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.

Gifts

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.

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.

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.

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.

Pass the pipe

Breeding ground.There was a time when passing around a bagpipe to let anyone who could play and who wanted to “have a tune” was commonplace. It seemed like at any informal gathering of pipers there would be a bagpipe that was going well, and no one had any reservations about having a go.

It seems like that tradition has all but died away in this era of germaphobia. Passing the pipe has fallen victim to marketing’s discovery that creating a fear of unknown and unseen bacteria, and subsequently selling all manner of “germ-killing” products from hand sanitizer to dish soap to toothpaste, has worked to kill off our willingness to share a germ-infested blowpipe and pipe bag.

I’m not sure if passing around a single instrument at a party of harmonica players or clarinetists or Jew’s harpers has ever been a thing, but I do know that it was because of the pass-the-pipe tradition that I first had the opportunity to play a really good instrument. It was probably about 1978, and the bagpipe was Gordon Speirs’ MacDougall drones and Sinclair chanter. I had been used to playing a basic set of Hardies and some sort of newfangled plastic band chanter. To be sure, the tenors were tuning about a quarter-inch from the projecting mounts, if they were tuned at all.

Suddenly, when Gordon’s MacDougalls were passed to me I had under my arm a wondrous sound alive with resonance. Relative to my hurricane-like instrument, his pipe took almost no effort to blow. It stayed in tune. I could feel each note of the chanter on my fingers. I could have played all day on that instrument, and wanted it back as soon as I passed it to the next person. I had experienced a sound that I knew I wanted to achieve.

And, as far as I can remember, I didn’t get sick from any saliva-borne disease. Because of society’s fear of germs, I wonder how many kids today miss opportunities to play great instruments.

I was recently at a party where a good-going pipe was passed around. There were several excellent players there, but there were also a few lower-grade amateurs, and I noticed one kid in particular whose eyes seemed to light up, not with fear of catching a horrible canker sore, but with the feel and sound of a well set-up bagpipe.

I’d think that in this age when synthetic bags and reeds are more common than the virtual Petri dish that is sheepskin and cane, passing the pipe would be safer than ever. I do know that, back in 1978, the only thing I caught was a lifelong addiction to achieving good sound.

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.

Easy image

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

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

Clearly, tenor drumming has an image problem.

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons earned

Ethical dilemmae.There’s a hardly a person out there who has not at one time won a prize when their teacher was judging, and I would be willing to bet that of the 99 per cent of pipers and drummers who have been rewarded by their instructor, nearly all of them felt a bit regretful.

I know I have.

1984. I had been living in Scotland, spending my third year of college at the University of Stirling. I had the extreme good fortune to be taken on as a regular pupil by someone of prodigious knowledge and renown strictly for piobaireachd, and another even more renowned person for light music. (Why I didn’t occasionally seek one for the other music, I don’t know, but that’s another story.) I also was lucky enough to access the prodigious knowledge of another prominent person for a few weekends in the fall of 1983.

I had been preparing all year for the Silver Medal. The event in 1984 called for contestants to submit six of their own choice of tunes. I keenly learned up the tunes set for the Gold Medal contests, since it was all good. I got all of these from my main piobaireachd teacher. I’d been playing well enough over the summer to pick up prizes around the games.

But then the judges for the Silver Medal were revealed in July. At the time I was extremely excited to learn that not one, not two, but all three of my teachers would be on the Silver Medal bench at Inverness. Since I believed that the teacher/pupil/judge connection was an acceptable part of the game, I figured that I had hit the jackpot. What great luck!

After getting nothing at Oban, Inverness came around. I was the first to play after the lunch break. I thought that I played as well as I possibly could, which is all you can hope to do. The result was announced, and I was first. All three of them told me later that their decision was unanimous.

While I felt that I deserved the prize, I also felt awkward at the time and ever since about the award. I knew then as I know now that many prizes big and small have been won with teachers judging their students. As far as I know, there’s no rule anywhere against the practice, and only “policies” with some organizations that asks teachers to avoid judging their pupils.

I’ve written before that the practice of teachers judging their students is inevitable, since the best teachers make the most knowledgeable judges and vice-versa. Maybe tellingly, I came up with that thesis when I was actively competing. People often find ways to reconcile such dilemmas in ways that suit us at the time.

I’ve since changed my mind. Teachers judging pupils can and should be avoided. If for nothing else, a teacher should avoid the practice for this fundamental reason: it’s not fair to the pupil. It’s not fair because the student may well have deserved the prize, and probably did, but his or her peers – every one of them – will have at least a shade of doubt.

I don’t for a second think that back in 1984 my teachers were anything but ethical and honest, and my sense of ethics may differ substantially from others. I respect other opinions. I also think that the ethical sense of players, teachers and judges have changed over the last three decades.

But all too often I sense teachers accept judging pupils for what appears to be a selfish reason: to further their own reputation as a teacher via the success of their student. The better the pupil does, the better the instructor appears.

Some players dodge the issue by saying that a judge who’s judging them isn’t really an “instructor” because they see them only periodically, or receive only casual feedback. That may be so, but, as a friend recently pointed out, the player is quick to list the very same person as a “teacher” in their autobiographical sketches.

Some judges dodge the issue with the well-worn contention that, if you prohibit teachers from judging their pupils, there won’t be enough judges to go around. I don’t believe that. It just takes adroit planning and full disclosure. Judges need to tell organizers who they’re teaching, and then let them organize events accordingly.

Competitions are about the competitors, not the judges. Teachers should not put their students in such compromising situations. Ironically, prizes won by students of judges are an injustice to the pupil who needs to be seen to earn prizes fairly, strictly on his or her own merits.

And declining to judge pupils in contests could be one of the most important lessons an instructor can teach.

Wanger

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, wangers! Start wanging!”

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

“Okay, now the song side! Sing!”

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

“Keep wanging wangers!”

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

“Onward! the saaaaiiilors cryyyy . . .”

“Good!”

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

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

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

“Keep on wanging, you wangers!”

“”Ooover the seeeea to Skyyyyye . . .”

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

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

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

Happily nonprofit

A friend mentioned to me the other day that a few people had mentioned to him that they thought I make “lots of money” from pipes|drums. I was taken aback, since essential tenets of the publication are to be independent and nonprofit.

To be clear, all revenue goes towards four basic areas: upkeep and maintenance of the publication; development of new aspects of the magazine; hardware and software to produce the content (which I guess is part of the first area); and marketing.

I know this is difficult for some folks to believe, but it is in fact possible to do something to a “professional” standard without making it a profession.

I like the fact that filthy lucre isn’t involved in the endeavour. Just as I don’t charge for lessons (some would say that’s only fair!), not pocketing money from pipes|drums keeps me happier. It takes away the pressure and I prefer not having to worry about keeping advertisers and readers happy with nothing else but providing good content, which attracts readers, which makes more value for advertisers, which generates more revenue, which allows more development, which attracts more readers, which . . . you get the drift.

I’ve heard of businesses advertising in piping/drumming related outlets for nothing but political reasons. They feel that, if they advertise, they’ll curry favour to get positive, undeserved coverage. To me, that’s like a band making an annual purchase of chanter reeds from a judge who might make his or her living from making chanter reeds, with no intention of actually playing them, purely in the twisted hope of getting a better result. To me that’s not only a complete waste of money, but ethically weird and deeply disturbing.

Those who advertise with pipes|drums do so, I firmly believe, because they see the value and return-on-investment. In my humble opinion they are smart marketers. Readers pay the ridiculousy inexpensive subscription price because they see the ROI – the complete and growing archive of more than 3,500 features, interviews, reviews and other articles dating back to 1999. Both readers and advertisers may also be encouraged because they contribute to a decent cause. It’s a cooperative.

Anyway, the whole business of pipes|drums is better as a nonprofit and not as a business. It keeps everyone happier. Especially me.

Sage advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradiddle universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No ask; no tell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead lament

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

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

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

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

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

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

Socialest

While pipes|drums’ social media efforts have been going on for more than six years now, ever since we started this blog and enabled readers to comment on articles, there are a few more recent developments that people might not yet know about.

The pipes|drums page on Facebook to date has the support base of approaching 4,000 ‘fans” around the world. In addition to the RSS feeds that we’ve provided for the last four years, the Facebook page is proving to be a handy alert mechanism for new stories and other content published on pipes|drums.

There’s also our YouTube Channel, which aggregates video content from various piping and drumming events. If you’re registered on Google and/or YouTube, it’s easy to subscribe to the pipes|drums Channel to get alerts when new content is uploaded.

We’ve been on Twitter for more than a year now. With the other forms of social media, Twitter in the off-season doesn’t get the updates the other places receive, but those will increase along with events.

People may also have noticed that comments to pipes|drums articles are now moderated. We’ve allowed and encouraged reader-comments for years now, and have enjoyed some lively and constructive debates. We felt that most readers preferred a moderated approach to comments to keep things even more constructive. So far it’s working well.

And, of course, there’s Blogpipe – you probably know how to find that!

I hope that you enjoy our various social media efforts. pipes|drums has always been about starting conversations and engaging readers, and we’ll continue to look for more ways to do that as we go along.

The hardest grade is 2

Sticky.History demonstrates that the most difficult pipe band grade is Grade 2. I’m not talking about winning (although that’s hard, too); I’m talking about long-term survival.

This year – in North America, anyway – we’ve seen the demise or apparent demise of no fewer than three Grade 2 bands. Midlothian Scottish, Niagara Regional Police and, most recently, the Hamilton Police all seem to be belly-up. Also fairly recently we’ve seen Grade 2 bands exceed in the grade, get promoted to Grade 1, and then eventually crumble or recede back into Grade 2.

While many Grade 2 bands may have had a lengthy history before dissolving, their struggles to maintain and continue might be harder than bands in any other grade. If you consider that most pipers and drummers’ ultimate goal is to play with a successful Grade 1 band, the pressure on a Grade 2 band to hold on to personnel and keep things glued together is enormous.

And now with pressure on Grade 1 and 2 bands to field a pipe section of at least 15 quality players to have a fighting chance, it’s even harder. A Grade 2 band might have a feeder system, but often the best pipers from Grade 3 bands leapfrog Grade 2 to get to the premiership. And the days of sticking it out with a Grade 2 band, resolutely waiting for or dreaming for years about when the band might go to Grade 1, seem to be all but over. Grade 2 players increasingly just don’t have the patience or loyalty. (Those who do are to be admired, and eventually they will become known for their dedication, commitment and principles.)

There are exceptions, of course, and the obvious example is Inveraray & District. But there, too, time will tell if that band can withstand the pressures of Grade 1, especially when the group comprises so many young members, some of whom will inevitably go on to college and university or move away. But placing ahead of House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead in an event in your first competition is a very good start, as nothing maintains a band like winning.

And of course there are Grade 3 bands continually moving in to Grade 2 (see Aughintober, Howard Memorial, Killen, Linlithgow, Penatangore, Stuart Highlanders, Williamwood . . .) but they, too, will face the extraordinary pressures of the grade.

I’ve said before that Grade 2 is, perhaps ironically, the most entertaining and competitive grade. There bands have the ability to stretch out their creativity with a lot less risk, and generally there are far more bands than Grade 1 that have a realistic chance of winning the contest. Just my observation, but personnel in Grade 2 bands also seem to have more fun – maybe because they know it might not last.

The solution? There probably isn’t one. I think that perhaps limiting the roster numbers of Grade 1 bands would help the world pipe band scenes, but that’s unlikely to occur until the RSPBA does it first. Besides, the pressures of Grade 2 didn’t start when Grade 1 bands began fielding pipe sections of more than 20; but they did seem to get worse.

Today maybe the best way to survive as a Grade 2 band is not to be a Grade 2 band for long. The bands that can race through the grade in one, two or, at most, three years, and carry the winning momentum and enthusiasm into Grade 1 may ultimately be the only bands that endure.

Kids these days

So much to do.When it comes to piping and drumming, kids have it a lot harder today. I’ve come to this conclusion after once again trying to get back into a more regular routine of practicing. I say “trying” because, inevitably, that routine is more like a sporadic, when-I-can-block-out-all-other-distractions-and-temptations, series of sessions that gradually, slowly, maybe, do the job.

When I was learning to play in the 1970s and ’80s, distractions and temptations consisted of games of corkball, kickball, capture-the-flag or kick-the-can; building the occasional model airplane or boat; a train set; or the baseball Game of the Week on TV on summer Saturday afternoons. Sure, there were moments of getting up to no good with friends, but, by and large it was easy to find time to practice. In suburban St. Louis there wasn’t much else to do and, however nerdy piping may have been, it was something to do that was at least marginally less boring.

Maybe because it was so routine, I hardly remember practicing at all. But it must have been a lot. I do remember practicing exercises while watching one of the three or four TV channels (until my mother would turn off “that idiot box”), or listening to ballgames on the radio, or, yes, doing homework. When it comes to multi-tasking (read: ADD), I was an early adopter. I’m still prone to playing scales while doing something else, but I really don’t recommend it – you end up doing both half-way and, evidently, years later you won’t remember any of it.

It amazes me that there are any kids pursuing piping or drumming today – and it’s positively astonishing, come to think of it, that the boys and girls who do somehow become committed to or afflicted by it are playing at a standard that is, overall, better than ever. The siren-songs constantly blaring from the Internet, or the 500-channel TV universe, or video games, or alluring retail temptations that are positively everywhere one would think would make today’s young piper or drummer a rare breed indeed.

So, my hat is off to every young player out there who today has the focus and commitment to do this crazy, still very nerdy, thing.

Back in my day, we had it a lot easier.

Musical ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foot forward

Free kicks.Coincidental to the “Family time” post of a few weeks back, some recent events got me to think further on the topic of passing down hobbies and skills. This is going to be a bit of a gush, but stay with it. My 17-year-old nephew, Daniel (to his family, anyway, but “Danny” professionally), made his debut as a starting player with Glasgow Rangers’ first team last night. He played the entire Scottish Cup quarter-final match against Dundee, making several nice clearances helping the ‘Gers to a 3-1 victory.

Daniel’s dad, my brother-in-law, John Wilson, played professional football as a goalkeeper for Celtic and Hearts until a knee injury forced him to settle into a great career with the Lothian & Borders Police force. John also played – pipes – for a spell with his school band, Craigmount, working with the famous Jennifer Hutcheon, as did my other brother-in-law, Martin Jr., and my wife, Julie.

Their dad, my father-in-law, Martin Wilson, was a piper with one of the first truly world-famous pipe bands, the Edinburgh City Police, being a part of five World’s victories under Pipe-Major Iain McLeod. Piping and football run in the family.

But why is it that piping and drumming so often have not been passed along? If one considers the greats from the 1950s to 1970s, relatively few (pun intended) sons and daughters of the leading pipers and drummers of that era seemed to become equally good or better players, and more often than not didn’t bother to take up the instruments at all.

Donald MacLeod, John Burgess, Hugh MacCallum, John MacDougall, John MacFadyen, Seumas MacNeill, Ronnie Lawrie, Donald MacPherson, Iain MacLellan, Willie Ross, G.S. McLennan, Hector MacFadyen . . . none of these greats, I believe, had a son or daughter who pursued piping in a major way. There are exceptions, of course – John A. MacLellan, Tom Speirs, Alex Duthart . . . but these examples are in the small minority.

But I have a feeling that things are changing. Perhaps it’s the rising popularity of piping and drumming outside of the UK since the 1970s, or maybe it’s the “family time” factor, that’s spurring more kids to take up the instrument that dad or mom plays, and then become as good as or even better – the Gandys, the Lees, the Hawkes, the Hendersons, the Maxwells, the Troys . . . just a few examples, and, yes, there are exceptions.

It’s good to see that that talent, in past generations so often not passed along to sons and daughters, is now more than ever the cool and fun thing to do. Anyway, there’s hardly a better feeling than seeing family follow in family footsteps, and take even bigger leaps.

Family time

Don't argue with Big Daddy.Why is it that there are relatively few examples of pipers and drummers who achieve or exceed the greatness of their famous piper or drummer parents? More often than not, piping and drumming seems to be a one- or two-generation thing in families, with children not taking it up and starting a tradition.

There are great exceptions, of course: Willie McCallum, Colin MacLellan, Angus MacColl, Alasdair Gillies, Gordon Brown, Iain Speirs, to name a few. All had fathers who were very well known and accomplished pipers or drummers, but there are so many instances of famous pipers and drummers who, if they had kids, they either never took up the instrument, or got to a certain level and essentially chucked it. Willie Ross. Donald MacLeod. Seumas MacNeill. John Burgess. John MacFadyen. Duncan Johnstone. Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald.

There is, though, the increasingly common “piping / drumming family.” This happens mainly in North America, where both parents and all of the kids – and sometimes even the grandparents – are involved as pipers and drummers. They don’t necessarily much care about being world-beaters; they’re just out to be a part of it as a family. It happens only occasionally in the UK.

There are reasons for this, I think. The UK piping and drumming scene can consume as little time for dad or mom on Saturday as a game of golf. Get to the contest mid-morning, compete and be home by supper. It’s easy to make it a personal, social thing.

For most Americans, Canadians and Australians, though, the piping and drumming event is at least a 12-hour day, if not a three-day weekend, usually traveling hundreds of miles and staying someplace for a few nights. Anyone with a family will know how hard it is to do that without completely abandoning the wife or husband and kids.

A solution, of course, is to get everyone involved. Find a spouse who also plays, and get the kids playing pipes, snare or tenor. Instead of piping / drumming competitions being the independent social outings enjoyed in the UK, the weekends time to spend with the family. The goal isn’t necessarily to win, win, win at any cost; it’s to have a good time with the each other while learning to play well and finding personal satisfaction for achieving modest goals in the morning’s solo events and the afternoon band contest.

While the instances are infrequent of great pipers and drummers producing kids who match or exceed their competitive accomplishments, the popularity of the happy piping/drumming family is on the rise, at least outside of the UK.

The family that plays together stays together.

Realization

Tannoy.A few days ago I posted a tweet on Twitter (@pipesdrums) or status update on Facebook (I can’t remember) that said, “Hilarious how people with so little experience have no problem proclaiming themselves experts before unknowing people.” I was prompted to post that because of the incessant “authoritative” tweets by someone not from the piping/drumming scene who I know has almost zilch experience. She simply does not know what she’s talking about, but says it anyway dozens of times every day on Twitter, Facebook and anywhere else she can get away with it unchallenged.

Ever since rec.music.makers.bagpipe emerged in the mid-1990s as the first piping/drumming “forum,” the scene has been shaken by the fact that everyone can spread their opinion widely, no matter what their level of experience.

As I have said for many years, I like that. Encouraging dialog by pipes|drums and Blogpipe readers is an example of that attitude. Provided comments stay within the stated policy, no matter how discordant or ignorant I may think they are, they will stand.

But I was surprised at the number of people who responded online or in a “dm” (to use the social media parlance) to me personally about my little tweet. Clearly I’m not alone in that thinking.

There are those with seriously little experience and knowledge who see the Internet as a great way to try to carry off an inflated persona, who preach to the even-more-ignorant, and who have strangely built up their reputation in piping/drumming not by what they know and have done, but by what they spew online as gospel. They strive to strike a tone of authority, when they should be realistically deferential and humble. These are the people who “talk a good tune” (an expression that I love and which has been around solo piping circles forever). Because of the net we’ve grown used to all this spew, and, just like everywhere else, it has become an accepted part of the culture.

Around 1990, just before the Internet took hold, a very prominent piper commented to me that he couldn’t stand massed-bands / march-pasts because inevitably there would be one or two near-beginner-level piper-oafs who would wander over to him and other famous people, not to learn something, but simply to be seen talking with him. They would try to discuss high-level topics, name-dropping all the way, and they just would not go away. His pre-Internet peeve is really no different from what happens online, except since the mid-’90s it’s magnified thousands of times over.

On the other hand, there are the majority who choose to learn, who practice humility, whether it’s on the net or at massed-bands. They strike the right tone with what they say and how they say it. In more ways than one, they know who they are.

Can’t sing but I got soul

I had the good fortune to participate this week in a two-day workshop on mentoring and coaching – skills that everyone can use, not least of whom me. As part of the course, we watched a really good video put together by Ben Zander, the Music Director of the Boston Philharmonic.

Zander’s a whirlwind of charisma and positive energy, and it appears that he’s carved out a nice sub-career as a motivational guru. While I was watching the video, I thought about how many pipe-majors of premier bands might be able to transfer their leadership skills to self-help consulting.

In a sense, many already are motivational speakers, as we see guys like Richard Parkes, Terry Lee, Robert Mathieson and Bill Livingstone hired to conduct clinics. I’d imagine that many attendees go expecting to get some secret sauce for success and become better players or bands overnight. But in actuality I would think most leave these workshops simply feeling a whole lot better about what they do and what they need to do. They get motivated to improve.

There was one point in the Zander video where he has a cellist perform a difficult piece for the business people attending his seminar. She’s clearly a terrific player, and executes the piece technically perfectly. Zander applauds her for that, but then points out that, while her technique was brilliant, the piece lacked emotion. She was so concerned about getting it “right,” that she forgot to engage her audience, who were clearly impressed, but not emotionally moved.

He said, “Perfection is not to be gained at the cost of music.” I found this summarized perfectly what we pipers and drummers struggle with all the time. We’re so focused on getting it “right,” that we leave the audience cold. And then we’re often too quick to criticize a technically flawed performance that got an audience out of their seats and cheering.

It’s an age-old problem for us: how to encourage, recognize and reward music played with emotion and meaning and have the conviction to place more importance on those attributes rather than the “perfect” but soulless performance?

The world seems old and new

Look at me!The new system we’re using for the pipes|drums Poll allows for much more accurate results, since it’s a one-address, one-vote mechanism, meaning that folks can’t – for whatever pathetic reason – stuff the ballot box.

Over the hundreds of previous polls, I’d never thought to try to find out what age people were when they took up the pipes or drum. Two things surprised me about the results: 1) that more than a third of learners started when they were younger than 10, and 2) that a full 12 per cent started when they were older than 21. I didn’t think either response would be so large. 

I started when I was 11, and so am with the 31 per cent who began when they were 10, 11 or 12 years old. But 12 out of every 100 pipers and drummers taking up the instrument as adult learners? That’s amazing.

But, then again, if you take a look at the North American lower-grade solo competitions you will see that kind of a ratio, with people in their 40 and 50s and even 60s competing against very young kids. At first it looks kind of wrong, but perhaps that diversity also makes things interesting. I doubt that there are many arts that pit senior citizens against grade-schoolers.

I noticed at a piping and drumming school recently that most students were either kids or retired. There weren’t many in between. It perhaps further supports the notion that the demography of taking up the pipes or drum is very much for the very young or the very old. I wonder why.

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