Bagpipe Chain Reactions and Meltdowns

nuclear-explosionI don’t know why, but the demise of the City of Chicago Pipe Band leaves me feeling extra sad for American bagpiping. Sure, I’ve seen good bands come and go in my time, but this hits at a particular time when US piping and drumming seemed to be on a general upswing in quality and activity. Chicago area piping and drumming has been in a constant state of flux as anyone who has been in this game a while knows. It’s a state of flux that we here in the eastern seaboard have also experienced over the years for sure. As a result, there’s a bunch of folks here in the east that are just nodding their heads in quiet dismay over COC’s fate. Many of us have “been there” and if you’ve been piping and drumming on the east coast for any length of time, witnessing this circumstance is nothing new. What is most depressing, however, is the complete scuttling of the “a rising tide lifts all boats” aphorism. I happen to believe that if enough good piping collects it can spark a chain reaction that will sustain itself and spark others. It certainly looked like that was starting to happen starting in 2010 when the United States saw it’s fourth Grade 1 band emerge with COC. Then it was three. Now it is two. In the whole USA. And it’s only the start of 2013, a mere three years later.

I’ve written about the challenges of keeping a band going before. But the fact that the sort of thing that happened with City of Chicago keeps happening at all just mystifies and saddens me. Before COC arrived, we had Oran Mor in 2009, and City of Washington in 1999, and LA Scots in 1997. Must a another decade pass before the next quality band makes the scene in a consistent way? In the last few years, we’ve seen eastern US bands take the Grade 3 and the Novice Juvenile prize at the Worlds. We’ve seen US bands score well in all other grades against Scottish and Irish competition. The quality is there but the “critical mass” that builds never feeds a stable reaction but instead melts down before it starts. That’s a problem, and it is a bigger problem than placing blame on “leadership,” communication, and all the other excuses that seem to destroy pipe bands. For any of us who care about the art of bagpipes and drums, petty issues have to take a back seat to the larger ones of growing the music, the community, and the creative enterprise of quality musical output. It’s something we can all agree on, yes? Then why must it be so hard to stay together and make it happen?

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