Why pipe sections are bigger

Why are pipe sections so big? It’s the great question of this particular era of pipers and drummers, and there’s no sign of the issue going away any time soon. It’s a quandary that virtually every competing band in every grade faces.

Be big or go home.

In 1993 I interviewed the great Iain MacLellan, former pipe-major of the Glasgow/Strathlcyde Police Pipe Band and owner of 12 World Championships. This was just before the dawn of plastic or fibre drone reeds, moisture systems and synthetic bags. Back then it was still all cane and sheepskin, and the number of serious options for chanter reeds was maybe three – McAllister, Shepherd and Warnock, and with all of those a piper needed to know how to work with them. Achieving a sound was an art.

While he certainly had excellent pipers during his tenure, in the interview MacLellan spoke about the requirement that his pipers over all else had to be able to create, manage and sustain tone. So, the guys in his bands had to have a combination of excellence in tone and technique.

Twenty-one years on, the tone challenge has been made immeasurably easier to meet through advancements in the instrument. Anyone who has listened to an amateur solo piping event or Grade 4 band competition hears tone that two decades ago was the stuff of at least two grades higher. Their quality of technical and musical playing is probably about the same but, by and large, the sound of almost every competition piper or pipe band today is relatively pleasant.

Today, for pipe bands, finding pipers with a good-sounding pipe is not the big deal it once was.

I also hear amateur solo pipers who play in top-grade bands who, technically, never would have got a game in Grade 1 in 1990. They wouldn’t have had the technical ability and musical finesse to be accepted. If they had the temerity to ask to join, they would have been kindly told the band was “full up.”

I’d venture to say that there’s hardly a competition band today that would turn away a player who’s within the broad technical scope required. Chances are, they have a pipe and tone that can meet the grade. There’s no longer such a thing as “full up.”

Smaller bands demand tighter unison. A quartet can’t afford a slip or anything but perfect sync. With every piper added, the needed precision wanes incrementally. Iain MacLellan’s pipe section of 12 or 14 demanded precision of playing.

A pipe section of 24, 25 or 30 is not nearly as stringent. Some bands at the top certainly appear to have wonderful unison, but there are still pipers in even the best bands who never would have made the cut in the same top-tier band 20 years ago.

So, it makes perfect sense for a modern band of any grade to build as large a pipe section as possible. Not only is it impressive, but it’s naturally more forgiving in terms of unison lapses and even mistakes. An added benefit is that large sections are built-in insurance against collapse. Two or three pipers leaving in 1990 would mean hard times for a band; for many bands today, it’s hardly a problem.

Advances in bagpipe “technology” have produced better sounding and steadier instruments, easier to tune and keep in tune, opening the doors to playing in grades two decades ago that would have been well above a piper’s ability. A bigger pipe section naturally covers up technical problems that would have been glaring in 1990.

That’s why pipe sections today are bigger.

Repetition, repetition

RepeatSignPipe bands and solo pipers are generally reluctant to introduce unfamiliar tunes into their competition repertoire. It’s usually regarded as an unnecessary risk to unveil a medley of all, or even half, newly minted, previously unheard content. When it comes to MSRs, those of us who have been around a few years have heard “The Clan MacRae Society,” “Blair Drummond” and “Mrs. MacPherson” ten-thousand times.

But why is this? I repeat: Why is this?

I read an interesting article last spring on the National Public Radio Shots blog about repetition and familiarity in music. “Not only does every known human culture make music, but also, every known human culture makes music [in which] repetition is a defining element,” the piece said.

Essentially, the premise is that repetition in music works because of what’s known as the mere exposure effect. People are generally tense when it comes to the unfamiliar. Humans through millions of years of self-preservation are naturally suspicious and wary of change. Only after a while, when we get to know someone or something through repetition and familiarity, we tend to warm up to them.

It’s a fascinating little piece that produced a eureka moment for me and pipe music. Pipe music is similar to other music. The rock song that we didn’t much like the first time gets better and better with repeated listens. More frequently the instant likeability of a new song is due to that song being a lot like a familiar song – derivative, even. (I was happy to remember that I alluded to that in a review of a St. Thomas Episcopal School Pipe Band CD almost 15 years ago.) Record labels often encourage their artists to go after a familiar and popular sound. Why? It’s more likely to be liked.

We know, too, that pipe music derived from Gaelic song, which some feel is in part derived from birdsong. It’s music that repeats itself, through a communal chant while waulking cloth, or a curlew repeating its song to attract a mate, or “Cameronian Rant” riffing on the same theme for eight or 20 parts, or the hypnotic effect of a piobaireachd like “The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy.”

Bands that have competed with a wholly new set of tunes can only hope that the judges will do the unnatural thing and react positively. Like it or not, it’s instinctive to reject altogether unfamiliar music, no matter how well it’s performed. We can admire the artistic effort, but, if we don’t like the music, pretty much no amount of tuning, unison and tone will overcome that natural rejection.

And that is why pipe bands and solo pipers stay with the familiar. They want to succeed, and to succeed, the music – on the whole – must be liked. And to be liked, it bears repeating.

And that is why substantial change in styles of pipe music takes generations to take hold. At best, a band that values winning (and what’s the point of competing if you don’t want to win?) might throw in a few original, but certainly derivative, tunes in a medley, or make a jig out of a well-kent strathspey’s melody-line.

Certainly and, perhaps, sadly, ScottishPower intertwining “A Flame of Wrath” in a medley tempted some fate. It’s a familiar piece to any solo piper, but, the trouble is, there are very few serious competitive solo pipers who are RSPBA adjudicators. Judging from the results, I think many adjudicators must have been dumb-struck because, to them, it was for all purposes unfamiliar and they reacted naturally. If the band stays with it in 2015, the overall reaction to the now familiar music will likely be friendlier. They should warm up to it.

The rare instances of pipe bands that competed with non-derivative, completely original, “avant-garde” selections (78th Fraser Highlanders “Megantic Outlaw” 1991; Toronto Police medleys 2008-2013) might have been noble and ingenious efforts to push the art ahead quickly and dramatically on the competition field, but accepted that the art was more important than the winning. There are exceedingly few competitors who will voluntarily reduce their chances of competition success to make a musical point.

And so our art, because it is so wrapped up in competition, progresses at a snail’s pace. Each new generation of pipers discovers “Blair Drummond” or “Itchy Fingers” and enjoys the first few thousands plays at least. The few who stay with competition for three of four decades find that, at an advanced age, it’s very unlikely that musical change can be effected when new generations of wide-eared young pipers and drummers keep coming in, marveling at every last over-played note of “Cameronian Rant.”

We relish the familiar. Repetition gains familiarity, which in turn gains warmth and acceptance, and if familiarity breeds contempt, by that time, it’s too late to effect serious change.

Sadly, sadly, it is forever, forever so-so.

Break it down

“I broke down.”

These are the saddest of possible words a competitive solo piper has to say.

The ignominy of going off the tune and skulking from the competition stage (even if the “stage” might be a parking lot or a bumpy patch of grass in a farmer’s field) is perhaps unique to our wee club.

Is there another musical instrument where the performer, after making a mistake, simply stops and walks off? Sure, small children at violin recitals might get so petrified that they break down and cry. Despite the tune, I am certain there are no breakdowns with banjo players.

But I’m talking about experienced and fairly mature performers think the best option is to go away, deflated, sporran between their legs in shame.

I lost the bottle.

He crapped the bed.

She lost the plot.

I made a *&$% of it.

He broke down.

I think pipers might be singular in this respect. It is somehow acceptable for us just to bugger off rather than continue the performance with little or no chance of a prize. Notwithstanding a physical mishap, like a hole in the bag or a reed falling out, where the instrument is no longer playable, it’s part of our tradition, it seems, to flat-out give up the ghost rather than persevere.

The show must not go on.

“How did it go?” solo pipers ask each other. “I got through it,” is often the response, not saying it was good or bad, but only confirming that you didn’t break down, because it’s always a possibility that the person stopped playing part-way through.

Many years ago I had a spell at the games when I couldn’t seem to “get through” any event. I had the equivalent of what golfers refer to as “the yips.” I was playing well enough in practice, but as soon as I got out there my brain wouldn’t allow my body to work right. The traditional piper thing to do was and is to simply stop. The right thing to do would be to keep going no matter what, just to prove to yourself that you can indeed, “get through it.”

At least finishing – as hard as it might be – is something to be proud of. There is absolutely zero pride, I suggest, to be gained from breaking down.

The strange thing is that there is not an experienced piper at any time in history who has never had at least one breakdown in competition. Breakdowns seem to happen less these days, but they still occur even at the very highest levels in the very biggest competitions.

It’s another peculiar and questionable piping tradition: the breakdown.

So, let’s break it down: is it better to stop and slink off, or is it better to get back on it and finish the tune?