November 03, 2009

Musical ecosystem

Balanced on an axis.Every ecosystem reacts to foreign invaders. Earthly things merrily exist in their particular environment, change occurring over eons and epochs in Darwinian sloth . . . then suddenly a bunch of things come off a jet plane and all hell is unleashed.

Scotland is not called the Auld Country for nothing. The “New Town” in Edinburgh was first established 230 years ago, about the time that the United States was born. While Scotland’s cities are among the most modern in the world, and it’s the place where many great inventions were made, paradoxically there are centuries-old traditions that exist simply because they exist and that’s the way things have always been done.

The new worlds of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, by comparison have few traditions, and those that exist are years rather than centuries old. Religious holidays become commercial festivals; days of homage to great leaders are declared; musical trends start and stop every minute.

Thanks to jet travel and other technology, Scotland’s piping and drumming ecosystem has been infiltrated by foreign invaders, brought on partly by Scots themselves. The missionary work in the 1960s and ’70s of Seumas MacNeill, John MacFadyen, John MacLellan, the Balmoral Bobs, Donald MacLeod, Alex Duthart and others brought the gospel of good piping and drumming to the colonials. Other Scottish pipers and drummers, like John Wilson, Roddy MacDonald, James Barrie, James MacColl, Jim Kirkwood, James McIntosh and others – outright emigrated to the new world, and embraced the cultures of their new homes, profoundly improving things through their tireless teaching.

New world pipers and drummers not only worked to perfect their craft, but injected into it new traditions by consistently questioning why things are done the way they’ve always been done in Scotland for hundreds of years. Piping and drumming’s new world has readily tweaked and even thumbed its figurative nose at the traditions of the art. Those disruptions have usually not gone over too well in the Auld Country.

It’s a culture clash. While Scots are accustomed to maintaining traditions, the new world generally has less tolerance for doing things the same way. As such, the challenges to established piping / drumming ways over the last 30 years by and large have originated from outside of Scotland: the resurrection of the bass-section; the rise of summer schools; judging accreditation; solo grading systems; new light music compositions and styles; pushing the boundaries of the pipe band medley; “kitchenpiping”; aristocracy replaced by meritocracy . . .

As with everything, there are exceptions, but the large majority of biggest challenges and changes to piping and drumming traditions over the last 30 years have originated from outside of Scotland.

I’ve been a piper and bandsman in the United States, Scotland and Canada for decent amounts of time in each country. The three cultures treat change very differently. The struggles with change that piping and drumming has had, I believe, are largely due to a struggle of cultures. The Scottish piping ecosystem that existed and hardly changed for hundreds of years was significantly disrupted by an influx of foreigners, exiting jet planes with their new ideas and acceptance of change. It has been an invasion of fresh ideas to some, of pests to others.

The remaining traditions of piping and drumming – the MSR, the uniform, competition formats, to name a few – are sure to be challenged by the pressure to change. The mindsets of players from various countries vary, each with different ideas of what’s “acceptable” and what’s not. These clashes of cultures are responsible for the massive changes to our musical ecosystem that will continue faster than ever with the worldwide piping and drumming population explosion.

There can be no doubting that great changes have occurred since the advance of piping skills in North America and Down Under. Now, as piping and pipe bands go even more global – continental European countries and Asia, especially – how will these diverse cultures further impact upon the traditions and mores of our musical environment?


  1. Nice discussion starter Andrew. However, you run the risk of over generalising when you characterise Scotland (are you including the two Irelands in the Scottish bucket?) as, I paraphrase, being dominated by the dead hand of tradition and the new world being the font of all new ideas. Perhaps North America is devoid of traditions causing you to be at the vanguard of innovation and creativity?

    IMHO things are more mixed than you suggest. You’d have to admit that the younger generation of musicians in Scotland are as open to new ideas as anyone, and the opinion leaders amongst them are going to be running things in the Auld country quite soon.

    I take issue with your point about those of us who live in the new world having few traditions. Not true – our ancestors didn’t start with a clean slate. They bought their traditions with them and modified them taking into account the new conditions and other (including indigenous) cultures around them.

    With respect to NZ (& probably Aussie as well) I would argue that you have it the wrong way around. The rapid growth of pipers & drummers travelling between NZ & Scotland in the last 30 years has had a fantastically positive impact on our piping & drumming community. We moved from an over emphasis on military displays with music as a supporting component, to copying the Scottish approach of giving music the central role. New Zealand’s isolation caused a mad emphasis on marching. With the tyranny of distance now no longer an issue, we are back in the mainstream, in no small measure to picking out the best bits of the way Scotland does things. These days we are also keen students of the Canadian way, so hopefully we are getting the best of both worlds.

    You do give credit to the positive influence of summer school teachers and expat Scots. Don’t you think it’s also the case that the standards and practice in Canada & the US have also improved dramatically as a direct result of competing in Scotland regularly, and shouldn’t you give some credit to Scotland for this?

  2. Now being a little more serious…..
    I agree, Andrew, your points are well taken, but, there are numerous exceptions, …..I don’t think you could find a more successful pipe band that excells at the “traditional” skills and presentation, etc, then SFU….on the other hand, has there been anyone who pushed the piping envelope more then Gordan Duncan?
    Maybe, these are a few of the exceptions that prove your thesis.


  3. There’s plenty of original thinking in Scotland, Gordon Duncan being one of THE most original. The main point I was making is that the piping/drumming world until 1970 or so was Scotland and only Scotland. Until then, everyone else worked really hard to imitate whatever was happening there. Once that imitation got good enough — proven through Gold Medals and World’s prizes being won — non-Scots gained the confidence to experiment with the tradition. No more pure imitation. One wonders whether Gordon would have ventured in those directions without the influence of a Breton innovator like Alan Stivell, Galicean styles or Canadian kitchenpiping.

  4. Scarry, I had the very same thoughts. One more….without all of his “traditional” success, would Robert Mathiesen (sp) have turned his circle inside out at the Worlds?
    PS Phillies in 7

  5. Good call re Mathiesen who has been and is continuing to push the musical edge in the auld country. In addition, it will be interesting to see what happens with Ian Duncan back at the helm once more. Scotrail was definitely one of the more influental bands on the scene back in te 80’s & 90’s.
    Also, re apex predators…..The “Tyrant-O’-Sore-S-Wrecks”……….Methinks we all know one of those…..

  6. D.S. Ramsay is oft credited with creating the medley. Canadian bands were influenced by the MacDonalds of Glenuig, folk groups like The Tannahill Weavers and Battlefield Band or pipe bands like Muirheads and the Polis. Maybe the fusion projects of Nigel Richards and the like will rub off on the pipe bands. The actions of a few geezers with clipboards or of some jolly boys shouldn’t colour the outlook of piping and drumming in its homeland. The circle goes round and the pipe band world is still too small to ignore the exceptions. I don’t think Scotland will lose its hold of the reins anytime soon.

  7. Andrew, with respect to your specific date 1970 – It would be interesting to know the prize winners in grade 1 and 2 at the C.N.E. (Toronto) in 1972 and 74 – I think the Scottish bands proved that they were still at the top of their game at that time.

  8. The way my pipes|drums pages open on the screen, the author of the Tip for the Day is not visible when it appears first. I can very often tell when its been written by someone from Canada, US, NZ or Aus, because of the way they are more open to new ideas, change, innovation. I wonder if anyone else notices this. ‘Foreign invaders’ of course can appear on foot from up the road, and pose a threat. Anybody who asks a question, stops to think, and wonders why something is done a certain way, can be seen as a pest. I notice it with the 3/4 upbeats issue. To some the re-barring makes perfect musical sense and the change is welcomed, but to others the response is ‘we’ve done it this way for years, and that’s the end of it. We don’t care if its right or wrong, we’re not changing now thank you very much.’ At the risk of being shot down in flames, the people who aren’t for changing, are often the Scots as far as I can see(to generalise). I think the borders-open, jet planes landing, world wide piping and drumming scene is the best thing that’s happened for the art and the instrument. Cross fertilisation of ideas, learning across the world, everybody raising their game, people with open minds asking questions. Look at the Piping Live Festival – surely nobody can be thinking its a bad thing. Having said all that, I can understand how for some people change is felt like the ground being pulled from under their feet. For others they’re poised and waiting for it, ready to respond to it and participate in it. One thing I often think about though, is that those who’s feet are stuck in the cement, may be not only holding themselves back, but the young next generation of pipers and drummers who may pass their way. I don’t mind anybody choosing to turn their own back on change, but don’t stamp on anybody who chooses to thrive on change, new ideas, fresh questions, and who challenges the staus quo. It’s how things develop, so long may these ‘foreign invaders’ be welcomed here in the Auld country, especially if they’re carrying pipe cases and drum kit.

  9. It was actually 1987 when the 78th’s finally made history and it took a further eight years until the S.F.U. once again came to the fore – The Scottish & Irish bands have however remained strong contenders and continue to show their “own spin” on the music.

  10. Just within the drumming, let alone the whole game, it is impossible to make claims of national intention. Every Canadian band that has won the best drum corps prize at the World’s has had a Scottish-born lead drummer (McErlean, Maxwell, Duthart). In 1998, Michael Hunter, a Scotsman lead the 78th to win the drumming in the medley circle. John Fisher, a Canadian, played in the infamous Shotts corps. Carly Lenny, a Scotsman, was the lead drummer with the NZ police and LA Scots, Paul Turner of Northern Ireland and then Scotland with the Victoria Police, and there are many other examples. I think leaders left the Auld Country and were successful at returning and competing because they knew the game, not because they bucked the system.

  11. You’ve lost the plot this time,
    Not only do I find the article offensive (in it’s reinforcement of laughable stereotypes) it’s inaccurate too.
    Pipe bands really came into their own around the turn of the 1900’s …so where’s this centuries old tradition that we scots keep clinging to.
    Certainly with respect to solo piping the pace of change has rightly been slower … because if we make a mistake we generally never go back to the original point.
    I work internationally, North America, Middle East and at home in the UK
    I find in exactly the same proprtions across each of these regions, forward thinkers, measured thinkers, and change for change sake (because it means we must be moving forward sorts)
    Regardless of band or solo piping, change should be measured … often-time the most vocal are the minority who don’t necessarily speak for the whole.
    Some ideas/change might sound good at the time but like platform shoes, full body tattoo’s and car dodging on the freeway … retrospectively may not have been the best choices some ever made.

  12. Thin skinned … maybe,
    but the epidermis has been eroded by quite a few recent articles with subtle and not so subtle pops at us jocks. Now I enjoy Andrew’s blogs … and I know they’re meant to generate discussion and argument (on occasion) but i feel that his usual neutral bias has deserted him over some articles this year.
    Our overt preference(ref judging) for home grown bands and soloists … which is rubbish, this theme still continues now … it devalues all judging … it calls into question the merit of winners
    Our clinging to some past Idyll …
    Our traditionalist mentality
    Our inability to accept change
    Our “soor ploom” expression that the centre for pipe band excellence is in Canada & N.I…well that one’s true, i’ll give you that.

    My biggest gripe is that there seems to be a drive that grade 1 should be all about innovation, I’m not against innovations but, it shouldn’t be ALL about innovation. The noticable drop in MSR standards seems to have gone unheard but with a replying call that there should be greater freedom of expression in the Medleys and anyone who doesn’t agree with this is tagged as “protectively traditionalist” … it (Medleys) is the forum where national and ethnic diversity can be displayed without any loss to core traditions.
    Andrews right in one respect, with the globalisation of Piping there will be greater pressures for each to bring something of their culture to the table, however there is a great danger that the piping scene will be unrecognisable in a few generations … for me an abhorant thought … for others their goal.

  13. Piperjim — thanks for commenting. All of the blog-posts are strictly intended to prompt constructive dialogue or amuse, not to offend. I apologize if anyone ever feels insulted, because I assure you that is not what I’m trying to do. I enjoy a good argument, and I like it when people call me out when they think I’m wrong or out-of-line. It’s all part of constructive criticism.
    Piperjim summed up very nicely what I was trying to say: “with the globalisation of Piping there will be greater pressures for each to bring something of their culture to the table.” I made an analogy with foreign organisms (US, Canada, NZ, Oz, Brittany etc.) invading a stable ecosystem (Scotland), which inevitably causes change, sometimes undesired. Once that happens, it’s extremely hard to put things back to normal, even if you wanted to. Fortunately, I think, change has been embraced by most, and it has spurred some of the greatest innovations the piping and drumming world has seen in its history.

  14. All very interesting. Good point about the drop (or perceived drop) in MSR standards. A band can be as innovative as they like with a Medley, but if they’re playing in the qualifier and cannae play an MSR, no one is going to here the Medley! Better learn to LOVE those sets…….



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