Hatfields and McCoys

Git awf ma land!
So much of the piping and drumming world involves competition that I think it attracts highly competitive people. The notion of “art for art’s sake” has never really worked that well with bands and soloists who primarily want to do well in competition. Our desire to win can sometimes get the best of us, and even cause us to suspect the worst of our fellow pipers and drummers.

For decades now I have been intrigued by cross-town pipe band rivalries. I’ve been a member of bands in Canada, the United States and Scotland, and have observed the interaction between groups that share the same region. All three of those places have rivalries, but they differ in intensity from country to country.

Scotland: rival bands may seem to resent one another, but at the end of the day they’ll share a laugh and a pint together, not letting the competitive fire get the best of them. It’s usually a quietly supportive community with an atmosphere of respect. The “Boo Brigade” (thanks, RW) that haunts some of the Scottish-based online forums is really a tiny minority of muckrakers, and is really no reflection of the vast majority of UK pipers and drummers.

Canada: there is very little serious animosity between bands from the same city or region. In fact, bands tend to intermingle and completely respect each other. Yes, they go head-to-head on the field, and compete for players, but I can’t remember anything a congenial atmosphere before, during and after a contest. Like the country itself, the scene is peaceful and just a bit bland, but ultimately produces very high standard bands.

United States: some of the points above hold true, but it seems that in many cities with more than one band there exists an ugly feud. I’ve noted that in otherwise successful piping and drumming cities there are situations where cross-town bands seem to despise each other.

Learning piping in St. Louis (home of the 10-time World Series Champion Cardinals), there was always this weird (in hindsight) back-biting that went on between bands. I went to college in St. Paul, Minnesota, and there was a very similar atmosphere there. I bought into it, and was as much to blame as anyone for perpetuating it. Maybe years have softened my perspective and readers will tell me I’m deluded, but it just seems to me that all too often US cities end up under-achieving in quality because they can’t find common ground with their rivals.

So what happens? Well, often two or three pretty good bands – usually Grade 3 or Grade 4 – will co-exist in the city, rather than having one or two really good band(s). Perhaps that’s what some people prefer, but I also often see people in those cities shake their head, wishing that one day an “all-star” band could be created. Occasionally, these places seem to get everyone together and great things happen for about a year, until it crumbles and a new feud begins.

My comments here aren’t intended to do anything but raise a point, or a concern, about these situations and, as always, to try to evoke constructive dialog. About 15 years ago I wrote what I intended to be a well intentioned editorial with observations about why piping and drumming in the US might be hindered or under-achieve. Due to my failure to get my points across clearly, it was misinterpreted and I received a lot of derision and abuse, with people attacking me personally. I learned a lot from that, and understand (occasionally, anyway) when some things are better left unsaid.

But every time I hear about viciousness between cross-town bands, regardless of what country they’re from, it saddens and frustrates me, especially when there’s so much musical talent and potential that could be realized if they only got together.

Often when you observe a situation from the outside you can more easily see a solution. To me, anyway, the solution to rivalries that get the better of people is to find camaraderie from common ground, which is always the music itself. After all, it’s only piping and drumming.

Publish and perish

I got my historic copy of the BC Pipers Newsletter yesterday – a landmark issue since it’s apparently the last one. There’s a reference in the front about how they have been unsuccessful finding an editor for it, so they’ll produce a two-page thing every so often.

Nostalgically speaking, that’s sad, since this was number three-hundred-and-something, easily making it the longest-running piping print-periodical in the world. It predates James MacNeill and Thomas Pearston’s League of Young Scots’ Piping Times.

Practically speaking, I’m not surprised. For the last 10 years, just about all of the information in the Newsletter was available months before on the net, usually on this website. It wasn’t very well designed either, and the stock was super-heavy and unnecessarily expensive.

I read the other day that subscriptions to daily print newspapers and magazines continue to decline, while online publications’ popularity rises. The publishing industry keeps marching into its crater of quandary: how much content to offer online and for how much and how do you replace lost print revenues?

I’ve said before that piping and drumming organizations should not be in the business of publishing. It doesn’t make sense and, inevitably, it’s not cost-effective. If they need to print things, they should outsource it or co-op with successful, independent ventures and do it right.

The Piper & Drummer print magazine, despite constant feedback that it kept getting better year after year, saw its paid subscriptions decline to the point where it became a cash drain. Without giving over more than a third of its pages to advertising (as an example, when I last read a copy many years ago, the Piping Times gives up about 60-per-cent of its volume to ads), the P&D print magazine was assembled very economically despite its glossy stock and full-colour. I shudder to think what piping and drumming associations must pay from membership fees to produce their ambitious books.

All that said, I’ll miss the BC Pipers’ Newsletter, but will look forward to reading and receiving their ongoing news, and, I hope, to serving their membership through pipes|drums.

King of the high Gs

Gie' it laldy, big man! I read an obit recently for Luciano Pavarotti, the great opera singer. Pavarotti apparently couldn’t read music for many years, and at the time of his death had only gained a little ability to do so. “Learning from a score, is like making love by mail,” he famously said.

The oral / aural traditions of pipe-music and drum-scores are well known. Ours was comparatively late to the notation party, and there are piobaireachd purists who believe that the music began a steady decline once it was written down.

While Pavarotti’s intelligence and memory must have been incredibly high and good, his various female assistants reportedly stood in the wings with cue cards to help him with the words, but to say that he usually got the tune right would be an understatement.

“The book, the book, the bloody book, I can’t do with it at all!” Bob Nicol, a piobaireachd Pavarotti of years past, said when ceol mor started to be standardized by the Piobaireachd Society. Nicol and Bob Brown always taught through singing first. They learned that from John MacDonald. Any scores, they said, were only a guide, like cue cards in the wings.

One hears of great snare drummers who just barely read music, yet can produce and teach incredibly complex scores. The fact that they can survive and thrive in a pipe band makes it all the more uncanny.

The most apt comparison to opera singers in our idiom is of course piobaireachd, which unfortunately is only heard in competition, and then pretty much by piobaireachd players.

I wonder if there were Pavarotti-like piobaireachd-players if that art could better hope to communicate with the masses. Imagine throngs of adoring ceol mor enthusiasts chucking roses (or heather) at the artist who has captured the tune in an entirely personal way, while playing a perfect instrument that always nails the high G.