October 02, 2009

Family time

Don't argue with Big Daddy.Why is it that there are relatively few examples of pipers and drummers who achieve or exceed the greatness of their famous piper or drummer parents? More often than not, piping and drumming seems to be a one- or two-generation thing in families, with children not taking it up and starting a tradition.

There are great exceptions, of course: Willie McCallum, Colin MacLellan, Angus MacColl, Alasdair Gillies, Gordon Brown, Iain Speirs, to name a few. All had fathers who were very well known and accomplished pipers or drummers, but there are so many instances of famous pipers and drummers who, if they had kids, they either never took up the instrument, or got to a certain level and essentially chucked it. Willie Ross. Donald MacLeod. Seumas MacNeill. John Burgess. John MacFadyen. Duncan Johnstone. Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald.

There is, though, the increasingly common “piping / drumming family.” This happens mainly in North America, where both parents and all of the kids – and sometimes even the grandparents – are involved as pipers and drummers. They don’t necessarily much care about being world-beaters; they’re just out to be a part of it as a family. It happens only occasionally in the UK.

There are reasons for this, I think. The UK piping and drumming scene can consume as little time for dad or mom on Saturday as a game of golf. Get to the contest mid-morning, compete and be home by supper. It’s easy to make it a personal, social thing.

For most Americans, Canadians and Australians, though, the piping and drumming event is at least a 12-hour day, if not a three-day weekend, usually traveling hundreds of miles and staying someplace for a few nights. Anyone with a family will know how hard it is to do that without completely abandoning the wife or husband and kids.

A solution, of course, is to get everyone involved. Find a spouse who also plays, and get the kids playing pipes, snare or tenor. Instead of piping / drumming competitions being the independent social outings enjoyed in the UK, the weekends time to spend with the family. The goal isn’t necessarily to win, win, win at any cost; it’s to have a good time with the each other while learning to play well and finding personal satisfaction for achieving modest goals in the morning’s solo events and the afternoon band contest.

While the instances are infrequent of great pipers and drummers producing kids who match or exceed their competitive accomplishments, the popularity of the happy piping/drumming family is on the rise, at least outside of the UK.

The family that plays together stays together.


  1. Totally agree with the band family concept. Pipe Band was a family event for us all, dad teaches, kids play and mom helps organize. Pipe band family is our extended family and social network.

  2. As a single piper or drummer seeking love, there is the catch-22 of whether or not to look within the scene or outside it. A partner who does not walk the same walk may not foster the passion and desire for the music in your children. However with someone in the scene it is a question of how dedicated they are to the art, and how willing they are to be a part of instilling it into your offspring – will they hurt or help?

  3. You’ve never heard the of the phrase “Piper’s widow”? Old and sexist and should be probably updated to “Piper’s widow/widower”. Obsessive hobby/avocation?…

  4. Sounds like a nice happy scene- all the family involved somehow in the band. Spare a thought though for the kid who thinks pipes are ok but nothing great, and along comes wee brother or sister who turns out to be a whizz kid, quickly surpasses big brother and parents become besotted. First born gets a bit forgotten about in the frenzy. Or the teenager who’s dying to learn electric guitar so he can play in a band with his pals, but Mum and Dad insist he learns pipes because that’s what everyone else in the family plays. Or the twins who play pipes, but twin A consistently gets one or two points ahead in every competition, over and over again. Or the piping family where granded, now retired from the scene, contradicts the ‘fancy new way of teaching’ and tells adored grandchild to do it this way, not that. How does Dad feel when son creeps up and passes him from behind? These are hypothetical situations, but must be happening somewhere I guess. In the well balanced family such things will be noticed and adjustments made all the way along, though there are bound to be some casualties. I think a very good set up would be where within a family, parents and children had the shared interest of piping and drumming, yet each had their own distinctive individual thing. That way they can share bits of it and be together, yet have space for themselves within it, to develop musically and emotionally as an individual. Separate yet together. Perfect.

  5. I don’t see the differance between the U.K. and Canada with respect to families enjoying time together. In all of my time spent in Scotland I have never encountered a time when family and friends didn’t follow their father/mother/son/daughter/boyfriend/girlfriend/relative. The bus was always full and it was hard to get a seat and often folk were sadly told there was no room for them this time.
    They didn’t do it because they felt it was their duty, they did it because they loved the pipe band and offered their support. I also know many families who had numerous members of their family playing in the same band or even another higher grade band. I think there is often too great of an expectation when a father/mother gives instruction to their child and far too often it can be the cause for the child to loose interest and ultimately stop playing. Many good players therefor find other equally qualified instructors in order to avoid potential confrontation. The parents who instruct often ask themselves “Do I want a piper or a drummer as compared to a son or daughter” It’s all fine and dandy to assume that our children will follow our footsteps but the reality is that we must be ready when it doesn’t happen and by dragging them out ot games, parades, concerts, band practices doesn’t help matters. Children obviously need guidance and discipline in different forms but surely they must also be allowed to have the freedom of choice and in North America I see this as not in all cases being the case. I have seen parents who take their child to lessons only to fullfill their own asperations. Piping and drumming should only be one avenue of a child’s life or it becomes much the same as a person who’s sole interest is playing the game of snooker – It becomes a misspent youth. To me there is little if any difference re the support or families or the value of time spent with family. If I see anything different between the U.K. and North America it’s often the dedication to practice, the urgency and demands to improve, the need and hunger to win, preparation and time allotted to their hobby etc but I don’t see any difference that would suggest that families in the U.K. are any different than they are here in North America. Perhaps the expectations are greater in North America and ultimately more stress and at the end of the day, perhaps less enjoyment.

  6. Lots of great points Janette. We have had 2 of the situations that you outlined, older child starts, has a severe injury and is out of the scene for a couple years and when he returns, younger brother has surpassed him, and then younger child passes dad as well along the way. I like to think we as a family worked through the difficulties this could present by talking openly about each others goals and supporting the successes and set backs of each child, whether it was in pipe band, school, etc.
    Keeping it all in perspective is the key, it is a hobby after all, and for the child that has made it a large part of his life, big brother cheers him on while maintaining his level of interest in the ‘hobby’ in his own way.

  7. We have numerous different family connections in our band, all who still play: Father/Daughter, Father/Son (x2), Brothers, Father/Daughters, Mother/Son and Husband/Wife.

    I think the family connection is great; and we really try to focus on that idea with our teaching program – a family friendly atmosphere. After all, a band with a secure family bond is surely to see survival in the long run.

  8. Every family is different and every child has their own interests. My own family has been pretty tied up in the piping world. Both my daughter and son-in-law play. My son never played, but has friends in the piping communittee and traveled with the family to events including Scotland/Canada. Often, nonplaying family members are the most important and critical on the day of the games!

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