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.

 

Browbeating retreat

Why are you out to get us? You seem to have it in for me. Why are you so unfair? You’re biased!

Watching the new US President going at the American intelligence agencies, the media and pretty much anyone or anything that he doesn’t agree with reminded me of how a few rare pipers, drummers and bands, almost always in the upper grades, can sometimes treat judges.

At least one of the President’s objectives in accusing people and things of being “unfair” or “biased” is clear: he wants them to doubt themselves and, he hopes, overcompensate the next time by giving him a more favourable decision or story.

Accusing journalists of under-reporting terrorism is designed to stoke fear by having media go out, research what they’ve reported, and publish a long list of terrorism coverage, thus achieving the objective of highlighting a long list of big and small terrorist acts, scaring the bejeezuz out of people. Mission accomplished.

As a piping and pipe band judge I have been accused a few times over the last 15-odd years of judging by paranoid bands (and the rare soloist) of being somehow biased against them. I can remember a few frustrated competitors – almost always competing in the top grades – casually or even confrontationally accusing me of not treating his/her band fairly. “Why are you out to get us?” “Why are you so unfair?” “You’re biased!” “Why don’t you like us?” “What do we have to do to get a prize off of you?”

After the initial, WTF moment passes, I ask them to provide examples. Generally, they won’t or can’t. When they do point to a performance in which they think they were hard done, I ask them to refer to the scoresheet as an account of my decisions. It might also be a simple response: “Next time, play better than the others.” When I ask if they listened to the whole contest, invariably the answer is no.

To be sure, there are a few genuinely corrupt judges in the piping and drumming world, but, as I’ve said many times, I don’t care who wins or gets a prize as long as it’s fair and deserved. I’ve never asked to judge anything and never will.

But a few veteran pipers and drummers will take this passive-aggressive or confrontational strategy with an objective to have you doubt yourself or want to make amends, so that next time you might bum them up a bit to get them off your back and prove that you’re not against them. It’s a psychological game. Some perhaps sociopathic competitors have even made a career out of it. Why? It tends to get results with weak judges who, in actuality, doubt their ability to get the result right and account for it convincingly with credibility.

And then there are judges whose top priority is maintaining friendships through judging. Getting the result correct is secondary. They’ll throw an undeserving player or band a prize just to keep up appearances, keep friendships, get judging gigs. I guarantee that this happens. It drove me crazy as a competitor and it drives me crazy as a judge. The judge overcompensates and next time out put that whinging competitor up a few places so that they remain friends while at the same time shutting their yap for a season.

The browbeating competitor tries to suss out the less-confident or more pliable judges, and will be relentless in their accusatory lobbying. Why? Because it apparently works in our little world where some judges are less afraid of losing respect than “friends.”

Obviously there is little comparison between the level of bullying and intimidation that goes on in federal politics and our little piping and drumming world. The point is that, sadly, browbeating can get results. It’s up to the objective and confident judges among us to respond to these sorts of tactics with confidence and integrity, continuing to do the right thing going forward.

 

Trumped up

So music acts and politicians are boycotting the Donald Trump inauguration. I admire them for standing firm on their political beliefs, and can understand why musicians might feel that performing at an event could be seen to support the new regime, which might be bad for their image and alienate the majority of their fan-base.

The non-competing Washington DC Fire Department Emerald Society Pipes & Drums and others were invited to perform at in the parade on January 20th, and apparently gladly accepted. Some pipers and drummers have criticized and even insulted these bands for their decision to participate.

The hoo-ha reminded me of course of pipe band competitions – specifically, prize-giving ceremonies.

Anyone who’s competed long enough has been in or encountered a band that gets in high dudgeon about results and threatens to boycott an event or a judge or something that they feel strongly about. For people who routinely welcome criticism about the music we passionately make, we’re an awfy thin-skinned lot. Some of the seemingly toughest talkers and most seasoned players can dish it out, but have a tissue-paper epidermis.

I remember several instances in my own playing career when a result came out at the massed bands or march-past and the band (or, more accurately, some members of it) that I was in stomped off the field in knee-jerk protest. I recall many times when prominent solo and band players confronted specific judges about results, including a few ugly incidents. I can recall a few instances when emotion and disappointment got the better of me, and I took up a result with a judge. Not my finest moments, and each time I later apologized for my crime of heat-stroked passion.

I recall playing with a band in Scotland in the 1980s at a small contest for colliery bands when we got on our high horse because a judge closely associated with one of the other bands entered was on the pen. Our plan was to get all tuned-up and sounding great, play to the line, and then fall out in protest. Well, word got out about our crafty “We’ll show them!” plan, we were threatened with suspension by the RSPBA well before we even had the pipes out, so we buckled, played the event, and the judge in question of course made sure the other band won. We drowned our sorrows and humiliation in the pub.

The truth is, like a democratic election, when we decide to compete we should accept the result – provided, of course that it was fairly run. We know who the judges are and, while we might not always agree with them, if we agree to play for them, we should accept whatever they mete out.

Stomping off a field simply because you don’t like the result is childish. You agreed to enter and perform in the contest, so walking off in protest might seem like the passionately acceptable thing to do at the time, but it’s not.

On the other hand, if a competitor feels strongly that a result was unfair, or a judge’s results are corrupt and not simply disagreeable, I admire bands and soloists who take a stand by working to address the problem with their association. If that doesn’t work, I have a lot of time for competitors who vote with their feet and refuse to participate in events that they feel will have an illegitimate result.

But it’s not always that easy and, in fact, such civil disobedience is rare in our game, mainly because – weirdly – as in the example above, associations invariably side with their judges, rather than their members. The repercussions that come with taking a principled stand can be great, even bullying, and certainly frustrating, at times to the point of competitors talking about “starting a new association.”

If you have a problem with a competition, don’t play in it, build a case, and work with your association to correct the problem. Don’t spit the dummy after you competed and, certainly, don’t begrudge your fellow pipers and drummers for their decision to participate.