February 01, 2009


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.

December 01, 2008

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 pipetunes.ca, 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.

May 21, 2008

Walking the planks

Board-walkeringI’ve commented before on the continuing separation between “band piping” and “solo piping.” It used to be that a pipe section’s ultimate goal would be to play MSRs like a top soloist, and top soloists like John MacFadyen, Seumas MacNeill and John MacLellan would judge band contests, even though they had never played with a World Champion-calibre – or even any – band in their lives.

I think the music continues to drift apart. You don’t hear much in common with the playing at the Silver Star and that at the World Pipe Band Championships. Medleys and drums sections have created a chasm between the two styles, and, to be honest, solo piping has pretty much been stagnant, while band piping has evolved.

And a lot of that also has to do with band judging in the UK. If my count is correct, there are only three piping judges based in the UK – Iain MacLellan, John Wilson and Andrew Wright – on the senior RSPBA panel who have also stomped the boards for a good long time at the level required of the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting. The rest are pipers raised almost entirely on pipe bands.

This is perhaps understandable for the UK scene where bands and solos events are, with rare exceptions, separate things. It follows that many pipe band judges will be bandsmen, who don’t have the demonstrated skill and appreciation for the solo style. There are many top soloists playing in top bands now – Peter Hunt, Donald MacPhee, Alastair Dunn, and of course the entire roster of the Spirit of Scotland – but my hunch is that those UK-based guys when they retire from competing will focus on solo judging, if they even want to adjudicate.

In North America, where band and solo events almost always happen at the same competition, it’s much easier for a piper to be both a top soloist and a member of a top band. Young pipers start with the amateur grades and, if they have the goods and the will, progress to Professional. All the solo events are there, so why not play in them? Consequently, non-UK pipe band judges tend to be top-class solo players, too. It’s very hard to do that in Scotland.

That’s evidenced by the RSPBA’s 2005 approval of “international” judges like Jim McGillivray and James Troy to its panel, which already included Bob Worrall – all guys who proved that they can knit together top-drawer solo music, and of course recognize it.

I’ve also said that – for better or worse – so much of what happens in the piping world is dictated by what goes on in Scotland. If the goal is to win the World’s, then non-UK bands tend to do what the RSPBA judges want to hear. And if those judges are mostly bandsmen, then the band style – whatever it might be – will be heard and promoted.

But if anyone wonders why a band plays pipe music in such a dramatically different style from a solo piper, they need look no further than the RSPBA’s judging panel for a possible reason.


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