Creative break

Massive challenges ahead.North American pipe band associations have to change. For the last 60 years they have coordinated familiar solo and band competitions that are modeled after Scotland’s traditional Highland games. These events resonate mostly with first-generation post-war immigrant Scots. But in 2011, many North American Highland games – at least as we know them – are on the wane as they struggle to compete for attention from a less-Scottish and more demanding public.

Associations are going to have to reinvent themselves – and quick.

There always will be opportunity to supply the usual turnkey piping and drumming events. Reactively sanctioning competitions under association rules at the request of Highland games put on by other organizations won’t be abandoned, but they are abandoning us. Consequently, associations increasingly will need to proactively create their own platforms for their members to perform. Waiting around for the phone to ring with a Highland games on the line, ready to contract the piping and drumming won’t cut it any longer.

More creativity and more entrepreneurialism are needed if associations are to continue to serve their membership. Risks will have to be taken, and some mistakes will inevitably be made along the way. But the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward can be.

North American associations have faced a quandary for a long time: how to push the boundaries of the art while maintaining the competition desires of members and still respect the ethnic musical “idiom” of the Highland pipe. The fallback has almost always been a cookie-cutter approach to events, with conventional competition formats and requirements. The unchanging competitions are very often almost completely ignored by the general public, who really only want the pipes as background music for their day, culminating in a massed bands spectacle.

The irony is that, in general, the public is indifferent to the competitions but love the massed bands, while pipers and drummers love the competition but dislike the massed bands.

Which begs the question: why don’t associations simply create their own events and stop relying so heavily on Highland games? Perhaps associations should give up on the fantasy that piping and drumming events alone will one day attract the respect and interest of the public, and embrace the challenge of staging their own competitions mainly for their membership. In essence, expand the concept applied to existing indoor events to outdoor venues.

Associations and their branches already are expected to be entrepreneurial and creative. See the Metro Cup. See the Livingstone Invitational. See the BC Indoor Gathering. See the Toronto Indoor Games. See the success of unsanctioned events like Winter Storm, the Dan Reid and Mastery of Scottish Arts. All of these events put piping and drumming first and operate on their own. They’re not a Highland games afterthought; the centerpiece is piping and drumming itself.

Scotland will never have this problem because Highland games and pipe band competitions are not an ethnic oddity, they’re a cultural occurrence. The decline in interest in ethnic Highland games is perhaps more pronounced in Canada than it is in the United States. But the two countries, which once had massive first-generation Scottish immigrant populations, are now dramatically more ethnically diverse. I’m not sure if Australia, New Zealand or other countries are facing the same thing.

North American associations need to adapt to a changed population, halt the erosion of the familiar and alter their traditional approach to meeting the needs of their membership with creativity and entrepreneurialism – before it’s too late.

Kilt of personality

Celebrity is always relative and dependent on your perspective. Right now the Toronto International Film Festival is in full-swing, and I work in the area that’s heavily frequented by movie stars. During the festival – which they keep telling Torontonians is “the second largest after Cannes” – there are people who star-gaze, making it their mission to catch a glimpse of some adorable actor or another. But in 16 years I’ve never seen one during the festival.

That’s probably because I’m not looking for them. I like movies as much as the next person, but I don’t have a lot of time for putting “celebrities” on pedestals, or considering them as anything but famous regular people – who more often than not have serious off-screen personality and self-esteem problems.

As with every niche, piping and drumming has its celebrities. I remember as a Midwestern kid wondering what it would be like to see in-person great pipers whom I’d only heard on record or read about in that bitter little monthly digest.

When I finally got to Scotland and Canada, I was bowled over by how good these players and bands were in-person. But, when I got to speak with them and see them do something other than play their bagpipe, it was something of a let-down. We too often expect “celebrities” to do everything at the same level of excellence as the thing for which they’re famous.

There’s nothing like seeing one of your boyhood piping heroes physically sick with nervousness before competing, or swearing like a lobster fisherman, or getting falling-down-drunk to make you realize real fast that they’re just people, too, with familiar faults and frailties.

But things have changed a lot since the early-1980s. Just like movie-stars, famous pipers and drummers have a lot more to lose when they lose control of their celebrity persona. They’re far more conscious of their actions and how they may impact public perception. They’re not about to let down their guard at competitions and concerts. Their music is, increasingly, their job.

I also think that the piping and drumming competitive elite aren’t treated the same way, and perhaps we can blame – or credit – the Internet and social media for that. I think many people feel that they know a piping/drumming celebrity because they’re a Facebook “friend.”

I’ve written about the old-world hierarchies of class and “society” in piping being broken down over the last 40 years, to the point where income and social status mean nothing on the boards and in the circle. But with it also goes our notion of “celebrity” and, perhaps, our unreasonable expectations of our greatest artists to be perfect people.

Jottings from Glasgow

Roddy MacLeod addresses the gathering at the Glasgow City Chambers.A few stand-out memories and observations from a chock-a-block week in Glasgow. There are hundreds more, but these came to mind first when thinking back on the week. They’re in no particular order.

Bagad Brieg

After almost 30 years of attending the World’s I realized that I had not once listened to anything but Grade 1. So, this year, I decided to will myself away from the Grade 1 Medley Final, and take a look at the Grade 2 final. There were 12 bands in the event, and several performances would have stood up well in Grade 1. But the medley that caught my ear was that of Bagad Brieg from Brittany. I was glad that they finished third overall, because I wondered if their more creative selection might alienate potentially traditionalist judges. Brieg’s finish included an impressive delivery of Gordon Duncan’s “Pressed for Time,” an ingenious and difficult composition that few bands would tackle. Brieg to me stood out from the fairly predictable fare of some of its competition, and I won’t be surprised if they are the next Breton band approved for Grade 1 by the RSPBA.

Armagh Pipers Club

I heard a lot from this band of uillean pipes, whistles, banjo and bodhran during Piping Live! They play an eclectic variety of Celtic stuff in a very acoustic and unplugged manner. They were the background entertainment at a reception at the Glasgow City Chambers put on by the city’s Lord Provost (read: mayor) for people connected with Piping Live! pipes|drums is once again a media partner with the festival, so I scored an invitation. The Armagh Pipers Club played away at the corner of the room, and it was splendid.

Glasgow City Chambers

Over the years I’ve been within yards of the Glasgow City Chambers (read: city hall) thousands of times, but I’d never actually gone inside. What a building. The deep red Italian Carrara marble is everywhere and it is stunning. The building was made in 1888 and, I was told, Glaswegians complained about its cost. But they must have stopped complaining once they saw the completed building. I kept thinking of The Simpsons “Stonecutters” episode. I highly recommend you have a look next time you’re in Glasgow. They don’t make them like this no more.

Roddy MacLeod practicing

The redoubtable Helen Wilkinson of the National Piping Centre kindly allowed me to plug in to their Internet connection throughout the week. While all the action was happening outside, behind the scenes the NPC’s offices were inhabited by employees and volunteers keeping things running. There’s probably not a busier person in Glasgow than Piping Live! and National Piping Centre Director Roddy MacLeod. But one day when I was posting a news story, a somewhat frazzled Roddy came into the offices, and disappeared into a back room where he proceeded to . . . practice. He managed to squeeze in about 15 minutes of his own solo playing before being interrupted with the latest crisis. I continued to do my thing, but couldn’t help but enjoy the loveliness of his playing and pipe. How Roddy manages the NPC and Piping Live! while staying at the top of the solo game is beyond me. MBE indeed.

The RSPBA machine

I compared the band competition times in my program with the actual times the bands came on. There was never more than a minute either way. There may have been one or two lapses on the day, but the RSPBA is unbelievably good at executing events of this size. And it’s not just 230-odd bands; it’s more than 350 (by my count) actual band performances. The RSPBA is mind-bogglingly good at running the World’s like a Swiss watch.

Elderly humming Highlanders

I was reminded about the peculiar habit that old Scottish men have when a solo piper plays a Gaelic air or piobaireachd: they hum along, usually off-pitch, in this sort of murmuring style. You’ll be sitting there enjoying a recital by Angus MacColl or Willie McCallum or some other great, and when the player starts an air or urlar there emerges this weird sound from the audience. And usually, you can’t tell who it is who’s humming, but rest assured it’s one of the elderly Highland-looking dudes. Shut it!

Inert judges

Some ensemble judges feel it’s acceptable to assess each band as a whole from one spot. I’ve heard Bob Shepherd’s thoughts on being “static.” Fair enough. But I noticed in several circles at the World’s piping judges pretty much staying in one place. One judge in an event I listened to never ventured past the half-way mark at the top of the band on one side of the circle – for the entire contest. Another time I noticed all three – two piping and ensemble – listening for a good minute in a clump. With the size of today’s bands, this makes no sense. The piping judges should make an effort to stay away from one another to ensure variances on each side of the circle are heard. Mobility may be a factor with a few judges being relative stagnant, but I would think that the competitors deserve a more comprehensive listen. If judges are having a hard time getting around, perhaps they should retire – or at least use one of those electric carts.

Drinks vouchers

“Beer tickets” are standard at North American piping and drumming events. It’s a way to balance the revenues against sold product and safeguard against theft. The World’s was the first Scottish event that I’d seen the use of the system, and the “drinks vouchers” setup made getting served a breeze. The bed-sheet-size paper vouchers were a bit much, though. Could this be the first time ever that the RSPBA has adopted an idea from another country?

All told, it was a great week, and, as always, your observations are welcome.

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.

No ask; no tell

Not Bob Nicol.The late great golf teacher, Harvey Penick, used to say something like, “Don’t give advice unless you’re asked.” Of course he was talking about golf, and the habit of some hacks who aren’t much better – or even far worse – than their playing partner of telling them what they’re doing “wrong.” Try moving your feet apart. Your grip looks bad. You’re taking your eye off the ball . . .

We face these irritating people in piping and drumming all the time. You’ll have finished your competition performance and some know-it-all will come up and start telling you what’s wrong and what you should do to fix it. Often these officious folks will be rank amateurs who couldn’t play their way out of the proverbial paper bag. Sometimes it will be busy-body professionals or judges, and they’re just as annoying.

The rule of thumb in piping, drumming and pipe bands should be: don’t offer your opinion or advice unless you’re invited to do so by the performer. If you break that rule, no matter who you might be or how good you are, you’re really just a dink.

I remember coming off the boards at the piobaireachd at Crieff games one year and practically being accosted by a famous teacher-judge-Claspy-piobaireachd-guy. He was almost breathless he was so anxious to tell me everything that I did “wrong” in my performance. I bit my tongue and let him bloviate at me, but I really wasn’t listening, much less interested, in his opinion. “Who the *%&# asked you?” was all that I was thinking.

There’s a famous story of a young Bill Livingstone who was similarly confronted at a Scottish games in the 1970s by Bob Nicol, half of the Balmoral Bobs. Nicol apparently ranted on at him about how dreadfully unmusical and “wrong” his tune was. Nicol, who was perhaps accustomed to Scottish pipers just politely accepting his unwelcomed counsel, was reportedly stunned and mystified by Livingstone’s response: “Well, that just fries my ass!

Judges are asked to provide their opinion of a performance via a scoresheet and/or the final result. Beyond that, they have no real business arrogantly lording unsolicited advice at competitors. No matter who you, it lacks tact.

It’s simple: Unless you’re asked, keep your advice to yourself.

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.

Culture club

Travelling recently to Australia I couldn’t help but notice the similarities with North America. Generally speaking, there’s sameness now around the world in the way people dress and the things we eat. We can thank (or blame) “world markets,” cheap manufacturing, electronic communications and air transportation for that.

There are differences, of course, but they’re small, and I don’t think I saw a single item – even stereotypical Aussie oilskin coats, boomerangs or Vegemite – that couldn’t be gotten with a mouse-click and some shipping and duty charges. I can even get kangaroo steaks from a butcher a block away. I knew that going there, of course, and the visit was nonetheless completely enjoyable and culturally enlightening.

World homogeneity isn’t limited to fashion, food and other merchandise; it’s true of the pipe band world. With rare exceptions, no matter where you go every pipe band plays essentially the same kind of content. There’s really no such thing as a “style” of playing any more, and perhaps there never was one, since the idea has always been to ape what was started in Scotland. Bands may have their own subtle approaches to playing, but I can’t think of any consistently distinct national or regional style of playing anywhere in the world.

The Breton bagads of course play completely different music for their Breton events, but for the Scottish MSR and medley competitions they do what they hope will win in Scotland. St. Laurence O’Toole is said to play in an “Irish” style, and the 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel) seem to do a certain Cape Breton thing when it comes to jigs and reels, but a solitary band doesn’t a harmonized national “style” of playing make.

Whether fashion or music, it all comes down to acceptance. Styles change only when people feel they’re acceptable in a widespread way. Trendsetters are the courageous, those willing to counter the conventional and do something different, indifferent to the ridicule.

But at some point someone decided that the Highland pipe could be used to play traditional Breton folk music (sacrebleu!), so why couldn’t that happen elsewhere? It would be great if other national or regional pipe band musical styles could emerge, but it has to be encouraged and nurtured. Maybe if associations created special events, like the Bretons do, for their own bands something might gel.

The imitation of the familiar Scottish format can still go on, but there’s nothing wrong with inventing new looks and sounds and allowing new national styles that each country might call its own to gradually take shape. All it takes is a bit of courage and acceptance.

Gridlock at the top

Beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah.Peculiar traditions in competitive piping and drumming aren’t limited to pipe bands. The world of solo piping is prone to idiosyncratic and contradictory developments. The recent decision by the Glenfiddich Invitational to no longer allow the annual United States Piping Foundation’s competition as a qualifier is one of those things that’s both reasonable and surprising.

It’s reasonable because the winner’s not guaranteed to be of a standard good enough to match that of the elite players who populate the Glenfiddich; it’s surprising because the USPF was the only remaining non-UK event on the Glenfiddich’s list of qualifying contests. The Glenfiddich used to kind-of sort-of somewhat acknowledge the aggregate winner of the Piobaireachd Society Gold Medal (Canada) (or is that Piobaireachd Society [Canada] Gold Medal? Can never get that straight) events at Maxville as second- or third-tier qualifier, but that seemed to vapourize a number of years ago, perhaps when Bill Livingstone stopped competing at it.

Sacking the USPF comes at a time when more UK pipers than ever are travelling to the US to compete in events offering major prize-money and workshops. Perhaps one of those ritzy contests in New Jersey, San Francisco, San Diego or Kansas City might be under consideration as a Glenfiddich qualifier.

The gridlock of bands that traditionally exists at the top of Grade 1 is symptomatic of solo piping, too. In fact, it’s almost the same scenario: The top competitors generally avoid risking being beaten by non-elites at smaller events simply by not attending. And without regular opportunities to beat the top competitors, it’s extremely difficult for bands and soloists to break in to the top-tier.

When it’s only the biggest contests (RSPBA championships for bands; invitationals for solo piping) that the top-tier competitors play at, it’s almost impossible for those not in the elite category to establish a consistent trend of success. If a band or soloist who isn’t in the top-tier manages to win a prize against the elite, it’s often considered a fluke, and judges might be suspected of a rogue decision. So the judges, too, are reluctant to stick their neck out and award prizes to the non-elites. That’s why competitive gridlock happens.

It apparently got so bad in the Scottish solo scene in the early 1980s that Hugh MacCallum, John MacDougall, Iain MacFadyen and Gavin Stoddart collectively agreed to retire together, to make way for a new generation of elites. That might be apocryphal, but the fact is they did retire almost en masse, and, if they hadn’t, then quite possibly we wouldn’t have seen Angus MacColl, Roddy MacLeod, Willie McCallum and Gordon Walker rise to the top so quickly. Who knows? One or more of those great players may have quit in frustration.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the top-tier elite band and solo competitors are amazing musicians and competitors. The public wants to hear them, and that’s why they’re invited back and showcased time and again. They’re safe bets for a superb contest, so you can hardly fault them for going with the big names. I wouldn’t suggest any of them retire before they’re good and ready on their own terms.

But some way, somehow, competitors need to have a chance to break in to the top-tiers and the elite. More big contests should find news ways to shake things up and allow new names to rise up.

A fine thing, chance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image that

You're great. No, you're great.Most famous pipers and drummers have very few photographs of themselves. I know this to be true because of the struggle it almost always has been over the last 22 years to get images from interview subjects. Digital cameras are changing that but, still, older luminaries generally produce, if we’re lucky, a handful of blurry snaps, often of them in a crowd or playing in a band – slim pickings to support these in-depth, multi-parted features.

You’d assume that the opposite would be true, at least with pipers and drummers whose fame was gained mainly through solo competition. I can’t think of many things that are as self-centred as solo competition, since the whole point of the exercise is to be noticed, liked and rewarded by others. I’m not criticizing it, and I competed in solo events for a long time (and may yet again), but the reality is that chasing solo prizes is a total naval-gazing, narcissistic, self-indulgent conceit. No one except you much cares where you rate in the prizes.

And the irony doesn’t stop at a lack of photos. I find that the majority of pipers and drummers are loath to draw attention to themselves. They generally prefer to hide, and not discuss their experiences or success, much less take pride in their prizes.

Why is this? Maybe it’s due to a Scottish tradition of pious humility, but the last thing most pipers and drummers want to be accused of is self-promotion. Those who do are accused of wearing the proverbial fur coat and nae knickers. There are great exceptions (and, again, that’s okay with me) whom we won’t name here, but marketing does not come easily to the majority of us.

Things are slowly changing, though, and I think we can credit the non-Scottish influence for a rise in marketing and promotional prowess or, at least, willingness. Self-promotion is perhaps more culturally acceptable to Canadians, Australians, Kiwis and, certainly, Americans. Consequently, piping and drumming is coming out of its shell, albeit at the pace of tortoise.

As an American learning not just piping, but the culture of piping, I realized that one does not outwardly promote one’s self at the risk of being accused of trying to curry favour. One sets expectations low, and humility and not a little self-flagellation is generally in order at competitions. Those who come off the boards gloating about how well they played are doomed to fail, either when the prizes are announced or in their fellow competitors’ eyes.

But back to the photo-deficiency of famous pipers and drummers. There are only a scant few images of, say, John McLellan, Dunoon, or Willie Lawrie or Roddie Campbell. From that era, we generally can thank the military for the photos that do exist. Granted, cameras and photographs were relatively few and expensive then, but I tend to think that these humble pipers would have few pictures of themselves today, even if they had an account on Facebook.

Musical ecosystem

Balanced on an axis.Every ecosystem reacts to foreign invaders. Earthly things merrily exist in their particular environment, change occurring over eons and epochs in Darwinian sloth . . . then suddenly a bunch of things come off a jet plane and all hell is unleashed.

Scotland is not called the Auld Country for nothing. The “New Town” in Edinburgh was first established 230 years ago, about the time that the United States was born. While Scotland’s cities are among the most modern in the world, and it’s the place where many great inventions were made, paradoxically there are centuries-old traditions that exist simply because they exist and that’s the way things have always been done.

The new worlds of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, by comparison have few traditions, and those that exist are years rather than centuries old. Religious holidays become commercial festivals; days of homage to great leaders are declared; musical trends start and stop every minute.

Thanks to jet travel and other technology, Scotland’s piping and drumming ecosystem has been infiltrated by foreign invaders, brought on partly by Scots themselves. The missionary work in the 1960s and ’70s of Seumas MacNeill, John MacFadyen, John MacLellan, the Balmoral Bobs, Donald MacLeod, Alex Duthart and others brought the gospel of good piping and drumming to the colonials. Other Scottish pipers and drummers, like John Wilson, Roddy MacDonald, James Barrie, James MacColl, Jim Kirkwood, James McIntosh and others – outright emigrated to the new world, and embraced the cultures of their new homes, profoundly improving things through their tireless teaching.

New world pipers and drummers not only worked to perfect their craft, but injected into it new traditions by consistently questioning why things are done the way they’ve always been done in Scotland for hundreds of years. Piping and drumming’s new world has readily tweaked and even thumbed its figurative nose at the traditions of the art. Those disruptions have usually not gone over too well in the Auld Country.

It’s a culture clash. While Scots are accustomed to maintaining traditions, the new world generally has less tolerance for doing things the same way. As such, the challenges to established piping / drumming ways over the last 30 years by and large have originated from outside of Scotland: the resurrection of the bass-section; the rise of summer schools; judging accreditation; solo grading systems; new light music compositions and styles; pushing the boundaries of the pipe band medley; “kitchenpiping”; aristocracy replaced by meritocracy . . .

As with everything, there are exceptions, but the large majority of biggest challenges and changes to piping and drumming traditions over the last 30 years have originated from outside of Scotland.

I’ve been a piper and bandsman in the United States, Scotland and Canada for decent amounts of time in each country. The three cultures treat change very differently. The struggles with change that piping and drumming has had, I believe, are largely due to a struggle of cultures. The Scottish piping ecosystem that existed and hardly changed for hundreds of years was significantly disrupted by an influx of foreigners, exiting jet planes with their new ideas and acceptance of change. It has been an invasion of fresh ideas to some, of pests to others.

The remaining traditions of piping and drumming – the MSR, the uniform, competition formats, to name a few – are sure to be challenged by the pressure to change. The mindsets of players from various countries vary, each with different ideas of what’s “acceptable” and what’s not. These clashes of cultures are responsible for the massive changes to our musical ecosystem that will continue faster than ever with the worldwide piping and drumming population explosion.

There can be no doubting that great changes have occurred since the advance of piping skills in North America and Down Under. Now, as piping and pipe bands go even more global – continental European countries and Asia, especially – how will these diverse cultures further impact upon the traditions and mores of our musical environment?

Hands across the water

Take note.Now that Inveraray & District has completed its sweep of all five Grade 2 RSPBA championships with a win of Cowal, the band’s coronation to Grade 1 in 2010 is assured – not that it wasn’t before. The band powered through the season with 13 firsts from a possible 20 across the majors, leaving some wondering if the band should have been put in Grade 1 instead of Grade 2 when it moved from Juvenile after 2008.

Considering that Inveraray only started to compete in 2005 as a new Juvenile band makes this one of the great pipe band success stories of all time. Not since Boghall & Bathgate, Dysart & Dundonald or maybe Vale of Atholl in the 1970s has an organization risen to the top with remotely comparable speed, even though those three bands didn’t come close to Juvenile-to-Grade-1 in only four full seasons.

Hat’s off to Inveraray’s leadership and to the whole organization’s commitment to success. The band is led by Pipe-Major Stuart Liddell and Lead-Drummer Steven McWhirter, who both are stars at the top of the solo piping and drumming trees. But they both have something else in common – something probably far more important to Inveraray’s success.

Both Liddell and McWhirter for the better part of the last decade were members of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band. It’s clear that neither were simply hanging out at SFU only so they could enjoy winning a few World Championships; they were there to learn SFU’s style of band-craft and take it back with them to Scotland, where they have deployed their knowledge to the hilt in Inveraray’s first season in Grade 2.

Since the 2009 World’s not a few folks have noted that only one Scotland-based band – House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead – in the last decade has managed to win the big award, while the other seven times it’s gone to SFU of Canada or Field Marshal Montgomery of Northern Ireland. I’ve also heard comments from Scotland bemoaning that so many talented Scottish pipers and drummers are playing in bands not based in their homeland, insinuating that these traitors should stay home to fight for their own country.

It’s interesting to note that in the 1970s, Canadians started to travel to Scotland to play in and learn from top bands, and then bring their knowledge back home. This produced results seen in the likes of Clan MacFarlane (Scott MacAulay – Muirheads), Triumph Street (Hal Senyk – Muirheads), Toronto & District (John Elliott – Muirheads), City of Victoria (John Fisher – Shotts) and others. Rather than moaning that Canadian bands couldn’t match the Scottish standard, these folks committed themselves to going there to learn how it’s done. Pipers and drummers from all over the world continue to travel to Scotland to gain experience with top bands, although the practice continues to diminish.

Now, it seems that the tide has turned, with UK-based pipers and drummers learning from top bands in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. To be sure, some of the world’s greatest pipe bands are still in Scotland – tremendous talent is still there. But, now, it appears that things have come full circle, where the recipe for one kind of success is an ocean away – in the other direction.

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.

It’s alive!

Livens it up.It’s hard to believe that Piping Live! is now in its sixth year. Those of us who are old enough will remember what it was like to travel to Glasgow to compete at the World’s before the preceding week was chock-a-block, as it is now, with entertaining and informative events.

Don’t misunderstand me, Glasgow is a wonderful city. It’s where my mother grew up and I was there many times as a kid. But back in the 1980s and ’90s non-UK bands would arrive, as they do today, a week before the contest. There would be the one or two band practices a day, and after that you pretty much had to invent your own fun. And to a large extent, that involved consuming massive quantities of costly beverages, often all day long. It was fun but monotonous, expensive, and not exactly conducive to good playing.

All you’d talk about at the pub was the contest: the judges, the draw, the weather, the other bands, the possible result, the chanters, the timing, the weather, the reeds, the draw, the drums, the weather, the stewards, the bags, the judges, the draw, the chanters, the other bands, the weather . . . ad infinitum. By the time the contest actually arrived you were one big ball of anxiety, and you most certainly didn’t sleep much the night before.

I’d imagine that continues now with some people, but it seems that Piping Live!, in addition to the world-class piping and drumming talent and information it provides to anyone who wants to take advantage of it, is a great social diversion for visiting players. It also helps to keep them out of the pub.

I played at the World’s last year, and the week was a completely different experience. Sure, it was a different band, but I found that the Festival provided so many pleasant distractions to take my mind off the Saturday that I didn’t feel stressed at all when the Big Event arrived. The week flew by.

This year I’m heading to Piping Live! again, arriving Wednesday morning, this time as a non-competitor. Those competing with bands may feel differently, but because the three weekdays that I’ll be there are so full of interesting and satisfying variety, the Saturday competition is almost secondary.

Younger visiting competitors today don’t know how good they have it this week.

Grandest finale

Flock-truckerMassed bands and march-pasts are necessary penance for those who play in pipe bands. After a day of anxious competition, relaxing over a drink or two is all everyone really wants, and to be pulled out of the beer tent for the grand finale (for spectators, anyway) is an inevitable duty.

I haven’t played regularly in a pipe band for some time now, but I can’t remember many awards ceremonies at which the result wasn’t fairly well known, including last year’s World’s. Leaks happen, and the well connected will have their sources.

Memorable prizes and celebrations aside, funny things often occur at massed bands and march-pasts. I’ll never forget in the 1980s at Cowal on a bright, sunny day, as the bands filed on interminably long, a few bandsmen who’d had one or two pints before going back on the park couldn’t hold it any longer so executed the canny one-knee-on-the-ground maneuvre, shielded on one side by the bass drum and empathetic bandsmen on the other to get some relief right on the parched Dunoon ground. I posted something about it last year, actually.

Another memorable time was maybe 1989 at the World’s. The prizes were being announced in the usual tedious manner. They came to Grade 3, and went in order. I could hear a Scottish band just behind us clearly disappointed not being announced first, with some groans after anxiously awaiting the announcement.

And when they learned that they weren’t first-runners-up either there was more grumbling, which grew a bit louder when they weren’t even third, and even more contentious when they weren’t fourth or fifth. A few oaths were murmured from their ranks.

But when the Grade 3 band wasn’t even sixth – out of the list entirely when they thought they might even have won the thing – it really took the cake and someone from the group just couldn’t take it any longer and let out an almighty scream at the announcer. It can’t be printed here, but, let’s just say sounded something like, “Truck my flock!!!”

Yes, fond memories of some of our grandest finales and finest moments.

The people’s band

Hands off.Maybe it was all the bad news mounting. Maybe the pipe band world had had just about enough, thank you, and this was just too much. But public reaction to the apparent threat to the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band was nothing short of phenomenal. The members of the band have been under pressure for the last few years, with new police management seemingly giving them stick for committing too much time to being great musicians, and too much devotion to ensuring the band was a symbol of excellence that was representative of the excellence of the Strathclyde Police force itself.

Friends of the band worked the media to communicate the story of the band’s threatened status, and when news of the dire situation hit on pipes|drums and then the Glasgow Herald the piping and drumming world reacted with a 24-hour PR wildfire. I’ve never seen anything like it. Before Facebook group petitions were even a day old the force had reacted and quelled the angry mob, publicly assuring us that it’s status quo with the band, at least for now. We will hold them to that.

Sponsorships start and stop. Bands come and go. When established top-grade bands go under the response is generally a few days of disappointment and sadness by most, but the issue is generally quickly put out of mind, as other bands become the beneficiaries of the suddenly available talent.

But why was the Strathclyde Police situation different? Perhaps it’s this: Apart from the fact that the band is more than 120 years old and the winner of dozens of championships, the Strathclyde Police more than any other top band is a band that belongs to the people.

Certainly the people of Scotland’s Strathclyde region pay taxes that go to the funding of the police and thus the band, but anyone who has visited Glasgow also has a financial stake in the band. Those who have gone to the World’s or Piping Live! or Celtic Connections or just a visit to see auld auntie Senga in Knightswood have helped to sponsor the band. They may not realize it, but the Polis are truly a band of the people. We all help to fund it.

So when our band is threatened, it’s reasonable that we all get our collective back up and set about the folk messing with our investment. We’ll give you what for.

I saw somewhere online a suggestion that each person employed by the Strathclyde Police force could just give another pound each year to go towards the band. In truth, all of us who have spent any money in Glasgow have helped to sponsor this band. Our vested interest. Our band.

Digging a hole where the rain gets in . . .

I buried Paul!The current news of the RSPBA’s handling of “international” judges has captured the interest of pipes|drums readers. And why not? The competitive pipe band world (at least the non-Breton one) has been built on the Scottish model.

Over its history, the World Pipe Band Championships (Cowal pre-1947 included) were pretty much the same thing for more than 50 years. There was little growth and change in size or playing standards. Probably at least 95 per cent of the entrants were from Scotland. The rise in pipe band standards in the Commonwealth countries just happened to coincide with the availability of relatively cheap jet travel, so non-UK bands gradually gravitated to Scotland to test their mettle.

There is little argument that the expansion of the World’s is due to the influx of “overseas” bands.

I still think that the RSPBA – even three decades in to this crazy expansion – still doesn’t know what’s hit them. They have not adapted well to this change, and, some would say, have even tried to resist it, even by putting it down.

The City of Glasgow has figured it out. The National Piping Centre has figured it out. Piping Live! has figured it out. Why the RSPBA hasn’t is difficult for many to fathom. Thousands of people are saying, “Here, please take our money. All that we ask in return is a fair shake.”

Even when things have not been perceived as fair (e.g., recording rights, judging representation, threats of suspension to top overseas bands and judges), non-UK bands have still come, hoping that maybe, just maybe, this year things will be different. I wonder if the latest action – or inaction, as the case may be – is the final straw. One senses a groundswell. There’s a very angry mob that might have had just quite enough.

But I think that there is an element who feels, “Fine, stay home if you don’t like it. It’s our contest, so you’ll play under our rules, and we will set those rules as we see fit.” It’s as if they would be perfectly happy to return to 1965.

The current pipes|drums Poll is revealing. At the moment a total of 14 per cent have said Yes to the question “By suspending international judges, has the RSPBA done the right thing?” Of course, 86 per cent feel that the RSPBA made the wrong decision. If we look at the data behind the entries, countries of origin can be counted.

Responses from Canada are a tiny 3 per cent saying Yes. Those from the USA are higher, at 8 per cent. Australia is in line with the average, with 14 per cent responding Yes.

But, the UK response is a very different story. Some 35 per cent of responses from the UK support the RSPBA’s decision. While that’s far short of majority, it’s way above the average and miles more than the Canadian opinion.

There’s a massive divide that may not be possible to bridge. Could this be the end-of-the-tether for many bands? Will the RSPBA be able to dig itself from the hole that it’s dug? The next few months will tell the tale.

Full up

As a precocious (read: naive) 14-year-old, I was encouraged by Gordon Speirs, who gave me lessons at the time, to play with a top-grade band. Gordon had no shortage of chutzpa, sometimes verging on the bombastic, and he didn’t seem to think that it mattered that I’d been playing for only three years and was from the (then) piping-nowhere of St. Louis.

Gordon thought that I and another piper from The Loo should go to Scotland for a summer. He said, “Muirhead & Sons needs pipers. I’ll get you Bobby Hardie’s number, and you can call him up.”

And he did, and I actually called the legendary Robert G. Hardie, and gave him the pitch.

I can’t remember if my parents even knew what I was up to, and I’m sure they would have quashed such a cockamamie concept before they even would agree to pay for a long-distance call. In my heart, I knew that the idea was absurd, and I think I secretly wished and expected that Hardie would say no.

No, indeed. I remember Hardie on the other end of the line letting us down gently. After politely listening to our warped reasoning, Hardie said, “Sorry, but I think we’re full up at the moment.”

“Full up.” Gordon had said that Muirheads was on the ropes back then in the late-1970s, suffering from declining numbers. Hardie had been taking in pipers from Canada in particular who committed to playing with Muirheads for a year or so, and these folks included very accomplished guys like Scott MacAulay, Michael MacDonald, John Elliott and Hal Senyk. When it came to nonentities from nowhere, Hardie I’m sure just couldn’t be bothered with such a thing.

I doubt that there’s a Grade 1 band today that would say that they’re “full up” for pipers. “Traveling” band-members are common in most upper-grade bands today, and some even have the majority of pipers and drummers coming from a long way away.

From what I understand of the Band Club Sydney, many of its members travel from far outside of Sydney, even other continents. It looks like the band’s sponsors grew weary of not being able to field a band for functions, so want the group to go in a different direction.

The idea of “community” I still think is important to a typical band’s identity. (I say “typical” because a band like the Spirit of Scotland, which I play with, is based on the unusual premise of assembling far-flung members for periodic flings.) A pipe band that practices, performs and competes throughout the year ultimately needs to have a place that it can call home. It’s important that the band contributes to that community, and it’s essential when the band features a city in its name.

The Band Club shake-up may well be the beginning of the end of the never-full-up ethic of accepting players from wherever. It’s a short-sighted approach that often results in few members truly sharing in the satisfaction and camaraderie gained from winning.

Sterling silver

Robert Mathieson’s excellent interview has special meaning to me. The interview process started maybe a year ago when I asked if he’d be interested in and have the time to do an interview. After a bit of convincing he agreed and by chance we were at the same contest in the piping paradise of Dunedin, Florida, this early-April, so we found two hours for an ocean-side on-the-record chat that featured several Coronas (beers, not cigars) and not a little reminiscing.

In Part 1 of the interview you’ll see a 1984 photo of the Polkemmet Colliery band. Along with many others, Rab sent a scan of that shot, which was actually taken by my dad, a day or two after my twenty-first birthday, which we celebrated in Pitlochry. My late father would have got a huge kick out of, not only his photography being useful to and seen by others, but the fact that his picture came full circle back to me after 24 years.

Just about every interview that I’ve done is with a friend. Very few times have I met someone for the first time at the interview itself. When that was the case, I’m happy that those people have gone on to become friends of mine.

The straight skinnyReconnecting with Rab has been a pleasure. When I arrived in Scotland in the summer of 1983, a wide-eyed, 19-year-old piping St. Louisan who the Scots didn’t know from Lou Brock, it was Rab who gave me a shot in his band. I remember calling the RSPBA headquarters during my first week at Stirling University, trying to get help with connecting me with a band. They suggested Knightswood Juvenile, I remember – a fine band, but I was aiming higher. They gave me the name of a contact at Boghall, but they didn’t return my call.

Finally, I tried the number of Matt Morrow, then band president at Polkemmet. He said they would love to meet me, and he told me where and when the band practiced. So I set out the next Sunday to their practice at the East Whitburn Community Centre. This involved a bus from the university to Stirling train station; a train to Edinburgh; a train to Falkirk; and then another bus that somehow got me near the practice hall. It took about three hours.

But when I arrived no one else was there, and then slowly people started filing in. Everyone seemed a little intrigued that I was there, but they seemed to have heard about it. Then a 24-year-old Robert Mathieson arrived, he said hello and then took me to the room where Jim Kilpatrick and his corps practiced and asked me to play something on the chanter.

“What should I play?” I asked.

“Anything,” Rab said.

So I remember starting “Duncan Johnstone” only to have Rab tell me to stop after a few bars. I thought he was going to tell me to get my arse back on that Bluebird bus. But he just said, “That’s fine; you’ll play.”

And that’s what happened. I played, and learned, and had unbelievable fun with new friends that exist today. It was a terrific first year in Scotland, and I can credit Robert Mathieson – as he has done with so many other pipers over the years – with giving me a chance to contribute to his band. All the interviews have special meaning to me, but this one is particularly significant, 25 years on.


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