Proudly independent

I hope that pipes|drums and “independent” are as synonymous to you as they are to me.

The publication originates from the old Piper & Drummer print magazine, which I edited and published with almost no interference from about 1987 to 2008. That magazine went to all of the members of the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario, and there was a blurb from the PPBSO president and their results (which I compiled on my own), but, apart from those things, every word of content was ultimately determined by me as editor. That quasi-independence deal was clearly understood by the leaders of the organization.

It was a very good relationship with the various presidents, starting with Henry Roberts for about seven years, and then the long and extremely successful tenure of Bob Allen, and ending with the late Ron Rollo. Until Ronnie arrived, the PPBSO understood the value of a publication that strived to do more than report bromides on themselves and tell association officials what they wanted to hear. There was freedom of thought, free-flowing dialogue, the raising of controversial and sensitive issues that needed to be aired, and lots of humour that did and didn’t always hit the mark. Not only that, but the publication often was a small profit-centre for the association.

And content in the Piper & Drummer was not always complimentary of the PPBSO itself. Confident leaders like Bob Allen understand that that, too, is ultimately a good thing for their organization – provided it is fair and well informed, which I have always tried to be.

In essence, there was a confidence with the PPBSO that such a publication being associated with it would position the society as a leader worldwide. To be sure, the organization did many leading-edge things along the way, but I believe that the Piper & Drummer also was a major contributor to the PPBSO’s positive world stature.

In 1994, I recognized the change to online, launching Piper & Drummer Online, the first piping and drumming news source on the net. I never asked for the PPBSO’s permission to do that; I just did it, and it was completely separate from the organization, although it shared the brand, which, by the way, I still own outright.

When Ron Rollo became president the relationship quickly unravelled. Ronnie and his Vice-President, the late Willie Connell, greeted me on an apparent mission to stop the Piper & Drummer. They intervened, questioned and chased down long-serving advertisers, and generally made my life miserable.

When I decided in 2007 that the Piper & Drummer had to go all-online, Ronnie did not receive the idea well. We had a series of meetings, and I offered to make a subscription available to the online publication to every PPBSO member at a reduced rate. Ronnie was a loving father, well-regarded and successful piper, an accomplished building contractor – not to mention a funny and nice guy – but I believe he was not particularly keen on technology or, for that matter, change.

There was a lot of harangue, Ronnie insisting that his organization needed to have a print publication, and he was rather suspicious of people like me who question “authority,” which can be the case with older Scottish men, I have found, when it comes to change in general. (See the RSPBA’s intransigence toward change and seeming desperation to maintain unquestioned “authority.”)  It was untenable, so I decided to separate completely from the PPBSO with pipes|drums – a fresh start based on a familiar model. I believe Ronnie was startled and maybe a bit relieved that I walked away, perhaps hoping I’d toe the line and kowtow to becoming a boring corporate analogue Tannoy like, say, the RSPBA’s Pipe Band magazine. The PPBSO never created another print anything after that.

But since I made the decision to break away, to be completely independent, pipes|drums has gone from strength to strength. Totals for readership, subscriptions and advertising (rates for the latter two items have not changed since then) have increased every year, and the publication has remained non-profit. I’ve never pocketed a penny.

The magazine has embraced new technologies and social media to its benefit, and, as with the print Piper & Drummer, flattery notwithstanding, the format of the online publication has been copied by the usual rather sad, aping followers.

But there is one tenet of pipes|drums that has not been imitated: independence. And this is key.

pipes|drums remains the only truly independent piping and drumming publication in the world. Every other effort, ranging from the pretty to the dismal, is connected with a business or an association. They are all selling you something other than a subscription, whether it’s the official party-line of an association, positive reviews of products that you can conveniently purchase at the attached business or, in one particularly sordid alleged case, money exchanged for positive press.

There is nothing wrong with any of that, provided it’s disclosed so that readers can take it for what they feel it’s worth.

But independence can come with a price. Over the years I have received earfuls from friends and strangers when they have read things they don’t like or agree with. “Fair” is subjective, and my sense of fair is based on what I believe is sound journalism background, a liberal arts education and a family that constantly debated current events at the dinner table of large pitchers of sweet tea. Occasional humour and satire are important aspects of any good publication, and, as we all know, it’s generally not funny unless someone is offended. Once or twice, friends have walked away from me for good, which is sad. But I also know that pipes|drums is an extension of who I am as a person and, if they can’t abide by what’s written, then they really aren’t my type of person anyway, since true friends are open to both the good and the bad of themselves and others.

And similarly, I am certain that because of some perceived personal slight or expression of an idea that a solo piping judge disagreed with, I paid for it on the competition boards. I did okay, and was reasonably successful as a soloist, but there were times when results simply didn’t add up. Similar to falling out with the occasional “friend,” I reconciled the suspicious result by knowing that that sort of non-musical bias means that the judge is screwing other people, so his or her prizes, as Seumas MacNeill famously said, weren’t worth a pail of spit anyway.

Corruption of any sort should be exposed.

I am asked frequently two questions: “How do you do it?” (easy answer: time management, myriad connections and contributors from around the world, and an ability to collate information and write rapidly), and “Why do you do it?” For that, I sometimes ask myself the same question and wonder about the answer.

Why do it? After all, it’s just a musical hobby, and it’s supposed to be fun, so when people or organizations don’t like what they read and work to get back at you personally, is it really worth it?

The best answer I can come up with is, It’s bread in the bone. It can’t be helped. I had a brilliant academic historian father who surveyed various sides of things, came up with conclusions, and was never, ever afraid to ask tough questions and fight for everything that he believed – after well-informed consideration and analysis – was fair, and of course against anything that was unfair. He wasn’t the most popular man, but he was genuine and true to himself, and committed to trying to make a tangible difference and contribution to society. He was fearless, and he succeeded.

pipes|drums strives to make a difference, and I think it has. Independence – from outside influences and money – is essential to asking important and difficult questions, enabling dialogue and achieving constructive and productive outcomes that truly benefit pipers, drummers, the competition system and the art itself. Piping and drumming is slowly slouching out of its antiquated and often unfair traditions and customs, and I think that the magazine, by asking questions, tackling taboo topics and encouraging open debate, has contributed.

I’m willing to pay the personal price for that invaluable benefit for the greater good.

 

Games guide

More often than not, Highland games and contests put on by non-piping/drumming groups have little or no idea as to how to run the events to achieve the best experience for competitors. Some contests of course get the oversight of associations.

Those that work with the RSPBA and PPBSO, at least, secure a turnkey solution, in which everything from entries to stewards to judges is run by the association, and standards are adhered to. While variety is sacrificed, there is something to be said for event-to-event continuity.

But around the world, the majority Highland games have the ability to create their own versions of contests, handle entries and hire judges. For them, here’s a well-intentioned checklist from a competitor’s perspective.

Map out space for events, and then extend by another 50%. Our instruments are loud. Competitors need room to hear themselves. Judges need room to hear competitors. Do whatever it takes to ensure that there is as little “bleed” of sound between events as possible. And never have a huge unused and off limits area adjacent to a competing and tuning space where pipers and drummers are bumping into each other. It makes us mad.

Keep out the interlopers. Do your best to keep out stray animals, children and oblivious others by roping off competition areas. Nothing fancy. Just a few stakes and some  rope will remind the punters not to wander into our space. Actual platforms for players are an authentically Scottish touch.

Account for tuning. The best competitions usually have the ample space for tuning. Pipe bands need an hour to prepare before they compete. Every solo competitor needs at least 20 minutes. It’s an assembly line process, and most pipers, drummers and bands know the drill. But they need space far enough removed from events and fellow competitors to get ready by listening to their instruments, not fighting for the lone tree.

Good stewards = efficiency. Competitors love a contest that runs smoothly. They expect an order-of-play that actually runs in order. Stewards can keep things moving while still using common sense. Upper grades pretty much run themselves due to experienced players, but it’s vital that stewards are trained and prepped for their role. Standing there waiting for amateur contestants to magically show up when their turn to play comes is a fantasy.

Shade and shelter. Venues with trees are almost always more popular with players. Shade on sunny days is a precious commodity for pipers and drummers wearing 10 pounds of thick wool, working to keep a fickle instrument in tune. Roasting on a wide open field will reduce the next year’s entry. Rain is tough to work with, but an indoor contingency plan for competitors, who often travel hundreds of miles to attend your event, is ideal. Rather than have them suffer through heaving rain to complete a massed band that no one is watching, bite the bullet and cancel it. And never, ever keep travel money from bands if they miss a massed bands finale because of weather that threatens their safety or health.

Don’t chintz on medals. I understand that purchasing dozens of amateur medals is a hassle, but it doesn’t need to be. Today there are myriad manufacturers that can design and create custom, quality medals at a fraction of what it used to cost. You just need to budget and plan a little more in advance. Putting thought into medals means you’re being thoughtful with pipers and drummers. They will take note.

Shake up the judging. It might be easier for you simply to hire the same judges every year, but competitors dislike this intensely. They want variety in the form of opinions. If at the end of your event a judge gets out his/her datebook and pressures you to hire him/her next year because his/her calendar “fills up fast,” don’t do it. Work to get other judges and the pipers, drummers and bands will appreciate it.

Say thanks. It’s simple, and pipers and drummers should thank you, but you saying thanks to us goes a long way towards returning next year.

In sum, if you please the competitors by addressing the above, you will have more and better competitors who enter, and that will elevate the stature of your event and gain more respect from the piping and drumming community.

More respect, more entries, bigger gate receipts, more success for everyone.

You might have additional recommendations, from a competitor’s perspective for competition organizers, so feel free to share them.

 

Awash in whisky

John D. Burgess was a legend, not only for his renowned ability as a piper, but for his wit, sartorial splendor and, at least equally at the top of the list, his mischief-making.

It’s impossible to put into words the man and the character he was. Suffice it to say, the piping world will never see his like again. His death just more than 10 years ago was a sad loss for piping.

I can’t say I knew him well, but my work on the Piper & Drummer / pipes|drums since the mid-1980s brought us together, and to have been able to call one of my greatest inspirations as a kid piper even an acquaintance was my honour and great fortune.

Burgess loved the “Trailing Drones” section of the magazine (then print-only) with its bits of gossip, hearsay, occasional red herring BS and, even most of all, the frequent many-a-true-word-said-in-jest content. At Inverness in the early 1990s or so Burgess took me aside in the upper foyer where the light music events used to take place, to let me know that he liked it and whispered in my ear that he was willing to be a source – to be an “Agent in the Field,” as he would say. He had his own team of operatives feeding him intel from his various fields.

He had no email or newfangled “Internet,” so he asked if he could phone me with his scoop. Occasionally I’d answer my line at work and it would a mischievous Burgess with a scandalously juicy tidbit. (For those with back-issues, you can have fun trying to identify the Burgess-isms that got in.)

“Helloo, Andrew, it’s John Burgessss . . . I have a message for Mr. Harry Tung. You tell Harry . . .” he would say in his carefully articulated and maybe a bit affected Highland accent, which was an important part of the extraordinary Burgess brand. I usually had no idea what he was talking about when he delivered his scoop, and he would never explain it, leaving me to trust him that it was rich scandal. So I would dutifully relay it to Harry and then edit whatever came back and hope not to get sued. It was all great fun.

On trips to the World Championships with the 78th Fraser Highlanders in the 1980s and 1990s (joined 1988, left after 1997) I would try then, as I do now, to do one or two significant interviews for this magazine.

I relayed a story many years ago, and was reminded of it recently. I think it bears repeating.

In 1994 Burgess agreed to do an interview, and I believe it is the only substantial published conversation he did in his life. I hired a car and drove from Glasgow to his home in Saltburn, very near Invergordon, about five hours away. I had imagined him to have a palatial estate, maybe with a gated driveway, and a couple of greyhounds at the door.

His home was nothing like that, but it by no means disappointed. A small seafront house overlooking the Moray Firth, several parked oil rigs off in the distance, the Black Isle, ancestral home of the John/G.S./D.R. McLennans on the other side. I was greeted warmly and humbly. He was of course well turned out, but inside the house there was hardly an indication that he was even a piper, no medals or trophies anywhere, and certainly no sign of this being the residence of the King of Highland Pipers.

It was a great, frank conversation, and by far the most memorable of the more than 100 interviews I’ve done. He was forthright and candid, and was taking the whole thing seriously. It was clear that he knew this would be a record of his life, and I was gratified that this little boy from Missouri was entrusted with his insights and stories.

I was at his house for maybe three hours. He provided sandwiches, biscuits and tea, and even offered a dram of really nice whisky that he kept in the house for guests even though he was teetotal for decades after successfully fighting his well-known debilitating addiction to alcohol.

When I was getting ready to go we talked a bit at his front door about the World Pipe Band Championships. He knew Bill Livingstone, of course, and I think had a fondness for him, as the only wit in piping that compares with Burgess’s I think is Livingstone’s. Burgess said that he had “a very good feeling” about the 78th Fraser not just doing well, but winning the World’s on the Saturday. I was taken aback. Here was John D. Burgess putting his money on the 78th Fraser Highlanders, a band that at the time had fallen down the ladder a bit and would have been happy simply to finish in the top-six.

Wow, I thought, wait’ll I get back to Glasgow to tell the guys!

“Yes, yes, you tell Mr. Bill Livingstone that John D. Burgess expects big things – big things! – on Saturday. In fact, let me get something for you to take back to the band.”

At this point Burgess went back inside and returned with an unopened bottle of malt whisky.

“You take this and bring it to the park on Saturday,” he said. “When you’re tuning up with the band, I want you to gather together all of the pipers, get out the bottle and, ever so gently, pour a drop or two on the hands of each piper. Rub it in well, and I guarantee that it will hasten the result you deserve.”

“Really?” I asked. “You think that will help?”

“Oh, yes. Ooohh, yes. You tell Bill that John Burgess recommends it,” he said with his twinkling eyes.

I was sold. The five-hour drive back to Glasgow probably took three, and I arrived to the band breathless with my excitement about the King of Highland Pipers’ prediction and explained his prescription for winning with whisky. Bill and the rest of the pipers were sold.

Saturday came. I put the special Burgess bottle in my pipe case, and kept it at the ready. Without actually testing the effects of whisky on the hands beforehand, the 14 or 15 pipers gathered around, hands extended and I had the honour of putting a splash of it on everyone’s mitts.

The band had a good following then, and in those early-Internet days bands had secrets that would only be known if you witnessed them. Members of other bands would clamour around far more than they do today, trying to divine techniques and tricks. I remember noticing a few WTF?! expressions from those looking on as we rubbed our hands together with the water of life and miracle cure for not-winning. If it happened today, there would be a dozen crappy videos of it and probably something of a pipe band meme.

I believe Burgess actually made the trip to the World’s that day for a promotional appearance with a bagpipe maker, and I suspect he was somewhere around watching this gullible group actually fulfilling what must have been one of his most unlikely mischievous tricks.

Assuming you have never played with whisky on your fingers, you’ll be wondering what the effect was. None of us in the band actually tested it in advance (that might have spoiled the magical powers), and to think that any band – let alone a contending Grade 1 group – would do this blindly at the biggest competition of the year perhaps speaks to the sorry desperation that we competitive pipers and drummers suffer. Thankfully, whisky isn’t sticky, and pretty well evaporates, probably a bit like rubbing alcohol.

How did we play? I think it was okay, but nothing noticeably added as a result of the golden nectar being applied. I’m not even sure where we ended up in the final result.

But I do remember this event, and the unique, mischievous and fun spirit that was John D. Burgess.