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.

Tuning folk

Speak with forked tongue.I haven’t read a full copy of the digest, the Piping Times, for at least a decade, but when there’s a (usually mean-spirited) bit pertaining to pipes|drums or (rarely) me personally, people are prone to alert me to it, even though I’m invariably not interested. I gather there was something pertinent recently, and a few folks took it upon themselves to make sure that I knew about it . . . many thanks . . . I guess.

Ironically, Rab Wallace, the current Editor of the monthly, in the early 1980s said to me, “If you haven’t been slagged by Seumas, you haven’t made it in piping.” He was talking about Seumas MacNeill, the co-founder of the College of Piping and editor for almost 50 years of the aforementioned digest-sized periodical. Rab didn’t come up with the axiom himself;  I remember him quoting someone else.

In 1987 I took great delight when Seumas, in his report of the Northern Meeting, wrote that I must have “the worst tuning-notes in the business.” To my relief, he didn’t comment on the tune that I played, since he was apt to save his worst slagging for that. So, I figured that I might have finally made it as a piper when the Famous Seumas simultaneously let me have it and let me off the hook. MacNeill had a sharp but always entertaining pen.

“Ouch!” one pipes|drums reader said in a message alerting me to the reprint of the 1987 comment, in what I hazard to guess was a new attempt at a taunt. In fact, it it served as a pleasant reminder of a time when everything was a new adventure. I also know that “making it” as a solo piper requires a lot more than a MacNeillian barb.

Anyway, it also reminded me that, while it should have sweet FA to do with the result, what’s played while tuning is part of the overall performance. In 1987, I didn’t put much thought into tuning phrases and the like, and simply wanted to get the instrument in tune, which more often than I’d have liked didn’t happen. When I’m on the other side of the table, it’s irritating when a piper comes up at the tail-end of a 20-plus-competitor piobaireachd event and screws at his/her drones with an eternity of gibberish notes and no apparent game-plan. It does indeed set the teeth on edge, as Seumas wrote 20 years ago, and more than a few times the performance that I remember first after an event is someone playing interminable airs and things and never actually tuning an instrument, that would probably never stay in tune anyway.   

I have learned, though, that there is usually a correlation between pleasant tuning and tuneful performances. Those who have put thought into their tune-up, almost always have put a lot more thought into their instrument and their music.


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