Ill-defined

Folded kilt.It was winter 1991 when the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band was down to about seven members and I was one of them. The pipe-major was taking a sustained break. The L-D had gone for good and most of the drummers went with him. Five survivors met on a freezing February night at a library in Toronto that provided practice space, and we discussed whether the band should fold or somehow beat on.

Keep in mind that not even four years earlier the band had won the World Championship, recorded Live In Ireland and another album and was unbeaten on the Ontario circuit for probably eight years. How quickly things had changed.

Obviously, the decision was to carry on. Too much passion and effort and commitment – by the surviving seven, anyway – had gone into the band’s 12-year history. We accepted that there were lean times ahead, and that we might not be as good, but we would stick in and at least die trying.

I’m certain that the word “merger” was never spoken. Ever. The band was the band, and if other players were out there, we’d simply have to find them. Where once the band was a club of snobs, a more open-door policy was adopted. Bill Livingstone came around, talented pipers and drummers came out of the woodwork and were welcomed, we hung out a shingle, and no rival bands were ransacked.

The next season saw the band drop back in quality, but the music and the drive were still there, along with the will to maintain the band’s spirit, which of course continues 23 years later in a newly distinct personality.

Perhaps today it’s different. Pipers and drummers are prone to look for the instant fix. If there’s not a satisfactory local option, then simply “join” a band far away, and occasionally fly in to practices and contests, and do the hard work in between times at home.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s proven to work to gain success in competition. But what other “success” is there? Is there true camaraderie? Is the band truly a part of a community? Is there more to a pipe band today than winning competitions? Has the definition of what a pipe band should be changed for good?

I’m afraid it has. The century-plus perseverance of community bands like Kirkintilloch or Wallacestone will be made ever more extraordinary as bands crumble and merge and speak of a 20-year history and a downturn in numbers as ample reasons to call it a day.

When a grim situation like that of the 1991 78th Frasers happens now, too many bands tend to fold like a cheap kilt. There must be more to the definition of a successful pipe band than a bunch of casual acquaintances winning prizes.

17 thoughts on “Ill-defined

  1. I’m glad you guys stuck with it. I joined the 78th last season and was welcomed warmly and made feel very much a part of a band I grew up idolizing. I thank you seven for sticking it out and giving me an opportunity to finally realize one of my lifes ambitions.

  2. Here, here. What a great story and lesson for others. A band down my way dropped back to 5 pipers. 12 months later, they won the national Gr1 title.

    Real team players standout when things go bad. Anyone can appear to be doing the ‘right thing’ when things are going well and practically running themselves. Good leaders lead as the situation demands, they don’t just try to be popular. In many bands, too many of us make the mistake of thinking a good player will automatically be a good leader. Many are not, and often lead the charge out the door, especially ‘down back’……. Queen Victoria decreed that they march at the back (bless her) and they’ve probably never gotten over it. 😉

    I agree that patience is a diminishing quality in this age of global mercenaries and the need for quick results, which is really unrealistic given the time and effort still required to master the instrument. That part has never changed.

  3. Sad but very true. My second band, which I joined in 1951 due to a transfer, has been through a number of ups and downs and it’s been nice to see those loyal members who have stuck with us while we rebuild once again. Band-hopping presumably enables a lot of players to gain some personal satisfaction from bragging rights but in my opinion taking the easy way out doesn’t reflect very highly on their character. Competition has certainly raised the standard but has also been the cause of quite a bit of nastiness at times. Musical groups are usually formed to enjoy the music and entertain others but pipe bands seem to have locked themselves into sporting contests.

  4. Good points, but perhaps we’re missing a key element here. Today’s pipe bands in the top grade require enough personnel for more than two of the same bands in 1991 within the same proportionate and finite resource of musicians. (How many pipers did the 78th need in 1991? How many did 78th field in 1990? http://youtu.be/4mE-cy_zou8.) While perseverance is certainly a virtue, practical matters cannot be ignored and more often than not dictate the day.

  5. With the MacNish Distillery in 1985 under PM Bruce MacLean, we were down to 5 pipers in April. Begged Trudy Campbell Skinner out of retirement and made Alex Stewart find his pipes while attending University of Windsor put us at 7. Then Bob Allen learned just the sets to make 8 and played with us only once in Ottawa just to get us on the field. May not of been the best thing around but within a few years we had future World Champions and Gold Medalist in our ranks. A different era.

  6. Sad to see them go! Why not gut it out for a few years and rebuild in a lower grade? Instead, a band that’s been a pride of the area for years is now just gone. Ah well…

  7. Some fine commentary from other writers and Stephen brings up some interesting points. I enjoyed talking to him on a recent Saturday morn early in the driving rain at the Green, and it was good to see him reunited with the double Gold Medallist. The forerunner of that Band appeared with a nucleus of players in my young playing days in the 60’s in different guises under PM Gordon Tuck – St. Thomas, Detroit cum Chrysler Highlanders and names that escape me now (and there were lots of other, further transforming Bands in that Windsor/Detroit area as well). Later the Band morphed into Scottsaire (with Steven/Colin Hill etc) and then under PM Cairns became one of the first major mergers with the Frasers themselves – allowing Bill some more glorious innings with his habitual incorporation of top PM’s of former Bands like Colin M, Kenny Eller, Jake and John C etc. The Clan saw fit to merge with Jake’s Metro Toronto Police and they hit hard times in the later 90’s as well. I belonged to Newmarket and it began as a Legion Band way back and had some 2 decades of serious competition before foundering at the top of Grade 2 in the spring of 1991 due to the loss of yet another group “at the back end”. The Hazzards then went and assisted the Frasers in 1992 (along with that Andrew Bonar guy) allowing them a very fine medley outing at Bellahouston, only finishing in that circle behind those upstarts from Ulster. An acquisitive Band extraordinaire in its own right, whose tentacles are firmly embedded in the world’s top 2 piping countries. They have arguably cleared out NI of its former glory Bands like Graham Memorial, McNeillstown, RUC and other less accomplished Grade 1 Bands more recently. Others from Newmarket went over to Peel to play with Tommy in 1991, who was my Band mate, Danny Edwards’ teacher – and their star was also rising with J Reid and many top players and PM’s of their own Bands like Gail Brown. They admired PM Anderson’s world class talent and he had played with the 78ths in later 80’s missing the big 1 in 1987 (for work reasons) that featured a mere 11 pipers. So sure, the magnificent 5 in winter 1991 was still a formidable nucleus. Then Peel got swallowed by T’nD who also appreciated Tommy’s skills, acumen and experience very highly. And that group had a loyalty internally comparable to any on the Ontario scene, contributing to how the remaining big 3 Grade One Bands never could merge.

    So forgive me if I find your claims of perseverance and loyalty integrity somewhat disingenuous, Andrew, after recently arriving from your own stint with Polkemmet at that time, whose accomplished leadership happened to then “return” to Shotts (August 1987 at Cowal). Let’s be realistic here. On paper the NY alliance is a pragmatic attempt to be “a player” in the world Pipe Band scene. With a fine drum corps to boot, they should be granted fine respect and deserve a decent listening. Few in today’s top Pipe Band scene have the illusion that big prizes will come with ‘instant fixes’. Some people change jobs frequently to pursue new opportunities and challenges. Other homebodies like myself are luckier to earn promotion at their starting locale, and spend an entire career there. It is only the rare top Band such as Inveraray that can claim bragging rights of predominantly home brewed talent. But they, too, have acquired and lost a decent player or two along the way. Such is the way of organizations and things are very different now than the locally tumultuous year, 1991, when T’nD had their big breakthrough. Perhaps we should productively return to the theme of the Facebook tinged scene of interleaving personnel in all the varied Bands, and how the fraternity/sorority of today’s players extends amiably around a shrinking globe. Cheers mate.

    • Some intense name-dropping there, Robin. “Disingenuous”? You know me about as well as you know the rest of the names you reeled off.

      • I respectfully appreciate your efforts within todays many medias that allow the piping community to enjoy the art globally, stay current, and entertain in passionate discussion regarding the future of piping, drumming, and bands. I thank you for this. What I take umbrage with is your rebuttal to comments by Robin that accuse him of what you are negatively classifying as “name dropping”. I appreciate anyone, like Robin, who has taken the time to illuminate other examples of band perseverances, mergings, disbandings, etc….and the circumstances surrounding them inclusive of names and positions/roles such that people may know some of the history and the personalities involved. Do you . . . wish that everyone contributing in your forums subscribe to a ridiculously nameless and antiseptic approach that leaves all who read it floundering and guessing at possible names and faces to insert into what should otherwise be an educating and informative arena. The true history of any bands evolution or demise should not be restricted to only your version, or that with which you approve of, or share.
        “Nuff said” on that perhaps.
        But since I’m here, a small bit of history to insert my own version of. I was a member of The Town of Newmarket Pipe Band, and the learning, enjoyment, camaraderie, and experiences I had there are burned deeply into my being, as with many others who were lucky enough to be a part of same. We had many successes, and many challenges, but gutted it through most of them. I can remember a very dedicated and competitive group even agreeing to skip a competition season whilst trying to incorporate an entire new approach to the percussion section. We practiced even that winter like hungered wild dogs, enduring six hour steady stints on the pipe with few breaks, with singular parts of tunes sometimes being driven for 15 minutes at a time. Although Newmarket had competitive success with a few different cores at the back end, I think we had just simply battled changes in that section too many times, and were battle-weakened by the experiences. I wish however, that the Jim Blackley led group of extremely talented, however “never played in a pipe band” corps of morphed jazz drummers had actually made it to the competition field. Whether received positively or negatively in competiton, there might have been some approaches that would likely have been recognized as truly innovative and revolutionary. Perhaps the merger that was available to Newmarket PB players at the time of it’s death that would have perhaps been interesting if pursued was that with the Clan Macfarlane……another band, like that of MacNish Distilllery, that I was sad to see go. Whether we like it or not, it is definitely a different landscape today!

  8. Good article and I agree with the sentiments. If a band is worth building in the first place, it’s worth fighting to preserve irrespective of what level that may be. Dozens of Scottish bands would have evaporated through the decades without this ethic.

    Robin, Robert Mathieson and Jim Kilpatrick completed a full season in charge of Shotts in 1987 prior to Cowal contrary to what you would lead us to believe.

    • My bad, Scott. I was there competing at Cowal in 1986 (I was distracted by the Frasers’ win year, sorry) – and it wasn’t fun that eve, crying in their beer for the Polkemmet lads. But the Colliery Bands are interwoven and the Barnes did a fine job with good runs into the 90’s. Confusingly jarring for young, aspiring players after a fine sponsorship, trend setting recording and World’s drumming title + Corps’ Champion of Champions that excellent season. But Andrew has recorded that Shotts were “on the brink of collapse” also, and the return to the strong roots of Shotts by Rab and Jim with tremendous talent and dedication did them all (including you) a World’s of good.

      Many, many Scottish Bands have evaporated – even in the Central Belt, but particularly in Fife and the NE. I continue to have mixed feeling about current mega Bands but my point: rare is the Band that gets my by with just loyal subjects in today’s exceedingly demanding, competitive atmosphere. I apologize for my harsh expression “somewhat disingenuous” but the Blog did not reveal what I felt was a hugely pertinent part of the context, all known to the editor. Including the fact that the Frasers built on the “ashes” of the GM Band after 1981 and brought in world class players like Michael Grey and Bruce Gandy who left their respective Bands with their own histories. More name dropping with reciting of documented Pipe Band history – a label that confuses me. Today’s evolution requires a mindset that can refashion, rebuild and retool as the Frasers and other have done. The workplace has its own requirements and people such as yourself end up playing with other Bands, certainly. I felt a more “genuine” setting of that context would go a long way to appeasing the obvious upset to those south of the Border, here, particularly in Ontario’s neighbouring State. That massive country is struggling in the competitive arena to maintain only one Grade 1 Band now. And the story continues around the planet. The majority of people are not happy with colossal multi-national business organizations that rule the globe with budgets that exceed that of many Countries. It has become what it has become and we adapt or fade into a sunset.

      As we all agree – no quick fixes and I started my learning curve in a Band that began in 1910 like Shotts and SLOT, with a further Scottish infusion after WW1 of my first PM and others from the KOSB to SW Ontario. Most of us outside the Mecca of Pipe Bands do move around Bands for varied reasons, as we 3 certainly have. Andrew, with strong feelings about today’s developments of those mega Bands has done a tremendous service to the Band community keeping us abreast of new developments around the planet. However – there is a responsibility to be inclusive also, and not alienate others who I perceive as making a legitimate attempt to stay afloat. Good luck with your future endeavours, Scott.

  9. There are some truly unique aspects to our Pipe Band world, no doubt. But the different generations do see the world quite differently and interact with peers, work, recreation and piping as a reflection of their generation….boomers, genXer’s and mellenials. Boomers tend to have fierce loyalties/idenities while Mellenials tend to flit here and there from flower to flower, so to speak. To see something like Oran Mor that has been nurtured and developed over decades….evaporate, is quite saddening….
    Doc

  10. Your point is clear AB, I think: here’s how I read it: a good band, at it’s core, is about an idea that moves and sustains it’s members. It dawns on me only now, sadly, that where I once thought “the idea” was always about music, in truth, the idea of a band has as much to do about winning – regardless of the group’s musical way.

  11. What a great article, first off I never new that the 78th went through an almost shut down, glad to see the band survive and remain at top standards still today. I also became a victim of the dreaded merger whebn the Clan disbanded, oops “merged” with Metro in the fall of 92. It seems to me that in every merger, one of the bands names gets lost in the transition, and in most cases becomes nothing more than a historical foot note, with these mergers well predetermined by band leadership before it arriaves to the band populus to vote on.
    But, sadly in todays mega band era, the merger concept has become a common form of band size escalation in the spirt of remaining competitve.
    I find this terribly ironic, in the past what drove the competitive sprit was the tie that bound players to a band by not only a drive for musical rewards, but a real sense of friendship and loyalty. Sadly now, it seems to be driven only by a common thread of winning.
    It seems to me that true values have become a thing of the past. What a shame.

  12. A lifetime in the pipe band world has taught me the following :
    Every band is potentially one major crisis away from folding.
    No band that is composed mainly / entirely of pot hunters will survive major crises or prolonged losing streaks.
    To survive a band needs a critical mass of people who don’t care solely about winning, and are too dumb to know when to quit.

    A wise former band mate of mine summarised this nicely, “Same $h!t, different tartan”

  13. Good blog Andrew, and points well made. Of the comments, I love this: “a good band, at it’s core, is about an idea that moves and sustains it’s members.” I think that’s true, and the trick—it seems to me—is to find the idea that works in each situation. The “we’re going to win X” idea has been destructive to some bands and exactly the thing for others. Creative and thoughtful leaders in a band setting will constantly work to refine, tweak and sharpen the goals. Sometimes, the goal IS to just play, unless you live in a place where you have the luxury of band choices. One thing that applies in our situation: when you have to start your car in -30°C and drive on icy roads to get to band…it better be fun. We work hard to develop our players and improve the band for contest and performance success, but if band isn’t worthwhile and plenty of laughs TODAY, they aren’t likely to come back tomorrow.

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