Solitary confinement

I’ve said before that Highland piping is often a solitary pursuit that attracts introverts. The lone piper. Solo competition. Hours of isolated practice at home. Maybe nowhere in our art is independence more evident than in our music creation.

An estimate based on a lifetime of observation is that 99% of pipe music is written by a lone composer. Music creation in our world is thriving, driven by an ever-present thirst for the new by competition pipe bands. A band with a strong composer in its ranks has a great advantage.

I work in the songwriting, composing and music publishing side of the music industry. Our piping and drumming world is a model of creativity. But it’s also a relative outlier in that our composers don’t truly collaborate with each other to make tunes together.

Songwriters (also usually introverts), on the other hand, actively seek out new ideas from their peers. They attend song camps with other writers. They trade notes, as it were, and concepts for new music. Their publishers will put together writers from disparate genres and styles to see what happens. They chip away at their stuff, adding a word here, a key change there. They experiment with different idioms. They are almost always totally open to working together to create a better or more widely appealing work.

The exceptions to pipe music composers writing in solitude are generally the instances of a composer tacking on a few parts to an existing tune. Donald MacLeod did it a lot with traditional pieces, to the point where we attribute “The Wee Man from Skye,” for example, to him as the sole composer, when in fact it’s his arrangement. Piping schools will sometimes have an entire class compose a tune, coming up with phrases and changes together. Mainly because these pieces are written by relatively inexperienced pipers, they’re generally not great (read: terrible) compositions, but well intentioned and educational though they might be.

I was once in a band where, like most bands, we’d sit around the table with practice chanters in the winter and trade ideas on music possibilities for the next season. There were several composers in the band. They’d pitch new compositions, and the rest of the pipe corps would suggest a note change here, a timing improvement there, or even a collective Ugh! on first-listen of some or other hopeless piece. The group as a whole was a good editing machine. It was collaborative and, in many instances, it was a co-writing process. The tune got better when rattled around the ears of others.

Tunes that go through an editing process are almost invariably better. I don’t know what G.S. McLennan’s writing process was, but I would guess that he would, as I understand Donald MacLeod did, bounce tunes off of carefully chosen trusted pipers for their opinions and suggestions and then make many amendments and revisions before declaring a piece “final.” And no piece of music is ever final, anyway.

Composers who collaborate will often realize that they’re better off trashing a tune altogether. On their own, they might not twig that it’s too close to another piece designed around our nine notes, or that the new tune is unplayable or, um, unappealing.

Most composers do seek advice and suggestions about their draft work, but rarely if ever would they give credit to another piper as a co-writer, whereas in songwriting and composing in other genres it wouldn’t only be expected, it would be legally prudent. There’s a saying in the songwriting industry: “Change a word, get a third.”

How many pipe music composers sit down with one or more other composers to create a tune from scratch? Are there bands out there where the pipers sit around that winter table and collectively create a tune needed for the new medley? Or do all bands expect “the composer” in the band to come up with something great on his or her own?

I know that most of us are introverts who, perhaps paradoxically, like being in a spotlight, letting our music speak for us. But when it comes to new compositions, taking the cue from successful songwriters and seeking real collaboration could well pay better dividends for the art.

 

Schooled

Scotland has resurrected piping and drumming to unprecedented new heights through widespread, accessible teaching. It’s an awesome and continuing success story, and the fruits of its strategy have become more and more evident with each passing year.

Just take a look at last week’s Shotts & Dykehead Juniors competition: 185 young pipers and drummers competing in a variety of solo events. Look at what’s to come in March when more than 800 piping and drumming students from at least 120 schools will participate in the eleventh Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships. And witness the steady growth in size and quality of Scotland-based pipe bands across all grades.

Teaching piping and pipe band drumming in private and public schools is now baked in to the Scottish curriculum. When 20 years ago playing the pipes might have been the epitome of nerdiness, today it’s cool-factor seems to have risen at least on par with playing bass in the school rock band.

It’s hard out there for the rest of the world to keep up, and it will only get more difficult.

As much as other piping and drumming regions of the world would love to have widespread teaching programs as part of public and private schools’ curriculum, it’s not realistic. Yes, there will be exceptions, such as St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario, or Knox College in Sydney, Australia.

But in countries like Canada and the United States that have been built with a diversity of immigrants, expecting that Highland piping and pipe band drumming will be taught in the public school system is as likely as India’s sitar or the Chinese erhu becoming part of the curriculum, equally excellent and deserving instruments though they might be. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the reality. It’s not impossible, just extremely unlikely.

Bands not based in Scotland are increasingly scrambling for players to keep up with both the numbers and standard of their Scottish counterparts. While the World Championships continue to be a draw for international bands in all grades, every year I see more of them bolstering rosters with available players from other groups, even from the cross-town rivals, just to meet the size standard, and hopefully also playing quality, when they get to Scotland.

Let me be clear: the Scots are doing the right thing for piping and drumming, and are not responsible in any way for the resulting challenges felt in the rest of the world. The grassroots teaching efforts by Scottish immigrants and visiting instructors that began some 50 or 60 years ago that brought piping and pipe bands in Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand to a world standard have been formally adopted by the home of piping and drumming but in a more organized and publicly supported way.

And barring some radical shakeup by unanticipated Sassenachs, the Scottish teaching infrastructure will only improve and expand. There will be a standard in each grade for Scottish bands, while visitors – including those at the top of their grade at home – more often than not will languish in the lower half.

While Scotland should celebrate and be congratulated for its teaching success, the rest of the world will need to find new ways to keep up. Idly expecting local bands or occasional individuals to do all the teaching using a variety of excellent, good or downright terrible methods will not be enough. Associations need to step up with organized programs and standards that make learning piping and drumming accessible to young students. They need to work with school districts to investigate at least the possibility of getting organized expert teaching into classrooms.

Associations should have recognized it 20 years ago, and some, including me, tried to get programs off the ground a decade or longer ago only to be rejected ultimately by executives and board members.

If the rest of the world is going to keep up, it’s no longer enough for piping and drumming societies and associations to be Highland games-running machines. They need to provide the fuel and the fire to keep the mechanism running.

 

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.