April 18, 2008

The Back In The Day Syndrome

Are there no Robertson chanters? And what of the Rose-Morris drums?I think many pipers and drummers must have some sort of brainwashing or mind-alteration occur 10 or so years after they retire from competing. They start thinking that playing quality was so much better back in their day, that pipers, drummers and bands just don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not only pipers and drummers, of course. This changed thinking happens in every walk of life. As people get older, they often glorify their past.

Why? I think it’s a subconscious attempt to validate who they are or were. If you discredit the present, the past seems superior, and thus the older person does too, at least in his/her mind.

Piobaireachd’s evolution has really suffered from this. Even with all of the empirical evidence that piobaireachd had far more variety and creativity in the past, those whose competitive careers were built on standard settings of tunes so often try to discredit that evidence. They might not realize it, but they may poo-poo research because they feel threatened, because they think that acceptance might undermine their accomplishments.

Some pipe band judges can be particularly guilty of the “Back In The Day” syndrome. They constantly criticize bands for not knowing how to play a “proper” 2/4 march, or not understanding the strathspey idiom or quality of drones or chanter-tuning or drum-sound or ensemble integration or any number of usually ridiculous accusations.

The truth is that piping, drumming and pipe bands have never been at a higher level musically, tonally or as an ensemble. It might be a different sound than what went on 30 years ago, but anyone honestly believing that it was better back in their day needs an MRI.

I fully recognize that the sublime band performances that I may have enjoyed as a player 10, 15 or 20 years ago today might not get through the Grade 1 Qualifier. That doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about, or that I can’t be a good judge, or that I should feel threatened, or that people shouldn’t respect me. But I do know that when I hear judges or “authorities” summarily dismiss today’s standards that I lose some respect for their ability to judge.

Strictly for educational purposes, have a listen to a snippet of Shotts & Dykehead’s medley that helped them win the 1980 World Pipe Band Championship. Sure, there are lots of great things there to appreciate, but, honestly, it wouldn’t rate very highly in Grade 2. And it’s not just the scattered tone; it’s unison and musicality.

Try this segment from Dysart & Dundonald‘s medley at the same contest, at which the band finished sixth.

This is not to take away from these bands’ accomplishments back in the day. For the time, they were great, and we should continue to respect their achievements. But, believe it or not, in 2038 people will listen to today’s recordings of Field Marshal and SFU and all of today’s great bands with the same kind of nostalgic discomfort.

Standards always improve over time. It’s the human way. Piping and drumming judges need to keep up with and appreciate those standards, and never try to block them.




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