Stars and bars

Warning: this isn’t much about piping.

The World Cup is all the rage around Toronto. Since Canada’s not in it, and since the country comprises about one-third first-generation immigrants, every other car seems to have a flag mounted to its side. These flags are being sold all around the city. With every result there are spontaneous celebrations down the streets, cars honking, fans cheering, traffic stopping and no one, not even people from the losing side, getting too bothered by it.

Biking along College and Bloor streets I go through Korean, Portugese, Brazillian, Jamaican, Italian, Polish, Czech, Ukraine and Russian areas, each maybe four or five blocks long. It’s a daily dose of world culture. Immigrants to Canada are intensely proud of their new Canadian home, but they keep and show their strong connection to their homeland. It’s part of Canadian culture (at least in Toronto), and maybe also explains the popularity of things-Scottish across the country. One’s no less Canadian being proud of your country of birth.

Apparently there are more than 80,000 US-citizens living in the city of Toronto. Being one of them, I was keen to find an American flag to fly on our car (have one of those, too), but despite trying numerous vendors there was not a single one to be found. In fact, I don’t recall even seeing an American flag on any car at any time over the last two weeks.

I’m not sure why that is. Americans are famous for displaying their patriotism on their sleeves, their lapels, their heart and even tattooed on their skin. It didn’t make sense to me that the tens-of-thousands of US citizens wouldn’t want to fly Old Glory while the US team was still in the World Cup.

Nevermind. Tomorrow we’ll fly our Canadian flag, and on Tuesday we’ll fly our American flag, and on St. Andrew’s Day the Saltire will go up. Maybe we’ll put out the St. George’s Cross if/when England wins it all!


Size matters

Last Saturday at Georgetown, listening to the various bands in various grades, I was conscious of pipe-section sizes. You couldn’t help but be aware of the issue. The 78th Frasers played with 21 pipers, while City of Washington had, I believe, 13, and the Toronto and Peel police bands had numbers in between. In Grade 3, the Hamilton Police band’s section was, I think, 18, playing against bands considerably smaller.

Comparisons are difficult, since sound qualities and texture are radically different. There’s an unmistakable broadness that comes from a band with more than 18 pipers, while a band of 10-to-14 often will come across with a tightness of tone – provided both sections are decently tuned, which almost all bands from Grade 3 upwards are today.

A judge by necessity these days has to remind him or herself that it’s not a numbers game. It’s easy to be impressed or swayed by a larger section because the initial impact is almost always more substantial, even if it isn’t always more refined. The Manawatu band last year at the World’s didn’t necessarily have the largest pipe section, but it had a purity and clarity of chanter sound that is so hard to achieve with even a smaller section. But I’m sure that judges at the World’s had a hard time assessing Manawatu in relation to some of the bands playing with 18, 19, 20 pipers, and it would take a courageous judge to rate a smaller sound with impeccable unison over a massive section with stellar drones and powerful chanter tone.

While I like hearing a variety of sounds, I am a proponent of putting a limit on section sizes to level the field a bit. Competition in any form needs to have as level a playing-field as possible to be as successful and equitable as possible. If Grade 1 pipe section sizes were capped at, say, 18 it would help to put an end to the dilemmas that judges find themselves in, and perhaps mitigate a bit of chagrin. (I stress that I have not heard of any chagrinning from Georgetown.)

And if all Grade X bands continually meet maximum numbers, then the number can be raised accordingly, allowing the requirement and standard to rise as a whole, rather than risk leaving some bands behind in a survival-of-the-biggest struggle.


Jottings from Georgetown

About halfway through judging the Intermediate Amateur Pibaireachd contest I thought to myself, What could be better than being paid to listen to good piping all day long? Even though it was like a windy late-autumn day, the solo piping I heard was impressive, and any one of four in that piobaireachd contest or the Professional Jig could have been placed first by another judge. What’s most impressive are the pipes. There’s hardly an instrument that goes substantially astray and doesn’t have a well-pitched and tuned chanter.

Allison MacDonald, first-on in the Intermediate Amateur Piobaireachd, played “The MacFarlanes’ Gathering” with nice style and with exceptionally good hands. Watch this name. If she sticks with it and gets good tuition, she’s going places.

The Grade 1 band contest was very good. The 78th Frasers were strong with 21 pipers, solid right-round the circle. What was great to hear was that all four bands were a significant improvement over 2005, particularly Peel Police and City of Washington. CoW had a very well-set sound and, if not for some unfortunate mistakes, may have finished higher. Even though I was on piping, I couldn’t help hearing the Toronto Police’s new snares, which, to my ear, seemed lively and nicely pitched.

If pipers and bands could play so well at the trying Georgetown conditions, 2006 should be a very good year in Ontario, with rising standards across the boards.