Trailing Drones

Published: December 10, 2019

Satire: winter doldrums, summer sizing, spring in your step, and fall on your dirk

Welcome to the winter doldrums! Yes, it’s that time of year (for those in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway) when we have a hard time even imagining the summer season. Thoughts instead are with taking a break from the band and the practice chanter or pad for a few weeks, and recharge them musical batteries.

But, there’s always time for a little retrospection on a few of the goings-on from the recent past . . .

Hey, whatchoo mean your band is looking for new members? We saw your post on Facebook saying that your group is – newsflash! – now “accepting” applications from pipers and drummers to join. That’s amazing. You mean you’re a pipe band that isn’t full-on loaded with personnel? You’re like every. single. other. band. on earth struggling for numbers? Yes, we know you need members. Every band needs members. But maybe try using some humour or cleverness when you hang out your shingle to differentiate your band from the rest. It works in advertising and, besides, who wants to join a band without a sense of humour?

There’s a funny thing about teachers judging their students or relatives assessing their close kin. No matter how many or how prestigious the competitions these judges won in their past, they will often shred their reputation when they allow self-interest to get the better of them. Think of some of the judges of the past who were known for judging relatives or their pupils or the bands they did workshops for or crossed business with adjudication. No matter how many prizes they won or tunes they wrote or wonderful products they developed, their notoriety becomes mostly for their judging. Through sheer self-indulgence, they take their reputation for conflicted interests to their grave. We’ve said it so many times: judging students and relatives is not fair to the competitor, but it’s also not fair to the judges’ legacies. If such behaviour is driven by self-interest and ego, then perhaps a reminder that they are toying with their own history will get them to wake up and do and be remembered for the right things.

There’s a groundswell of demand for associations to be more transparent, and quite right. Members want and deserve to know what’s going on, and how their money is being spent. There is a lot of suspicion and fear of improprieties going on, mainly because, when members know the least they suspect the worst. But have you ever stopped to wonder what would happen if a competition-running piping and drumming organization flat out collapsed? Let’s say they was a legal inquiry and an entire management team resigned. What would happen? Would anyone else step in? Would a new association be started? Could it run a whole year of events, or would it have to start from scratch? Without a year of competition, would bands hold enough interest to stay together, or would they also disintegrate? It’s an interesting thing to ponder . . .

. . . but, then again, perhaps a halt on competitions for a year might be a good thing. Crazy talk? Hear us out. It might force existing or new associations to reinvent what they really are. The self-appointed singular mandate of running competitions and grading musicians might be replaced outright by teaching and education. Think about bands that have to take a year off due to numbers or leadership. They often sit down and take a closer look at what they are all about. Is it competition? Or is it something bigger? Some realize that it’s only competition that motivates them, and they usually fall apart. But the ones that place things like music or camaraderie or community involvement before contests often emerge stronger, and attract interested players or leaders. Similarly, with a year out, associations might take a totally different tack by fostering the true art of the instruments, shifting away from the incessant goal of staging competitions, and influencing members to be technically flawless, rather than something a bit more meaningful. Art doesn’t make “mistakes,” per se. It can be liked or not liked, but art is never “wrong.” Maybe there’s more room for that kind of thinking in what we do as an artistic culture.

On that note, what was up with the small Highland games circuit in Scotland? Time was, all the solo pipers would joyfully go from event to event. July in particular was a time when you could easily hit 15 competitions – and you still can. Except . . . no one does. Most of the smaller events are attracting fewer than 10 entries. Some only about five. The Competing Pipers Association is trying to address the problem, but solo contests in the UK are starting to look a lot like the non-RSPBA championship band events, where only a few locals bother, or, maybe in August, a bunch of “overseas” players participate to get their CPA gradings up. If we’re not careful, a lot more solo and band competitions at the smaller events will be dropped in favour of purely performances by the locals. Or maybe just as Scottish Highland games are now mainly for the tourists, perhaps the smaller competitions are purely for the visiting players and bands?

A funny thing happened over the last few years. The size of many or even most successful Grade 2 bands has become smaller. For sure, there are still Grade 2 bands competing with 20-plus pipers, but more often than not we’re seeing sections of 14-16, and even pipe corps of 12 hitting the park and winning. Have judges come back around to the original idea that precision of unison, tuning and tone are more important than impressive “presence?” We usually assume that, as Grade 1 goes, so goes the rest. But, in this instance, Grade 2 might be influencing the world’s expectations as to what a pipe band should be. Perhaps the penultimate grade has decided that the never-ending and insatiable desire for more players (see above) is a mug’s game.

There’s some chatter about the need for more drummers judging pipe band ensemble. We agree that this could only be a good thing. More drummers assessing the band as a whole will inevitably force drum sections to focus on ensemble, rather than technical intricacies that don’t help the band. It could get bass sections to focus on playing in time, understanding that when a tenor drummer plays solo, the entire band relies on him/her to be on the beat. So, sure, pipers can bleat on about drummers not knowing piping well enough, but by listening closely to the band as a whole, maybe they will become even better drumming judges in the process.

The poor old RSPBA can’t seem to win these days. They have all good intentions, maybe, but whatever they do just gets all garbled. Referring to members as “morons”? Asking judges to “consider” working for free? And of course £4,500 more in World’s prize money is better than the proverbial kick in the arse, but when it’s averaged out a lot of bands would just say, Keep it. Buy some comfy couches for the education and training centre. Love the transparency, but didn’t anyone at 45 Wash bother to think things through before rushing out their announcement? Don’t stop at this amount. Tell everyone what your licensing deals are with Glasgow Live and the BBC and spread that money to the performers that they’re actually licensing.

Well, Christmas is coming, so be sure to do a bit of shopping for your favourite piper or drummer, or maybe for yourself to become a better player in 2020. Check out these great advertisers who provide great things and know excellent marketing when they see it. And don’t forget to get a pipes|drums subscription as an inexpensive prezzie for your band mate. It all helps the cause.

Stay tuned for our Trailing Drones round up of the best and worst of 2019 and more!


3 thoughts on “Trailing Drones

    1. “. . but, then again, perhaps a halt on competitions for a year might be a good thing.”

      Talk about your thoughts coming true! I’m sure you couldn’t have imagined what 2020 would turn into when you write this piece, but your timing was amazing!



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