The shoulder tap

“Perhaps the simpler truth is that each of us has only so many heartbeats. All artists have fat years and leaner ones afterward. They just hope that the lean years don’t turn into a famine, and that there’s enough seed corn left over for sweet if stressed fruit. To have had a rich harvest more or less guarantees a comedown later. The issue is the grace with which you fall.”

– Adam Gopnik,  “Long Play: the charmed lives of Paul McCartney”

Anyone who’s been around the piping and drumming game long enough has seen the unfortunate circumstance of a player’s career coming to an awkward, uncontrolled and sad ending.

It’s being dropped in final tuning for no self-apparent reason. It’s the once-great and now-confused piper finishing at the bottom of the results. It’s the former World’s-winning leading-drummer befuddled as to why his corps was at the bottom, when he was willfully ignorant or, worse, didn’t even realize that he lifted his sticks several times in the performance. It’s the tap on the shoulder by the Grim Reaper of piping and drumming.

But, but . . . I’m not ready to go. I don’t want to go. I’m having too good a time.

It is a sad situation that too many self-unaware people go through.

Now is the time of year when many will take a look at our past and our future, and do a bit of soul-searching. Jim Kilpatrick clearly did that. The most successful competitive pipe band drummer in history took a look at his legacy, his options and his reputation and decided it was time to call it a career while he was not only leading what he said was his best corps ever, but having a great time doing it.

Still playing as well as ever, and well capable of continuing on for years, he took his destiny into his own hands and went out while still on top of his game. It’s an example to follow.

Others aren’t as astutely self-aware. Their best playing years have eluded them but they don’t want to go. They’re having way too much fun. You can’t fault them. After all, who cares if they decided to keep going and going until they’re told to stop or finish last or get dropped at a practice or their entry to a big solo contest is denied? It’s their business.

But our hearts bleed for those who sully their reputation by staying around too long, ignoring the adage that you’re only as good as your last performance. They seem willfully ignorant of their declined abilities. We dare not tell them for fear of offending them, and they dare not ask for fear of what they might hear.

So, ultimately, it often comes down to a bitter end, going out on someone else’s terms, a sad ending to a rich career.

I’ve written about it before in so many words, but perhaps it bears repeating: control your destiny and your legacy. Go out with your best, whatever that best might be. Go out proud. Leave with your dignity and legacy intact.

Be sure to look back not in anger, but in happiness for a career well concluded.

 

March pastiche

This summer I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting a part of that UK pipe band scene tradition at competitions called the “march past.”

For those who might not know, the march past is essentially this: at the end of the day of competitions, the six Grade 1 or Grade 2 bands that competed first in the draw take position about 20 yards from a “reviewing stand” in the middle of the park. Each band takes turns playing a set of 6/8 marches, while every other competing band in every other grade separately marches in step to the 6/8s.

When each band goes by the reviewing stand, the drum-major or pipe-major does a quasi-military salute to a designated “chieftain of the day,” usually a local dignitary or minor celebrity. The D-M or P-M shouts or, in some cases, shrieks, “Band! Eyes . . . right!” and all members of their band are then supposed to look lovingly to their right at the chieftain, while the D-M or P-M does his/her best Benny Hill-style open-hand British military salute. Each band looks at the chieftain for a few bars of the tune, and then looks forward as they indeed march past.

After you see 50 or so bands do this, it starts to get comical. I believe that every band that competes has to do it, or faces disqualification. Centre bands are not compensated for their extra time, musical performance or, since most of them have come straight from the beer tent after quaffing several pints in rapid succession, strained bladders.

At major championships in the UK, where there can be more than 200 bands, the march past ceremony can take literally hours. It is, in a word, interminable, particularly for the unfortunate centre bands, who are standing there for the entire parade, and then for the eventual announcement of prizes, which on its own can take an hour, with comments from the honoured chieftain, announcements of all manner of drum-major awards and at least nine grades of pipe band results.

During the two-plus hours of the march past some desperate pipers and drummers sneak off the field for a pee. They’re apparently not supposed to do this, but it’s better than the old kilted kneel-down to let it go in a puddle right there and then behind the bass drum while band mates stand shotty (something I have only heard about), so officials seem to look away from the ignominious parade of pishing.

One could die of exposure or boredom or muscle atrophy from these things. You don’t know what will come first: the end of the march past or the end of the world. It is mental and physical torture, worse by many magnitudes than any massed bands event, which are familiar to those in North America.

Massed bands are certainly no great hell, but at least there is some entertainment value in them for the non-playing public, who are often attracted to the grand finale spectacle of thousands of pipers and drummers playing “Amazing Grace” and counter-marching up and down the field en masse to “Scotland the Brave” or some other musical potboiler. What’s more, bands in North America understand that it is the massed bands more than the competitions themselves that please the paying public. If a band does not participate in massed bands it forfeits its travel allowance. There is a decent correlation between massed bands, the paying public and compensation for performers.

The massed bands ceremony of course could be improved, but it is miles better than the march past. I’ve participated so far in three march pasts at three championships in 2016, two as a member of one of the centre bands. I hadn’t done that since the 1980s, and nothing had changed. They were exactly the same somnambulant torment as ever, with the same crowd of confounded or dozing grannies on the sidelines who, by the thirtieth band, could not care less about the next Grade Whatever ranks of disinterested players doing their best (or worst) imitations of soldiers or Benny.

I recognize that the march past is a tradition borne of an era when pipe bands were either of the military itself or populated with veterans. Back then, the march past actually meant something and looked impressive and – maybe most importantly – in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s would comprise a small fraction of the number of bands a major championship boasts these days.

Today, pipe bands have grown well beyond their honourable military roots. Bands and march pasts have nothing to do with the military, and is there any other musical hobby where civilians pretend to be soldiers?

If the lengthy march past was originally a way to buy time while administrators tabulated results, that too is history, since a database or spreadsheet today completes the task in a microsecond.

A march past is a pastiche, like a crazy nightmare, band after band inexorably coming at you, seemingly never-ending. It’s a zombie apocalypse. A trail of tears. A death march. Night of the Kilted Dead.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But can’t the custom be replaced with something else? For the pleasure of the paying public, the organizers of competition can provide better value. If not for the improved sanity of pipers and drummers, then there must be something else that will reduce the number of urinary tract infections caused by straining to hold it three hours after swilling multiple pints in the beer tent.

As with many questionable traditions, all it takes sometimes is someone to ask a simple and constructive question in order to evoke positive change.

So, here it is: Is the march past a relic that can be replaced with something more satisfying to all?

Right? Aye?

Aye’s right.

 

Fall out

David Murray’s reported (but as it turned out, incorrect) passing got me thinking again about the military and piping. Looking back, I believe Murray is the last of the pure military men who had a major influence on the judging of piping competitions.

This is no slight against great pipers like Gavin Stoddart, Brian Donaldson, Gordon Walker, Niall Matheson, Stuart Sampson, Michael Gray and others who combined a decorated military career with piping. Long after retiring from the military, they remain terrific contributors to the art, and there will continue to be great pipers who also serve in the military.

But Lieutenant-Colonel David Murray isI think the last of a long era when big piping competitions and military events were confused and even conflated. The Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering until the 2000s routinely saw competitors currently serving in the military, actually on-duty at these events or even around the Scottish games. In some cases, such as with Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald and Major Gavin Stoddart in the 1970s and 1980s, soldier-pipers were ordered to compete, to go out and win medals to make the Scots Guards or Royal Scots or other Scottish regiment look good.

On-duty military competitors were commonplace and part of Scotland’s solo piping tradition for at least a hundred years. It was just the way things were. But as solo piping moved from being largely connected with the military, to being a thing mainly for civilians, the glorious sight of soldiers competing in the immaculate uniform of their regiment dwindled.

And the judges were almost all men who had served with the military, often as commissioned officers, such as David Murray. The UK practiced military conscription until the late 1950s, when the required two-year “National Service” began to be phased out. Anyone born after 1939 did not have to do their stint, and 1960 was the last year for the demobilization of National Service, or “De-Mob.” In fact, if my calculations are right, Iain MacLellan and Andrew Wright are the very last of the great pipers (and now judges) who went through National Service.

So, at solo competitions throughout the UK, judges on the benches very often did their service or were commissioned officers with a Scottish regiment. There would be a lot of talk with the competitors that so-and-so was with the Camerons or Scots Guards or Dragoon Guards or Seaforths, so anyone with [insert regiment here] might be listened to with a different ear – and not necessarily to their advantage. An officer judging a soldier when he knows the competitor is there to do well for his regiment? It’s a bit like the pipe-major judging his own pipe band and those competing against it.

The infamous “ordering off” in 1991 of the late and truly great Corporal Alasdair Gillies, Queen’s Own Highlanders, by (retired) Lieutenant-Colonel David Murray, Queens’ Own Cameron Highlanders, was a bizarre conflation of events. Was this a military exercise or a civilian solo competition? Was Gillies on duty? Did Murray have the right to order him or any competitor off stage? What might have happened if Alasdair were to have given Murray a two-fingered salute and carried on with his tune?

Alasdair being commanded to stand down in the middle of the Gold Medal competition has gone down in history as a permanent part of piping lore. In truth, this kind of confusion routinely happened in smaller ways. Military men who were competing were on some sort of different plane than the rest of us and, if anyone bothered to stop to think about it, someone might or should have called BS on the whole exercise. But, like so much in piping and drumming, it was just the way it was, and you’d better not ask questions if you want to get the benefit of the doubt, which is so crucial in contests that come down to slicing hairs.

At any rate, Lieutenant-Colonel D.J.S. Murray’s death this to me marks the end of a hundred-odd years at least, when civilian piping competitions and military events were confused. It’s for the better that we’ve moved on, but I will still miss the charm and pageantry of immaculately decked-out pipers strutting their stuff before their military superiors, providing a fascinating extra dimension to these events, holdovers from a bygone era.