Good show

Listening to lower-grade bands at Georgetown on Saturday, I can draw a few fairly well informed conclusions:

  1. Bands are playing music that they can actually play. Only a few years ago I was constantly thinking “This material is too hard for this pipe section.” Now, this is infrequent. Rather than trying to wow judges with over-ambitious content, Grade 4 and Grade 5 bands are choosing music that’s within their reach. Whether this is a function of MAP or judges constantly writing “This material is too hard for this pipe section,” it’s a good development.
  2. Some lower-grade bands are coming out with top-grade ensemble presentations. The influence of trends in mid-section accompaniment over the last 10 years is being felt all around. A few Grade 4 bands were really working to provide well-scored and choreographed bass and tenors, but scaled back in a style that’s manageable for the grade. A few Grade 4 bands are producing an ensemble sound better than what you would have heard 20 years ago in Grade 2.
  3. Grade 1 and Grade 2 is not necessarily the most interesting listening experience on the day. The lower grades are becoming very inventive and entertaining in a wide sense. Obviously, tuning, technique and unison are far better at the top, but there is great variety in Grade 4. And it’s always fun to see really young players do their stuff.

The trends of the top grades continue to filter to the lower ones, as they have always done. But it seems like suddenly Grade 4 and Grade 5 bands are remembering to keep it simple, and play within themselves, while at the same time putting on a good show.

Busk stop

For a long time I’ve held the belief that busking is the most honourable form of work there is. If people like what you’re doing, they’ll pay you what they think it was worth to them. If they don’t like it, they can just keep walking.

I busked on Princes Street for the better part of two years. By day I’d essentially practice for three hours or so often at an unused British Home Stores’ door, usually tag-teaming with another piper. Scotland’s weather being so temperate, like golf, you can reasonably busk year-round. I’d often play golf in the morning, busk in the afternoon, and, when there wasn’t a band practice, wait tables at Mama’s in the Grassmarket at night. What a life.

You hear a lot of pipers busking in Toronto whenever the weather’s good, which it is now. During the summer weekdays, I often hear pipes all day long, since I work in a building right at the corner of Yonge and Bloor streets, one of the most well known intersections in Canada. One of the two or three regular piper-buskers will play on any given day.

They’re not great players, but they’re not bad either. Regardless, what they’re doing is making an honest buck. People pay them what they think their 20 seconds of entertainment was worth. And I think they do quite well.

Much better, I would guess, than what we would make on Princes Street. The money was okay there then, but there were a lot of old wifeys who would pass by sneering, with their fingers in their ears. We were pretty good players then, but many Scots seemed to hate the pipes. The tourists of course lapped it up, and I’m sure that I, an American, am in thousands of photo albums as some authentic Scottish piper.
After almost 20 years in Canada, I have never actually heard anyone say that they dislike, much less hate, the pipes. You hear Highland pipes everywhere in Canada, and without fail when I tell people that I play the pipes they say how they “love” the sound, and usually talk about how much it moved them when the piper played at their sister’s wedding or their grandfather’s funeral.

But back to busking: I think most former-waiters leave bigger tips. They understand the difficulty of that job. As a former-busker, I always give buskers who have entertained me, even if it’s just for a few seconds, some money. It’s the honest thing to do.

Crazy training

I’ve been cycling to work now for more than three years. I average probably more than four days a week, doing the 11 km journey, each way, year-round. I generally choose between three bikes. When it’s snowy or the roads are salty, I have a beater with an aluminum frame, which is just about dead after last winter. That Old Grey Mare ain’t what she used to be. When I’m lazy, I ride a very lightweight hybrid-type thing.

But the bike I normally ride is a very simple single-speed rig configured especially for urban journeys. This past weekend I took the plunge and converted it to fixed-gear, which means you have to pedal all the time, and you use your leg muscles to control your speed, something like an extra pair of brakes.

It’s a really efficient way to travel, but it is indeed a workout. Hills are no problem, but there’s one stretch along Bloor coming home that involves going down a fairly good hill for maybe a half-kilometre. This is the fastest part of my journey, and I have gotten it up to 67 km.

The thing is, on a fixed-gear bike, you have to keep pedalling. So going down this hill like I’m used to means that ones legs are flailing away like Michael Flatley on crystal-meth. But once you get going, there’s not much you can do but keep up.

Which reminded me yesterday of a mini-band event in Vancouver I traveled to in 1991 or so with the band I played with at the time. Those who heard this performance still speak of it, and I believe it may be legendary now.

The medley we played was probably the fastest in the history of pipe banddom. Six sets of fingers, 54 in all, were doing everything they could to stay on this crazy train to ignominy. If someone timed it, I’m sure the usually six-minutes 30-seconds selection was shorter than five. It was the weirdest sensation, something I had never been able to capture again until flying down that hill yesterday with no choice but to keep up.