Full up

As a precocious (read: naive) 14-year-old, I was encouraged by Gordon Speirs, who gave me lessons at the time, to play with a top-grade band. Gordon had no shortage of chutzpa, sometimes verging on the bombastic, and he didn’t seem to think that it mattered that I’d been playing for only three years and was from the (then) piping-nowhere of St. Louis.

Gordon thought that I and another piper from The Loo should go to Scotland for a summer. He said, “Muirhead & Sons needs pipers. I’ll get you Bobby Hardie’s number, and you can call him up.”

And he did, and I actually called the legendary Robert G. Hardie, and gave him the pitch.

I can’t remember if my parents even knew what I was up to, and I’m sure they would have quashed such a cockamamie concept before they even would agree to pay for a long-distance call. In my heart, I knew that the idea was absurd, and I think I secretly wished and expected that Hardie would say no.

No, indeed. I remember Hardie on the other end of the line letting us down gently. After politely listening to our warped reasoning, Hardie said, “Sorry, but I think we’re full up at the moment.”

“Full up.” Gordon had said that Muirheads was on the ropes back then in the late-1970s, suffering from declining numbers. Hardie had been taking in pipers from Canada in particular who committed to playing with Muirheads for a year or so, and these folks included very accomplished guys like Scott MacAulay, Michael MacDonald, John Elliott and Hal Senyk. When it came to nonentities from nowhere, Hardie I’m sure just couldn’t be bothered with such a thing.

I doubt that there’s a Grade 1 band today that would say that they’re “full up” for pipers. “Traveling” band-members are common in most upper-grade bands today, and some even have the majority of pipers and drummers coming from a long way away.

From what I understand of the Band Club Sydney, many of its members travel from far outside of Sydney, even other continents. It looks like the band’s sponsors grew weary of not being able to field a band for functions, so want the group to go in a different direction.

The idea of “community” I still think is important to a typical band’s identity. (I say “typical” because a band like the Spirit of Scotland, which I play with, is based on the unusual premise of assembling far-flung members for periodic flings.) A pipe band that practices, performs and competes throughout the year ultimately needs to have a place that it can call home. It’s important that the band contributes to that community, and it’s essential when the band features a city in its name.

The Band Club shake-up may well be the beginning of the end of the never-full-up ethic of accepting players from wherever. It’s a short-sighted approach that often results in few members truly sharing in the satisfaction and camaraderie gained from winning.

Compose yersel’

The pipes|drums music archives.I was just re-visiting the comments posted in response to the review of The Warning Collection, a compilation of tunes (some of which are very fine) by Paul Hughes and his friends. James MacHattie makes a really good point; one that I’ve thought about in the past. James points out the attraction of a site like Jim McGillivray’s pipetunes.ca, which is essentially an iTunes for pipe tunes.

Instead of forcing people to buy a whole book, pipetunes allows people to pick and choose only the compositions that they want. It’s a great idea, since it also allows composers with a really good one-off tune to get it out there, without having to wait years to compile 50 or more compositions, scrape together enough money for expensive printing, and then hope that they sell enough books to at least break even.

About 10 years ago I compiled a book comprising almost-lost tunes by some of the greatest composers of the past. I spent a lot of time researching the old collections, playing through stuff by Roddie Campbell, John McLellan (Dunoon), James Center, Willie Lawrie and others, and picking out the ones that I thought should be preserved. The book did quite well, and I put the profits into a fund and eventually just put the money towards the development of pipes|drums. It was a long and painstaking process. Setting the tunes myself with the engraving software du jour made my right hand teeter on the brink of overuse syndrome.

Would I do it again? Probably not – at least not in print form.

But there is something to be said for a complete book of music. When it comes to music on iTunes, I almost always download the whole album. Most artists whom I listen to still put lots of thought into assembling a cohesive product, with a logical, musical sequence of songs, and, more often than not, my favourite songs on the album aren’t the big hits.

I still like to page through collections of pipe music, and I don’t really mind the chaff among the wheat – or the “potatoes,” as Simon McKerrell refers to tunes that aren’t really up to snuff. It’s all up to the compiler/composer. If Donald MacLeod or Willie Ross had nonchalantly allowed potatoes into their collections, they probably would not have the same stature that they carry today as collector-composers for the ages.

In their day, music “engraving” was actual engraving. Some poor engraver would actually pound out the music on sheets of metal. It was an expensive and time-consuming process, and the number of revisions were usually limited, hence the mistakes that we see in the older collections. Older collections were usually backed by actual music publishers, like Mozart-Allan and Paterson’s. You needed to be a big-time famous piper before they would entertain investing in your collection.

Music collections today, whether print or electronic, can still have the same quality through-and-through, provided the composer-compiler has a sense of purpose and a clear eye for their place in posterity. But for everyone else, there’s always the one-off route.