Remembering Old Man Watson

Although he wasn’t around the piping scene as much for the past few years, the late John Watson, Sr., was one of those guys who, even after a few years, seemed to pick up right where you left off. He had a great heart just below his rough surface.

I remember what had to be among my first band practices after immigrating to Canada. I didn’t know John enough even to know that he was “Old Man” to everyone by that point, and he certainly didn’t know me. I was just standing there with my pipes at this dreadful remote outdoor location on Eglinton Avenue East in Scarborough. The glamourous reigning World Champion band was allowed to practice without harassment at the now-defunct Knob Hill Farms grocery chain’s headquarters. Just the odd car driven through the band.

“What the hell are you looking so sad about?!” he barks at me while I was, I thought, just standing there.

“Um, I don’t know. I’m just standing here,” I say, wondering if I was at the right band practice.

“Jesus! You look like someone just died!”

“Oh. Um, well, I’m fine. Sorry. What’s your name?” I ask trying to smile.

“You don’t want to know!” he says.

And it went on I think a bit more like that, until I gave up, later asking a few others what his deal was.

We got off to a rocky start, but I quickly came to like Old Man Watson, particularly when he was a solo piping steward. He preferred the Open Piobaireachd the most, he said. Old Man admitted that he didn’t understand the music, but always knew that when “that part with the guys coming over the hill waving their swords [i.e., the crunluath variation] starts, it’s – whoops – time to go get the next player.” I loved that.

He was able to identify the competitors who would try to hide when their turn was coming, and make sure that he ferreted them out and threatened to DQ them if they weren’t ready. No messing about.

A few years ago I ran into John at a Crappy Tire store near to where I work. He and a friend had on very serious dark suits and ties. He liked like Tommy Lee Jones’s stand-in in Men In Black. He told me that he was working part-time for a mortuary, “You know, haulin’ out dead guys.” He seemed to like the job a lot. I never did ask what he was shopping for.

Old Man Watson: one-of-a-kind.

Mankind is our business

Cha-ching.You hear it quite a bit these days: pipe band associations saying that they’re going to be run “like a business.” I have been to annual general meetings where leadership is determined to look at the financial statement and do everything that they can to show a monetary profit, with a healthy bottom-line seemingly the association’s principal objective.

That’s completely wrong-headed.

The first “business” of piping and pipe band associations should always be the good of piping and drumming. “Profits” should be counted in an increased membership, better standard of play and bringing that good music to more people. An association’s profits should be calculated in what it’s doing to teach more people piping and drumming. An association’s earnings should be calculated by the amount it has helped to increase members’ knowledge of music theory and history.

And with all those objectives reached while members have had fun along the way.

Pipe band associations should be run like a good not-for-profit organization: doing something for the greater good. Pretty much all the year’s revenue should be spent wisely, with just enough left over to keep the organization in good shape should a rainy day come.

I dedicated a good portion of some 18 years to producing a quarterly print publication for the PPBSO that was held up by many, I believe, as the standard against which piping and drumming publications were measured. But almost every year I had to stand up and defend the publication’s cost, as if money were the only benefit to the association. Along the way, the PPBSO’s bean-counter often liked to use the magazine as a scapegoat for financial loss, even though my interpretation of the financial numbers proved otherwise. The last years that I produced the print magazine were by a wide margin the toughest in terms of criticism I received from the organization’s leadership.

Whatever. The “profit” from that magazine I always thought was incalculably positive for the association, but that was routinely over-shadowed by a yearly spreadsheet. Most unfortunate.

The point is that associations should do things that benefit and improve piping and drumming, that increase knowledge and enlightenment for more people. If they do that and they’re smart, the money will follow with a happy and growing membership feeling that they are getting a high return for their dues.

The business of associations is good piping and drumming.

Joined at the armpit

Lucille in the skye.Many great pipers’ instruments are almost as well known as the pipers themselves. Often a vintage set of Henderson or Lawrie drones, they most often acquire their pipe at an early age, sometimes as a family heirloom, but normally purchased for quite a bit of money. Occasionally, you hear about the pristine set of MacDougalls found in a junk shop or at a garage sale.

But, like Yo Yo Ma’s Stradivarius cello, B.B. King’s Gibson ES-355 or Paul McCartney’s Hofner “violin” bass, these pipes become synonymous with the musician himself. A pipes|drums poll not too long ago confirmed that, like King’s naming his guitar “Lucille,” many pipers name their own axe. That someone would pay $13,000 for John Wilson’s pipes is evidence of the power that famous instruments can have on people.

I don’t think that I would be attached to my pipes if I didn’t pay for them. There are a lot of pipes given away as prizes these days, and that’s nice marketing, but I’d bet that very, very few of these instruments actually end up being played by the winner. They’re generally sold into the market, where they can become someone else’s prized possession.

Some pipers agree to endorse instruments made by prominent makers, but I generally think that they aren’t getting much more from the instrument than the sound it makes. I even know one fairly prominent piper who has never actually paid for a set of pipes – ever. I guess he saved some money at some point, but there’s something to be said for feeling an intangible connection with an instrument, for losing a part of one’s self if the bagpipe itself is ever lost.

The elusive ancillary benefits of having that instrument synonymous with your own name cannot be minimized.

Quite contrary

Legless piper on a well balanced instrument.
The Queen Mary piping, drumming and band competitions finish with one of the most entertaining contests in all of piping. It’s an event held in the extraordinarily beautiful original art-deco Observation Bar at the prow of the ship. Packed with serious partiers letting loose on the final night of the weekend’s events, the competition is an anything goes thing that brings a huge dose of fun, good playing and not a small amount of complete idiocy to the February festival.

The contest has been going on for many years, and was happening well before similar things around the world that it inspired. Last night ranged from the sublime to the absurd, and the absurd won out. While Will Nichols, Micah Babinski, Steve Megarity and others combined technical brilliance with pure comedy and creativity, the piper (sorry, I don’t know his name) who copped the $350 prize, trophy and the coveted chef’s hat, played left-hand pipes while riding a unicycle. Yes, a unicycle.

The guy’s piping ability was nowhere near that of any of the other competitors, but the (mostly non-playing) judges were clearly wowed by his balancing act.

The pipers in the crowd weren’t exactly pleased with the result, but it was all in fun, and there was some serious schadenfreude going down when the one-wheeled player in his encore after accepting the award, twice went arse-over-teakettle on his unicycle, somehow managing not to smash his drones.

It didn’t matter. The Queen Mary is pure California piping: laid back, fun, creative and kind of (in a really good way) weird. Definitely a great place to break up the cold weeks of a long piping winter.

Note: it turns out that the Unipiper didn’t actually win. The judges didn’t realize until days later that they miscalculated their points. First prize went to Marshall German; second to Steve Megarity; and third to Will Nichols. The good piping gods prevailed.

The force is with us

I’m currently in sunny Los Angeles away from the three-metres-and-growing pile of snow surrounding my house from the record-setting deluges on Toronto this February.

Alongside the piping, drumming and band events at the festival at the Queen Mary in Long Beach is a special exhibition of the actual Hollywood sets from the Star Trek TV series. There are not a few Trekkies wandering around the place.

What a bunch of total bizarroids – so obsessed with their hobby that they would actually dress up in the costumes of their heroes. They seem to enjoy getting a bit inebriated, as well. They actually like to hang out with each other, talk Trek and do a bit of partying.

I love this convergence of over-zealous hobbyists. I wrote awhile back about “Mr. Sulu” being chieftain of the day at the Bearsden Highland Games. There’s definitely something to these meetings or cultures.

Coincidence? Highly illogical, Captain Kirkwall.

Best laid plans

Me and my pal J.P. Ricciardi a few years ago when I was still buying in to his 'plan' for the Blue Jays.
It seems like every other band these days boasts of having a “five-year plan.” I’m not sure why it’s five years, and not three or 10 or seven, but my hunch is that it all stems back to the first five-year pipe band plan that I ever heard of, which ended in 1987, the fifth year of the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ “plan” to win the World Pipe Band Championship.

Bill Livingstone taped a BBC Radio interview from Bellahouston Park just after the prize was announced. He told the world about his band’s five-year plan that started in 1982, and remarkably everything fell into place – “as luck would have it,” Bill said on the radio – and his band carted off the banner, trophy and sash, not to mention the now-extinct British Airways Mace for “Best Overseas Band.”

But I haven’t heard of any pipe band’s five-year plan working out so well since. In fact, five years back then was something aroundwhich you could plan. Today, bands seem to have trouble planning from month-to-month, let alone year-to-year.

My local baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays are now on the eighth year of their General Manager, J.P. Ricciardi’s “five-year plan.” Along the way the team has had four managers; a revolving door at shortstop, second-base, catcher and DH; and untold unforeseen catastrophic injuries – and the last point Ricciardi constantly uses as a crutch, as it were. The team is now on a one-year plan now for Ricciardi, I think, as fans are weary of his increasingly desperate, yappy salesmanship.

Just look back five years and look at the changes that have happened in the pipe band scene. In 2002 the top bands were still playing with maybe 15 pipers. Tenor drumming was only just returning to popularity, if not viability. The idea of “travelers” in bands was nowhere near the trend it is today.

It’s good to try to plan for the future, but sometimes the best plan is no plan at all. I am a firm believer that the best organizations simply need great leadership to succeed – leaders who are best at identifying talent and managing it, rather than creating wonderful, theoretical plans. Using common sense, creativity and intelligence to react quickly to changing conditions is the best plan of all – that and keeping a core group of talented pipers and drummers for a long time.

If a band doesn’t have the right leadership and personnel making thousands of good decisions along the way, no amount of planning will make goals come true. With luck, it might happen, but, chances are, it won’t.

Worlds apart

I had heard rumours that the RSPBA was entertaining offers for the World Championships, and yesterday’s news that Glasgow’s bid for 2010-’12 was accepted was both anticipated and surprising.

Despite inquiries, no information from 45 Washington Street was received regarding the matter. I’d imagine the Glasgow Herald and BBC Scotland got the scoop because they cover Glasgow City Council matters, and this is most assuredly an important one.

Glasgow reckons that the World’s over those three years will bring in upwards of ₤10-million into the city’s economy. Perhaps that includes additional revenues from the Piping Live! Festival, which coincides with the contest, but, either way, it’s a crap-load of money.

I’d imagine that the Piping Live! folks are breathing easier now that they know the contest will remain in Glasgow but, then again, I think that festival could stand up without being intertwined with the World’s.

If the World’s is worth ₤10-million over three years, then it would follow that Glasgow’s “bid” for the rights, in addition to proposals about the venue, accommodation and coach parking, would include a good chunk of money. I assume (the only thing to do if an organization doesn’t provide details) it goes directly into the association’s coffers.

Factoring in organizational and marketing costs, there’s no doubt a tidy sum that could be dispersed to the bands themselves for prize- and travel-money (if they offered such a thing). Add into that remuneration to the performers, as per the law, for the World’s recordings, and it could mean good things for the bands that make it happen.

But what about the bidding process? Was it open to any city interested in hosting the World’s? Were, say, Vancouver, Sydney, Auckland, Toronto, or even Edinburgh approached? Las Vegas is alleged to have $1-million ready to put towards a pipe band contest, so what about them?

There continues to be this massive disconnect between the passion of the competitors and the business of the World’s. Yesterday’s news makes the time better than ever for the event’s organizers to bring things together, and give back to the artists that make the whole thing possible.

Sweet surrender

That tree will be looking pretty good to a few of these people in a few minutes.
I haven’t been in a massed-band, or march-past, for about a decade now. I miss the camaraderie, half-inebriated socializing and anxious anticipation of prizes being read out (on the infrequent occasion when the result wasn’t already known). But I don’t miss the aching legs, scorching sun (Ontario) or drenching rain (Scotland) and often bladder-twisting misery that these protracted things inflicted.

Beer and bands go together like Airtight and sheepskin: one keeps the other lubricated and firm, if not half-in-the-bag. After the pressure of competing, every band heads directly to the beer-tent and consumes as many as possible before having to head out for the interminable ceremony.

A thousand-odd bandsmen and women with a belly full of liquid consumed on an empty stomach are performers isolated on a large field with no chance of discreetly exiting after the first hour to relieve their throbbing internal plumbing. This toilet-less torture is nothing short of Jack Bauer-esque. There should be a law, and if pipers and drummers unionized, perhaps some day there will be one.

Bands have lots of ways to deal with this, but I recall being amazed, as a naïve 20-year-old suddenly in the midst of seasoned Scottish bandsmen in the mid-1980s. March-pasts in Scotland then as they do now go on for sometimes two hours, so things happen.

Now, I don’t know if this is commonplace over there, and I have never seen it occur in North America, but when someone really had to go band members would make a human wall-circle around the guy who desperately needed to pee. The kilted person would then bend down on one knee, usually with the bass-drum as an added shield, and let it go on the ground. Ah. Sweet fancy Moses.

I recall being in a march-past at Cowal on a rare blazing-hot day. The band I played with had these nice new flannel-grey jackets. One stalwart guy in the band was particularly tired so he decided to lay down in the grass for a quick rest in the sunshine. When he got up he emerged with a giant wet-stain on the back of his grey jacket, which was, of course, you know . . .

I can still see him sputtering with anger and the entire band crying with laughter. What was worse, I believe we gained a high prize at the contest and had to march off the park and then “down the road” in Dunoon, him smelly and pee-soaked all the way.

But in truth, if pipe band associations and games organizers really want to do something for the bands, they should either shorten these ceremonies to no more than 45 minutes, have a brief intermission for the performers, or provide on-field facilities. It’s only fair.


The Gold Ring is a also a very good jig.The other day I misplaced my wedding ring. Even though I knew Julie would be able to deal with it, I was quite concerned because of its one-of-a-kind value. Thirteen years ago it was made with a design etched into it to match the Celtic pattern that was on our wedding cake. (By the way, the wedding was scheduled to follow the Northern Meeting and the band season, to keep everyone happy and in-attendance. See recent poll.)

Fortunately, I found it later that day. I had inadvertently removed it when practicing and simply forgot to put it back on. I like to be ring- and watch-less when playing pipes or golf.

But I got to thinking, what if it were lost? What would it mean? The ring symbolizes my total commitment to my lovely wife, but would losing the it change anything? Does the ring itself add anything to that commitment? No, it wouldn’t; no, it doesn’t. But I still don’t want to be without it. (I did have to beat back hordes hoards of women hitting on me that day, though.)

And what about medals and trophies? I know some people like to put all of their hardware on display. Others even have a trophy room. But most pipers and drummers I think don’t much care about the glittering symbolic prize. Receiving a trophy or medal is great, but it doesn’t change or validate the accomplishment one bit.

I do think that trophies and medals should be commensurate with the events that they symbolize. The more important the competition, the better the trophy should be – not so much in size, but in quality.

There are exceptions. The Clasp is very small and it and the Highland Society of London Gold Medals are not even real gold, apparently. That doesn’t matter. They are singular achievements with a truck-load of history behind them. A piper doesn’t need to wear or display a Clasp; everyone knows he’s won it anyway.

On the day, hardware prizes are important, but, after that, their most important function is to serve as a reminder of a great day and total commitment that has paid off.

Snow petrol

Not me. Never will be me.Maybe there’s alpine skiing in the Missouri Ozarks now, but when I was growing up strapping boards to your feet in “winter” was just dern crazy if you were from St. Louis. But in Toronto, not only does everyone ski, but every other person seems to be a certified ski instructor. People swear by it as one of the ways to “make the winter go by faster.”

The first time I tried downhill skiing was about 12 years ago. It was on a business outing, on which I had to entertain four tech journalists at a charity fund-raiser. Each group had a celebrity “instructor,” and ours got Paul Martini, a former World Champion in pairs figure skating. I got my rental skis and boots and gamely somehow, some way got onto the chair lift with my group of experienced skiers.

As we went up the mountain I hoped that skiing was as easy as it looked. But when I had to get off the lift, I realized it wasn’t. At the top of what seemed to me like K2, Martini gave me his instructions: “Just lean on your inner edge and keep turning. And if you feel like you’re going to fall, just sit down.” He then shooshed off down the hill not to be seen again until the dinner that night (where I sat next to him then and got him to admit that ice-dancing is a complete crock).

So, I was at the top of this mountain, with no way to get down but to suck up my courage and go. Which I did. Slowly. Awkwardly. Painfully. I remember one of my 20-odd wipeouts was under a snow-making machine. I was pelted with ice as I tried to determine how the ^&%* I could get back on my ^&%*ing skis.

Somehow I got to the bottom of the mountain, and spent the rest of the day at the bunny hill. There I recall a girl, who couldn’t have been more than seven, told me as I collapsed in a heap even being pulled up by the tow-rope, saying, “It’s okay, mister, you’ll get the hang of it!” You just haven’t lived until a grade-schooler helps you up.

And so, that harrowing and humiliating experience made me not want to try skiing again for a dozen Toronto winters, until this year when we started our own seven-year-old-girl in lessons. No way is our Annabel going to suffer such snow-humiliation when she’s 32! We decided to take lessons, too, and have had the fortune of being taught by a first-rate instructor. I am getting the hang of it, thanks to him.

Which is all to say that instruction and guidance from the beginning are everything in life. My 1996 mountaintop debacle was tantamount to someone being handed a set of pipes for the first time and told to “just squeeze-and-blow” before being thrust into a competition circle with a Grade 3 band.

And that, I think, is what thousands of pipers and drummers essentially are told to do. They never start with good, qualified instruction, and the result is so many people doing irreparable damage to the image of pipes and pipe bands. It’s spectacle over art.

I’ve said many times before that piping and pipe band associations should put teaching first, and competition second. I don’t think there’s an organization out there in which that’s true. Associations leave the teaching to individuals and bands, and simply hope for the best. There are few teaching standards worldwide, and all too often, the difference between becoming a top soloist and a tinker comes down to the dumb luck of who you ask for lessons, and if an “instructor” simply pushes you down a mountain or teaches you to snow plow before you carve.

Over the abyss

Look out below.Will 2008 be the year in which consciousness about worldwide standards is raised? So far, three North American bands have gone either up to Grade 1 or down to Grade 2 under relatively controversial circumstances.

First, Oran Mor applied to the EUSPBA to be upgraded to Grade 1, and the association approved. Second, Triumph Street waited to move to Grade 1 while the BCPA deliberated for several months. Third, Fredericton Society of St. Andrew requested to return to Grade 2 after a year in Grade 1.

They are each unique circumstances, to be sure, but I do note some commonality.

The chasm between Grade 2 and Grade 1 is a massive leap. It’s also a matter of pride, and, in many cases, the most important event in a top band’s history. In Triumph Street’s case it seemed like the band really did not want to ask to move up. I’m guessing that the band wanted the honour of its association officially moving them to Grade 1. After their very successful record, perhaps to ask to move up would have felt ignominious. I don’t know.

In Fredericton’s case, asking to move back to Grade 2 was completely honourable. When a band is forcibly demoted by an association it inevitably results in the band feeling embarrassed. By requesting to move down, a band saves face by being self-aware and realistic. As hard as it might be to swallow, this is completely honourable and Fredericton should feel good about it.

Oran Mor requested to move to Grade 1. Again, for this band, it must have been the right thing for them to do. I am guessing that the band decided that it was ready for to make that big leap, and simply made sure that its home association knew of their desire. Had the EUSPBA upgraded Oran Mor without consultation with the band, it may have been doomed to fail.

Understanding a band’s desire and self-awareness is so important to good grading. Associations need to know a band’s collective feeling about what they are, what they honestly feel that they can achieve and how they will be able to sustain themselves in a new grade. The jump between Grade 2 and Grade 1 is so wide because there are so many intangibles challenges that only the band itself knows whether it can meet.

Many new Grade 1 bands have died not because they didn’t meet the standard the next year, but because their parent association did not take the time to understand the long term sustainability of the move.

Playing to a standard is one thing; rising to it long-term is quite another.


Get out your kid gloves.I can’t help but wonder what Seumas MacNeill would have thought about Angus MacKay’s MS being made available on the net.

He (Seumas, not Angus) died just before the Internet took off, which was a shame. Seumas was not only a born reformer but a born communicator. I think he would have recognized very early how he could use the net to reach more people. After all, he was the first to use radio and television to broadcast and promote piping in a meaningful and reliable way.

(Angus knew the delights of the quill pen and, he claimed, Queen Victoria. Not such a great swimmer.)

Then again, Seumas was also a man who did his best to reject and control anything that he thought threatened Highland bagpipe music as he knew it, and his comment about a Gordon Duncan performance making him want to take up the fiddle is legend.

Willie Donaldson early on recognized the communications-power that the Internet might provide to piobaireachd. His brilliant Set Tunes Series from the outset has been free and accessible with no strings attached, like piobaireachd used to be. Glad to see he’s convinced seemingly fusty organizations like the National Library of Scotland to do the same.


Worlds away from the World's.Ever wonder what the correct short-form spelling is for the World Pipe Band Championships? “World’s” with an apostrophe, or “Worlds” without?

It is “World’s.”

Why? Because it is possessive: the championship of the world. Just like the local diner is called “Joe’s,” because it is the diner of Joe, the World’s is the championship of the world.

Furthermore, competing bands come from only one world, because there is only one, so it can’t possibly be the plural “worlds.”

Speaking of the World’s, there are only two World Pipe Band Champions: the winners of the Grade 1 and the Juvenile grades: Juvenile because there is an age restriction, and it’s the end of the line in that category; Grade 1 because it is the highest any band can go.

Even though winning any of the other grades is a terrific achievement, it is not winning the World Championship.

Oh, and while we’re at it, the bands’ names are “Field Marshal” (one L) and “ScottishPower” (no space).

A frequent-flyer point

Just blow steadily . . .I was just reading Harry Tung’s latest Trailing Drones installment and, as usual, he has some excellent scoop and insights. One observation Harry made got me thinking: long-distance players in bands, or “travelers,” as he call them.

He’s exactly right. If you’re a good, experienced piper or drummer who’s pressed for time, why bother playing with a local band? You’re better off joining a group thousands of miles away. You don’t need to attend all those practices. Just learn and practice the music at home and turn up for a few practices and the contests you can make.

It’s working all over the world, and a lot of Grade 1 bands are now holding big weekend practice once every month or two instead of the usual twice- or thrice-weekly slog at the band hall.

Unfortunately, that approach is helping to kill local pipe band scenes. With so many bands relying on “travelers” to make up the numbers, they’re unable to compete at full strength at smaller local contests, let alone perform at a civic function. So they don’t go. As a result, these events deteriorate, and bands have a reduced presence, if any at all, in their community. That’s especially true in Scotland, where so many pipers and drummers drive by the local band’s hall on their way to catch a flight to Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

If the trend continues, the idea of top bands having a real home town won’t hold true. How many members of House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead are from Shotts? How many players in the Scottish Lion-78th Fraser Highlanders are from Toronto? Are there many pipers and drummers in SFU who actually live in Vancouver?

These are just a few examples, and I can think of dozens more. Many bands that welcome “travelers” are getting great competition results. But at what cost to their local pipe band community?

More Scottish than Scotland

Jings!The three of us went to see The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep the other day. It’s a “family” movie set in Scotland, using state-of-the-art special effects and cute humour to re-tell the Loch Ness Monster tale in a slightly new way.

The confession a few years back that the famous “Surgeon’s Photo” of the monster was in fact a hoax must have really dented tourists’ interest in looking for the monster on trips to Loch Ness, which, as anyone who has been there, is a monster of a lake in itself. The movie will help to prop up the legend. (By the way, we could use a MacCrimmon movie: Patrick Og: The Legend of the Urlar. That’s gold, baby. Gold.)

It’s a good movie. If Scots and Scot-a-philes can see past the stereotypes of whisky-swilling workers and dumbed-down accents they’ll enjoy the film, which paints the English as the enemy, even sneaking in a derogatory “Sassenach” label at one point.

But I have to remark on The Water Horse‘s musical score. Once again an intrinsically Scottish movie features Uillean pipes in its background music. I couldn’t detect any Scottish music at all. Not a trace of Highland, Lowland or small pipe anywhere. Not even a Banchory fiddle. The hoary old Chieftains are trotted out once again to supply the music. It seems that Hollywood thinks the sound of Irish folk music is more Scottish-sounding than the real thing. Sinéad O’Connor even wrote and performed the theme song.

Why is it that the sound of the Highland pipe is out of favour with movie-makers? Can’t Eric Rigler, Iain Whitelaw or Lorne Cousin – pipers these days in Los Angeles – set movie producers straight and convince them that they should get it right?

Most excellent 2007

Wake up, Mr. West, Mr. West.

1. Kanye West, “Barry Bonds”
2. Wilco, “Side With The Seeds”
3. Feist, “I Feel It All”
4. Mark Knopfler, “Let It All Go”
5. The Good, The Bad and The Queen, “Hurculean”

1. Kanye West, Graduation
2. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
3. Feist, The Reminder
4. Stuart Liddell, Inveroran
5= Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
5= Radiohead, In Rainbows

Compose yersel

Bruce Gandy looks a bit like Eddie Van Halen, whose son is named Wolfgang.I posted the first of “The Composers” series of articles by prominent tune conjurors today, Bruce Gandy kindly volunteering to take the difficult lead-off spot.

Like most pipers, I’ve dabbled in writing tunes, but probably haven’t composed anything for at least 10 years. Of the maybe 20 things I’ve written, four or five have actually been published, and I once even heard a band play a strathspey of mine.

And, also like most pipers who compose, I never had a game plan when it came to tunes. I just sort of put them together on the chanter repeatedly altering them until I was either satisfied or bored of it.

I’ve known Bruce for almost 30 years now, and played alongside him for 10 of those. I’ve played dozens of his tunes, and, until now, never really thought about what process he might use to produce such frequent gems. I figured he was born with the muse around his head, halo-like.

To get a glimpse of his usual approach was a real eye-opener. Never would I have guessed that he would use a system like the one he outlines in the article.

Driven to distraction?

Not recommended while wearing a 20-pound snare drum.For the three decades I played with pipe bands I think I was reminded a thousand times not to tap my foot in the circle. Pipe-majors and leading-drummers would constantly tell people that they are the only ones allowed to move anything but fingers and wrists.

The thinking was – and I assume still is – that you don’t want to distract the audience or other band members from hearing and producing good music. The focus should be on the sound, not the histrionics of band members. Today, you hardly ever see anyone but the pipe-major in a good band tapping his/her foot.

Which makes me wonder why it is that pipe band mid-sections should be allowed to flourish. Doesn’t it completely contradict the stay-as-still-as-possible ethic instilled in pipers and snare-drummers? If the band is supposed to encourage everyone to focus only on the music, why have a synchronized show going on in the middle of the band?

I’m just asking the question because it confuses me. I’m not saying that flourishing shouldn’t happen. But, as a judge, I am occasionally distracted from the music by the impressive choreography happening between the pipe-section and snare-line.

If complex flourishing is allowed and encouraged in the competition circle, why not have the pipers do a little two-step or the snares execute a wee French can-can? Maybe that too will visually enhance the performance. Maybe not.

Further, if the point is to play music as well as possible, don’t the odds of missing a crucial musical beat increase the more a tenor-drummer flourishes?

I like the display of mid-sections as much as the next person. Some of it is mesmerizingly entertaining. But should bands that are striving to play perfectly tuned and executed music to impress judges also be trying to distract visually?

Dress purrin

Up yours!
Our cat, Lexy (or, formally, “Lexy M. Catskill”) is a 23-pound mound of fatty fur. He will turn 16, all things being equal, in February. He sits around all day seeking warmth, food and a kitty-littered place (thank God) to excrete. That’s all he does. He’s a part of the furniture. No, wait, with his size, he is the furniture.

He was never what you would call a lap-cat. In fact, he’s the anti-lap-cat. He’s more like an attack-cat. He tolerates a bit of scritching on the head, but if anyone pats him below the shoulder-blades, watch out.

At his age, he’s noticeably winding down. He barely even bothers to bite us any more. When he swipes at Annabel, it’s hardly with the vigour he showed as a young feline on the prowl. It’s only a matter of time when the big beast goes to a better place, although, I can’t imagine what would be a better place than what he has here.

Even with his foibles, we will miss him when the time comes to say goodbye. He has an impressively thick, orangey coat. You might now know where this is going.

Would it be wrong to use his fur for a sporran? It’s a shame to waste such a thing, and, it seems to me, that wearing him as part of a resplendent Highland ensemble would be a great way by which to remember him. Re-use and recycle, after all.

Come to think of it, he’s large enough to make one of those antediluvian bass-drummer aprons from. You know, when the big guy in the middle used to don a bear- or leopard-skin back when such things were available and not abhorrent to sane people.

Has anyone ever heard of a kilt-wearer memorializing his or her past-pet in such a way?

Closer to the art

Closer to the Peart.

We are the priests
Of the temples of syrinx
Our great computers
Fill the hollowed halls

– Peart

When I was a kid I absolutely loved the prog-rock “power-trio” Rush. I thought their lyrics were awesome, and no one could beat Neil Peart the drummer, what with his massive kit, gongs, and handle-bar mustache. Way cool.

I probably saw them in concert five or six times when they’d come through The Loo. Along with Clan MacFarlane and Guelph and General Motors, they were part of my interest in all things Canadian, and probably subconsciously had something to do with me eventually landing here.

Actually, I occasionally see Rush’s lead-singer Geddy Lee walking around the downtown area that I work in. He goes to Blue Jays games, and seems like a regular guy with an extraordinary voice, which Rolling Stone once described as “something between Tiny Tim and Donald Duck.”

Listening to Rush stuff now is a cross of humour and embarrassment. They’re so pompous and over-the-top that I have to wonder whatever possessed me to take them seriously. The drumming in particular is awkward and over-cooked – it’s appalling. Peart can play, but he’s too often going at it on his own, jamming far too much into simple melodies, and taking the limelight from the band. His drumming is like his lyrics: self-indulgent and introspective.

Of course you frequently see that in pipe bands. The drum section that in your youth you may have thought was brilliant because of its technical abilities, you later realize is not really contributing anything to the band. In fact, overly complex scores that distract from, rather than complement and highlight, the melody do great harm to a band – any band. You never see drummers older than 40 in any musical genre trying to do too much. They learn that less is usually more when it comes to accompaniment.

Pipe band drumming and ensemble judges should always ask this question first: Is the drumming enhancing or detracting from the melody? If the respective answers are no and yes, it’s not a good drum section, no matter how clever it might sound on its own.

Ya gotta go

Two legs at a time.The first summer that I went to Scotland to compete was 1983 as a wide-eyed 19-year-old. I somehow made my way around the country to compete at various games until I had to start my third university year in Stirling.

Montrose was the first contest I ever played at in Scotland. It was a hot day and the competitions were held on the links course. My bass drone stopped while I was tuning in one event, so I figured I’d just shlump off, not knowing the protocol, which was, I was told by a prominent piper there, like any other place: “take it out, flick it, and resume tuning.” Hmmm. This place was no big whoop. I was on my way.

Really memorable was the Skye Gathering. I can’t actually remember how I got there, but it must have been by train and bus. Here was an event where some of my piping heroes were actually competing at or judging. Iain MacFadyen was still competing then, as were John MacDougall, Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald and Gavin Stoddart. I was amazed that the Scottish system allowed me to compete against these iconic folks, and I’m still amazed that today any piper older than 18 can compete against Clasp-winners at most Scottish events.

But a vivid memory of that day was actually in the toilet at the Skye Gathering Hall. I was, um, relieving myself, when the great John D. Burgess sidled up in the, um, urinal, beside me to do the same.

Good God. Talk about stage fright. John D.’s LPs were what I played constantly as a learner-piper. The old blue-covered album he made in the late 1950s was in constant rotation at my house, me listening to his inspiring playing of “The Hen’s March,” “Parker’s Welcome to Perthshire,” and, most of all, “Lament for the Children.”

Later I got my hands on his records with him on the cover festooned with medals, powder horns and of course a sporran that looked like Dolly Parton’s wig. Man, this guy was the Willie Mays of piping, and now he was peeing right next to me!

Well, I got over it, but I couldn’t wait to tell friends that John D. Burgess actually was willing to share a toilet with me at the Skye Gathering Hall. But what Montrose and Portree served to tell me was that solo piping and pipers everywhere operate pretty much the same. If your bass stops, take the reed out and give it a flick, and even the greatest pipers put their kilt on two legs at a time.

Talk smart

For the last two days I attended a really good conference on social media. There were speakers from Yahoo!, Dell, IBM, as well as several lesser-known players and experts. Much of the content was on blogging and forums and online comments. (By the way, one of the more prominent bloggers bragged that his gets about 150,000 visits each month; blogpipe gets about 120,000.)

Given my recent post wondering why prominent bands prohibit their members from contributing to online discussions, two things at the conference jumped out at me.

Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and IBM, to name a few companies, don’t just permit, they encourage, every one of their employees to blog and discuss things online. IBM has about 330,000 employees, and about a tenth of them run a blog. Imagine having to track what 30,000 employees are saying.

Thing is, IBM doesn’t track them. They trust their employees not to divulge secrets and to conduct themselves in a responsible manner. They don’t worry about it.

Microsoft’s official blogging policy is “Blog smart.” That’s it. Sun’s official policy is “Don’t be an idiot.” I’m serious.

What corporate problems have these companies had after three or so years of employees blogging and contributing to social media? None.

Why do these companies want employees to contribute to online conversations? Because they know that the ones who will are those who are passionate about what they do. It can only be good for the company, and so far it is.

Microsoft and IBM, for example, have gone from being seen as closed-mouthed and secretive to being sharing and genuine. The social media policy of these organizations has resulted in an improved overall image for their brand.

So, yeah, pipe bands should act like today’s smart businesses, and contribute to the dialog.

Pipe Bands negative-2.0

Och aye!It’s extraordinary to me that some prominent pipe bands have a sweeping policy that bans members from contributing their comments, insights and knowledge to piping and drumming “forums.” Apparently only the officers in these bands have the authority to provide their two cents to the piping and drumming world, and all others are threatened with expulsion if they speak out.

How 1985.

I think this Draconian mentality stems from a few archaic pipe band traditions. First, bands still think that they will face judging repercussions on the contest field should someone say something opinionated. There was a day when this was so, but, seriously, when was the last time that there was a travesty of a result chalked up to something someone said? I can’t remember the last time I seriously disagreed with a band winning the World’s. Sure, results will always be debated, but no one is ever so bent out of shape to the point where they wouldn’t return to a contest.

It’s bizarre to me that the same bands that muzzle their own people also refuse to complain about clear conflict-of-interest perceptions that are rife in the UK: bagpipe makers judging, family members adjudicating, performers rights laws being ignored. They’re okay with that stuff impacting them directly but when it comes to what their own people might say . . . no way!

Second, culturally the Scots are a reserved lot. In general – and of course there are exceptions – they’re no good at promotion of any sort, much less promoting one’s self or organization. It just isn’t the thing to do. They’re getting better, but the Scots’ disdain for self-promotion has been absorbed throughout the piping and drumming world. American, Canadian, Kiwi and Australian pipers and drummers, in an attempt to “do what the Scots do” to win prizes, still think that reticence must be part of it.

Truth is, the piping world has moved on since the 1970s. It is a true piping world, and the culture of piping and drumming is evolving and becoming far more sophisticated. Where there was once only beer tent whispering, there’s now constructive and open dialogue about issues that were once taboo.

Shutting up intelligent bandsmen and women is positively backward. Instead of telling them that they can’t be trusted, why not encourage them to make smart decisions and represent the team positively?

Sherriff reckonings

I really enjoy listening to the next-generation of top solo pipers, and I had that chance again at the George Sherriff Memorial last weekend. Starting at 10 am and going till about 11 pm it’s a big day for the judges, and even bigger for the competitors.

Lots of things that I’ll remember, but here are a few that stand out:

  • Faye Henderson’s “Lament for Captain MacDougall.” This was a performance that would have stood up very well in the Gold Medal competitions at Oban or Inverness, and, with the right bench, it could well have won it. It was a great example of a lament that can still have very short notes – an expertly built and shaped tune on a perfect pipe. Fifteen years old, she will have to compete in the “Juniors” in Scotland for another three years, meaning that she will probably be back to the Sherriff several times.
  • Tuning, tuning and more tuning. Funny, the French word for tuna is “thon,” and audience and judges suffered through several tunathons from a few competitors. Some players screwed away at their drones for more than 10 minutes (seemed like eternity), and we all know that when a pipe is not settled after four minutes, that dog just ain’t gonna lie down no matter what. Here’s a tip to all competitors: don’t tune for more than five minutes. It won’t matter. However, never feel like you need to start too soon if the pipe’s not in tune before four minutes have passed. While there were a few instances of excessive, futile tuning, there were also a few times when a competitor started too soon. Practice timing your tuning to understand your instrument.
  • Alastair Lee’s professionalism. Another competitor with an enviable piping pedigree, 15-year-old Lee is a mini-Uncle Jack. Same bold technique. Same posture. Same competitive focus. Can you say dynasty?
  • Brittney-Lynn Otto’s “Little Cascade.” Forget the relatively tedious “Cameronian Rant.” For my money, G.S.’s masterpiece is the most challenging and thrilling tune a competitor can deliver, and Otto shook off the afternoon’s troubles and did just that. Terrific hands!
  • 6/8 marches. Forever people have said, “No one knows how to play 6/8 marches any more.” They were probably saying that in 1955. Compound time is easy as long as it’s round. As soon as note values are chopped up, many pipers struggle. I know I do. There’s a reason why 6/8 marches are the domain of bands: they generally need drummers to provide light and shade.
  • Slooooow playing. I know the trend is to play marches at no more than 68 BPMs, with strathspeys and reels to balance, but I like them livelier. There was a bit of sluggish light music, and those with relative up-tempos, like Ben McClamrock, immediately got more of my attention. A 2/4 march ain’t nothing if it ain’t got that swing, and it takes a rare player to get swing from a 2/4 at 64.

I could go on for a lot longer about this excellent event – venue, organization, meals – and the many excellent performances, but I’ll stop there. YMMV.

A non-competitive renaissance

Parlour pipes only.Someone told me about an article in a recent Piping Times, the Glasgow-based monthly print digest about piping in Scotland. I don’t get the publication, so I haven’t read it. But I understand that the Barry Donaldson-written piece bemoaned the decline of quality piping in Scotland, how the Northern Irish and North American bands have been laying some whup-ass on the Scottish bands for years, the future’s bleak, etc. I think that’s the gist of it.

Competitively, I would agree. There are fewer Scottish Grade 1 bands than ever, and the eight in the Grade are more than twice outnumbered by non-Scottish bands. And yes, for the most part, up and down the grades at the World’s non-Scottish bands are winning.

In the solos at Oban and Inverness, if it weren’t for the selection committee’s predilection toward Scottish applicants (reportedly two-thirds of the spots are reserved for UK players), there would be far more success by “overseas” competitors than there has been.

Whatever. To say that the standard of Scotland’s competitive piping is in decline may be true, but it misses the bigger picture. The truth is that more Scottish pipers are choosing not to compete altogether. In fact, I would say that Highland piping Scotland is in the middle of a surge. It’s just not on the competition stage.

I hear more inventive applications of pipe music coming from Scotland than anywhere in the world. Piping Live! has quickly become more about the new and different than the competitive and traditional. Scotland has discovered, more than anywhere in the world, that piping and pipe music can actually be fun. What a novel concept.

While the rest of the world obsesses about winning competitions – and I think actually regressing when it comes to what it plays in those competitions – more of Scotland’s pipers are interested in pushing the boundaries and possibilities of the music itself in a non-competitive way. And that’s anything but a decline; it’s a renaissance.


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