April 06, 2010

Down under

Australia is a large, rich and diverse country with a large, rich and diverse piping and drumming scene.



  1. While Iagree that the piping scene is large and rich, there are definitely some major downfalls in the Australian system that we do not see in many other places. One thing Ifind frustrating from listening to the grade 1 at the Aussie Champs, is that not one single band could play a medley without incorpoprating tunes from the Vic police. I spent a year playing in a band down there and found that you couldn’t go to a single competition without %90 of bands playing some form of copy cat rendition of vic police. And it is also bizarre that they really only imitate that band… It seems as if bands down there like to stick with music that has been composed and played by australians, rather than branching out to the other piping influences out there, such as the Bill Livingstones, Jack Lees, and Michael Greys.

    [edited] I am all for bands having accomplished, well known players come in to tutor/educate a band. However, I am of the opinion that a band will never win a world championship without doing it %100 on their own, such as their own fun, innovative repertoire, sound guys within the band, etc. You can only have your hand held through grade 1 for so long before you need to take control of the wheel and steer that ship on your own. There is a reason why SFU, SLOT, 78th, Shotts, FMM have been so successful in the past. These groups have proven that you need to do it completely from within, and that you cannot expect to win a major championship unless you are in total control of the band yourself.

    Just my opinion anyways…

  2. I can’t wait to visit Australia one day. Everything I know and have heard about the land, people and culture are intriguing to me. Certainly the topography and geography are diverse and large. But 90% of the population is of Eurpoean descent with the majority them having roots stemming from parts of the British Isles/Ireland. Not sure how that qualifies as “diverse.” Either way, a population comprised of common heritage and values has allowed for rapid economic and social development similar to that found in other more homogeneous cultures like Denmark. Thus, standards of living and overall satisfaction amongst the populous are high, leaving plenty of time to practice artforms like piping and drumming. Good for them! I hope to see Australia flourish for generations to come!

  3. It would be nice to hear from someone, a resume of what IS going on down under. Australia and piping, to me, means Victoria Police, the Band Club under various names, RS MacDonald, Brett Tidswell, Arthur Matthews and X-ray piper who broke a drone. Pretty poor show on my part. Would love to know more. I did meet an Australian guy in a take away coffee shop in Glasgow, and managed to get onto the topic of piping in under a minute. He said there weren’t enough pipers in Australia. That’s true, presumably??

  4. The Australian grade one scene is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, shrouded in mystery, coated in malice, dowsed in conspiracy and left baking in the sun. A good dose of humility from certain quarters would help cool things off, and maybe focus attention on what actually matters most – music.

  5. Australia is a country that has seen its share of top class players in the past who have passed on a great tradition. We have suffered the tyranny of distance, being such a vast country with significant distances between cities.

    To generalise is difficult as every city has quite an individual piping culture, but with modern communication and travel we see more coming together, competing (also with New Zealand), sharing of guest players and Aussies playing in bands and competitions around the world. My band alone will be fielding players in at least three grade one bands at the next World Championships.

    Major events like the R U Brown Piobaireachd Society Competition that pays generous travel allowances and always has a significant number of overseas adjudicators are changing the landscape. We see the top players from Australia and New Zealand and further afield coming together and sharing a most enjoyable week.

    Future plans for summer schools, seminars and educational projects will see further increases in interest and standard I am sure. What pleases me the most is to see the recent jump in standard by quite a large number of the school and juvenile bands throughout the country. This has to stand us in good stead for the future.

    I believe generalising is not accurate in such a large country. Some places have not enough pipers, some have no Vic Police influence at all, but there is a lot of innovation and hard work being undertaken. I hope we continue in the trend of working together and improving across the board.

  6. Ummmm… where to start!? Some good points are made by other posters.

    Disclosure: I am an Aussie (and a drummer), but please hold neither against me. Perhaps it qualifies me adequately to present my take on the question at hand.

    We have the variation of quality like any other country, but our country is so large that many bands never see each other (or have even heard of each other), save for the Australian Championships (like those held last weekend). Even then, not all manage to attend due to the costs.

    We are far removed from the epicentre of piping and drumming, arguably now, somewhere in the mid-North Atlantic? Sure, New Zealand can claim the same ‘handicap’, but they are a far smaller country (area- and population-wise), with a far larger proportion of their citizens having direct Scottish roots, and seem to work harder to maintain top-level pipers/piping (not that I’m saying there is less to do in NZ!).

    Being far removed, relatively few bands can afford to ‘hire in’ extra talent at the top levels, except if they happen to be travelling to the UK for contests. The Grade 1 bands we see and hear here, are not those we see at the Worlds or Bridge of Allan, Berwick, etc. The real exception to this was the Victoria Police, of course, which sustained the imports in jobs over the course of many years. There have been smaller-scale enterprises like the Warrnambool & Districts in Victoria who had Steven McWhirter as a guest for a time back a few years. Here too, the Kiwis seem to outdo us with innovative programs to employ top-liners from overseas on a more long-term basis.

    We have, to my recollection, only had one top band travel to us from the north, Namely Simon Fraser in 2001; and what an unforgettable impact they made! But we can’t complain at all about the visitors we get. In the last couple of years alone at my band (based away from a capital), we have had John Cairns, Drew Duthart, James Laughlin, Jori Chisholm and Tyler Fry, so we can’t complain. We are also lucky to have had associations willing to bring over respected international judges for a long time… I recall Alex McConnell, Tom McAllister Jr, Malcolm Mackenzie, Joe Noble, Paul Turner, Richard Parkes, Tyler Fry and that bloke Andrew Berthoff, as well as several others, all judging bands in which I have played over the years. Having visitors of that calibre critiquing us and making connections certainly helps.

    There are ever-increasing numbers of Aussie players making appearances in the top UK/Canadian bands (SFU, FMM, Shotts, Vale, 78ths, etc), and that has been going on for a long while. They do return home with much to share. There are also the players who are taking advantage of Skype-based tuition, which has to help… bringing the expert teachers to our shores, sort of. There are of course, a handful of bands from here making the trip to Scotland every now and again.

    We would love to see more bands (top or bottom level) come our way from the northern hemisphere, but realistically, we don’t have the ‘pull’ to justify the massive costs to do it. I think I sort of got Michael Grey interested in trying to convince the Toronto Police to come ‘down’ to do some concerts and the NZ/Australian Champs double.

    The world is a very much smaller place than it used to be, for sure, through access to travel and technology. But realistically, the life of your average ‘lucky’ Australian offers so many distractions that sustaining pipe bands and soloists at any level is a push. We as country, have a lot to offer and have made a decent contribution to the world of piping, drumming and pipe bands. Distance does hurt us, both within Australia and heading out to the rest of the world, but we plug along quite well overall!

    – Stephen Matthews

    PS: Great to meet you last Saturday Andrew. Please come back to Australia soon (and bring your friends)!

  7. Stephen’s post below put one thought in my head…when is the RSPBA going to wake up and realize that rotating the World Championships to different continents can only be a good thing for piping and drumming? A rising tide lifts all boats! Every third year or so, take the show on the road. Like the olympics…the anticipation of being the host city/nation/continent would promote and inspire intense musical preparation and awareness to the idiom. Too bad about the blinders…..

  8. A good thought Janette, but I suspect that could only happen about 50 years after the RSPBA allows overseas bands to pre qualify for the final without having to travel to Scotland to do it….which looks to be light years away from now!!!

  9. Surely the day will come when bands in Australia will compete in Australia to qualify for the Worlds, then only the band or bands qualifying would compete on the day in Glasgow. Imagine the other way round. If bands in Scotland had to travel 12,000 odd miles for a ‘chance’ to take part in an actual competition, who on earth would do that? There would be no incentive, and the cost couldn’t be justified. Yet, without the Worlds, the ‘incentive’ for bands to go after something and improve or even just be a band at all, would be severley reduced I would think, or would it? If Scottish bands had to travel year after year to Australia, for a ‘chance’ to take part in the Worlds, I imagine the Australian pipe band scene would flourish, and the Scottish one dwindle? So the way it is, is one way of keeping the Scottish focus, and deterring people from outside, if that were the wish and I don’t know whether it is, or isn’t. Personally, with the way things have opened up so much in most other areas, I’d like to see the Worlds being more a ‘Worlds’- with a fairer, more equal opportunity for all, to have the chance to qualify for competitions. How good would it be if Wagga Wagga Pipe Band or Brockway Orchard Pipes and Drums could be offered the chance of an incentive to grow and develop, never mind City of Adelaide or the other more top end names. How important IS the Worlds to the development of piping and drumming? It isn’t the only thing is it? It might be a huge country and I don’t know why, but there seems to be a kind of buzz coming out of Australia. Maybe because on internet forums and the likes, Australian pipers and drummers are just a click away. To visit the School of Piping, which I do frequently, only involves clicking on a bookmarked page, and there’s things there worth going in for and which I haven’t accessed in Scotland. Funny old world isn’t it? All upside down at times. And the ‘down under’ of today often becomes the king of the castle tomorrow. Just like consonance and dissonance – think it was Debussy’s quote-‘ the dissonance of today is the consonance of tomorrow’. Its just that you have to wait and wait and wait for change, oh and also for common sense. Here’s to the development of piping and drumming in Australia!

  10. The Australian Pipe Band scene delivered you all the first “synthetic” drone reed (copied many times and giving birth to a raft of other variations on the basic design principle). The first comprehensive and game-changing moisture control system (yet to be be bettered). And arguably the first band that stood head and shoulders above the pack in truly demonstrating tuning accuracy and tone in it’s purest form. There has been some very deep and insightful analysis and development with regards to the pipes and pipe sound, perhaps more so over the past 25 years, in this country than anywhere else.

    There is currently enough talent (spread about the place) to furnish about 3 world-class gr1 bands in Australia. There is a grade 2 band down here that would do some serious damage in gr2 at the worlds when its ‘on song’. There are some excellent solo players who can (and do) win and place overseas. The “tyranny of distance” is a big factor on the ability to compete and come together. NZ has such an advantage in this regard. Australia does not even have an annual national contest (bi-annual) for this reason.

    Bands and people down here generally do not need to be ‘re-educated’ by those from the Northern Hemisphere, but thanks for the offer. We (and the kiwis) travel greater distances in one tilt at the worlds than most UK bands will in their history. Not to mention the money involved. How many UK bands can find $100,000 (over and above normal turnover) each year? We are geared differently to other countries by necessity.

    UK bands (even some Nth American bands) can never have a full appreciation of what it’s like to stay afloat in a country this large. We are the most urbanised developed country on earth, with the majority of our population clinging to the coast. This creates even greater differences.

    Really, we have no right to be even half as good as we are (and have been). But we are.

  11. Thanks Andrew. Not sure I covered even half of what I wanted to contribute.

    I think we’ve done well down here when one considers all the geographic challenges and the fact we probably had the least number of Scottish immigrants (compared with other ‘piping nations’). Not to mention the fact that piping sits right out on the cultural fringe of society down here (at best). It’s right out there with Morris Dancing.

    The likes of Geoff Ross and Robert Crozier are the reason why pipers and pipe bands (the world over, in all grades) can now get through a performance without their drones wandering out the door, or gurgling. Has there been a more significant invention/improvement to our instrument in the past 100 years? I think not.

    If you doubt this, ask why pipe bags are now airtight from day 1 (sans seasoning) and can now last up to ten years (or longer). Why drone reeds no longer need to be purchased by the dozen and then matched (if at all), and why a set of drone reeds can last up to a decade, or longer.

    The people who transformed these brilliant ideas into form were decades ahead of their time. And look where we all are now. The endless jibes from the ‘mother country’ about “Frankenstein” bags and reeds sound even more out-of-touch these days. These same bags and reeds have won every major prize (solo and band) there is to be won, in some cases many times over. Has there ever been a better time to be a piper than right now? ‘Spoilt for choice’ barely covers it.

    Funny how some of the same people, who were opposed to all this ‘colonial wizardy’, are now in the same game, trying to improve on what Robert and Geoff first devised some 25 years ago. It was ground-breaking genius from Australia, brought about by a level of analysis that was never applied, or even considered elsewhere, that has made the bagpipe the far more user-friendly and relaible beastie that it is today.

    The engrained belief, in the UK, that a band from overseas must serve some sort of ‘apprenticeship’ in Scotland (everyone knows what I’m talking about here), regardless of how good it might be, continues to be something we must endure. To give everyone an example, Vic Police’s worlds win cost about $1 million Australian dollars (10 years competing). I’m quite certain that SFU and the 78ths could dial up the same sorts of numbers. And now we have to ‘qualify’ to be invited to the big people’s table. Give me a break.

    Where would pipe bands and pipers be if it hadn’t been for Australian know-how and vision a wake-up call on tone and accuracy of sound……? We might be out of sight, but put us out of mind at your own peril. 😉

  12. I wholeheartedly agree regarding the contribution Geoff Ross & Robert Crozier to the evolution of the bagpipe sound. They really are the unsung heroes of the modern bagpipe world.
    While it is debatable the “old ways” can produce a marginally better sound, it comes at a great cost in terms of effort, and, overtime, finance as well. It is so much easier to produce a professional grade sound (and maintain it!) today compared to yesteryear. I can attest that I put my pipes away for more than 8 years and was able to get them running at performance level again in less than a 1/2 hour thanks to the modern technology. The hands, well, that’s another thing, but…..Try that with a seasoned bag and older technology! (or not, thank you very much!)
    Additionally, when I think back on it, how many beginner players fell by the wayside over the years out of frustration from trying to get their instrument to work? And keep it working?
    Now, if we could just revolutionize the pipe chanter reed……..

  13. Before we ‘put this one to bed’, it occurs that something has been left out of the list of Australian contributions to the pipe band world; this time on the drumming side. Yes, this could sound like more self-serving Aussie mutual backslapping, but I would draw everyone’s attention to the Legato-developed drum.
    In the days after the kevlar batter heads were developed, we all – well, those of us around – witnessed older drums self-destruct when cranked to the extreme tensions required to get a decent sound out of those heads. The screws literally sawed through the shells and the hardware bent out of all recognition.
    It was, perhaps, we what Australians see as the ‘backyard engineering’ and ‘bush ingenuity’ approach that brought about the idea to take the pressure off the drum’s shell (rather like the problem solving process that led to the invention of the stump-jump plough, black box flight recorder, rotary clothesline, bionic ear, latex gloves and lawn mower, just for example [try Googling “Australian inventions” sometime]).
    Needless to say, the same principles are still fundamentally employed in pipe band drum manufacture, over a quarter of a century later. So there’s one for the drummers!
    Upon reflection, not only are these developments – Ross, Crozier, Legato and VicPol itself – Australian contributions to the pipe band world, they all originated in one city: Melbourne, Victoria. Interesting, that!

  14. I too was down in Colundra two weeks ago. Though my daughter went to dance, I went to hear the Aussie bands up close and personal. I was just a spectator from NA, but was very impressed by the overall qualitiy of the bands. The playing was to a very high standard and the sound, despite the heat, was for the most part good to excellent across the grades that I heard.
    I am sure that those things are definatley due to the innovations from the down under and now from others as well. But it was an eye opener for me, as I felt that many of the bands in the lower grades could hold their own at the worlds.
    John Recknagel



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