November 24, 2008


Burn, baby, burn.

This is a lengthier post, but I hope you still read it.

There has been some hand-wringing in Ontario and other parts of North America lately over apparent declining interest in our “product.” While some Ontario Highland games, like Maxville and Fergus, are thriving with bigger-than-ever crowds, others, like Chatham and Sarnia, have recently closed shop.

Jim McGillivray recently described it as “Rome burning,” which might be over-stating things a shade. For the last 10 years, he and others have called out for a reinvigoration or even reinvention of our product – the thing that we sell to Highland games organizers.

The RSPBA and the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario sell a turn-key product to events. For a flat fee, these associations will come in and run all of the piping, drumming and band competitions, and stage the massed band or march-past spectacles. As anyone who has been to several RSPBA or PPBSO events can attest, they’re pretty much the same format from contest to contest.

Most other associations have a different model. They will “sanction” designated competitions that agree to allow them to coordinate the judging and advise on competition formats and some recruitment of competitors. In essence, they ensure that competitions are of a certain quality. But games organizers can much more easily stage creative and different events, so variety from contest to contest is greater. It’s a more competitive and capitalistic approach. Over time, competitors gravitate to the events that are run the best and are the most fun to attend.

But what about the idea of our “product”? What actually is the product that we have to sell?

Here’s a fact we should all face: ultimately, the general, non-playing public does not much like bagpipe music. Let’s accept it. The average person is not drawn to our music for more than a few minutes because, in its usual style, it’s not very accessible or understandable or, dare I say it, enjoyable. This has always been so.

Our musical product has not seriously changed in 100 years. Medleys are more adventurous, but the large crowds that listen to the top-grade competitions at the World’s and Maxville do not comprise the general public; they are the same competitive pipers and drummers and friends and family who have always listened. It’s a captive audience that has grown over many decades. The more competitors a competition can attract, the bigger the crowds listening to the competitions.

The large general public that attends Fergus and Maxville doesn’t much pay attention to the competitions. They come out for the Highland dancing, the caber tossing, the sheepdogs and the grand spectacle of the massed bands. We can, and probably should, add 15-minute freestyle Grade 1 band events in concert formation, but I still think that the general public won’t really care. Performing facing the audience makes sense, but droves of punters aren’t suddenly going to appear because of it.

New competition formats could freshen things for pipers and drummers, however, the competition music will still be relatively inaccessible, because it will inevitably at least compromise when it comes to arguments about “Scottish idiom” and technical complexity that we identify as necessary in order to have a serious competition. At the end of the day, no competitive pipers and drummers want to do away with competition. It’s what they do. Most of us are competitors and get off on winning. Relatively few of us are frustrated artists.

I think that our non-competition “product” for the games still works. It can be tweaked to offer more variety and showmanship, but, if so, that product inevitably will have to leave out many of the lower-grade bands, and allow the more practiced and accomplished higher-grade bands to do the work, and they will want compensation.

The people who cry out for a sweeping change invariably are those who have been around the longest. They’re bored because they have heard and done it all before, hundreds of times.

But I don’t hear competitors younger than 30 express the same desire for sweeping change, because, just as it was for the now jaundiced veterans 30-odd years ago, our competition format is addictive and alluring to a certain type of piper and drummer who spends years getting it. (I also have never heard anyone from the UK suggest that their Rome is burning, but maybe that’s a different story.)

It’s a quandary. Do we accept that the music we play is arcane and boring to the vast majority of non-players and alter it so dramatically (I’m picturing other instruments, marching formations, electronica, light shows . . .) to attract a big general-public crowd? Or do we continue along the same course, mainly pleasing ourselves and our friends and family?

And, if it’s the latter, why not hold our own competitions that subsist on our own dues and entry-fees, holding them in parking lots and fallow farmers’ fields? Why can’t associations therefore move away from being competition machines and instead become event promoters?

I’ve never been to Rome, but I understand that today it’s an awesome place that respects the old while celebrating the new. Perhaps our Rome needs to burn for us to get better.

October 03, 2008

So many partings

Lochaber no more.This post-Northern-Hemisphere-season is as active as any I can remember. Even before Cowal and Fergus – the contests after which band-members traditionally start bouncing around – changes were being orchestrated and announced.

Almost as soon as one Grade 1 band (Dysart) was resurrected, another (Clan Gregor) folded. I find it sad when any band anywhere folds, and it’s particularly sad when it’s a Grade 1 band. Why? Because that now-defunct band had reached the top grade, and (unless it’s rare exceptions like Fife Constabulary or Spirit of Scotland) took years and years of effort and diligence to get there only to have the whole thing crumble due to personnel changes.

The idea of pipe band dynasties is just about done. Nothing is sacred. To quote Paul McCartney (in what I consider to be the very worst lyric in the history of music), “In this ever-changing world in which we live in,” loyalty is a frail thing.

It seems that the Scottish bands are hurting the most. The country where competition pipe bands were invented is now down to nine in Grade 1, and that number may well sink to eight or even seven by the New Year, depending on grading decisions and/or further personnel changes.

Why is this? At a time when more people are playing pipes and drums better than ever, how can it be that some of Scotland’s greatest bands are collapsing or unable to field a competition-worthy unit? Even bands like the top-three Shotts after the 2007 season essentially had to rebuild both its pipe section and snare line.

I think one reason might be this: until about 10 years ago many Scottish bands filled out their rosters with overseas guest players. There was no shortage of talented foreign players who wanted a shot at the big-time and were willing to spend a summer in, or even move outright to, Scotland. To be sure, this still happens, but nowhere near to the degree it used to.

Non-Scottish players – and even many great pipers and drummers based in Scotland – I think are looking to non-Scottish bands for their ultimate piping and drumming Grade 1 experience. Instead, they’re going to British Columbia, to Ontario, to Northern Ireland, to Australia, to Ireland, to New Zealand. For many, Scotland is no longer the Mecca of the pipe band world.

I personally wish that weren’t so. I was one who grew up with a dream of playing with a Grade 1 Scottish band, and I did it and it had a lot to do with where I am today. I played with a Scottish-based Grade 1 band (albeit a very different one) last season. I love Scotland, my ancestral home.

But the reality is that, for many pipers and drummers who are looking for their ideal band, that band is no longer Scottish.

June 28, 2008

Sterling silver

Robert Mathieson’s excellent interview has special meaning to me. The interview process started maybe a year ago when I asked if he’d be interested in and have the time to do an interview. After a bit of convincing he agreed and by chance we were at the same contest in the piping paradise of Dunedin, Florida, this early-April, so we found two hours for an ocean-side on-the-record chat that featured several Coronas (beers, not cigars) and not a little reminiscing.

In Part 1 of the interview you’ll see a 1984 photo of the Polkemmet Colliery band. Along with many others, Rab sent a scan of that shot, which was actually taken by my dad, a day or two after my twenty-first birthday, which we celebrated in Pitlochry. My late father would have got a huge kick out of, not only his photography being useful to and seen by others, but the fact that his picture came full circle back to me after 24 years.

Just about every interview that I’ve done is with a friend. Very few times have I met someone for the first time at the interview itself. When that was the case, I’m happy that those people have gone on to become friends of mine.

The straight skinnyReconnecting with Rab has been a pleasure. When I arrived in Scotland in the summer of 1983, a wide-eyed, 19-year-old piping St. Louisan who the Scots didn’t know from Lou Brock, it was Rab who gave me a shot in his band. I remember calling the RSPBA headquarters during my first week at Stirling University, trying to get help with connecting me with a band. They suggested Knightswood Juvenile, I remember – a fine band, but I was aiming higher. They gave me the name of a contact at Boghall, but they didn’t return my call.

Finally, I tried the number of Matt Morrow, then band president at Polkemmet. He said they would love to meet me, and he told me where and when the band practiced. So I set out the next Sunday to their practice at the East Whitburn Community Centre. This involved a bus from the university to Stirling train station; a train to Edinburgh; a train to Falkirk; and then another bus that somehow got me near the practice hall. It took about three hours.

But when I arrived no one else was there, and then slowly people started filing in. Everyone seemed a little intrigued that I was there, but they seemed to have heard about it. Then a 24-year-old Robert Mathieson arrived, he said hello and then took me to the room where Jim Kilpatrick and his corps practiced and asked me to play something on the chanter.

“What should I play?” I asked.

“Anything,” Rab said.

So I remember starting “Duncan Johnstone” only to have Rab tell me to stop after a few bars. I thought he was going to tell me to get my arse back on that Bluebird bus. But he just said, “That’s fine; you’ll play.”

And that’s what happened. I played, and learned, and had unbelievable fun with new friends that exist today. It was a terrific first year in Scotland, and I can credit Robert Mathieson – as he has done with so many other pipers over the years – with giving me a chance to contribute to his band. All the interviews have special meaning to me, but this one is particularly significant, 25 years on.


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