Riding to work on a brisk autumn day here in Toronto reminded me of a summer day in Scotland in June back in the 1980s. Well, it was a summer day in Shotts, which can be like a winter day in most other places.
It was the European Pipe Band Championships. One minute it was raining, the next sleeting, then the sun would poke through, then rain, sleet, wind and so on. The band I played with then was Polkemmet and, besides the weather, I remember it well because we tuned for about 15 minutes beside the band bus, which acted as a shield from the wind and rain – then quickly played to the park hoping that the tone would hold.
Nothing terribly extraordinary there for anyone who’s spent time with a band in Scotland, but the weird thing was that, when we went into the circle in the MSR contest, four of the five pipers – including me – in the front lost our ability to grip the blow-pipe with their mouth. Our collective embouchure failed, and four-fifths of the front of the pipe section, but for intermittent snatches of phrases valiantly popping in and out, was chanterless for the rest of the set. (I also remember the Pipe-Major being incandescent when we finished, but that’s another story.)
I think we finished second. Who knows what glory would have been ours had the front rank not been directing giant flatulent sounds at the judges. Perhaps all those flapping lips resulted in a “poor opening rolls” comment from the drumming adjudicator. Later, I think my mouth – like the proverbial tongue to a sled-runner – froze solid to a can of Export, which isn’t all bad, come to think of it.
As any band that competed at the 2007 World’s will know, the physical challenges of the pipes are increased ten-fold when the weather sucks. It’s amazing just how good the overall standard was at that contest. Any other top-flight musicians would never have taken their instrument from its case, but pipers sputter on regardless.