Touch blackwood

“There’s plenty of time for despair,” a friend likes to say when playing golf after someone hits an iffy shot. Rather than assuming that the ball went into the bunker, he encourages you to err on the side of optimism and enjoy the moment.

After hitting tens-of-thousands of bad golf shots and competing in hundreds of piping and pipe band competitions, I’ve learned to take a different tack: assume the worst, because getting your hopes up inevitably results in having them crushed at the prize-giving. In other words, lower your expectations.

Some might see that as a “glass half empty” outlook. Far from it. It’s a line of thinking that’s as much about superstition as it is peace-of-mind.

When competing, I would actively disabuse myself of the idea that I’d be in the prizes, so that in the event that I or my band did win, it would be gravy. And, if we didn’t, well, then, that was no surprise. No matter how well I or the band played, I thought that it was a jinx to expect to win.

I have plenty of small superstitions in piping. Actually, it’s debatable whether they’re superstitions or an attempt at psychological strategy. You be the judge.

When submitting four tunes to a judge, say the one that you’d most like to play third. Why third? Well, listing it first automatically suggests it’s at the top of your mind, so you’re not getting that. Saying it second makes it an instant afterthought to the first. “What was the second tune again?” many judges will ask, proving the point. It takes a cruel judge to pick the last tune you say (of course after you paused to make it look like you can’t even remember it), and contrary to what you might believe, judges are nice people. Trust me, it’s the third tune that on average is the most likely to be picked.

In a draw at the line in a band contest, always pick the right hand. Most people are right-handed. They favour the right side. Chances are the right pick will be in the right hand. Did you know that the Latin word for “left” is “sinister”? Enough said.

Forgetting, or – much worse – consciously deciding not to take your rain cape means that it’s sure to rain. It’s all your fault. Yes, you can be all-powerful and control the weather just by thinking of or forgetting things.

Never wear sunglasses while competing. Okay, it’s not exactly bad luck, but unless your vision is impaired, few things communicate arrogance like sporting shades in a contest. Playing well should be cool enough. What are you hiding?

Prizes are better announced in order. People often think that announcing in reverse order builds suspense. It just creates more despair, since we all like to live in hope that, Hey, maybe I’m first! only to find yourself and 10 other competitors crestfallen. Vice versa can be true, but by the time they announce third or fourth I no longer care much. That said, I’ll never forget many years ago at the World’s when Grade 3 or something was announced in order. The band next to us got increasingly more agitated when their name wasn’t called out with each prize announced. After they were not even sixth, the lead-drummer screamed out an ear-splitting obscenity at the poor RSPBA Executive Officer that rhymes with Truck My Flock! But overall, announcing in order is better for everyone.

A perfect tune-up invites disaster. Warming up on the golf range or the putting green, hitting everything well or going in brings one thing: a terrible round of golf will follow. Similarly, tuning that seems to be flawless right out of the box inevitably results in a performance that craters on the field. Get out the flaws. Miss a few attacks. Fly around madly searching for that bad F. Get a bit unsettled. It focuses the mind at crunch time.

Eagerly checking the prizes results in your not being in them. Most solo competitions post the results somewhere. You can tell newbie competitors. They’re the ones hovering around, anxious to see their success. Experienced competitors hang back. Many never even look and instead wait for someone to say later in the day, “Well done on the prize(s)!” And then you say, “Oh, was I in? I didn’t even look.” Nonchalance is key to playing the part. Your bag might be bursting with anticipation, but under no circumstances should you actively seek out the result. Often, the only result is embarrassment.

When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition is the way.

Are you superstitious? Carry a talisman in your sporran? A lucky tie? Idol thoughts? Feel free to share.

 

Sales pitch

Reeds do it. Metres do it. Even educated beaters do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall apart.

With apologies to Cole Porter, the “it” in question is obsolescence, the failure of a product requiring customers to need the next version.

For most industries, planned obsolescence is necessary to sustain business. A product can become obsolete through continual improvement, as in your iPhone. After a time, technology overtakes technology, rendering an older product useless. Changing fashion is about style, but it’s also about creating new desirable products through perceived obsolescence, otherwise, loin-clothes would still be in vogue.

Musical instruments by and large are an exception. A quality musical instrument can last a lifetime, or even several lifetimes, provided that the instrument can cope with the evolution of pitch and, in the case of pianos, incredible tension that can eventually break down a pressure bar, rendering the instrument untenably untunable.

In terms of tension, a pipe band snare drum with upwards of a thousand pounds of pressure puts a piano’s maximum 200 pounds to shame. There is an incredible amount of torque required to bring a pipe band snare to pitch, and an ever-more-demanding drum pitch to complement an ever-sharper chanter sound is a great business recipe.

I have often wondered whether ever-rising pitch across almost all genres of music isn’t about planned obsolescence. From what I have read, the pitch of symphony orchestras has steadily increased, just like pipe bands. No one knows exactly why, but a possible theory is that it puts more pressure, figuratively and literally, on instruments, necessitating replacement parts or outright replacement.

I defer to experts on the mechanicals and engineering of a snare drum, but I believe that shells can buckle, hardware can bend, snare mechanisms fail, eventually rendering the instrument unstable. Pipe chanters generally have a much longer shelf-life, but they too are subject to the pressures of pitch, reed-seats knackered, holes gouged beyond repair, and so forth. At $850-$1,400 each, the pipe band snare drum and its various heads and snares that need regular replacing are the biggest annual collective equipment expense for a band.

I’m sure that a percussion instrument maker could create a snare drum that lasts as long as a Land Rover, but, trouble is, it would probably weigh too much to carry or be too expensive to purchase in the short-term, even though it might pay off in the long-term. Percussion instrument makers tempt bands further by bringing out the latest and greatest drums that promise to be more responsive and resilient, with glorious new sparkly shiny finishes to bling your back end. Just like your iPhone, what started five years ago as a state-of-the-art miracle device becomes a despicable piece of dated garbage.

In 2009, Terry Cleland created snare drums with carbon fibre shells that were lightweight and hardly or never deteriorated under pressure. They came in at a relatively expensive price, and haven’t caught on. He gave a complete set to the Grade 1 Ballycoan band, only to see the band buckle and break up before it ever took the drums into a contest.

Drum makers are smart to give away their instruments to the top bands, just like Taylor Made and Titleist get the best golfers to use their newest gear. The lead-drummers of the lower-grade bands beg and plead for their band to buy them the gear that is sure to up their game when, in fact, it probably won’t make too much difference to reconcile an outlay of $15,000, including matching tenors, bass and heads.

It’s a terrific business model – one that I won’t fault. If it weren’t for pipe chanters and their eventual obsolescence, I wonder how many bagpipe makers would stay afloat. Pipe band snare drum makers consistently strive to create more tension to satisfy tonal taste, and the pitch going higher and higher virtually guarantees sales. Woe betide drum and bagpipe makers if the prize-winning Grade 1 sound suddenly dropped 15 cycles. We’d all be pulling out our old 10-lug Super Royal Scots and Robertson chanters.

Pushing up the pitch is business-smart, lucrative obsolescence.

 

Take me to church

There are few competing pipers and drummers who would list “Highland Cathedral” as their favourite tune. In fact, many of us dislike it, perhaps because so  many non-pipers/drummers love it. But we will play it exactly for that reason.

The piece was written in 1982 by German piper Michael Korb in collaboration with music producer and arranger Ulrich Roever. Unlike almost every piece of bagpipe music, “Highland Cathedral” was created with the key objective of commercial success. They looked past the parochial pipe music audience, apparently recognizing a way to go beyond the “Amazing Grace” Highland games cliché. Crucially, they composed not for a pipe band competition medley or a competition pipe band concert, but for the paying public.

I’d say that Korb and Roever have been extremely successful. For 35 years now “Highland Cathedral” has been played at weddings, on best-selling albums and, most importantly, at big tattoos around the world. A recent example was the 2016 Virginia Tattoo in Norfolk, where a full orchestration of “Highland Cathedral” was performed at each show, twice a day, to a sold-out arena of about 15,000 people who paid about $50 for a ticket.

In case you’re still thinking that there is “nae money” in bagpipe music, consider that “Highland Cathedral” is registered with various royalties collections organizations around the world, and is looked after and promoted by a major music publishing company. From the performances of their work at Norfolk alone, the composers of “Highland Cathedral” should have earned well-deserved royalties of five-figures. (If you happened to have a tune played at the same tattoo, be sure to register with a performing rights organization so that they can go get the money that you have rightfully earned.)

I say that they earned the royalties because they recognized in 1982 an opportunity to create a piece of music for a market that was under-served. The composers deserve to receive their fair share in return for making people happy with their music. To pipers, “Highland Cathedral” is no “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran,” but, to the public, “Mrs. MacPherson” is just another bagpipe song that to their ear sounds the same as that other zippy jiggy reel thingmee.

It’s amazing and a little bit sad that for 35 years we pipers and drummers haven’t been able to improve on “Highland Cathedral.” We might snobbily groan at the piece, but what have we done to reach out and connect with a non-piping audience? Are we still naïvely expecting the world to wake up and realize the greatness of “Mrs. MacPherson”?

Korb (Roever died a few years ago) might be quietly wondering why the treacle-pop-pipe-tune hasn’t been bettered, or at least met with some other original musical competition at tattoos and weddings.

So, here’s my idea: let’s improve on “Highland Cathedral.” Someone with serious piping chops, with a gift for recognizing a simple, easy melody, and who still has the creativity gene that generally declines after age 30, should collaborate with a current music producer and arranger to create a piece that everyone – pipers, drummers and non-playing public – can enjoy repeatedly playing and hearing.

It can’t be an esoteric jazzy work like “Journey to Skye,” or a hand-mangling blur like “Hellbound Train,” or derivative arrangement of Pachelbel’s “Canon.” No, what’s needed is a simple, original air, with a beat, that lasts no more than four minutes, respectful to the great music of the Highland pipe, with a name that conjures up a nice, Highland image, like “My Scottish Hearth and Home,” or “Tartan Mist,” or “Song for Auld Scotia” – something warm and evocative anyway. Make it in a happy, major key, and orchestrate the poignant piece with someone who knows what he/she is doing in multiple ways for various ensembles to accompany the pipes and drums: brass band, orchestra, rock band, Celtic folk, and so forth.

And after that, find and sign with a serious music publisher (one expert in the non-piping world) that will work to get the music out there at shows, tattoos, commercials, movies, TV shows . . . A good music publisher knows how to do this, and will work hard because they stand to make at least 30% of the royalties from the shared success.

If you do it right, you will have created a piece better for piping and drumming than “Highland Cathedral,” which the non-playing public will grow to love, and which, as a bonus, will earn you a lot of money.

In return for this great idea, I’d be happy with a 5% split of the royalties. Let me know how you get on.