Can Good Bagpiping Come in a Can?
Wouldn’t it be great if your band’s musical dilemmas could be solved with a ready-made packaged solution? We see this approach in popular culture for sure. Books and seminars and late-night infomercials and TV shows all feature easily packaged answers to solve all of your problems. Lose weight without exercise! Stop smoking fast! Get six-pack abs with this great machine! Shake-Weights! Sure. The fact that the Rhonda Byrne book The Secret was even on the NY Times bestseller list let alone her new book The Power making its appearance and with her face on every TV talk show should tell you something right there.
With all of these simple and quick solutions to life’s problems it should be easy livin’ for all of us by now, right? Peace among nations, everyone thin and healthy, free of stress and worry, all happily doing perfect work and making lots of money…oh, wait.
Perhaps it is a by-product of a very American mass-consumer culture to think that great piping, or a great band medley for example, could come in a can that anyone can open and digest. As if someone, somewhere has got all the answers we seek in one easy-to-use format. After all, isn’t this the allure of the many workshops and seminars we see across the continent? These days, there are more of them than ever. You know the impulse: “Attend this workshop and learn the secrets of the best! Once you’ve been given the secret, your pipe band performances will be the envy of the competition.” It also seems to be the rationale behind changes to our competition format.
With all of these accessible seminars and great instruction sessions, it should be smooth playin’ for bands up and down the eastern seaboard, right? All bands should have great tone, perfect ensemble, tight unison, all of them winning top prizes all the time…oh, wait.
Pipe bands across the eastern U.S. suffer from the malaise of imitation. We all want to sound like the latest and greatest championship band instead of sounding like, well, ourselves. Choice tunes from championship winning medleys constantly find themselves in the medleys of grade 4 and 3 bands. And this despite the advice these bands will always get in the aforementioned workshops that they should play to their strengths and leave the stuff they hear from FMM, SLOT, and SFU on the pitch of Glasgow Green.
It’s as if by playing the “cool stuff” from the Grade 1 performances, somehow these bands have opened the can of “great piping” and thus the amazing performances will start falling into place. It’s as if we’ve all bought in to what the infomercial promises. Good music can’t be massed produced like canned goods and an original, sincere pipe band medley is no different. We all know how much work goes into perfecting a pipe band performance—at any level. The trouble is that work is often spoiled by the desire for the secret or magic formula that will set the band on the right path, by that desire to mimic the latest piping trends and sounds. And spoiled further by the frustration of never achieving it.
What’s missing is the understanding (and the practice) of what pipe band-ing is about, and has always been about: creating your own musical statement. The top Grade 1 and 2 bands know it, that’s why we hear such great and original stuff from them and why the top bands of the last fifteen or so years have made such a mark. It’s sincere and personal and that is one of the reasons why it appeals. Lower grade bands may be flattering their tutors from the upper grade bands by including their arrangements and tunes in their medleys, but are they using this material to perfect and design their own musical statement? It is sincere to try and learn from the music of the top bands. It is not sincere to mimic.
Much effort and frustration can be saved, and perhaps more prizes won, if bands of all levels focussed on that goal of creating a personal musical statement instead of thinking the musical statements of others can be cooked up and served like canned soup. The best tasting food never comes in a can anyway. And a healthy diet will always be best with something homemade.