Memories

I was reminded to remember a topic I’d forgotten to write about: memory. Specifically, the unwritten rule or tradition that pipers and drummers must memorize music.

As far as I know, there is no specific rule with any association that competitors must play from memory. But I often wondered what might happen if I walked up at some piobaireachd competition, plopped down a music stand with the score of the tune, and proceeded to play from it.

Would I be disqualified? I don’t think so, since there’s no rule that says it’s not allowed, let alone that I could by rights be DQed. Would the judge mark me down for reading from music? Again, no rule so that’s questionable. But anyone who would try it no doubt wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

There were times in my solo competing piping life when I’d have 15 piobaireachds on the go, most of which were tunes that were set for competitions that I would never have learned otherwise, mainly because I thought they sucked. Every piper who’s had to learn four or six or eight tunes from a list in which maybe three are truly attractive compositions knows what I’m talking about.

It’s a particular battle of will to memorize music you don’t like when practice time is short and the memorable melody is scant. You have to will yourself on, tricking your mind into memorizing the notes and phrases that come next, using mental cues – a bit like schoolkids making up acronymical sentences to help memorize obscure facts that will be on the test, e.g., A-B-D-B, A-D-B-B – “Anyone But Donald Ban, Agony Donald Ban Ban.” I’ve played tuneless tunes at Inverness or Oban that I would have a hard time today telling you how they start. (Ahemsobieskissalute.)

I admit that there was the rare time when I had a piobaireachd picked where my memory was a bit sketchy. It would be one of those dreadful obscure tuneless tunes that the judge also didn’t know well, so he’d be watching the score closely with his head down, which was a perfect opportunity to take an upside-down peek at the manuscript on the table.

There. I said it. Was that cheating? Not by the rules as they are written, so I still sleep well.

I noticed in a few photos of the recent Live In Ireland In Scotland concert that the snare drummers had the manuscripts to the scores in front of them. At last, I thought, common sense prevails, and good for them for putting the audience and the show before, in this case, a rather useless tradition of being expected to memorize music. It’s a mountain of material for musicians to squeeze in among their own band’s stuff, so of course play from the scores. I’m surprised the pipers didn’t as well.

I’ve poked around the rules of other music events. The International Tchaikovsky Competitions require material to be played from memory. But I couldn’t find many or any other examples. Even Drum Corps International, as far as I can see, expects memorized performances, but there doesn’t seem to be a rule. “The memorization of music is usually a matter of pride for the marching band, however bands that regularly pull from expansive libraries and perform dozens of new works each season are more likely to utilize flip folders,” according to a the Wikipedia entry for marching bands.

As pipe band music becomes increasingly complex, and the demands on top solo pipers rise, the tacit expectation that all music will be played from memory comes into question. Is it necessary? Will the performance improve when the score is there for reference? The old reliable memory lapse as a means to knock out a competitor might go away, thus making the judge’s task harder, but so what?

If I remember correctly, it’s more about the music and less about the memory.

 

Blurred lines

What shouldn’t judges write on a scoresheet? It’s a more complex question than it sounds.

Adjudicators are encouraged to provide constructive criticism regarding the performance, the key word being “constructive.” We know that comments that are designed to do nothing more than be hurtful are destructive and are probably a result of deep-rooted self-loathing on the judge’s part. We all agree that those comments shouldn’t be written.

But what about the “regarding the performance” aspect of the unwritten code of comments? Should judges provide comments that aren’t about the performance, however well-intentioned they might be?

I say no.

No matter how well-intentioned comments like “Tip: don’t tune for so long,” or “Get your kilts pressed!” might be, a scoresheet is not the place for advice that does not relate directly to the performance being assessed. By writing peripheral advice on the sheet, the message is that rumpled kilts or lengthy tuning had an impact on the decision, and one thing is very clear in our game: the performance and only the performance matters in the result rendered by the judge.

I recently saw a piping scoresheet from the legendary J.K. McAllister for a Grade 1 band competing at the World’s in the 1980s. On this piping scoresheet he wrote mocking comments about the tenor drumming: “Where are the Indians?” sarcastically communicating that he did not like the percussion. At the end of the sheet he wrote something to the effect that his sarky comment in no way impacted his piping decision.

Perhaps that’s true, but that he wrote such a hurtful and unconstructive (never mind his apparent racial insensitivity) remark immediately makes everyone in the band think that, yes, the drumming did indeed impact his decision, and that’s wholly inappropriate. Forty years later it still suggests that.

The band would have been well within its rights to lodge a formal complaint about McAllister. Muirhead & Sons was the only band to take action against Jock the Lum, starting a petition of Grade 1 bands to have him removed, but found itself suspended for several months, reinstated only after submitting a snivelling letter of apology. Muirheads was then — coincidentally, I’m sure — consistently put down by McAllister. So complainers thought twice thereafter.

As much as it might irritate me personally when a piper tunes to D or plays three slow airs or a band looks slovenly or whatever, these things almost always have no bearing on the way they played, and thus on my decision. But if a piper’s instrument went out of tune, then I have been known to suggest that he/she might have used another minute to tune, if that might have helped the performance. If a band’s untucked shirts got in the way of players’ hands, resulting in mistakes, then a comment about untucked shirts is relevant. If obtrusive drumming caused confusion in the pipe section, then comment away.

If a contestant wants friendly advice, I’m happy to provide it, but only if they ask. Otherwise you’re circumventing the piper or drummer’s teacher, and that is rarely if ever appropriate. Some might think this opinion is a bit pedantic, but it’s important that feedback about the performance is strictly about the performance.

So, keep the comments pertinent to the performance. Anything on the sheet not directly about the performance, no matter how well-intentioned, is impertinent and suggests that matters that don’t matter matter.

For namesakes

Having a tune named after you is a wonderful gesture. I can’t think of a more thoughtful and kind gift than a piece of music inspired by life and friendship.

I’ve been thinking about this custom for a few weeks now. Pipers, at least as much as any musicians, create music. Based on a recent pipes|drums poll, some 70 percent of us have tried our hand at composing. I think the majority of pipers will write something – usually a simple 6/8 march or slow air – pretty much as soon as they have figured out a few tunes on the practice chanter.

The initial desire to compose is usually, I believe, driven by the desire to do something nice for someone. “Hey, mom, listen to this tune I wrote and named after you!” And mom listens to little Angus’s well-intentioned composition, and, like the dilapidated piece of pottery made as a Mother’s Day present in Grade 2 art, it melts mom’s heart.

I’ve had the great fortune to have two tunes named for, or about, me: “A.W. Berthoff’s Reel” by my longtime friend Michael Grey, and “Berthoff’s Birl” by the legendary Pipe-Major Robert Mathieson. I am privileged, and not a little lucky, that both of these compositions are excellent works by two of history’s most-played pipe music makers. And to actually play Rab’s hornpipe with a Grade 1 band was a rare gift. I believe that both these tunes are good enough to pass the ultimate test of success: they will still be played well, well after I’m well played-out.

But what of the not-so-lucky? I’m thinking of those great individuals who truly deserve to have a great tune named after them, and instead get something they and everyone else would just as soon never hear again, ever. The “composer,” with all good intentions, attempts to honour a famous piper or drummer with what they think is a tune befitting the honouree. They will proudly play them their tune, and then keenly ask if they like it. And because the answer is invariably positive, they will then announce, “Well, I have named after YOU!”

And then there’s two-seconds-feels-like-eternity pause, identical to the pause when a present is unwrapped, the giver excitedly looking on, the recipient finding a horrible hand-knitted hat that will be worn once that day and never, ever again.

“Oh, thank you! That’s wonderful.” [Deep sigh.]

But the difference between the ugly hat and the crappy tune is that, with the tune in your name, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal. The unwritten code of piping is that, once there’s a serious –as opposed to little Angus’s first try – tune named for you, that’s it. You’re done. You really shouldn’t have another. (There are exceptions. Peter MacLeod wrote a few tunes named “Donald MacLean.” Apparently some of these originally had different names; MacLeod frequently fell out with folk, and would change the title.)

There is perhaps only one safeguard to getting a quality tune named for you: commission it. Quietly contract one of the several established composers of great pipe music to compose a tune in your name, with a money-back guarantee, and perhaps a non-disclosure agreement that he/she will never divulge that you paid for it. The composer will have to pretend for life that the tune was a consensual act of love, mutually accepted by each party, who just said Yes to the proposition.

Shallow? Vacuous? Shameful? Perhaps. But at least your name and memory will have a lot better chance of lasting forever with a better piece of music, a gift that keeps on giving.