Plumage

Around 1986, I read an article in Maclean’s by Canadian columnist Allan Fotheringham in which he remarked that the normal order of things in the animal world is for the male of the species to wear the brighter colours, to be more flamboyant than the female. The female cardinal is brown and black, a lioness lacks a mane . . . you get the picture.

Fotheringham went on to observe that humans are different in that females are the ones to get all dolled-up and, on average, work hardest at attracting with makeup and nice clothes. An exception is the Scots. When it comes to traditional garb, the Scottish male outdoes the female in a major way. The male Northern Celt understands the power of the kilt when it comes to attracting attention.

A few years ago I happened to be sitting next to Fotheringham at a dinner in downtown Toronto. By this time he had been a bit disgraced when it was discovered that he had apparently plagiarized several articles. He wasn’t getting much writing work. But I told him that I was a piper and that I had really liked his observations about the Scots and the kilt.

Seemingly well into his cups he said that he didn’t really remember the article, but thought that the premise was quite good. We discussed the wearing of the kilt, but that to a competitive piper the kilt is a uniform requirement rather than a courting option – at least when one is well-entrenched in the competition system.

Anyway, I’m not sure what all this means, but it may explain in a basic way the dominance of the male in the Highland bagpipe world. Combine the plumage of the kilt with the mating call of the pipe, and it’s only natural that more males than females are initially attracted to the instrument.

To be sure, women are every bit as good at the Highland pipe as men, but it can’t be denied that more males are drawn to play the pipes than females. The spectacle of the kilt and the allure of the sound attract attention. It’s certain mating-magnetism.

 

Authority

Been thinking about “authority.” It’s a word you hear and read a lot in high-brow piping circles. There must be “authority” to everything we play. Settings of set tunes aren’t acceptable without recognized “authority.” The Piping Times purports to be an “authority” on piping.

I’m all for knowledgable and respected people providing advice and constructive criticism to others, and if that’s authority, great. But in musical terms, what constitutes authority? Who suddenly has a right to be an authority on the way the music should be played? Why do we always try to limit our music to something that has already been done and established and accepted?

I’ve always found it funny that winning certain prizes makes people an authority. Gold Medals won by those who really know only a handful of tunes are suddenly catapulted into “authority” territory, while guys who toiled in the contests for years who know more than 100 tunes and every one of their settings are overlooked.

A friend of mine was asked by a judge after he played in a piobaireachd contest, “Who is the ‘authority’ for the way you played that tune?” His response was, “Me.” It was as if the judge needed some recognized name attached to the tune to award a prize. Not having that gave the judge enough courage to leave my friend out of the prizes. What a crock.

Shouldn’t we stop using “authority” as a crutch for our own broken courage, and simply play and award prizes to the music that we like?

“I fought authority, authority always wins,” sang John Mellencamp before he had the courage to banish the “Cougar” name given to him by music-business “authorities.”

It’s time we banished the word “authority” from piping. It’s creepy.

 

Retired

A few years ago I wrote an editorial about how difficult it can be for a competitor in any activity to bow out, to call it a day, to git while the goin’s still good. A few people asked, “Were you talking about me?” and my response was generally, no, but if you see yourself in those thoughts, then I suppose it is about you.

Actually, the editorial was mainly about me, and now I think that I have decided to stop competing. It’s been nearly 30 years of tramping the boards, 25 in the open or professional category. (Actually, four of those years I didn’t play in solo competition due to 1) living in a basement apartment with no place to practice, and 2) playing with a band that demanded hours of freaking difficult content to be at my fingertips.)

I can still play well and still get invitations to big contests, but the drive and fire has left me, and my interests are now in my family, travel, biking, golf, baseball, music, and, of course, all the various other piping-related things that I get up to and seem to please many more people than any tune I might play.

It’s not exactly bowing out like Seinfeld or Michael Jordan, when you’re ruling your world, but, then again, I don’t think that I ever jumped the shark, as it were. And we’ve all grimaced at failing athletes and artists who didn’t know when to stop.

I’m fortunate that I am still so involved in the piping and drumming world well beyond solo competing. I’ll have more time for those things, and I’m looking forward to trying to make even more of a difference.

Here’s to the newest generation of solo pipers!