Gridlock at the top

Beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah.Peculiar traditions in competitive piping and drumming aren’t limited to pipe bands. The world of solo piping is prone to idiosyncratic and contradictory developments. The recent decision by the Glenfiddich Invitational to no longer allow the annual United States Piping Foundation’s competition as a qualifier is one of those things that’s both reasonable and surprising.

It’s reasonable because the winner’s not guaranteed to be of a standard good enough to match that of the elite players who populate the Glenfiddich; it’s surprising because the USPF was the only remaining non-UK event on the Glenfiddich’s list of qualifying contests. The Glenfiddich used to kind-of sort-of somewhat acknowledge the aggregate winner of the Piobaireachd Society Gold Medal (Canada) (or is that Piobaireachd Society [Canada] Gold Medal? Can never get that straight) events at Maxville as second- or third-tier qualifier, but that seemed to vapourize a number of years ago, perhaps when Bill Livingstone stopped competing at it.

Sacking the USPF comes at a time when more UK pipers than ever are travelling to the US to compete in events offering major prize-money and workshops. Perhaps one of those ritzy contests in New Jersey, San Francisco, San Diego or Kansas City might be under consideration as a Glenfiddich qualifier.

The gridlock of bands that traditionally exists at the top of Grade 1 is symptomatic of solo piping, too. In fact, it’s almost the same scenario: The top competitors generally avoid risking being beaten by non-elites at smaller events simply by not attending. And without regular opportunities to beat the top competitors, it’s extremely difficult for bands and soloists to break in to the top-tier.

When it’s only the biggest contests (RSPBA championships for bands; invitationals for solo piping) that the top-tier competitors play at, it’s almost impossible for those not in the elite category to establish a consistent trend of success. If a band or soloist who isn’t in the top-tier manages to win a prize against the elite, it’s often considered a fluke, and judges might be suspected of a rogue decision. So the judges, too, are reluctant to stick their neck out and award prizes to the non-elites. That’s why competitive gridlock happens.

It apparently got so bad in the Scottish solo scene in the early 1980s that Hugh MacCallum, John MacDougall, Iain MacFadyen and Gavin Stoddart collectively agreed to retire together, to make way for a new generation of elites. That might be apocryphal, but the fact is they did retire almost en masse, and, if they hadn’t, then quite possibly we wouldn’t have seen Angus MacColl, Roddy MacLeod, Willie McCallum and Gordon Walker rise to the top so quickly. Who knows? One or more of those great players may have quit in frustration.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the top-tier elite band and solo competitors are amazing musicians and competitors. The public wants to hear them, and that’s why they’re invited back and showcased time and again. They’re safe bets for a superb contest, so you can hardly fault them for going with the big names. I wouldn’t suggest any of them retire before they’re good and ready on their own terms.

But some way, somehow, competitors need to have a chance to break in to the top-tiers and the elite. More big contests should find news ways to shake things up and allow new names to rise up.

Raising the chances

Shophie had to make a choice.Most solo piping competitors I think have a strategy when it comes to the tunes they choose and how they submit them. Of course, I’m talking about the higher levels of competition, where competitors have to put in more than one tune, and not thinking so much of submitting tunes that suit one’s hands or that the piper enjoys playing. Those are givens.

I’m thinking about the strategy involved with getting the tune you want to play chosen by the judge. When you submit four or more tunes, there are always one or two that you would hope to be picked, or, perhaps, one or two you hope aren’t picked. Consequently, pipers have their personal strategies for increasing/decreasing the odds.

Most would never admit it, though. If asked what you’re hoping to play, the standard answer has bravado: “Oh, I have no preference.” That’s supposed to communicate a combination of readiness and humility. It’s a subliminal warning-shot to a fellow competitor that you’re well-practiced, confident and ready for anything, while also trying to trick your own mind that you’ll accept what comes.

In piping and drumming, getting one’s hopes up – whether expecting a certain prize, favourable treatment from a judge or having a preferred tune picked – is ill-advised, and only sets you up for certain disappointment. A good rule of thumb for competing is, Expect the worst.

But you might be able to improve the odds. Here are some of the things that I either did as a competitor or as a judge notice others doing, attempting to get preferred tune(s) chosen from a list:

  • Name your preferred tune first. When you tell the judge your tunes, the first one should be the one that you want to play. It often gets chosen for the simple reason that the judge remembers it because he/she’s thinking about it as you rhyme off the rest of the list. And, as we all know, many judges have ADD or frequently simply lose the plot.
  • Increase the odds by including obscure stuff. Most judges pick stuff they know, mainly because they don’t want to be caught out. When two of the four tunes in your list are little-known and seldom-heard, chances are the judge won’t choose them. I used to submit a really good but obscure tune by G.S. McLennan called “Castle Toward.” I can’t remember it ever being picked.
  • Conveniently “forget” the names of the ones you don’t want to play. This happens a lot. A competitor just can’t remember the third or fourth tune in his/her list. They stammer and stall, and then it suddenly comes to them. Most judges are kind, so will probably not pick it because they assume you don’t want to play the tune or don’t actually know it.
  • Be cute. For example, if your last name is “MacDonald,” it might be a good idea to put in “The MacDonalds Are Simple,” or “John MacDonald of Glencoe,” or something else with “MacDonald” in the title. You see this quaint humour all the time. Judges think they’re funny and casual when they tell competitor Trixie McDonald, “Oh, well, we’ll just have to have ‘Mrs. MacDonald of Dunach,’ now, won’t we, haw, haw.”
  • Look for connections. Since there aren’t many competition tunes with “Berthoff” in the title, in addition to it being a fantasic tune I used to submit “Edinburgh City Police” in my marches, because judges often knew that my father-in-law played with that band for 25 years. As a competitor, I remember more than one nod-and-wink on the boards. You might want to choose tunes that relate to your hometown, band, teacher or some other connection.

Those are a few strategies that I’ve noticed and/or used myself. They might work for you but, then again, they might not – never count on anything in competitive piping and drumming.

Just talk

You first.Sometime in the last decade, I made an offer to the then executive officer of the RSPBA to develop a public relations plan. No charge. Perhaps ironically, he never responded, much less took me up on the proposal. It frustrated me then, as it does now, to see piping and drumming associations make fundamental communications mistakes. While these mistakes have incited a lot of news content – some of it quite extraordinary – over the years to any media outlet with enough courage to report it, many of the errors could have been avoided by doing just a few things differently.

I’ve worked in public relations for almost 20 years. I’ve done okay in the profession, working with one of North America’s top agencies, currently as a senior-vice-president. My company has gained more PR industry awards than any agency in Canada. I don’t intend to brag; it’s just to say that others seem to think I often know what I’m doing when it comes to communications.

To be sure, the RSPBA’s communications problems aren’t unique. In fact, they exist with most, if not all, piping and drumming organizations that largely rely on passionate unpaid volunteers to make the right decisions and make the time to implement them. There’s no denying that effective communications take expertise, experience and time. Those elements aside, most of it comes down to plain old common sense.

So, again, in good faith, here are a few essential tips for communicating effectively. Maybe a few piping and drumming organizations – associations, committees, bands, clubs, panels – will find them useful.

1. Silence is treated with suspicion and eventually contempt. In today’s instant messaging world, people expect open, honest, transparent dialog. When nothing is said the inference is that something’s being hidden. When questions go unanswered, contempt is created.

2. Mistakes happen; own up to them, apologize, learn from them and become better. No organization is perfect. We all make mistakes. But an association that doesn’t acknowledge or attempts to obfuscate its errors inevitably damages its reputation. The truth will out, so get in front of it. Don’t sit back and hope no one notices. The practice of sweeping problems under the rug thinking that they’ll just go away doesn’t hold up any more. It may be out of sight and out of mind, but it will continue to get smellier and stinkier and eventually become a suffocating stench when it’s uncovered.

3. Trust people. Last time I checked, piping/drumming was still music, enjoyed by those with a passion for it. It’s all good. Suspecting everyone of having some ulterior motive or a hidden agenda is counter-productive. Trust is returned with trust.

4. Earn trust. Members need to be confident that their opinions will not result in political repercussions. With unhealthy associations, open criticism is rare because members are afraid that some corrupt judge or executive will retaliate on the contest field. An environment of constant constructive dialog must be nurtured. It will take years to change, in some cases, the decades-old tradition of fear, but it can and must happen if you’re going to lead. Clamp down on conflict-of-interest and communicate that it will not be tolerated in any shape – real or perceived.

5. The “association” is the members, not its executive, music board or judges. Like a church, the “church” is not the preacher or the cathedral, it’s the congregation. An organization that loses touch with its members is destined to fail, or, like leaders of political parties, will be overthrown by the will of constituents. Always act in the best interests of the members. If you don’t know what their collective best interests are, refer to point 4.

6. Be accessible and responsive. Customer service is for many of today’s businesses the only real differentiator. There’s always an option to do something else. An association’s customers are its members. Treat them like a customer: with respect, good manners and appreciation. Viewing the membership as a giant headache or insinuating that they’re always wrong – as some associations seem to these days – will alienate them. You might be the only Wal-Mart in town, but if you neglect your customers they’ll eventually go shopping elsewhere.

7. Communicate your good news. Piping and drumming organizations do far more things right than wrong. They sometimes wonder why no one acknowledges their accomplishments. The reason is simple: you didn’t bother to tell anyone, and/or you didn’t respond to inquiries. Talk. (See point 1.)

8. Take criticism seriously. Organizations should welcome and even invite criticism. Ask members for their feedback, and consider all of it. You will identify trends, and you can prioritize what needs to be fixed first. (See point 2.)

9. Measure your “brand.” Do you know what your organization represents to members? To outsiders? To the people you want to reach? Are you even recognized for anything? Ask a cross-section of various audiences to describe your organization or band in three words. You’ll be amazed at what you discover, positive and negative – or even that they’ve never even heard of you. Only by listening, knowing and accepting can you improve.

10. Embrace change. A stubborn, obstinate organization that is unwilling to adapt to changing times or the desires of its members will eventually become a dinosaur. Associations often mistakenly think that their job is to protect the past, to control the music by rejecting suggestions to do things differently. In fact, any organization with vitality needs to face and embrace the future.

Perhaps these points will help a few foundering piping and drumming organizations whose problems often are a result of poor communication. As a member, contemplate how well your association, band or group manages these points.

It’s a different world today, and the piping and drumming traditions of the 1900s – ignoring and denying problems, sweeping troubles under the rug, silence and contempt – are unacceptable in 2010.