Wait, a second

Looks pretty good to everyone else . . .Second is the hardest prize; you win gold and lose silver; always a bridesmaid . . . Watching the Winter Olympics there’s been a lot of talk about the heartbreak of not-quite-winning, and the fractional seconds and centimeters between glory and “defeat.”

We pipers and drummers are of course used to all that. The greater the competition’s stature, the less satisfactory any prize but first can be. Kids take gleeful pride in their third- and fourth-prizes in amateur and junior competitions. Grade 4 bands relish even a mention in the list. But, when it comes to the Professional Solo or Grade 1 band events, there’s often more disappointment than joy with the competitors who placed, but didn’t “win.”

As the Olympics remind us, that’s not right. Just qualifying to be good enough to compete at the highest level of athletic sport or piping/drumming competition is a massive accomplishment on its own. The competitors who don’t meet that lofty standard – probably 99 per cent of people who compete in the sport or art – are envious of just the achievement of competing at the top tier. They’d covet just being good enough to play in a Grade 1 band or at the Professional solo level, and any prize, to them, would be dreamy cake-icing.

It’s a bitter reality: the better you become, the more disappointing competition can be. Part of the reason why there’s disappointment is the pathological competitive drive required to reach the top tier. You keep pushing and pushing to be better and better, so, of course second-prize even at the loftiest level is tantamount to losing. It’s a necessary competitive mindset.

But the overall piping and drumming culture mistakenly and unhealthily plays in to that first-or-lost attitude.

It doesn’t help when we continually tear down our own. The sordid and spiteful tradition of ripping everyone but the winner continues in some fusty, old-think places. That sort of Sunday Morning Quarterback analysis is at least useless, if not downright mean. We should celebrate the winners, but we should also continually vaunt our best and brightest.

It’s interesting to me that, during these Olympics (which granted are receiving far more attention in Canada than anywhere else), it’s the favoured competitors who didn’t quite rise to the top who usually take things the hardest. While the disappointed athletes have on occasion sobbed inconsolably over their “loss,” the public cheers them on, proud of their achievements and their extraordinary dedication, commitment and talent.

We pipers and drummers can learn from that.

Kids these days

So much to do.When it comes to piping and drumming, kids have it a lot harder today. I’ve come to this conclusion after once again trying to get back into a more regular routine of practicing. I say “trying” because, inevitably, that routine is more like a sporadic, when-I-can-block-out-all-other-distractions-and-temptations, series of sessions that gradually, slowly, maybe, do the job.

When I was learning to play in the 1970s and ’80s, distractions and temptations consisted of games of corkball, kickball, capture-the-flag or kick-the-can; building the occasional model airplane or boat; a train set; or the baseball Game of the Week on TV on summer Saturday afternoons. Sure, there were moments of getting up to no good with friends, but, by and large it was easy to find time to practice. In suburban St. Louis there wasn’t much else to do and, however nerdy piping may have been, it was something to do that was at least marginally less boring.

Maybe because it was so routine, I hardly remember practicing at all. But it must have been a lot. I do remember practicing exercises while watching one of the three or four TV channels (until my mother would turn off “that idiot box”), or listening to ballgames on the radio, or, yes, doing homework. When it comes to multi-tasking (read: ADD), I was an early adopter. I’m still prone to playing scales while doing something else, but I really don’t recommend it – you end up doing both half-way and, evidently, years later you won’t remember any of it.

It amazes me that there are any kids pursuing piping or drumming today – and it’s positively astonishing, come to think of it, that the boys and girls who do somehow become committed to or afflicted by it are playing at a standard that is, overall, better than ever. The siren-songs constantly blaring from the Internet, or the 500-channel TV universe, or video games, or alluring retail temptations that are positively everywhere one would think would make today’s young piper or drummer a rare breed indeed.

So, my hat is off to every young player out there who today has the focus and commitment to do this crazy, still very nerdy, thing.

Back in my day, we had it a lot easier.

Image that

You're great. No, you're great.Most famous pipers and drummers have very few photographs of themselves. I know this to be true because of the struggle it almost always has been over the last 22 years to get images from interview subjects. Digital cameras are changing that but, still, older luminaries generally produce, if we’re lucky, a handful of blurry snaps, often of them in a crowd or playing in a band – slim pickings to support these in-depth, multi-parted features.

You’d assume that the opposite would be true, at least with pipers and drummers whose fame was gained mainly through solo competition. I can’t think of many things that are as self-centred as solo competition, since the whole point of the exercise is to be noticed, liked and rewarded by others. I’m not criticizing it, and I competed in solo events for a long time (and may yet again), but the reality is that chasing solo prizes is a total naval-gazing, narcissistic, self-indulgent conceit. No one except you much cares where you rate in the prizes.

And the irony doesn’t stop at a lack of photos. I find that the majority of pipers and drummers are loath to draw attention to themselves. They generally prefer to hide, and not discuss their experiences or success, much less take pride in their prizes.

Why is this? Maybe it’s due to a Scottish tradition of pious humility, but the last thing most pipers and drummers want to be accused of is self-promotion. Those who do are accused of wearing the proverbial fur coat and nae knickers. There are great exceptions (and, again, that’s okay with me) whom we won’t name here, but marketing does not come easily to the majority of us.

Things are slowly changing, though, and I think we can credit the non-Scottish influence for a rise in marketing and promotional prowess or, at least, willingness. Self-promotion is perhaps more culturally acceptable to Canadians, Australians, Kiwis and, certainly, Americans. Consequently, piping and drumming is coming out of its shell, albeit at the pace of tortoise.

As an American learning not just piping, but the culture of piping, I realized that one does not outwardly promote one’s self at the risk of being accused of trying to curry favour. One sets expectations low, and humility and not a little self-flagellation is generally in order at competitions. Those who come off the boards gloating about how well they played are doomed to fail, either when the prizes are announced or in their fellow competitors’ eyes.

But back to the photo-deficiency of famous pipers and drummers. There are only a scant few images of, say, John McLellan, Dunoon, or Willie Lawrie or Roddie Campbell. From that era, we generally can thank the military for the photos that do exist. Granted, cameras and photographs were relatively few and expensive then, but I tend to think that these humble pipers would have few pictures of themselves today, even if they had an account on Facebook.