April 06, 2017

Club sorta

Pipers and drummers (mostly pipers) traditionally bemoan the fact that the general public doesn’t listen seriously to what we do. We put so much into our music and performances; we live and breathe pipe music and get frustrated when non-pipers or drummers or who aren’t family or friends (call them “outsiders”) don’t turn up for even our greatest events.

It’s particularly true of piobaireachd and piobaireachd players. Here’s the most sophisticated and hallowed music we have, yet no one else seems to care.

But here’s the thing: when outsiders actually do come to piping, pipe band and, especially, piobaireachd competitions and recitals we tend to think they’re freaks, and treat them with suspicion. It’s plain weird to us that any outsider would be a keen enthusiast of piobaireachd music.

It’s a club that’s by us and for us, and we actually prefer the exclusivity.

Some years back, there was a group of burlap-and-Birkenstock-wearing folkies who’d come out to the games around Ontario. They’d arrive in the early morning, find the Open Piobaireachd contest, and plant themselves in the grass, quietly listening to each player with closed eyes and gently swaying bodies absorbing the music.

I think there were two women and two men. They’d never ask any questions. They didn’t bother anyone. They were visibly happy people. The pipers would murmur among themselves wondering who they were, but I can’t remember anyone actually speaking to or even welcoming them. Looking back, I certainly should have. They dressed like Hippies, but they were seen as freaks because they actually, truly enjoyed piobaireachd – and they were not connected with the scene or the music in any obvious way.

And there was another older gentleman in other years. He had scraggly long hair and wore a tweed flat-cap. He’d also listen to the piobaireachd events, and actually record them on his cassette deck. Since these contests rarely if ever actually informed listeners what was being played, the gent would make a point to ask the name of the piobaireachd you’d played when you’d finished. He too was considered some sort of freak, simply because he loved music that I guess we thought that only players in the club by rights should appreciate.

Those piobaireachd enthusiasts eventually stopped turning up. I hope they’re okay, and I’m sorry that I didn’t make them feel more welcome. Ultimately, it’s our loss.

My friend and one-time band-mate Iain Symington wrote a terrific little hornpipe called “The Piobaireachd Club.” It was named after the group of pipers (me included) in our band who competed in piobaireachd events. Within the band we were seen as elitist, I guess, perceived to shut out other pipers for not knowing about the hiharin-hodorin. We all got along, but the Piobaireachd Club was a running joke within the pipe section.

So, we even ostracize within our own groups, and perhaps we like it that way. We lament the lack of attention from outsiders, but we rarely welcome them into our club.

I suppose excluding people is what defines a club, but if we want it the other way we’d be wise to try to bring in outsiders  – or at least make them feel welcome as guests.



  1. I’d like to see more welcoming enthusiasm among the competitors, as well as from the competitors to those listening.

    I’d like to see competitors actually care about performing for the audience, and not just judges. I’d like to see them acknowledge the audience. I’d like to see them avoid tuning altogether, but if they have to, to limit it.

    I’d like to see pibroch performed like we care about how the music is moving people, not whether we play the damn phrase the same way we’ve been told everyone throughout history has ever played it, not whether we execute movements consistently.

    I’d like to see pibroch competitors actually care about advancing the art, not turning it into a dead museum “thing” under the faulty idea that we are maintaining a “tradition” (which we aren’t – we’re mimicking our 20th century elders).

    There’s more to pibroch than just being friendly to those who are enthusiasts: it’s playing for the sake of being heard, of moving people, of communicating our insight as musicians. Of understanding ourselves as performers in front of an audience.

    Maybe then we’d see more enthusiasts come and enjoy.

  2. An interesting thing happens if you play a piobaireachd for an audience of people who are there to appreciate music instead of an audience of judges (not to say that judges do not appreciate music, just that being in that role frames the situation differently). The overriding obligation becomes to make the music compelling to keep the audience’s interest instead of playing carefully and privileging technical correctness above all else. It is actually much harder. Possible, but harder. You don’t have the safety net of saying, “well it may have been boring but at least I didn’t make a mistake.” Try playing the ground and maybe a variation or two next time you are playing at a session in a pub with other musicians. If you do it well, and sensitive to the time and mood of the room, it will be appreciated, guaranteed.

    While it is a shame that we discourage those few who seek out our strange competitive rituals, our larger failing is not bringing the music to other settings. Not only will it widen the circle of people who appreciate piobaireachd, but it will make us better musicians.

  3. Interesting blog – I have always thought that given the nature of pipe music, only fellow pipers can really enjoy listening to it for any length of time or in any meaningful way. It’s just plain boring to anyone who doesn’t know the intricacies of it. Speaking of light music first – it is plain boring to anyone who isn’t a piper, after a few minutes of listening. Piobaireachd is even more boring to the non-piper, and pipe music sounds to a non-piper like the same tune, by and large. The non-piper can hear time signature differences, to be sure, but all the marches sound pretty much alike, as do the strathspeys etc, to the non-piper. I have thought about this often, and I kind of think that piping is, at its highest level, music for pipers. At the end of the day – piping can be used for dances and other functions, but in terms of listening to pipe music for itself, as an enthusiasm, it’s played by pipers for other pipers. That’s a strange thing in music, for sure – other instruments are played for all to listen. Pipe music is really only appreciated properly by fellow pipers. Who else but a fellow piper is excited to hear a good birl?

  4. Andrew, once again an article that provides food for thought. I have been fortunate to introduce piob to a non-piping/non-musical audience on a number of occasions. A brief – and I mean very brief – explanation of what the music is and where it comes from helps immensely. I always emphasize the melody of the ground telling the audience that some of the most beautiful melodies in Western European music are hidden in piob and they’re hidden precisely because hardly anyone outside off piping circles gets to hear them. After briefly explaining the background of the tune I then play the ground and first variation of “Lament For The Children”. Before playing I note that the sadness of great loss is ingrained in this music and for the audience to listen to the music in this light. Based on comments afterward I can tell you this approach of not too much, but not too little with an easily understood example hasn’t failed yet. Lastly, I can tell you from personal experience it’s a richly rewarding experience for the piper and the audience.



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