Today was the Payson Scottish Festival – a smalltown highland games, with a lot of stuff packed into a small space. The park where the festival is held is full of mature trees, which provide much-needed shade for the participants. This shade was especially welcome today, since the temperatures have been in the 100’s for the last few days.
This was my second time competing solo (and with the band) so I had an opportunity to put into practice the lessons learned from the Salt Lake Games a month earlier. At Salt Lake I had shot myself in the foot somewhat by choosing a 2/4 march that was way too hard. I decided, as an experiment, to change to very easy tune (The High Road to Gairloch) and this proved successful. I did not place in the solo events, but I felt I gave a much better account of myself, and garnered some encouraging remarks from the judges in both the 2/4 and the slow march.
It is clear to me now that the lack of regular, critical feedback is an issue. Despite my good intentions, I still have yet to schedule a regular personal lesson with an experienced piper. Currently I am piping blind, as far as technique is concerned. I will have to remedy this situation if I want to improve.
I was a lot less nervous about the band competition than I had been a month earlier at Salt Lake. I’ve practiced with the band plenty, and play the tunes quite confidently, so I could focus on our Pipe Major and making sure I kept my blowing steady. One of the solo judges in the morning had given me a heads-up: he told me I was moving around a lot and this was a sign of unsteady blowing. He told me he always looked for the waving drones in band competitions and stood behind those pipers. I tried my utmost to remain motionless during our set – I think I did OK!
Well, that’s my last outing competing this year – my band plays in California and Ontario before the season ends, but I am traveling to neither, so it’s time to plan for the Fall and for next year.
There was a magic moment at the Salt Lake Highland Games this past weekend.
The piobaireachd judge, John Partanen moved his competition around the corner from its original location to beneath one of the entrance archways to the fairgrounds. That gate was not being used and I guess he was seeking a little more shade. It was a wide archway, more like a tunnel really, about 20 feet wide by 30 feet long, and about 15 feet high in the middle. Playing surrounded by concrete and stone produced a really nice acoustic, and began to draw a crowd to the opening of the arch. Among the audience was a pair of swallows who, it turns out, were nesting beneath the arch. They were quite concerned to discover 110 decibels suddenly showing up outside their front door and began to flutter around the drones of the pipers as they played.
Strangely (or appropriately) the tune they seemed most interested in was The Desperate Battle of the Birds, played by Sande Storms, of the Salt Lake Scots. She expressed some frustration with elements of her performance after she finished playing, but I pointed out to her that it was probably the best performance of that tune ever, since it was the only one featuring actual birds.
Well, it was a busy weekend.
The Salt Lake Highland Games started on Friday night with massed bands playing for a fireworks display. We had to play Scotland the Brave over and over for about 10 minutes. Seemed more like 10 hours. The worst part – we all had our backs to the fireworks so we couldn’t see them. I heard they were really good, though, from someone who was there.
Crawl into bed at about midnight, and crawl out again to be back at the games for solo registration. 8am.
This was my first time in solo competition, and I had never even watched one to know what I should do. I asked those who were old hands, and who happened to be standing nearby, for help and they told me what to do, where to stand, and so on. The competition went about as well as I suppose I could have expected. I didn’t place in the light music, but I got a fourth place in the piobaireachd which was very gratifying. The adjudicator was John Partanen (a fellow Finn!) and he was really helpful. After I got my score sheet I went back to see him to ask what advice he might have for me, and he was good enough to sing my entire tune, to give me an idea of what I might want to be aiming for.
So I dipped my toe into solo competition, and I didn’t get burned! On to the Payson Games in July…
Every year the Piobaireachd Society publishes 3 lists of about 8 tunes it “recommends” for performance in solo piping competitions in the coming year. The lists are for Senior, Gold and Silver Medal competition level. The Society’s recommendations are basically the de facto tune list for solo piping in piobaireachd.
Some have complained these lists exemplify the Piobaireachd Society’s rigid control of what tunes (and which versions of those tunes) get played by the top players; others say the lists ensure a good rotation, so that the more obscure tunes get a periodic airing on the boards. Either way, you can expect to hear selections from these lists played over the next competition year, because, after 100 years in this position, the Society is unlikely to lose its influence any time soon.
The list of tunes for 2008 is out and it makes very interesting reading. No big surprises in the Silver and Gold Medal tunes; they represent the usual trip through the repertoire, with some nice highlights I’ll mention later. The big shake up is in the Senior list. This is the list of tunes we can expect to hear played by the top players at the prestigious competitions. The list is composed entirely of 20th century tunes, including a tune by a French composer, Patrick Molard, who is actually still alive! It seems that perceptions of the Piobaireachd Society, as a cartel of old guys determined to freeze the music in late 1800s time, are increasingly invalid.
That said, the old tunes in the silver medal list are pretty darn cool as far as I am concerned. Included for 2008 are The Rout of the MacPhees and I Am Proud To Play a Pipe. Obviously, I Am Proud To Play a Pipe needs no explanation – it’s my theme tune! The Rout of the MacPhees is a tune I have written about before. As a descendant of the Clan Macfie, I have been on a quest to find a good recording of this tune. More on this in a later post!
There is periodic discussion of non-traditional kilts on the forums to which I belong. Lately, someone posed the question, Have you seen anyone compete solo wearing a Utilikilt? I usually comment on these threads, since, unlike the majority of pipers, I regularly wear both traditional and non-traditional kilts.
Many pipers (or at least, the vocal ones) do not like the Utilikilt. I have seen it disparagingly called an Extremetoolbelt and also a Potato Sack. Funny thing is, I don’t think the makers and wearers of the UK would really care – in fact, they would probably think it was funny. I know I did.
But, since the question posed referred to playing in a competition setting, I thought these pictures might be helpful. Imagine you are a judge and one of these three pipers has just stepped up to play his tunes for you. Who will you pick?
Last week was the annual Midwest Highland Arts Fund Winter Storm competition in Kansas City, Missouri. The event features three top-flight piping competitions – two in piobaireachd and one in light music.
The list of competitors is interesting, because they are mostly quite young, and many already play with some of the top bands. Some have also competed in major solo competitions in the UK. Despite all their experience, it must still be quite intimidating to play in front of the panel of world-class pipers who were assembled to judge the competition. The formidable list included Andrew Wright (President of the Piobaireachd Society), Willie McCallum and Angus MacColl.
The Captain, Ken Eller, has generously made recordings of the three competitions available on his website, so I’ve spent the last few days listening to the prize-winning performances. The recordings show the healthy state of piobaireachd in North America, and I think anyone listening should feel optimistic about the future of the Big Music in the hands of the next generation of pipers.
Even as I sit here comfortably at my computer, the storm in the UK over the alleged airplane bombing plot is hitting close to home.
We had no band practice this week, because 9 of my band (the Wasatch and District Pipe Band of Bountiful, Utah) were traveling to Scotland for the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow. My Pipe major mentioned to me that they were all flying into Manchester Friday and driving the remaining four hours or so to Glasgow. They will be glad they did not go through either of the London airports.
There are reports of pipers having to check their valuable old pipes without adequate protection, and not being reunited with them upon arrival in London. Uniforms have apparently gone astray in some cases. Even if their pipes and equipment arrive safely, the bands flying into London at the last minute still have to find their way to Glasgow. From what I read on the BBC news website, waiting for connecting flights is pretty much a lost cause, so last-minute van rentals would seem to be the order of the day.
It will be interesting to hear from my felllow band members how this all played out over there when they return. Also, whether all the upheaval had any effect on some of the top bands. (As I write, the finals of the Grade 1 Medley competition should be getting under way.)
I note from the list of competing bands that there are bands from countries like Oman and Pakistan at the Worlds. I wonder how easy it was for them to make their way to Glasgow?
Good luck to them all.