Take me to church

There are few competing pipers and drummers who would list “Highland Cathedral” as their favourite tune. In fact, many of us dislike it, perhaps because so  many non-pipers/drummers love it. But we will play it exactly for that reason.

The piece was written in 1982 by German piper Michael Korb in collaboration with music producer and arranger Ulrich Roever. Unlike almost every piece of bagpipe music, “Highland Cathedral” was created with the key objective of commercial success. They looked past the parochial pipe music audience, apparently recognizing a way to go beyond the “Amazing Grace” Highland games cliché. Crucially, they composed not for a pipe band competition medley or a competition pipe band concert, but for the paying public.

I’d say that Korb and Roever have been extremely successful. For 35 years now “Highland Cathedral” has been played at weddings, on best-selling albums and, most importantly, at big tattoos around the world. A recent example was the 2016 Virginia Tattoo in Norfolk, where a full orchestration of “Highland Cathedral” was performed at each show, twice a day, to a sold-out arena of about 15,000 people who paid about $50 for a ticket.

In case you’re still thinking that there is “nae money” in bagpipe music, consider that “Highland Cathedral” is registered with various royalties collections organizations around the world, and is looked after and promoted by a major music publishing company. From the performances of their work at Norfolk alone, the composers of “Highland Cathedral” should have earned well-deserved royalties of five-figures. (If you happened to have a tune played at the same tattoo, be sure to register with a performing rights organization so that they can go get the money that you have rightfully earned.)

I say that they earned the royalties because they recognized in 1982 an opportunity to create a piece of music for a market that was under-served. The composers deserve to receive their fair share in return for making people happy with their music. To pipers, “Highland Cathedral” is no “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran,” but, to the public, “Mrs. MacPherson” is just another bagpipe song that to their ear sounds the same as that other zippy jiggy reel thingmee.

It’s amazing and a little bit sad that for 35 years we pipers and drummers haven’t been able to improve on “Highland Cathedral.” We might snobbily groan at the piece, but what have we done to reach out and connect with a non-piping audience? Are we still naïvely expecting the world to wake up and realize the greatness of “Mrs. MacPherson”?

Korb (Roever died a few years ago) might be quietly wondering why the treacle-pop-pipe-tune hasn’t been bettered, or at least met with some other original musical competition at tattoos and weddings.

So, here’s my idea: let’s improve on “Highland Cathedral.” Someone with serious piping chops, with a gift for recognizing a simple, easy melody, and who still has the creativity gene that generally declines after age 30, should collaborate with a current music producer and arranger to create a piece that everyone – pipers, drummers and non-playing public – can enjoy repeatedly playing and hearing.

It can’t be an esoteric jazzy work like “Journey to Skye,” or a hand-mangling blur like “Hellbound Train,” or derivative arrangement of Pachelbel’s “Canon.” No, what’s needed is a simple, original air, with a beat, that lasts no more than four minutes, respectful to the great music of the Highland pipe, with a name that conjures up a nice, Highland image, like “My Scottish Hearth and Home,” or “Tartan Mist,” or “Song for Auld Scotia” – something warm and evocative anyway. Make it in a happy, major key, and orchestrate the poignant piece with someone who knows what he/she is doing in multiple ways for various ensembles to accompany the pipes and drums: brass band, orchestra, rock band, Celtic folk, and so forth.

And after that, find and sign with a serious music publisher (one expert in the non-piping world) that will work to get the music out there at shows, tattoos, commercials, movies, TV shows . . . A good music publisher knows how to do this, and will work hard because they stand to make at least 30% of the royalties from the shared success.

If you do it right, you will have created a piece better for piping and drumming than “Highland Cathedral,” which the non-playing public will grow to love, and which, as a bonus, will earn you a lot of money.

In return for this great idea, I’d be happy with a 5% split of the royalties. Let me know how you get on.


One sick beat

Start with the beat. Well, at least that’s pretty much the way pop music-making goes these days. Skrillex or Max Martin or 40 or other producers work with a “beatmaker” to come up with a – ahem – sick groove. From that beat they layer in chords and instruments and, if there are any, vocals. Lyrics are generally the last ingredient and are often based on consonant mono-syllabic words that don’t make a statement so much as complement – you might have guessed – the beat.

That Drake song that hit #1 probably started with a beat by Noah “40” Shebib.

“Topliners” are the folks who take the beat and add in the melody. The good ones can make lots of money, too, since there’s no “song” without them. But they are generally less important than the beat-makers. Topliners are often aspiring writers of fully-formed songs who are looking to break into the music industry.

Great beatmakers are highly sought-out and they can command major money and receive significant royalties for their work. You might hate the idea of reverse-engineered music, but consider this: some pipe music composers have been doing largely the same thing at least since the 1990s.

I never thought I’d say these words, but 25 years ago Robert Mathieson was our Skrillex. The grooves that Mathieson derived from some of his music started with a beat created with Jim Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick and Mathieson would apparently come up with a rhythmical feel first, and Mathieson would then wrap a melody around it, often syncopating a shuck-and-jive opener or finisher.

Going back a little further, Tom Anderson apparently got the inspiration for his now-classic hornpipe “The Train Journey North” while riding the rails back to Belfast from a practice with the Grade 1 St. Patrick’s Donaghmore Pipe Band of Dublin. Go back another 50 years and you get G.S. McLennan getting inspiration for “The Little Cascade” – perhaps the greatest pipe tune ever composed – from the rhythm of a dripping faucet.

These anecdotes might well be apocryphal, but there’s something to the idea of reverse engineering a tune.

Pop songs don’t mess around: they are intended to be loved immediately, not after a dozen listens, which is often a major failing of tunes that a judge hears for the first time and they just don’t resonate. I don’t care if pipe band protectionists are aghast at the thought. If you want a great groove to draw people into that opener in your medley instantly with no messing about, you might want to start with a sick beat.

McLennan, Anderson and Mathieson: the Max Martin, 40 and Skrillex of their day.


Facebook: made for us

The long-time popularity of social media among pipers and drummers is no coincidence. Social networking has been labeled antisocial for many years, as the world bemoans the fact that no one actually talks to each other anymore, choosing instead to accept as many “friends” as possible on Facebook.

I wish there were stats for this, but my hunch is that the piping and drumming community outpaced other groups in Facebook uptake in the early days of the social platform. And is it any wonder? We pipers and drummers are, by and large, a bunch of introverts attracted to the solo spotlight, so the narcissistic nature of Facebook is a perfect stage for our “look at me, me, me, me” mentality.

Sitting on my amateur psychologist’s couch, I think that most of us are attracted to the whole kilt-wearing, noise-making, parade-walking, centre-of-attention instrument as a convenient means to step into the spotlight without having to say a word. We let the spectacle do the talking. When we’re at piping and drumming social events, we generally thirst for a bit of Dutch Courage to allow us to intermingle, taking the edge off of actual encounters with – yikes! – other humans.

As with everything, there are exceptions. There are the odd extroverts in piping and drumming. They stand well apart from the near-silent majority. They do their strange thing and are generally celebrated freaks in our little self-centred community. The rest of us would much rather be in the basement, hammering away at the practice chanter or drum pad, standing before a mirror gazing longingly at our own image without the bother of others. Our best performances invariably are shared only with an audience of one, and perhaps the family pet.

I’ve said before that solo piping and drumming is a selfish conceit. We might kid ourselves that others actually care, but in truth we compete solo for strictly personal reasons, each of which we resolve on our own terms. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. My diagnosis: it is what it is. If it makes you happy; do it.

And Facebook provides the same release. Look at me! Listen to my doublings! What a wonderfully colourful kilt I’m wearing! Here I am guzzling a pint! I won! I’m in a parade! I have a thousand “friends”!

Facebook is the world’s biggest massed band. We’re friends with everyone and almost no one. Our common bond is our music. Our keyboard becomes a surrogate practice chanter or pad.

I was there; I knew him

Death has a funny way of reminding us of life. Reporting the death of extraordinary pipers and drummers is, as I have said before, the hardest thing about this, but it’s also one of the most important. It’s all the more difficult when it’s someone I was fortunate enough actually to know.

The end of any year is bittersweet. We look back on the best and worst of the 12 months past, and we look forward with optimism to what’s to come. Inevitably, there will be bad and sad news that we wish wouldn’t happen, so we try to block those thoughts.

I look at my own piping times and feel fortunate to be able to say that I knew that now-gone person. I heard that now-defunct band when it was at its peak. I remember when that now-classic tune first debuted. At the risk of being maudlin or morose, these reflective thoughts only increase as one ages. We can consider them as dreaded reminders of our own mortality, or we can revel in the people, the experiences, the music as highlights of living.

Here’s to a 2012 full of the unexpectedly meaningful and memorable.

Greener pastures

Going for the Green.
I wasn’t at the Scottish Pipe Band Championships, but I have heard nothing to suggest that St. Laurence O’Toole was not a worthy and popular winner. More than 80 per cent of voters on the current p|d Poll say the result was “Great for SLOT!” and you would be hard-pressed to find a more likable and talented band anywhere.

Things have come a long way in the UK when it comes to pipe band politics, and a very long way since the 1970s when Northern Ireland’s Grade 1 St. Patrick’s Donaghmore won the piping at the World Championships, only to have the ensemble judge relegate them to near-last, bumping them way down the list.

To add insult, the same ensemble judge allegedly (but this story has been relayed to me by many people over the years who say they witnessed it) saw Donaghmore off by giving the completely demoralized band the two-fingers-up salute as they drove out of the park.

For those pipers and drummers who live outside of the UK, SLOT’s win may not seem that important. But for those in the UK and Ireland who have witnessed first-hand the political and quasi-religious idiocy that has gone on decades before, it’s a true milestone.

To be sure, to be sure, that idiocy hasn’t much existed for at least the last 20 years, and all bands have had to play well enough to win, but SLOT finally doing so officially closes the door on some bad, lingering memories.

The road rises up.

Walking the planks

Board-walkering.I’ve commented before on the continuing separation
between “band piping” and “solo piping.” It used to be that a pipe
section’s ultimate goal would be to play MSRs like a top soloist,
and top soloists like John MacFadyen, Seumas MacNeill and John
MacLellan would judge band contests, even though they had never
played with a World Champion-calibre ? or even any – band in
their lives.

I think the music continues to drift apart. You don’t hear much in
common with the playing at the Silver Star and that at the World
Pipe Band Championships. Medleys and drums sections have created a
chasm between the two styles, and, to be honest, solo piping has
pretty much been stagnant, while band piping has evolved.

And a lot of that also has to do with band judging in the UK. If my
count is correct, there are only three piping judges based in the
UK ? Iain MacLellan, John Wilson and Andrew Wright ? on the senior
RSPBA panel who have also stomped the boards for a good long time
at the level required of the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern
Meeting. The rest are pipers raised almost entirely on pipe

This is perhaps understandable for the UK scene where bands and
solos events are, with rare exceptions, separate things. It follows
that many pipe band judges will be bandsmen, who don’t have the
demonstrated skill and appreciation for the solo style. There are
many top soloists playing in top bands now ? Peter Hunt, Donald
MacPhee, Alastair Dunn, and of course the entire roster of the
Spirit of Scotland ? but my hunch is that those UK-based guys when
they retire from competing will focus on solo judging, if they even
want to adjudicate.

In North America, where band and solo events almost always happen
at the same competition, it’s much easier for a piper to be both a
top soloist and a member of a top band. Young pipers start with the
amateur grades and, if they have the goods and the will, progress
to Professional. All the solo events are there, so why not play in
them? Consequently, non-UK pipe band judges tend to be top-class
solo players, too. It’s very hard to do that in Scotland.

That’s evidenced by the RSPBA’s 2005 approval of “international”
judges like Jim McGillivray and James Troy to its panel, which
already included Bob Worrall ? all guys who proved that they can
knit together top-drawer solo music, and of course recognize

I’ve also said that ? for better or worse ? so much of what happens
in the piping world is dictated by what goes on in Scotland. If the
goal is to win the World’s, then non-UK bands tend to do what the
RSPBA judges want to hear. And if those judges are mostly bandsmen,
then the band style ? whatever it might be ? will be heard and

But if anyone wonders why a band plays pipe music in such a
dramatically different style from a solo piper, they need look no
further than the RSPBA’s judging panel for a possible reason.

Droning on

Much more fun.Here’s a tip for
indoor solo piping competition organizers: make sure that
temperature is the same throughout the venue. Take the time to
assess tuning rooms and the final stage. If there’s a difference in
heating or cooling, fix it. If it can’t be fixed, find a new

Here’s a tip for solo piping competitors: if you can’t get your
pipes in tune and settled after four minutes, just start anyway.
They won’t stay in tune, so your might as well just get it over
with and lessen the suffering of people watching your screwing at
the drones.

And if your drones are fine and you keep stalling before starting
you’re just putting out a huge flag that says you’re not really
prepared to play.

I would say that the biggest hindrance to solo piping being
appreciated by more people is the incessant and habitual tuning
that pipers must think is some sort of learned tradition. In an age
of moisture control systems and synthetic bags and reeds there’s
really no excuse.


O judge, where art thou?
, who everyone on the piping planet seems to know, made
an interested comment at the recent PPBSO Adjudicators’ Seminar. He remarked that
judges often bemoan the fact that young players are infrequently
seen at the major competitions, but those same carping judges
rarely even more infrequently attend events that they’re not
involved with themselves.

I never thought of that before. It’s clear that today’s competitors
expect judges to practice professional development. Most
associations put on seminars for their accredited judges, and many
are fully expecting, if not requiring, their judges to attend them
in order to maintain their good standing on the active panel. But I
agree with Bob’s point that a good way for judges to stay current
is to frequent competitions and recitals in a non-judging or
non-playing capacity.

During the crushingly boring incessant tuning by some players at the
Livingstone Invitational last Saturday, I made
note of how many accredited judges were in the crowd. The number
was very small, and those who were there were those who usually
attend events.

I don’t know. If I were a competitor I might be even more troubled
by the lack of interest shown by judges than judges are concerned
about the apathy of young players.

Copy that

This image is approved public domain, smarty.Ian Whitelaw, in his review of Simon McKerrell and Finlay
MacDonald’s new collection, makes matter-of-fact reference to bands
photocopying music. At the front of the book itself there’s a
message that says, “It is illegal to photocopy this book.”

Ian’s just mentioning a reality and I’m sure is the last person to
circumvent copyright. Regardless, copying music for “educational
purposes” is perfectly legal. Similarly, I don’t think Simon and
Finlay are terribly concerned about one-off copies of tunes, and
perhaps are thinking of wholesale recreation of the entire

Ever since the Haloid Company invented xerography, this battle
has gone on. Since Bill Livingstone first cautioned us in his first
collection in the 1980s, many other publishers of pipe music have
included pleas to pipers that say in so many words: “If you like
stuff in this book, then purchase it.”

I welcome every new collection. But I also wonder if new books of
music are old-think. Do many people download entire CDs of music?
Most people I know (but not me, generally) go to iTunes or PlanetPipe or
wherever and purchase the one or two things they like.

Jim McGillivray’s pipetunes.ca takes advantage of this new
reality. His site is a growing resource for pipers looking for that
one piece of music that they really want, without having to pay $30
for the whole collection. And ever since David Glen started
compiling tunes, there has always been a certain amount of filler
in those pricey works. Even Donald MacLeod’s collection has some
(very) occasional duff stuff.

And most composers I think just want their music played.
Distribution is usually the hard part, and some I know believe that
the more widely distributed it is ? purchased or not ? the higher
the odds that it will be played. And when original copyright music
is played, the composer makes the more significant money.

I think I’ve covered this before, but it’s worth saying again,
especially with the irony between the statement in the book and the
comment in the review. It’s really all about getting it out there.


 One medley for babies?Would it make sense to standardize competition rules
worldwide at least at the top levels? Every year since the World
Pipe Band Championships made the Grade 1 Final playing requirement
submit two MSRs and one medley, there has been some hue and cry
over the disparity between requirements leading up to the contest,
with some alleging that some non-RSPBA bands have an

The RSPBA requires that bands submit two selections at all of its
Grade 1 medley competitions. The Pipers & Pipe Band Society of
Ontario has the same rule. On the other hand,

the British Columbia Pipers Association andother
organizations call for Grade 1 bands to put in only one medley
throughout their season.

The allegation by some is that bands that have only one selection
to work on all summer enter the World’s with an edge.

I’m not sure what I think on the matter, but I do know that every
association’s rules for solo competitions get progressively more
stringent through the grades. In the Professional, or Open, grade,
most associations require solo pipers to submit four of everything.
Similarly, rules for bands get more and more difficult going up the
grades, and it would seem logical to continue that increasing level
of difficulty right through to the premier grade.

It makes sense to me that Grade 1 bands should have to prepare at
least two MSRs and two medleys. In fact, in these days of most
Grade 1 bands needing to have two hours of concert material at
their fingertips, one would think that two of each is no bother at

But, then again, it also makes some sense that associations should
follow the requirements set out by the RSPBA at the World’s, and
allow their bands to hone their very best selection in the event
that they need it on the big day.

Perhaps the solution is for the RSPBA to increase the requirement
of the Grade 1 Final to two medleys. There are several advantages
to this I think: more variety for the crowd; more variety
year-to-year on the DVD and CD; more drama and excitement for the

Sure, it’s more work and pressure for the bands (or at least as
much when bands pre-1972 had to submit three MSRs) but, really,
isn’t that what the Grade 1 Final all about?

The hard truth

I don’t know why I never thought to ask it before, but the recent p|d Poll asking if band members think would get better competition results if their band were to play easier stuff is another eye-opener.

More than 49 per cent feel that they might get better results if their contest material weren’t so difficult. So why do their bands play pipe music and/or scores that are too hard?

Maybe it’s an extra challenge for the band. A little short-term pain for long-term gain. Maybe they think that judges will reward them for degrees of difficulty. Maybe the pipe-major’s just hard-headed.

I would say that bands playing material that’s too difficult, to the detriment of unison and tone, is in my top-three most-common problems, particularly in the lower grades. It’s often difficult to detect just how difficult a tune is on first listen, and a tune that might suit the pipe-major’s hands could cause finger contortions from the balance of the pipers.

Maybe they should be, but the truth is that bands are rarely, if ever, rewarded for “hard.”

I remember playing “Eileen MacDonald,” one the hardest jigs there is, in a band medley one year. It’s a brilliant tune, but really ill-chosen no matter how talented a band’s pipe section. We hammered away at the impossibly tricky third part all summer, and not a single judge complimented us for having the courage to play it. Instead all those ever-so-slightly-out-of-unison low-G strikes were easy-pickings for judges.

The sole acknowledgement came at the World Championships when the late great Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald said, in his always surprising voice, “Aye, you boys played ‘Eileen MacDonald.’ Hard tune, that.”

I think most judges enjoy a well-blown, well-timed rendition of something simple and melodic. But there is something to be said for keeping the troops interested, and challenging content can do that.

But when it comes to most pipe bands, usually the easiest way to keep players interested and to attract new pipers and drummers is to win.

Off the wall

I received my gratis copy of the National Piping Centre’s Piping Today last week and was both happy and sad to see a profile piece on the late Ronnie Lawrie. I hope he got to read it before he died.

When it comes to the p|d interviews, it’s tough to decide whether to interview those who are in their prime and popular now, or those whose glory years are long gone and may be inching up in age. There are a few folks who I really regret missing before they died. Luke Allen would have been a great interview, and it was actually in the works when I got the sad news. Alex Duthart’s sudden passing came just before I really started trying to capture the greats in their own words.

Jimmy Catherwood, John MacFadyen, Bob Montgomery, Donald MacLeod – all would have been essential reading but for the fact that they died too soon.

When I did the print interviews, I made a point of getting the cover mounted on a plaque, so that I could send the interviewee a memento. Depending on the personality, some no doubt would put the keepsake in the closet with their boxes of trophies and medals, while others might actually hang it on the wall.

So, it was really touching to see the picture of Ronnie with the plaque-mounted cover behind him in a place of honour on a wall at his home. It’s pleasing to me that the he was proud of it, as much as it’s good to know that some of his thoughts and personality are preserved in words.

Chief Ruffled Feather

The Hen's quick-march.One of the first books on piping that I ever read was
Alistair Campsie’s The MacCrimmon Legend: the Madness of Angus
. It was first published in 1980, so I’d been at the
pipes for a few years. I thought it was pretty interesting at the
time, but when I started to get a sense of the reaction from the
piping establishment I realized just how important tradition is to
seasoned pipers and how change-averse they can be.

Even to a smart-arse teenager, the book seemed to me to be a
researched study by a professional journalist. It appeared to me
then, as it does now, to be ultimately harmless to the music
itself. I’m all for giving credit where it’s due, but, really, does
it matter who composed what tunes or if the “history” of the music
of the Highland bagpipe might be based more on myth than

Over the years there are many examples of academic studies that
challenge common assumptions. Allan MacDonald ruffled feathers when
he argued that there is a strong connection between piobaireachd
and Gaelic song. Willie Donaldson’s Highland Pipe is a
brilliant exhibit of thorough, irrefutable historical evidence
challenging the piobaireachd “traditions” invented over the last 80

In those instances, I think the establishment was threatened (see
last week’s “Back in the Day Syndrome” blog post), so some set out
to discredit the research summarily.

I haven’t yet read Hugh Cheape’s soon-to-be-released book, but I
gather it will again shake things up, mainly because it’s not what
the establishment wants to read, much less accept.

This is where people confuse history with music. Our new music is
continually challenged by those who want to preserve a folk
tradition. Ultimately, history I think should have nothing
substantial to do with music. If someone challenges conventional
thinking, so what? It has nothing to do with how the music is, can
or should be played.

Champion of the world

A different perspective.Every day is Earth Day for pipes|drums. Part of the
thinking 18 months ago when publishing efforts went all-online was
to eliminate the expensive waste that paper can be. It made little
sense then to keep churning out the paper copy, what with the
back-and-forth of proofs, the expensive and energy-sapping printing
press, the smoggy ground delivery of crates of copies, the
polluting transportation and postage and time involved with sending
copies out.

The transition to all-online has worked almost perfectly, and there
are some really great things on the horizon. Yes, some
people older than 40 want their paper copy to read in bed or on the
crapper, but their numbers are ever shrinking. Does anyone younger
than 25 even subscribe to paper-based publications any more?

For the $9.99 annual subscription cost, pipes|drums’ readers can
access online what equal thousands of paper pages. In fact, if the
thing were in paper only, you’d have to buy back issues to see what
you’ve missed. What’s more, to be viable, two back issues would be
priced at more than the price of an annual p|d subscription.

So, Happy Earth Day to all readers of pipes|drums, and an even
happier one to subscribers. We’re doing our part.

The Back In The Day Syndrome

Are there no Robertson chanters? And what of the Rose-Morris drums?I think many pipers and drummers must have some sort of brainwashing or mind-alteration occur 10 or so years after they retire from competing. They start thinking that playing quality was so much better back in their day, that pipers, drummers and bands just don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not only pipers and drummers, of course. This changed thinking happens in every walk of life. As people get older, they often glorify their past.

Why? I think it’s a subconscious attempt to validate who they are or were. If you discredit the present, the past seems superior, and thus the older person does too, at least in his/her mind.

Piobaireachd’s evolution has really suffered from this. Even with all of the empirical evidence that piobaireachd had far more variety and creativity in the past, those whose competitive careers were built on standard settings of tunes so often try to discredit that evidence. They might not realize it, but they may poo-poo research because they feel threatened, because they think that acceptance might undermine their accomplishments.

Some pipe band judges can be particularly guilty of the “Back In The Day” syndrome. They constantly criticize bands for not knowing how to play a “proper” 2/4 march, or not understanding the strathspey idiom or quality of drones or chanter-tuning or drum-sound or ensemble integration or any number of usually ridiculous accusations.

The truth is that piping, drumming and pipe bands have never been at a higher level musically, tonally or as an ensemble. It might be a different sound than what went on 30 years ago, but anyone honestly believing that it was better back in their day needs an MRI.

I fully recognize that the sublime band performances that I may have enjoyed as a player 10, 15 or 20 years ago today might not get through the Grade 1 Qualifier. That doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about, or that I can’t be a good judge, or that I should feel threatened, or that people shouldn’t respect me. But I do know that when I hear judges or “authorities” summarily dismiss today’s standards that I lose some respect for their ability to judge.

Strictly for educational purposes, have a listen to a snippet of Shotts & Dykehead’s medley that helped them win the 1980 World Pipe Band Championship. Sure, there are lots of great things there to appreciate, but, honestly, it wouldn’t rate very highly in Grade 2. And it’s not just the scattered tone; it’s unison and musicality.

Try this segment from Dysart & Dundonald‘s medley at the same contest, at which the band finished sixth.

This is not to take away from these bands’ accomplishments back in the day. For the time, they were great, and we should continue to respect their achievements. But, believe it or not, in 2038 people will listen to today’s recordings of Field Marshal and SFU and all of today’s great bands with the same kind of nostalgic discomfort.

Standards always improve over time. It’s the human way. Piping and drumming judges need to keep up with and appreciate those standards, and never try to block them.

Going places

Haley Brinton, 2007.Okay, back at it after nine days away in sunny and hot Florida. In general, because of work constraints, I accept long-distance judging invitations only when I can combine it with a family vacation, and that was the case with the Dunedin Highland Games held last weekend. (Just to be clear, I pay for everything except what I would have received anyway in terms of judging fee and travel allowance.)

I was last in Dunedin five years ago, I believe. I was impressed this year that the solo piping and bands’ standards, for the most part, had improved. There are lots of young players there with bright futures.

It was particularly impressive to hear young Haley Brinton, who plays in the City of Dunedin organization. You might remember Haley’s name from the Pimp My Pipes! contest that she won last year after pleading her case with probably the most dilapidated instrument I’ve ever seen. It was good to see her playing her prize set of silver-mounted Henderson drones.

When she won the pipes|drums contest Haley competed in Grade 3, and she’s progressed to Grade 2 now. At Dunedin she came away with three first-prizes – two from me and one from Robert Mathieson. It’s always great to see a young piper with the kind of talent that Haley has: complete preparation, confidence, accurate and strong hands, and, of course, a good instrument. I would venture to guess that if she stays with it and continues to get the right instruction she will be doing well in the Professional / Open grade in three years or so.

Haley Brinton: a name to watch.

This week

Not that you’ll necessarily be wondering, but the blog will be relatively quiet this week since we’re taking a break someplace warm. Back next week!

Paradox of the piping times

Hmmm. What would Donald Mor MacCrimmon do?I’ve noticed this year more than ever at how “busy” everyone seems to be, including me. I think technology lures people into thinking that they can or should do more. It sometimes entices us to be too busy to think.

It’s no wonder why many upper-grade bands are trending towards a completely different approach to practicing and preparation. Who has the time to travel two or three times a week to the band hall? Better having one long practice a month when everyone can attend and cram for the season.

Maybe piping and drumming, too, are just placing too many demands and presenting too many opportunities for people to resist the temptation to do more and more. I don’t know how many times in the last year pipers and drummers have said – by e-mail – that they’re up to their ears in it, scrambling to fit in everything.

It’s hard to keep up with a hobby that becomes an avocation. It presents the constant question of whether it’s truly enjoyable, or something that starts to get the better of you.

A famous piper sent me something a few weeks ago that resonated: “Remember, it’s a musical instrument.” That can be taken many ways. But one interpretation is that we should remember that pipes and drums are meant to make enjoyable music, not politics or work or money. Simple, sage words, those.

Along with a brazillion other people, my brother’s a Buddhist and has a rather contemplative view of life. I do, too, I think, but just not in a religious way. As long as someone’s religious beliefs aren’t foisted on me, they can believe whatever they want. Makes no never-mind to me. One can be reflective and look for answers to complex questions without practicing a religion.

The Dali Lama’s been in the news a lot recently, and he’s capable of some equally sage stuff. He says, “We have bigger houses, but smaller families; More conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees, but less sense; More knowledge, but less judgment; More experts, but more problems; More medicines, but less wellness.”

Are we increasing piping and drumming, but decreasing music and fun? Better bands, but fewer friends? Larger circles, but smaller unions?

Opening Day

Here comes the King, here comes the King of all Jigs.Today is the first day of the 2008 Major League Baseball season for most fans, including those of the St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays. Hope springs eternal, although for some teams, like the Redbirds, it’s more on a prayer than a hope. If only I were religious.

I was watching the ESPN broadcast of the Nationals vs. Braves game, the inaugural match for the Nats’ spanking new stadium. George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and then spent a few innings on air with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan.

I actually like Bush when he’s not talking politics, and I understand why he was elected. He’s funny and charming. I wonder if he even enjoys being President. He seems like he’d much rather be watching baseball.

W. remarked how baseball is a game that everyone can play. You can be any almost any height or weight and still do well at it, unlike basketball, hockey, football and football, where shrimpy, thin guys are definitely rarities.

And so it goes with piping. You have your big J.B. Robertsons and huge Ronnie Lawries, and you have your wee Donald MacLeods and diminutive Gordon Walkers. There are skinny pipers and fat pipers. There are women competing directly against men. Piping takes and welcomes all kinds, and, like baseball, it often comes down to finesse and intelligence to succeed.

Oh, and, by the way: Mariners-Blue Jays and Dodgers-Mets in the playoffs. And the Mets lose to the Jays in the Fall Classic in seven.


Someone alerted me to this bit from the 2004 Madonna Re-Invention concert with Lorne Cousin. Could it be that the pipe band mid-section phenomenon really took off that year. Should we credit (or blame, depending on your point of view) Lorne, Stevie Kilbride and Madge herself for the whole thing?

Huge loss

Big Ronnie, Glasgow Police, 1968.
It’s hard to accept that Ronnie Lawrie is no longer around. But I can take comfort in knowing that he had a long, eventful and gracious life. I wish that I could get to the funeral on Friday or, even better, any memorial party for the man. It’s a good thing that it’s starting on a Friday, because the funny stories about Ronnie could undoubtedly go on all day and night all weekend. I hope they do.

Through unusual circumstances, I had the good fortune to play under Ronnie in the Polkemmet band in 1986-’87. The departure of Rab Mathieson and Jim Kilpatrick for Shotts left the band searching for a pipe-major, even though a few natural leaders (Brian Lamond and Gordon Stafford, to name two) were right there, but not quite ready or willing to take on the job.

The band’s committee was left to search for a leader, and I vividly remember the practice when the band manager announced that Ronnie would be taking over the band. The idea apparently came from the legendary Iain McLeod, who was also approached by the committee about becoming pipe-major. Ronnie would have been about 60 then, and hadn’t competed in the last 15 years. Having been doing the solo rounds over there, I knew Ronnie maybe more than most in the band, but always thought of him first as a big-time judge and master of piobaireachd, and maybe second as the former P-M of the Glasgow Police.

Ronnie didn’t have a car, it turned out, so he would generally take the train (!!) on the incredibly beautiful but slooow West Highland Line to Glasgow Queen Street, where he would get a lift in to Whitburn with someone in the band. He somehow made it work.

If you have a sense of how much has changed musically today in pipe bands since 1988, the same kinds of profound changes had occurred between 1986 and 1970. Ronnie hadn’t really been much of a band guy since he left the Glasgow Police, and he was quickly a bit overwhelmed by the task at hand. But he made that work, too, keeping everyone entertained and positive at a time when the he knew the whole band could have crumbled, leaving the most of the music and much of the tuning to others. It was leadership that the band needed, and Ronnie provided it.

Polkemmet inevitably declined a bit in quality compared with the previous year, but under Ronnie managed a few prizes and were just shy of getting in at the ’87 World’s. When we would play well, Ronnie was ecstatic and would occupy a good quarter of the bus regaling people with stories and jokes. Everyone loved him. He knew he was just holding the band down for a year or so until someone else could come in, and that happened of course in the form of Davey Barnes, who led Polkemmet to major championships.

The interview that I did with him in 1997 was one of the first that I conducted by phone. Ronnie by then wore a hearing aid, and the conversation was frequently interrupted by feedback from the phone, the TV and goodness knows what. The interuptions were a bit comical. I have it all on tape and will share it again sometime soon.

I remember also that, despite the intention of the interview to be all about Ronnie, he was very reluctant to talk about himself. He kept moving to other topics, and was continually self-effacing. He really seemed to enjoy the success and happiness of others more than he took pleasure in his own.

The last time I had a conversation with him was in 2000 when he came over to judge at Maxville. He was the same Huge Ronnie, larger than life, by that time clearly slowing down. But he had lovely stories and humour to share, and seemed, as always, to go with the flow, completely at ease, enjoying the good music he reluctantly agreed to judge. He was the kind of guy who always wanted to give everyone a prize, not to be a nice guy, but to see everyone have a nice time.

Big Ronnie: one of a kind. The definition of the Highland gentleman. Thanks for the good memories.

Something like a phenomenon

Sign here.Although the RSPBA’s decision to drop best bass-section prizes occurred several months ago, it only came to light in the last few days after people actually had the common sense to ask and seek answers. But what happened within only hours of learning the truth about the policy change is fascinating.

Bass- and tenor-drummers are the most connected people in pipe bands. They’re all over the net, communicating with Blackberrys, text messaging and over social networking sites. Not a day after the story ran on pipes|drums (a story that the RSPBA has yet to comment on, by the way), an online petition was posted and hundreds of people had enlisted their support for overturning the shift in policy.

Whether this petition will ultimately influence the RSPBA’s Music Board and National Council to act, I don’t know. But I do know that it will get their attention and at least start to understand the thinking of the constituents that they purportedly represent. To mix metaphors, it’s an online Boston Tea Party for mid-sections, and has opened a big ol’ can o’ tenor drummin’ whoop-ass.

What really amazes me, though, is that all this action is occurring over largely symbolic awards. The Best Bass-Section prize so far has no bearing on the ultimate pipe band result, after all. It’s a token, traditional acknowledgement that one aspect of a band was the best. People aren’t even sure which RSPBA judge decides who gets it. The prize is something for them to hang their glengarries on. It’s obviously important to mid-section players, but I doubt that many or even any pipe-majors obsess over carting off the Bass-Section trophy.

Meanwhile, courts of international law have determined and, after appeal, determined again that those who perform on live commercial recordings are entitled to fair compensation. That means that every piper and drummer who has played on CDs, DVDs and even vinyl LPs should be rewarded in some agreed-to manner. This fact was made clear on pipes|drums almost two years ago and, since then, what has the pipe band world done or even said? Nothing.

What is it about our pipe band world that makes some of us hell-bent on restoring a symbolic trophy, while others stand idly by when money that is rightfully theirs is pocketed elsewhere?

Some might say it’s fear. But why should a band’s bass- and tenor-drummers have less to fear from rocking a political boat than the leaders of the world’s Grade 1 bands? It’s all political and competitive hot-water. But the issue of whether there should be a best bass-section, best drum-corps or best-anything-that-is-not-the-pipe-band-overall prize is debatable. There are pros and there are cons. There is no clear right or wrong.

The issue of performers’ rights is not debatable. It is a matter of right and wrong. It’s a matter of upholding the law or not. And the fact that bands are so far unwilling to stand up for their legal rights, or even start an online petition, confounds me.

Beat it

I buried Paul!John Lennon, when asked if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world, famously responded, “The best drummer in the world? He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles!”

Poor Ringo. He recently commented himself that every time he’d leave the recording studio for a cup of tea or something he’d return to find Paul McCartney (of Heather Mills fame) sitting at his kit trying out his drums.

McCartney was the Beatle Lennon was referring to, and it was Paul who allegedly played on most Beatles tracks from The White Album on, although none of the four to my knowledge ever confirmed it. There are rumours that Paul can be heard berating Ringo for his poor playing on “Hey Jude.”

I was thinking about that as American Idol contestants massacred Beatles songs for a second straight week, altering lyrics to suit their gender, cramming as many choruses as possible into one-and-a-half minutes, turning the poignant “Blackbird” into a shrieking festival.

Everyone thinks they can be a drummer. It’s easy. You don’t have to cover any holes, after all, and there’s no troublesome bag to coordinate, no reeds to finagle, no moisture to control. But comparing Ringo-esque drumming with pipe band drumming is impossible. One is keeping a minimalist beat so as not to obscure the melody; the other is adding dynamics and intricate enhancement to the tune itself.

Still, how many times at a band practice do you find pipers fiddling around with drums? There are always one or two pipers in every band who think they can take the bass at a moment’s notice. Easy!

And what piper hasn’t at least once strapped on a drum at a massed band or march-past? There’s not a band on earth that hasn’t received stick from its association for instrument-swapping monkeyshines.

Drumming: You know it don’t come easy.

Old school tie

Far out!
I was looking through some things recently and found this, my picture from my senior year of high school. The year was 1981, which makes me about 74 now.

Note the middle-parted hairstyle and the typically aloof demeanour. I recall wearing shorts when this was taken on a brutally hot Saturday afternoon, so I had on only two-thirds of the ill-fitting poly-wool-blend three-piece-suit. At 17 I had Midwestern dreams of great piping and pipe bands (still do), so note the now-vintage Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia tie.

As I’ve written about before, the tie was given to me by Alex Duthart in 1979 after I harangued him for it at a piping school. At least some things never go out of style.

Same sells

Buy me!It’s American Idol time again. I’ve written about the phony drama of the show before, but I admit that I still like it. It’s just good, good TV, if you can see past the imitation heartbreak, product placement and scripted “live” banter.

Simon Cowell is fond of saying, “This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s a singing competition.” I’m sure he doesn’t mean that, since he’s directly connected with the finalists’ contracts and careers. He’s not looking for the next different thing; he’s looking for the next popular thing. If tens of millions of viewers select the winner, then it follows that tens of millions of copies of the winner’s CD might be sold not in 10 years after people get used to his/her sound and style, but right now.

Any contestant who performs a radically different arrangement to a familiar song is simply being set up to lose. “Eight Days A Week” – one of the greatest and most familiar songs ever written – sung with a country twang over an ersatz bluegrass shuffle in double-time is idiotic. It might be a bit clever, but clever won’t win over the people who watch this show, and the producers know that. That girl was set up.

The three “judges” are not looking for the next new big sound, they’re looking for the next new big seller. The past winners of the show are singers who sound pretty much like someone else and perform in a recognizable style. They’re familiar, they’ll be successful for a time, but they’re not unique. Except for the platinum records they receive and money they make, they won’t change music history. Even a runner-up like Chris Daughtry is a predictable derivation of other things going on, sounding like a dozen other forgettable top-selling acts.

This is why pipe band judges all too often prefer the relatively familiar. It’s much easier to take a safe route to a decision, rewarding derivative medleys and arrangements, than it is to reward something that’s dramatically musically different. Bands know this, and so are reluctant to take musical risks, because it may jeopardize the blessed prize right now. A pipe band might have the equivalent musical creativity, singularity and genius of Radiohead, Beck or Bjork, but how many bands are willing to commit years of unbending effort before it is finally heard and rewarded?


Because we’re so competition-driven, true musical change is extremely slow to occur. Because pipe band judges are so often loathe to step out of safe boundaries, our top idols don’t bother. I like great-sounding pipe bands as much as the next person, but I do wish that we could find a way to break this predictable circle of predictable music.


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