April 05, 2009

Inside story

With the current financial climate in North America you wouldn’t think that there would be many new piping and drumming events being created, but suddenly Ontario, at the most unlikely of times, seems to be enjoying a resurgence. Two new Highland games are on the Rota, with the addition of Lindsay and Oshawa (which, by the way, has The Proclaimers booked to perform in the beertent) and yesterday’s triumphant return of the Toronto Indoor.

I can see the Indoor becoming one of the pearls of the PPBSO season, perhaps even attracting a large number of competitors from further a-field, including the United States. The event was one of the best social gatherings Ontario has had for a long time, with a tremendous relaxed atmosphere of camaraderie. No one was too stressed about the performances or the results, and appeared to be focused mainly on having a good time and shaking out the cobwebs before the long outdoor season begins.

To be sure, there were judging cobwebs, too. After a long winter it’s not easy adjusting one’s critical ear, not to mention using an actual pen to write. I’m sure that a few scoresheet words were illegible. Just as well.

I was reminded that the Toronto Police mini-band’s airing of its famous, or infamous depending on your perspective, “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions” medley/suite/opus/thingmee was only the third time that they had actually competed with it in public. But it felt like I had heard the medley dozens of times, which I think I have because of it being aired on the net so many times. It is a difficult piece to assess on paper – that’s the judge’s problem and not the band’s – and doubly difficult when it’s a mini-band playing in an echo chamber.

The stakes weren’t high yesterday, which is sometimes as it should be. Here’s to next year’s Toronto Indoor Games, again I hope in the heart of the downtown. I have a feeling we’re on to something great again.

October 18, 2008


Not one of us, I'm afraid . . .When I first went to Scotland as a competitor around the games and at Inverness and Oban in the early-1980s I was struck by many things, most of them very, very good.

The number of non-Scottish pipers back then was relatively few; the only other regular American competitors were Mike Cusack and Jim Stack, both of whom had spent time in Scotland learning the craft from people like John MacFadyen and John A. MacLellan.

But one thing that opened my eyes was the way a few of the locals would talk about piobaireachd or, more specifically, how outsiders played piobaireachd. Some seemed to have this idea that, if you weren’t Scottish, you automatically didn’t have the requisite musicality in your nature. As a result, some non-Scots players were deemed innately unmusical. They just didn’t have “the piobaireachd” and they never would.

Similarly, there were Scottish players from the Highlands who were said to have a kind of inborn ability to play piobaireachd better than those from Glasgow. And the few players who spoke Gaelic were treated by some as having a sort of magical musical gift, despite the fact that their pipes were never in tune and they couldn’t play a decent crunluath.

I thought then that it was a crock and I still think it’s a crock.

I was reminded of this when a few weeks ago I was told about yet another pipe band judge accusing a band of “not playing in the Scottish idiom.” In this instance, it was the Toronto Police playing in the MSR in the World’s Qualifier. Michael Grey mentioned it in a recent post on his blog.

Never mind the fact that his band is led by Ian K. MacDonald, one of the best MSR players on the planet; what eventually got me most about this familiar “lacking Scottish idiom” comment was when I realized that this score-sheet remark as far as I know is only thrown at non-Scottish bands by Scottish judges. Has a Scottish-based Grade 1 band ever been accused of “not playing in the Scottish idiom”? I doubt it.

The way I see it, such a sweeping and unfounded pejorative is more about where you come from than about the music you actually play.

The blanket “Scottish idiom” attack is an easy out for a judge. I suppose if a band played a traditional Chinese song in its medley it might be acceptable for an adjudicator to criticize a band for playing outside of “the idiom,” but an MSR? How can any Grade 1 band be accused of not playing a traditional Scottish MSR within the musical “idiom”? It boggles the mind.

Twenty-five years ago I noted that, regardless of how well they played and imitated traditional styles, some were made to feel like musical outsiders. It’s pathetic indeed that this sort of apparent discrimination still exists.

August 19, 2008


Honestly, they're playing facing you.Never under-estimate the value of canny marketing. Some pipe bands get it, and two bands used actual competition performances to draw attention not only to the band itself, but to issues of competing and musical presentation.

The first, of course, is the Toronto Police and its very different “medley.” I discussed it after the band performed the medley for the first time at Georgetown back in June. TPPB didn’t qualify for the Final at the World’s, and I’m quite sure they had every intention to play it there, even if it may have meant disqualification. I was hoping that they would get through.

The latest competition statement to be made was from House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead in the Medley event of the World’s Final. With about 30 seconds of the medley left, the pipe section turned outward to face the audience and the judges. Knowing the value of surprise, I understand that P-M Robert Mathieson kept this plan from even his own band members until the morning of the contest . Listening to the BBC recording of the performance, the pipe-section sound when they turn gets noticeably clearer, even if there’s a slight loss of unison.

Like TPPB after Georgetown, the Shotts turn was the talk of the day. I heard more about that from people than I did about how Field Marshal or the eventual World Champions SFU played. One can say that 2008 has been a year when the first-prize-winners had their thunder completely stolen.

The TPPB and HOESAD examples show what can be done simply by acting differently. I’m pretty sure that both bands saw 2008 as something of a building year, so perhaps winning was not the number-one objective for either. Would either band have done what they did if they thought that they were favourites to win the World’s? I don’t know. But I think that, without that win-at-any-cost mentality that guides a band that seriously thinks it can win, these bands made the most of the situation and decided to make very large musical statements.

Rab Mathieson calls for World’s reform in his pipes|drums Interview, even wondering why pipe bands don’t face the audience like any other serious musician would. Last Saturday he made a simple yet bold statement, risking losing the prize, but becoming the talk of the park while putting the spotlight directly on the important issue of what we are all are as musicians.


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