September 15, 2010

Kilt of personality

Celebrity is always relative and dependent on your perspective. Right now the Toronto International Film Festival is in full-swing, and I work in the area that’s heavily frequented by movie stars. During the festival – which they keep telling Torontonians is “the second largest after Cannes” – there are people who star-gaze, making it their mission to catch a glimpse of some adorable actor or another. But in 16 years I’ve never seen one during the festival.

That’s probably because I’m not looking for them. I like movies as much as the next person, but I don’t have a lot of time for putting “celebrities” on pedestals, or considering them as anything but famous regular people – who more often than not have serious off-screen personality and self-esteem problems.

As with every niche, piping and drumming has its celebrities. I remember as a Midwestern kid wondering what it would be like to see in-person great pipers whom I’d only heard on record or read about in that bitter little monthly digest.

When I finally got to Scotland and Canada, I was bowled over by how good these players and bands were in-person. But, when I got to speak with them and see them do something other than play their bagpipe, it was something of a let-down. We too often expect “celebrities” to do everything at the same level of excellence as the thing for which they’re famous.

There’s nothing like seeing one of your boyhood piping heroes physically sick with nervousness before competing, or swearing like a lobster fisherman, or getting falling-down-drunk to make you realize real fast that they’re just people, too, with familiar faults and frailties.

But things have changed a lot since the early-1980s. Just like movie-stars, famous pipers and drummers have a lot more to lose when they lose control of their celebrity persona. They’re far more conscious of their actions and how they may impact public perception. They’re not about to let down their guard at competitions and concerts. Their music is, increasingly, their job.

I also think that the piping and drumming competitive elite aren’t treated the same way, and perhaps we can blame – or credit – the Internet and social media for that. I think many people feel that they know a piping/drumming celebrity because they’re a Facebook “friend.”

I’ve written about the old-world hierarchies of class and “society” in piping being broken down over the last 40 years, to the point where income and social status mean nothing on the boards and in the circle. But with it also goes our notion of “celebrity” and, perhaps, our unreasonable expectations of our greatest artists to be perfect people.


  1. You hear the wee kids on summer schools. ‘Chris Armstrong is the best piper in the whole world and nobody can ever beat him’. Or ‘Glenn Brown is so famous the Naill company give him all their best pipes-anything he wants he can get’. And you can see the eyes widen and their whole sense of wonderment and how they look up to these great people and pipers. It’s no bad thing if it inspires young people to practice hard and try and be like their idols. I guess it IS disappointing in some ways, to discover that Chris Armstrong actually DOES go to the loo, and that Glenn Bown has to buy his pipes like the rest of us poor mortals. Come to think of it, I don’t know if it IS just kids. I can think of some older people who simply worship the feet of certain pipers, ordinary human flaws or not. Maybe I’m missing something.

  2. The world is a much smaller place since the invention of the internet and good or bad it does allow the positives and negatives of any individual’s character to be broadcast around the world. The top performers of today who make a living from their art are hopefully more aware that they while they are on a pedestal they are also being widely watched and scrutinized. A performer/instructor who travels the globe knows full well that any slip with regard to bad behavior is quickly identified and basically the good/bad news is around the world in minutes.



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