When I first starting competing in Scotland and going around the competitions, there was no shortage of fun to go along with the games. Like today, only it seems to me that then there were more eccentric, larger-than-life types around the whole of the scene. It may have been my youthful, wide-eyed interpretation of what I experienced that makes me think this. But then, on reflection, I don’t think so.
I think my mum, and people of her generation especially, would call these folks, “characters”. “He’s a real character,” said of the man who’d stand out from the crowd with an eccentric way with words, or unique ability to hold a group enthralled. Or maybe just simply make you look — or think — twice. To be a character is different from having good or bad character traits. A “character” is the sum total of all his character traits — the good, bad and, yes, the ugly. You knew that was coming. Still to be anointed “a character” is a good thing: people remember you and you’re usually a person who brings something interesting to a social scene or situation. And finally, people who are the real “characters” that pepper our world rarely know they’ve made that mark. Blissfully unaware.
One of the characters of my early piping career was a Glaswegian. A piper. And to be fair, a lot of the characters of my memory of those days — and these days, for that matter — are pipers from Glasgow. The man in question: not all that tall, a solid if not compact frame and a good, well-fed rectangular-shaped face that affirmed his good island stock. He seemed always positive — happy even — as he made his way on the boards in his trademark short-cut tweed jacket and stylish Balmoral bonnet. And as you might expect, he was well-liked by his fellow competing pipers.
When faced with the — from time immemorial — post-solo contest piper’s salutation, “how’d you get on?”, he would reply the same way. Every. Single. Time. He’d say: “The best I’ve ever played in my life.” And that was that. No false modesty. No pretence. Just a frank statement of fact as he saw it; he had played the best ever. Tempo could be out the window, pipes discordant, technical misses aplenty. It never mattered, his tunes were his best. And his best tunes, for the record, were known to be very good indeed.
Of course. We would laugh, and not always with him. People being people, so often on the wrong side of compassion. But, still, no one thought too much about it. He was a real character. In reading a recent online report of a piping event I was struck — again — at how brutally and unhelpfully critical we can be in publicly assessing each other’s performances. Comments like: “We don’t know where he gets his tuition but he’ll never get a prize playing that way”, or “the band’s medley construction is simply poor”
are not uncommon.
I suppose there is a place for literary criticism, a gracious acknowledgement, I know, or music and art criticism, in general. Critical assessments might bring broader understanding to words, sounds or images. And pipers are drawn to these critical assessments like nothing else.
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