Learning to lose

Quit yer greetin', ya wee wean!I have always thought that one of the biggest ancillary benefits of being a competitive piper since age 12 is learning to perform before an audience. Similar to solo piping, I’m not the best in the world at business presentations, but I do know how to handle the pressure and deliver a reasonable performance. In that way piping / drumming competition helps to prepare you for the real world.

Maybe 15 years ago, when I was still new to the public relations profession, I worked on Microsoft as a client. Less than two years into my new career I found myself managing a news conference for Bill Gates. It was to occur the week after the World Pipe Band Championships, and I remember thinking to myself, “What’s the big deal? If I can stand at the line with a contending Grade 1 band with a World Championship on the line, then I can certainly get through a thing with Bill Gates.”

Keeping that in the back of my mind helped, and everything went fine. He didn’t have one of his celebrated meltdowns on me, and – just like a World’s tune-up and performance – the whole thing was over in a flash.

But I think that competition piping / drumming prepares you for the real world in another important way: it prepares you to lose. Even the greatest pipers and bands place not-first many, many more than they win an event. We pipers and drummers learn to lose graciously and I don’t know of a single player who assumes he/she will win every time out.

I believe John MacFadyen said something to the effect of, “Take the boards feeling you can’t be beaten, but leave assuming that it wasn’t good enough to win.” It’s a philosophy or psychology or technique that I have carried into my work life in new business presentations, speaking at conferences or seminars with colleagues.

No matter how good you are, you’ll come in second or third or fourth far more often than first. Being able to deal with and learn from everyday losing is something that our kind of piping and drumming prepares you for in “real” life.

For the ages

Good crop.Ever wondered why there are always these clever new tunes all the time by young upstart composers? I got to thinking about it last week after downloading venerable old rocker Neil Young’s latest album, Fork in the Road.

I’ve been a fan of Neil Young ever since I gave Harvest to my friend, David Swihart, for his twelfth birthday in 1975. I figured if the ultra-cool Dave liked it then it must be good, so I got a copy for myself. Most people think 1972’s Harvest is Young’s greatest album, and I would agree. I played the proverbial grooves off of it. He was 26 when he wrote most of the songs, and they remain as fresh as ever today.

Not so for his new album. I can’t hear anything remarkable about it, except for some of the cloying “creativity” about green automobiles and such like that’s positively cringe-worthy. He sounds like he’s just going through the motions, forcing himself to compose and release material even when a good friend probably would have told him not to.

Why is it that so often the new musical ideas come from the young? You would think it’s the other way around, since older musicians will have built up a greater bank of knowledge therefore, one would think, should be less prone to repeating the past.

For sure, there are great exceptions. U2 still creates fresh, new, catchy material. Beethoven was in his fifties when he was composing his ninth and final (and some say best) symphony. I picture the MacCrimmons being pretty old geezers at their compositional peaks. On the other hand, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney haven’t written a memorable song in 30 years, yet keep pushing out┬áderivative stuff. I keep hoping beyond hope that they somehow return to the freshness they displayed in the 1960s and ’70s. And through the history of pipe-music publishing, the popular productivity of prominent composers usually dwindles once they turn 40.

I used to work at composing pipe-tunes. A few of them appear in the collections of friends, and I would say that two or three of them might be worth playing, although there’s nothing really remarkable about any of them. But I haven’t composed anything for at least 15 years and have little desire to try again, even though I constantly have ideas for doing things with existing music by others.

The idea that I’d really like to pursue is a study of the ages of pipers when they composed their most successful material and had their greatest output-volume. I’d be willing to bet most of piping’s greatest compositions were from those younger than 30. (If anyone wants to tackle that project, drop me a line.)

Inside story

With the current financial climate in North America you wouldn’t think that there would be many new piping and drumming events being created, but suddenly Ontario, at the most unlikely of times, seems to be enjoying a resurgence. Two new Highland games are on the Rota, with the addition of Lindsay and Oshawa (which, by the way, has The Proclaimers booked to perform in the beertent) and yesterday’s triumphant return of the Toronto Indoor.

I can see the Indoor becoming one of the pearls of the PPBSO season, perhaps even attracting a large number of competitors from further a-field, including the United States. The event was one of the best social gatherings Ontario has had for a long time, with a tremendous relaxed atmosphere of camaraderie. No one was too stressed about the performances or the results, and appeared to be focused mainly on having a good time and shaking out the cobwebs before the long outdoor season begins.

To be sure, there were judging cobwebs, too. After a long winter it’s not easy adjusting one’s critical ear, not to mention using an actual pen to write. I’m sure that a few scoresheet words were illegible. Just as well.

I was reminded that the Toronto Police mini-band’s airing of its famous, or infamous depending on your perspective, “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions” medley/suite/opus/thingmee was only the third time that they had actually competed with it in public. But it felt like I had heard the medley dozens of times, which I think I have because of it being aired on the net so many times. It is a difficult piece to assess on paper – that’s the judge’s problem and not the band’s – and doubly difficult when it’s a mini-band playing in an echo chamber.

The stakes weren’t high yesterday, which is sometimes as it should be. Here’s to next year’s Toronto Indoor Games, again I hope in the heart of the downtown. I have a feeling we’re on to something great again.