What are you playing?

What an eye-opener the survey of solo pipers was for me. Being around it, you get a general sense of what’s being played, but to do an analysis and find out exactly what’s preferred was not only educational but fun.

Of course, the only real way to do such a survey is to promise that names won’t be used, and that’s why I think the response rate was unexpectedly good. I’m glad that people by-and-large feel confident that their secrets may be shared, but not their name.

Until a reader from North Carolina sent me the brilliantly obvious question via e-mail, I never even thought to check my spreadsheet to see if a piper actually played the exact combined set-up of the most popular makes and models. Amazingly (or not), no one puts together all of the leading items to create some sort of super-pipe. The sum of the parts does not necessarily equal the whole . . . or something.

That’s because the Highland bagpipe is still a very individual instrument. We can harp on about how every pipe sounds the same at the top-level, but it’s obviously not true, since the subtleties between chanters, reeds, drones and so forth are a matter of personal preference and taste.

The variety evidenced in the first-ever instrument survey just goes to show: for all the technology and new materials, the bagpipe and its players, even at the very top level, are as fickle as ever.

I’d be interested to hear from readers about what you’re playing, and whether this sort of survey has changed your mind about your instrument set-up.

Family time

Don't argue with Big Daddy.Why is it that there are relatively few examples of pipers and drummers who achieve or exceed the greatness of their famous piper or drummer parents? More often than not, piping and drumming seems to be a one- or two-generation thing in families, with children not taking it up and starting a tradition.

There are great exceptions, of course: Willie McCallum, Colin MacLellan, Angus MacColl, Alasdair Gillies, Gordon Brown, Iain Speirs, to name a few. All had fathers who were very well known and accomplished pipers or drummers, but there are so many instances of famous pipers and drummers who, if they had kids, they either never took up the instrument, or got to a certain level and essentially chucked it. Willie Ross. Donald MacLeod. Seumas MacNeill. John Burgess. John MacFadyen. Duncan Johnstone. Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald.

There is, though, the increasingly common “piping / drumming family.” This happens mainly in North America, where both parents and all of the kids – and sometimes even the grandparents – are involved as pipers and drummers. They don’t necessarily much care about being world-beaters; they’re just out to be a part of it as a family. It happens only occasionally in the UK.

There are reasons for this, I think. The UK piping and drumming scene can consume as little time for dad or mom on Saturday as a game of golf. Get to the contest mid-morning, compete and be home by supper. It’s easy to make it a personal, social thing.

For most Americans, Canadians and Australians, though, the piping and drumming event is at least a 12-hour day, if not a three-day weekend, usually traveling hundreds of miles and staying someplace for a few nights. Anyone with a family will know how hard it is to do that without completely abandoning the wife or husband and kids.

A solution, of course, is to get everyone involved. Find a spouse who also plays, and get the kids playing pipes, snare or tenor. Instead of piping / drumming competitions being the independent social outings enjoyed in the UK, the weekends time to spend with the family. The goal isn’t necessarily to win, win, win at any cost; it’s to have a good time with the each other while learning to play well and finding personal satisfaction for achieving modest goals in the morning’s solo events and the afternoon band contest.

While the instances are infrequent of great pipers and drummers producing kids who match or exceed their competitive accomplishments, the popularity of the happy piping/drumming family is on the rise, at least outside of the UK.

The family that plays together stays together.