Published: November 03, 2009

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?

Published: 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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