The hard truth

I don’t know why I never thought to ask it before, but the recent p|d Poll asking if band members think would get better competition results if their band were to play easier stuff is another eye-opener.

More than 49 per cent feel that they might get better results if their contest material weren’t so difficult. So why do their bands play pipe music and/or scores that are too hard?

Maybe it’s an extra challenge for the band. A little short-term pain for long-term gain. Maybe they think that judges will reward them for degrees of difficulty. Maybe the pipe-major’s just hard-headed.

I would say that bands playing material that’s too difficult, to the detriment of unison and tone, is in my top-three most-common problems, particularly in the lower grades. It’s often difficult to detect just how difficult a tune is on first listen, and a tune that might suit the pipe-major’s hands could cause finger contortions from the balance of the pipers.

Maybe they should be, but the truth is that bands are rarely, if ever, rewarded for “hard.”

I remember playing “Eileen MacDonald,” one the hardest jigs there is, in a band medley one year. It’s a brilliant tune, but really ill-chosen no matter how talented a band’s pipe section. We hammered away at the impossibly tricky third part all summer, and not a single judge complimented us for having the courage to play it. Instead all those ever-so-slightly-out-of-unison low-G strikes were easy-pickings for judges.

The sole acknowledgement came at the World Championships when the late great Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald said, in his always surprising voice, “Aye, you boys played ‘Eileen MacDonald.’ Hard tune, that.”

I think most judges enjoy a well-blown, well-timed rendition of something simple and melodic. But there is something to be said for keeping the troops interested, and challenging content can do that.

But when it comes to most pipe bands, usually the easiest way to keep players interested and to attract new pipers and drummers is to win.

Off the wall

I received my gratis copy of the National Piping Centre’s Piping Today last week and was both happy and sad to see a profile piece on the late Ronnie Lawrie. I hope he got to read it before he died.

When it comes to the p|d interviews, it’s tough to decide whether to interview those who are in their prime and popular now, or those whose glory years are long gone and may be inching up in age. There are a few folks who I really regret missing before they died. Luke Allen would have been a great interview, and it was actually in the works when I got the sad news. Alex Duthart’s sudden passing came just before I really started trying to capture the greats in their own words.

Jimmy Catherwood, John MacFadyen, Bob Montgomery, Donald MacLeod – all would have been essential reading but for the fact that they died too soon.

When I did the print interviews, I made a point of getting the cover mounted on a plaque, so that I could send the interviewee a memento. Depending on the personality, some no doubt would put the keepsake in the closet with their boxes of trophies and medals, while others might actually hang it on the wall.

So, it was really touching to see the picture of Ronnie with the plaque-mounted cover behind him in a place of honour on a wall at his home. It’s pleasing to me that the he was proud of it, as much as it’s good to know that some of his thoughts and personality are preserved in words.

Chief Ruffled Feather

The Hen's quick-march.One of the first books on piping that I ever read was
Alistair Campsie’s The MacCrimmon Legend: the Madness of Angus
. It was first published in 1980, so I’d been at the
pipes for a few years. I thought it was pretty interesting at the
time, but when I started to get a sense of the reaction from the
piping establishment I realized just how important tradition is to
seasoned pipers and how change-averse they can be.

Even to a smart-arse teenager, the book seemed to me to be a
researched study by a professional journalist. It appeared to me
then, as it does now, to be ultimately harmless to the music
itself. I’m all for giving credit where it’s due, but, really, does
it matter who composed what tunes or if the “history” of the music
of the Highland bagpipe might be based more on myth than

Over the years there are many examples of academic studies that
challenge common assumptions. Allan MacDonald ruffled feathers when
he argued that there is a strong connection between piobaireachd
and Gaelic song. Willie Donaldson’s Highland Pipe is a
brilliant exhibit of thorough, irrefutable historical evidence
challenging the piobaireachd “traditions” invented over the last 80

In those instances, I think the establishment was threatened (see
last week’s “Back in the Day Syndrome” blog post), so some set out
to discredit the research summarily.

I haven’t yet read Hugh Cheape’s soon-to-be-released book, but I
gather it will again shake things up, mainly because it’s not what
the establishment wants to read, much less accept.

This is where people confuse history with music. Our new music is
continually challenged by those who want to preserve a folk
tradition. Ultimately, history I think should have nothing
substantial to do with music. If someone challenges conventional
thinking, so what? It has nothing to do with how the music is, can
or should be played.