This weekend I happened across a quote courtesy of the French philosopher, Francois Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire). He wrote, “the best way to be boring is to leave nothing out”. Ain’t it the truth. Think of the masses of news coverage of the politician who misspeaks, or the chatter after a concert when a singer forgets lyrics or an actor forgets lines – the kind of stuff that morphs to memory, leaves a strong, nearly indelible impression. TV networks make buckets of cash (I guess) producing TV shows of outtakes and “bloopers”. People love it. What makes bull fighting timelessly popular with the Spanish public? The artistry and athleticism of the matador, without doubt. I suspect, though, it’s more the possibility of a good old-fashioned gouging that tells the true tale, a matadorian misstep of the lethal kind keeps the crowds coming, and holds the potential for biggest impression and, dare I say it, most exciting entertainment.
Competitive piping, especially the pipe band kind, is cut from the same cloth.
Take the competitive pipe band march, strathspey and reel (Henny Youngman would add, “please”, I’m sure). After a contest, what’s most heard in the beer tent, in the klatches that gather in the pubs? “Did you see that? ____ didn’t get her pipes up and they still got a prize!”, or “three blooters and still in the list”. It’s not all that often that we hear (or say) words like, “their phrasing was impeccable, not an error to be heard and their sound, without fault”, “scintillating perfection”. Admittedly, that’s due in part because the odds of that kind of perfection by a group of people numbering upwards of 30+ are pretty high. But, even then, those words are not part of the average pipebandperson’s DNA. It’s the imperfections that make the pipe band world go around.
When what’s not right is the most talked about and memorable part of a pipe band event, I suggest to you that we have a problem. Our competitive “set” events draw on a repertoire that is based on a convention and a de facto repertoire of something like 10 marches, 10 strathspeys and 10 reels. For instance, who needs (or wants) to hear, “The Clan MacRae Society” march 10 times, like those listeners to the grade one events at the World Pipe Band Championships this past August? The judges must’ve been poking their eyes with their mostly sharp pencils to keep from dozing off.
I can tell you, as a listener, I find very little entertainment in the pipe band MSR contest.
Unlike a good solo MSR event, where there is a high possibility of hearing engaging stylistic colouring, tasty nuances and interesting interpretative risk-taking, the pipe band MSR is boring. Really. With the natural parameters of percussion and insanely accurate technical precision the peformance of a pipe band MSR is incapable of matching the nuances of the solo set.
The MSR event became the pipe band norm around about 1935. I respect the 70+ year history of the event – but I wish it would go away. There are good traditions and bad traditions. The MSR event falls in the latter category.
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