December 08, 2008

Full up

As a precocious (read: naive) 14-year-old, I was encouraged by Gordon Speirs, who gave me lessons at the time, to play with a top-grade band. Gordon had no shortage of chutzpa, sometimes verging on the bombastic, and he didn’t seem to think that it mattered that I’d been playing for only three years and was from the (then) piping-nowhere of St. Louis.

Gordon thought that I and another piper from The Loo should go to Scotland for a summer. He said, “Muirhead & Sons needs pipers. I’ll get you Bobby Hardie’s number, and you can call him up.”

And he did, and I actually called the legendary Robert G. Hardie, and gave him the pitch.

I can’t remember if my parents even knew what I was up to, and I’m sure they would have quashed such a cockamamie concept before they even would agree to pay for a long-distance call. In my heart, I knew that the idea was absurd, and I think I secretly wished and expected that Hardie would say no.

No, indeed. I remember Hardie on the other end of the line letting us down gently. After politely listening to our warped reasoning, Hardie said, “Sorry, but I think we’re full up at the moment.”

“Full up.” Gordon had said that Muirheads was on the ropes back then in the late-1970s, suffering from declining numbers. Hardie had been taking in pipers from Canada in particular who committed to playing with Muirheads for a year or so, and these folks included very accomplished guys like Scott MacAulay, Michael MacDonald, John Elliott and Hal Senyk. When it came to nonentities from nowhere, Hardie I’m sure just couldn’t be bothered with such a thing.

I doubt that there’s a Grade 1 band today that would say that they’re “full up” for pipers. “Traveling” band-members are common in most upper-grade bands today, and some even have the majority of pipers and drummers coming from a long way away.

From what I understand of the Band Club Sydney, many of its members travel from far outside of Sydney, even other continents. It looks like the band’s sponsors grew weary of not being able to field a band for functions, so want the group to go in a different direction.

The idea of “community” I still think is important to a typical band’s identity. (I say “typical” because a band like the Spirit of Scotland, which I play with, is based on the unusual premise of assembling far-flung members for periodic flings.) A pipe band that practices, performs and competes throughout the year ultimately needs to have a place that it can call home. It’s important that the band contributes to that community, and it’s essential when the band features a city in its name.

The Band Club shake-up may well be the beginning of the end of the never-full-up ethic of accepting players from wherever. It’s a short-sighted approach that often results in few members truly sharing in the satisfaction and camaraderie gained from winning.


  1. I’m not sure it’s the beginning of the end of “the fly in crew”. I may even qualify as such, having driven 5 hours to practice one way when I was with Toronto. I do think the “sense of community” is important, which is one reason I’ve always liked the cop bands – you WILL be expected to play for Remembrance Day, Police Officers Memorial, the Police Games, etc. etc.
    I do think the SOS and others are maybe another new trend that can stick. Players in such bands wouldn’t be grounded so much in a community, and you don’t have to go do the Cinqo de Mayo parade or whatever as part of the gig. I think that’s fine, too.
    It seems to me there room for both models.
    The end of the trans-Atlantic/Pacific/Lake Ontario crews? Nah – we’ll continue to see it. Maybe the pendelum will swing back a little and more bands will want local talent for whatever reason. But like talent in business, talent in piping and drumming is global now, and it’s mobile. Can’t put the genie back in the bottle is my guess…

  2. I know of two pipers who have tried to get in to the same Scottish Grade 1 band for the coming season and have been told they are “full up”. I have to say hats off to this band. The trend for ever increasing numbers in the top flight does nothing for the pipe band world in general so I was pleased to hear of this and I commend them for that decision.

  3. It is a great thing that bands are not “full up.” A band knowing that they have a large contingent of players on the day of the games is what looks impressive and also gives you the option to go out there with the best possible product. Some bands will always be limited and go out with weaker players because of thier numbers.
    As for the home band having something to use for local community events, well that is always going to be a problem if you rely on overseas players. A band should always have that base and then use those out of town players as the added bonus.
    Being able to play in a overseas band has been a blessing. Being eager to see what is happening and being kept in the loop from thousands of miles away is sweet. Preparing and being able to play at the top level is a challenge and at the same time rewarding. The best part of playing in a overseas band is that every practice you go to is a vacation….

  4. Whilst I agree that pipe bands can certainly reach a point where to add more players is not beneficial to the band, and actually detrimental to the pipe band community, I think that bands will become increasingly made up of a player bade spread far and wide. Lets face it – in the age of emailed sheet-music, recorded music, webcams, cheap and abundant air travel etc etc, fly-in players is going to increase.

    In regards to the example of The Band Club, where you note that “many of its members travel from far outside of Sydney, even other continents” – it is my understanding that the vast majority of the band resides in Sydney and Melbourne (Melbourne being a 1 hour flight from Sydney). In Australia, the scarcity of Grade 1 and 2 bands in a country that is so vast (geographically speaking) basically necessitates that top competitive bands *must* attract and include players from outside the location in which the band is based.

    The bandsmen of The Band Club themselves maintain they fulfilled all obligations and attended all local functions in the term of the ex-Pipe Major Scott Nicolson. I would suggest that, “it looks like the band’s sponsors grew weary of not being able to field a band for functions” is not accurate. I suppose Andrew is referring here to a paragraph in a leaked letter that stated, “The main focus of the Pipes & Drums band seems to be about winning competitions rather than being community minded.” This statement may be true to a degree (in terms of the location of the band’s membership), but to infer that the band did not participate in required community functions is a slap in the face to those members of The Band Club that have given up much of their time over the past six years to take part in street marches, concerts, memorial ceremonies etc in the local area to satisfy the obligations to their sponsor.

    “It’s a short-sighted approach that often results in few members truly sharing in the satisfaction and camaraderie…” – the true test of this will be whether the band remains together in the absence of their former sponsor – and all indications are that the players of what was The Band Club wish to continue on together.

  5. It’s just a hobby and people are free to do as they please, it’s mostly your time on somebody elses dime though.

    These Instant bands come and go, what’s more impressive is the grass roots bands that teach and have been around for a long time. These are the real bands we should be investing in for the future.

    Think of the time wasted in traving to a distant band practice every week, you could have taught 6 kids in your own community by the time ya get bet in the house.
    Practicing and having a pint just 10 minutes from the house has it’s rewards!

  6. Without the hometown grassroots band, there would be limited tuition and “breeding” (for lack of a better term) of players capable of travelling off to grade I far and wide. So, one does not exist without the other. Not sure if it’s the other way around. Although the promise of greener pastures far away certainly can motivate the younger players to work harder. So maybe it is a symbiotic relationship…as long as the hometown band is satisfied in Grade II.

  7. Peter: “I would suggest that, “it looks like the band’s sponsors grew weary of not being able to field a band for functions” is not accurate”
    I would suggest that it is. As a very close relative of a previous learner from the Band Club, there is no scope for advancement in the band. A “community” band should be in a position to teach learners. At one point the learners they had would make up a lot of the band for local turn outs and the music chosen would enable them to actually be involved in street marches/ ANZAC Day marches,and other community commitments. A change in direction approx 18 months ago saw them play only competition tunes at community commitments which made the learners null and void : Couldn’t participate in comps and now couldn’t even fill in during socials. BRILLIANT!
    Don’t get me wrong, the tutoring received by this particular person was excellent and has made the transition to a new band relatively easy. But I’m sure one of the aims of the Band is to foster and teach the locals. I don’t see that happening.
    As far as a ‘slap in the face’ is concerned, and fulfilling all of the sponsors community commitments. I didn’t see the Band at the recent St Marys street parade which has always been a sponsors commitment (and it is held one block away from the ‘Band Club’ itself).
    The irony is that I see some of the ex-band club learners enjoying themselves as current competition players for other bands whilst the rest of them have given it away.

  8. A few thoughts.
    One must be careful with the deployment of the Fallschirmjägers. It is one thing when almost the entire roster is made up of Paras, as in the case of SOS (or is it SAS? well, whatever..), but quite another when the Airborne is being used to supplant the locals, who have dedicated years worth of practice and commitment towards a particular band, for the short sighted goal of winning a few events. This misguided behaviour by the senior staff of the band in question can result in resentment from the displaced if not outright mutiny! Surely not a good thing. However, it is quite another when the extra players are being used to SUPPLEMENT the existing local band in a constructive way. Great bands are built over time. You can’t just “Add water and stir…….”
    That being said, the concept of Air Cavalry will remain. Let’s just make sure that the resources are used wisely………

  9. Thanks Jamie, you’re actually the second person this week who said that! LOL
    I’m looking out the window and don’t see a big mushroom cloud in the sky either. 😉

    We all know that present and past gr1 bands have been assembled from upcoming players that somone else trained, but how many gr1 bands have disappeared because they don’t teach?



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