Until posting a few Glen-Cam videos of Ontario-based Grade 3 bands competing recently, I hadn’t much thought about the trend toward creativity creeping into the lower grades. We’ve all taken note of the move to experimenting with the music in Grade 1, perhaps best exemplified by the Toronto Police band’s trailblazing, and some might say button-pushing, medleys of the past three seasons, but I have been struck by the creativity coming through in Grade 3 and Grade 4 selections.
It makes sense, since creativity isn’t exclusive to those with technical ability. Sure, the better bands can better execute the creative, and are on the whole more listened-to by the piping and drumming public than bands in the lower grades. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be every bit as creative.
It was the comments to the videos that got me thinking. I’d never really thought that there was some divine right to be musically creative, that you have to serve time as a piper or drummer, moving up the grades, before being permitted to challenge convention. Of particular interest to me was the notion that, in Scotland, the concept that pipe- and pipe band music comes naturally, because one is around it, essentially, from birth, as part of the country’s artistic culture. You play that music because that music is what is played, and that’s that. You don’t question it. It just is.
How easy and worry-free that must be. So many non-Scottish bands tear at themselves, questioning why they do what they do, wonder what they can do to improve it or do it differently. It’s either dissatisfaction or boredom or a combination of the two. Or it’s a result of rejecting the idea that competitive pipe bands are more sport than art, and that art isn’t art unless conventional wisdom is bucked and creativity tapped.
And that, possibly, is where the philosophies of Scotland and the rest of the world collide. There are exceptions, of course – several noteworthy Scottish bands that love to push the musical envelope; several non-Scottish bands that stick to the familiar. I’m not saying I like one approach more than another, and full credit goes to fine music, whatever it is.
But there are those who are quite happy doing what we do in piping and pipe bands because that’s just what we do, so why change it? Don’t get all worked up over being different. Play your stuff, play it as well as you can, and work to perfect it. Why mess with a good thing? You’re just making yourself miserable.
The other side of course revels in the challenge to create, even if it means being miserable or, on the contrary, delighting in being different and pushing buttons and challenging convention. Just as the bread-in-the-bone conventionalists can’t understand what all the creative fuss is about, the chronically uneasy artisans in the crowd can’t imagine a pipe band world where you play the same thing again and again and again, like three decades of “Donald Cameron,” “Cameronian Rant” and “Pretty Marion” that was Shotts & Dykehead’s trademark from the 1960s to the 1980s.
So much of the musical quandaries we’re facing now in pipe bands are not a result of taste, but of cultures colliding. It started when the first non-UK band sailed to Scotland to test their mettle, and came back questioning if that was all there was. The pursuit of perfection to them had to include musical innovation as well.
For a long time the thing to do was to imitate the Scots and everything they did, doing everything just so and just the same, contest after contest, year after year. After a while, that approach just doesn’t sit well with New World thinking.