Basic in-sync

Don't hold your breath!One of my favourite channels is PBS High Definition. When Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s (Big Macs, etc.) founder, Ray Kroc, died a few years back she left $225 million to PBS. They had the foresight to invest heavily in HD right away, and some of their programming is sensational.

There are a number of documentaries on obscure topics that have interested me. There’s a series called, The Pursuit of Excellence. There was one on ferrets and another on hairdressing (honest) that were excellent. I’m usually fascinated by “world championships” for anything off the beaten-path . . . like pipe bands.

A “Pursuit of Excellence” show that also got my attention was one on synchronized-swimming. It showed the nearly all-female participants (there was one poor male swimmer who was supremely talented but not allowed to compete due to rules preventing men from taking part in contests) being really obsessive about it. The documentary made me appreciate this unusual sport, its artistry and the desire and commitment that top-level participants have to it. Some families even move thousands of miles to be closer to the best synchronized-swimming clubs, like one in Santa Cruz, California, with this dictatorial director barking at the poor people on the team.

Sound familiar?

But what really caught my eye was synchro-swimming’s similarity with modern tenor-drumming. I mean, some of the moves are close, especially the ones where arms go up in a robotic fashion, and then the drummers suddenly go into that slow-motion thing. I wonder if the two camps ever compare techniques. If they don’t, they should, since tenor-drummers’ arms and sticks rise above the band, as if the other drummers and pipers were at water-level.

I’m sure those moves have names in both synchronized-swimming and tenor-drumming, and I apologize for not knowing the specifics of either. I completely respect both idioms, but when judging I’m only concerned with what the tenor-drummers play, not how they look. At other times I enjoy watching them and admire the diligence and commitment to excellence that they give to their craft.

There’s a famous Saturday Night Live sketch from the 1980s that parodies synchronized swimming. I’m sure that it rubbed the swimmers who commit their lives to the sport the wrong way, but it made me laugh.

And there were a few silly videos strung together by pipe band people that took the piss out of Scottish country dancing. It sort of missed the mark with some because Scottish country dance aficionados probably think what pipe band people do is daft, too. Of all people to ridicule an obscure art, piping and drumming zealots might want to be the last. Then again, screw ’em if they can’t laugh at themselves.

I’m hoping that PBS will do a “Pursuit of Excellence” documentary on pipe bands. Part of the reason why the BBC has decided to make TV shows out of the World’s must be because they discovered that the obsessive event is quirky and amusing to outsiders. I’m certain that there are many non-pipers and drummers who get a good laugh out of the whole thing.

My all-time favourite author, Vladimir Nabokov, once wrote something to the effect that the definition of truth is the pursuit of knowing all that can be known about one specific thing. While I can’t help but shake my head at the absurdity of synchronized swimming, of piping, of Scottish country dancing, of drumming, I have a lot of time for anyone who strives to understand completely and excel entirely at anything.

Sunday AM P-M


B. MacDonald]
The Sunday morning pipe-majors are analyzing the results today, putting together their “what if?” scenarios, and trying to find non-performance reasons for why things happened as they did at yesterday’s World’s.

I have friends in just about every Grade 1 band that competed, and my only hope was that the best band would win, that the rest of the results would be fair, and that everyone would have a good time.

Some things come immediately to mind, though, so let’s discuss.

The rain: The World’s has enjoyed uncharacteristically good weather for most of the last decade. A steady dreich was bound to happen. Meanwhile, Toronto was partly cloudy and mid-20s. I’d have still rather been there.

The drumming results. SFU must be dazed and confused with the marks they received in drumming. The seventh and ninth they received from Jim Hutton and Harry Russell, respectively, effectively ended any hope of the band winning. In that light, finishing second overall was a massive achievement. Whether SFU’s corps deserved these marks or not, these judges must have been aware when they handed in their sheet that the band would not be able to recover. SFU’s won it four times, but they have been second an astonishing eight times, meaning they have been first or second a remarkable 12 times in 22 years. The cliché that second is the hardest prize is no more true than with SFU.

Mistakes. With the testing conditions, the error-quotient seemed to be high, with an unusual number of early chanters, squeals, trailing drones, and all-out blunders coming through. It seemed like judges may have been turning a deaf-ear to these, understanding the cold, wet circumstances, and concentrating on tone, content and unison. As a competitor, it is extremely difficult to keep the head and not let the appalling weather be an excuse for slack playing. Listening to the BBC Pipeline broadcast, it’s impressive to think these top bands are producing such quality under such duress. Since you rarely hear big clangers at the top of Grade 1 these days, the recordings should have a big weather disclaimer on them

Gridlock: I and many others thought that 2007 would be the year in which the “Big Three” stranglehold on the World’s might be broken. This is the ninth straight year that the same bands – FMM, SFU, and Shotts – have taken the first three prizes. Even the 78th Frasers’ overall drumming win, Strathclyde Police’s copping of several other majors, and Boghall’s top-three success earlier in 2007 couldn’t change this.

Pipeline: To Gary West and Iain MacInnes: awesome, awesome job as always pulling this show together in minutes. I’ve seen this crew in frenetic action at an otherwise almost-empty Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow, and it has to be seen to be believed how tight getting this show to air in so short a time actually is. We are all indebted.

“International” judges, wherefore hath thou been forsaken? So much for the RSPBA’s 2005 move to bring more non-UK judges to their panel. A grand total of one non-UK judge (drumming adjudicator Greg Dinsdale in the Grade 1 Qualifier and Grade 2 Final) had a clipboard out of the 36 working at Glasgow Green. McGillivray, Eller, Worrall, Neigh, Troy and Russell were nowhere to be seen. Oh, wait, many of them will be on at Cowal, where few UK judges want to judge, and after all the “overseas bands” (as the RSPBA pejoratively calls them) have gone home.

Medley re-runs: Yes, the goal of competing is to win, but shouldn’t originality play a role in that? Several Grade 1 bands, including FMM and SFU, played essentially the same thing as last year. With repetition, a band runs the risk of becoming a parody of itself. But, then again, look at the MSR situation where some bands – not unlike many soloists – have been playing the same thing for a quarter-century.

Optics: For the first time in memory, there wasn’t a judge in the Grade 1 final who was a brother, a chanter-maker, a bagpipe- or drum-dealer. Of course, people can invent other connections, but the RSPBA is to be congratulated on this. But let’s not mention the Grade 1 Qualifier.

Those are a few of my thoughts, and I wasn’t even there. Others are welcomed to add theirs.