Awesome simplicity

Mingus.“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

“Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

The great jazz cat Charles Mingus famously said these things back in the day. He was speaking particularly about his own music; it also applies to ours.

My favourite tunes – bagpipe or other – invariably have extraordinarily simple, memorable melodies. They’re uncluttered and pure in their distinctive structure and sound. “Lochanside,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Lament for Mary MacLeod,” “In My Life,” “The Little Cascade,” “A Case of You,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein” . . .

We pipers play a rather complicated instrument, and many composers – especially those just starting out – seem to think that complexity is the root of cleverness. As listeners we can’t help but be impressed by our fastest-handed players doing things that we can only dream of. We associate clever with complicated.

But we’re moved by the simple. The simple stays with us. A blur of notes and impressive technicalities generally leave us cold, while pure memorable melody puts us in the mood for more.

Pipe bands have a particularly difficult time with this concept. The temptation is to impress with “innovation” rather than wow with sound. The real challenge is to present the pipe band’s complicated intricacies in a simple and meaningful manner that resonates long after the sound stops. The task is made yet harder when snare drummers are rewarded for technical rather than musical achievement, and complicated yet again when bass sections are inserted into places they’re really not needed.

Maybe it’s because our music is so simply nine notes that we strive to over-complicate it. We gild the lily. Perhaps it’s overcompensation for what we feel we lack in terms of octaves and dynamics and time-signatures, but it’s the simple, and the confidence to be awesomely simple, that sustains.

Tips for the World’s

Every year the World’s comes around and every year there are things I forget to remember. Like these:

  • The RSPBA runs like a Swiss watch. If the program says a band is to play at 10:57, almost without fail the band is brought on to the park at 10:57. It’s to the point where watching the RSPBA’s stewards is more amazing than watching the bands themselves. These guys are like the secret service, decked out in ear pieces, communicating across the park, the oil in the machine. It really is uncanny.
  • Best bands always win.The results are almost always right. Say what we will about ranking spreads, perceptions of conflict and other problems (and they are problems), but the right result is almost always delivered at the end of the day. When was the last time that someone had a major, major problem with the results at the World’s, especially the first prizes? It all comes out in the wash.
  • The best place to be is at the World’s. The live streaming on the BBC could ultimately become a case of the RSPBA cutting of its nose to spite its face, and for sheer listening pleasure there’s nothing better than watching the contest from your 7.1 surround sound 55-inch plasma system at home, but nothing beats actually being there. The atmosphere on the park is irreplaceable.
  • It’s still a closed shop. Everyone around Glasgow seems to be aware of the World’s going on, but still only pipers and drummers appear to actually go to the event. Taxi drivers and barmen and customs officers know the event is happening, but I have yet to happen upon someone not directly connected with a band or piping/drumming paying to attend the contest. I’m sure they’re there, but they’re as scarce as a band with brown brogues and balmorals.
  • You’re increasingly spoiled for choice. It gets more difficult every year to do everything that you want to do at Piping Live! and the World’s. Piping Live! now has three, even four things happening at the same time every hour of every day, leaving you strangely disappointed. The World’s has always been that way, but at least now with the BBC’s coverage you can reasonably skip the Grade 1 and have a listen to other excellent events, or soak up (or get soaked at) the beer tent.
  • Just in case, bring sunscreen. Yes, that’s right. Everyone brings rain gear, but this year the sun emerged in full-force for about an hour. And there’s nothing like the intensity of pure Scottish sun to get a burn. I got absolutely baked in the beer tent, as it were, in the unexpected sunshine. I looked like the burn-victim I was for two solid weeks.

I’ll keep these tips on hand for 2012 so that I’ll not forget to remember.

Lessons earned

Ethical dilemmae.There’s a hardly a person out there who has not at one time won a prize when their teacher was judging, and I would be willing to bet that of the 99 per cent of pipers and drummers who have been rewarded by their instructor, nearly all of them felt a bit regretful.

I know I have.

1984. I had been living in Scotland, spending my third year of college at the University of Stirling. I had the extreme good fortune to be taken on as a regular pupil by someone of prodigious knowledge and renown strictly for piobaireachd, and another even more renowned person for light music. (Why I didn’t occasionally seek one for the other music, I don’t know, but that’s another story.) I also was lucky enough to access the prodigious knowledge of another prominent person for a few weekends in the fall of 1983.

I had been preparing all year for the Silver Medal. The event in 1984 called for contestants to submit six of their own choice of tunes. I keenly learned up the tunes set for the Gold Medal contests, since it was all good. I got all of these from my main piobaireachd teacher. I’d been playing well enough over the summer to pick up prizes around the games.

But then the judges for the Silver Medal were revealed in July. At the time I was extremely excited to learn that not one, not two, but all three of my teachers would be on the Silver Medal bench at Inverness. Since I believed that the teacher/pupil/judge connection was an acceptable part of the game, I figured that I had hit the jackpot. What great luck!

After getting nothing at Oban, Inverness came around. I was the first to play after the lunch break. I thought that I played as well as I possibly could, which is all you can hope to do. The result was announced, and I was first. All three of them told me later that their decision was unanimous.

While I felt that I deserved the prize, I also felt awkward at the time and ever since about the award. I knew then as I know now that many prizes big and small have been won with teachers judging their students. As far as I know, there’s no rule anywhere against the practice, and only “policies” with some organizations that asks teachers to avoid judging their pupils.

I’ve written before that the practice of teachers judging their students is inevitable, since the best teachers make the most knowledgeable judges and vice-versa. Maybe tellingly, I came up with that thesis when I was actively competing. People often find ways to reconcile such dilemmas in ways that suit us at the time.

I’ve since changed my mind. Teachers judging pupils can and should be avoided. If for nothing else, a teacher should avoid the practice for this fundamental reason: it’s not fair to the pupil. It’s not fair because the student may well have deserved the prize, and probably did, but his or her peers – every one of them – will have at least a shade of doubt.

I don’t for a second think that back in 1984 my teachers were anything but ethical and honest, and my sense of ethics may differ substantially from others. I respect other opinions. I also think that the ethical sense of players, teachers and judges have changed over the last three decades.

But all too often I sense teachers accept judging pupils for what appears to be a selfish reason: to further their own reputation as a teacher via the success of their student. The better the pupil does, the better the instructor appears.

Some players dodge the issue by saying that a judge who’s judging them isn’t really an “instructor” because they see them only periodically, or receive only casual feedback. That may be so, but, as a friend recently pointed out, the player is quick to list the very same person as a “teacher” in their autobiographical sketches.

Some judges dodge the issue with the well-worn contention that, if you prohibit teachers from judging their pupils, there won’t be enough judges to go around. I don’t believe that. It just takes adroit planning and full disclosure. Judges need to tell organizers who they’re teaching, and then let them organize events accordingly.

Competitions are about the competitors, not the judges. Teachers should not put their students in such compromising situations. Ironically, prizes won by students of judges are an injustice to the pupil who needs to be seen to earn prizes fairly, strictly on his or her own merits.

And declining to judge pupils in contests could be one of the most important lessons an instructor can teach.