October 01, 2015

Merge method

MergerThe season’s over in the northern hemisphere. The World Championships and regional events are done and dusted. Pipe bands will take a break for a month or two, recharge the tuning metre, dry out the kitty litter, loosen the lugs, and give the fingers and wrists a rest.

Bands will also think about broader future plans, and not a few will wonder how on earth they’ll ever be able to reach whatever it is they’re aiming to reach competitively.

The World’s, good or evil, is the Holy Grail that many bands in every grade obsess over. The Svengali-like allure of succeeding at this one competition causes pipe bands to take serious, if not evasive, action, from currying favour with judges, to purchasing politically beneficial gear, to flying in temporary players, to – the most evasive of actions – merging with another band.

Much has been made in recent years when bands from Ontario haven’t made the Grade 1 Final, or don’t do well in other grades. After a drought of a few years, in 2014 the 78th Fraser Highlanders returned to the Final as the only Ontario Grade 1 representative, but this year’s contest again saw none of the three bands that played make it through.  Australian Grade 1 bands haven’t ventured to the World’s at all in recent years, and perhaps have similar intense expectations placed on them. Regions in almost every country, including Scotland, feel that they can and must do better and represent their area  on the world stage.

Cue inevitable thoughts of merger.

The solution might appear apparent: Not doing enough to “succeed” in Glasgow? Then merge bands to make a “super-band” that will march in to the Green and show everyone a thing or two. Enough of the shilly-shallying! Just get it or them together and Get. It. Done.

But for what? For the sake of getting into the Final? For maybe a fifth or sixth prize? Great. That’ll show them. Even winning a lower grade could result in an upgrade, and usually means a few years of toil in the new grade before the band takes the next step either up or down.

The cost of pipe band mergers almost always far outweighs the benefits. With rare exceptions, the wreckage caused by mergers of otherwise healthy bands has a long-lasting effect on pipe band scenes. In simplest terms, at least one band is killed off. The simple fact is that there is one less band to compete with or against in a local scene. That is never good for piping and drumming and, to me anyway, I’d rather have two competitive, good bands than a lone “super-band.”

In more complex terms, the irreplaceable camaraderie, spirit and commitment that built a band dies, too. That can have a profoundly subtle, lasting impact on a regional scene.

In the early-1990s someone had the idea to merge the once-mighty-but-then-fallen-on-lean-times Clan MacFarlane with the pretty healthyToronto Police. I wasn’t in either band, but my understanding from those who were in it was that a deal was struck that said, if the merger didn’t work out then Clan MacFarlane would go back to being a band again. It would re-emerge, as it were.

My recollection is that the get-together was quickly unsatisfactory, with power struggles, ill-will and, ultimately former Clan MacFarlane members jumping to other bands, making the merger relatively moot. The net result for the Toronto Police was that they gained a few players but were not much, if any, better off. Meanwhile, Ontario had lost a band and all its tradition and pride, and gained a whole lot of animosity and tension permeating the air for many years.

Just about all of the people involved with that merger have moved on to other things. To be sure, they are all good people, and no one is to blame for trying in good faith to improve. The Toronto Police band remains with hardly a piper or drummer remaining from 22 years ago, of course, still trying to get into the World’s Grade 1 Final but, from everything I can see, enjoying what they do as a band unto itself.

Clan MacFarlane, on the other hand, is just a memory.

There are rare exceptions. The 2011 merger of the Grade 2 Ottawa Police and Grade 2 Glengarry appears to have worked well on the competition field. The Stuart Highlanders absorbing Oran Mor could be cited. But these bands were not made instant world-beaters as a result. In each case the fact remains: one less band on the scene. I’m sure there is an argument that, without a merger, neither band would exist today, so there is that.

A merger is almost always an attempt at a quick-fix solution. Just combine bands and the road to whatever will be paved in gold. It never happens like that. The road will still be bumpy, the destination marginally closer at best. Meanwhile the detritus of a blown up band remains, inevitably years later causing people to wonder why that ever happened. And of course the regional competitive environment is weakened with at least one less band.

The shimmering prizes that merged bands pine for never come any more quickly. There are never quick fixes. There is no fast replacement for strong leadership, cameraderie, commitment, positive spirit, team-building and sheer hard work. All that glitters is not gold.



  1. I am glad someone finally started this discussion… I agree that quick fixes are never the answer. However, we have a situation in Toronto where there is so much talent, yet it is spread too thin. There once was a time in Ontario when people would flock towards bands like the frasers on contest day. Now not so much. Instead we have three groups that not only fail to qualify regularly, but end up at the far bottom of the barrel. What is needed is for the leaders to come together, put their egos away and build a single group that can make good music and represent Ontario strongly at the world championships. As a young kid I could only dream of playing in a band like the 78th, and I bet there aren’t too many kids out there now that feel the same way about any of the bands in Ontario.

    1. I can assure you that the 78th Fraser Highlanders thrived on playing against competitive bands in Ontario, like Toronto & District, Clan MacFarlane and the Toronto Police. I can’t remember many people “flocking” to the band on many contest days or any other time in Ontario. In fact, it often felt like the opposite. There was a sense that people and judges (who are people, too) wanted other bands to do well. And that’s a major point of the blog: why risk wrecking a competitive local scene and years of tradition and cameraderie for the sake of “success” at one competition? Some forget that after about 1990 the real distinction of the 78th Fraser Highlanders was the music, not success at the World’s. The band often struggled to even make the prize-list for most of the 1990s, and was infrequently a serious contender for first.

  2. In the business world, mergers of two companies usually ends up going down the same road. Cultural clashes, one leadership coming out on top, and in the end, one company gone and the other probably losing the actual prize (the people and leadership) that made merging look like a good idea in the first place. It’s a common problem, not learning from history. Yeah, let’s merge our big bands, forgetting about the losses like Clan MacFarlane and virtually no benefit to the 78th. Old ideas keep resurfacing without anyone remembering how badly they went before.

    If you want a super band in Ontario, it will take a good strong leader and financial backing to set up a tent and and advertise for players. A new band. No dispute about leadership. You join knowing your place. Can it happen??? If I recall, that is how the 78th and SFU got started, right? Correct me if I’m wrong, Andrew. Perhaps a little history lesson on how two of the best Canadian bands ever got started might be appropriate here.

    1. Yes, we’re not all that different from the business world. Sometimes a merger/acquisition is simply to eliminate competition. At least in the pipe band world, who wants to eliminate competition, so there’s nothing to compete for on the local scene? Creation of an altogether new band can be the best approach. But the 78th Frasers and SFU were not really that. Each existed before. SFU was a lower-grade band of the same name and sponsor, and the 78th Frasers were essentially the General Motors band. Each, though, reinvented itself, as something wholly new, either through new leadership or a name-change and sponsorship. In each case, strongly identified leadership was a hallmark.

      1. I guess my point was they didn’t appear due to a merger. I am unaware of SFU’s early history, but it is common for bands to start in lower grades and build up. Getting to Grade 1 does take the leadership. Enter Terry Lee.

        With the 78th, the old General Motors band (were in Grade 2?) morphed into the 78th due to a sponsorship change. To get to the top of Grade 1, it needed leadership. Enter Bill Livingstone.

        No mergers.

        1. Agreed, no mergers, but in the case of General Motors, Bill Livingstone was pipe-major for several years before the band morphed into 78FH. It was when the band started to extend its tradition of musical creativity to another level (“Mason’s Apron,” “My Laggan Love” . . .) that it started to attract talented like-minded players (John Walsh, Bruce Gandy, Michael Grey . . .) that it really took off. General Motors in the year or two before it became 78FH routinely finished last in four- or five-band contests. I was present at a few of othse competitions, and the crowd went crazy, and the judges stuck to a best tone and fewest mistakes approach and gave prizes to others. But almost all the talk before, during and after the events was not ablout Clan MacFarlane or Guelph or whoever won, it was about General Motors. And guest judge from Scotland Bob Shepherd, who was at the time P-M of the recent World Champion Dysart & Dundonald, was inspired (some have said he outright stole) concepts and material from the General Motors medleys he recorded while judging. Speaking with former members of those Dysart bands, they had no idea that ideas that Bob presented to his band after his trip(s) were done originally in Ontario. I wasn’t there, so can’t say for sure. Anyway, an interesting point in pipe band evolution and history worth knowing.

  3. Mergers don’t address the fact that the limiting factor in pipe band competitiveness has nothing to do with personnel or their talent: it is leadership. If either band had someone that could take them to a top six placing, they would already have done it.

  4. Really interesting Andrew. I was in the GM pipe band, the precursor to the 78th Frasers joining in 1975 under P/M George Campbell. George Campbell was a musical genius and responsible for round-type fiddle playing of reels and jigs in pipe bands. Before that it was all dot and cut.. George was the early tutor of Bill Livingstone and I believe early established Bill’s style. George did the same for me in my more limited solo career. I went to George for lessons for a few years and gained much knowledge from his tuition. Now, GM became the 78th Frasers circa 1982 and I stayed with them until late1989. At that time I think at least 9 people left, including myself, after the 5th album (One In a Row). I was recruited by Jake Watson in 1991 to play with the Metro Toronto Police Pipe Band. At that time there were 10 pipers and 11 snares as everyone with drum sticks wanted to play with Drew, not counting midsection. We needed pipers. Hence the merger with what remained of Clan MacFarlane. With that we became a much enhanced band with the talented likes of Lindsay, Davie, Joe and others. I remember your article in the paper copy Piper and drummer 1992 or so, where you excoriated us for amalgamating and called us a bunch of band jumpers. We proudly wore tee shirts with a Jimminy Cricket character in highland dress. This attracted players. And former Frasers joined our ranks so we ended up with more former Frasers than the Frasers had in the ’90s. We had a successful run in Ontario for several years capturing at least three or four Champions Supreme, The best we did in Scotland was 7th our first year over. But, unfortunately, it seems apathy set in and it ended. Merger was great for the Metro Toronto Police for several years and I think it could have kept going. We had a huge sound and the best in percussion. Oh well. Cheers, Syd . . .

    1. I remember that editorial well, Syd, and am certain that no one was excoriated or even named specifically. I also remember the t-shirts with the grasshopers on them, which were funny. As with many editorials, if you think it’s about you, well, then, I guess it is, and with a response like that, one wonders if you protest too much. Outwardly bragging about being a band-hopper? Okay. The Clan MacFarlane side to the merger today is almost all one of regret. Obviously, the Toronto Police have kept going and, by all accounts, continue to thrive.



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