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.

 

The Pipe-Sergeant

I’m a Dodge Sparkle, you’re a Lamborghini.
You’re The Great One, I’m Marty McSorley.
You’re the Concord, I’m economy.
I make the dough, but you get the glory.
– Kathleen Edwards, “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory”

Consider the pipe-sergeant.

In my experience and observations, it is perhaps more often than not that, within the band itself, the pipe-sergeant is just as or even more respected than the pipe-major.

But of course it’s the pipe-major who gets all the notoriety and accolades, not to mention – at least at the top-tier of Grade 1 – the judging and teaching gigs around the world.

I was playing the lovely 6/8 march “Pipe-Sergeant John Barclay” the other day when I daydreamed mid-part about the topic. John Barclay was the long-time pipe-sergeant of the famous Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia of the 1970s. To a person, those who I have talked to who were in that band with Barclay say that he was instrumental to the entire operation.

But Barclay was second-fiddle to the legendary Pipe-Major Tom McAllister Jr. To be sure, McAllister was the main man and deserved the recognition. But by all accounts it was Barclay who was just as responsible for that band’s success. Thank goodness for his bandmate Ian Duncan’s march or Barclay’s name might soon be altogether forgotten or unknown with future generations.

And for every championship-winning pipe band there is almost always a pipe-sergeant who is, from the outside of the band, relatively unknown, but on the inside is often a hero.

In my own experience a few folks come to mind: Ian Roddick was a terrific presence within the band when I played with Polkemmet in the 1980s. Full credit is due to Robert Mathieson as pipe-major, but Ian was a tremendous, positive influence and loved by every member. With the players themselves, Ian was the captain and the inspiration at least in equal measure with Rab.

And, though a much different band, the same unsung leadership was felt when the great Gordon Stafford stepped in as Ronnie Lawrie’s right-hand-man when he took over from Rab for a year.

In the 78th Frasers, John Walsh and Bruce Gandy’s role as pipe-sergeant (at different times) were indescribably important to the group’s success, inspiring with their music and their knack for great rhythm and tone. Certainly, the band wouldn’t have existed as it was then without Bill Livingstone, and he deservedly reaped whatever accolades came, but Walsh and Gandy were the ones who, at least in equal measure, made the whole musical cocktail work.

I’m pretty sure that Rab and Bill would agree with these statements.

I’d imagine the same is generally true of the role of “flank” drummers in relation to the lead-tip. The leader’s name goes on the program and the album cover, and the right-hand-person is either unlisted or lumped in with the rest, but does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work, whether with the instruments, the music, the mediation, the morale . . . or all of that and more.

Whatever band it is you have played or currently play with, I’d venture that you might well agree that “leadership” is just as often not only from those at the top.

So, here’s to the seconds-in-command. To the Jock Percevals and John Finlays, the Angus J. MacLellans and Brian Nivens.

Straws that stir the drink.

 

Covered classics

I like k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” the best. There’s Jeff Buckley’s, and I recently heard a great rendition by Francesco Yates, and of course there’s Leonard Cohen’s original, but, for me, it’s got to be k.d.

To riff on U2, it’s even better than the real thing.

The upcoming “Live In Ireland 87 In Scotland” concert got me thinking about the pipe band habit of being original, at least when it comes to medleys and concert material. Pipe bands of course play the same 2/4 marches, strathspeys and reels for set events as a matter of course, but have pipe bands ever – in competition or not – “covered” another pipe band’s work? I can’t think of an instance.

Sure, bands will take single tunes introduced by other bands and put their own spin on them, at least with a new percussion score, but entire medleys or suites first brought out by another pipe band? Never.

Even the reunion of players and some extra-special friends from the 1987 78th Fraser Highlanders’ concert in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, won’t be truly covering material, since you can’t cover music that you came out with originally.

But, it seems to me, it’s high time that pipe bands started to break down that unwritten rule that they can’t play creative material done by other bands. I would think it’s the next big step or trend for pipe bands: make a classic medley of the past new and exciting once again with a new arrangement with different harmonies, bridges, even subtle time signature and tempo tweaks to celebrate it again by, to use the American Idol cliché, “make it their own.”

To revisit the jazz composer Don Thompson’s “Journey To Skye” by the same group that did it first is fine, but I’d love to hear, say, Inveraray & District make it perhaps even better, with different harmonies and tempos, with a modern bass section arrangement. Or how about the medley that Victoria Police used to win the 1998 World’s updated and reinterpreted by, say, St. Laurence O’Toole? Or a 1980s Vale of Atholl concert suite done by Field Marshal Montgomery? Or go way back and take a selection from the 1960s Invergordon Distillery (“Old Woman’s Lullaby,” anyone?) and give it a modern makeover.

Or could a Grade 3 band of today take on the “Detroit Highlanders” Strathclyde Police medley of the 1980s? Why not? It’s excellent fundamental music that is eminently within the grasp of many modern mid-grade bands. It’s not sacred and untouchable; it’s music that deserves to be appreciated again in a new way.

I have heard people wonder often why some pipe band suite or other isn’t heard again. “If ‘The Megantic Outlaw’ was any good, then why do we never hear it today?” is a thought I’ve listened to not a few times. Whatever your personal opinion of that or any other piece of music associated closely with a particular pipe band, the reason their music isn’t heard again is simple: there’s an unwritten code that pipe bands don’t do that, that they always have to be 100 per cent original.

To be sure, it’s fun and challenging for a pipe band to create whole new medleys, but it doesn’t have to always be this way. There’s tons of room to be original with existing content, to resurrect well-kent classics, to make them your own.

In fact, if I were a band hoping to be noticed, or step up in the ranks, I would take a cue from budding pop stars. More often than not, they get noticed by doing a great cover of a well-known song. They eliminate the burden of having to rise up with their own material, knowing that songwriting can come, after they are discovered via their covers. Originality can come in many forms.

k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” does not diminish Leonard Cohen’s song one iota. She celebrates and honours it, just as Jeff Buckley did, putting a personal and fresh complexion on it, bringing it to another generation, and Francesco Yates does it again.

It’s all good, and it’s all possibly even better.