I was there; I knew him

Death has a funny way of reminding us of life. Reporting the death of extraordinary pipers and drummers is, as I have said before, the hardest thing about this, but it’s also one of the most important. It’s all the more difficult when it’s someone I was fortunate enough actually to know.

The end of any year is bittersweet. We look back on the best and worst of the 12 months past, and we look forward with optimism to what’s to come. Inevitably, there will be bad and sad news that we wish wouldn’t happen, so we try to block those thoughts.

I look at my own piping times and feel fortunate to be able to say that I knew that now-gone person. I heard that now-defunct band when it was at its peak. I remember when that now-classic tune first debuted. At the risk of being maudlin or morose, these reflective thoughts only increase as one ages. We can consider them as dreaded reminders of our own mortality, or we can revel in the people, the experiences, the music as highlights of living.

Here’s to a 2012 full of the unexpectedly meaningful and memorable.

Greener pastures


Going for the Green.
I wasn’t at the Scottish Pipe Band Championships, but I have heard nothing to suggest that St. Laurence O’Toole was not a worthy and popular winner. More than 80 per cent of voters on the current p|d Poll say the result was “Great for SLOT!” and you would be hard-pressed to find a more likable and talented band anywhere.

Things have come a long way in the UK when it comes to pipe band politics, and a very long way since the 1970s when Northern Ireland’s Grade 1 St. Patrick’s Donaghmore won the piping at the World Championships, only to have the ensemble judge relegate them to near-last, bumping them way down the list.

To add insult, the same ensemble judge allegedly (but this story has been relayed to me by many people over the years who say they witnessed it) saw Donaghmore off by giving the completely demoralized band the two-fingers-up salute as they drove out of the park.

For those pipers and drummers who live outside of the UK, SLOT’s win may not seem that important. But for those in the UK and Ireland who have witnessed first-hand the political and quasi-religious idiocy that has gone on decades before, it’s a true milestone.

To be sure, to be sure, that idiocy hasn’t much existed for at least the last 20 years, and all bands have had to play well enough to win, but SLOT finally doing so officially closes the door on some bad, lingering memories.

The road rises up.

Walking the planks

Board-walkering.I’ve commented before on the continuing separation
between “band piping” and “solo piping.” It used to be that a pipe
section’s ultimate goal would be to play MSRs like a top soloist,
and top soloists like John MacFadyen, Seumas MacNeill and John
MacLellan would judge band contests, even though they had never
played with a World Champion-calibre ? or even any – band in
their lives.

I think the music continues to drift apart. You don’t hear much in
common with the playing at the Silver Star and that at the World
Pipe Band Championships. Medleys and drums sections have created a
chasm between the two styles, and, to be honest, solo piping has
pretty much been stagnant, while band piping has evolved.

And a lot of that also has to do with band judging in the UK. If my
count is correct, there are only three piping judges based in the
UK ? Iain MacLellan, John Wilson and Andrew Wright ? on the senior
RSPBA panel who have also stomped the boards for a good long time
at the level required of the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern
Meeting. The rest are pipers raised almost entirely on pipe
bands.

This is perhaps understandable for the UK scene where bands and
solos events are, with rare exceptions, separate things. It follows
that many pipe band judges will be bandsmen, who don’t have the
demonstrated skill and appreciation for the solo style. There are
many top soloists playing in top bands now ? Peter Hunt, Donald
MacPhee, Alastair Dunn, and of course the entire roster of the
Spirit of Scotland ? but my hunch is that those UK-based guys when
they retire from competing will focus on solo judging, if they even
want to adjudicate.

In North America, where band and solo events almost always happen
at the same competition, it’s much easier for a piper to be both a
top soloist and a member of a top band. Young pipers start with the
amateur grades and, if they have the goods and the will, progress
to Professional. All the solo events are there, so why not play in
them? Consequently, non-UK pipe band judges tend to be top-class
solo players, too. It’s very hard to do that in Scotland.

That’s evidenced by the RSPBA’s 2005 approval of “international”
judges like Jim McGillivray and James Troy to its panel, which
already included Bob Worrall ? all guys who proved that they can
knit together top-drawer solo music, and of course recognize
it.

I’ve also said that ? for better or worse ? so much of what happens
in the piping world is dictated by what goes on in Scotland. If the
goal is to win the World’s, then non-UK bands tend to do what the
RSPBA judges want to hear. And if those judges are mostly bandsmen,
then the band style ? whatever it might be ? will be heard and
promoted.

But if anyone wonders why a band plays pipe music in such a
dramatically different style from a solo piper, they need look no
further than the RSPBA’s judging panel for a possible reason.