The Gold Ring is a also a very good jig.The other day I misplaced my wedding ring. Even though I knew Julie would be able to deal with it, I was quite concerned because of its one-of-a-kind value. Thirteen years ago it was made with a design etched into it to match the Celtic pattern that was on our wedding cake. (By the way, the wedding was scheduled to follow the Northern Meeting and the band season, to keep everyone happy and in-attendance. See recent poll.)

Fortunately, I found it later that day. I had inadvertently removed it when practicing and simply forgot to put it back on. I like to be ring- and watch-less when playing pipes or golf.

But I got to thinking, what if it were lost? What would it mean? The ring symbolizes my total commitment to my lovely wife, but would losing the it change anything? Does the ring itself add anything to that commitment? No, it wouldn’t; no, it doesn’t. But I still don’t want to be without it. (I did have to beat back hordes hoards of women hitting on me that day, though.)

And what about medals and trophies? I know some people like to put all of their hardware on display. Others even have a trophy room. But most pipers and drummers I think don’t much care about the glittering symbolic prize. Receiving a trophy or medal is great, but it doesn’t change or validate the accomplishment one bit.

I do think that trophies and medals should be commensurate with the events that they symbolize. The more important the competition, the better the trophy should be – not so much in size, but in quality.

There are exceptions. The Clasp is very small and it and the Highland Society of London Gold Medals are not even real gold, apparently. That doesn’t matter. They are singular achievements with a truck-load of history behind them. A piper doesn’t need to wear or display a Clasp; everyone knows he’s won it anyway.

On the day, hardware prizes are important, but, after that, their most important function is to serve as a reminder of a great day and total commitment that has paid off.

Snow petrol

Not me. Never will be me.Maybe there’s alpine skiing in the Missouri Ozarks now, but when I was growing up strapping boards to your feet in “winter” was just dern crazy if you were from St. Louis. But in Toronto, not only does everyone ski, but every other person seems to be a certified ski instructor. People swear by it as one of the ways to “make the winter go by faster.”

The first time I tried downhill skiing was about 12 years ago. It was on a business outing, on which I had to entertain four tech journalists at a charity fund-raiser. Each group had a celebrity “instructor,” and ours got Paul Martini, a former World Champion in pairs figure skating. I got my rental skis and boots and gamely somehow, some way got onto the chair lift with my group of experienced skiers.

As we went up the mountain I hoped that skiing was as easy as it looked. But when I had to get off the lift, I realized it wasn’t. At the top of what seemed to me like K2, Martini gave me his instructions: “Just lean on your inner edge and keep turning. And if you feel like you’re going to fall, just sit down.” He then shooshed off down the hill not to be seen again until the dinner that night (where I sat next to him then and got him to admit that ice-dancing is a complete crock).

So, I was at the top of this mountain, with no way to get down but to suck up my courage and go. Which I did. Slowly. Awkwardly. Painfully. I remember one of my 20-odd wipeouts was under a snow-making machine. I was pelted with ice as I tried to determine how the ^&%* I could get back on my ^&%*ing skis.

Somehow I got to the bottom of the mountain, and spent the rest of the day at the bunny hill. There I recall a girl, who couldn’t have been more than seven, told me as I collapsed in a heap even being pulled up by the tow-rope, saying, “It’s okay, mister, you’ll get the hang of it!” You just haven’t lived until a grade-schooler helps you up.

And so, that harrowing and humiliating experience made me not want to try skiing again for a dozen Toronto winters, until this year when we started our own seven-year-old-girl in lessons. No way is our Annabel going to suffer such snow-humiliation when she’s 32! We decided to take lessons, too, and have had the fortune of being taught by a first-rate instructor. I am getting the hang of it, thanks to him.

Which is all to say that instruction and guidance from the beginning are everything in life. My 1996 mountaintop debacle was tantamount to someone being handed a set of pipes for the first time and told to “just squeeze-and-blow” before being thrust into a competition circle with a Grade 3 band.

And that, I think, is what thousands of pipers and drummers essentially are told to do. They never start with good, qualified instruction, and the result is so many people doing irreparable damage to the image of pipes and pipe bands. It’s spectacle over art.

I’ve said many times before that piping and pipe band associations should put teaching first, and competition second. I don’t think there’s an organization out there in which that’s true. Associations leave the teaching to individuals and bands, and simply hope for the best. There are few teaching standards worldwide, and all too often, the difference between becoming a top soloist and a tinker comes down to the dumb luck of who you ask for lessons, and if an “instructor” simply pushes you down a mountain or teaches you to snow plow before you carve.

Over the abyss

Look out below.Will 2008 be the year in which consciousness about worldwide standards is raised? So far, three North American bands have gone either up to Grade 1 or down to Grade 2 under relatively controversial circumstances.

First, Oran Mor applied to the EUSPBA to be upgraded to Grade 1, and the association approved. Second, Triumph Street waited to move to Grade 1 while the BCPA deliberated for several months. Third, Fredericton Society of St. Andrew requested to return to Grade 2 after a year in Grade 1.

They are each unique circumstances, to be sure, but I do note some commonality.

The chasm between Grade 2 and Grade 1 is a massive leap. It’s also a matter of pride, and, in many cases, the most important event in a top band’s history. In Triumph Street’s case it seemed like the band really did not want to ask to move up. I’m guessing that the band wanted the honour of its association officially moving them to Grade 1. After their very successful record, perhaps to ask to move up would have felt ignominious. I don’t know.

In Fredericton’s case, asking to move back to Grade 2 was completely honourable. When a band is forcibly demoted by an association it inevitably results in the band feeling embarrassed. By requesting to move down, a band saves face by being self-aware and realistic. As hard as it might be to swallow, this is completely honourable and Fredericton should feel good about it.

Oran Mor requested to move to Grade 1. Again, for this band, it must have been the right thing for them to do. I am guessing that the band decided that it was ready for to make that big leap, and simply made sure that its home association knew of their desire. Had the EUSPBA upgraded Oran Mor without consultation with the band, it may have been doomed to fail.

Understanding a band’s desire and self-awareness is so important to good grading. Associations need to know a band’s collective feeling about what they are, what they honestly feel that they can achieve and how they will be able to sustain themselves in a new grade. The jump between Grade 2 and Grade 1 is so wide because there are so many intangibles challenges that only the band itself knows whether it can meet.

Many new Grade 1 bands have died not because they didn’t meet the standard the next year, but because their parent association did not take the time to understand the long term sustainability of the move.

Playing to a standard is one thing; rising to it long-term is quite another.