Schooled

Scotland has resurrected piping and drumming to unprecedented new heights through widespread, accessible teaching. It’s an awesome and continuing success story, and the fruits of its strategy have become more and more evident with each passing year.

Just take a look at last week’s Shotts & Dykehead Juniors competition: 185 young pipers and drummers competing in a variety of solo events. Look at what’s to come in March when more than 800 piping and drumming students from at least 120 schools will participate in the eleventh Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships. And witness the steady growth in size and quality of Scotland-based pipe bands across all grades.

Teaching piping and pipe band drumming in private and public schools is now baked in to the Scottish curriculum. When 20 years ago playing the pipes might have been the epitome of nerdiness, today it’s cool-factor seems to have risen at least on par with playing bass in the school rock band.

It’s hard out there for the rest of the world to keep up, and it will only get more difficult.

As much as other piping and drumming regions of the world would love to have widespread teaching programs as part of public and private schools’ curriculum, it’s not realistic. Yes, there will be exceptions, such as St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario, or Knox College in Sydney, Australia.

But in countries like Canada and the United States that have been built with a diversity of immigrants, expecting that Highland piping and pipe band drumming will be taught in the public school system is as likely as India’s sitar or the Chinese erhu becoming part of the curriculum, equally excellent and deserving instruments though they might be. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the reality. It’s not impossible, just extremely unlikely.

Bands not based in Scotland are increasingly scrambling for players to keep up with both the numbers and standard of their Scottish counterparts. While the World Championships continue to be a draw for international bands in all grades, every year I see more of them bolstering rosters with available players from other groups, even from the cross-town rivals, just to meet the size standard, and hopefully also playing quality, when they get to Scotland.

Let me be clear: the Scots are doing the right thing for piping and drumming, and are not responsible in any way for the resulting challenges felt in the rest of the world. The grassroots teaching efforts by Scottish immigrants and visiting instructors that began some 50 or 60 years ago that brought piping and pipe bands in Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand to a world standard have been formally adopted by the home of piping and drumming but in a more organized and publicly supported way.

And barring some radical shakeup by unanticipated Sassenachs, the Scottish teaching infrastructure will only improve and expand. There will be a standard in each grade for Scottish bands, while visitors – including those at the top of their grade at home – more often than not will languish in the lower half.

While Scotland should celebrate and be congratulated for its teaching success, the rest of the world will need to find new ways to keep up. Idly expecting local bands or occasional individuals to do all the teaching using a variety of excellent, good or downright terrible methods will not be enough. Associations need to step up with organized programs and standards that make learning piping and drumming accessible to young students. They need to work with school districts to investigate at least the possibility of getting organized expert teaching into classrooms.

Associations should have recognized it 20 years ago, and some, including me, tried to get programs off the ground a decade or longer ago only to be rejected ultimately by executives and board members.

If the rest of the world is going to keep up, it’s no longer enough for piping and drumming societies and associations to be Highland games-running machines. They need to provide the fuel and the fire to keep the mechanism running.

 

#MeToo

I can only imagine what it’s like for female pipers and drummers to persevere in what is still a male-dominated – and often dominating – avocation. It’s a topic that has interested me for many years, going back to the 1990s when I worked to pull together a piece on females in piping.

It wasn’t easy then to get women to speak to the issue, and it’s still a difficult subject to discuss openly, many seemingly afraid of rocking a boat or jeopardizing their band’s or their own chances with judges and “authorities” – which are heavily weighted to males.

For sure, much has changed since the 1970s when women were still prohibited from competing at the major solo competitions until Patricia Innes (Henderson), Rhona MacDonald (Lightfoot), and Anne Stewart (Spalding) broke the gender barrier in 1976. Top-grade Scottish pipe bands disallowed female members until Ontario’s Gail Brown courageously stepped into the World Champion Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia in 1973.

It would take another 31 years before a woman would be awarded a Highland Society of London Gold Medal, when Faye Henderson broke the glass ceiling at Oban in 2010, not coincidentally following in the trail-blazing footsteps of her co-pioneering mother.

Back then, I wrote a blog post on the topic of pigeon-holing males and females, but the piping and drumming world remains a disproportionately male-dominated place, replete with its share of crass macho-shiteheads who continue to operate as if it’s an old-boys club. Only 20 years ago there were bands that not only wouldn’t allow women into their ranks, but would not even allow them to get on the bus. Maybe there still are.

The Royal Scottish Pipers Society only a few years ago voted to accept women as members, perhaps recognizing that they risked becoming a complete anachronism in addition to being hopelessly discriminatory. I don’t know how many women have been accepted as members, or have even been invited or applied. They might have jumped that shark decades ago.

If pipes|drums readership analytics are an indicator, about 25% of the world’s pipers and drummers are female, yet women are under-represented in associations’ executives, directors and judges, often woefully so. As far as I know, the RSPBA has one active female adjudicator. Of the Solo Piping Judges Association’s 52 judges listed on its website, a grand total of two are women.

The excuses are many. Well, there aren’t that many women who are qualified. Well, they just don’t seem to be interested. Well, they don’t have time, what with looking after their families. Well, they can’t physically blow a good instrument or carry a heavy drum. Well, their fingers are too short. Well, their wrists are too weak. Well, they’re moody. Well, they’re always complaining. Well . . .

The truth is, piping and drumming is still not the inclusive place that it must be. The challenges that women are faced with are systematic, insidious and, mostly, considered endemic. “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is,” I have been told by some great female pipers, resigned to having to put up with both blatant and tacit discrimination at practices and competitions. We males might not even recognize it, but it is there, often in subtly demeaning ways, and sometimes in quite awful insults – or worse – that probably force women to quit the scene altogether rather than put up with it.

And then we have the audacity to wonder why there aren’t more females who rise to the top.

The #MeToo social media campaign should be eye-opening to any sentient male. Personally, I have been astounded and saddened to see so many female piper or drummer friends of all ages come forward to divulge publicly that they have been the victim of emotional or physical abuse. I can safely assume that at least some or even many of those experiences have been around piping and drumming. Horrifying as it is, I know that there have been Harvey Weinsteins among us.

But, like thoughts and prayers, sadness and astonishment won’t solve anything on their own. We need to take action.

  1. All piping and drumming associations and pipe bands need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against any member discriminating against any minority – female; non-white; LGBTQ.
  2. Members of associations must sign an agreement to uphold its zero-tolerance policy in order to become members and maintain membership.
  3. Associations must actively strive to reach and maintain gender parity between its leaders and judges and its membership.
  4. Associations must adopt a safe and private process to allow its members to report acts of harassment, bullying or discrimination.
  5. Members and leaders who have been found to breach the policy should be suspended or, if warranted, banned for life.

Some organizations might already have similar policies and rules but, given that it’s hard to agree on obviosities like teachers not judging pupils or family not judging family, I suspect not.

Piping and drumming comes from all-male military roots, but chalking up discriminatory behavior to “just the way it is” is no longer acceptable. It never should have been acceptable in the first place.

We’re a slow-moving and change-averse lot, but implementing these policies, and altering our habitual way of thinking, can no longer wait.

 

Remember empathy

Why do many judges forget what it was like to be a competitor?

This came up the other day in a conversation about judging, competing, and judges. The current flap by a vocal minority about the Solo Piping Judges Association and Competing Pipers Association’s policies against teachers judging pupils and pupils playing for teachers, respectively, in the face of the fact that almost 80 percent of pipers and drummers appear to feel that teachers should not judge their students, re-raises the centuries-old debate that we thought was finally put to rest several years ago.

  • Is there a competitor out there who feels equally good about winning a prize whether their teacher is or isn’t judging?
  • Is there a competitor out there who, when a fellow competitor wins a prize when their teacher is on the bench (whether comprising one or several adjudicators), has zero disdain?
  • In the history of piping and drumming, has there ever been a competitor who was 100% okay with those situations?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, I encourage you to comment, so that I can understand your rationale.

Considering that all credible judges were once competitors, how can it be that some of them suddenly forget what it was like to compete? They seem to forget that they once swore oaths under their breath, ground their teeth, or at least rolled their eyes when their fellow competitor got a prize with their teacher judging, or didn’t sheepishly dread collecting an award given out when their tutor was on the pen.

The forgetfulness extends to other annoying judging behavior, like distracting a competitor with tapping feet and excessive writing, sarcastic or overly negative comments on scoresheets, or otherwise putting a player on edge before or during their performance.

Perhaps it’s learned. As much as they dislike it, competitors see teachers judging pupils, so they think it’s okay to serve their own interests when they have the opportunity to “give back” and judge. Some players distracted by judges think it’s their turn to get their own back when they join the bench. They give as good as they got. It’s an unfortunate cycle perpetuated by a few – unless guidance, policies, and rules are finally offered and implemented to break the generational pattern of entrenched tradition.

There is a fundamental truth so often forgotten: just like associations, adjudicators are there to serve not themselves, but the competitors. A judge’s experience as a competitor should inform his or her behaviour as a judge. Remembering what it was like to be a competitor – recognizing the constant significant problems and minor pet-peeves that accompanied their competition experience – is essential to being an excellent adjudicator.

Is there an age that I haven’t reached when pipers and drummers forget what it was like to be a competitor and they look out for only their self-interests? Does some sort of amnesia set in at 55? 60? 70? If there is, please let me know and I will try to remember to give my head a shake when the time comes.

Adjudicators are there to serve the competitors. They render and account for their decisions based on their knowledge, experience and adherence to policies and rules. Those policies and rules are and should be informed by the collective interests of the competitors, not the judges. If almost 80 percent of competitors agree that teachers should not judge students, then that is their will, and it should be respected. Adjudicators should never forget where they came from and what they went through to get where they are.

Among an excellent judge’s skills is empathy.

 

River crossing

Mine would be 40 years ago, my first solo piping competition. It was 1977, about 18 months since I’d laid hands on a practice chanter. I’d been “on the pipes” – a set of imitation-ivory-mounted Hardies – for maybe six months.

I don’t remember having a choice in the matter. I was geared to compete from the get-go. It was what we pipers and drummers did. What one was supposed to do was described to me: salute like a boy soldier, tell the judge your tune, march up and down, making sure you don’t turn your back on the judge when turning, don’t play too fast, make all the doublings clearly, blow steady, try to keep in step with the beat or at least the beat-notes, keep going, don’t stop. Keep going.

The event was the Under-15 march at the St. Louis Highland Games organized by the local St. Andrew’s Society. Fresh from the United States’ Bicentennial celebrations, everything was still red white and blue, at a time when, unlike today, everything in the USA wasn’t always red white and blue every year. The games program was red white and blue, the ribbons on the medals were red white and blue. I think there was even a red white and blue Bicentennial tartan adorning an unfortunate drum-major.

I was prepped to confront my main competition from Kansas City: a young upstart named Kurt (or was it Chris?) Atwell. Everyone seemed to talk about how good this kid was. He must be beaten. Some sort of St. Louis vs. KC pride was at stake. Rivers vs. fountains. Beer vs. barbeque. Cardinals vs. Royals.

I diligently practiced my tune. For some reason, I was playing the obscure 2/4 march, “The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” Gordon Speirs, from whom I got lessons early on, assigned it to me in his often unconventional way. Something about it being a good test of my fingers, or my diligence, or maybe my sanity. I’ve never heard anyone play it since, and couldn’t tell you how it goes, mainly because the tune’s melody isn’t memorable, much less good.

At any rate, I rehearsed “The 12th etc.” every day after school. Marching back and forth. My parents and brother and sisters must have been going crazy listening to me struggle with the instrument and tuneless tune as I got set to do battle against Mr. Atwell, KC Kid Genius.

Games day arrived. If you’ve ever been what you think is the hottest and most humid place on earth, double that and you have St. Louis in July. I was decked out as one was when one played in lower-grade American bands in those days: hose tops, spats, thigh-itchy horsehair sporran, glengarry with cock-feather, epaulettes, khaki shirt, dorky embroidered band patch sewn to the short sleeve, floppy size-13 black dress shoes that I would have to “grow into.” It was the height of cool for this 13-year-old getting set for the eighth grade at Hanley Junior High, since then mercifully demolished in favour of a cracker-box suburban subdivision.

The judge was the truly terrifying Sandy MacPhee. Sandy back then, as he is now, was larger than life. At that time his son, Donald, must have been a toddler, destined for greatness, but Sandy’s legend as a pioneering American piper was established from his years in Detroit.

Yes, this is it. Sandy MacPhee judging, my mother pacing in the background, my sister, Clarissa, dreaming of Olympic balance beam gold.

Still not quite comprehending the occasion’s gravity, I approached Mr. MacPhee. “Name?” he asked in what I was sure at the time was a growl, but was probably just him asking my name. Name given. “What are you going to play?” “The 10th Argyll’s Crossing the Rhine.” “The what?” ” The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” “The 10th Battalion HLI Crossing the Rhine?” I really didn’t know what to say. At that time I’d never heard of that excellent Donald Shaw Ramsay march. “Um . . .” “It doesn’t matter; just play whatever you want.” Someone must have stopped me from breaking down in inconsolable sobs.

I vaguely remember bumbling through the tune, still searching for the elusive crappy melody, my mother pacing in the distance with my younger sister, and my dad, as always, snapping pictures. But I “got through it,” as they say, albeit out-of-step and with drones blaring like the simultaneous horns of three Mississippi River barges.

There couldn’t have been more than three or four in the event. I placed second. Atwell was first, which was okay, since I sussed that he was much like me, a kid plodding along in the heat in spats, epaulettes and itchy sporran. Someone contended that it was fixed and I should have won. I didn’t care. It was over and I received a shiny gold (not silver?) medal with a Bicentennial ribbon, and I was hooked by the will to do better, to exceed and succeed with music. Welcome to piping.

The next year I ditched that dreadful march for the more sensible “Atholl Highlanders March to Loch Katrine,” thinking it was pronounced ka-TREEN, as in latrine. It’s a more difficult tune than “The 12th etc.” but, with a discernably good melody, it seemed easier. The stub-fingered, one-lunged legend John Wilson, who was judging, bizarrely mentions me by name in his autobiography, A Professional Piper in Peace and War, playing it for him at the Kansas City Highland Games where I once again confronted Atwell. I was again second, but Wilson wrote that I was the best player of the day and would have won had I not made “catches” in the final phrases. Best player: second prize. Welcome again to piping.

A more catchy tune.

I’m always interested to hear first competition stories. When more established pipers mention to me now that I judged their first contest, there’s not a certain amount of satisfaction that I, like Sandy MacPhee, didn’t completely scare them for good from the competitive piping avocation. It’s nice when they reassure me that I wrote positive things on their scoresheets.

Like the 12th Royal Scots or the 10th HLI, we all cross our rivers, theirs to military glory, ours to a glorious piping and drumming life awaiting us on the other side.

 

Both ways

The current shemozzle between City of Whitehorse and the Pipe Bands Australia is another example of pipers, drummers, judges and associations wanting and even demanding to have things both ways.

Pipers and drummers have always grumbled about judges and results, and they always will. Except for rare examples of public outbursts, pipers and drummers and pipe bands for about 100 years kept their cranky verbal complaints within the band hall or the beer tent.

Then, along came the Internet. Now competitors could post comments and photos on public platforms. Wretched cesspools like the Delphi Forum or alt.music.makers.bagpipes were early places for libellous rants, almost always under pseudonyms. When Facebook and Twitter came about, they enabled players to publish photos and welcomed unmoderated and unfiltered comments.

(pipes|drums and this blog provide a platform for comments but, unlike Facebook and Twitter, comments are moderated. Regardless of whether the identity of the commenter is known or not, libellous or ad hominem comments can be edited or outright rejected before they appear. But probably 99% of comments submitted have been deemed fair, so they are published.)

“Free speech” is generally protected in western societies. People can say whatever they please (with the exception of hate speech, physical threats, things that might cause public harm, or the like), and the temptation to publicly criticize judges and their decisions on social media is great. There is a notion that there are “private” sections of Facebook, so postings on such areas are exempt from being considered “public.”

But that’s no different from thinking that a printed pamphlet in the 1950s exclusively for members of a group is “private” and thus exempt from the laws of libel. It’s fanciful to think that any part of the Internet is truly private, and it simply would not hold up as an excuse if libellous material is posted, even if the true intention is for these comments to be private. It is still public dissemination.

Pipe band adjudicators are routinely paid to teach workshops for bands that they have judged or will adjudicate. There are no rules against this, and it’s something of a tradition. There are bands that regularly have judges who assess them at the World Championships as paid instructors or outright guests on long expensive trips, even if a judge’s resume as a player or teacher is paltry. Everyone is aware of this game that some bands and associations play. It is perfectly within rules and policies, and the rationale goes that the best judges are also the best teachers, so therefore they should be permitted to teach and judge bands.

There are also adjudicators who have no compunction wearing merchandise, uniform parts, or even complete uniforms of bands that they judge. Pipe band judges must have played with top bands at some point. Amazingly, some haven’t even invested in a kilt other than the band they used to play with, the same band they might assess on the weekend. The judge might well have left the band on bad terms, but the immediate appearance is that there is some sort of bias.

Again, there are no rules against this. But whether teaching bands or wearing their gear, the optics are terrible. A judge is inviting criticism and contempt by being so tone deaf or provocative (or both) as to be publicly appearing to endorse one band over another. A judge’s decision-making might be as pure as Roddy MacLeod’s high-A, but going around wearing, say, a t-shirt of a band that they judge will inevitably tarnish their reputation in the eyes of some people or bands that they adjudicate.

The solo piping world is a little more advanced than the band world. Judges and competitors in major solo circuits like those in Scotland and Ontario are requested to divulge who their students/teachers are. Judges are asked to refrain from judging pupils, and vice-versa. It’s not always upheld, but at least there is an attempt to control the optics of bias, and entrust judges and competitors to police themselves. When pupils receive prizes from their teachers, even if they are well deserved, those who are aware of the relationship tend not to take the result seriously. A teacher-judge will often try to excuse it away by saying, “Well, I’m harder on my pupils when I judge them,” as if that self-correction is any fairer than being biased in favour of their student. Either way, it’s terribly unfair to the competitor and denigrates the result.

As always, the perception of bias is as bad as bias itself.

Pipers, drummers, judges and associations often want it both ways. Many competitors want to be able to criticize adjudicators “privately,” and can’t understand when an association or judge takes umbrage when they find out when things went public. They then more often than not try to explain it away when they are caught.

And many judges want it both ways. They want to be paid for workshops for bands that they adjudicate, and they get in high-dudgeon when other bands perceive them to be biased. Judges wear ties and ball caps and even kilts of bands that they judge, then protest greatly when competitors dare to insinuate that there’s something amiss. Some judges seem to think that it’s unfair that their results and decision-making are discussed publicly. Sorry, but when you sign up to judge, you agree to put yourself out there. You can’t have it both ways.

And associations are seen to be looking out for the interests of their elected and appointed officials and judges, rather than the pipers and drummers who comprise their membership. Associations often appear to take a default stance that “their” people are exempt from criticism, so dissension inevitably arises within the membership – the very people an association is supposed to represent.

Associations can greatly help themselves by putting policies and conduct codes in place that strongly advise judges not to 1) judge competitors that they teach, and 2) be seen to prefer one band over another by wearing their uniform parts or merchandise.

Judges can greatly help themselves by picking one or the other: if they want to judge, they’ll have to give up accepting paid workshops for the bands that they adjudicate, or, if they continue to teach bands they should recuse themselves from judging that band for at least a year. And judges should choose to wear things that don’t blatantly appear to endorse a particular band. If they insist on doing those things, they’d better strap on their asbestos kilt because they will be flamed in band halls, in beer tents and, of course, on the Internet.

Competitors can help themselves by using common sense. Judges judge. They make judgement calls. Ultimately, after a contest only one competitor will be truly happy with a judge’s decision. A strong majority of adjudicators are simply doing their unbiased best, and judging is a lonely, thankless task. Contestants should default to the side of accepting and learning from results and moving on. If there is a real reason with accompanying evidence to be concerned about an adjudicator’s perceived bias (as in the behaviours above), then competitors should use official channels to file a confidential complaint. There are processes in place. That’s what an association is for. If members are worried about repercussions on the contest field when they raise a real concern, then they should work to change their elected leaders.

Pipers and drummers and bands are the associations, not the judges and administrators. Associations represent the competitors first and foremost, and if there is just cause for concern – such as a breach of a rule, policy or code of conduct – then the matter should be heard accordingly and in confidence. If the judge is an administrator or executive within the organization then, again, the adjudicator should recuse him/herself from the investigation.

Too often we want things both ways, expecting to be pleased both ways. This is impossible. Impasses occur, and we get away from what we’re all supposed to be doing: having fun in an equitable, fair and collegial atmosphere.

And that is the only way to want it.

 

Setting free

Maybe it’s time to change completely how competitors, judges and planners approach piobaireachd competitions.

A hundred-thirteen years ago the Piobaireachd Society was formed. Before 1903 the music was scattered around in multiple settings by various visionaries and pioneers. The publications were expensive. They were hard to get. There was no such thing as a photocopier, much less an Internet, so, if the art was going to be judged and “promoted,” it made certain sense to create standard versions of the music.

Right or wrong, the Piobaireachd Society (or maybe more accurately Archibald Campbell and his allies) attempted to come up with agreeable single settings of tunes, releasing every few years a new edition of its Collection. The music contained notes about alternative settings, which we can read today, but very few pipers dared to play those alternatives in competition.

The Piobaireachd Society promoted, or certainly encouraged, adherence to their settings – and thus promoted the sale of those printed books – in the major competitions. The judges expected them. If you played anything else, the judges would almost certainly chuck you out. You might not get even a listen.

It didn’t help that many, if not the strong majority, of the judges were aristocrats – “society” folk who couldn’t play their way into a juvenile band, never mind out of one.

In essence, the onus was on the competitors to prepare pretty much what the judges expected. There was no expectation that judges should be prepared with anything but the PS Collection or the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor.

In about 1994 a thing called the Internet hit the piping world, and in 2000 a thing called the Set Tunes Series broke new piobaireachd ground. The piobaireachd scholar and nine-years pupil of Robert Nicol Dr. William Donaldson approached pipes|drums with an idea.

He recognized that here was a far-reaching online publication available for free to all who wanted to read it. The Internet presented a readily available platform for all these piobaireachd manuscripts that heretofore were only available to those rare few lucky enough to possess the printed books, or who might live near the National Library of Scotland.

And these old collections are in the public domain. That is, there are no restrictions as to reprinting them in digital form. As genius ideas are prone to be, it was obvious.

So each year Donaldson and pipes|drums worked to put together the Set Tunes Series. His thoughtful analysis considered all known published settings of each tune set each year for the major gatherings. Suddenly, it was all there at a keystroke. Pipers had access to all settings. They could easily pick and learn. There was no real need to adhere to the standardized Piobaireachd Society setting just because it was the one most readily

Now, 16 years after pipes|drums and Willie Donaldson recognize the opportunity and actually made it happen, the Piobaireachd Society itself and things like Steve Scaif’s digital republishing of the old piobaireachd collections provide an online library of these public domain collections.

Judges, players and contest organizers have access to all of it, for free. Not only that, but today’s piobaireachd judges are vastly more musically sophisticated than the non-playing toffs who once lorded their ignorance over musical geniuses who needed a standard setting of a tune in order to determine who best stayed on the prescribed track.

The onus has just about shifted away from expecting competitors to adhere to a single printed setting, to the judges, who can today be reasonably expected to come prepared with all of the settingsof piobaireachds on their iPad. Whatever the competitor throws at them, they can be ready with the score.

Is the very notion of the Piobaireachd Society encouraging pipers to play settings from their Collection severely outdated? Is it time instead simply to come up with a list of tunes, and supply the names of and links to the collections where settings can be found?

Competitors can then learn whatever setting they want without fear. Judges with their iPads loaded with all of the public domain collections can be well prepared to assess the musical rendition put forward, bringing the contests in many ways back to the thriving, musical cornucopia that they probably were before 1903.

It’s all there to take in. We are no longer encumbered by inaccessible collections. We have knowledgeable, enlightened and tech-savvy judges well capable of accepting and interpreting renditions that have been tamped down – largely by necessity – for more than 110 years.

Is it time to simply stop this boring business of seeing who can ape the exact same notes and style and phrasing of the other guy?

Time to set the settings free.

 

Hard

An unwritten rule of competition: no one is rewarded for difficulty. There are no bonus points for playing hard tunes. There are points for playing hard, medium or easy tunes well.

There are points taken away for playing hard stuff poorly, and on a related note, no judge is going to let you off easy for making a hack of a tough tune, just because, well, it’s so hard.

I remember some years ago playing in a band. In the winter someone had the idea that we should play “Eileen MacDonald.” It’s a clever and relatively obscure, jig written by Charlie Williamson. It’s a whole lotta handful for a top soloist, let alone a whole pipe section.

We toiled away at the four-tentacled thing through the winter and spring, chanters getting slapped relentlessly with marveslously syncopated combinations. We worked and worked at it, because, aside from it being a good tune, it was so impressively hard. Goddamit, we’d show them!

The contest season carried on and the band did well, but it seemed like we weren’t getting much attention, let alone extra credit, for the amazingly difficult four-parted jig.

We played the medley with “Eileen MacDonald” at the World’s. I can’t remember the result, so it must not have been a memorable prize. What I do remember, though, is after we played, the late great Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald had listened to the performance, and a few of us spoke to him afterwards.

Angus, in his famously surprising-for-a-big-man high-pitched voice with one slightly raised eyebrow remarked, “Aye, ‘Eileen MacDonald.’ Tough tune.”

One comment from one solo piper. All that diligent practice to play a very difficult tune well came down to one comment. That was it.

“Aye. Tough tune.”

And I can’t remember a judge ever writing anything to the effect that he/she was impressed or that the tune was even positively noticed. I’m certain there were comments about the tricky passages not being quite together. Easy pickings for a piping judge.

Was it the right thing to do? In hindsight, I would say it wasn’t. It’s a clever jig, and the composition itself is unique. But is it so musically brilliant that it’s irreplaceable in a medley? Do people pine for a band or soloist to play it? Don’t think so.

In solo competition, we all submit tunes that might be deemed difficult. I admit that as a competitor and a judge I know what it’s like to submit or have submitted to me three or four tunes, and the one more difficult tune gets picked – not because it’s the musically superior tune, but simply because, Well, it’s your funeral, buddy.

If the idea is to win the competition, why put yourself at a disadvantage? I remember a lesson with Captain John MacLellan. We were discussing what light music to put in for solo events. We were trying to determine tunes that might suit me better than others. Since he said I had a stronger top-hand, I suggested “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran.” In his rather straightforward manner the good Captain said something that always stayed with me. “Why play six parts when four will do?”

Now, I readily admit that that comment was made 25 years ago, and to me, an American going round the Scottish games trying to “get in.” I wasn’t playing in the Silver Star. But I think the message was clear: Why make it any harder for yourself?

As a judge a few weeks ago a young piper submitted “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.” Nice tune, but no more technically difficult than the other three he put in, so I picked it and he played it. There were enough problems with it by the crunluath variation that he wasn’t in the running, but he then commenced to play an unexpected open fosgailte variation. I say unexpected, because most pipers wouldn’t do that. The tune is far more often played without one. Unlike a few remaining piobaireachd pedants who insist that this is “wrong,” I’m fine with anyone playing it if they want. It’s music.

But why play it? In competition, why would you tack on a very difficult variation at the end of the tune when it’s completely optional? Is it an attempt to get extra credit? Do they steadfastly believe that the tune is incomplete without it? As I said, I don’t think bonus points exist in piping and pipe band competitions, and insisting that it must be played is as pedantic as someone insisting that it should not be played. It’s optional.

Rather than help, the open fosgailte variation was not played well this time, so it actually made matters worse for the competitor, again supporting my argument that there are no potential positives that I can think of, and only probable negatives.

Unlike diving or spelling bees or freestyle skiing, there’s no reward for technical difficulty in what we do, and nor should there be. One person’s “hard” is another’s “easy” in our music. But the question – or perhaps debate – remains: Why play six when four will do? Why play “Eileen MacDonald” when another jig is just as compelling musically and less demanding technically?

I’m sure there are flaws in my argument, so feel free to point them out. In the meantime, I’ll keep slapping my chanter trying to get the syncopation right.

 

Easy prizes, or challenging fun?

Play easy and boring music well, or play harder and interesting stuff and have more fun?

It’s an age-old quandary for lower grade pipers and pipe bands. Almost every judge would say (over and over again), play tunes that your hands or your pipers and drummers can manage better.

For time immemorial, judges will sit or stand there at virtually every competition and wonder, usually several times throughout the day, why oh why that piper or pipe band is throwing away the competition trying to play a tune or tunes that they simply can’t manage. Or, perhaps more accurately, wondering why they don’t play far easier stuff to get better results.

You would think that after a hundred-odd-years of competition, competitors would learn that playing easier stuff better would more likely produce better results. So why is it that season after season pipers, drummers and pipe bands come out playing stuff that’s too difficult?

The answer: it’s more fun.

It’s more fun because it’s a bigger musical challenge. I would venture to bet that many lower-grade bands recognize that if they were to play easy tunes all year long, they’d lose their members’ interest. Practices would become monotonous, and bored members would pressure the pipe-major to make things more interesting by engaging members with more challenging stuff.

But, but . . . the name of the game is to win, right? Why risk sacrificing winning for the sake of a few musical challenges?

It’s counter-intuitive, but that kind of sacrifice (the prize for the musical experience) is exactly what we need more of – pipe bands most of all. Producing engaging and interesting music – even if it’s not played to the competitor’s potential – is better for the art than interminably cranking out boring, repetitive tunes that no one, but no one, really wants to hear again.

The choice of playing easy tunes for better results or harder tunes for more fun is one of the great strategies of our competitive game. Allowing pipers, drummers and bands the freedom to make that choice adds spice and variety to our contests. Associations might think they’re practicing tough love by prescribing tunes for lower grade competitors, but they’re not.

When I was a kid, one of the first four-part 2/4 marches I was given to play was “Abercairney Highlanders.” The late Gordon Speirs said I would get far more out of that technical challenge than playing some boring, easier thing that would lose my interest. Yes, I wouldn’t make a great job of it, but it would help my hands and give me an opportunity to expand my horizons. And, I think it worked.

After years of the RSPBA’s MAP restrictions for lower-grade bands, the dividends, if in fact there are any, are difficult to see. Lower-grade “overseas” bands still regularly come to the World’s and do well. Requiring kids to play “Corriechoille” ad infinitum for a year I suggest drives more of them away than retains their interest in the art.

And, I will say it again: requiring contestants to play certain tunes is far less about the art and learning than it is about making judging easier. And that is no good for anyone, except of course the judges.

Pipers, drummers and pipe bands need to learn to challenge themselves, expand their horizons, take musical chances, and understand that there are things far more important than winning. “Play simple better” might work in competition, but, in reality, it goes only so far.

Happy New You

I like making resolutions. Pipers and drummers especially I think can make a few new commitments at the beginning of the year, and here are a few suggestions, each of which have helped me as a piper.

Get in shape – pipers and drummers each play one of the most physical instruments there is. Add to that walking and being generally on your feet all day, hot summer weather, wearing 30 pounds of wool, and the occasional alcoholic beverage, and, if you’re not physically fit, the other piper or drummer who is has a considerable advantage. Ride a bike, take up jogging, do what it takes to improve your cardio stamina. Along with practicing your instrument, make exercise part of your daily routine, and you will have another edge over the flumpy haggis competing against you.

Learn a tune a week – expanding your repertoire will expand your skill. Every tune or score has new musical twists, and each will make you a better musician.

Seek out instruction – I often ask some of the world’s greatest pipers and drummers if they have a lot of requests for lessons, and invariably they say No. It seems that after a few years, the vast majority of pipers and drummers think they don’t need to learn anything more. Maybe people assume better pipers and drummers are too busy. They aren’t. Go get lessons. Go to summer schools. Learn from the best in-person.

Listen to soloists in the Professional grade – it continues to intrigue me that performances by some of the world’s top players are often ignored at Highland games. Make a point to watch, listen and learn from the best whenever you can. It’s a free lesson.

Subscribe to pipes|drums or other credible publication – if you’re reading this and you don’t have a $14.99 annual subscription to pipes|drums, sorry, but you or your parents have misplaced priorities. Being in-the-know, informed and knowledgeable are keys to well-rounded piping and drumming, and how-to articles like those by Jim McGillivray and Bob Worrall are invaluable.

Purchase things that have value – pay a fair price for piping and pipe band music. Whether scores to tunes and arrangements, commercial recordings or concerts and recitals, music has value. When you pay for it, you are playing your part in the music ecosystem. When you quietly take it without paying for it, you’re cheating your fellow piper/drummer. You’re stealing.

Ask for feedback – judges are happy to provide feedback after a contest. Gold Medallists and World Champions are just people. Don’t be afraid to approach them. Just be sure to bring your scoresheet. (While your performance is memorable to you, it’s not as clear to a judge who’s just assessed two-dozen others on the day.) Don’t look for compliments, but welcome criticism and advice.

Volunteer – get involved with your association. Attend monthly meetings and annual AGMs and contribute. Even if you’re not a natural leader, make yourself heard and available to help as you can.

If you pick just one or two of these resolutions and stick with them I guarantee you will be an even better piper or drummer.

Happy New Year!

Inspirational wall

A wall of images of pipers and drummers who have done extraordinary things.

Every one of us was inspired to start playing, and every one of us should have inspiration to keep playing.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and for everyone it’s a different set of circumstances. It could be an innate competitive instinct. Inspiration can come from your parents, or from a friend who motivates you to play on. It could be from the thrill of pressure and the adrenaline and endorphins released in competition or on stage.

I’m inspired by many sources to keep at it. The music itself is certainly inspirational: the thrill of chasing technical and musical excellence, to constantly get better, to learn new tunes.

I have always been inspired by the playing of others. The great players who came before and who I’ve been fortunate enough to hear, or even compete with.

The photo is of a wall in my basement office / practice space. On the wall are the covers of each of the print magazines that I put together, from 1988 until going all-online in 2008. Each of the covers features someone whom I personally admire and from whom I am inspired.

P-M Angus MacDonald. Murray Henderson, Ronnie Lawrie. Bill Livingstone. Ian Duncan. Tom Speirs.

Whenever I practice or teach a lesson or write something like this, I gain impetus to continue, to strive to reach the lofty abilities and contributions that these folks achieved in their careers.

Donald Shaw-Ramsay. Jim McGillivray. Jack Taylor. Andrew Wright. Donald MacPherson.

All of them made – and many still make – extraordinary contributions to the art, whether it was the elevation of playing standards, creative compositions, business ingenuity, academic research, or any number of things that merited an exclusive interview.

John Burgess. Bob Worrall. Tom Brown. Seumas MacNeill. Wilson Young. J.K. McAllister.

The wall of course has carried on figuratively with many more cover story interviews via the online publication, accessible to far more people in many more places. The faces of these many interview subjects are a constant inspiration to me.

Iain MacLellan. Jim Kilpatrick. Ken Eller. James Troy. John Wilson. Tom McAllister . . . many more.

I highly recommend having your own inspirational images of great pipers and drummers to motivate you even more to practice, compose, teach or any other beneficial thing you might be doing with the art.

Memorial Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial bell, indeed.

A gift

Rowland and Tirzah Berthoff, 1998Composing new music is the most significant thing we pipers and drummers can do. Recordings, winning competitions, performing in recitals and concerts – all good. But it’s the act of creating new music that has the most profound impact on the art.

In my real job, I work for songwriters and composers to uphold their creative rights. Being involved with all manner of musical genres, I appreciate that we pipers and drummers are not much different from the rest of the music industry.

I have realized, though, that in piping and drumming there is probably as much, if not more, original music creation than anywhere. Pipe bands through every level are under pressure to compose and arrange new content, and drum scores almost always have to be original. As a result, the idea of making new tunes and scores is instilled in every one of us from almost the beginning.

Just about every piper I know has tried their hand at composing a new tune, usually in the first few years of playing. Even if they’re not great or non-derivative compositions, pipers and drummers are able to make a new tune. The ability is in almost all of us.

There was a time when I fancied myself a decent composer, and I suppose I still do. Doing it well takes time and, since there’s no great demand and plenty of other things to do, composing hasn’t been a priority for a few decades now. But I made a few decent tunes that a few good friends published and a few good bands have actually played.

The great thing is that we can name our creations for people or events or places in our lives. In the late-1980s I composed a two-part strathspey and named it “Mrs. Campbell of Canna” for the late, truly great, Margaret Fay Shaw, who was (somehow) a friend of my family.

When I sent it to her, I never realized the reaction. She loved the pipes and she was a world scholar of Hebridean music, but this simple strathspey that I thought was okay bowled her over. She was truly touched, and hung a framed copy of the tune in the drawing room of Canna House. She asked me to play it each of the times when I saw her thereafter.

Young and naïve then, I only now realize the effect that an original composition created and named for a person can have on their spirit. Is there a greater honour that a person can receive than receiving a piece of art that is named for and inspired by them? Margaret Fay Shaw died at age 101 and her scholarly work lives on. But so will this tune. We pipers sometimes don’t fully appreciate that.

My daughter plays piano, and she’s pretty good and, like all kids, would be a lot better if she practiced more. I know that if she were to compose a little tune or song expressly for me, I would get weak at the knees and blubber like The Great One when he went to Los Angeles.

I’m not one to regret much. Life is what it is, and if you make on balance many more good decisions than not-so-good decisions, things go in a positive direction, so there’s not much point in wishing something wasn’t. As Beth Orton sings, “What are regrets? They’re just lessons we haven’t learned yet.”

But if there are two things that I regret, they’re that I did not compose and name a tune for my father or mother. Perhaps it was because I wanted to be sure each was good enough for others to want to play, or that I simply didn’t make it a priority, but it didn’t happen, and now it’s too late.

The lesson learned: if you are a piper of some experience, and your mother and father are still with you, you most certainly have the ability to compose a new tune and name it for your parents. It might not be a great tune, or even a good tune, but in their eyes I guarantee that they will be moved beyond tears. If you haven’t already, make them a tune.

While there’s time.

Retirement hame

Quartet is a charming movie set in a grand retirement home for gifted musicians. Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and others star in the poignant comedy, with support from actual elderly famous musicians from the British stage. They long for what they once were as players and singers, but, the key is, instead of sinking into decrepitude alone and forlorn, they do it together, sharing their wistful memories of great performances, professional rivalries, multiple curtain-calls and standing ovations.

Their home is a stately Georgian mansion called Beecham House, in the idyllic English countryside, and the viewer assumes that the famous retirees have the means to pay for their care, but it’s apparent that there are major contributions to support the place and the lifestyle the old residents deserve.

They don’t just sit around moldering. They teach. They perform. They compose. They have a good time and, when one of them is down, they band together to pick him up.

What a thing it would be for our most accomplished retired pipers and drummers to have a grand home to go to, to live out the last years of their life among others who also lived the life. Perhaps set somewhere in rural Scotland, it could be a renovated castle supported by the piping and drumming community and a combination of private and government funding.

In return for all those Highland fling performances of his tune, perhaps the Marquis of Huntley could gift us his Aboyne Castle. Just the place.

Imagine the atmosphere. The retirement house would be like a Piobaireachd Society conference every day, except that every person there would be able to back up the talk with a career of playing ability that qualified them for residency. The home for old great players would enable drummers and bandsmen and women to relive memories, stay current with trends, and debate the past.

As in the movie, there could be regular recitals and workshops, kids visiting to learn from the masters, and for the masters to learn from the kids. An annual gala would bring in the Highland aristocracy (there is one, you know) ready to rip a cheque from their sporran to help things along.

There would be healthcare on-site, treating uncooperative fingers and wrists, and doctors to look after the mentally infirm with the dignity that they deserve. But most of all, the place would be a last band of brothers and sisters united by their common love of the art.

Some great pipers and drummers are fortunate to have the savings and the friends and family to lovingly look out for them into their dotage. Sadly, though, too many of our greats drop out of our own consciousness, and conclude their lives lonely and detached from piping and drumming society.

There should be a place for our greatest performers and authorities to go, if they wish, if they need to, to share their experiences one last time, for themselves, for all of us.

Nine p|d policies

Here are nine pipes|drums policies that you might not know about. We’d say they’re unwritten rules, but, since they’re written here, they’re not.

1. We don’t do competition critiques. pipes|drums has always been the first source for reports on competition results, but you will never find those wretched, self-indulgent, player-by-player, band-by-band critical rundowns that started with Seumas MacNeill’s 1940s Piping Times. They call them contest rundowns for a reason: they tend to run down everyone except the winner. It’s a tabloid technique: bash the best for being better than the writer. It’s sham schadenfruede. The result is the result. What we or anyone else personally thought of individual performances does not matter.

2. Advertisers don’t get preferential treatment. Businesses advertise with pipes|drums because it’s excellent marketing value. We reach more readers in a day than most magazines reach in a month and at a fraction of the cost for savvy marketers. If an organization receives editorial attention it’s because they are canny communicators doing interesting things.

3. Reviewers are unbiased experts. All product or event reviews are done by those who are as expert and unconnected as we can find. Those with a business interest in the product are not eligible, and we look for respected and current pipers or drummers who have no competitive connection.

4. We recruit the reviewers. pipes|drums always asks the experts, and any business who volunteers someone to do a critique of a concert or a product is gently told that it doesn’t work that way. Readers trust pipes|drums to tell it like it is with honesty and integrity.

5. We’re not selling anything besides editorial value. We’re not connected with a shop, or a school, or an association. We strive for professionalism, but pipes|drums is not our job. We don’t pocket any money from advertising and subscriptions. We plow back all of it into the publication and we give the rest to worthwhile, nonprofit piping and drumming initiatives. If the content is good, then the readers will read it. If the readers consider it valuable, a good number of them will subscribe. If the readership numbers continue to grow, organizations will advertise. It’s a simple and effective formula that works well.

6. Interviewees have the final edit. For every one of the more than 80 lengthy pipes|drums Interviews, the subject has been allowed to make final amendments before publication. We have always approached interviews as the story that the interviewee wants to tell. Amazingly, only a handful of times has an interview been changed substantially. Donald Shaw-Ramsay and John Kerr were the most severe, to the point where we suspected some sort of cognitive problem might have entered into the edits. The rest make very minor edits.

7. We rarely delete or edit comments. The times each year when we can’t accept a comment from a reader can be counted on one hand. We rarely have to edit them for being unfair. Our readers make intelligent comments, and monitoring them is very easy.

8. We compensate contributors. When an expert takes time to write for pipes|drums when we ask them to, we pay for their service. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s also not small – more than a judge would typically be paid for a full day. Many don’t accept it, and we’re happy either way.

9. We do it because you seem to enjoy it. We’ve been publishing pipes|drums for more than 25 years only because it’s fun to create something that many people like. Every week we receive thanks from strangers who are friends by way of association to the magazine. Those who don’t like it tend to be those who are paranoid we’re out to get them. We’re not; they are. Their loss. We hope they come around and decide to contribute just a little to piping and drumming instead of purely taking.

We’ve been at this longer than anyone else around today, and – at more than 5,000 all told – we’re pretty sure we’ve published more print and online magazine articles than any publication in piping and drumming history.

By sticking to the policies above we’ve been able to stay consistent and true to our readers. We hope that you continue to subscribe to and enjoy pipes|drums.

Champion Juveniles

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP Grade 2?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many more?

Piping and pipe bands have a reputation problem. It’s called booze. But it’s not just reputation; it’s reality.

Our connection with alcohol is part of our tradition. The image of the drunken Scotsman, the piper downing a dram – these are as predictable with the general public as tartan and “Amazing Grace.”

Virtually every competition, concert or band practice ends with alcohol. For sure, it’s an essential social aspect of what we do. It’s one of my personal favourite parts of the piping scene, and I am not for an instant suggesting we stop enjoying ourselves in moderation.

I’m not sure that in reality pipers and drummers have any worse a problem with booze than other musicians. Just about every club or community likes to share a drink among friends and, in that sense, we’re like everyone else.

What I’m talking about is recognizing, confronting and helping those with serious alcohol dependency problems. I’m sure that you know at least one or two pipers or drummers who are probable or full-fledged alcoholics.

Our drinking tradition is also a tradition where it is customary to sweep problems under the rug. We turn a blind-eye to those with serious alcohol problems and, in fact, we often encourage them. We buy them drinks. We coax them. Just one more. Give us a tune. Have another.

For every world famous piper who dies of alcoholism or suicide due to its associated depression and relentless demons, there are far more we never hear about. When it happens, not much is said except for the euphemism that he “died suddenly.”

Thankfully there are those among us who have recognized their problem and, with the support of others, work every day to stay sober. To a person, those pipers and drummers I know who are recovering alcoholics struggle at social settings to decline offers from their drinking pipers and drummers to “go ahead . . . one won’t hurt you.”

In 1987 I wrote an editorial about this very same topic in the then Canadian Piper & Drummer. Living in Edinburgh at the time, I happened to run into a group of Queen’s Own Highlanders off-duty soldiers on a night on the town. One of them was a prominent piper who expressed his extreme displeasure with the piece, accusing me of “ruining all the fun.”

I understand that others will not like this being talked about again here. It needs to be said. I am bothered greatly that we traditionally tend to sit there and watch our friends be destroyed by this disease, and some of us even egg it on. If there are those who feel that these things should not be spoken of, well, I’m afraid that you’re part of the problem.

This isn’t about stopping the fun. We can coexist with alcohol, and this blog even uses an image of whisky as symbolic of discussing various sides of what we do and who we are as pipers and drummers. This post is about friends who might need help.

Alcoholism and depression will continue to affect pipers and drummers just as they will continue to impact all other walks of life. Addiction and illness will not go away. But at least let’s all of us try to do something about it by eliminating the taboo of talking.

That starts by confronting the problem, discussing it, and reaching out to help each other.

Treadmill

The annual lists of Set Tunes for the big piobaireachd competitions are important to maybe a hundred people in the world. When you’re not competing in the Gold or Silver medals or one of the dozen or so elite competitors in the Senior events, the Set Tunes are, if anything, just a curiosity. I doubt anyone not in the current crop of hard core contestants is on the edge of their pipe box anxiously wondering what will be the chosen few.

I’ve been back at playing regularly these past months with the intention to have a walk around the boards this summer – just for fun. And “fun” is the operative word. Between the ages 19 and 40 I spent maybe 15 of those years playing at the tunes set for either the Silver or Gold medals. There were the very occasional own-choice years, and rare seasons when the lists were populated completely by melodic classics. By and large, though, these set tune lists featured two or three piobaireachds that I enjoyed playing and obvious choices, and the rest informed a process of deciding which was the easiest to memorize, get through accurately, and then hope for better options in next year’s list.

I remember Captain John MacLellan at a lesson saying “Abercairney’s Salute” must have been written by a personal piper who thought, “Hmmm, Abercairney’s birthday is tomorrow, so I’d better write a piobaireachd.” I would try to convince myself that dreary things like “The MacRaes’ March” and “Sobieski’s Salute” were great pieces of music, for why else would an esteemed organization like the Piobaireachd Society prescribe them for the Gold Medal? But in my heart I knew they sucked.

It seemed inevitable that I’d have things like that picked for me on the big days, while the one or two great classics I submitted went to someone else. Despite trying to convince myself that I didn’t care what they picked, it was always deflating. I always did better with tunes that were actually good music. But many were the times when I’d be puffed up, awaiting to know what tune they’d picked, thinking along the lines of, “Please be ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament,’ please be ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament,’ please be . . .” only to be punctured with some obtuse “Weighing From Land” type of thing.

I suppose it’s all part of the test, musical or psychological or a combination of the two. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard pipers talk about “trying to make something musical” out of a set piece of dreck, and there’s a sense of celebration when someone popular deservedly wins big with a great tune.

Perhaps sadly, every piper I know would be perfectly happy playing “Stairway to Heaven” if it meant winning a Highland Society of London Gold Medal.

It’s all to say that now without (as the great Hugh MacCallum described it) “the treadmill” of the set tunes, playing only piobaireachd that I really like to play is a new and liberating experience. I find that with each practice session, rather than having a mental checklist of tunes I must run another lap around, I can pick from 10 or so piobaireachds currently on the go. And then I’ll think of another tune I’d like to brush up and have a go at that. It’s long-forgotten fun.

Sometimes the lists look like they were put together by a preservation society rather than a music organization. For sure the piper who wins a big prize with “The Battle of Bealach nam Brog” (or “The Beelin’ Brogues,” as a friend calls it) will convince him or herself that it’s a musical masterpiece beyond reproach.

It’s all part of the mind game we agree to play, and the “test” we create for ourselves to bring life to the monotonous, all for the thrill of victory.

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.

Immemorial

I was heartened to see the Waipu Highland Games in New Zealand create a drumming trophy for Robert Turner. Not the late Robert Turner. Not a memorial trophy. This is for the living Robert Turner, who appeared overjoyed at seeing the prize created in his name.

This is exactly how it should be.

It’s our somewhat sad tradition to memorialize contributors with monuments and trophies, as if we only realize what they’ve done after they’re gone – when it’s too late to tell them in person how much we appreciate their contributions and achievements. It’s as if we don’t want it to go to their head or something, and only when they’re dead and dust do we decide that a gesture of thanks is in order.

For sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with memorial trophies and competitions, and even after the fact of life is better than nothing. Perhaps acknowledging contributors to piping and drumming while they’re here might seem somehow ghoulish, or feel like a surprise party for a person who dislikes drawing attention to him or herself.

A few years ago the Ontario scene appeared to be getting on the right track by celebrating big contributors Reay Mackay and Ed Neigh – folks who are very much still with us and going as strong as ever. I think each of them was taken aback, and I’m sure both cringed at the spotlight being put on them. There are other one-time things like the Balvenie Medal and honourary life memberships that celebrate people for a day.

Our thing is competition, and competitions are full of names and trophies created in memory of people and these are all good. But even better would be to create events and trophies while their namesakes are still here, so that they know that we know what we have before they’re gone.

We can live with that.

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.

Remember

“The Battle of the Somme,” “The Taking of Beaumont Hamel,” “The Heights of Casino,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein,” “The Heights of Dargai,” “The Bloody Fields of Flanders” . . . there are dozens more great Highland pipe compositions that were inspired during wartime.

Our art is rich with music that should remind us of the sacrifices made, enabling us to freely play pipes and drums and discuss matters of piping and drumming without fear every time we play or hear them.

November 11th is a day when piping-rich nations collectively pause to think and appreciate. But all pipers and drummers should realize that we were given an extra gift because of these horrific conflicts – and remember with our music.

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