to speak to him, including his girlfriend at the time, Sheena Easton, who was soon dumped for not being able to know what her wee purple man was thinking . . .)

Similar to the previous discussion on advertising acceptance, deciding what qualifies as pipes|drums news can be a difficult call. While “Colemangate” grabbed the attention of entertainment-focused outlets like CNN and “Good Morning, America,” I didn’t think it deserved the attention of pipes|drums. It wasn’t about piping / drumming; it was about one person’s breach of protocol.

Potentially, the “news” that could have been reported on pipes|drums could have been about the attention that the story got from mainstream news sources – the news becoming the news, if you follow, but still I didn’t think the story was about piping and drumming. Never mind that it was a drum-major, it had nothing to do with the actual playing of a bagpipe or pipe band drum.

Piping and drumming-related things occasionally garner mainstream attention. Often, it’s a piper who gets arrested for “noise pollution” when playing in public, or it’s some regulation that says that bagpipes are potentially dangerous to workers or soldiers’ hearing.

Personally I find that stuff tedious and I think most readers do, too. But occasionally, like when the mainstream media sensationalized Hugh Cheape’s 2008 book about the Highland bagpipe as being a relatively modern invention, it crosses into pipes|drums news territory.

If Obama had covered his ears, rolled his eyes and declared pipe bands Satanic when the Cleveland band marched past, well, then that would have been a pipes|drums story. But a drum-major doing what he did didn’t qualify as piping and drumming news, and the mainstream coverage of it was not about piping and drumming, either.

Big MAP attack II

Cutty Sark was spirited and lively.I understand that the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association has decided to adopt the RSPBA’s Musical Appreciation and Presentation, or “MAP,” system for its lower grade band competitions. I’ve thought a lot about MAP, and wrote about it last year, saying, among other things, that it’s a crock.

I’m not sure if I have changed my mind, but here’s what I think now: it might make sense for the UK, but it makes no sense for non-UK associations. This is why:

MAP is supposed to improve musicality in lower-grade bands. The RSPBA identified a decline in standards so, by foisting traditional (and some really hackneyed) set tunes and scores and all-ensemble judging on the lower grades, the thinking three years ago was that these bands would improve, and quality would trickle up the grades.

The UK pipe band scene, however, is very, very different from elsewhere. Solo piping and band piping are two drastically different worlds in Scotland. Bandsmen do their thing and soloists theirs, and the two hardly ever converge. Competitions are almost always at separate venues. There are pipe band-only judges and there are solo piping-only judges. A select few judge both domains. There may be the odd piper in a UK band who “goes in” for the solos, but they too are few.

In the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and actually, I think, everywhere outside of the UK, band and solo scenes are intertwined. The majority of pipers in bands at some point work hard on their solo stuff, and many, if not most, for their entire lives. They spend a lot of time studying the nuances of phrasing, technique and overall musicality. Pipe-majors of non-UK bands are almost always accomplished soloists. They understand what constitutes quality pipe-music, and as a result they work to instill that in the band.

On the other hand, many UK bands, and especially those in the lower grades, are led by pure bandsmen. These leaders more often than not have not dedicated any time to dissecting the intricacies of phrasing, of how to make a 2/4 march “spirited and lively” – at least in a solo way. They may know how to get a sound, but probably have no idea how to make a march swing. I dare say that this lack of musicality can be heard in some top-grade UK bands that are led by pipers who never rose to any heights as soloists.

Further, judges at non-UK band events almost always are also accredited solo piping judges, and, consequently, the musical standards that non-UK pipe band judges measure competitors against are taken straight from solo benchmarks. On the other hand, the preponderance of band-only judges in the UK might have something to do with the fact that in the UK a band that has a good sound but lacks musicality more often than not does well.

Three years after MAP, I see no evidence that it’s making much, if any, difference to the quality of lower-grade UK bands. In fact, I see the standard of North American Grade 4 and Grade 3 bands rising, perhaps due mainly to the advent of Grade 5. Case in point: the Grade 5 Paris/Port Dover band from Ontario competed in Grade 4B at the 2008 World’s and finished second against 48 other bands. Seattle’s Keith Highlanders placed third overall after winning their qualifying heat. The Keith Highlanders are no doubt a fine band, but they were a distant third in overall Grade 4 contests run by their home association, the British Columbia Pipers Society.

These are just a few examples, but they indicate to me that the North American standard has risen, while the UK standard has not. I can detect no evidence that MAP is working. If it were, then wouldn’t non-UK lower-grade bands competing at the World’s be trounced by those bands that have been competing under the system since 2006?

With the UK’s separation of bands and solos, MAP may make some sense for Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, but adopting it elsewhere is a step backward.

Boom-boom – on goes the light

Yes we can.When Craig Colquhoun and Scott Currie approached pipes|drums a few months ago about having the 2008 World Champion Bass-Section winner decided by the magazine’s poll, I was a little reluctant. Is this right? Should the world’s pipers and drummers determine what Grade 1 band’s mid-section should receive the award? Don’t all pipe band-related prizes have to be decided by accredited judges?

To be honest, I forgot about it until Hoss raised the idea again last week. My immediate response was, Yes, why not?

Why have the award decided this way? Well, for a start, the RSPBA decided to eliminate the prize so certified judges can’t award it in any official way any longer.

Second, we all know that, sadly, the Best Bass-Section prize when it is given out, it’s often in a relatively informal manner. There are no specific bass and tenor judges at pipe band contests, and the prize is usually determined by the ensemble and/or drumming judges, both of whom are either snare drummers or pipers. To my knowledge, there are no RSPBA judges who have specific expertise in modern bass- or tenor-drumming either as players or arrangers. Today’s mid-sections are captained by a player within the section itself, and the band’s leading-drummer and pipe-major pretty well just sign off on the arrangements that they compose and choreograph.

Third, the BBC and the RSPBA kindly put out a lovely (albeit out-of-sync and possibly illegal) DVD of the World’s Grade 1 Final. We can all see and hear first-hand every one of these mid-sections without actually having to be there.

Lastly, the trophy is the Hosbilt Cup and was donated by Colquhoun’s company with the expressed agreement that it be awarded to the best Grade 1 bass-section at the World’s. Since the RSPBA’s prize no longer exists, and since the association clearly doesn’t want to award it, then the trophy should be returned. If Craig wants to award the prize this way, then fine, we’re happy to help.

PPBSO and RSPBA judge Ken Eller has already questioned the relatively harmless method of determining the prize. Why should anyone feel threatened by an award being determined not as an after-thought by accredited judges with piping and snare drumming backgrounds, but a by fair, popular vote of all of the world’s competitive pipers and drummers – including bass- and tenor-drummers, the people who care and know about this the most?

Leading lights from the strong-voiced community of mid-section players consider this popular-vote method a good way to do it for the year (at least) when there appears to be no other way. Why should anyone feel anything but good for bass and tenor players and the bands in which they play?

Engendering news

A weighty issue.This is the time of year when piping and drumming news is at a premium. After this weekend’s London competition, results will be scarce and many pipers and drummers and bands will nearly shut down. But every time I think that, something newsworthy pops up.

And so, the news of the vote by the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society to accept female members was leaked last week. Those who care, and many who don’t, know that the RSPS is a male-only organization, and that is as much a part of their tradition as is the requirement that members are “amateur” pipers with some “society” standing. That is, they don’t accept prize-money and, as one famous RSPS member said once in a thick English accent, “You must be a lahnd-oowner – and by that I doon’t mean a bahck gahhhhrden.”

Honestly, at the time, I just thought the males-only vote was another quirky and quaint holdover from Scotland’s deep-rooted piping tradition that pipers from other countries have a hard time understanding.

I have been critical in the past of the fact that some RSPS members are invited to judge important solo piping competitions. My criticism centred only on the fact that these folks, fine and jolly gentlemen that they are, have never demonstrated their playing ability in any ongoing public way, and that many competitors don’t really take their judging decisions seriously. Yet they remain on the approved list of UK judges, as assembled by Scotland’s Joint Committee – the closest thing there is in that country to a formal accreditation process, something that just about every one of the world’s piping associations has had in place for decades.

It was in fact the very first comment to the pipes|drums news story that opened my eyes to the obvious: that female competitors might perceive an element of bias when competing before these judges. Truly, I had never thought of that before, and that was the issue that the Times, Scotsman, Daily Express and other UK newspapers picked up on when they followed pipes|drums’ lead.

The Scotsman‘s blurb has received some interesting comments as well, and this one from “Girl Piper” succinctly summarizes the concern particularly well:

“To me the argument is simple. The club is a private society, but is also used to impartially adjudicate important piping competitions outside their own society. Adjudication requires firstly skill and knowledge, and secondly the ability to remain completely impartial. It is easy for anyone to draw the very logical connection between a group voting out women in their own organisation, and that same group being deemed impartial when judging both men and women against each other in an external competition. This is a clear conflict of interest. It’s logic, not spite, which is at the core of this conclusion. Add this to a musical tradition which has already been historically sexist and you’ll understand why there is a problem.”

It’s interesting to me that any of the world’s piping and drumming associations – including the RSPBA, which has in the past dealt swiftly with matters of perceived racial bias – would have addressed the issue on behalf of its members. On the other hand, the UK, because there is no real unifying governing body for solo piping competitions, can’t really do anything. Competitions and competitors are left to decide for themselves what, if anything, they want to do.

And I expect more winter news eventually to trickle out as people make up their minds how they will address such dilemmas.

Ryders on the storm

I like to play golf more than I like to watch it, but I still like to watch it, so I watched some of the Ryder Cup on Sunday. A lot of people get excited about it because a team of golfers from the United States takes on a team from Europe, so it’s one of the few times when the individualistic conceit of golf becomes a rah-rah, back-slapping, high-fiving, knuckle-bumping sport.

Unga-bunga, my son.The Americans are really good at celebrating their success and thumping their chests before the crowd. The Europeans are trying to ape those antics, but the site of the motley Englishman Ian Poulter doing his best impression of Tiger made me cringe. It ain’t natural, squire.

Anyway, it got me to thinking about a Ryder Cup equivalent for the piping and drumming world. If the Spirit of Scotland can be the 11th best band in the world after playing together for only five days, could the concept be broadened in a Ryder Cup-like format? What if Scotland were pitted against all of the Commonwealth countries in a series of events where a single band from each side would be formed, comprising players that qualify somehow and a number of “captain’s picks”?

There could be the familiar MSR and 5-7-minute medley events, but also match-play quartets, trios, mini-bands and even points-based solo contests.

Since the United States would be left out due to not being a Commonwealth country, they might supply the judges and the lessons in over-the-top victory celebrations.

What side do you think would win? Who would be the non-playing captains for each side? What events might there be? What players would make up the teams?

Pushing the parameters

Attack!Back in June I speculated that the traditional pipe band attack might be becoming less important than it used to be. After listening to Grade 1 performances at the 2008 World’s, I’m convinced that it’s true.

Ten years ago bands would set aside large lots of practice time to perfect their attack. Punching the E’s in perfect unison was thought to be critical to success. While just about every band that I’ve heard so far had an audibly okay attack, I don’t think I’ve heard any that, as they say, flattened the grass.

There were also several instances of trailing drones that didn’t seem to impact a band’s result terribly much.

When it comes to competition, most bands will concentrate on the things that they think are most important to success. These days, those things seem to be tone and music. Bands focus on these areas because they feel that excellence in these areas will being the biggest return from the judges, so they invest the most time and effort in them.

The trend and the talk seem more and more toward MSRs being judged with an ear to technical precision, and medleys being less about accuracy and more about the overall musical effect.

Further evidence of that trend is that the musicality of MSRs often seems to be completely ignored. The tenets of excellence that a great solo player strives for aren’t heard much by most bands, and, when they are evident, it seems most judges either don’t recognize them or simply don’t care.

Perhaps it’s time for two sets of parameters – one for medleys; another for sets – to be spelled out to judges in detail.


Make up your mind!I believe that the RSPBA and the PPBSO are the only two associations that require bands to do the pipes down / pipes up drill at the starting line. The Scottish association has done it forever, while the Ontario one introduced it in the 1990s, dropped it for a few years, then brought it back again maybe seven years ago. The maneuvre is a hold-over from the military roots of pipe bands, and the commands from the pipe-major – who rarely has any military background – are supposed to go something like this:

– Band: atten . . . shun!
– Band: pipes ready! [pipers gather up chanter and blowstick; drummers put their sticks under their armpit]
– Band: pipes down! [pipers put instrument in the crook of their left elbow; drummers turn drums to the side; both keep their right hands on their instrument]
– Hup! [right arms down to the side]
– Band: at ease! Stand easy! [why this is said twice I don’t know, but players move their left foot out and are supposed to stand in a more relaxed way, with their right arms behind their back]

The pipe-major then talks with the steward and/or ensemble judge for maybe 15 seconds, then turns to the band and says:

– Band: atten . . . shun! [players move their left foot back in, their right arm to their side, and stick their chest out]
– Band: ready! [players put their instruments to the front]
– Hup! [pipes moved to shoulder, drums to the front, right arm remaining on the instrument]
– Hup! [players put their right arm to their side]
– Band: get ready! [pipers carefully bring their chanter down; drummers’ sticks in playing position]

Essentially, when all of this finally concludes the band is back to what it looked like when they arrived to the line, provided a poorly maintained tenor drone-top hasn’t slipped off its tuning pin, or a chanter reed hasn’t fallen in, or a stock hasn’t come loose from the bag.

(There’s a famous story of a pipe-major of a Grade 1 Ontario band who, at the band’s first competition in Scotland, was unaware of the RSPBA’s pipes down/up rule, arrived at the line with his band ready to play, only to have the steward kindly remind him, “Pipes down, pipe-major.” A bit rattled, he followed the steward’s direction and had his pipers put their instruments down, only to be told by the steward, “Pipes up, pipe-major.” Thoroughly confused, the pipe-major said, “Would you make up your %&^&ing mind?!”)

I actually clocked that pipes down/up drill a few times this summer, and it takes anywhere from 40 to 190 seconds. During that time, the judges are pretty much standing their doing nothing, the crowd is daydreaming, and, most significant of all, the instruments are going flat.

In a 20-band competition, with each pipes up / ready / down / hup / pipes up, etc. routine lasting an average of, say, one-minute, all of that adds 20 minutes to the event.

I’m not sure what the reason for the drill is, but I gather it’s to make bands look regimented and smart. But I have never known a crowd to be wowed by it, a band judge to let it sway their opinion, or a band to be anything but miffed that they have to jostle around instruments that they just spent an hour fine-tuning.

In this age when march-pasts and massed bands push larger competitions into the night and associations scramble to compile results in time, it makes little sense to add the extra time to competitions for virtually no return.

Time to scrap this antiquated tradition.


Nice attack.A month or so back the pipes|drums Poll asked readers about their preferences for extreme weather conditions at an outdoor contest. The condition that got the most favourable response – 37% – was “No rain, but thunder and lightning in the area.” This beat out “Very cold and rainy” (4%) and “Roasting heat and no shade anywhere” (36%).

I am still a bit miffed that piping and drumming competitors are perfectly happy risking their lives around lightning rather than putting up with cold. It’s all about competition.

And so it was at Maxville on Saturday when the thunderstorms that had been predicted for days finally happened. The place within a few minutes turned into a huge tempest, and some of the cracks of lightning that struck right overhead while I was judging the Grade 5 band competition were downright awesome and a tad insane.

But it was really only when the rain became too heavy, and not the life-risky lightning, that common sense finally prevailed and the competitions were halted. This after a vendor on the park reportedly was struck.

I must confess that while I was out on that wide-open field I was somewhat reassured to see about 50-feet in the air a metal cherry-picker that they use for tossing that big bag of hay in the heavy events. If lightning did strike, it would hit that thing and not my umbrella. I also couldn’t help but fantasize about the clichés they would say if we were hit: “Oh, but he went out doing what he loved.” Screw that. Cold comfort from pain, indeed.

Some people were comparing the weather to the 2007 World’s. Um, no. There’s a huge difference between soul-destroying incessant mist and life-destroying bolts of 100,000,000 volts.

Trying to persevere through that mess was theatre of the absurd. Bands came from long distances for the contest but, really, lightning and piping just should not mix.

Rush to judgment


A few weeks ago I wrote about the Rush-inspired medley that the Grade 3 Durham Regional Police are playing this year. The band (pipe) starts with “Tom Sawyer,” the (rock) band’s one hit – or the closest thing they’ve ever come to a hit despite a gazillion album sales.

I managed to get a recording of it at Cambridge, so here it is. You can compare it with the original prog-rock song from the Canadian power-trio, as they’re referred to by anyone who cares. The video is from – gulp – 1981.

I also wrote a while back about bands doing new things with familiar melodies, mentioning that Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” might make a good adaptation. That summer I believe Shotts included Coldplay‘s “Kingdom Come” in its medley.

I think that what Durham does works, especially for a non-piping Canadian audience. The band includes lots of content for piping aficionados, and so it can still be new and different and clever while also being “true to the idiom,” as some people like to say.

You might say that the recent pipe band trend of taking a very familiar tune and repurposing it in a new time signature and tempo (see Al-Cal’s take on “Crossing The Minch,” for example) is much the same idea.

I spent much of my lost high school years doing two things: listening to Rush and playing the pipes. I never thought that the two could be merged.


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