Making the grades

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each of the members of the grading committee must be:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reciprocity and respect. Please.

The debacle that the RSPBA created by taking upon itself to upgrade the Stuart Highlanders to the ultimate level of Grade 1 is one for the ages.

The Scottish organization’s former Chairman, Kevin Reilly, agreed when he represented the RSPBA at the 2005 Alliance of North American Pipe Band Associations’ (ANAPBA) annual summit that they would stop the practice of regrading bands that aren’t their members. That was after his organization refused to recognize the WUSPBA-member Prince Charles Pipe Band as Grade 1. Just weeks before the 2001 World Championships the RSPBA insisted they move to Grade 2, only to upgrade them in 2002. For the better part of a decade, Prince Charles fought for their survival, and only this year rebounded in Grade 2.

Let’s look at what’s happened since 2005 when Reilly said his organization would regrade only its own members.

In 2007, the RSPBA upgraded the Robert Malcolm Memorial to Grade 1, causing massive turmoil within the Simon Fraser University organization, which subsequently lost nearly the entire band to the then Grade 3 Triumph Street Pipe Band.

In 2008, EUSPBA-member Oran Mor had to compete in Grade 2 after the RSPBA decided they didn’t meet their standard, then decided in 2009, after the band paid its penance in Grade 2 at the World’s, that the band was in fact good enough for Grade 1.

In 2010 the RSPBA put the EUSPBA-member Grade 1 City of Washington down to Grade 2, following a single MSR at the World Championships, when the band’s small pipe section should have by any measure been at least several bands from the bottom. The band struggled for members since and  this year can’t get out. It could be the end for CoW.

This year, after the aforementioned Oran Mor fell on hard times, folded and joined up with the EUSPBA-member Grade 2 Stuart Highlanders, the RSPBA – apparently without anyone official actually hearing the band – decided seemingly unilaterally that the band should be Grade 1. According to EUSPBA President Eric MacNeill, his association never consulted with the RSPBA, and wasn’t even asked for their opinion about the matter. The RSPBA simply went ahead and did it.

There are those who insist that it is the RSPBA’s prerogative to uphold the standards of their competitions. I agree that they, just like every association, must do that – but only with their own members.

Every other pipe band organization on earth practices reciprocity. That is, they respect the gradings of recognized sister-associations. If there is a concern, every other organization works together to express concerns and work it out discreetly and amicably, before or after the event. It is part of the checks and balances process that takes place every off-season around the world.

If the PPBSO, for example, unilaterally insisted next week that a Grade 2 EUSPBA-member band had to compete in Grade 1 at the North American Championships, it would probably result in the resumption of the War of 1812.

But at least the band could more practically cancel its plans to attend. The RSPBA must know that an “overseas band” (as they continue to pejoratively call any non-British band at the World Championships) by the time they enter the contest would have paid for airfare and put deposits down for accommodation. It’s a done deal, and regraded bands are over a barrel.

Days after the news of the RSPBA’s promotion of the Stuart Highlanders to Grade 1 (while the EUSPBA maintains their Grade 2 position), the band finishes third overall in a three-band Grade 2 competition. The RSPBA would have been able, predictably, to say the result was an aberration, if it weren’t for the fact that one of the RSPBA’s most respected and senior judges, Joe Noble, himself had other Grade 2 bands ahead of the Stuarts. The Ottawa Police are not planning to compete at the World’s, otherwise they also logically would be upgraded by the RSPBA. New York Metro has entered the World’s in Grade 2, and I am certain that they’re awaiting the proverbial other brogue to drop.

The RSPBA had to know that Noble was judging at Fair Hill. Other associations are required to go through the RSPBA, and not deal directly with the judges, when they want to fly in one of their adjudicators. RSPBA judges accepting gigs abroad get in trouble if they don’t follow protocol. With that, couldn’t the RSPBA simply have waited a week for the knowledgeable Noble’s report on the Grade 2 standard, and then, if they insist, make a grading call?

What a fascinating, freaking mess.

Maybe 20 years ago the RSPBA might have had a legitimate concern about the occasional band with other associations not meeting their own standard. But in 2014, it’s just plain meddling. It’s also incredibly disrespectful to these associations that are often – not always – better governed, better run and far more transparent than the self-anointed mothership at 45 Washington Street, Glasgow.

The RSPBA should rescind its upgrade of the Stuart Highlanders on Monday, admit it erred, and apologize to the Stuarts and the EUSPBA. If history is any indication, there’s more chance of the World’s being moved to Tahiti this August. But here’s hoping they do the right thing.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that a cadre of non-member bands have suffered significantly or folded completely after their grade was changed by the RSPBA. Let’s hope the Stuart Highlanders can weather this storm and somehow become stronger for it. Let’s also hope it’s the last time that the RSPBA decides what’s worst for a non-member band.

Masons’ April

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

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

“A what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And your identity can be secret.

Double-dip

The New Zealand Championships again brought to light the growing practice of pipers and drummers playing in multiple bands in the same grade in the same year. Almost unthinkable 10 years ago, the custom is now commonplace, with pipe bands playing within the rules (or the lack of one) and, essentially, gaming the release and transfer system.

On the surface, temporarily switching bands in the off-season seems harmless, and when compared with, say, civil war in Syria, it is. But in our little pipe band world, the idea of splitting time between competing bands is an erosion of healthy competition. It’s also another symptom of the large numbers condition.

To stress, I’m not talking about people flying in to play in the only band they play in. That’s just a longer distance to travel to play in one band. Go for it.

What I’m talking about is the practice of learning the music, submitting release and transfer documentation to the home association, and hopping on a few planes to contribute your talents during the northern hemisphere’s off-season, and once the contest is over, rejoining the original band. At first blush, it seems like a harmless thing to do for those talented and wealthy enough to pull it off. But, on closer look, it simply compounds a problem that is becoming more significant every year.

As discussed a few times now, bands across all grades – and especially Grade 1 – are under pressure to field large numbers. Bigger is seen by many judges as better, or at least more impressive, and “impressive” is often correlated with “better.” Ratcheting up a pipe section by a few good players promotes presence. Pipe-majors and leading-drummers can’t be blamed; they’re only responding to pressure that has gone unregulated by associations by their inaction to establish maximum numbers. One band sees another band doing it, so they do the same, and now southern hemisphere bands even recruit fly-in temps in Glasgow in August.

Imagine working a few times a year for a company that is otherwise your direct business competitor. Or lending your football talent to a team in the same league when your usual side isn’t participating in a tournament. These examples wouldn’t happen without you being fired or thrown off the squad. It only happens in the pipe band world because we don’t disallow it, associations have encouraged it (through inaction on maximum numbers), and our changed sense of competitive ethics have enabled it.

It’s a tough thing to regulate, since accurate roster tracking is almost impossible, and currently relies mainly on trust – and bands ratting out their competition. But it seems to me that all the RSPBA needs to do to address the situation is establish a policy that says something like, “A playing member of the organization may only compete with one band in a grade in a calendar year.” That is, you can’t play with another band in the same grade until January 1st.

For sure, there are positive claims that come from double-dipping, always from pipers and drummers and bands that do it. People have explained away the practice by contending it builds camaraderie and allows them to experience new pipe band scenes. That’s lovely, but it comes across as scrambling for reasons.

I’ve actually received a number of messages from players in Grade 1 New Zealand bands that fly in members from their competition. They have expressed their agreement that it should stop, but also understand that it’s being done for their short-term success because it is within the rules.

All this is not to say that any piper, drummer or band is at fault. Double-dipping is simply a response to worldwide pressure to create bigger bands. The inaction of the RSPBA when it comes to creating caps on section or roster sizes is the real reason.

A rule is needed. One band, one grade, one year.

Memorial Bell

My daughter’s great-great-grand-uncle is the great, great composer of grand pipe tunes and hero of the Boer War, John McLellan, DCM, of Dunoon, identified by all as the creator of some of our greatest tunes: “Lochanside,” “Southall,” “The Memorial Bells of Inveraray,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein,” and “The Road to the Isles,” to name a few.

He was born in Dunoon, Scotland, in 1875, and pictured here is the bell he played with as a baby.

My father-in-law, Martin Wilson, Jock McLellan’s grand-nephew, gave it to us 13 years ago when my daughter was born. The bell has been in the family for probably 135 years, at least. It’s a cherished possession.

I was giving a lesson the other day with a very promising 11-year-old piper, and we were going over “Lochanside.” Pointing out and talking a little about the composer of the tune, I went to find his bell, and, sure enough, it produced a certain, “That’s cool!” from young Kerry.

We rang it, as one does with bells, and for the first time I realized that this bell might well have magical musical powers, considering that it was probably the first instrument that wee Jock McLellan played. Surely it imparted simple tones to him so that he would eventually compose tunes that are magical for their simplicity of melody.

There’s something to this. I wonder if John McLellan’s DNA is still on the bell, which he must have sooked on, teething in his pram around the streets of Dunoon, round the Black Park, over to the side of Loch Loskin, and down Argyll Street.

Memorial bell, indeed.

Less is more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Champion Juveniles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five ways to improve the World’s

For what it is, the World Pipe Band Championships is a magnificent event. I’ve remarked before that it runs like a flawless Swiss watch, with thousands of moving parts and several rare jewels. Three-hundred-odd pipe band performances running on time, judges and stewards and administrators all knowing their role and doing their jobs. There is no bigger or better competition in the pipe band world.

But the World’s is at a crossroads. As the organization realized back in the late-1990s, they had a great product on their hands. The popularity of the contest with pipers and drummers from Canada, USA, France, New Zealand and just about everywhere in the world where pipe bands exist had grown so much that it finally dawned on the City of Glasgow to get on board in a serious way.

In a stroke of obvious entrepreneurial genius, Piping Live! was born 10 years ago. Events Glasgow partners with the RSPBA to stage the spectacle. If we are to believe the purported stats, tens of millions of pounds come into Scotland during World’s Week. It is a cash-cow for the local economy.

The World Pipe Band Championship is a great event, and it could be so much better, and so much more beneficial to the art overall and to the performers who make it the spectacle it is. The move to a two-day event shows that the RSPBA wants to try new approaches. It could be a spectacular success or a colossal failure, or even net-neutral, as they say, but at least they are trying.

Here are five more changes to improve it:

1. Transparency. We do not know how much the RSPBA charges the BBC to broadcast the event, or if it is given to Events Glasgow to negotiate. We just don’t know. As a broadcaster, by law the BBC must pay or negotiate a direct license with the organizers. The BBC doesn’t send eight tractor-trailers, miles of cable, dozens of technicians and an editing team back at head office to cover just anything. This is a mobile broadcast crew on the order of the Glastonbury Festival or T in the Park. There is a lot of money either unrealized or unaccounted for. It’s time to share the terms negotiated with the performers.

2. Bring the Grade 1 Final indoors. The SEC or the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall are prime venues to stage a 10-band Grade 1 Final. If a two-hour Pre-World’s concert with one band can sell out 2,000 £30 tickets, then certainly a four-hour World’s Final could command £60 a ticket. That’s a £120,000 gross. Do the Grade 1 Qualifier and all the other grades at Glasgow Green on Saturday, and then focus on a guaranteed dry Grade 1 Final on Sunday.

3. Pay-per-view. Again, the RSPBA, by selling or giving away the broadcast rights to the BBC could be missing a huge opportunity. The BBC is not allowed to charge viewers or listeners, so it’s all free. That’s nice, but the only way that is fair is if the BBC is paying the RSPBA at least as much as it could make from a pay-per-view broadcast. This year’s Saturday event is being streamed, not by the BBC, but privately, and that, too, is free. A pay-per-view streaming format each day where viewers purchase access for, say £10, at 10,000 viewers a day (a fraction of the number they contend logged in to the streamed broadcast last year), would bring in £200,000. And, if the viewers knew that the performers were being compensated fairly, they would be happy to pay a fair amount . . . so . . .

4. Share the wealth. Even without a ticketed indoor Final on pay-per-view streaming, the World’s is big money for the Scottish economy, and the license to broadcast the Grade 1 event is extremely valuable. The money must be shared with the performers. No performers; no money. The RSPBA can take an administrative share, but the rest should go towards prize money and appearance fees. The performers have a legal right to be compensated fairly, and saying that bands waive their right when they enter the competition is simply not legally true.

5. Promote the art. All pipe band associations contend that their first mandate is to “promote the art of piping and drumming” (or words to that effect). In truth, they are little more than competition-running machines. The RSPBA is by far the best in the world at keeping its competition machines finely tuned, but whether the World Pipe Band Championship or anything else they do truly promotes the art is debatable. The art is not solely competition. Fair enough, promote the competition as a product, but plow some of the money from the product into truly promoting the art through teaching, by taking it further afield, by promoting new and creative ways to present the music.

Many people still say that there is no money in all of this. Bollocks. Just look around. The week in Glasgow culminating in the glorious World Pipe Band Championships is huge money, and the performers deserve a fair share. Piping Live! by all accounts does a great job of compensating performers, and many bands are able to recoup some of their costs by playing during the festival.

We are not unique. Musicians of every kind can be and are exploited. Rock, rap, classical, pop, opera – you name the genre; all of them start off just happy to play and to have their music heard and they don’t know enough or are afraid to ask questions. We are really no different from the fledgling garage band who ignores their rights while others reap the benefits, until one day they realize they’re playing stadium gigs and can’t afford anything but fish suppers.

The irony is that we are not talking about greedy for-profit record labels. This is a nonprofit association that represents the will of its members and strives to create a fair and level playing field for all. Pipe band associations are not businesses, and they can be forgiven for missing business opportunities. They do a fantastic job of executing competitions, and now they need to catch up to the business end of the deal.

It’s now time to compensate fairly, once and for all, those who provide the product: the performers.

RIP Grade 2?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untied united

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

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

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

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

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

The market dictates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No auld baldy bastard dictates to us.

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

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

The 5 O’clock Tune

The British Army doesn’t already have a memorial to pipers and drummers killed in action over the country’s long history of wars? I guess I assumed that there was one somewhere, since there are so many tales of the heroism of courageous pipers, like George Findlater at the Heights of Dargai or Bill Millin at Normandy, who risked everything for the sake of motivating the troops with a tune. (And let’s not forget about the pipers and drummers killed by the English when they were fighting for an independent Scotland, but I digress.)

That there does not appear to be a record of pipers and drummers killed in conflict is also strange. After all, these soldiers were there, yes, as soldiers, but most of them carried a specific and important distinguishing role as pipers and drummers. There are probably records of orderlies killed in action, but none for pipers?

And the British Army won’t even contribute to a memorial? I can just hear it. “Well, if we do that then we’ll have to make one for orderlies, and then one for cooks, and then where does it end?”

Anyway, it’s all good. I hope enough funds are collected for a memorial cairn at Redford Barracks. But here’s a better proposal:

Build a memorial cairn for pipers and drummers killed in action, and erect it at Edinburgh Castle where so much piping history and teaching has occurred. And, like the traditional 1 O’clock Gun that’s fired from the Castle ramparts every afternoon of every day, create a tradition of a “5 O’clock Tune.” Every day of the year, like clockwork, an army piper appears at the cairn at 5 pm to play a lament.

What a great thing this would be for piping and the British Army. Hordes of tourists would collect at 5 o’clock for the daily tune. They can snap photos and perhaps even learn a little about piping and hear how a good Highland pipe sounds. The British Army can showcase how thoughtful it is, and shed positive light on one of its great traditions to, eventually, millions of people around the world.

“The 5 O’clock Tune.” The British Army can thank me later.

Downton piping

The British soap-opera Downton Abbey could just as well be about the piping world. The highfaluting British soap opera is about many things, but the core theme is a separation and then a mingling of the upper, middle, and lower classes, and the changing attitudes that resulted after World War I.

Piping was much the same. From the era when Downton Abbey takes place (1910s to the 1920s) until the 1950s, the jobs of competing pipers and drummers would look something like:

Soldier, policeman, soldier, miner, factory worker, soldier, soldier, shipbuilder, riveter, joiner, bagpipe turner, reedmaker.

In fact, in most cases the competitors had to work, while for the judges it was an option. The competitors would be downstairs while the judges were upstairs. The competiting pipers were far better players than those who judged them, who never of course competed because it would be mingling with the lower classes. Back then, adjudicators usually would be born into their wealth, or esteemed “professionals” with degrees from universities that they had no choice but to attend.

Until maybe the 1950s, when the likes of Seumas MacNeill, a university lecturer who was not wealthy and who, according to custom, should never have competed, decided that he would earn his place on a bench through competition success. It was no coincidence that Seumas was a member of the League of Young Scots, a nationalist group that preceded the Scottish National Party.

Piping and pipe band judges back then would generally be wealthy landowners, lawyers, Cambridge dons, the local laird. Often they didn’t even play, much less compete. They were members of “society” and societies, like the Royal Scottish Pipers, which today still looks to men with money and “class” over accomplishments in piping for non-honourary admittance into the group.

But gradually, that class division in piping has changed, sped up by class-unconscious countries like the US, Australia and Canada taking a big interest in the art. The wealthy American Shirley McLaine comes on the scene on Downton Abbey and simply can’t understand the class traditions. In the 1970s there was an onslaught of doctors, lawyers, and “professionals” who simply wanted to compete to the best of their ability and earn their spot in piping. The lawyer Bill Livingstone, perhaps, is our Shirley McLaine.

At the same time, former competitors like MacNeill, the Bobs of Balmoral, Donald MacLeod and Captain John MacLellan transitioned to the judging benches. Power in piping was decided by achievements rather than wealth – no doubt an ethic that MacNeill taught and instilled in students and teachers at his College of Piping.

Today, we often don’t even know what our fellow competitors do for a living. But thinking about it, I can count lawyer, doctor, actuary, professor, magazine publisher, physicist, rocket scientist, neurosurgeon, and even the Attorney General of the United States of America as fellow competitors. This would never have happened in pre-1950s UK piping.

If you take a turn around the Scottish games you can still see some holdovers from that bygone era of class distinction. Lochearnhead games clings to its tradition of having Royal Scottish Pipers Society members judge. The occasional games has a local “piper” adjudicate the jigs. For the visitor it can be an amusing diversion from reality. Witness it while it lasts.

The ridiculous and often comical class divisions of Downton Abbey are not so far removed from our own little world.

A predictable shafting?

Four firsts, four lasts or four of the same of any placing from judges are rare in a contest of more than 12, especially in Grade 1. In fact, at RSPBA majors it’s happened exactly six times in the top grade in the last three years. That’s six times in about 325 opportunities (number of events times number of competitors), or a miniscule 1.7 per cent of the time. For all purposes, it’s exceedingly unlikely to happen to any band, especially one that is well established and proven to be making the grade.

The Toronto Police Pipe Band had four last places in the Medley event in the Final of the World Pipe Band Championships. Most people know that this band likes to push musical boundaries when it comes to the competition medley, which has no stipulations in the UK beyond starting with two three-pace rolls, lasting between five and seven minutes, and playing with minimum section numbers. Aside from those, a band is free to do musically whatever it wishes.

There are as many personal musical preferences as there are people. One person’s favourite tune is another’s hateful noise. That’s true in pipe bands. We often chalk up our variable judging or unusual results to the “subjective” nature of music.

But there are some very objective qualities that must be assessed and upon which we pretty much are all agreed: Is it in tune? Is it together? Is it well executed? Were there any technical mistakes? How much stress judges put on each of these objective aspects also varies greatly, making four consistent placings even more unlikely.

For example, I don’t much like Duncan Johnstone’s “Farewell to Nigg,” and I find it odd that other people love it. But if I were judging and a pipe band played it would I put them last just because I didn’t prefer the tune? Of course not. I would assess them first on how they expressed it, the quality of their unison and technical accuracy, and the tone and tuning of the performance. I would recognize and respect the merits of Johnstone’s composition in terms of construction. No matter how much I disliked the music, I would give them a fair shake and ensure that the more objective qualities of the performance were duly critiqued.

A pipe band competition is first and foremost a test of accuracy. A band might receive a huge ovation from the crowd, but, relative to the competition, if the performance was not well tuned, not in unison and full of mistakes it should not be first.

Conversely, a band may perform content that all four judges feel is pure dreck, but – again relative to the competition – if it is well tuned, in unison and mistake-free, then it does not deserve to be last.

With the objective qualities in mind, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Toronto Police’s medley at the 2012 World’s deserved to be not last in piping. There were at least four pipe sections that were clearly not nearly as good on those technical, objective elements. (RSPBA adjudicator Bob Worrall appeared to agree in his BBC commentary.) Some judges might have had Toronto Police higher; some lower; but for every judge to put them dead last is truly incredible. Did they really dislike their variations on the ancient Gaelic song “Cutting Bracken” so much that they could throw tuning and playing accuracy out of the equation?

Why is rearranging “Cutting Bracken” (as Toronto Police did) any worse than rearranging “Glasgow Police Pipers” (as Boghall did), or “Alick C. MacGregor” (Inveraray) or any number of bands that went with the current trend of taking the familiar and reinventing it? What would have happened if a piping judge could not tolerate what ScottishPower did with Donald MacLeod’s classic 4/4 “The Battle of Waterloo,” ignored their sound and unison, and put them last? Answer: it would be that judge’s final contest.

Make no mistake, musical content should have some bearing on assessment. But the total assessment? That would not be fair.

It would be an unfortunate day for the pipe band world if even one band is judged strictly for what they played, ignoring how they played it.

You can create music or you can mimic music. Sadly, it would appear that competing pipe bands will be more successful simply repeating the past.

A comment on comments

Much talk over the last few weeks about social media comments, and the situation with the venerable Shotts & Dykehead. In case you’ve been locked up in Barlinnie, here’s the basic story:

  • A few members of the band apparently posted rather pointed comments on Facebook about the drumming judging at the British Pipe Band Championships.
  • The comments were seen by many, and were subsequently removed by those who posted them.
  • The band and/or the members allegedly were served warning by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association about their concern with what was posted.
  • The band or the members were allegedly threatened with suspension.
  • The band held a meeting, the result of which was the Pipe-Major resigning.
  • The band did not compete at the European Championships and don’t yet appear to have appointed a replacement leader.

What a sorry state of affairs that really didn’t need to happen. Yes, the comments need not have been posted. But it brings in to question the idea of what is and isn’t fair comment in the pipe band world. Here’s my take:

So, a judge’s decision might be questioned? So what? Provided it’s fair and not personally libelous then what on earth is the big deal? It might not be politically astute to do such a thing, but is it the stuff of suspension? No way.

Criticizing judging decisions in any form of competition is simply part of the fun. Certainly in the pipe band world, it’s nothing new. What is relatively new is that someone actually had the courage to put their name to their opinions, however strong they might be. This is far better than the back-biting trolls that incessantly whinge on platforms that allow unfiltered anonymous comments without any moderation. (Comments to pipes|drums articles and this blog are moderated.)

When you agree to judge a piping, drumming or pipe band contest you implicitly agree to subject yourself to criticism. If you’re not ready to accept that, then don’t do it. Suck it up, buttercup.

There is some similarly wrong precedent here. The great Muirhead & Sons Pipe Band in the 1970s worked to get a petition going against the judge John K. McAllister after what the band felt were continued judging injustices. The Scottish Pipe Band Association threatened to suspend the band for the rest of the year. The great Pipe-Major, Bob Hardie, then backed down, apologizing profusely, and the band was allowed to compete. It was an example of an association forgetting the interests of its competing members, which should always come first.

In the 2012 example, I have absolutely no reason to believe that the judge in question even knew about the alleged situation, much less read the comments posted on Facebook. This, by all accounts, was an apparent association decision to threaten severe action against the band or individuals. Provided the comments were not libelous, then threatening sanction – if that is what indeed happened – was wrong.

I don’t know of any association that has a rule that members can’t be critical of each other. Isn’t fair criticism what competition is about in the first place? If such a policy or rule were in effect, the whole scene, first, would not be fun, and second, would have about 10 good Samaritans left as members.

It was simply because a few people put their name to strong opinion on the record on a social media platform that this sad circumstance has happened. Again, not politically canny, but fair criticism is simply part of the judging gig, and associations need to be in tune with the real world.

Sheepish

Highland pipers and pipe band drummers owe so much to . . . sheep. And it’s high time we thanked them.

The bag: nothing beats a natural sheepskin under the oxter (or so say the purists, traditionalists, superstitious, discerning or  paranoid; take your pick). Flocks of pipe bags go in and out of makers such as Begg and Bowes, and even support a rather smelly fellsmongering industry in China.

The tunes: “Shepherd’s Crook,” “Ca’ the Ewes,” and “The Ewe wi’ the Crookit Horn” (not really about sheep at all, but the inspiration’s there). We used to commemorate sheep in one way or another, but we’ve been quiet recently. Call it a silence of the lambs. Here’s a call to the Armstrongs, Sauls and Greys of the world to pay homage to these blissfully ignorant creatures that make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of all of us.

Seasoning: did you know that Airtight Seasoning is made of mostly lanolin? What’s lanolin, you might ask? It’s a by-product of sheep and, strangely or obviously, depending on your perspective, absorbs moisture . . . or something . . . making it a perfect ingredient for soaking up slavers. Sheep stand out there in the rain, seemingly impervious to a soaking. It only makes sense that this animal, which does not demand an Inverness cape, should contain a substance that makes getting wet tolerable.

Drum skins: okay, so these are no longer made from super-stretched sheepskin, but they used to be. The poor old sheep made original pipe band drumming possible, and some purists (see pipe bag above) pine for the days of rope-tensioned drums with true “skins.”

The 20 pounds of wool we must wear: Pipers and drummers, unless they come from Brittany or Pakistan, in order to compete are almost always required to don a garment from head-to-toe made from the hair of at least a small family of sheep. This is a reasonable idea when lowing a lament in the horizontal rain in the north of Scotland, but quite absurd in 40-degree heat in July in Chicago or February in Sydney. All the same, thank you, sheep, for making us so colourfully uncomfortable.

Powder Horns: Donald Cameron famously had one, and the late, great John D. Burgess acquired and jauntily sported it, only after Donald MacLeod memorialized it in one of the greatest jigs ever written.

Trophies: some of the world’s greatest piping trophies are designed somewhat bizarrely using the curly horn of a ram that ended up mutton. The overall trophy at the Glenfiddich Invitational – perhaps the biggest award in the solo piping world – is an award for the horny, who are of course turned on by piping perfection.

Haggis: let’s not forget this staple of the serious piper and drummer’s diet. While it’s completely acceptable for regular people to consume putrid hotdogs and bio-engineered Chicken McNuggets, the mere mention of “haggis” sends punters into mock-convulsive retching, even though it’s made from all-organic innards and oats wrapped in an ex-sheep’s stomach.

So let’s all say, Thank you, sheep! You make our art all the more interesting and notorious.

Busked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Wanger

Over the sea to Rum, actually.A few weeks ago I was trying to think of my first real exposure to the pipes. I mean, the instrument, and how it works, not just the sound. My Toledo, Ohio-born father used to play vinyl records of Jimmy Shand and various military pipe bands (my Scottish mother wasn’t as keen on Scottish music aside from Burns and the odd waulking song from Barra), so I guess I had the sound rattling in my head.

But, really, it was in the third grade at Flynn Park Elementary School when I was introduced to how the bagpipe worked. (See previous post on another Flynn memory.) I would have been eight years old; a good two years before I put my hands on a practice chanter. My teacher was Ms. Durr and one day for music time we all were taught to sing something Scottish.

Extraordinarily, it was “The Skye Boat Song.” Remember, this is in suburban St. Louis – about as far removed from the Hebrides as you can get in the western world. And I knew then that it was weird but highly coincidental that we third-graders would be singing Scottish music, the stuff that my dad irritated us with on the weekends.

But here’s the thing. Ms. Durr broke the class in half. One side would sing the words and the melody, and the other side would be what she called “the drone.” This, she explained, was how the bagpipe worked. But we weren’t just any drones. No. We were wangers.

She said that the drones side would, in sort-of rhythm, sing “wang” – as in, “Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang!”

I can’t remember, actually, if I was on the wang side or the song side. In any case, I recall Ms. Durr getting the wangers going:

“Okay, wangers! Start wanging!”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Okay, now the song side! Sing!”

“Speeeeed bonnie booooat, like a biiiirrrd on the wiiiinng!”

“Keep wanging wangers!”

“”Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Onward! the saaaaiiilors cryyyy . . .”

“Good!”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Carry the laaaad that’s booorn to be kiiiiinng!”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Keep on wanging, you wangers!”

“”Ooover the seeeea to Skyyyyye . . .”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

So, this, I think, was my first real introduction to how a Highland bagpipe functions, and since I was the first piper in my family it may have been a determining moment. I remember coming home and trying to describe the experience to my parents, who reacted with a combination of humour and horror. To this day when I hear the tune I picture a little rowboat with a kid with a crown floating on top of a giant seagull’s wing and even the most perfect drones start wanging in my head.

But even though my third-grade experience with Ms. Durr at Flynn Park forever ruined “The Skye Boat Song” for me, in its way it must have influenced my desire to take up the pipes. There must be other unusual tails of inspiration to wang out there, so, Follow I’m sure you’ll dare.

Lonely pipers

I saw the important bits of the Westminster wedding and accompanying parade. Lots of scarlet tunics, gilt and bearskin hats.

But not a single, lone piper to be heard by the billions served on April 29th.

Normally it wouldn’t faze me, but you’d think a small public homage to the intersection of middle-class Middleton and William Windsor-Wales – St. Andrew’s, Scotland – would be in order. They’ll be spending half the year at Balmoral soon enough, and the Windsors own a good portion of Scotland.

But apparently there’s some piping at the Buck House reception, with David Rodgers of the Irish Guards gi’in’ it laldy.

Seems that the rest of the world loves a piper at a wedding when the couple exits the kirk, but the royals are more about private pipers, playing out of earshot of the public, for their own amusement.

Pity.

Off your head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes we just need to give our head a shake.

Tit-for-tat

The USPF’s decision to make its solo piping championship solely for North American pipers could turn out to be an important moment in piping and drumming history. I don’t know if organizer Maclean MacLeod’s move was in direct response to the Glenfiddich no longer including the USPF as a qualifier for their event but, if it isn’t, it’s a remarkable coincidence.

For the record, I don’t care one way or another if an independent competition makes its own rules. Limiting a piping contest to regional competitors is a long-established tradition in Scotland, especially for junior events limited to “locals.” Go ahead; fill your ghillies.

I also don’t feel one way or another about the Glenfiddich’s qualifying process. It’s a privately run event, and if they feel a contest isn’t up to snuff, then that is their prerogative. I hope they explained to the USPF folks exactly why they made their decision and outlined the things they might do to return to the qualifier fold.

But ignoring the specifics of the Glenfiddich’s decision  (which I didn’t consider to be a big deal), what may be most interesting is that the USPF’s apparent counter-move may be the first time that a non-Scottish event retaliated in a significant way to a perceived slight. Associations, events and competitors from outside of Scotland are used to being pushed around. “Overseas” band gradings not honoured by the RSPBA. World’s qualifying contests held only the UK. Non-UK competitors being tacitly made to compete at little Scottish games that often feature iffy judging, non-standard events, no formally accredited judges and always with no accountability for results – to establish a “track record” to have the honour of being accepted to the Argyllshire Gathering or Northern Meeting. The list goes on.

Normally, non-UK folks just lump it. You dare not retaliate or even gently rock the boat, for fear of making your own situation even worse. To some, it’s the definition of bullying.

Last week, though, the tide may have finally started to change. The USPF’s change seemed to upset a number of prominent folks based in Scotland, who were in high dudgeon that they were suddenly being treated in a manner similar to what non-UK pipers and drummers put up with all the time. Perhaps they got a little sample of the disrespect that Americans, Australians, Bretons, Canadians, Kiwis and all other pipers not living in Scotland are told is just “part of the game.”

I’m not a fan of knee-jerk reaction to problems. I’d rather discuss, find common ground and move forward with clarity. Tit-for-tat behavior usually just makes things worse.

But bullies aren’t generally big on diplomacy, so sometimes the only way to deal with them is to fight back and let actions speak louder.

Pipe bands: not hot

All nat-roo-al.Sitting here in the sun on the beach in various degrees of sobriety as my AADD gradually evaporates, various thoughts float by. Here’s one: are pipe bands better suited to colder climates?

Most of us would rather perform and compete in temperate climates but, when it comes to the world’s top-quality pipe bands, generally, the colder the climate, the higher the density of good bands. It seems to be true on both sides of the equator.

The closer the climate is to that of Scotland, it seems, the more likely you are to find a higher standard of playing. There are exceptions, and by no means is this a rule. It just appears to be true, at least today. It may change in the future.

If there is a case to be made for this premise, it’s probably because the Highland bagpipe was designed and tweaked over hundreds of years to work best in a mainly damp, temperate climate like Scotland’s. There’s a reason why sheepskin bags and cane reeds were ultimately chosen for the bagpipe in Scotland: they work the best.

As the popularity of the pipes and pipe bands has spread to other areas, so too have the gizmos and “technology” created in an attempt to tame the instrument. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the more non-Scottish the climate, the more likely you are to find thingamabobs to help players overcome problems presented by the instrument as it was designed for play in Scotland.

And now it seems that bands – at least those serious about competing in Scotland – are realizing that synthetic-whatevers possibly aren’t ideal for getting the best sound in the instrument’s native land. Plastic what-nots may be a great solution in Timbuktu, but they don’t necessarily adapt well to Glasgow.

The drier or hotter the climate, it seems, the more pipe bands are at a disadvantage. The Highland bagpipe in its natural form is not designed for a warmer arid environment and bands unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your perspective) enough to be in these places face an uphill battle.

True pipe strong and free

In all thy drones command.The Highland bagpipe is Canada’s national instrument – not officially, but it should be.

This isn’t to suggest for an instant that the pipes aren’t also Scotland’s national instrument, but I believe that Canadians would and should welcome such an official declaration. Here’s why:

Since I moved here in 1988 I am yet to recall anyone who lives here to say that they dislike the pipes. In fact, I’d guess at least 95 per cent of the time Canadian citizens, landed immigrants and permanent residents that I’ve heard comment say that they love the pipes. As with everything, there are detractors, but I can’t remember seeing anyone cover their ears at the sound of the great pipe.

One hears Highland pipes almost daily in Canada. Police events, political rallies, weddings, military repatriation ceremonies, fundraisers, celebrations, parades, curling matches and hockey games routinely feature a piper or a pipe band regardless of any obvious Scottish connection. These piper-rich events are often attended not just by WASPy Canucks, but also by immigrants from everywhere you can imagine. Highland pipes are even popularly featured in the theme music for Hockey Night in Canada – the country’s de facto national TV show.

Far more often than not, in Canada you hear quality piping – not necessarily Ian K. MacDonald-standard, but decently tuned and pitched instruments played with well-taught embellishments.

The realization that the Highland pipes are Canada’s national instrument solidified in my pea-brain last week. I was at a work meeting when I happened upon a Canadian citizenship ceremony. These momentous swearing-in events now take place in unusual and often public places, and this one was at a research science centre in downtown Toronto.

There were maybe 200 immigrants who were to be sworn in. An LED display scrolled the more than 120 countries that these folks came from. There was a judge in regalia and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer in full scarlet tunic.

Kaitlin Kimove welcoming new Canadians.And there was a piper – a very good one at that. Kaitlin Kimove from the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band piped in these soon-to-be-Canadian citizens. These immigrants were from places like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iraq Tunisia and Libya. When she struck in the pipes there were instant smiles and even tears. The pipes are as much a part of Canada’s culture and being Canadian as maple syrup, pea-meal bacon and Nanaimo bars. Pipe music is part of Canada’s sound track. Newcomers are practically indoctrinated to the sound when they step off the plane or boat.

Having attended several of these citizenship ceremonies (one of which in 1995 I was a participant), I can say that each is a poignant and meaningful moment in the lives of every single person there. The Mountie, the judge, the fellow immigrants embarking on a new life . . . the pipes.

The pipes are heard so often in Canada that I think they are simply a part of the country’s culture, spanning all provinces – even Quebec’s separatist-minded citizens who seem to have just as much affinity for the instrument as anyone. Piping and pipe bands are so familiar to Canadians that it’s perhaps a reason why the popularity of Highland games in the country is waning. Hearing bagpipes in Canada is no big deal.

The Scots co-opted the pipes from elsewhere, and so too has Canada. The Highland pipes will always belong to Scotland, but they can also be Canada’s national instrument. The Highland bagpipe could also well deserve to be the national instrument of New Zealand, or Australia, or other Commonwealth countries. Bring it on. It’s all good.

If you agree, there’s a Facebook page to “like.” If response is there, we’ll eventually take our petition to the powers-that-be in Ottawa to lobby them for official recognition. As always, your constructive comments are welcome.

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