Published: October 31, 2007

A piping workshop.There has been some hand-wringing in parts of Ontario over the low attendance at the annual Stratford Sessions Saturday workshop last week. I read of Ken Eller’s frustration, questioning whether Ontario pipers and drummers think they’re “too good” for it, and suggesting that players today might think they know it all and that there’s nothing left to learn.

A few older pipers agreed with Ken and the current president of the PPBSO talked of the “quite dismal” situation he thinks the organization’s branches are in.

The truth is, there’s more good teaching then ever going on in Ontario and worldwide. Just because people don’t want to attend a day-long Saturday workshop does not mean they’re apathetic know-it-alls.

While weekend workshops exclusive to a single pipe band are smart, weekend workshops open to all who want to pay are old-school. Why throw $100 at one day of instruction when you can have a $40 hour-long weekly one-on-one lesson with Roddy MacLeod, Bruce Gandy or Jori Chisholm by Skype from the comfort of your home?

Twenty years ago, rubbing shoulders with Jim McGillivray, Bill Livingstone, Bob Worrall, or any of the other greats who were at the Stratford Sessions was a rare treat. Today it’s no big deal. Not only have most pipers hung out with Bill or Jake Watson at an Ontario massed bands or the Todd Bar or the Maxville beer tent, but the Internet has changed everything. Just connect with Ken Eller through his website or, heck, become his Facebook friend.

I see more piping and drumming events and interest in Ontario than ever before. Sure, more can always be done, but there are probably more competitions in the province than since 1980. More good teaching is happening and, take it from one of the many who were judging for nearly 11 hours straight on the Friday at Maxville, entries to PPBSO solo events are greater than ever. Not all of the new games are sanctioned by the PPBSO, but they go on and they are successful.

The teaching is sophisticated, and students are using technology productively. Given the results from Glasgow Green this year, Ontario’s Grade 4 band standard I would venture to say is as good as anywhere in the world. Membership in the PPBSO continues to increase in spite of the president’s apparent dour and erroneous perception of things.

I tend to think that the hand-wringing about the lack of interest in weekend workshops is more about bruised egos than a genuine concern for the art. Simply assembling an all-star cast of instructors isn’t enough to drive enrollment today. You have to create an experience, maybe with competitions and recitals as part of the package at a nice hotel, like they’re able to do in Kansas City and Seattle. Successful workshops are as much if not more about socializing and entertainment and getting energized to practice as they are about improving one’s playing.

Weekend workshops like the Stratford Sessions are a noble cause, and great credit goes to the people, like Geoff Neigh, who organize them. But the reality is that in places like Ontario and British Columbia, where piping and drumming have matured, they simply don’t have the allure they carried back in the 1970s.

On the other hand, week-long schools, where students can sink their fingers and wrists into meaningful projects and enjoy supervised learning and practice night and day for seven or even 14 straight days, are immensely productive and worthwhile no matter where they are held.

To be sure, piping and drumming workshops still do well in relatively remote piping and drumming places. People will come from miles around to say that they got tuition from Fred Morrison or Angus MacColl. But in Ontario? Sorry, the one-day workshop concept has had its day. People are doing their learning in new ways, and hobnobbing with famous folk is just a mouse-click away.


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