Pipe Bands negative-2.0

Och aye!It’s extraordinary to me that some prominent pipe bands have a sweeping policy that bans members from contributing their comments, insights and knowledge to piping and drumming “forums.” Apparently only the officers in these bands have the authority to provide their two cents to the piping and drumming world, and all others are threatened with expulsion if they speak out.

How 1985.

I think this Draconian mentality stems from a few archaic pipe band traditions. First, bands still think that they will face judging repercussions on the contest field should someone say something opinionated. There was a day when this was so, but, seriously, when was the last time that there was a travesty of a result chalked up to something someone said? I can’t remember the last time I seriously disagreed with a band winning the World’s. Sure, results will always be debated, but no one is ever so bent out of shape to the point where they wouldn’t return to a contest.

It’s bizarre to me that the same bands that muzzle their own people also refuse to complain about clear conflict-of-interest perceptions that are rife in the UK: bagpipe makers judging, family members adjudicating, performers rights laws being ignored. They’re okay with that stuff impacting them directly but when it comes to what their own people might say . . . no way!

Second, culturally the Scots are a reserved lot. In general – and of course there are exceptions – they’re no good at promotion of any sort, much less promoting one’s self or organization. It just isn’t the thing to do. They’re getting better, but the Scots’ disdain for self-promotion has been absorbed throughout the piping and drumming world. American, Canadian, Kiwi and Australian pipers and drummers, in an attempt to “do what the Scots do” to win prizes, still think that reticence must be part of it.

Truth is, the piping world has moved on since the 1970s. It is a true piping world, and the culture of piping and drumming is evolving and becoming far more sophisticated. Where there was once only beer tent whispering, there’s now constructive and open dialogue about issues that were once taboo.

Shutting up intelligent bandsmen and women is positively backward. Instead of telling them that they can’t be trusted, why not encourage them to make smart decisions and represent the team positively?

Sherriff reckonings

I really enjoy listening to the next-generation of top solo pipers, and I had that chance again at the George Sherriff Memorial last weekend. Starting at 10 am and going till about 11 pm it’s a big day for the judges, and even bigger for the competitors.

Lots of things that I’ll remember, but here are a few that stand out:

  • Faye Henderson’s “Lament for Captain MacDougall.” This was a performance that would have stood up very well in the Gold Medal competitions at Oban or Inverness, and, with the right bench, it could well have won it. It was a great example of a lament that can still have very short notes – an expertly built and shaped tune on a perfect pipe. Fifteen years old, she will have to compete in the “Juniors” in Scotland for another three years, meaning that she will probably be back to the Sherriff several times.
  • Tuning, tuning and more tuning. Funny, the French word for tuna is “thon,” and audience and judges suffered through several tunathons from a few competitors. Some players screwed away at their drones for more than 10 minutes (seemed like eternity), and we all know that when a pipe is not settled after four minutes, that dog just ain’t gonna lie down no matter what. Here’s a tip to all competitors: don’t tune for more than five minutes. It won’t matter. However, never feel like you need to start too soon if the pipe’s not in tune before four minutes have passed. While there were a few instances of excessive, futile tuning, there were also a few times when a competitor started too soon. Practice timing your tuning to understand your instrument.
  • Alastair Lee’s professionalism. Another competitor with an enviable piping pedigree, 15-year-old Lee is a mini-Uncle Jack. Same bold technique. Same posture. Same competitive focus. Can you say dynasty?
  • Brittney-Lynn Otto’s “Little Cascade.” Forget the relatively tedious “Cameronian Rant.” For my money, G.S.’s masterpiece is the most challenging and thrilling tune a competitor can deliver, and Otto shook off the afternoon’s troubles and did just that. Terrific hands!
  • 6/8 marches. Forever people have said, “No one knows how to play 6/8 marches any more.” They were probably saying that in 1955. Compound time is easy as long as it’s round. As soon as note values are chopped up, many pipers struggle. I know I do. There’s a reason why 6/8 marches are the domain of bands: they generally need drummers to provide light and shade.
  • Slooooow playing. I know the trend is to play marches at no more than 68 BPMs, with strathspeys and reels to balance, but I like them livelier. There was a bit of sluggish light music, and those with relative up-tempos, like Ben McClamrock, immediately got more of my attention. A 2/4 march ain’t nothing if it ain’t got that swing, and it takes a rare player to get swing from a 2/4 at 64.

I could go on for a lot longer about this excellent event – venue, organization, meals – and the many excellent performances, but I’ll stop there. YMMV.

A non-competitive renaissance

Parlour pipes only.Someone told me about an article in a recent Piping Times, the Glasgow-based monthly print digest about piping in Scotland. I don’t get the publication, so I haven’t read it. But I understand that the Barry Donaldson-written piece bemoaned the decline of quality piping in Scotland, how the Northern Irish and North American bands have been laying some whup-ass on the Scottish bands for years, the future’s bleak, etc. I think that’s the gist of it.

Competitively, I would agree. There are fewer Scottish Grade 1 bands than ever, and the eight in the Grade are more than twice outnumbered by non-Scottish bands. And yes, for the most part, up and down the grades at the World’s non-Scottish bands are winning.

In the solos at Oban and Inverness, if it weren’t for the selection committee’s predilection toward Scottish applicants (reportedly two-thirds of the spots are reserved for UK players), there would be far more success by “overseas” competitors than there has been.

Whatever. To say that the standard of Scotland’s competitive piping is in decline may be true, but it misses the bigger picture. The truth is that more Scottish pipers are choosing not to compete altogether. In fact, I would say that Highland piping Scotland is in the middle of a surge. It’s just not on the competition stage.

I hear more inventive applications of pipe music coming from Scotland than anywhere in the world. Piping Live! has quickly become more about the new and different than the competitive and traditional. Scotland has discovered, more than anywhere in the world, that piping and pipe music can actually be fun. What a novel concept.

While the rest of the world obsesses about winning competitions – and I think actually regressing when it comes to what it plays in those competitions – more of Scotland’s pipers are interested in pushing the boundaries and possibilities of the music itself in a non-competitive way. And that’s anything but a decline; it’s a renaissance.