Trad. and true

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.

Glen-Cam

Always appreciating a different perspective on things, I sourced a mini high-definition camera with the thought of making videos hands-free. I connected the camera to a ski-helmet strap and tested it out at the recent Georgetown games. With the association’s okay, I had recorded a few events last year with a hand-held audio device. But I found it difficult to keep a grip of the thing. This was a great solution.

I was assigned to judge ensemble in the Grade 3 and Grade 4 competitions, and was able to get some footage of a few bands, each, as it happens, with interesting medleys. The result is here for your interest.

This is pretty much exactly what a judge would see and hear while assessing a band. I always try to get various perspectives on the bands, and ensure that I’m far enough back to get a comprehensive sense of the overall sound of the band. The contribution of mid-sections/bass-sections (take your pick) is increasingly important, and bands seem to strategically position tenors and bass drums to give the projection from the instruments that they’re hoping for.

The venue for these events is one of the better ones, placed in a natural enclosure that contains the sound nicely. The weather was gie dreich, so the crowds weren’t nearly as large for these events. I believe it was raining fairly hard during Durham’s performance. (By the way, that’s a rendition of “Oowatanite” by the 1980s Canadian rock band, April Wine, that Durham opens its medley with. Many Ontario bands in all grades have been getting very creative over the last three or four years.)

There’s also a clip from the scene at the beertent, right after the Grade 1 winners, Peel Regional Police, came in to play a bit. The Georgetown beertent generally goes well into the night. I think that’s the Rob Roy band playing.

To be honest, I look even more a right prat with the camera strapped to my head (no more, though, than some of the absurd hats that you see some judges wear), partially covered by a glengarry, but it’s the price one pays to deliver constructive new perspectives for the piping and drumming world to, I hope, enjoy. A few people have already said what a great learning tool this could become, so perhaps use of such technology could even be considered for future judging and band feedback. I love that we can be so open-minded.

Perfect pitch

Outta there!Referees, umpires and judges can make mistakes. Every competition that requires an element of human officiating is subject to human error.

The technically “perfect” game (for non-baseball fans this is a game in which one side never reaches first-base; it’s happened only 20 times in the 130-year history of Major League Baseball) pitched by Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers the other night was nullified by a mistake in judgment by highly-respected veteran umpire, Jim Joyce. On what should have been the final, 27th-straight batter grounding out, Joyce ruled the batter safe at first, thus spoiling the rare perfect game and the no-hitter.

Baseball fans immediately wondered whether the umpire’s decision would be overturned by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, by overwhelming video evidence that the umpire erred, but Bud Selig decided against that. He contended that “the human element” is an integral part of the game, so the decision would stand, even though he, the umpire, Galarraga and everyone even remotely interested knows that it was in fact the twenty-first perfect game. What a shame.

The age of instant recording has also affected piping and drumming competitions. It probably started in 1974 when Bill Livingstone famously had his second-prize revoked in the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting when a listener in the audience cannily produced a tape recording showing that he had made some note mistakes. After the results were announced, upon hearing the recorded evidence the judges convened and decided to alter their list. Much hue and cry ensued, but it probably helped to put a spotlight on Bill, who went on, as we all know, to greater things.

Today instant replay is more than ever a factor. Video from pipe band competitions is available within hours of even the least significant of contests. More than once, there have been some visual things – blown attacks, hitched bags, dropped sticks – that seemed to have not been noticed by the judges.

There’s a school of thought with many judges that it’s only what’s heard that ultimately matters. Who cares about false fingering if you can’t hear it? A piper might not “get up,” but if it didn’t affect the sound, then what difference does it make? Didn’t that bass drummer play just fine with one mallet? The bagpipe sounded great without a middle-tenor going, so why get all worked up?

There are other judges who feel that these technical “errors” should be punishable. If you can see the mistake, then it should be duly assessed. The assumption is that if you detect it with your eyes, there must be some negative impact on the sound.

The Sunday morning quarterbacking that now goes on on YouTube is bigger than ever. This is the pipe band world’s version of instant replay, and perhaps it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that results can be altered by the officials, if the oversight is grievous enough. But that’s unrealistic.

What is realistic is a post-event conversation between judges before each submits his/her final result. In effect, this is as close as we should come to reviewing the recording to share notes to increase the likelihood of a fair result being rendered. The consultative judging process acknowledges that our competitions are subject to the human element, that mistakes might be made and that no one is perfect.