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?

Foot forward

Free kicks.Coincidental to the “Family time” post of a few weeks back, some recent events got me to think further on the topic of passing down hobbies and skills. This is going to be a bit of a gush, but stay with it. My 17-year-old nephew, Daniel (to his family, anyway, but “Danny” professionally), made his debut as a starting player with Glasgow Rangers’ first team last night. He played the entire Scottish Cup quarter-final match against Dundee, making several nice clearances helping the ‘Gers to a 3-1 victory.

Daniel’s dad, my brother-in-law, John Wilson, played professional football as a goalkeeper for Celtic and Hearts until a knee injury forced him to settle into a great career with the Lothian & Borders Police force. John also played – pipes – for a spell with his school band, Craigmount, working with the famous Jennifer Hutcheon, as did my other brother-in-law, Martin Jr., and my wife, Julie.

Their dad, my father-in-law, Martin Wilson, was a piper with one of the first truly world-famous pipe bands, the Edinburgh City Police, being a part of five World’s victories under Pipe-Major Iain McLeod. Piping and football run in the family.

But why is it that piping and drumming so often have not been passed along? If one considers the greats from the 1950s to 1970s, relatively few (pun intended) sons and daughters of the leading pipers and drummers of that era seemed to become equally good or better players, and more often than not didn’t bother to take up the instruments at all.

Donald MacLeod, John Burgess, Hugh MacCallum, John MacDougall, John MacFadyen, Seumas MacNeill, Ronnie Lawrie, Donald MacPherson, Iain MacLellan, Willie Ross, G.S. McLennan, Hector MacFadyen . . . none of these greats, I believe, had a son or daughter who pursued piping in a major way. There are exceptions, of course – John A. MacLellan, Tom Speirs, Alex Duthart . . . but these examples are in the small minority.

But I have a feeling that things are changing. Perhaps it’s the rising popularity of piping and drumming outside of the UK since the 1970s, or maybe it’s the “family time” factor, that’s spurring more kids to take up the instrument that dad or mom plays, and then become as good as or even better – the Gandys, the Lees, the Hawkes, the Hendersons, the Maxwells, the Troys . . . just a few examples, and, yes, there are exceptions.

It’s good to see that that talent, in past generations so often not passed along to sons and daughters, is now more than ever the cool and fun thing to do. Anyway, there’s hardly a better feeling than seeing family follow in family footsteps, and take even bigger leaps.


Pleased to meet me.If I had lots more time, along with analyzing products made in Pakistan (see recent blog) I’d love to do an assessment of pipers’ hands. Seriously. My theory is this: pipers with smaller hands are usually more accurate and faster players.

It sounds ridiculous, and for certain there are guys with big hands who can really play. I tend to shake hands with a lot of pipers, and it seems like several times a year I’ll greet a really excellent player and notice to myself how small his or her hands are. Could there be a correlation?

Great, less-tall pipers certainly prop up the theory: Donald MacLeod, Gordon Walker, G.S. McLennan, Bill Livingstone, Donald MacPherson, Angus MacColl, Iain Morrison, Jim McGillivray . . . these hands have moved the piping world. There are also many taller great pipers with surprisingly small hands. When I see the nimble digits of, say, Bruce Gandy, there’s just a distinct quality and accuracy to the embellishments.

I remember Murray Henderson, certainly one of the greatest pipers of the last 100 years, saying at a summer school that he had to practice extra-long because of his unusually big hands. He said something about how it takes a lot of work to move his long fingers. So, as someone who could palm a basketball at age 13, maybe Murray’s joke gave me a subconscious complex as a piper. (Goddam genetics stacked against me; all my freakishly large-handed dad’s fault!)

So, perhaps one day I’ll get to this study of pipers’ hands. In the meantime, I’ll try to control the wringing.

Compose yersel’

The pipes|drums music archives.I was just re-visiting the comments posted in response to the review of The Warning Collection, a compilation of tunes (some of which are very fine) by Paul Hughes and his friends. James MacHattie makes a really good point; one that I’ve thought about in the past. James points out the attraction of a site like Jim McGillivray’s, which is essentially an iTunes for pipe tunes.

Instead of forcing people to buy a whole book, pipetunes allows people to pick and choose only the compositions that they want. It’s a great idea, since it also allows composers with a really good one-off tune to get it out there, without having to wait years to compile 50 or more compositions, scrape together enough money for expensive printing, and then hope that they sell enough books to at least break even.

About 10 years ago I compiled a book comprising almost-lost tunes by some of the greatest composers of the past. I spent a lot of time researching the old collections, playing through stuff by Roddie Campbell, John McLellan (Dunoon), James Center, Willie Lawrie and others, and picking out the ones that I thought should be preserved. The book did quite well, and I put the profits into a fund and eventually just put the money towards the development of pipes|drums. It was a long and painstaking process. Setting the tunes myself with the engraving software du jour made my right hand teeter on the brink of overuse syndrome.

Would I do it again? Probably not – at least not in print form.

But there is something to be said for a complete book of music. When it comes to music on iTunes, I almost always download the whole album. Most artists whom I listen to still put lots of thought into assembling a cohesive product, with a logical, musical sequence of songs, and, more often than not, my favourite songs on the album aren’t the big hits.

I still like to page through collections of pipe music, and I don’t really mind the chaff among the wheat – or the “potatoes,” as Simon McKerrell refers to tunes that aren’t really up to snuff. It’s all up to the compiler/composer. If Donald MacLeod or Willie Ross had nonchalantly allowed potatoes into their collections, they probably would not have the same stature that they carry today as collector-composers for the ages.

In their day, music “engraving” was actual engraving. Some poor engraver would actually pound out the music on sheets of metal. It was an expensive and time-consuming process, and the number of revisions were usually limited, hence the mistakes that we see in the older collections. Older collections were usually backed by actual music publishers, like Mozart-Allan and Paterson’s. You needed to be a big-time famous piper before they would entertain investing in your collection.

Music collections today, whether print or electronic, can still have the same quality through-and-through, provided the composer-compiler has a sense of purpose and a clear eye for their place in posterity. But for everyone else, there’s always the one-off route.


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