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from pipers and drummers and enthusiasts around the world – not to mention the mayor of Vancouver – that the bylaw was rescinded.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.

Travelling band

All the young dudes.I think every pipe band dreams at some point about doing “a tour.” The glamourous concept of the rock n roll lifestyle, hitting stops along the way, rolling into towns to do a show, partying all night, then hitting the road again for the next concert.

Hello, Cleveland!

British military bands are the only ones in our musical realm that can hit the road – they’re ordered to do so and the government coordinates the venture, which is as much about entertaining as it is about waving the flag. The problem with a civilian pipe band is, of course, no one has the vacation time to commit to such a thing. We all work for a living, and playing in the band isn’t a realistic income source.

The mythical rock n roll road lifestyle seems to have taken hold of several professional pipers and drummers (“professional” meaning they make a living from teaching and performing) for the first time with the “Pipes n Sticks on 66” tour planned for April. Mike Cole, Stuart Liddell, Jim Kilpatrick, Willie McCallum and Angus MacColl seem to be the first to make fantasy reality by tracking the famous old US Highway glamourized so often in song to get their kicks in a mini-bus, stopping along the way, fighting off the chicks and hoping a roadie or two will look after their gear.

It’s all part of our rock n roll fantasy: five guys in their forties (mostly) in search of the dream and the bleary lifestyle of the troubadour and the stories that will inevitably be told from the trip. To most, Bon Scott notwithstanding, Highland pipes are about as far removed from rock n roll cool as can be imagined, so the tour is a great story on its own. It should get a number of curiosity-seekers wondering if Stuart Liddell will play vintage Henderson Stratocaster drones.

We pipers and drummers secretly wish we could be rock stars. Instead we play mostly traditional music, clad in 20 pounds of wool, often standing in the rain on a farmer’s field before a crowd of family and bored friends. Some may shake their head at the Pipes n Sticks on 66 tour, but I think most of us deep down know that these guys are ticking off a box on their list of things to do before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

It’s the stuff that rock n roll dreams are made of.

Play well . . . or else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True-love giving

“Twelve drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping” . . . these are maybe the greatest connections to piping and drumming we have when it comes to bridging to the non-playing public. Everyone loves “The 12 Days of Christmas.” It’s the “Scotland the Brave” of Christmas Carols.

I’m not sure about your part of the world, but it seems that Christmas windows at big department stores have made a comeback in Toronto. That’s nice. I’d hate to think that kids never get the chance to gaze dreamily at the mechanized glittering windows before they become completely inured to consumerism. It used to be that department store Christmas windows were a marvel of technology; now, they’re a quaint throwback to the days of Hornby trainsets and Meccano.

The fancy Holt-Renfrew store on Bloor Street this year has a really clever series of windows that have a fashionista take on “The 12 Days.” Their interpretation of 11 Pipers Piping is quite brilliant: 10 female mannequins in plaid/tartan with “drones” sticking out of their designer handbags. Get it? Bag-pipes. (The eleventh mannequin appears to be a man smoking a pipe, to keep everyone honest, since I’d imagine about one out of every eleven Holts customers is male.)

Sadly, the 12 Drummers window is made up of mannequins in a tin soldier motif. Drummers can be many things, while pipers to most punters, at least in the western world, are Highland bagpipers. Ed Neigh said many years ago that pipe bands must be eternally grateful to drummers, who have so many other musical options, but instead chose to play in, of all things, a pipe band.

Every year you see financial calculations of how much it would cost to buy or rent the entire 12 Days. For the 12 drummers, they always seem to go with a marching band of some kind, while the cost of 11 pipers is mainly that which the local pipe band would charge for what today would often mean about half of its pipe section. I’d imagine that hiring 11 of SFU or Field Marshal Montgomery’s pipe section would set you back at least a thousand dollars, or about the price of five decent gold rings — six if you throw in both Lees and a Parkes.

Swans, a partridge in a pear tree, geese a laying – all very doable, and I’d bet you could wait around Westminster to get 10 Lords to leap on their tea break. I’m not sure what eight farm-girls go for what with the cost of their dairy cows, or if eight wet-nurses are even possible in this age and day.

“Eleven pipers piping”: a true gift to our art.

Put a golf tee in it

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

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

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

What a shame.

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

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

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

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

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

Flatten the grass

BzzzzzzBzzzzzplop . . . . . . BzzzzzBzzzzzplop  EEEEEEEELike many other people I’ve been listening to Ceremonials, the new disc by Florence + the Machine. Of course, it reminds me of a great pipe band. Florence Welch’s powerful, instant-on voice makes me think of a pipe chanter, except one with a three-octave range, multi-layered, with complex harmonies and counter-melodies textured in.

I just read that her new album has hit the number-one spot in the UK charts, so there must be a market for BIG music that carries certain sameness, and which is highly infused with Celtic style, crazy outfits and wispy heather visions of the moors. She also often uses lots of lower-toned drums, often in rhythmical, chant-like ways, which fits with the current sound of many bands.

Bill Livingstone once talked about listening to the 1980s vintage Strathclyde Police when they were “in full sail,” conjuring an image of a clipper meeting the waters head-on with wind. The pipe band-sailing ship analogy is even more apt today with much larger bands developing huge visual and sonic power.

I could see Florence + the Machine doing something with a pipe band, just as I could hear a pipe band covering one or two of her songs in a concert. Our music is often criticized by outsiders for always sounding the same with unwavering loudness and a dearth of dynamics. But there is no denying that a pipe band at its best produces impressive and beautiful energy that, as George Campbell would say, “flattens the grass.”

I’ve also read some criticism of Ceremonials, contending that the songs remain the same from track-to-track. But Florence Welch clearly works within a formula that rings true with many people. Sometime, pipe bands try too hard to be something they are not and can never be. Instead of working with what they have, they strive to overlay pipes and drums with other stuff, seemingly never content with, It is what it is.

I’m not saying for a second that there is anything wrong with that. I’m a vocal proponent of pushing the boundaries. But some artists are able to hit upon a formula without ever becoming formulaic. They recognize what they’ve been given, their limitations, and get on with making the most of them.

Easy image

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

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

Clearly, tenor drumming has an image problem.

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome simplicity

Mingus.“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

“Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

The great jazz cat Charles Mingus famously said these things back in the day. He was speaking particularly about his own music; it also applies to ours.

My favourite tunes – bagpipe or other – invariably have extraordinarily simple, memorable melodies. They’re uncluttered and pure in their distinctive structure and sound. “Lochanside,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Lament for Mary MacLeod,” “In My Life,” “The Little Cascade,” “A Case of You,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein” . . .

We pipers play a rather complicated instrument, and many composers – especially those just starting out – seem to think that complexity is the root of cleverness. As listeners we can’t help but be impressed by our fastest-handed players doing things that we can only dream of. We associate clever with complicated.

But we’re moved by the simple. The simple stays with us. A blur of notes and impressive technicalities generally leave us cold, while pure memorable melody puts us in the mood for more.

Pipe bands have a particularly difficult time with this concept. The temptation is to impress with “innovation” rather than wow with sound. The real challenge is to present the pipe band’s complicated intricacies in a simple and meaningful manner that resonates long after the sound stops. The task is made yet harder when snare drummers are rewarded for technical rather than musical achievement, and complicated yet again when bass sections are inserted into places they’re really not needed.

Maybe it’s because our music is so simply nine notes that we strive to over-complicate it. We gild the lily. Perhaps it’s overcompensation for what we feel we lack in terms of octaves and dynamics and time-signatures, but it’s the simple, and the confidence to be awesomely simple, that sustains.

Lament for the union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not?

Stewards, chiefly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here are a few tips for stewards:

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

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


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.

Say what?

The good folks with Hear Toronto at the Toronto Indoor.At Highland games, bouncy castles, Scottish sweets-stands and greasy pies are pretty much the norm. You get the odd Ham-a-lot or Montreal smoked meat, and of course the essential beer-tent. Naturally, there are the vendors of Highland gear and pipes and drums. All of this is pretty familiar and predictable stuff.

I’m a big fan of marketing ideas that resonate so immediately that you can’t believe that they took so long to appear. Sometimes, the most obvious stuff is the smartest.

At the recent Toronto Indoor Games I had a eureka marketing moment when I did a double-take after almost walking by a little booth with folks who were selling hearing protection devices. I’m so used to the same-old-stalls that it’s easy to bypass something like this.

But it made perfect sense. Here’s an indoor piping, drumming and pipe banding event held in a cavernous hall. Pipers and pipe band drummers play loud instruments, and hearing loss is a serious concern with players over time. Of course! The audiologists from Hear Toronto set up shop and were selling serious protection devices by Etymotic Research, including custom-fitted models. They were even taking silicon impressions on-the-spot for anyone who wanted to pay $200 to protect their hearing while providing “uniform 15 dB sound reduction across frequencies,” i.e., quieting, not degrading, the sound quality of the pipes, drum, pipe band or nagging spouse.

I was talking – or, rather, shouting over the piping/drumming din – with the venerable Brian Pollock, a veteran of nearly five decades of top-level piping, hundreds of competitions and, I’d guess, more than 10,000 practice sessions. Brian seems to have all his faculties still, including hearing, and he’s also got serious business acumen. I mentioned that it was impressively smart for Hear Toronto to do some marketing and selling at the Indoor. Bagpipes, drums, pipe bands = hearing loss.

We both wondered why it had to stop there. Why not look at other afflictions that we pipers and drummers face? Can’t they, too, come on out to our events? We started to brainstorm.

  • Massage therapists – anxious competitors could take a load off and get a good rub-down before their event.
  • Psychiatrists – just set up a little screened-off booth for discreet visits and I bet this would be booked solid by neurotic competitors.
  • Loan accountants – is there a piper or drummer who doesn’t need more money to support his/her affliction? Cha-ching!
  • Hypnosis therapists – who doesn’t know a piper or drummer who couldn’t use a little of this? “look into my eyes. . . . you are getting sleepy . . . sleepy . . . when you hear the words ‘quick march’ you shall play perfectly until you must stop . . .”
  • Marriage counselors – maybe this little booth wouldn’t get much action, since, as I’ve only witnessed on TV (honest!), marriage counselors need both parties to attend the counseling. The many who need it of course wouldn’t be at the contest with their spouse . . .

So, forget the big lemonade stand and the taffy booths. The real marketing and selling opportunities at the games are with stuff we really need. I’m sure you have your own ideas about what would sell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sage advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradiddle universe

Shutcho mouth!Truth be told, I was a snare drummer first. Yes, at the age of nine, when Flynn Park fifth-graders signed up for a musical instrument that they wanted to learn, I wound up with the drum.

My actual intention, like most boys, was to play the trumpet. But I remember gathering in the school cafeteria, and the music guy (who had a toupee that was more shag-carpet than hair) looking in our mouths like so many gift-horses, considering my under-bite and crooked teeth, and crushingly informing me that I would most certainly be getting braces, so the trumpet wasn’t practical.

Inconsolably sobbing, I was offered, maybe even assigned, the drum.

This was at least a year before I expressed interest in that other ultracool instrument, the Highland pipe. I set about getting completely underwhelming instruction in the drumming rudiments. I learned a flam and a paradiddle well before my hands were placed on a chanter.

The music guy didn’t actually do the drum teaching. Instruction was from an obviously very talented woman, who had the worst (or best, depending on your preference) arse-to-torso ratio of any person I’d ever seen – at age nine, anyway. She seemed to know every instrument there was, and I was her only drumming student at Flynn Park. I think she took at shower in pure Charlie perfume; such was her fragrant embrace around me when she worked my hands, trying to teach me the art of the roll, the ratamacue and the red-hot flamadiddle. It was all in the wrist, she cooed.

I vividly remember her frustration with me, her indolent, prepubescent percussionist, as we prepared for the big spring concert at which the little school orchestra would perform an outdoor show (pictured above). With her dimensions, one would suppose that she would go for “Hot Crossed Buns.” No sir-ee. She was determined to have us first-year squealers and bangers do a heartfelt rendition of the “Theme from Shaft,” which had been at the top of the 1971 charts.

She became completely exasperated with my inability to play the drumming interlude/solo that went ta-da-ta-da-taaaaa ta-da-ta-da-ta-daaaaaa ta-da-ta-da-taaaaa ta-da-ta-da-ta-daaaaaa at about 120 BPMs. I completely blew it in the concert (that no one but my diligent paparazzi Pop attended), and I can still see her shaking her head at me mid-performance, what with her giant hoop earrings, crispy pre-disco-era hair and upturned glossy hooker-red lips.

Amazingly, I continued to “play” the snare drum for another two years, much the same way that I continued to “learn” algebra. While doing that, I found my musical calling in piping, but there too I was an early wilter – the local band I was learning with, when I let it slip that I was a “drummer,” immediately tried to move me to that, to offset their dearth of bodies at the back end.

I’m sure that my Dad must have stealthily intervened and insisted that they keep teaching me piping, so I was rescued from the dregs of practice chanter students and eventually committed myself to actually trying. Early wilter turned late bloomer.

All told, I’m glad that I tried my hands at drumming. For me, what the instrument lacked in melody, it made up in theory. When I started the pipes, I could already understand note-values and time signatures, notwithstanding wondering where all the rests went. Because I sucked so bad at it, I appreciate just how difficult the instrument is.

I’ve occasionally considered picking up the sticks again. I’d love to experience for real a pipe band’s back-end. But, like my lovely first music teacher, it’s all in the rearing.

The trouble with AGMs

I’ve always been miffed by pipe band associations’ annual general meetings. They’re of course a necessary thing. Every formal organization with bylaws and legalities and such-like are required to hold AGMs, but there’s something really out-of-whack with AGMs for many piping and drumming organizations.

For a start, it’s music. Music and politics are incompatible bedfellows, and politics pretty much are the source of all piping and drumming unhappiness, whether it’s alleged “political” decisions rendered by judges, or the “politics” within a pipe band, or simply the administrative side of organized competition. Most of us simply want to play or listen to music, and, for the most part, the political administration of piping and drumming associations is left to others.

As evidenced by the typical five per cent turnout of members at most AGMs, we dislike these things more than massed bands in a downpour. AGMs are held in the off-season, when the last thing we want to do is drive for miles on a Saturday when we’d rather be doing . . . anything else.

But AGMs can have a profound impact on our happiness as competitors and players. The problem is that every association I know of uses AGMs to vote on motions to change rules and policies – matters that frequently determine the structure of our events, what we play, how we play it, and how they’re judged. To say that association members are apathetic or lazy for not attending AGMs is unfair. We all care deeply; we choose instead to just cross our fingers and hope that whoever actually attends doesn’t do anything too stupid.

The difference today is we no longer expect to have to attend these meetings in-person. Since the 1990s, video conferencing and electronic voting have been easy and increasingly less expensive to set up, especially for fairly small organizations, which is what piping and drumming associations really are. Yet many associations are woefully behind when it comes to making use of technology and modern communications to reach out to members.

For today’s piping and drumming associations, here’s a checklist to improve participation in your AGMs:

  • Webcast – invest in a professional A-V company to assist with a broadcast of your event, so that members can log in with their membership number and password.
  • Communicate the agenda early and clearly – outline the motions put forward and allow members to ask questions in advance.
  • Create a formal process for executive nominations well in advance and allow candidates to campaign to membership – the business of spur-of-the-moment nominations for powerful positions often results in electing those who truly are not serious about the role.
  • Allow for proxy voting – members should not have to attend meetings in-person to cast their votes. Develop a system for online balloting.

Lastly – and this deserves to be separate from the bullets above – stop the practice of letting individual members invent rules and allowing them to push them through. Most associations comprise an Executive, a Board of Directors and a Music Committee. Just like a democracy, these three branches of elected and appointed experts are vested with the responsibility to monitor and adjust rules and policies. Just like your government, they make the laws, and they represent you. If you don’t like what they do, vote them out. But the idea of every rule-change being a membership referendum is, as we have seen many times, potentially dangerous. It allows personal agendas to be driven, as individuals, knowing that a small minority of members actually attend the AGM/referendum, can easily stack a vote by ensuring that a handful of cronies attend and vote with them.

Most piping and drumming associations pretty much operate the exact same way they did in 1947, 1964 or whatever long-ago-year they were started. Meanwhile membership numbers have exploded, revenues have grown, and the amount of time and money that pipers and drummers annually invest in this avocation beg for a more modern approach to government.

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.

Dead lament

Pure dead brilliant, that.The newspaper image of the late motorcycle fanatic dead and embalmed astride his bike as a fulfillment of his last wish gave me the heebie-jeebies this morning. But, then again, why should it? Dead is dead, and the usual supine “sleeping-inside-the-coffin” pose is every bit as disturbing, when you think about it. Death is creepy, no matter what.

So why not encourage people to have a final image of you doing what you love to do? I suppose for some people their favourite pastime is sleeping, so the pancake-makeup casket thing is appropriate. But, given that so many of us pipers and drummers are obsessed with our hobby (our “avocation” as Michael Grey once aptly described it to me), perhaps one of us will include instructions in our will to kit us out in Highland dress, prop us up and somehow attach the instrument to us in  a lifelike pose.

Since wearing dark sunglasses is okay for motorcycles but taboo for piping/drumming competitors, we could conveniently have our eyes closed, looking for the life (or death) of us like we’re really into the music. I suppose it would be a challenge to stand a cadaver upright and keep the hands on the chanter or the sticks, but we’ll leave that to the morticians to negotiate.

I remember in the 1970s Ian Cohen, a friend in the now-defunct Invera’an band (he still plays with the current St. Louis Caledonian Pipe Band, I think) with a last name at the time as unlikely as my own for a piper, had “George” – a life-size mannequin that stood in his living room in number-one dress. It was a bit creepy, but also wonderfully campy. (A decade ago I gave up trying to convince Julie to get me a mannequin for my birthday or Christmas, on which to hang my kilty gear when not in use. “Not in ma hoose!”) George would be there watching over us as we played vinyl LPs of the latest Shotts album on his Marantz turntable.

One of the most selfish things I’ve ever heard of in piping is Robert Reid’s famous wish that all of his piping manuscripts and what-nots should be buried with him. I suppose he didn’t want to share his secrets with anyone. Perhaps like Donald Shaw Ramsay making wholesale deletions of truly helpful material in the interview I did with him in 1989, maybe he rationalized it by contending that he had to learn the hard way so no one else should have it easier. Unfortunately for Reid, some people’s lasting impression of him as a result of his miserly wish is of a bitter and unsharing man, which may explain why the Cameron-MacDougall-Gillies style is all but dead, at least relative to the all-sharing MacDonald-Nicol-Brown approach. 

Anyway, there are many in the piping and drumming world whose identity as a person is piping or drumming. Their instrument is as much a part of them as that guy’s motorcycle was. So what better way to create a lasting impression than making the final image the one that defines you?

Getting an edge

Kiss it goodbye.What is it about age and nerves? When you would think that doing stuff would get easier as you get older, it gets more difficult. Anyone older than 30 marvels at kids who seem to have no inhibition or anxiety at all.

Skiing the other day for the first time this season reminded me of the fearlessness of kids. Even children who are novice skiers plow down the hill seemingly without regard to anything but fun, while the experienced adults take every precaution to ensure things are just-so before heading down the slope. My nine-year-old daughter, still only just getting the hang of keeping her skis parallel, was eager to take on a(nother) black diamond run with me. Persuaded to share something marginally less steep, she nonetheless zoomed past, laughing all the way.

Judging solo competitions you get a clear view of anxiety’s relationship with age. Most of the kids come up with hardly a thought about failure, and occasionally seem so aloof to the whole business that you wonder why they’re even doing it. Not a care in the world. Meanwhile, some adults routinely quake in their brogues, visibly trembling as they struggle sometimes to . . . just . . . get . . . through . . . it.

Nearly five years ago I blogged about “performance enhancing” drugs, and former Major League Baseball player Mark McGwire’s recent admission that he took steroids and human growth hormone to help his career along reminded me of it. (Unfortunately, the many comments to that post aren’t viewable, since when the blog moved to a new platform there was no way to import them to the current system.)

Whether nerve-calming beta-blockers actually enhance a piper or drummer’s performance is debatable. For all but a freakish few, a major part of the piping performance challenge is controlling one’s nerves, and, in general, the older you get, the better you become, and the better you become, the more pressure you put on yourself to live up to expectations and standards. Obviously there are unmedicated pipers and drummers who know how to control their fear, and being fearless is all about being confident, without feeling the need to prove anything to anyone.

Slumps are common in sports, and they’re surprisingly common in competitive piping and drumming. A lot more common than purple patches, anyway. As that great St. Louisan, Yogi Berra, said, “Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical.”

I’m not sure how many top players take prescription beta-blockers. I can’t recall anyone in the game actually admitting to it, so I’d imagine that there could be a perceived stigma to it, as if it’s performance enhancing or “cheating.”

Or is it?

Another list

Since I made my picks for the top-five competition band pipe-majors of all time, it’s only fair that I try the same for the lead-drummers. Both of these lists are prompted by recent pipes|drums polls, which proved popular and effective conversation-starters.

Granted, I know the ins-and-outs of piping more than I do drumming. The criteria for those listed on the drummers’ poll was less defined than the pipe-majors’. The drummers listed by and large were those who had some combination of World Drum Corps, World Solos or teaching achievement.

Before I give you my list, I have to remark on something else. Each poll entry could submit five choices. That means that, if a drummer were named on every submission, he would get 20 per cent of the overall vote. I may have relatively limited knowledge of snare drumming, but I do know this: Alex Duthart and Jim Kilpatrick should have been named on every submission. Since each received a less-than-20-per-cent share, that means that they both were left off of quite a few entries.

Maybe these submissions were from infants sneaking on to their parents’ computer. Perhaps they were mentally challenged. Or maybe they were from folks who are so vindictive and twisted that they would take leave of their senses. But not selecting Duthart or Kilpatrick makes my mind boggle.

Anyway, based on my admittedly limited knowledge, using competition success and teaching impact as criteria, here are my choices for the top-five pipe band drummers of all time.

1. Alex Duthart. No one has had a bigger impact on pipe band drumming as the elder Duthart. He essentially invented modern music for the pipe band snare, adapting concepts from Swiss-style drumming, and composing some of the most musical scores ever. He is to drumming what GS, Willie Ross, Angus MacKay and Donald MacLeod were to piping.

2. Jim Kilpatrick. While he is by a wide margin the most successful competitor in pipe band drumming history, with solo and band records that may never be topped, Kilpatrick would probably be the first to admit that he trails the legend that is Alex Duthart. But it can be argued that KP has made a bigger impact on the development of the snare drum itself than anyone, and his tireless teaching around the world certainly rivals, if not bests, that of Duthart. History may well eventually decide that Kilpatrick deserves the number-one spot.

3. Reid Maxwell. He’s won the World Pipe Band Championship Sash numerous times, and with two different bands. As a member of Dysart & Dundonald in the 1970s, the 78th Fraser Highlanders in the 1980s and Simon Fraser University in the 1990s and 2000s, Maxwell has won World Drum Corps championships in four decades. For my money, Maxwell is most responsible for SFU’s always terrific ensemble production. He’s taught dozens of top-flight drummers, many from scratch, and he still seems to have many playing years ahead of him.

4. Tom Brown. “Tam Broon” has played such a major role in the development of drummers in the West Lothian corridor over almost forty years with the Boghall & Bathgate organization that he has to be in my top-five. In the 1980s he made great use of the bass-section, experimenting with differently pitched tenors and a rhythmical bass that, along with a technically brilliant snare line, would lift Boghall further up prize-lists at majors.

5. Wilson Young. It may sound trivial, but Young was the first drummer to actually incorporate other percussion instruments into the pipe band. As Lead-Drummer of Red Hackle – a band that narrowly missed winning the World’s several times – Young partnered with Pipe-Major John Weatherston on several albums to raise the musical complexity of the modern pipe band. Wilson Young is an unsung pioneer of pipe band drumming.

History will determine whose names will live on, and who knows who the next Alex Duthart or Jim Kilpatrick will be? I’d love to hear your choices for the top-five pipe band snare drummers of all time and why.

Facebook TMI

FB TMIIf a generation’s label lasts five years these days, then this must be “Generation Facebook.” A recent blog-post by Michael Grey prompted me to think, as his writing (words and music) is prone to do. It seems that much of the piping and drumming world, just like much of the world in general, is “on” Facebook.

I’ve been at it for three years or so, and don’t tend to do too much with it, except follow friends, link p|d stories and tweets. My interest in FB tends to rise and fall.

But lately I’ve noticed some late-adopters to Facebook from the piping world. Some of these, I’ve also noticed, are quite prominent pipers and drummers who are still active, to be sure, but whose glory years were maybe back in the 1970s and ’80s – well before Generation FB.

I wrote a few years ago about venturing to Scotland for the very first time (as a piper) in 1983, and heading to the Skye Gathering at Portree, and seeing the late, great John D. Burgess. Yes, he, too, was human, although his playing to me was super-human. It was a thrill to see and hear him, Iain MacFadyen, Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald, John MacDougall and others after years of reading about them and listening to their recordings.

To some extent, I’m finding that Facebook is sapping the mystique from superstar pipers and drummers, especially when they post stuff that portrays them as the regular people they really are. On one hand, it’s great that they can connect to the mortals but, on the other hand, the excitement that I felt in 1983 of actually seeing and meeting these people is irreplaceable. For me it was like finally seeing Bob Gibson pitch and Lou Brock steal a base after forever gazing at their baseball cards.

I don’t know. Something just doesn’t quite sit that well with me seeing the legends of piping and drumming carving turkeys or sitting around in their jammees with their family on Christmas day on their Facebook page. It spoils a mystique.

There’s a lot to be said for maintaining an air of mystery, and some of the greatest figures in piping and drumming history were, not coincidentally, some of the most enigmatic. There’s a fine boundary to be drawn between modesty and TMI.

From a frenzied Maxville Friday

Maxed out.Even when assessing about 90 performances over eight hours, as was the case last Friday on “Amateur Day” at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville, one can’t help but think of a few things in between players:

1. The RSPBA is seen by everyone – and rightly so – as a master organizer of pipe band events. They set the standard, and it’s a very high one indeed. But the PPBSO must be given huge credit for efficiently coordinating close to 300 solo competitors in a single day across about 50 events. This is a staggering amount of work, and the behind-the-scenes preparation and scheduling is as complex as it gets. The work of the judges is nothing compared with that of the administrators and stewards. If you were there and forgot to thank a few people, you may want to start with thank-you messages to PPBSO President Bob Allen and Administrator Sharon Duthart, who can then forward your thanks to Chief Steward Andy Donachie, Barb MacRae, Lloyd Dicker, your contest stewards and any others who deserve the praise.

2. When, oh, when will all solo pipers and drummers respect their fellow competing colleagues (and the judges) and tune up at least 50 metres away? The number of pipers – even a few in the Professional grade – who have to be told to move further away always amazes me. Sure, there are a lot of players, but there’s also a massive area. Please, find out from the steward who’s before you, tell the steward that you will be at that tree way over there, keep an eye on the contest, and mosey on over when the person before you is done. It’s simple!

3. Enough of the saluting business. I know it’s force-of-habit with some, but unless you’re in the military and the judge is an officer, the custom of saluting the judge is over. At ease!

4. Tell the judge your name and remember the names of your tunes. Most judges know many or most of the competitors, but, unless you’re certain the judge knows you, it would help if you said who you are. And then have the names of your tunes ready. Write them down if your memory fails when you’re nervous. Standing there tapping your forehead trying to recall the other march while your instrument is going flat doesn’t do you any good.

5. If the judge is still writing the previous competitor’s scoresheet, don’t just stand there! Feel free to keep your pipes warm and play something pleasant (but never anything you might play in the competition), all the time keeping an eye on the judge for when he/she is ready for you. This actually reduces your tuning time and increases your chances that your instrument will stay in tune . . . provided it once was.

6. Start only when your pipes are in tune. As long as you haven’t been screwing at your drones for more than five minutes, it’s okay to take a few more seconds to get them right. But don’t start tuning them until at least 20 seconds after you’ve started. But if five minutes have passed and you still can’t get them right, just get on with it. That dog just ain’t gonna sit.

7. It’s music; enjoy it. I know it’s easier said than done, but it kills me to see young kids so nervous about competing that they seem to forget that it’s music they’re playing. It’s a musical instrument. It’s art. Concentrate on enjoying the music that you are creating, and just do the best you can. Think of why you first took up the instrument. It was the music, right? There’s no such thing as a flawless performance, so you might as well accept that and have fun.

Just a few thoughts from the busiest day of solo piping and drumming yet known to humankind.

Our drumming duty

The Black Bear, twice over, wot?It’s often the most obvious ideas that are the best and often not realized for decades. The introduction of a “duty piper” for Grade 5 solo drumming competitions is a notion so clear-cut that you have to wonder why it wasn’t always offered.

We pipers have always understood that competing in solo competition fosters involvement and skill, which are then transferred to pipe bands. Bands full of players who also compete in solo competition are inevitably better in terms of technical ability.

As long as I’ve been around pipe bands, I’ve known that all pipe bands could use more snare drummers. We’ve all seen bands fold because they don’t have enough snare drummers, and every year there are several bands that can’t compete due to a thin snare line.

Solo drumming competitions are not, of course, “solo” at all. They require a piper, since a major challenge is how well the competitor accompanies live music and all its spontaneous changes and nuances. Drummers are constantly challenged to find a piper willing to practice with the drummer and then hang about waiting for the competitor’s turn to come up. It’s a lot to ask of a piper, who often has other things to do, like his own solos or sleeping-in.

The obvious idea is to provide a piper, who is standing by ready to play a score to a number of set tunes. In time I think this approach could be something like that of Highland dancing, where a few pipers take turns playing for snare drummers, offering a repertoire of 10 or so set marches, strathspeys, reels, hornpipes and jigs.

My prediction: offering a piper for solo snare competitors will be adopted by many associations around the world, and the PPBSO will gradually apply it on up the grades. We can either sit around bemoaning the lack of available drummers for another decade, or we can do something about it. Encouraging and fostering snare drumming is not just smart, it’s our duty.

Turn and face the strain

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

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

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

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

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


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