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?

Learning to lose

Quit yer greetin', ya wee wean!I have always thought that one of the biggest ancillary benefits of being a competitive piper since age 12 is learning to perform before an audience. Similar to solo piping, I’m not the best in the world at business presentations, but I do know how to handle the pressure and deliver a reasonable performance. In that way piping / drumming competition helps to prepare you for the real world.

Maybe 15 years ago, when I was still new to the public relations profession, I worked on Microsoft as a client. Less than two years into my new career I found myself managing a news conference for Bill Gates. It was to occur the week after the World Pipe Band Championships, and I remember thinking to myself, “What’s the big deal? If I can stand at the line with a contending Grade 1 band with a World Championship on the line, then I can certainly get through a thing with Bill Gates.”

Keeping that in the back of my mind helped, and everything went fine. He didn’t have one of his celebrated meltdowns on me, and – just like a World’s tune-up and performance – the whole thing was over in a flash.

But I think that competition piping / drumming prepares you for the real world in another important way: it prepares you to lose. Even the greatest pipers and bands place not-first many, many more than they win an event. We pipers and drummers learn to lose graciously and I don’t know of a single player who assumes he/she will win every time out.

I believe John MacFadyen said something to the effect of, “Take the boards feeling you can’t be beaten, but leave assuming that it wasn’t good enough to win.” It’s a philosophy or psychology or technique that I have carried into my work life in new business presentations, speaking at conferences or seminars with colleagues.

No matter how good you are, you’ll come in second or third or fourth far more often than first. Being able to deal with and learn from everyday losing is something that our kind of piping and drumming prepares you for in “real” life.


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