The nerve

Considering the thousands upon thousands of competition performances we inflict on ourselves each year, instances of on-stage meltdowns are relatively very few. I’m not thinking of nervy breakdowns, but more of full-fledged panic-stricken collapses or sick-to-your-stomach upchucks. Maybe for that reason, the tales of such happenings become the stuff of legend.

The only time I actually witnessed it happen was at Alma, Michigan, in maybe 1980, when an unfortunate piper with a now-defunct Canadian Grade 2 band tossed his cookies in splashing style mid-MSR. It was a lovely sunny day, and I was sitting in the grass enjoying the band coasting along until there was a collective “Ahhh!” from the crowd, as if a firework exploded in the sky. The Scottish person next to me shouted, “He spewed! He spewed!” The band of course continued on with ever-deteriorating tone while the piper stood there, using his tie as a napkin. The human geyser faithfully replays in my mind’s eye in Guy Ritchie-like slow-motion.

The rest of the stories I’ve heard I can’t verify, since I wasn’t actually there. They might well be apocryphal, but I understand a well-known drummer back in the 1970s was competing in the World Solos and chundered on stage all over his drum. I’ve been told that the drummer carried on playing, never missing a beat, but with each stroke the stuff splattered on his piper and the judges.

He didn’t win.

The worst I’ve had to deal with is a dry mouth, but I’ve heard of other solo pipers – including one or two of history’s most successful – inducing their own sickness in the toilet before they went on at big competitions. Apparently it’s a common practice with concert pianists and violinists. No doubt it’s to calm an upset stomach, but most certainly it’s to mitigate risk. Blowing chunks down a blowpipe during “MacDougall’s Gathering” is not generally conducive to winning a Clasp.

Around these parts the legend of “Sally Sprinter” (not her real name) is well known. Apparently the poor dear lost her nerve and her lunch in the competition circle but, instead of regrouping and faking it, or at the least standing there while the band finished, she bolted right across the circle, through the crowd, into her car and went home – thus gaining her nickname.

They’re bound to happen more often than we know, these quiet upheavals in the face of sheer terror. And considering the live broadcasts and ever-heightening stress of the Grade 1 Final at the World Pipe Band Championships, it’s just a matter of time before the next legendary retching occurs. Not only will the event itself gain inevitable mythological proportions, but it could be rivalled by the BBC commentary.

“Oh, my word, Jackie! There it was! He heaved right into the reel there, and it looks like he had one too many boiled burgers and onions this morning . . . or maybe it was a bad pint!”

It’s inevitable and only natural, and a YouTube sensation just waiting to happen.

Untied united

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

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

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

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

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

The market dictates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No auld baldy bastard dictates to us.

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

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

As ithers see us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downton piping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolutions #9

New Year’s resolutions are usually about improving on a personal shortcoming or two. Pipers and drummers have no shortage of those, since improvement and striving towards perfection is really what the competition thing is all about. We want to be the best we can be.

I like to make a resolution or two at New Year. This year it’s to listen to more live music – that is, more non-piping/drumming live music.  That and play my pipes every single day.

If you’re stuck for a New Year’s resolution, why not look to broaden your appreciation of things in the piping and drumming world? Some of us tend to put down the things that we don’t understand, or discredit what threatens us, which is completely unfair. Here are a few resolution suggestions:

  • For the person who “hates” piobaireachd – resolve to learn a piece of ceol mor, memorize it, and play it on the pipes. Start with a copy of Piobaireachd Fingerwork, earn the ceol mor rudiments and, even if you’re not a piper, understand how it works. I guarantee your “hate” will turn to appreciation.
  • For those who don’t take tenor-drumming seriously – try it. Get yourself a set of tenor mallets and learn just a bit of flourishing technique. You’ll have a more positive outlook on the difficulty of the art.
  • If you think stewarding is easy – volunteer with your association to help with a contest or two. Find out what the challenges are, and then offer to make positive suggestions to make it better.
  • Sign your real name to every online comment you make – that’s all. You’ll feel a lot better.
  • For the piper who can’t understand why his/her band lags in ensemble – pick up a pair of snare sticks and take a year’s worth of lessons. You’ll start to hear the snare work completely differently, and can help bridge the gap between sections.
  • If you think your association doesn’t serve you well enough – attend branch meetings and discover just how much spare-time work these volunteers put into trying to make things happen for members like you. Don’t have the time? First resolution lesson: be like them and make time.
  • For the person who rarely likes his/her band’s medley – try your hand at composing a tune or arranging harmony. Who knows? You might be a composer-arranger-genius in hiding.
  • Can’t understand why scoresheets don’t always have great feedback? – resolve to put on a solo piping CD, put two minutes between each track and during that time write a crit-sheet. You’ll appreciate just some of the pressure that piping, drumming and pipe band judges undergo accounting for their decisions in writing.
  • Volunteer to write an article for pipes|drums – I happen to have inside information that your story ideas are always welcomed.

The best resolutions are those that make both you a better person and the world a better place. Here’s to a happy and healthy and improved year ahead.

Tomorrow never knows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes an instrument just needs a big break.


Toronto, like so many other Commonwealth-country cities, was built by many Scots. Though the city has become much more multi-cultural from the days of white Europeans settlement, a walkabout most older neighbourhoods uncovers evidence of the role that Scottish played in laying bricks and pavement, carving stones and wood.

Most days when I ride to work I go across plenty of streets with Scottish names – “Dunedin,” “Colbeck,” “Strath,” and even “Craic.” Sometimes I think these roads must have been named by homesick builders and bricklayers.

I carry on to the toney Forest Hill area, home to many of Toronto’s business elite and the neighbourhood where Aubrey Graham – much more famous as “Drake” – grew up. And every trip I ride along Dunvegan Road and, after a few blocks, turn at Kilbarry, not spelled the same as piping’s notorious Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, but it’s a confluence of streets that every time I cross it I wonder if somehow there wasn’t come piping connection back in the 1920s when these large homes were constructed.

I can’t think of a much better, or more ironic, piping crossroads as the intersection of Dunvegan and Kilbarry, but I got to wondering if other such piping and drumming road coincidences exist.

Thanks to the officious folks at Google, who kindly mapped the planet, and somehow took away from the charm and serendipity of discovering such things, here are a few others:

Maybe you have a few favourite piping and drumming roads more travelled.

Bully for you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personality crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I stumbled across this photo that my dad took in 1978. He snapped pictures of everything. My dad used a camera then almost like we do today in the digital age. He used slide film because it was cheaper, and he’d print only the good ones. Every few weeks he’d hold a “slide show” and force us grumpy kids to suffer through his images when we would rather be outside running reckless.

This is Christmas 1978, when Jimmy Carter was President and disco raged and computers still ran on punch cards. My father always got a photo of the presents under the tree, and you’ll maybe notice here the presence of things for my sisters, an 8-track stereo, a suitcase (?!) and a piping record – specifically an LP by Donald MacLeod. I was 15 then, and had been at the pipes for three years. I didn’t have to put piping and pipe band records on any list; they’d always just appear. (Like T.J. Eckleburg eyes, MacLeod symbolically peers over the top of boxes of model trains, the other shared hobby that my dad nurtured.)

These Donald MacLeod records were hard to find then and rare today. God knows how my dad sourced them in the days of stamped letters and “surface mail.” MacLeod made two of these records on a trip to New Zealand in the ’70s, and they had very limited release. Apart from these, I don’t believe that he made any other commercial recordings, even though he might be the most recorded piper in pre-digital history through his broadcasts and instructional tapes.

At any rate, do kids in 2012 even ask for or get piping and pipe band CDs for Christmas or their birthday? Have recordings, like photos, become so throw-away and commonplace that the sheer volume of them here, there and everywhere make them undesirable? I don’t know.

I do know that I still have those Donald MacLeod vinyl records and all of the 35,000-plus slides that my dad took and meticulously saved. I’ve scanned the slides and the records to digital formats. Gifts that keep on.

A comment on comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spirited & lively

Scott MacAulay, 2008.Once or twice each year of judging, something indelibly memorable occurs. Yes, there are good performances that stand out at almost every contest, but I’m thinking here about events that transcend the music, when circumstances converge to make a perfectly magical merger.

I was enjoying a morning of solo competitions this June at the Summerside Highland Gathering at the idyllic Prince Edward Island when one such event was conjured.

The College of Piping is always associated with its first director, the late Scott MacAulay. Scott was a good piping friend and a wonderful piper. His personality was larger-than-life. He found the party and upside in everything, it seemed, and when his life was cut down by cancer it was a huge loss for the scene. We will always miss him.

Scott discovered piobaireachd later than most. In the 1980s, when he was into his late twenties, he found ceol mor or, rather, ceol mor found him. A product of Lewis-born parents, and someone who seemed to enjoy things Hebridean and Gaelic way more than most, even as a teenager it seemed odd to me that Scott focused only on light music and pipe bands. But in the early-1980s he dived head-long into piobaireachd.

After, say, age 18, “discovering” piobaireachd is a difficult thing to do, not because the music can’t be learned, but because your fellow competitors and adjudicators might not take you seriously. Back then, anyway, a certain amount of ceol mor capital had to be banked before the prizes would be paid in dividends.

Scott was as smart a person as you could ever meet. A canny man, one might call him. He could size up a person or an entire room in a second, and work his way in with his incredible wit and charm. One could even say that he charmed his way into piobaireachd. Within a few years he had learned enough tunes and put his musical smarts and technical skills to work his way into the prizes.

He set his sights on winning a Silver Medal, which he did at the Northern Meeting in 1985 just a few years after taking on the big music. He learned up four Silver Medal tunes, and had particular success with “Queen Anne’s Lament.” Going around the Scottish games with him that summer, that tune seemed always to be picked – so often, in fact, that we started to refer to him jokingly as “Queen Anne,” which I remember him laughing at with his unique cackle.

But back to Summerside. Not wanting to lug my piobaireachd books to PEI, I managed to borrow a complete bound Piobaireachd Society Collection from the College. It turned out, though, that the big book had belonged to Scott, with his name custom-embossed on the front and spine in Scott’s typical spare-no-expense style. There were relatively few solo competitors, and some time between each, so I decided to browse through Scott’s old book to check out a few of the tunes I remembered he had played: “Sir James MacDonald of the Isles,” “The Company’s Lament,” and, of course, “Queen Anne’s.”

And then, in the Grade 1 Amateur Piobaireachd event, young Sarah Simpson of Cavendish, PEI, submitted her three tunes. “Queen Anne’s Lament” was one. So, here’s that special confluence of serendipity: College of Piping, misty day, Scott’s book, Scott’s tune. It had to be.

As she built the tune, I found myself rooting for her to see it through, for the pipe and nerves to hold. With a terrific instrument that featured a perfectly tuned and blown high-G, Sarah Simpson delivered a spectacularly musical and almost technically flawless rendition of Scott’s best tune.

Scott MacAulay was all spirit. For 10 minutes or so on that day, on that field, at that time, with that tune, his spirit happily returned.

For the parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please please me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pipe for the people?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

What musical milestones?

Smashing.I was watching the movie Superbad again the other day. Seth, played by Jonah Hill, says about some girl’s boyfriend who he can’t compete with, “He is the sweetest guy. Have you ever looked into his eyes? It was like the first time I heard the Beatles.”

The hilarious crassness of Superbad aside, people talk about moments that changed the course of music. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Clash and London Calling. Nirvana’s Nevermind. Your choices will vary.

But how many game-changing musical moments has piping had? Not those that inspired you on a personal level (we all have those), but musical moments that altered the direction of everything. It’s an interesting and debatable question. Here are a few that I would suggest.

1957 – Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band debuts selections of small strathspeys and reels – never before had pipe bands ventured outside of marching tunes or “heavy” MSRs.

1967 – Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band‘s rendition of “The Old Woman’s Lullaby” – a groundbreaking pipe band take on ceol mor, complete (or replete, as some people may still believe) with cymbals and other colouristic percussion.

1980 – General Motors Pipe Band performs a glissando, or “slide-note,” in “My Lagan Love.”

1987 – 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, “Journey to Skye,” Balleymena, Northern Ireland – first suite by a pipe band, composed by a jazz musician, no less.

Maybe not enough time has passed yet to decide whether the Toronto Police’s 2008 “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions” should be included, but it may well be.

Interestingly, I’m having a hard time thinking of solo piping examples. Certainly many of the compositions of  G.S. McLennan and Gordon Duncan, for example, moved the art in a different direction, as have those of other tunesmiths. But by and large groundbreaking new musical artistry is made by individuals, but made famous by pipe bands. Perhaps there was a precise moment when G.S. first performed “The Little Cascade” in public. I don’t know.

And, yes, Donald MacPherson is credited with being the first to refine consistent tuning of Highland pipe, and bands like Strathclyde Police, Field Marshal Montgomery, Simon Fraser University and Victoria Police have set standards of tuning and unison, but not sure if they sent the music in a completely new direction.

What are other examples of great musical moments in piping and drumming and pipe bands that turned things upside 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.

Bling on the sound

Bulls-eye.Are pipes with more expensive ornamentation better instruments? It’s an age-old question. Bagpipe makers invariably insist that there’s no difference in craftsmanship between entry-level drones and those fully mounted in chased sterling silver, but only they know the truth.

My own feeling is that you get what you pay for and it only stands to reason that, the more a customer invests in the instrument, the more care is taken with its creation. It’s pretty much true of every industry: the luxury model generally lasts longer with fewer problems and better customer satisfaction. A manufacturer wouldn’t be around for very long if the higher-margin product – which is almost always the more expensive one – didn’t foster customer satisfaction and loyalty to the brand.

It’s probably why you just don’t see any Gold Medallists competing with a set of circa 1976 orangey-plastic-mounted Grainger & Campbell drones.

I remember one year in the 1970s when my dad – a child of the Great Depression who saved everything, collected things and always seemed to think he was one bad decision away from the soup line – took me to shop for a new car. In his lifetime, he purchased maybe three automobiles, so this was a big occasion. The model he was interested in came with a radio as standard equipment, but my father thought it was an unnecessary expense that he had no interest in buying, since he never listened to the radio, anyway.

He would only buy the car, he insisted at first, if they removed the radio. It was only when they finally got through to him that it would actually cost him more to have it taken out, since it was factory-installed. So he begrudgingly left it, in all its AM-only glory, but his stance was that all cars were the same, so buy the cheapest thing possible. He’d then spend a lot of time going back and forth to the mechanic to have problems fixed.

His compulsive frugality probably had much to do with my opposite attitude about purchases: buy the very best product that you can realistically afford, even if it means waiting until you have the money. And, until you can afford the best, make do without.

Bagpipe makers will maintain the premise that all of their instruments are created equal in terms of bores and wood quality and workmanship. It’s something of a tradition, and I wonder if it’s the right thing for them to do. The mounts on Highland pipes serve a functional purpose: ferules and caps protect and bind the wood that might otherwise crack and chip; projecting mounts are like bumpers – again protecting the precious wood. Lucky for pipe-makers, it’s a great opportunity to use different materials that vary in their blinginess.

If I were a marketing strategist for a bagpipe maker, my plan would be to include even more superior craftsmanship with the more adorned instrument. In fact, I would position the expense being for, first, the better musical instrument, and then many of the bells and whistles would be factory-installed, but a few extra “packages” could be bought. Take a page from the auto industry.

That’s not to say that my entry-level instruments would be poorly made – on the contrary. I would simply emphasize the fact that those who purchase the all-chased-silver model would also get the very best, darkest, most seasoned blackwood, made by hand by the most experienced turner or, if it’s a CNC machine spinning it out, finished with the discerning eye and talent of a recognized expert human being. A “premium” instrument is more about premium sound and performance as it is about decoration. People will ooh and ah over your 7-Series BMW, but the thing also performs like a rocket. No contest.

I’m not a bagpipe maker, and they know their target markets best. But I am a marketer, and something tells me that the traditional approach to pipe-making, in which all instruments are said to perform equally well, and pricing is only determined by decoration, might well be the wrong way about the whole business.



Crookit horns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing holes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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