A last look at the piping at the 2017 Northern Meeting today. Before that a word about Oban and its dress code. Pipers at the Argyllshire Gathering are permitted to play without jackets. The rooms get hot at times and the laudable aim of the organisers is to make the competitors as comfortable as possible in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the small theatre at the Corran Halls and in the confined space of other competition venues.
You might think that such a dispensation would yield a pipe band outcome where everyone wears a waistcoat, a smartly pressed shirt with cufflinks, fastened tie and a bonnet correctly (mostly) positioned on the head. Not so. What I witnessed this year was a noticeable decline in appearance. Here we had some of the most important piping events in the world (and some of the best musicians) parading in rolled up shirt sleeves, ties unhinged, bonnets askew, no waistcoat or kilt belt – and no visual respect for the occasion.
So it is one thing for promoters to try to accommodate sweaty pipers, but if the no jacket allowance leads to a further drop in standards of dress and deportment then we need to be concerned. Could Oban not state in its rules that pipers who drop the jacket must wear a waistcoat, must have ties appropriately knotted, shirtsleeves fastened at the cuff etc? In the picture up top young Luke Kennedy shows pipers how they should dress at the Gathering if they don’t want to wear jackets (bonnet to be added). Luke is seen receiving the P/M RG Hardie Memorial Trophy for Intermediate MSR playing from AG Assistant Piping Convenor Jamie Mellor.
No such worries at Inverness where jackets are de rigueur….. shame about some of the playing in the ‘B’s. The topic of conversation amongst many of the adjudicators who presided over the ‘B’ grade March, Strathspey and Reel and ‘B’ Grade Hornpipe & Jig was of the indifferent (I don’t want to go any stronger than that) standard of performance. One judge wrote to me: ‘I am seriously concerned about the state of piping among our up and coming players – lack of musicality, technique, phrasing, bagpipes etc. Three minutes should be ample to tune a set of pipes surely? Very few achieved it. That was an uncomfortable experience today for all three of us – for seven hours.’
I would echo these sentiments but would say that in the ‘B’ Hornpipe & Jig that I judged with Ian McLellan the prizewinners all played well and there were others who perhaps had a good hornpipe but failed in the jig and vice versa. I am sure this would be the same in the ‘B’ MSR, however my correspondent’s point is well made.
The number of times pipers came to the floor with the pipes well in, only to put them out, and then struggle to recover their tuning – and invariably failing – was considerable. Add to that the flaws in basic technique: D throws not properly grounded to low G, double Es from F false fingered, inconsistencies in grips and taorluaths, the list goes on and this at the Northern Meeting!
Consider too, a failure to understand, or deliver, the basic ceol beag idioms and we have a problem. Are senior pipers/ judges doing enough teaching? Are the draconian rules of the Solo Piping Judges Association already having an effect? Do nerves play a big part? Certainly, this is Inverness after all. But there is a world of difference between someone trying to play correctly and failing and someone who misunderstands the basic requirements of the art.
Band playing may have made an unfortunate impact too. The quality of fingerwork required to succeed on the solo platform probably exceeds that of the average Grade 1 piper. We often hear pipers fresh from a win at the Worlds struggling to execute their solo stuff with the required clarity and definition. Rhythm: in bands this comes from the pipe major and the drummers. Individual feel for the music is secondary, yet on the solo board the piper is lost without it.
And tuning. Do pipers actually rehearse the three or four-minute tuning lights regime they encounter at Oban and Inverness? I would be amazed if they did not, yet judging by the evidence, this is clearly not the case. (Some even think that by standing with their backs to the lights as the red approaches they will gain extra time and fool the judges. Believe me, this does the guilty piper no favours.) Has a reliance on electronic tuners caused a decline in the development of what used to be called a ‘good ear’? It would seem so.
Many pipers will be hurting after a disappointing Oban and Inverness. I’ve been in that movie. The only response can be a complete re-evaluation of your instrument (from the bag up), your technique, your appreciation of basic rhythm and expression and a thorough look at your practice regime. For goodness sake don’t despair. Many’s the piper who, with a change in direction or a look at the basics, manages to turn round their performance and consequent success rate. Remember, just to get to Oban and Inverness says something about your standard of play. You have to be a very good piper to be accepted.
Do not wander in the wilderness cursing judges and misfortune. Seek out a senior player or judge who has been there and done it all. Hopefully some guidance will be forthcoming. Get your set tunes off by Christmas; cut out that march you never seem to do well with, think hard about linking your strathspeys and reels and how well they sit together. Is John Morrison, Assynt House worth the risk when Alick C would do? Look logically and rationally at all of this, take the necessary action and you should be able to approach next season with renewed confidence.