Fond farewell

Two years ago, after about eight years away from it, I was looking for a piping change, so had another go at solo competition. I’d stopped shortly after my mother died suddenly in 2003, having lost the desire to keep at it, and, then, too, needing a change.

Going back to solo piping at age 48 was a combination of desires. I wanted to see if I could still play to the standard and I thought it would be more interesting to be among solo pipers, who share a unique bond of understanding, empathy and respect.

That first season back was okay, but re-understanding the solo competition instrument and the set-up, the myriad choices of bags and reeds and moisture gubbins and gizmos was in itself a new art to master. It was particularly humid summer around these parts in 2013, and wrestling with a natural bag and wetness made things interesting. But some decent prizes came around – enough to keep me at it.

The 2014 competition season was fun. I made some changes to the instrument, figured out the right moisture controlling combination, and got up and submitted tunes I particularly enjoyed playing. Even though I was practicing less, I was playing as well as ever I could remember, though the memory can play tricks on you, as we all know.

People say that they “don’t have time” to do things. That’s never true. There is always time to do whatever you wish in life. Saying you don’t have time for something is really saying you don’t make that something a priority over other things. There is time; you just have to decide how to prioritize it with the other stuff. People might be amazed at those who seem to “have the time” to get things done. I tend to believe they’re more often envious of another’s better ability to prioritize.

Competitive solo piping is a mainly selfish conceit. No one but you particularly cares about your prizes. If you’re lucky and good enough, you might occasionally compete before an appreciative audience, but far more often there’s no one listening but the judge, or a few fellow competitors half-paying attention. That’s just the way it is.

I thought that after the 2014 season I’d simply keep it going. But a few weeks away from practicing turned into a few months, and, after several months of not practicing, getting game-ready is hard. The Highland pipe is maybe the most physically demanding of musical instruments. In some way, you’re as much an athlete as you are a musician.

My priorities changed again. I had and have the time to practice, but I have chosen not to. What am I trying to prove that I haven’t proven already to myself and to anyone who might care? At 51, did I want to risk being that guy: the competitor whose skills have eluded him but doesn’t realize what’s happened and gamefully presses on, fingers flailing and failing, pipers mumbling about the bumbling, wondering, Why’s he still at it?

I’ve written before about stopping while the goin’s are still good. The last time I competed was in the Professional Piobaireachd on Saturday, August 2, 2014, at Maxville, Ontario. I was last to play, before a judge, a steward, one or two passers-by, and a lot of bugs. The tune was “The Old Men of the Shells” – one that I have always enjoyed playing. The instrument held. The mind stayed focused. The hands didn’t fail. The smell of fresh-cut grass filled the early afternoon air in the bright Glengarry County sunshine. The thump of bass drums was in the distance, but all felt quiet, the music taking me at least to another place in space and time. And later I was uplifted again by the result.

I can’t think of a better way to end a solo competition career. It’s all I could ever ask of the instrument, or of the music, or of myself. It’s a high that only the brethren of pipers can understand, and the right note, I think, on which to say farewell to the boards. If I haven’t always been good to them, they have certainly been good to me.

So, thank you to anyone who might have listened to me compete since 1976. Thank you for your comments. Thank you to all teachers. Thanks to my long-gone-now parents for the support and spurring me on. Thanks to every fellow competitor and the unique camaraderie of solo pipers. Thank you to the stewards. Thank you to the organizers of the contests. Thanks to the reedmakers, bag-makers and whoever it was in 1936 why made those drones in the old R.G. Lawrie shop. Thanks to the people who created the music. Thank you to the judges who lent their ear and their knowledge. Thanks to the family who put up with the practice.

I’ll remember the thrill and joy of competing well. Thanks.

 

Video killed the pipe band star

Making an album with a top-grade pipe band used to be a big deal. The vinyl LPs of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s by bands like the Edinburgh City Police, Shotts & Dykehead, Glasgow Police and Dysart & Dundonald were coveted objects around the emerging pipe band world, at least with this kid growing up in America’s heartland.

The cardboard jacket would list the tunes, the composers and, most importantly, the members of the band. There they’d be: the names of the superstars who were actually members of a great pipe band who were actually performing on the music spinning round and round the turntable. The pipers and drummers were stars; the pipe-major and leading-drummer were superstars.

It used to be a dream for many pipers and drummers to get into a Grade 1 band and cut an album, in a studio, to see your very own name on glorious cardboard.

But, then, a bunch of things happened.

In 1987 the 78th Fraser Highlanders made Live In Ireland. It’s still the greatest pipe band album of all time, according to the majority, and it was the first major commercial live pipe band recording. It captured energy and excitement from the band and audience, happily trading those massively positive intangibles for the occasional playing blooter or tuning blemish.

So, fairly quickly the pipe band world realized that, rather than anguish for days in an expensive recording studio trying to make a clinically perfect recording with a “pipe band” that might in reality be whittled down to five or six of the best pipers and a handful of drummers, a band can put on a concert and capture it all in one take – get that energy and be forgiven because it’s live.

And digital emerged at about the same. Vinyl gave way to CDs. Recording technology became far less expensive and a cottage industry of CD makers enabled just about any pipe band to make a CD. The “album” itself became a bit commonplace.

And now the pipe band album – live or studio – is on the brink of extinction. Every other pipe band enthusiast with a phone is posting video of every band at every competition on every video platform. There’s still a strong desire for high-quality audio/video, but the exclusivity of being on a commercial recording is lost in the throng of questionable “content” out there.

I suppose being on the World’s BBC streaming broadcast is as close as we come these days to recording stardom. Definitely hitting more people in more places with more pipe band music than ever, but it’s all so anonymous. With video reproductions, apart from the P-M and L-D, the individual band members are never highlighted.

They’re just nameless there in the circle huffing away. There’s hardly a kid in America’s heartland or anywhere else who knows or cares who these accomplished pipers and drummers are. In online video there are no names of musicians, no stories to read on the album cover, no details about the tunes and arrangements – no real glamour.

It’s more inclusive to have all that sketchy video (and even poorer quality audio) content out there for every band and every competition on earth, but it results in a lot of “So what?”

We have more, more, more, but we’ve also lost achievement that used to be exclusive and inspirational.

It’s time for Scottish solo piping reform

The Scottish solo piping scene is a singular beast. While Scotland invented the idea of Highland pipers competing with subjective music judged by “authorities,” there’s really no other country on earth that still uses its system.

And, famously like the old TV show Seinfeld, the Scottish “system” is no system at all.

There are no rules that are applied to more than one competition, let alone a whole circuit. There are no defined grades from contest to contest. There are no training or accreditation processes for judges. There’s frequently not even an order of play on the day. Goodness – judges don’t even have to be accountable to competitors for their decisions and guys who never competed and wouldn’t win a prize in a Grade 3 contest in Arkansas are entrusted to assess performances that they could only dream about delivering.

There is the Competing Pipers Association, run by active competing pipers, almost all of whom are afraid to upset the hierarchy of acclaimed judges, for fear of repercussions on the boards. Borne of the Joint Committee for Judging (or associated with it, I’m still unclear), there is the new Scottish Piping Judges Association, which seems to be trying to do what’s best for judges, but appears to be detached from the competitors in the CPA. The first move of the SPJA is to create milquetoast conflict of interest “guidelines” that appear to say, Declare your conflict, but, well, go ahead and judge if you must.

Um, okay.

Unlike all other piping areas, and pure pipe band organizations like the RSPBA, the solo piping competitors in Scotland have little if anything to do with judging or rules. In Scotland there is almost total separation in the solo piping scene of the powerful from the masses. It is anything but a democratic or member-driven process in Scotland. Everywhere else, the members – the pipers (and drummers) – make the rules by electing or appointing the leaders, by putting through motions, and by voting on rules and policies.

Scotland does none of that essential democratic work and, as a result, it’s a largely haphazard and often inequitable scene. The absence of rules are part of the charm and tradition of solo piping in Scotland, which is okay for tourists, but alarmingly frustrating for those competing in it. The rest of the world’s piping scenes long ago created and opted for something better.

Twenty-five years or so ago when I last did the Scottish games circuit, I knew the drill. After realizing the “system” is no system, and navigating the scene by making connections, playing the game, and, for lack of a better phrase, working it, I thought then that by 2015 reform would have occurred in the shape of amateur grading, criteria for and accreditation of judges, and continuity of rules. In essence – a format adopted by almost the entire rest of the world.

Instead, virtually nothing has changed in Scotland. It’s stuck in a time-warp. Calum Piobaire would fit in comfortably if he came back from the dead to compete at Luss or Lochearnhead or even the Argyllshire Gathering, but he’d also be grumbling still about the familiar inequities and those with power pushing around the pipers.

There are certainly faults and problems with piping and drumming associations around the world. But the key difference is that those faults and problems are in the control of the members – the competitors. They can affect change. The only religion I practice is the religion of piping, and the congregation ultimately changes the church. The congregation is the church. Or it should be. If it isn’t, it’s time to reform the church.

The judging side in the UK seems to want to affect change. The pipers definitely want change. But the fact is this: until there is one association that brings competitors and judges and administration under one roof (with competitors by virtue of their large majority determining their own rules, policies, guidelines and structures), the Scottish solo scene will be stuck in that charming, traditional rut, that few but the tourists seem to think is ideal.

Wipe the slate. Combine the CPA with the SPJA and JCJ and the still fledgling CLASP amateur competing pipers effort and create the Scottish Highland Pipers Association or the Highland Pipers Association or Bruce Og or whatever you want to call it. Allow the members – the large majority of them the pipers themselves – to govern the judging and the rules, as they are set by the members through voting and via the leaders whom they elect and appoint.

The man or woman to lead that reform could well earn a place in the Top 20 Pipers in History.

Until then, the antiquated Scottish system of no system will just see more and more disconnection between judges, competitors and organizers, while the rest of the world continues to do things better.