Payson Scottish Festival

Yesterday this fun and compact festival celebrated its 25th anniversary, and my band (the Wasatch and District Pipe Band) was there to help celebrate by winning the Grade 3 Timed Medley.

The Payson Games is always a really good day. The games are held in the city’s little park, which is old. This means that it is stuffed full of mature trees, so there is plentiful shade. There is a playground right in the center of the park, so the kids have a lot to do, all without leaving eyesight from the band area. The park is small enough that you can get all round it in just a few minutes, which make the logistics of getting bands and soloists to the performance a breeze. You may gather that I like the Payson Games!

That said, this year didn’t start out too well for me. I neglected to send in my solo application forms and missed the deadline. The organizer was very nice, but just couldn’t fit me in as a late entry. Still, when life (or your own carelessness) gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right? I decided to volunteer as a steward, since my only commitments during the day were to play in massed bands and the little parade-let up the main street outside the park in the morning. So, while the kids entertained themselves (and the dog) (and other band members’ children) I ran back and forth wrangling soloists and bands in the various competitions. I had a great time and got to talk to far more people than I usually do.

My sheep dog act turned out to be so efficient that the Slow March solo judge finished his competition early, giving time for a couple of us to play our piobaireachd tunes for critique for him. So, I did get to play after all. The Rout of the MacPhees got a second outing this year and I got some helpful advice from Bob Mason, the judge.

On the band side, the Wasatch and District Grade 3 band won their competition, and sounded very good doing so. The local Payson band (White Peaks Centennial Pipe Band) won both Grade 4 competitions and they really did sound good. Our new Grade 4 band will be competing for the first time next year and we clearly have our work cut out, if we are to put in a good showing next to White Peaks.

I had a great day. No sunburn this games, and the cherry on top was buying fresh cherries from a farm stand on the way home. Yum.

Salt Lake Highland Games

The Utah Scottish Association Highland Games took place yesterday and Friday.

I was competing solo, but have a year off from band competition as we get our new Grade 4 band established. This was a good thing, because it enabled me to focus on my solo stuff and I think it paid off. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I elected to play The Rout of the MacPhees for my Piobaireachd. We had a beautiful evening for it and I was quite happy with my performance. I took 4th place, and got some good comments from the judge, John Partanen. I think a few nerves may have crept in, but overall I can’t complain!

On Saturday, my pipes were sounding really good for the Slow March and 2/4 March. Amazingly (for me) I placed 3rd in my half of the draw in the 2/4 March. The organizers pulled the top 3 pipers from each half to play again and I finally finished in 4th place overall. I’m still trying to figure out what my surprise at this result shows: Am I a better piper than I thought? If so, why couldn’t I tell? I thought I did OK, but I could hear plenty of places for improvement. Or, maybe the explanation is that almost everybody else choked! Whatever is going on, I’m happy with how it turned out!

Not competing in the Band competition freed me up to do a couple of other things: talk to pipers from other bands, and listen to all the Grade 4 bands quite carefully. Next year, our fledgling Grade 4 band will be competing against these guys and it’s helpful to see where we should be aiming. The verdict: It’s going to be tough, but doable.

Next up, the Payson Games on July 12th and I get to do it all again! See you there.

A Busy Weekend

It was Memorial Day in the United States yesterday and my band was busy!

We had three cemetery performances and four of our band members played with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for their weekly TV show “Music and the Spoken Word”.

The other bands along the Wasatch Front were busy too. Here is a nice multimedia presentation from the website of a local paper, The Salt Lake Tribune, featuring Jason Killpack, the PM of the Salt Lake Scots.

In addition, several Utah pipers, including some from my band were competing at a Highland Games in Costa Mesa, California. I haven’t heard all the results yet, but it sounds like they all did well.

I’m back…and I choose a tune from my previous two posts!

For reasons too numerous to mention I have not posted for nearly two months. I didn’t really notice the time passing (which is either good or bad), so now I ought to rectify the situation.

It seemed reasonable (after such a long break) to start back by referencing my previous two posts, and I can do so without artifice because I really have had to make a choice which involves them both. The 2008 competition season has arrived for this lowly piper and with it a choice of tunes in piobaireachd for the upcoming competitions. All winter I have been putting off the decision: should it be my eponymous web tune, “I Am Proud to Play a Pipe” or my family-connected tune “The Rout of The MacPhees”? Both tunes are on the Piobaireachd Society’s Silver Medal list for this year, both have reasonably straightforward grounds and 1st variations (that is all I have to play in my grade), and both have compelling reasons for me to choose them.

Well, the wait is over – I finally made my choice. I picked The Rout of the MacPhees. It comes up in the competition list a lot less frequently than I Am Proud to Play a Pipe and is perhaps a little less technical. And there is that wonderful family connection. Still, I’m going to have to work on my edres and D-throws, since the ground is stuffed full of them. I will also have to get inside the tune, since on the face of it, it is quite repetitive. That makes interpretation very important, or the tune will just end up being boring. My instructor (and soon-to-be belt winner) Justin Howland will help me with that, I have no doubt.

Well, I’m back. I’ll try not to be silent for quite as long this time.

The NHL and the LDS Church will help me ring in the New Year

I join interesting pipe bands.

Because I am a member of a band with close connections to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon Church, to those of you unfamiliar with Utah culture), I will be ringing in the New Year tonight at the former Hotel Utah, now known as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. This is part of an evening of entertainment provided by the LDS church in downtown Salt Lake City.

Although I am not a church member, I reap the benefits of church association with this band. This past Veterans’ Day we played with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at a televised broadcast of its weekly show “Music and the Spoken Word”. The gig tonight takes place in the opulent surroundings of the former hotel’s palatial lobby. There is a huge atrium with a four-sided balcony. It’s going to be packed, and should be a great gig.

As fun as the action in Utah will be, it is eclipsed by the gig my old band, the Celtic Spirit Pipe Band of Buffalo, New York will be playing tomorrow. They have been asked to play the teams onto the ice at the NHL Winter Classic, an outdoor hockey game to be played in front of 70,000+ people at the Buffalo Bills’ stadium. The game is to be broadcast by NBC and will be watched by millions. The weather is forecast to be around freezing with 10-20 mph winds and perhaps some light snow. The band will have to march onto the ice wearing little chains over their shoes.

Good luck to you all in Buffalo – I wish I could hop a flight after the Utah gig and join you tomorrow!

Oh, and Happy New Year!

I am better than half of the pipers a third of my age

I’m fresh back from the Utah Pipe Band’s inaugural David Barclay Memorial competition.

It was very smart of the UPB to organize an indoor competition at a time when next season seems so far off. The competition was well-supported and well-organized, despite the biggest snowstorm of the season showing up as a snowy white background out the windows.

This was my first time competing since Payson back in July, and it would appear that I have improved a little. I managed two 5th places out of a field of about 12-15 in Grade 4 – results I was more than happy with. A late entry to the Grade 4 piobaireachd robbed me of the 1st place I was sure was mine (I was the only entrant initially) but that was OK – I was happy with how I played and the judge, Jack Cairney, gave me some very helpful advice afterwards.

Thank you Utah Pipe Band – you did a good thing, and I hope the competition comes back next year.

I Play in a Grade 3 Band!

Yesterday WUSPBA, the Western United States Pipe Band Association, made it official – my band, The Wasatch and District Pipe Band has been moved up to Grade 3.

This move is clearly the consequence of some very hard work on the part of those involved in the running of our band, and the band members themselves. The team of Andrew Morrill, Ross Morrill, Mike Postma and Justin Howland have created the conditions where this could happen.

    Andrew, our Pipe Major, has pushed the band (in the friendliest possible way) all season, never letting up and being relentlessly positive.
    Ross has tamed the beast that is tuning 20+ pipers, so that our unison playing sounds so sweet – you can hear the results of his pipe set-up in this video of the band playing at Pleasanton this past Fall.
    Mike, our Drum Sergeant, set a bewildering list of new standards for the drum corps at the beginning of the season, all of which they exceeded. The consequence of this was that the drummers actually outperformed the pipers. I hope they’re still willing to play with us!
    Justin provided the all-important guidance that shaped our playing of the tunes. It makes a big difference to have that particular set of critical ears constantly monitoring our playing – I never leave a rehearsal without some nugget of useful information that improves my playing.
    I’m pretty sure also that the level of solo piping and drumming has helped the band as a whole. A significant number of the players compete, and do very well. The depth of the pipe corps is evidenced also by the number of pipers playing piobaireachd. We are not just Jig and Reel players – we want to get to the soul of the music!

All this adds up to a band that is improving very quickly. This progress does however present the band with some new challenges: We currently have between 20 and 30 pipers. That’s too many for one playing band, but maybe not quite enough for a Grade 3 and a Grade 4 band The problem here is that everybody may be too good – how do you decide the roster of the Grade 4 band? I’ll start that particular ball rolling and volunteer myself! Another new challenge will be how to find competition to play against locally. The Salt Lake Scots are a Grade 3 band, but that’s it for Utah. Travel has been a topic of conversation this past week or so, because of the attendant expense involved in taking so many players to out-of-state games.

In any case, I’m sure all this will be worked out, and for now Congratulations to all. This is a great band to be in, and I’m sure we will all prove worthy of our new standing!

Piobaireachd workout!

Last night Justin Howland, my band’s resident instructor hosted the first in a series of Piobaireachd Workshops.

Five others were in attendance, and certainly from my perspective it was a great evening. Justin used a kind of back-to-front approach to the tune he had selected – Too Long in This Condition. Thus, we learned the two doubling variations, so that the theme notes would be prominent. The other effect of learning the parts of the tune in this order is that you take care of the most technical aspects of the tune first. Since these are the features that require the most practice, the theory is that you will finish learning the tune with all the technical pieces in place!

In the case of this tune, the technical features consist of the edre and dare (or E- and F-throws) and the crunluath fosgailte, which contains the edre. My edres are not that great, so it was good to give them a public workout. In addition, I’d never attempted to play the crunluath fosgailte, so overall it was a challenging workshop. Despite this, Justin is a very patient teacher, and evidently good at teaching a group with mixed abilities, so I didn’t feel at all awkward.

I’m looking forward to the next meeting in two weeks time.

Too Long in This Condition…

I refer, of course, to my current instructorless state.

Time and again the question arises on the Bob Dunsire Forums, “How do I go about learning piobaireachd?” and in almost every case the first answer is “Get an instructor!”

This past season I have been teaching myself The Lament for Captain MacDougall, and I even had some moderate success with the first two parts at the local Salt Lake Highland Games. My untutored condition is about to change, however, thanks to the efforts of Justin Howland, our band instructor (and resident Grade 1 soloist). Next Monday will be the first of a piobaireachd workshop series taught by Justin.

To get us started, Justin has picked the tune “Is Fada Mar So A Tha Sinn”, or “Too Long in This Condition”. It’s a beautiful tune – actually not “Too Long” (just the Urlar + 5 variations) – and is from a group of tunes with the Fosgailte structure. These are tunes that use the crunluath fosgailte (a kind of high-hand crunluath) in place of the regular crunluath, which produces a lighter more rippling sound. I’ve never tried to play this embellishment, so it should be interesting for that alone.

In any case, it goes without saying that I’m looking forward to Monday, and kudos to Justin for initiating something like this.

Piobaireachd Technique – Advice From An Expert

My previous post drew some comment about whether or not one had to be very experienced to interpret piobaireachd well.

I have an article written by Jim McGillivray called “Piobaireachd Technique: Perspiration before Inspiration”. Jim is very experienced player and competitor, so when he speaks on the subject, it’s usually worth listening to. The article was given to me as a photocopy by my old Pipe Major, so I can’t tell you where it’s from, but I think it is from an old copy of the magazine “The Voice”.

The article is basically in two parts: the first a short essay on why good technique is so important, and the second a description of the more common movements in piobaireachd, and how to nail them!

What is interesting to me is how Jim puts technique into perspective. He makes the case for practicing all the movements (edres, taorluaths, crunluaths, etc.) relentlessly, until you can play them effortlessly. You have to put in the repetitive work, before you can play the tunes well.

If you’re thinking about the gracenotes, the argument goes, then you can’t feel the song.

I think this is a really interesting point, and it gets to the heart of balance in performing any kind of music. Flawless technique, devoid of expression can be produced by a robot, and is boring to listen to. (When my daughter took Suzuki-method violin classes briefly, we learned this the hard way.) On the other hand, the enthusiastic and motivated performer playing a tune that is obviously too hard for them can be just as painful. (That’s me, playing my 2/4 march at the Salt Lake Games this past Summer.) Expression is vital, (or the music will not be), but you need to have at least a minimum level of technique to execute the tune you’re attempting to play.

A highlight of the games I mentioned was hearing Alex Morrill, one of our younger band members, play Struan Robertson’s Salute. He had a few note errors here and there, which is to be expected – he was playing in Grade 3, but he clearly had adequate technique for the task at hand, and he gave what I thought was a very beautiful performance. I guess John Partanen (the adjucator) agreed, because I think Alex got first place that day.

Anyway, my point is that as long as you are able to play the notes and the gracenotes on a well-tuned, steady pipe, and you can keep it up to the end of the tune, you then need to add your personal take on the expression and you will be ready to give your listeners a performance to remember. From there, the only way is up!