January 23, 2008

Snow petrol

Not me. Never will be me.Maybe there’s alpine skiing in the Missouri Ozarks now, but when I was growing up strapping boards to your feet in “winter” was just dern crazy if you were from St. Louis. But in Toronto, not only does everyone ski, but every other person seems to be a certified ski instructor. People swear by it as one of the ways to “make the winter go by faster.”

The first time I tried downhill skiing was about 12 years ago. It was on a business outing, on which I had to entertain four tech journalists at a charity fund-raiser. Each group had a celebrity “instructor,” and ours got Paul Martini, a former World Champion in pairs figure skating. I got my rental skis and boots and gamely somehow, some way got onto the chair lift with my group of experienced skiers.

As we went up the mountain I hoped that skiing was as easy as it looked. But when I had to get off the lift, I realized it wasn’t. At the top of what seemed to me like K2, Martini gave me his instructions: “Just lean on your inner edge and keep turning. And if you feel like you’re going to fall, just sit down.” He then shooshed off down the hill not to be seen again until the dinner that night (where I sat next to him then and got him to admit that ice-dancing is a complete crock).

So, I was at the top of this mountain, with no way to get down but to suck up my courage and go. Which I did. Slowly. Awkwardly. Painfully. I remember one of my 20-odd wipeouts was under a snow-making machine. I was pelted with ice as I tried to determine how the ^&%* I could get back on my ^&%*ing skis.

Somehow I got to the bottom of the mountain, and spent the rest of the day at the bunny hill. There I recall a girl, who couldn’t have been more than seven, told me as I collapsed in a heap even being pulled up by the tow-rope, saying, “It’s okay, mister, you’ll get the hang of it!” You just haven’t lived until a grade-schooler helps you up.

And so, that harrowing and humiliating experience made me not want to try skiing again for a dozen Toronto winters, until this year when we started our own seven-year-old-girl in lessons. No way is our Annabel going to suffer such snow-humiliation when she’s 32! We decided to take lessons, too, and have had the fortune of being taught by a first-rate instructor. I am getting the hang of it, thanks to him.

Which is all to say that instruction and guidance from the beginning are everything in life. My 1996 mountaintop debacle was tantamount to someone being handed a set of pipes for the first time and told to “just squeeze-and-blow” before being thrust into a competition circle with a Grade 3 band.

And that, I think, is what thousands of pipers and drummers essentially are told to do. They never start with good, qualified instruction, and the result is so many people doing irreparable damage to the image of pipes and pipe bands. It’s spectacle over art.

I’ve said many times before that piping and pipe band associations should put teaching first, and competition second. I don’t think there’s an organization out there in which that’s true. Associations leave the teaching to individuals and bands, and simply hope for the best. There are few teaching standards worldwide, and all too often, the difference between becoming a top soloist and a tinker comes down to the dumb luck of who you ask for lessons, and if an “instructor” simply pushes you down a mountain or teaches you to snow plow before you carve.




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