Oldies

The music you liked when you were younger is the music you will prefer for the rest of your life. That’s an oversimplification, and there are exceptions, but, by and large it’s true of most people.

And so, too, with pipe band judges.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by the lamentably slow pace of change in pipe band competition music and style, look no further than the relatively inflexible and stubborn judge. Just as that 50-plus-year-old guy or gal on the pen goes home after the contest, opens a can of Tartan Special and puts on that LP of Cliff Richard from 1980, they’re having a hard time getting their ears around your band’s “crazy” medley.

If they hear the latest song by Drake or The Weeknd they instantly flip the radio station (not streaming, of course) and tut-tut, “That’s nae music.” It’s a knee-jerk response, and to them there are no two ways about it. “Big Country! Now that was a band!” It is a truism of every generation: what was cool growing up carries forward as their definition of likable or acceptable music later in life.

Again, I generalize. There are exceptions. I have encountered a small number of judges my age or older who relish new music – both pop and pipe band. They have open and tolerant ears, and enjoy the surprise and delight of hearing new stuff. Sure, like me they still like the familiar music of their formative years, but they move on and treat every new song or tune as yet another fun possibility. Invariably, these people get bored quickly. They embrace change, optimistically considering it as continual improvement rather pessimistically seeing the threat of messing with a good thing. Leave well enough alone.

I like to count myself among the easily bored and change-welcoming. At age 53 I listen to new music all day as part of my job, but I have always loved hearing new music and discovering new artists. I get bored with piping when I hear or play the same things over and over and over again. Without question, I understand the competition conceit of playing familiar music flawlessly, and that can be intriguing and interesting. Striving for perfection in competition can salvage 10,000 maniacal airings of “Blair Drummond.” But, regarding the content itself, I would far prefer to hear the new than the old.

It seems to me that we need more judges with such a mindset. Perhaps pipe band accreditation exams should include a tolerance test of the unfamiliar. Not necessarily measure how much a prospective judge likes new music; just how much he or she  will  tolerate it. An intolerant judge is a bad judge, so test how open-minded they are. Hell, ask them to name a few of their favourite musicians or non-pipe bands. If they respond only with things like “The Beatles” or “The Stones” or “The Who” – great though they each might be – maybe they’re better to go rust away elsewhere than inflict their intransigence on us.

Mainly because of the judging, our art evolves more slowly than a lead zeppelin. Pipe bands want to win so they err on the side of caution, terrified that intractable adjudicators will put “new” music in its place as self-appointed gatekeepers of the craft and preservationists of an art and era that they grew up with.

If we’re going to move things forward, let’s make sure that our judges are musically open-eared and tolerant. It’s the right thing to do.

 …new…

One last time

“The pipes will fall in front of the band.” So ordered Queen Victoria way back when, and so it has been ever since.

Except at the march past of the 2016 World Pipe Band Championships when the last band on, my band, the Spirt of Scotland Pipe Band, elected to have the drum section and Lead-Drummer Jim Kilpatrick at the front. By now, many are aware that this happened, but it’s important, for posterity’s sake at least, that the full story of how this came about is told.

Several days before the World’s, Jim Kilpatrick confirmed the speculation that would retire from competition after the World’s. One would assume that the greatest competition pipe band drummer in history – 104 total RSPBA championships, 17 World Pipe Band Drumming Championships, all five championships in a single year, 11 consecutive drumming championship victories and 16 World Solo titles – would have been toasted by the RSPBA in some capacity. But no, not even an acknowledgment or comment to at least mark the occasion.

Petty and personal grievances by a few overshadowed common sense and simply doing the right thing. Years from now, when we’re all dead and gone, Kilpatrick’s incredible legacy and lore will live on. The misunderstandings and possible transgressions of the past will be forgotten, and people will wonder why on earth there wasn’t a ceremony at the 2016 World’s to honour him. A few preternaturally grudgy folks’ ties were in a twist, so they must have had their way with passive aggressive retribution by not even alluding to the occasion, let alone his contributions, on Glasgow Green.

Sad, yes, but I digress.

After several jars in the beer tent after the Grade 1 medley, there was an informal meeting back at the band bus. Pipe-Major Roddy MacLeod and Kilpatrick gave a stirring final speech to the pipers, drummers and invaluable team of volunteers that brought tears to not a few eyes. All manner more of libations were consumed as we eventually trundled towards the march past as the sun was setting on Glasgow Green and Jim’s competition career.

In his canny way, Roddy intentionally hung back so that the band would be the last on. In all likelihood, this could be the last time on any pipe band park for the band and most of its players. We waited at the edge of the grandstand chatting among ourselves while the last of the groups marched past.

The best ideas are often the most obvious ideas and, because they’re so obvious, they often go unsaid. But when they’re mentioned it can be a eureka! moment. It was Iain Speirs who made a passing comment to me while we were waiting around: “We should go on with Jim and the drummers at the front of the band.”

My immediate reaction was Yes! It was one of those eureka moments. I’m pretty sure I said to Iain that he should pitch it to the pipe-major, but he didn’t seem too keen, so I made a somewhat wobbly B-line for Roddy and made the suggestion, giving full credit to Iain. “That’s a fantastic idea!” Roddy talked to Jim and it all fell in to place, drummers lined up at the front, Jim by the right.

It was a simple, common sense, thoughtfully beautiful gesture. It cost nothing, took no effort and it was really the only right thing to do.

The pipers couldn’t have been prouder than to follow this incredibly talented and driven drum section, led by the greatest pipe band drummer of all time. Jim was clearly moved by it, passing by the RSPBA reviewing stand, eyes right, where the Lord Provost of Glasgow would have no idea what was happening, let alone the petty grievances within the association.

And, true enough, over the interminable two-hours-plus march past they couldn’t or wouldn’t allocate the time it takes to announce fifth prize in the Juvenile Drum-Majors to take a moment. Momentarily setting aside the differences of a scant few grudge-masters to acknowledge Jim just wasn’t on. A good leader would have said, Screw you lot, we’re doing the right thing. The 99.99% of those present and watching around the world who have nothing but admiration for him were denied the chance to give a final, deserved round of applause.

Never mind. What was right and decent was what the right and decent Iain Speirs originally thought of, making one of the greatest moments in my and I’m sure many others’ piping and drumming careers, defying Victoria’s royal decree: drummers leading, the great Jim Kilpatrick at the forefront one last time.

 

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?