Solitary confinement

I’ve said before that Highland piping is often a solitary pursuit that attracts introverts. The lone piper. Solo competition. Hours of isolated practice at home. Maybe nowhere in our art is independence more evident than in our music creation.

An estimate based on a lifetime of observation is that 99% of pipe music is written by a lone composer. Music creation in our world is thriving, driven by an ever-present thirst for the new by competition pipe bands. A band with a strong composer in its ranks has a great advantage.

I work in the songwriting, composing and music publishing side of the music industry. Our piping and drumming world is a model of creativity. But it’s also a relative outlier in that our composers don’t truly collaborate with each other to make tunes together.

Songwriters (also usually introverts), on the other hand, actively seek out new ideas from their peers. They attend song camps with other writers. They trade notes, as it were, and concepts for new music. Their publishers will put together writers from disparate genres and styles to see what happens. They chip away at their stuff, adding a word here, a key change there. They experiment with different idioms. They are almost always totally open to working together to create a better or more widely appealing work.

The exceptions to pipe music composers writing in solitude are generally the instances of a composer tacking on a few parts to an existing tune. Donald MacLeod did it a lot with traditional pieces, to the point where we attribute “The Wee Man from Skye,” for example, to him as the sole composer, when in fact it’s his arrangement. Piping schools will sometimes have an entire class compose a tune, coming up with phrases and changes together. Mainly because these pieces are written by relatively inexperienced pipers, they’re generally not great (read: terrible) compositions, but well intentioned and educational though they might be.

I was once in a band where, like most bands, we’d sit around the table with practice chanters in the winter and trade ideas on music possibilities for the next season. There were several composers in the band. They’d pitch new compositions, and the rest of the pipe corps would suggest a note change here, a timing improvement there, or even a collective Ugh! on first-listen of some or other hopeless piece. The group as a whole was a good editing machine. It was collaborative and, in many instances, it was a co-writing process. The tune got better when rattled around the ears of others.

Tunes that go through an editing process are almost invariably better. I don’t know what G.S. McLennan’s writing process was, but I would guess that he would, as I understand Donald MacLeod did, bounce tunes off of carefully chosen trusted pipers for their opinions and suggestions and then make many amendments and revisions before declaring a piece “final.” And no piece of music is ever final, anyway.

Composers who collaborate will often realize that they’re better off trashing a tune altogether. On their own, they might not twig that it’s too close to another piece designed around our nine notes, or that the new tune is unplayable or, um, unappealing.

Most composers do seek advice and suggestions about their draft work, but rarely if ever would they give credit to another piper as a co-writer, whereas in songwriting and composing in other genres it wouldn’t only be expected, it would be legally prudent. There’s a saying in the songwriting industry: “Change a word, get a third.”

How many pipe music composers sit down with one or more other composers to create a tune from scratch? Are there bands out there where the pipers sit around that winter table and collectively create a tune needed for the new medley? Or do all bands expect “the composer” in the band to come up with something great on his or her own?

I know that most of us are introverts who, perhaps paradoxically, like being in a spotlight, letting our music speak for us. But when it comes to new compositions, taking the cue from successful songwriters and seeking real collaboration could well pay better dividends for the art.

 

Schooled

Scotland has resurrected piping and drumming to unprecedented new heights through widespread, accessible teaching. It’s an awesome and continuing success story, and the fruits of its strategy have become more and more evident with each passing year.

Just take a look at last week’s Shotts & Dykehead Juniors competition: 185 young pipers and drummers competing in a variety of solo events. Look at what’s to come in March when more than 800 piping and drumming students from at least 120 schools will participate in the eleventh Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships. And witness the steady growth in size and quality of Scotland-based pipe bands across all grades.

Teaching piping and pipe band drumming in private and public schools is now baked in to the Scottish curriculum. When 20 years ago playing the pipes might have been the epitome of nerdiness, today it’s cool-factor seems to have risen at least on par with playing bass in the school rock band.

It’s hard out there for the rest of the world to keep up, and it will only get more difficult.

As much as other piping and drumming regions of the world would love to have widespread teaching programs as part of public and private schools’ curriculum, it’s not realistic. Yes, there will be exceptions, such as St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario, or Knox College in Sydney, Australia.

But in countries like Canada and the United States that have been built with a diversity of immigrants, expecting that Highland piping and pipe band drumming will be taught in the public school system is as likely as India’s sitar or the Chinese erhu becoming part of the curriculum, equally excellent and deserving instruments though they might be. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the reality. It’s not impossible, just extremely unlikely.

Bands not based in Scotland are increasingly scrambling for players to keep up with both the numbers and standard of their Scottish counterparts. While the World Championships continue to be a draw for international bands in all grades, every year I see more of them bolstering rosters with available players from other groups, even from the cross-town rivals, just to meet the size standard, and hopefully also playing quality, when they get to Scotland.

Let me be clear: the Scots are doing the right thing for piping and drumming, and are not responsible in any way for the resulting challenges felt in the rest of the world. The grassroots teaching efforts by Scottish immigrants and visiting instructors that began some 50 or 60 years ago that brought piping and pipe bands in Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand to a world standard have been formally adopted by the home of piping and drumming but in a more organized and publicly supported way.

And barring some radical shakeup by unanticipated Sassenachs, the Scottish teaching infrastructure will only improve and expand. There will be a standard in each grade for Scottish bands, while visitors – including those at the top of their grade at home – more often than not will languish in the lower half.

While Scotland should celebrate and be congratulated for its teaching success, the rest of the world will need to find new ways to keep up. Idly expecting local bands or occasional individuals to do all the teaching using a variety of excellent, good or downright terrible methods will not be enough. Associations need to step up with organized programs and standards that make learning piping and drumming accessible to young students. They need to work with school districts to investigate at least the possibility of getting organized expert teaching into classrooms.

Associations should have recognized it 20 years ago, and some, including me, tried to get programs off the ground a decade or longer ago only to be rejected ultimately by executives and board members.

If the rest of the world is going to keep up, it’s no longer enough for piping and drumming societies and associations to be Highland games-running machines. They need to provide the fuel and the fire to keep the mechanism running.

 

In this age

The RSPBA recently “aged out” three of its judges. Dixie Ingram, Joe Noble and Ian Wood each reached the age of 75, so they can no longer serve on the Scottish association’s panel.

(I have no idea if any of these gentlemen wanted or thought it best to retire. They’re only this year’s examples and, by the way, to each of you, thank you for your long service to pipe bands.)

My understanding of the RSPBA’s rules about judges and age is that, once an adjudicator turns 70, he or she has met the official retirement age. But after 70 they can apply annually if they want to continue, confirming their health and continuing ability to judge. The application is considered by the association’s Adjudicators’ Panel Management Board and then approved by the Board of Directors, all young whippersnappers, I’m sure.

I don’t know how they assess. Perhaps the 70-plus judges have to show that they can walk around a large circle in allotted time period. Maybe they have one of those sound-proof beeping booths with the 1960s headphones, asking adjudicators to raise their hand when they hear various pitches and tones. (If not, please consider as part of the general accreditation exam, including a bit to recognize notes that are sharp or flat . . .)

It’s sort of like driving licenses for old folks, but far less a matter of life-and-death. One slip of the pen might bury a band, but that’s better than a four-thousand-pound automobile careening into oncoming traffic. As far as I know, after age 70 people in the UK can re-sit driving exams every three years until they can’t.

However, for RSPBA judges, officials and directors, at age 75 that’s it. No choice in the matter. Your career of standing out there, often in the horizontal rain, is over, no matter how young a 75-year-old you might be. No more cups of tea and watercress sandwiches for you. No more £75 daily fee. The powerful salad days are over, you ancient person!

Of course, there are different degrees of aging, depending on diet, exercise, financial situation and genes. You can lose hearing, of course, which would be a major detriment to judging if it can’t be adequately remedied with increasingly sophisticated in-ear aides.

You can lose mobility, making you less able to walk around a band to hear the one piper in the corner who’s blootering along. (Then again, there’s no requirement for a judge to move at all, and some able-bodied folks like to wear out one patch of grass all afternoon, some never budging from their wee hut.)

I’d be careful with the hard-and-fast age 75 deadline (as it were). People today are overall in far better shape than they were even 20 years ago. There are wildly different versions of 75. Our top pipers and drummers are successfully competing and performing longer than ever, often because their professional piping and drumming careers built on teaching and selling stuff depend on upholding their “brand,” and the best personal brand marketing in this particularly industry is playing well publicly. So they’re finding ways to keep going.

There will be more and more top exponents of the art who, like Bill Livingstone, ultimately decide to pack it in only when they’re well into their seventies, leaving just a handful of years for the world to benefit from their adjudication wisdom, even if they might be twice the physical fitness and an order of magnitude more knowledgeable and qualified than judges half their age.

The RSPBA might want to examine its ageist policy. Categorically sending still-spry judges off to the figurative glue factory is ill-advised, that is, in this day . . . and age.