River crossing

Mine would be 40 years ago, my first solo piping competition. It was 1977, about 18 months since I’d laid hands on a practice chanter. I’d been “on the pipes” – a set of imitation-ivory-mounted Hardies – for maybe six months.

I don’t remember having a choice in the matter. I was geared to compete from the get-go. It was what we pipers and drummers did. What one was supposed to do was described to me: salute like a boy soldier, tell the judge your tune, march up and down, making sure you don’t turn your back on the judge when turning, don’t play too fast, make all the doublings clearly, blow steady, try to keep in step with the beat or at least the beat-notes, keep going, don’t stop. Keep going.

The event was the Under-15 march at the St. Louis Highland Games organized by the local St. Andrew’s Society. Fresh from the United States’ Bicentennial celebrations, everything was still red white and blue, at a time when, unlike today, everything in the USA wasn’t always red white and blue every year. The games program was red white and blue, the ribbons on the medals were red white and blue. I think there was even a red white and blue Bicentennial tartan adorning an unfortunate drum-major.

I was prepped to confront my main competition from Kansas City: a young upstart named Kurt (or was it Chris?) Atwell. Everyone seemed to talk about how good this kid was. He must be beaten. Some sort of St. Louis vs. KC pride was at stake. Rivers vs. fountains. Beer vs. barbeque. Cardinals vs. Royals.

I diligently practiced my tune. For some reason, I was playing the obscure 2/4 march, “The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” Gordon Speirs, from whom I got lessons early on, assigned it to me in his often unconventional way. Something about it being a good test of my fingers, or my diligence, or maybe my sanity. I’ve never heard anyone play it since, and couldn’t tell you how it goes, mainly because the tune’s melody isn’t memorable, much less good.

At any rate, I rehearsed “The 12th etc.” every day after school. Marching back and forth. My parents and brother and sisters must have been going crazy listening to me struggle with the instrument and tuneless tune as I got set to do battle against Mr. Atwell, KC Kid Genius.

Games day arrived. If you’ve ever been what you think is the hottest and most humid place on earth, double that and you have St. Louis in July. I was decked out as one was when one played in lower-grade American bands in those days: hose tops, spats, thigh-itchy horsehair sporran, glengarry with cock-feather, epaulettes, khaki shirt, dorky embroidered band patch sewn to the short sleeve, floppy size-13 black dress shoes that I would have to “grow into.” It was the height of cool for this 13-year-old getting set for the eighth grade at Hanley Junior High, since then mercifully demolished in favour of a cracker-box suburban subdivision.

The judge was the truly terrifying Sandy MacPhee. Sandy back then, as he is now, was larger than life. At that time his son, Donald, must have been a toddler, destined for greatness, but Sandy’s legend as a pioneering American piper was established from his years in Detroit.

Yes, this is it. Sandy MacPhee judging, my mother pacing in the background, my sister, Clarissa, dreaming of Olympic balance beam gold.

Still not quite comprehending the occasion’s gravity, I approached Mr. MacPhee. “Name?” he asked in what I was sure at the time was a growl, but was probably just him asking my name. Name given. “What are you going to play?” “The 10th Argyll’s Crossing the Rhine.” “The what?” ” The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” “The 10th Battalion HLI Crossing the Rhine?” I really didn’t know what to say. At that time I’d never heard of that excellent Donald Shaw Ramsay march. “Um . . .” “It doesn’t matter; just play whatever you want.” Someone must have stopped me from breaking down in inconsolable sobs.

I vaguely remember bumbling through the tune, still searching for the elusive crappy melody, my mother pacing in the distance with my younger sister, and my dad, as always, snapping pictures. But I “got through it,” as they say, albeit out-of-step and with drones blaring like the simultaneous horns of three Mississippi River barges.

There couldn’t have been more than three or four in the event. I placed second. Atwell was first, which was okay, since I sussed that he was much like me, a kid plodding along in the heat in spats, epaulettes and itchy sporran. Someone contended that it was fixed and I should have won. I didn’t care. It was over and I received a shiny gold (not silver?) medal with a Bicentennial ribbon, and I was hooked by the will to do better, to exceed and succeed with music. Welcome to piping.

The next year I ditched that dreadful march for the more sensible “Atholl Highlanders March to Loch Katrine,” thinking it was pronounced ka-TREEN, as in latrine. It’s a more difficult tune than “The 12th etc.” but, with a discernably good melody, it seemed easier. The stub-fingered, one-lunged legend John Wilson, who was judging, bizarrely mentions me by name in his autobiography, A Professional Piper in Peace and War, playing it for him at the Kansas City Highland Games where I once again confronted Atwell. I was again second, but Wilson wrote that I was the best player of the day and would have won had I not made “catches” in the final phrases. Best player: second prize. Welcome again to piping.

A more catchy tune.

I’m always interested to hear first competition stories. When more established pipers mention to me now that I judged their first contest, there’s not a certain amount of satisfaction that I, like Sandy MacPhee, didn’t completely scare them for good from the competitive piping avocation. It’s nice when they reassure me that I wrote positive things on their scoresheets.

Like the 12th Royal Scots or the 10th HLI, we all cross our rivers, theirs to military glory, ours to a glorious piping and drumming life awaiting us on the other side.

 

Maxville memoir

Aways good to get back to Maxville for the Glengarry Highland Games, despite the usual scramble to get out of town before the holiday weekend traffic hits Toronto. Here are a few stand-out memories taken away from my two days.

Drew Mackay’s “Clan Campbell’s Gathering” – she walked the Intermediate Amateur Piobaireachd and might well have won the Senior Amateur with a terrific rendition of this fun tune (or as fun as piobaireachd can be). The best tune I heard all weekend. This young woman has a huge piping future ahead of her.

Brannagh O’Donnell – it’s always an unexpected treat to encounter a really good piper whom you have absolutely no idea about or have never encountered, and Brannagh, who’s a member of the Grade 2 Scotia-Glenville, might have had the best instrument that I heard all weekend. She was on her way perhaps to winning the Grade 1 Strathspey & Reel when she had an unfortunate misstep. Absolutely effortless hands and a fine musical touch.

Andrea Boyd – I wish I had heard her “Lord Lovat’s Lament,” which she played to win the Piobaireachd Society Gold Medal (Canada) after many years of narrowly missing the prize, and I was pleased for her that she finally gained the award. Chasing certain solo prizes can often be frustrating, and the relief can be palpable. Her fellow competitors seemed to enjoy her success. Andrea’s one of the nicest and hardest-working people in piping. Like.

Mother nature – it’s often said that Maxville is either sweltering sun or massive thunderstorms. Friday was more the former, while rain always threatened, while Saturday was cooler but a solid half-hour of heavy horizontal rain impacted not a few competing bands. Moments like those ones judging bands with your back to the windy rain, doing all you can to keep the scoresheets dry make for a theatre of the absurd. I couldn’t help think that while all this was heaving down on 400 Squadron, it was a like a tactical group of helicopters blowing in on a mission in a stormy sea.

Lillian Livingstone – as Bill was working through the constant long line of fans to get their signed copy of his Preposterous memoir, there was Lily waiting patiently in support and partnership with her husband of almost 50 years. There’s never been a more loving and mutually committed couple in the world of piping. As Bill alludes to in his book, everything – the bagpipes, the bands, the book, even the preposterous horse-drawn carriage ride as the games’ Honoured Guest – would have been impossible without Lily.

All females. After more than 30 Maxvilles, memories can tend to melt together, but each of them stands out for a few specifics. Out of many other good things at this year’s, for me, these rose above.

 

Club sorta

Pipers and drummers (mostly pipers) traditionally bemoan the fact that the general public doesn’t listen seriously to what we do. We put so much into our music and performances; we live and breathe pipe music and get frustrated when non-pipers or drummers or who aren’t family or friends (call them “outsiders”) don’t turn up for even our greatest events.

It’s particularly true of piobaireachd and piobaireachd players. Here’s the most sophisticated and hallowed music we have, yet no one else seems to care.

But here’s the thing: when outsiders actually do come to piping, pipe band and, especially, piobaireachd competitions and recitals we tend to think they’re freaks, and treat them with suspicion. It’s plain weird to us that any outsider would be a keen enthusiast of piobaireachd music.

It’s a club that’s by us and for us, and we actually prefer the exclusivity.

Some years back, there was a group of burlap-and-Birkenstock-wearing folkies who’d come out to the games around Ontario. They’d arrive in the early morning, find the Open Piobaireachd contest, and plant themselves in the grass, quietly listening to each player with closed eyes and gently swaying bodies absorbing the music.

I think there were two women and two men. They’d never ask any questions. They didn’t bother anyone. They were visibly happy people. The pipers would murmur among themselves wondering who they were, but I can’t remember anyone actually speaking to or even welcoming them. Looking back, I certainly should have. They dressed like Hippies, but they were seen as freaks because they actually, truly enjoyed piobaireachd – and they were not connected with the scene or the music in any obvious way.

And there was another older gentleman in other years. He had scraggly long hair and wore a tweed flat-cap. He’d also listen to the piobaireachd events, and actually record them on his cassette deck. Since these contests rarely if ever actually informed listeners what was being played, the gent would make a point to ask the name of the piobaireachd you’d played when you’d finished. He too was considered some sort of freak, simply because he loved music that I guess we thought that only players in the club by rights should appreciate.

Those piobaireachd enthusiasts eventually stopped turning up. I hope they’re okay, and I’m sorry that I didn’t make them feel more welcome. Ultimately, it’s our loss.

My friend and one-time band-mate Iain Symington wrote a terrific little hornpipe called “The Piobaireachd Club.” It was named after the group of pipers (me included) in our band who competed in piobaireachd events. Within the band we were seen as elitist, I guess, perceived to shut out other pipers for not knowing about the hiharin-hodorin. We all got along, but the Piobaireachd Club was a running joke within the pipe section.

So, we even ostracize within our own groups, and perhaps we like it that way. We lament the lack of attention from outsiders, but we rarely welcome them into our club.

I suppose excluding people is what defines a club, but if we want it the other way we’d be wise to try to bring in outsiders  – or at least make them feel welcome as guests.