May 20, 2013

The nerve

Considering the thousands upon thousands of competition performances we inflict on ourselves each year, instances of on-stage meltdowns are relatively very few. I’m not thinking of nervy breakdowns, but more of full-fledged panic-stricken collapses or sick-to-your-stomach upchucks. Maybe for that reason, the tales of such happenings become the stuff of legend.

The only time I actually witnessed it happen was at Alma, Michigan, in maybe 1980, when an unfortunate piper with a now-defunct Canadian Grade 2 band tossed his cookies in splashing style mid-MSR. It was a lovely sunny day, and I was sitting in the grass enjoying the band coasting along until there was a collective “Ahhh!” from the crowd, as if a firework exploded in the sky. The Scottish person next to me shouted, “He spewed! He spewed!” The band of course continued on with ever-deteriorating tone while the piper stood there, using his tie as a napkin. The human geyser faithfully replays in my mind’s eye in Guy Ritchie-like slow-motion.

The rest of the stories I’ve heard I can’t verify, since I wasn’t actually there. They might well be apocryphal, but I understand a well-known drummer back in the 1970s was competing in the World Solos and chundered on stage all over his drum. I’ve been told that the drummer carried on playing, never missing a beat, but with each stroke the stuff splattered on his piper and the judges.

He didn’t win.

The worst I’ve had to deal with is a dry mouth, but I’ve heard of other solo pipers – including one or two of history’s most successful – inducing their own sickness in the toilet before they went on at big competitions. Apparently it’s a common practice with concert pianists and violinists. No doubt it’s to calm an upset stomach, but most certainly it’s to mitigate risk. Blowing chunks down a blowpipe during “MacDougall’s Gathering” is not generally conducive to winning a Clasp.

Around these parts the legend of “Sally Sprinter” (not her real name) is well known. Apparently the poor dear lost her nerve and her lunch in the competition circle but, instead of regrouping and faking it, or at the least standing there while the band finished, she bolted right across the circle, through the crowd, into her car and went home – thus gaining her nickname.

They’re bound to happen more often than we know, these quiet upheavals in the face of sheer terror. And considering the live broadcasts and ever-heightening stress of the Grade 1 Final at the World Pipe Band Championships, it’s just a matter of time before the next legendary retching occurs. Not only will the event itself gain inevitable mythological proportions, but it could be rivalled by the BBC commentary.

“Oh, my word, Jackie! There it was! He heaved right into the reel there, and it looks like he had one too many boiled burgers and onions this morning . . . or maybe it was a bad pint!”

It’s inevitable and only natural, and a YouTube sensation just waiting to happen.


  1. Nice, Andrew. Actually it was more like 1984 (possibly ’83) when said Band started making annual hikes “down” to that fun Memorial Day weekend trek across the Border, mainly sharing the bus with T’nD from Woodbridge, who were very upset one Sunday on the return trip, as we beat them in piping when we played up in the Grade 1 Contest. Said lad, X, like his father, was a big lad and played a substantive and very steady pipe. I missed that first trip but was told immediately after that he had overstuffed himself on Burgers etc just before the contest on the Sunday, I believe, and no doubt he had had some festivities the nite before. The physical demands of a huge, honking band pipe on a braw late May Day in Alma, along with some excitement, perhaps, produced the show stopper. Most of the older Band players were upset at losing the Contest with the adolescent “planning” rather than any word abut nerves. But I wasn’t there and maybe they lacked sympathy – however, the ones I heard from were good folks and great Band mates. Knowing X, I would say he was not a real anxious character or player but he did give up competitive playing after leaving school not so long after. Planning to compete for a long warmup with a serious Grade 2 Band that often played for well over an hour before the Contest, and after a morning of lengthy solos on a stretched out, grueling weekend, often involved the tricky logistics of getting the bod’s needs taken care of for sun protection, food and drink (hydration + dry mouth and lack of a seal on the blowstick) etc while the Band tried to peak sound-wise as it hit the field.

    I made many of those Alma hikes the next dozen years and was curious to hear the rival, upstart Band from Kansas City that matched and surpassed our tone and playing of that era. So the very next year with climaxing hockey playoffs happening at the beautifully treed and shaded dorms, I finally saw and heard them along with a tall, blonde haired lad putting on a kitchen piping solo display at those fun dorms. He was from St. Louis, a true Red Bird fan, and soon headed for Scotland before having the sense to immigrate to this fine country – good on ya – robin

  2. It was the Jakarta Highland gathering 1987. This is a quintet contest, 3 pipers, one side drummer and one bass. So no where to hide. There was a big function the night before the contest. In fact there had been several big functions for several nights before the contest. It was 35 celsius, 98% humidity and blazing sunshine.

    The band favoured to win came from Sydney that year. On they came to play. Great start, great tone, good selection of tunes until about two thirds of the way into the medley one of the pipers decided to deposit last nights beer ,gin and tonics and buffet down his blow pipe.

    I hadn’t recalled carrots being on the buffet but chunks of it were being deposited all over the stage. The pipe major who was a big man was not happy. They did not win but it was one of the funniest things I had seen in a long time.

    Blow pipes are not wide enough to deal with chunky carrot.

  3. One small point of clarification. “Sally” was not ill. She just could not get her drones to start, panicked and ran not only off the field but all the way back to her tent (this was the 70’s and people still camped out at the park).

    My favourite part of the “Sally” Sprinter story though is that after the performance one judge walked over to another and asked “What are we going to do about that piper” . . . . . . . another judge replied (according to the story) “about what piper?” . She had made a clean escape . . only noticed by one judge (even most of the band had not noticed). The on the spot decision (before judges consulting days) was that a judge could not take away points for something they did not see or hear . . . . so only one judge made any deduction (same as a missed attack) and the band still won first place. The piper beside her was about a 12 or 13 year old in his first ever competition and either to his credit (for staying calm) or because he was inexperienced did not even worry about it . . . . he just side stepped over to fill out the circle without missing a note . . . fun times . . . .

    1. [Edited] … an interesting side note is the PPBSO passed a motion at the next years AGM that ” a band must finish a contest with as many players as it starts with”….i wonder if this is still in the rules???

  4. Slow eve on the coast to do some googling so I do apologize, and I enjoyed Andrew’s link. It is amazing how those critters “bug” us, but we are evolutionarily hard-wired to shirk off disease ridden, blood sucking monsters. Good thing the late Lewis Turrell didn’t realize how musically wearisome that tune was some 3 + decades previous on a slow day in Inverness as the Antipodean slipped away with the Gold. Unfortunate we don’t have a shield between us and Mars with outdoor pipers being so exposed – but at the ‘Cornfield Championships of the World’ with genetically modified agriculture growing so profusely nearby, one never knows what mutant, misfit type locust/grasshopper/mantis flyer hoppers can be swarming in hordes nearby. This picture appears to be a Green Grocer Cicada from Aus, so who knows.

    I loved the background story there, Tim. Fun to hear how the reality is always so much stranger than fiction. Reminiscent of that soon to be mythological Birmingham in more recent memory – but judging is a snapshot of the ever so brief performance and always a tough gig. The nerves were held championly in check that English day as well as in the 70’s “camp” type story – by some, at least – cheers – robin

  5. I was piping in the circle with ‘that grade 2 band’ in Alma on the Sunday and could not believe my eyes when I saw my fellow bandsman leave his ‘cookies’ on the field. Knowing at that point our band was toast, we had to soldier on to the end anyway. It was very disappointing after working all winter and driving such a long distance.

  6. On the other side of the piping divide, Andrew, perhaps even worse might be to becomie the butt of one of HRH Prince Philip’s famous quips. He suggested, one evening in the Officers’ Mess of Second Battalion The Royal Canadian Regiment in CFB Gagetown, that I (the pipe major, standing loyally at attention over by the fireplace awaiting my time to have a new banner tied on my bass drone and play the gentlemen out of the dining room to drink) appeared to be “part of the furniture”. I did not throw up!

    Hugh Macpherson

  7. I am aware (via eye witness accounts from a member of the band in question) of a piper passing out in the circle, complete with face plant and shards of drones and chanter pieces going in all directions. The band continued to play, was not disqualified, and took top prize that day. This was obviously back in the ‘good old days’, where you just carried on regardless. Either that, or the bloke in question wasn’t popular to begin with. Today, there’d be an army of paramedics and lawyers there before he hit the ground and a Royal Commission into why it happened, followed by the event organiser being sued for proceeding in hot weather.

    I recall my first world championship in Gr1. While we stood at the line for the Medley (played first back in those days), a fellow piper (in true character)wagered out loud with me that I wouldn’t ‘get up’ in the attack. This happened while our PM was singing the opener to all and sundry, and in a band somewhat fancied to do well on the day. The next words I heard shortly after that were “QUICK…MARCH!”. It was at this point that I knew I was very much alive, let me just say that!

  8. Thought you may have the “hurling” story wrong because I was sure this happened at Chicago’s Grant Park. Probably just another story but this also happened to one of my students’ in a DE flunked Ontario based band in Chicago. Kid was a rising star in solo’s at the time playing solo maybe grade 2 or 3. Cruelly after this event his band had a tough time deciding on a new nickname for him and went thru quite a few before choosing “Ralph”. Soon after and because of this “upheaval” (which probably had more to do with the events of the night before than nerves) he never played pipes again. The kid actually made some bad choices in the following years and the story gets a little dark….

  9. Stephen, it was definitely at Alma, I know……..Re Grants park , maybe they should have nicknamed the kid ” Hughie” instead of Ralph!!



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