Turn and face the strain

The pipes|drums Polls have been going on for more than a decade now, and they’re all archived here. It’s sometimes a challenge to think of something new, and readers have saved my mind-blank more than once with a good suggestion. I always look forward to seeing the results. Even though the poll isn’t scientific, I’m pretty sure that the results are at least reflective of the overall opinion of the world’s pipers and drummers.

The recent one that asked “How many times should a person by allowed to change bands in a year?” brought another surprising result, with some 56 per cent of people saying that they feel that pipers and drummers should be permitted to switch bands only once in a year.

Time was when changing bands was a fairly major event. As is the case in major team sports, it’s now rare in the pipe band world to find people who spend their entire career with one band. But over the last decade especially the idea of competing in the off-season with a band in the other hemisphere has taken hold with some. Pipers and drummers from New Zealand or Australia might compete with a UK or Canadian band at the World’s, just as folks from the northern hemisphere might hook up with an Antipodean band for their championship, as was the case at least week’s New Zealand Nationals.

It’s all perfectly within the rules. I’ve played with bands that have benefited from such guest players, and I have no particular stand on the issue. But, it appears that a majority of pipers and drummers do. By limiting a person to only one transfer in the year, it means that the back-and-forth approach would be difficult to manage. Once a player changed bands, that would be it for the next 12 months.

If such a rule were enacted, I wonder how it might change things. Would it make the pipe band world more loyal or less fun?

So many partings

Lochaber no more.This post-Northern-Hemisphere-season is as active as any I can remember. Even before Cowal and Fergus – the contests after which band-members traditionally start bouncing around – changes were being orchestrated and announced.

Almost as soon as one Grade 1 band (Dysart) was resurrected, another (Clan Gregor) folded. I find it sad when any band anywhere folds, and it’s particularly sad when it’s a Grade 1 band. Why? Because that now-defunct band had reached the top grade, and (unless it’s rare exceptions like Fife Constabulary or Spirit of Scotland) took years and years of effort and diligence to get there only to have the whole thing crumble due to personnel changes.

The idea of pipe band dynasties is just about done. Nothing is sacred. To quote Paul McCartney (in what I consider to be the very worst lyric in the history of music), “In this ever-changing world in which we live in,” loyalty is a frail thing.

It seems that the Scottish bands are hurting the most. The country where competition pipe bands were invented is now down to nine in Grade 1, and that number may well sink to eight or even seven by the New Year, depending on grading decisions and/or further personnel changes.

Why is this? At a time when more people are playing pipes and drums better than ever, how can it be that some of Scotland’s greatest bands are collapsing or unable to field a competition-worthy unit? Even bands like the top-three Shotts after the 2007 season essentially had to rebuild both its pipe section and snare line.

I think one reason might be this: until about 10 years ago many Scottish bands filled out their rosters with overseas guest players. There was no shortage of talented foreign players who wanted a shot at the big-time and were willing to spend a summer in, or even move outright to, Scotland. To be sure, this still happens, but nowhere near to the degree it used to.

Non-Scottish players – and even many great pipers and drummers based in Scotland – I think are looking to non-Scottish bands for their ultimate piping and drumming Grade 1 experience. Instead, they’re going to British Columbia, to Ontario, to Northern Ireland, to Australia, to Ireland, to New Zealand. For many, Scotland is no longer the Mecca of the pipe band world.

I personally wish that weren’t so. I was one who grew up with a dream of playing with a Grade 1 Scottish band, and I did it and it had a lot to do with where I am today. I played with a Scottish-based Grade 1 band (albeit a very different one) last season. I love Scotland, my ancestral home.

But the reality is that, for many pipers and drummers who are looking for their ideal band, that band is no longer Scottish.