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.

 

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?