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.

 

Easy prizes, or challenging fun?

Play easy and boring music well, or play harder and interesting stuff and have more fun?

It’s an age-old quandary for lower grade pipers and pipe bands. Almost every judge would say (over and over again), play tunes that your hands or your pipers and drummers can manage better.

For time immemorial, judges will sit or stand there at virtually every competition and wonder, usually several times throughout the day, why oh why that piper or pipe band is throwing away the competition trying to play a tune or tunes that they simply can’t manage. Or, perhaps more accurately, wondering why they don’t play far easier stuff to get better results.

You would think that after a hundred-odd-years of competition, competitors would learn that playing easier stuff better would more likely produce better results. So why is it that season after season pipers, drummers and pipe bands come out playing stuff that’s too difficult?

The answer: it’s more fun.

It’s more fun because it’s a bigger musical challenge. I would venture to bet that many lower-grade bands recognize that if they were to play easy tunes all year long, they’d lose their members’ interest. Practices would become monotonous, and bored members would pressure the pipe-major to make things more interesting by engaging members with more challenging stuff.

But, but . . . the name of the game is to win, right? Why risk sacrificing winning for the sake of a few musical challenges?

It’s counter-intuitive, but that kind of sacrifice (the prize for the musical experience) is exactly what we need more of – pipe bands most of all. Producing engaging and interesting music – even if it’s not played to the competitor’s potential – is better for the art than interminably cranking out boring, repetitive tunes that no one, but no one, really wants to hear again.

The choice of playing easy tunes for better results or harder tunes for more fun is one of the great strategies of our competitive game. Allowing pipers, drummers and bands the freedom to make that choice adds spice and variety to our contests. Associations might think they’re practicing tough love by prescribing tunes for lower grade competitors, but they’re not.

When I was a kid, one of the first four-part 2/4 marches I was given to play was “Abercairney Highlanders.” The late Gordon Speirs said I would get far more out of that technical challenge than playing some boring, easier thing that would lose my interest. Yes, I wouldn’t make a great job of it, but it would help my hands and give me an opportunity to expand my horizons. And, I think it worked.

After years of the RSPBA’s MAP restrictions for lower-grade bands, the dividends, if in fact there are any, are difficult to see. Lower-grade “overseas” bands still regularly come to the World’s and do well. Requiring kids to play “Corriechoille” ad infinitum for a year I suggest drives more of them away than retains their interest in the art.

And, I will say it again: requiring contestants to play certain tunes is far less about the art and learning than it is about making judging easier. And that is no good for anyone, except of course the judges.

Pipers, drummers and pipe bands need to learn to challenge themselves, expand their horizons, take musical chances, and understand that there are things far more important than winning. “Play simple better” might work in competition, but, in reality, it goes only so far.

Happy New You

I like making resolutions. Pipers and drummers especially I think can make a few new commitments at the beginning of the year, and here are a few suggestions, each of which have helped me as a piper.

Get in shape – pipers and drummers each play one of the most physical instruments there is. Add to that walking and being generally on your feet all day, hot summer weather, wearing 30 pounds of wool, and the occasional alcoholic beverage, and, if you’re not physically fit, the other piper or drummer who is has a considerable advantage. Ride a bike, take up jogging, do what it takes to improve your cardio stamina. Along with practicing your instrument, make exercise part of your daily routine, and you will have another edge over the flumpy haggis competing against you.

Learn a tune a week – expanding your repertoire will expand your skill. Every tune or score has new musical twists, and each will make you a better musician.

Seek out instruction – I often ask some of the world’s greatest pipers and drummers if they have a lot of requests for lessons, and invariably they say No. It seems that after a few years, the vast majority of pipers and drummers think they don’t need to learn anything more. Maybe people assume better pipers and drummers are too busy. They aren’t. Go get lessons. Go to summer schools. Learn from the best in-person.

Listen to soloists in the Professional grade – it continues to intrigue me that performances by some of the world’s top players are often ignored at Highland games. Make a point to watch, listen and learn from the best whenever you can. It’s a free lesson.

Subscribe to pipes|drums or other credible publication – if you’re reading this and you don’t have a $14.99 annual subscription to pipes|drums, sorry, but you or your parents have misplaced priorities. Being in-the-know, informed and knowledgeable are keys to well-rounded piping and drumming, and how-to articles like those by Jim McGillivray and Bob Worrall are invaluable.

Purchase things that have value – pay a fair price for piping and pipe band music. Whether scores to tunes and arrangements, commercial recordings or concerts and recitals, music has value. When you pay for it, you are playing your part in the music ecosystem. When you quietly take it without paying for it, you’re cheating your fellow piper/drummer. You’re stealing.

Ask for feedback – judges are happy to provide feedback after a contest. Gold Medallists and World Champions are just people. Don’t be afraid to approach them. Just be sure to bring your scoresheet. (While your performance is memorable to you, it’s not as clear to a judge who’s just assessed two-dozen others on the day.) Don’t look for compliments, but welcome criticism and advice.

Volunteer – get involved with your association. Attend monthly meetings and annual AGMs and contribute. Even if you’re not a natural leader, make yourself heard and available to help as you can.

If you pick just one or two of these resolutions and stick with them I guarantee you will be an even better piper or drummer.

Happy New Year!