By Robert Wallace
The central problem in Army piping is that pipers are not considered musicians. They are soldiers first. This is not the case with their counterparts in the military bands. They are musicians, front and centre.
Pipe Majors are constantly having to justify their existence to unsympathetic senior officers. Come parade time, sure they want to be proud of their Pipes & Drums.
That’s different; the world and Royalty are watching, no slip ups lads, our good name’s on show. But when the pomp and ceremony is over it’s back to the grind of military duty and a life as a secondary musician.
Is it any wonder, then, that star Pipe Majors such as Peter MacGregor and Ben Duncan decide that they’ve had enough?
Of course these young men may have wanted a change anyway. And they are both very grateful to the Army for their careers, the experience gained, the travel the military has given them. They’ve walked into good jobs in civvy street as a result.
But it really sticks in the craw to see pipers (and drummers) viewed as lesser mortals, less deserving of professional consideration than the guy on the tuba. Until that changes the Army will struggle to keep and attract the very best players.
Check out this quote: ‘Although military musicians rarely see active combat, on some occasions they may be deployed to conflict zones…’
Remember the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards trying to keep their pipes safe and sand free in their tanks during the last desert war?
Yet it is not necessarily the Army alone that is at fault. There is a wider societal view of piping which needs to change. Yes, progress has been made. Folk groups and degree courses, Standard grades and Highers have all played a significant role in elevating piping in the eyes and ears of the public.
Respect for our instrument is higher than in the immediate post WW2 period. But at the administrative heart of our schools, in education? As Alex Duncan of the Scottish Schools Pipes and Drums Trust outlined at a new piping forum last Monday, the situation, with a few exceptions, is dire.
Without the support of her Trust there would be almost no money at all for piping in our schools. The whole of Glasgow has only one piping tutor. I can’t remember exactly where, but she said that the music budget for one school in the south of Scotland was £750 for the whole year.
Yet as the RSPBA’s Education Officer Pat Whelan pointed out to the meeting, the World Pipe Band Championsips alone generate some £15m for the Scottish economy. Why is it then, said I, that so little of it finds its way back to our schoolkids?
The forum was chaired by Duncan Byatt of the Highland Society of London. It comprised the great and the good from the piping and pipe band worlds. It so happened that Alex sat next to Pat. Here we have the nub of the problem side by side, said Duncan, quick to realise the forum had stumbled on its mission.
It has become the norm to be wary of everything Chinese these days, and not without good reason. But there is one aspect of that vast country that should attract our unequivocal admiration – its attitude to music and its traditional musicians.
They are venerated, admired, viewed as cultural giants in their own land. Music teachers are state paid and held in high esteem. A while ago I travelled and worked among them. It was clear to me how far behind we were. No child who wants to learn erhu or piano, is turned away. Look around the music schools and junior orchestras in this country today and you will see the fruit of that approach and attitude.
I do not ask for much, simply that every child in this country who wishes to learn the national instrument is given the opportunity to do so. Is it too much to expect that some of the money from the Worlds finds its way into the classroom?
Until the instrument achieves a far higher reach among the powers in mainstream education and HM Forces it will remain a second class pursuit, useful and twee, but to them, never properly serious.