June 20, 2010

Trad. and true

Until posting a few Glen-Cam videos of Ontario-based Grade 3 bands competing recently, I hadn’t much thought about the trend toward creativity creeping into the lower grades. We’ve all taken note of the move to experimenting with the music in Grade 1, perhaps best exemplified by the Toronto Police band’s trailblazing, and some might say button-pushing, medleys of the past three seasons, but I have been struck by the creativity coming through in Grade 3 and Grade 4 selections.

It makes sense, since creativity isn’t exclusive to those with technical ability. Sure, the better bands can better execute the creative, and are on the whole more listened-to by the piping and drumming public than bands in the lower grades. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be every bit as creative.

It was the comments to the videos that got me thinking. I’d never really thought that there was some divine right to be musically creative, that you have to serve time as a piper or drummer, moving up the grades, before being permitted to challenge convention. Of particular interest to me was the notion that, in Scotland, the concept that pipe- and pipe band music comes naturally, because one is around it, essentially, from birth, as part of the country’s artistic culture. You play that music because that music is what is played, and that’s that. You don’t question it. It just is.

How easy and worry-free that must be. So many non-Scottish bands tear at themselves, questioning why they do what they do, wonder what they can do to improve it or do it differently. It’s either dissatisfaction or boredom or a combination of the two. Or it’s a result of rejecting the idea that competitive pipe bands are more sport than art, and that art isn’t art unless conventional wisdom is bucked and creativity tapped.

And that, possibly, is where the philosophies of Scotland and the rest of the world collide. There are exceptions, of course – several noteworthy Scottish bands that love to push the musical envelope; several non-Scottish bands that stick to the familiar. I’m not saying I like one approach more than another, and full credit goes to fine music, whatever it is.

But there are those who are quite happy doing what we do in piping and pipe bands because that’s just what we do, so why change it? Don’t get all worked up over being different. Play your stuff, play it as well as you can, and work to perfect it. Why mess with a good thing? You’re just making yourself miserable.

The other side of course revels in the challenge to create, even if it means being miserable or, on the contrary, delighting in being different and pushing buttons and challenging convention. Just as the bread-in-the-bone conventionalists can’t understand what all the creative fuss is about, the chronically uneasy artisans in the crowd can’t imagine a pipe band world where you play the same thing again and again and again, like three decades of “Donald Cameron,” “Cameronian Rant” and “Pretty Marion” that was Shotts & Dykehead’s trademark from the 1960s to the 1980s.

So much of the musical quandaries we’re facing now in pipe bands are not a result of taste, but of cultures colliding.  It started when the first non-UK band sailed to Scotland to test their mettle, and came back questioning if that was all there was. The pursuit of perfection to them had to include musical innovation as well.

For a long time the thing to do was to imitate the Scots and everything they did, doing everything just so and just the same, contest after contest, year after year. After a while, that approach just doesn’t sit well with New World thinking.


  1. An interesting article, but perhaps not all that new? You could argue that when the grade I bands introduce new tunes or ideas, then everyone (including all grades) has a go at what they can manage. Often this ends up as a simplified version suitable for the players in the band, or something completey new, but still inspired by the grade I experts.

    I personally think that the important things is simply whether the music is good or not. A rock solid traditional MSR can still make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, when it is nailed, with a great tone, equally as a stand-out medley can turn your head.

    Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that for a few years now, many Scots in the PB world have looked up to the best North American Bands (e.g. 78ths, SFU) in admiration and for inspiration. Vive la difference….:-)

  2. You raise a very important issue, Andrew. As a piping judge who will never believe he knows all the answers, it is time judges address the thorny conversation of style and (NOT versus) substance in a pipe band performance.
    True, regardless of our geographic location, our first instinct is to go back to what we were told to listen for by our mostly native Scot instructors. I would personally applaud any band willing to maybe sacrifice a prize for the sake of what they believe is a legitimate license to “play what comes a bit more naturally” to them.
    35 years ago I took a lower grade band from Atlanta, Georgia on the competition field playing the theme from the US Civil War movie “Gone with the Wind” in its medley. I made sure the pipes were in tune and the playing of GWTW was musically “bulletproof”. Even though the predominantly Southern US crowd recognized and appreciated it, the judges did not…
    My point is so long as judges continue to set the so called standard of what is and is not acceptable, we must continue to press them and our societies/associations for clarification and accountability. Let’s not punish or reward creativity outside the context of an complete performance. I hope I don’t have to wait another 35 years for this to happen.

  3. Grade 1 bands have technically adept players and musically adept/knowledgable leadership. Grade 3 & 4 bands by definition and grading have much less technically adept players, but it is not a given that their leadership or even members are not musically adept/knowledgable. There are some very musically advanced and knoweledable people running some of our ower grade bands. One of the biggest challenges for the leadership of lower grade bands is to understand their strengths and liimitations and play within them. Not an easy task.


  4. The hardest thing for the lower grade PM’s is to bring that creativity out with the resources they have within there organization. Most do not have the privilege of an 8 person drum corp with a full midsection capped off by a 20 person pipe corp. Having said that a good PM will recognize there weaknesses and build around that, maybe even work on improving the weakness. If I could add one thing, as much as I like creativity and pressing the limits the traditional basics MUST be understood and practiced first before you step over the line. If you can’t produce clean execution, terrific tone and inspiring music on tradtional tunes you won’t either on your creations. Great work with the Andrew-Cam, please do more of the lower grades, it is a great learing tool.


  5. Interestingly enough, just as I was watching through some of the Georgetown presentations, then went over to watch some Grade 1 Medleys from the first Championship, I got an e-mail from my pal John with a Strathclyde 1986 MSR.
    Man, if we could all aspire to that, we’d be on track.



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