Sales pitch

Reeds do it. Metres do it. Even educated beaters do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall apart.

With apologies to Cole Porter, the “it” in question is obsolescence, the failure of a product requiring customers to need the next version.

For most industries, planned obsolescence is necessary to sustain business. A product can become obsolete through continual improvement, as in your iPhone. After a time, technology overtakes technology, rendering an older product useless. Changing fashion is about style, but it’s also about creating new desirable products through perceived obsolescence, otherwise, loin-clothes would still be in vogue.

Musical instruments by and large are an exception. A quality musical instrument can last a lifetime, or even several lifetimes, provided that the instrument can cope with the evolution of pitch and, in the case of pianos, incredible tension that can eventually break down a pressure bar, rendering the instrument untenably untunable.

In terms of tension, a pipe band snare drum with upwards of a thousand pounds of pressure puts a piano’s maximum 200 pounds to shame. There is an incredible amount of torque required to bring a pipe band snare to pitch, and an ever-more-demanding drum pitch to complement an ever-sharper chanter sound is a great business recipe.

I have often wondered whether ever-rising pitch across almost all genres of music isn’t about planned obsolescence. From what I have read, the pitch of symphony orchestras has steadily increased, just like pipe bands. No one knows exactly why, but a possible theory is that it puts more pressure, figuratively and literally, on instruments, necessitating replacement parts or outright replacement.

I defer to experts on the mechanicals and engineering of a snare drum, but I believe that shells can buckle, hardware can bend, snare mechanisms fail, eventually rendering the instrument unstable. Pipe chanters generally have a much longer shelf-life, but they too are subject to the pressures of pitch, reed-seats knackered, holes gouged beyond repair, and so forth. At $850-$1,400 each, the pipe band snare drum and its various heads and snares that need regular replacing are the biggest annual collective equipment expense for a band.

I’m sure that a percussion instrument maker could create a snare drum that lasts as long as a Land Rover, but, trouble is, it would probably weigh too much to carry or be too expensive to purchase in the short-term, even though it might pay off in the long-term. Percussion instrument makers tempt bands further by bringing out the latest and greatest drums that promise to be more responsive and resilient, with glorious new sparkly shiny finishes to bling your back end. Just like your iPhone, what started five years ago as a state-of-the-art miracle device becomes a despicable piece of dated garbage.

In 2009, Terry Cleland created snare drums with carbon fibre shells that were lightweight and hardly or never deteriorated under pressure. They came in at a relatively expensive price, and haven’t caught on. He gave a complete set to the Grade 1 Ballycoan band, only to see the band buckle and break up before it ever took the drums into a contest.

Drum makers are smart to give away their instruments to the top bands, just like Taylor Made and Titleist get the best golfers to use their newest gear. The lead-drummers of the lower-grade bands beg and plead for their band to buy them the gear that is sure to up their game when, in fact, it probably won’t make too much difference to reconcile an outlay of $15,000, including matching tenors, bass and heads.

It’s a terrific business model – one that I won’t fault. If it weren’t for pipe chanters and their eventual obsolescence, I wonder how many bagpipe makers would stay afloat. Pipe band snare drum makers consistently strive to create more tension to satisfy tonal taste, and the pitch going higher and higher virtually guarantees sales. Woe betide drum and bagpipe makers if the prize-winning Grade 1 sound suddenly dropped 15 cycles. We’d all be pulling out our old 10-lug Super Royal Scots and Robertson chanters.

Pushing up the pitch is business-smart, lucrative obsolescence.

 

Take me to church

There are few competing pipers and drummers who would list “Highland Cathedral” as their favourite tune. In fact, many of us dislike it, perhaps because so  many non-pipers/drummers love it. But we will play it exactly for that reason.

The piece was written in 1982 by German piper Michael Korb in collaboration with music producer and arranger Ulrich Roever. Unlike almost every piece of bagpipe music, “Highland Cathedral” was created with the key objective of commercial success. They looked past the parochial pipe music audience, apparently recognizing a way to go beyond the “Amazing Grace” Highland games cliché. Crucially, they composed not for a pipe band competition medley or a competition pipe band concert, but for the paying public.

I’d say that Korb and Roever have been extremely successful. For 35 years now “Highland Cathedral” has been played at weddings, on best-selling albums and, most importantly, at big tattoos around the world. A recent example was the 2016 Virginia Tattoo in Norfolk, where a full orchestration of “Highland Cathedral” was performed at each show, twice a day, to a sold-out arena of about 15,000 people who paid about $50 for a ticket.

In case you’re still thinking that there is “nae money” in bagpipe music, consider that “Highland Cathedral” is registered with various royalties collections organizations around the world, and is looked after and promoted by a major music publishing company. From the performances of their work at Norfolk alone, the composers of “Highland Cathedral” should have earned well-deserved royalties of five-figures. (If you happened to have a tune played at the same tattoo, be sure to register with a performing rights organization so that they can go get the money that you have rightfully earned.)

I say that they earned the royalties because they recognized in 1982 an opportunity to create a piece of music for a market that was under-served. The composers deserve to receive their fair share in return for making people happy with their music. To pipers, “Highland Cathedral” is no “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran,” but, to the public, “Mrs. MacPherson” is just another bagpipe song that to their ear sounds the same as that other zippy jiggy reel thingmee.

It’s amazing and a little bit sad that for 35 years we pipers and drummers haven’t been able to improve on “Highland Cathedral.” We might snobbily groan at the piece, but what have we done to reach out and connect with a non-piping audience? Are we still naïvely expecting the world to wake up and realize the greatness of “Mrs. MacPherson”?

Korb (Roever died a few years ago) might be quietly wondering why the treacle-pop-pipe-tune hasn’t been bettered, or at least met with some other original musical competition at tattoos and weddings.

So, here’s my idea: let’s improve on “Highland Cathedral.” Someone with serious piping chops, with a gift for recognizing a simple, easy melody, and who still has the creativity gene that generally declines after age 30, should collaborate with a current music producer and arranger to create a piece that everyone – pipers, drummers and non-playing public – can enjoy repeatedly playing and hearing.

It can’t be an esoteric jazzy work like “Journey to Skye,” or a hand-mangling blur like “Hellbound Train,” or derivative arrangement of Pachelbel’s “Canon.” No, what’s needed is a simple, original air, with a beat, that lasts no more than four minutes, respectful to the great music of the Highland pipe, with a name that conjures up a nice, Highland image, like “My Scottish Hearth and Home,” or “Tartan Mist,” or “Song for Auld Scotia” – something warm and evocative anyway. Make it in a happy, major key, and orchestrate the poignant piece with someone who knows what he/she is doing in multiple ways for various ensembles to accompany the pipes and drums: brass band, orchestra, rock band, Celtic folk, and so forth.

And after that, find and sign with a serious music publisher (one expert in the non-piping world) that will work to get the music out there at shows, tattoos, commercials, movies, TV shows . . . A good music publisher knows how to do this, and will work hard because they stand to make at least 30% of the royalties from the shared success.

If you do it right, you will have created a piece better for piping and drumming than “Highland Cathedral,” which the non-playing public will grow to love, and which, as a bonus, will earn you a lot of money.

In return for this great idea, I’d be happy with a 5% split of the royalties. Let me know how you get on.

 

What judges want

Sitting adjudicating an amateur solo piping competition the other day, I got to thinking again about the competitors, so many of them so anxious and apprehensive.

Playing before a judge who’s going to judge your music is a weird thing to subject yourself to, but it’s what we do. It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the table that I appreciated that I had it all wrong for all those years as a competitor.

Competitors generally have the wrong idea about judges. I know I did, especially when I was younger.

I can only speak with certainty for myself as a judge, but I like to think that these things apply to any right-minded and decent adjudicator.

So here are a few tips for competitors as to what judges actually want when they’re judging you.

  1. Judges want you to play as well as you can. This is the most important thing to know. Any decent judge is rooting for you to play well, or at least to your personal best. I think many competitors mistakenly think that judges rejoice every time you make a mistake. Not true.
  2. Judges were once on your side of the table. Every adjudicator (except for a few anachronisms from a different era who still judge in the UK despite every competitor preferring that they don’t) has been a competitor. We know what you’re going through. It’s not easy. We can empathize.
  3. You will be given the benefit of the doubt. I know that if I wasn’t sure about something that I thought I heard, I will assume it was my mistake, not yours.
  4. Don’t tip your hand. If you make a mistake keep going. Don’t draw attention to it. If you played the wrong tune or got the parts mixed up, never assume the judge noticed or even knew, so don’t proactively confess to it. While I admire your honesty, I’d shake my head at you drawing attention to your error.
  5. Don’t start unless you’re satisfied with the sound. Unless there’s a tuning time-limit, don’t start until you are completely happy with the sound of your instrument. This happens a lot: competitors feeling like they have to start, and knowingly begin with their drones out of tune. True, labourious tuning for no real reason is irritating, but if you are struggling to get your drones in tune or your instrument isn’t quite settled, take the time to get it right. As long as it’s not against the rules, no decent judge will penalize you for tuning, but you will be criticized negatively for an out-of-tune instrument. The memory of long tuning evaporates with the actual competition performance.
  6. We want you to want to play. Connected with #5, judges can tell when a player simply does not want to play. They’ll tune for ages not because their instrument needs it, but because they’re procrastinating. If you’re going to compete, wanting to actually perform is the first step. Maybe you’re a masochist, but if you hate competing, don’t compete.
  7. It’s all about you. Judges are there to serve the competitor. We’re not trying to distract you, and we are (or should be) conscious of how we operate, when we write, tap our feet, or play along with you. My least favourite judges were the few who thought it was all about them, with histrionics designed to draw attention away from the performance, ticking off every mistake they heard just to show others that they heard it, too. (Did they count up all the ticks or something to decide their prize-winners?)  It should never be about the judge; it’s all about you.
  8. It’s never personal. Reacting to not being in the prizes, thinking that a judge must not like you as a person, can be an automatic human response. No, they just preferred other performances over yours. Judges are ambivalent as to who wins; they only care what wins.
  9. Judges want you to be happy. It’s music, but we so often are miserable playing it in competition because of anxiety. Make the music that you love. It’s something out of nothing and then it’s only a memory. Consciously making and enjoying music is a miracle that distinguishes us from other animals. Make a good memory. Enjoy yourself.

It can take many years for competitors to understand these things, and sometimes that understanding only comes when you’re on the other side of the table.

I hope they might positively change your perspective the next time you compete.