The next big thing

Plastic drones. They’re here and they will soon be played and win prizes at every level.

That’s my personal prediction based on a number of factors.

First, the CITES blackwood restrictions are already adding expense and time to delivering new blackwood instruimemts.

Second, advances in synthetic materials like acetyl have been significant. Bagpipe makers that aren’t getting into synthetic materials might want to get moving, unless they’re happy staying smaller and bespoke.

Third, I’m led to believe that the material is far more stable than blackwood. That is, it can be made to more exacting specifications with true laser precision. It’s also not going to warp and crack like wood over time. No need for wood oil and humidity-controlled rooms and pipe boxes.

Fourth, moisture is hardly a factor today. The advent and constant perfection of moisture control systems, plastic and carbon-fibre drone reeds, and synthetic bags virtually eliminate problems with condensation building up in cold or over-played instruments.

Fifth, plastic chanters are by far in the majority. In the 1970s when War-Mac came on the scene with grey, synthetic chanters, purists poo-pooed them – until Shotts & Dykehead started to win. The tone misperceptions that might have existed at the solo level have been broken down. Synthetic chanters have won Gold Medals and Clasps for at least 15 years.

Sixth: apart from the initial manufacture of acetyl and other plastics, it’s environmentally neutral and, presumably, even recyclable. Picture trading in your set of acetyl pipes and getting a recycling credit toward your next purchase.

To be sure, there are bands that still use blackwood chanters, and more power to them. Whatever works. But they’re certainly not using blackwood out of principle.They’re using blackwood because they prefer the sound and feel. I’m sure they’d just as soon play plastic chanters if they thought they sounded and felt better.

In fact, no one particularly cares what materials are used anymore. Whatever sounds the best will do the best. I don’t know a judge out there who pre-judges because of instrument materials.

If I were a bagpipe maker I would speed along this process with some canny marketing. Sponsor a top-tier solo piper and/or band to compete with synthetic drones. Don’t tell anyone. Just let them win with the instrument, then have a big reveal and watch the orders pour in.

It is completely realistic to expect that it will be commonplace for bands to have matching drones, something that I believe when Dysart & Dundonald’s pipe section played cheap model Kintail drones because the band’s pipe-major had a hand in the Kintail business.

I’m old enough to be familiar with the movie The Graduate. “One word: plastics.”

 

Vintage years

Happy New Year to all. Here’s to a prosperous and healthy 2017.

A two-week holiday break provided time to go through stuff in storage in the basement, closets and cupboards. This always leads to finding nostalgic items that tear at the heart as to whether to keep, donate to charity, recycle or simply chuck out.

I came across a few bottles of wine that somehow never got drunk, and perhaps just as well. Among them were a red and a white that were part of a fundraising project for the now-vintage 78th Fraser Highlanders. They would have been from about 1990. They weren’t good to begin with and, 26 years later, they’re probably paint-remover. I ain’t opening them for fear of the evil spirits that might escape.

It got me thinking about pipe bands and raising money. Despite winning the World Championship a few years before, several popular concerts, albums, and a solid flow of prize-money, that edition of the band was perpetually rag-tag and chronically skint. There was never any monetary sponsorship, and trips to Scotland were generally paid out of your pocket, unless you were skint yourself and an important piece of the puzzle, then you could get some assistance.

Goodness knows how someone like me who was at the time living in a basement apartment, waiting tables or, perhaps by then, making $17,000/year as an assistant editor at a small publishing company was able to afford it, but I never asked for a subsidy.

It’s probably much the same today with most bands, but today it’s possible to sell merchandise and raise money online. Back then bands had to come up with creative ways to make ends meet.

So, 78th Fraser Highlanders “wine” was contrived. I didn’t come up with the concept, but I liked it, since that era of the band was known locally for a piobaireachd-playing faction of the group having little picnics at the Ontario games, eating roasted Cornish hen, aged cheeses and cellared wines. The band wine was a bit of a joke that probably only we got.

As is the case with most fundraisers like this, it’s mostly band members and their families who ever buy the stuff. (That was true, I know, of a later effort to sell – get this – frozen chicken.) I dutifully plunked down money I didn’t have for the plonk that I obviously never drank. Maybe I’ll sell the antique bottles in the Classifieds – with a warning never, ever to ingest, much less dribble over your hands before competing . . . but that’s another story.

A concept that I came up with a little later was “Friends of the Frasers.” The band at the time was loved by many and just as many thought it was a snobby club (see picnics and band-member Iain Symington’s excellent hornpipe “The Piobaireachd Club”), so, for both groups we wanted to try to get them on board, warm things up. Anyone could support and feel part of the band by becoming a Friend of the Frasers for, I think, $20. You’d get a certificate and an enamel pin and the (as far as I know) unfulfilled promise that their name would be listed on a forthcoming album. In essence, a fan club.

We were of course ridiculed by the usual haters, but shortly after I was gratified to see bands around the world starting their own “Friends” program. It’s equivalent today to begging for money on Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platform. I remember the pipe-major being not too pleased when a jealous naysayer – who’s unfortunately still around doing his chronic naysaying and bellyaching – made a sarky comment about the Friends program in print.

(Obviously, the 2017 vintage 78th Fraser Highlanders has absolutely nothing to do with all that, and I have nothing to do with them, apart from admiring the current band and looking forward to hearing their music when I have the opportunity. I am sure that their fundraising is far more sophisticated.)

Just like back then, there are scant few pipe bands with decent financial sponsorship. There are many more of the upper-grade bands today that receive discounted or free gear from bagpipe, reed and drum makers in exchange for the endorsement value. In 1990, discounts or rebates were rare, no matter who you were, mainly because the band instrument markets were near-cornered by makers like Sinclair, McAllister and Premier. I believe the 78th Frasers got free drums from the Australian start-up Legato, and that might have been one of the first of its kind. The group got by like most bands: with grit, passion, and the occasional desperate and maybe cockamamie money-maker.

Wine? Frozen chicken? I’d love to hear about other inventive, if not pathetic, fundraising programs and gimmicks your band has deployed to help make ends meet. Every band has them, so feel free to share with the comment system below.

Until then, cheers!

 

Counter-attack

What in the name of Tom McAllister Sr. has happened to the pipe band attack?

Goodness, at any top-grade competition of any size you’re almost guaranteed to hear at least two bands completely eff up what was once a benchmark of pipe band quality.

Early E’s. Early drones. Mushy intonation. Epic squeals. Roaring basses. False starts. Double- and even triple-dunts. Scrabbling hands searching for holes. And that’s just the piping. I’m no drumming expert, but I can hear the sloppy rolls and wandering tempos between bass and snare lines and pipers.

Why is this happening? In an age when pipe bands are playing more technically challenging material on more reliable instruments than ever, one would think that an excellent attack in Grade 1 and Grade 2 is a given. So what’s changed?

I’ve thought more about it over the four years since writing this Blogpipe post, which took a rather lenient view of the attack. Perhaps it contributed to the laissez-faire attitude towards attacks, but I’m prepared to make other guesses as to the reasons for sloppy openings.

  • Judges don’t care that much. Today’s typical pipe band judge is far more enlightened than he or she was 15 or 20 years ago. Judges now see the big picture. This is good. After all, the attack is a relative microcosm of the performance, and hitting a band hard for one piper’s mistake is probably unduly harsh. However . . . shouldn’t excellent bands be expected to execute an excellent attack? Seems to me that blowing one should be seen as a major error — certainly not a showstopper, but enough to determine an otherwise fairly close decision. A cause is also . . .
  • Easy instant reeds. Top-grade bands with 20-plus pipers no longer need every piper to have a high-impact chanter sound. Instead of that 1985 McAllister composed of two short planks strapped together that take weeks to blow in by large fellows, pipe sections today play reeds that go right away, which can be blown by any player of any age and size. With the easy reeds, just add a bit of adrenaline and early E disaster is sure to strike, especially for . . .
  • Inexperienced players. There is such pressure for bands to have large sections that playing standards and experience are inevitably compromised by all but a very few groups. In at least three-quarters of the world’s Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands there are players who never would have got a game 20 years ago. They’re ushered in to fill the ranks and essentially “core” with the rest. They have less control of their instrument and less experience, and . . . see adrenaline comment above and, importantly . . .
  • Attacks aren’t practiced. Every piper and drummer older than 40 can remember going up and down at the band hall or in the parking lot practicing attacks over and over and over. You knew exactly how to punch an E at full pitch. The pipe-major would stand in front of the pipers and listen like a judge, with the ranks taking turns at the front. If you blew an attack, the whole band would have to do 10 more flawlessly or you couldn’t go home.

A top-tier Grade 1 band at the 2016 UK Championships had no fewer than three pipers clearly, blatantly, visibly, audibly screw-up the attack. The band finished second. In the big picture, they might well have deserved their placing, and might have been first without the blown start, what with their otherwise sublime performance.

Then again, shouldn’t a band of such high calibre be expected to get the attack right? Is such a meltdown really excusable? Doesn’t such a multiplicity of basic mistakes warrant a hard penalty? It’s one thing having a blip in the fifth part of “John Morrison, Assynt House,” but quite another having at least three pipers wreck an attack that should be expectedly good in a Grade 3 contest.

Poor attacks are everywhere, though. In 1985 10-out-of-10 attacks in Grade 1 and Grade 2 were generally the case. An early E could essentially torpedo a band’s hopes of winning. I am glad that we’ve moved past that sort of judging, but it would be great to return general excellence in this impressive technical aspect of a pipe band.

Tom McAllister Sr. is credited with developing the two-threes-and-an-E pipe band attack from what military brass bands would do. Before his time in the 1930s and ’40s, pipe bands sort of eventually kinda-sorta got the tune going. With each passing year now pipe bands seem to be going back to those haphazard roots.

Are judges turning a deaf ear to crappy attacks?