Hard

An unwritten rule of competition: no one is rewarded for difficulty. There are no bonus points for playing hard tunes. There are points for playing hard, medium or easy tunes well.

There are points taken away for playing hard stuff poorly, and on a related note, no judge is going to let you off easy for making a hack of a tough tune, just because, well, it’s so hard.

I remember some years ago playing in a band. In the winter someone had the idea that we should play “Eileen MacDonald.” It’s a clever and relatively obscure, jig written by Charlie Williamson. It’s a whole lotta handful for a top soloist, let alone a whole pipe section.

We toiled away at the four-tentacled thing through the winter and spring, chanters getting slapped relentlessly with marveslously syncopated combinations. We worked and worked at it, because, aside from it being a good tune, it was so impressively hard. Goddamit, we’d show them!

The contest season carried on and the band did well, but it seemed like we weren’t getting much attention, let alone extra credit, for the amazingly difficult four-parted jig.

We played the medley with “Eileen MacDonald” at the World’s. I can’t remember the result, so it must not have been a memorable prize. What I do remember, though, is after we played, the late great Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald had listened to the performance, and a few of us spoke to him afterwards.

Angus, in his famously surprising-for-a-big-man high-pitched voice with one slightly raised eyebrow remarked, “Aye, ‘Eileen MacDonald.’ Tough tune.”

One comment from one solo piper. All that diligent practice to play a very difficult tune well came down to one comment. That was it.

“Aye. Tough tune.”

And I can’t remember a judge ever writing anything to the effect that he/she was impressed or that the tune was even positively noticed. I’m certain there were comments about the tricky passages not being quite together. Easy pickings for a piping judge.

Was it the right thing to do? In hindsight, I would say it wasn’t. It’s a clever jig, and the composition itself is unique. But is it so musically brilliant that it’s irreplaceable in a medley? Do people pine for a band or soloist to play it? Don’t think so.

In solo competition, we all submit tunes that might be deemed difficult. I admit that as a competitor and a judge I know what it’s like to submit or have submitted to me three or four tunes, and the one more difficult tune gets picked – not because it’s the musically superior tune, but simply because, Well, it’s your funeral, buddy.

If the idea is to win the competition, why put yourself at a disadvantage? I remember a lesson with Captain John MacLellan. We were discussing what light music to put in for solo events. We were trying to determine tunes that might suit me better than others. Since he said I had a stronger top-hand, I suggested “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran.” In his rather straightforward manner the good Captain said something that always stayed with me. “Why play six parts when four will do?”

Now, I readily admit that that comment was made 25 years ago, and to me, an American going round the Scottish games trying to “get in.” I wasn’t playing in the Silver Star. But I think the message was clear: Why make it any harder for yourself?

As a judge a few weeks ago a young piper submitted “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.” Nice tune, but no more technically difficult than the other three he put in, so I picked it and he played it. There were enough problems with it by the crunluath variation that he wasn’t in the running, but he then commenced to play an unexpected open fosgailte variation. I say unexpected, because most pipers wouldn’t do that. The tune is far more often played without one. Unlike a few remaining piobaireachd pedants who insist that this is “wrong,” I’m fine with anyone playing it if they want. It’s music.

But why play it? In competition, why would you tack on a very difficult variation at the end of the tune when it’s completely optional? Is it an attempt to get extra credit? Do they steadfastly believe that the tune is incomplete without it? As I said, I don’t think bonus points exist in piping and pipe band competitions, and insisting that it must be played is as pedantic as someone insisting that it should not be played. It’s optional.

Rather than help, the open fosgailte variation was not played well this time, so it actually made matters worse for the competitor, again supporting my argument that there are no potential positives that I can think of, and only probable negatives.

Unlike diving or spelling bees or freestyle skiing, there’s no reward for technical difficulty in what we do, and nor should there be. One person’s “hard” is another’s “easy” in our music. But the question – or perhaps debate – remains: Why play six when four will do? Why play “Eileen MacDonald” when another jig is just as compelling musically and less demanding technically?

I’m sure there are flaws in my argument, so feel free to point them out. In the meantime, I’ll keep slapping my chanter trying to get the syncopation right.

 

Haves and have-nots

There are those pipe bands that have and those that have not. And increasingly there are competitions and Highland games that have and have not. The size and success of bands and competitions are linked.

June 23rd was one of the more ironic and remarkable days of piping and drumming news that I can remember. Within hours of one another, the Virginia Tattoo folks proudly announced that two “have” bands – Inveraray & District and ScottishPower – would be flown in to the April 2016 event in Norfolk. Big, successful, wonderful bands that are having all expenses paid to the sunny and warm southeast USA to play in the first annual big extravaganza.

Nice news. What’s not to like?

An hour or so later came a rather different message from the good people who organize the 150-year-old competition in northern California, referred to fondly as “Pleasanton.” This somewhat dire announcement outlined that hoping for top-grade bands to get to their event, each bringing upwards of 40 members, has become unrealistic for the bands to pay for, and impossible for the contest to underwrite. So, Pleasanton’s solution is to reset their own rules. Three invited Grade 1 bands would be limited to competing with no more than eight pipers and seven drummers total.

Interesting, but not a little sad.

Thanks to the proliferation of the numbers game – not just in Grade 1, but really across all grades – larger bands have to be far more selective about where they travel. If their way is paid, as with Inveraray and ScottishPower, or the event is a must-attend, many  simply can’t get to most events. Unless a competition like the World’s or Maxville has built up its stature, events have to find the money to attract bands with prizes or travel subsidies or both to get them out.

The irony is that when bands have size enough to be competitive, they can no longer get to events to do what they want to do: compete.

John Biggar, with the cooperation of the Western United States Pipe Band Association, has created a new event: the small band competition, which is pretty much a step back to 1975 or so when bands of eight, three, two and one were not only acceptable, they were common.

Pleasanton used to have it all, attracting full-sized Grade 1 bands to finish their season in northern California. Today, this very successful event is left having to not just reinvent itself but reinvent pipe band rules to continue its success.

It’s a ridiculous state of affairs, but that’s what it has come to.

Because so many bands prepare for the World Championships, it will take the RSPBA to evoke positive change. Otherwise, we will see competitions like Pleasanton take things into their own hands by creating events that more bands can attend, that the event itself can afford. But those events will need to work with associations to bend their rules, and, as we saw in Northern Ireland with the Spring Gatherin’, that’s not always possible, or even likely.

I’ve written over the last 15 years (for example, here, here, here, here, here) about the dangers of allowing band sizes to expand unchecked. For sure, large bands make for interesting sounds and sights, but it invites situations like we’re seeing now, where there are not only have and have-not bands, but there are have and have-not competitions.

Twenty years ago, most Scottish pipe bands would compete at about 15 contests a year. Now most get out to maybe eight, five of those the major championships. The larger size of bands makes it difficult to get to an event with a full complement of players, so they pick and choose. I see top-grade bands scraping for players to boost numbers, bringing in pipers 15 years retired, fielding kids with experience no higher than Grade 4, pressured to feature at least seven across the front at virtually any cost.

I think the majority of bands would support reasonable limits of section sizes — not tiny bands of eight, four and one, but maybe 18, eight, four and one for Grade 1; 15, seven, four and one for Grade 2; and so on. There would be better quality bands. There would be more bands. There would be more bands to attend competitions. Bands could afford to get to more competitions.

Other than hurting a few feelings for a few days when lesser players are cut loose (to become better players in other bands), I can’t really think of a single good reason not to limit section sizes.

The situation is capitalistic. Survival of the fittest and all that. But, to me, the piping and drumming world needs a more social approach. We need to level the playing field by putting a reasonable limit on numbers across all grades, so that we can continue doing what we do and make the business of competition sustainable.

 

Toeing a fine line

Pressuring bands to compete only in sanctioned contests makes some sense. The RSPBA’s most recent alleged request – some use the word “bullying” – that bands not compete at the new Spring Gatherin’ has brought the topic to the fore. Should bands toe the line for their association by competing only in events that adhere completely to the association’s rules and regulations?

My answer: it depends.

It depends on whether an association is truly looking out for its members’ wishes, by demonstrating a willingness to bend when it makes sense. An association that summarily rejects any event that wants to try something new for the enjoyment and benefit of the competitors and the audience will rub most member-bands the wrong way. And when the association’s rationale isn’t communicated to members, it causes further ill-will. Silence is always met with contempt.

Associations today face many quandaries. Chief among them is the dilemma of representing both the interests of their members and adapting to the interests of the events that they want to sanction. A pipe band association is, to some degree, a union. They are unions of pipers and drummers so that their interests are represented; so that they can expect to attend contests and not be blindsided by unfair rules or unqualified judges; so that there is continuity from contest to contest.

But there is a big difference between solidarity and protectionism. Associations need to tread very carefully when they are faced with events hoping to do things a little differently, but with the cooperation of and supervision (to some degree) by the association. Non-standard contests certainly want meaningful and equitable competitions that pipers and drummers take seriously, but not at the cost of diluting the attractively different nature of what they’re trying to do.

The RSPBA isn’t the only association that apparently pressures or even requires members to compete at only sanctioned competitions. The Western United States Pipe Band Association is said to have it in their rules of membership. The Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario has been heavily criticized by some of its members for not getting together with events that refuse to play by their rules. The PPBSO has not pressured, much less suspended, any bands for participating in these events, but the inference is there that, every time a member band competes at one it weakens the union and slackens the association’s leverage to negotiate. I get that.

There’s no clear solution. The hard line is disliked by most members, and the softer approach makes members wonder why these non-standard events can’t be fully sanctioned for aggregate points. The current pipes|drums Poll shows that about 90% of readers agree that pipe bands anywhere have the right to compete anywhere without threat of suspension by their home association.

The key is partnership and patience. Summarily rejecting with no explanation contests that try new things is certainly the wrong approach. Associations have to maintain an element of partnership, working with people – most of all their own members – rather than being perceived to be obstinately unwilling to change.

In short, every association must somehow always represent the wishes of its members, and never be considered wagging an authoritative finger at them, telling them that the association knows best. Intransigence and inflexibility have no place in the modern piping and drumming world, which risks burning down completely if it doesn’t adapt and change.

Associations are the pipers and drummers. The church is the congregation; not the preacher or the elders or the building. If an association loses sight of that truth, and is seen to act only in the interests of its leaders and officials, it’s in big trouble.