That’s the spirit

It was 2005 when I was last in Glasgow for the World’s, and 10 years since I was there as a competitor. 1997 was the last year before the Qualifier system was introduced. I stopped playing with pipe bands with not a little disappointment with the whole process that competitors must endure if they want a chance to succeed: the conditions, the lack of transparency, the back-biting that often took place between rival bands and even within them.

Since then much has changed. The biggest improvement is not with the contest itself – although the RSPBA has made it massively better. No, the best upgrade with the whole experience is the Piping Live! festival. Not only does the week-long event provide visitors with forums to learn and have fun, but it allows competitors to socialize and get to know each other. Where 10 years ago it was standard to look at the opposition with suspicion and distrust, often presuming that the enemies you don’t know must be people of misery and deceit, today, mainly due to the Piping Live! events, you end up having pints with members of other bands, getting to know your counterparts and learning that that guy in the band that might beat you on Saturday actually doesn’t have horns and a tail.

The week of the World’s has become a place of camaraderie and fellowship, similar to that of the solo piping scene, where competitors (well, most, anyway) lend support and genuinely wish each other well.

It’s interesting to me that Piping Live! is managed mainly by people heavily involved with that more egalitarian solo piping scene. It can be said that the whole festival was prompted then by a non-bandsman, Willie McCallum, who is of course one of the great solo pipers in history, after seeing the Todd Bar near his University of Strathclyde office become for a week the centre of the piping universe. With so many “overseas” bands staying at the uni, the central pub was a place where competitors could lighten up, relax a little and actually let down their guard. They could visit other bands’ practices, have a drink together, and see that, gee, those are guys pretty much like us.

So Willie’s brainchild was the Todd Bar Recital Challenge, an event that integrates the audience with the players, placing camaraderie before competition.

And it followed, I think, that Willie’s friend and competition rival Roddy MacLeod would extend that concept and build the Piping Live! festival. I can only detect positive comradeship and community in all of the Piping Live! events. At least with those who have embraced the festival, there’s none of the bitterness and back-biting that may have existed a decade ago.

The sniping times are officially a thing of the past. The festival injects into the pipe band world the solo piping world’s communal support system – and it succeeds. It’s funny what can happen when you work with people rather than against them, and it’s no surprise that that spirit extends right through the National Piping Centre.

After five days of Piping Live! the actual World’s seems now a much more congenial place. Of course, everyone wants to win, but I don’t see many people taking pleasure from seeing the rival band lose, as may often have been the case pre-Piping Live!

Back on the park as a competitor once again, it was great fun trying to win in competition with a bunch of friends with whom I really wanted to play. That’s no different, I guess, than any other healthy band, but I enjoyed feeling like Glasgow Green was more like the solo scene I love than the old band scene I grew to dislike and ultimately leave (as a competitor, anyway) for 10 years.

Of Piping Lives!’s many accomplishments – the workshops, the recitals, the lectures, the launches, the lunches, the panels, the exhibits, the café, the creative contests, the parties – indirectly improving the entire atmosphere of the pipe band world and the World’s itself is perhaps its biggest.

The price of a reed

Going once, going twice . . .About 20 pipers (I assume all of them were pipers) went to Colin MacLellan‘s workshop on making chanter reeds at the National Piping Centre, and I was one of them. I figure you can always learn more about reeds, and learning from a reedmaker is getting it straight from the source.

I thought the seminar might be very straightforward explanation of how a chanter is made, and it was, but it was also an in-depth, step-by-step demonstration that involved actually making a few reeds on the spot. Colin allowed two people there to make their own chanter reed and take it away with them.

For all their finickiness, the construction and manipulation of chanter reeds is a very basic, yet still meticulous business. Because he’s handled and made tens of thousands of them, Colin has total confidence sanding, bending, squeezing, snipping, even pummeling reeds to get them the way he wants them.

The reed that Colin made at the session turned out to be one that he told the class that he “wouldn’t hesitate to play in the Clasp.” He decided that he would hold a little charity auction, and, after the attendees rejected the idea of the proceeds going to the Spirit of Scotland Drinking Fund, people agreed that money should go to the College of Piping’s Building Fund.

So, Colin started the auction. Now, for all the moaning people do about not being able to get a good chanter reed, here was a reed that at least 20 people knew was a first-rate product. They had watched it being made by a master craftsman, watched it being tested by a master piper, and heard it being endorsed by a master competitor.

After some hemming and hawing, someone started the bidding at £6. To get things moving, I bid £7, and I went back and forth against one other bidder until I actually won it at £13.50. Still a massive bargain. (Rab – the cheque is in the mail. Promise.)

I was surprised at the relative bargain. In an era when people will spend $200 on the latest set of synthetic drone reeds, you would think that a guaranteed great chanter reed would have a much higher value to more people. I wonder why it doesn’t.

Piping alive

In Glasgow just now, part of the 42 per cent of p|d readers (according to the current poll) who are also here. So far the weather’s been mainly dry, and not a bolt of lightning to be seen. Piping Live! is in full swing just now. Drumming for Drinks went on today, and the kick-off concert was tonight at the Royal Glasgow Concert Hall. 

I’m back at the band thing for the first time in a few years, and I must say it’s a lot better to be playing and here than not and here. It’s a lot of fun, with a great atmosphere of all-gain. After months of practicing in isolation, with only MP3 files and sheet music as company, it’s great to hear it come together.

With everything that’s going on, I don’t have much time to commit to the site, but I’ll do my best. Stay tuned!