March pastiche

This summer I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting a part of that UK pipe band scene tradition at competitions called the “march past.”

For those who might not know, the march past is essentially this: at the end of the day of competitions, the six Grade 1 or Grade 2 bands that competed first in the draw take position about 20 yards from a “reviewing stand” in the middle of the park. Each band takes turns playing a set of 6/8 marches, while every other competing band in every other grade separately marches in step to the 6/8s.

When each band goes by the reviewing stand, the drum-major or pipe-major does a quasi-military salute to a designated “chieftain of the day,” usually a local dignitary or minor celebrity. The D-M or P-M shouts or, in some cases, shrieks, “Band! Eyes . . . right!” and all members of their band are then supposed to look lovingly to their right at the chieftain, while the D-M or P-M does his/her best Benny Hill-style open-hand British military salute. Each band looks at the chieftain for a few bars of the tune, and then looks forward as they indeed march past.

After you see 50 or so bands do this, it starts to get comical. I believe that every band that competes has to do it, or faces disqualification. Centre bands are not compensated for their extra time, musical performance or, since most of them have come straight from the beer tent after quaffing several pints in rapid succession, strained bladders.

At major championships in the UK, where there can be more than 200 bands, the march past ceremony can take literally hours. It is, in a word, interminable, particularly for the unfortunate centre bands, who are standing there for the entire parade, and then for the eventual announcement of prizes, which on its own can take an hour, with comments from the honoured chieftain, announcements of all manner of drum-major awards and at least nine grades of pipe band results.

During the two-plus hours of the march past some desperate pipers and drummers sneak off the field for a pee. They’re apparently not supposed to do this, but it’s better than the old kilted kneel-down to let it go in a puddle right there and then behind the bass drum while band mates stand shotty (something I have only heard about), so officials seem to look away from the ignominious parade of pishing.

One could die of exposure or boredom or muscle atrophy from these things. You don’t know what will come first: the end of the march past or the end of the world. It is mental and physical torture, worse by many magnitudes than any massed bands event, which are familiar to those in North America.

Massed bands are certainly no great hell, but at least there is some entertainment value in them for the non-playing public, who are often attracted to the grand finale spectacle of thousands of pipers and drummers playing “Amazing Grace” and counter-marching up and down the field en masse to “Scotland the Brave” or some other musical potboiler. What’s more, bands in North America understand that it is the massed bands more than the competitions themselves that please the paying public. If a band does not participate in massed bands it forfeits its travel allowance. There is a decent correlation between massed bands, the paying public and compensation for performers.

The massed bands ceremony of course could be improved, but it is miles better than the march past. I’ve participated so far in three march pasts at three championships in 2016, two as a member of one of the centre bands. I hadn’t done that since the 1980s, and nothing had changed. They were exactly the same somnambulant torment as ever, with the same crowd of confounded or dozing grannies on the sidelines who, by the thirtieth band, could not care less about the next Grade Whatever ranks of disinterested players doing their best (or worst) imitations of soldiers or Benny.

I recognize that the march past is a tradition borne of an era when pipe bands were either of the military itself or populated with veterans. Back then, the march past actually meant something and looked impressive and – maybe most importantly – in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s would comprise a small fraction of the number of bands a major championship boasts these days.

Today, pipe bands have grown well beyond their honourable military roots. Bands and march pasts have nothing to do with the military, and is there any other musical hobby where civilians pretend to be soldiers?

If the lengthy march past was originally a way to buy time while administrators tabulated results, that too is history, since a database or spreadsheet today completes the task in a microsecond.

A march past is a pastiche, like a crazy nightmare, band after band inexorably coming at you, seemingly never-ending. It’s a zombie apocalypse. A trail of tears. A death march. Night of the Kilted Dead.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But can’t the custom be replaced with something else? For the pleasure of the paying public, the organizers of competition can provide better value. If not for the improved sanity of pipers and drummers, then there must be something else that will reduce the number of urinary tract infections caused by straining to hold it three hours after swilling multiple pints in the beer tent.

As with many questionable traditions, all it takes sometimes is someone to ask a simple and constructive question in order to evoke positive change.

So, here it is: Is the march past a relic that can be replaced with something more satisfying to all?

Right? Aye?

Aye’s right.

 

Fall out

David Murray’s reported (but as it turned out, incorrect) passing got me thinking again about the military and piping. Looking back, I believe Murray is the last of the pure military men who had a major influence on the judging of piping competitions.

This is no slight against great pipers like Gavin Stoddart, Brian Donaldson, Gordon Walker, Niall Matheson, Stuart Sampson, Michael Gray and others who combined a decorated military career with piping. Long after retiring from the military, they remain terrific contributors to the art, and there will continue to be great pipers who also serve in the military.

But Lieutenant-Colonel David Murray isI think the last of a long era when big piping competitions and military events were confused and even conflated. The Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering until the 2000s routinely saw competitors currently serving in the military, actually on-duty at these events or even around the Scottish games. In some cases, such as with Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald and Major Gavin Stoddart in the 1970s and 1980s, soldier-pipers were ordered to compete, to go out and win medals to make the Scots Guards or Royal Scots or other Scottish regiment look good.

On-duty military competitors were commonplace and part of Scotland’s solo piping tradition for at least a hundred years. It was just the way things were. But as solo piping moved from being largely connected with the military, to being a thing mainly for civilians, the glorious sight of soldiers competing in the immaculate uniform of their regiment dwindled.

And the judges were almost all men who had served with the military, often as commissioned officers, such as David Murray. The UK practiced military conscription until the late 1950s, when the required two-year “National Service” began to be phased out. Anyone born after 1939 did not have to do their stint, and 1960 was the last year for the demobilization of National Service, or “De-Mob.” In fact, if my calculations are right, Iain MacLellan and Andrew Wright are the very last of the great pipers (and now judges) who went through National Service.

So, at solo competitions throughout the UK, judges on the benches very often did their service or were commissioned officers with a Scottish regiment. There would be a lot of talk with the competitors that so-and-so was with the Camerons or Scots Guards or Dragoon Guards or Seaforths, so anyone with [insert regiment here] might be listened to with a different ear – and not necessarily to their advantage. An officer judging a soldier when he knows the competitor is there to do well for his regiment? It’s a bit like the pipe-major judging his own pipe band and those competing against it.

The infamous “ordering off” in 1991 of the late and truly great Corporal Alasdair Gillies, Queen’s Own Highlanders, by (retired) Lieutenant-Colonel David Murray, Queens’ Own Cameron Highlanders, was a bizarre conflation of events. Was this a military exercise or a civilian solo competition? Was Gillies on duty? Did Murray have the right to order him or any competitor off stage? What might have happened if Alasdair were to have given Murray a two-fingered salute and carried on with his tune?

Alasdair being commanded to stand down in the middle of the Gold Medal competition has gone down in history as a permanent part of piping lore. In truth, this kind of confusion routinely happened in smaller ways. Military men who were competing were on some sort of different plane than the rest of us and, if anyone bothered to stop to think about it, someone might or should have called BS on the whole exercise. But, like so much in piping and drumming, it was just the way it was, and you’d better not ask questions if you want to get the benefit of the doubt, which is so crucial in contests that come down to slicing hairs.

At any rate, Lieutenant-Colonel D.J.S. Murray’s death this to me marks the end of a hundred-odd years at least, when civilian piping competitions and military events were confused. It’s for the better that we’ve moved on, but I will still miss the charm and pageantry of immaculately decked-out pipers strutting their stuff before their military superiors, providing a fascinating extra dimension to these events, holdovers from a bygone era.

 

A non-Scots guide to Scotland

As the summer gathers steam so too do the plans of North American, Australian, Kiwi, South African, European and other non-Scottish pipers and drummers making their pilgrimage to our musical Mecca . . otherwise known as Scotland.

Some of us have been there many times, even lived and worked there for extended periods, playing around the Scottish games and with bands. Most will be relative newbies to the wild and wonderful home of Highland piping and pipe band drumming. For them in particular, here’s a brief list of well-intentioned tips to help get what you deserve musically and avoid receiving the judging equvalent of a Glasgow kiss.

Shut up about the weather. Yes, it rains. A lot. It can also be gloriously sunny. Scots generally like to complain about their own weather, but they hate to hear you brag about how hot and sunny it was when you left Podunk, Iowa, and your ruminations about why you left behind your wonderful summer for “all this rain.” Instead, convert your dank misery into bright optimism. Think of being battered down by horizontal rain at your pre-World’s band practice as the authentic Scottish experience! Bagpipes were made for the Scottish weather. Embrace the wet.

The food: shut it! Scottish cuisine is what it is: delicious! Contrary to 25 years ago, Scotland is full of wonderful restaurants serving exquisitely prepared food and drink. But they are often too expensive for the average travelling pipe bander. Most will subsist on cheap pub food and fried whatever from the chippy. Live a little. Ignore your diet for a week, and for God’s sake keep your lip buttoned down about your disdain for the deep-fried “Cheese-and-Burger” surprise.

Never, ever ask a Scot, “How can you live here?” It’s a small island nation, and in general things are more expensive than where you’re from. But the Scots live good, fulfilling lives and their standard of living might actually be better than yours in many ways (universal health care, majestic scenery, bike lanes . . .). And their standard of piping and drumming is positively better. No one is interested in your bragging about how gas costs half as much where you’re from or that you can buy a bunch of broccoli for a dollar back at home.

Stop with the lame Scottish accent. For some reason North Americans in particular like to put on a Scottish accent when they’re visiting Scotland. They’ll even say things like “aye,” and “ya ken,” and “pure dead brilliant.” Would non-Jewish folks go on holiday to Israel and make attempts at Yiddish? Oy vay! Enough with being such a putz. Speak normally, whatever your normal might be, and keep the Gardener Willie impression to your inside voice.

Watch what you wear. This one is tricky. Some residents of Scotland enjoy wearing shorts, shades, flowered shirts and flip-flops (standard Majorca holiday attire) when the sun’s out. But even though that might be the official state uniform of Florida, you as a visitor wearing that stuff in Glasgow will look like a goof. Stick to a more conservative ensemble, otherwise it comes across as slightly disrespectful.

Scotland rules. If you are competing in Scotland you are implicitly accepting their rules – or lack of them. You won’t always like that you don’t get scoresheets at most solo events, or that the guy judging your band at the World’s didn’t ever play at anything better than a Grade 3 standard, or that your band was disqualified because the pipe-major didn’t say “Quick March” at the command, or that the march past comprises two hours of bladder-busting boredom, or that . . . well, you get the drift. It’s their house so you accept their rules and customs.

Flagism. Since “overseas” bands started competing in Scotland in the 1960s, for some reason they often like to wave their flags. Pipe bands are – or should be – neutral. You are no more the national pipe band of America or Australia or Brittany than, say, Shotts & Dykehead is of Scotland, and you don’t see them with a saltire adorning their bus. These music competitions are only about music, not bragging rights for a country. If nations were ever to assemble pipe bands comprising their very best players for a Pipe Band Olympics, then that might be the time for flags. Until then, leave your maple leafs, stars and bars and tricolours at home.

Be humble. You might arrive acting like you’re going to open a big can of whoop-ass on the Scots, but, if you do, you’re going to get schooled big time. There’s a fairly well-known non-Scottish piper who’s earned the acronym nickname around the Scottish solo circuit of “CTHB,” or “C^&% Thinks He’s Burgess.” This is not the sort of name you want. Be quiet and let your playing do the talking.

In short (but not in shorts and flip-flops), you’re a guest. Imagine a guest coming to your home and telling you how much better the weather, the food, the rules, the whatever are at home. You wouldn’t want them back.

Happy, respectful travels.