Monday, 3 August 2015

Pipe Band Season Coming to a Close

Well the summer Highland Games season is fast approaching its close.  It's a bit of a whirlwind with lots of practicing alone and as a band.  This being my second season playing there is still a whole lot to learn but it's not as overwhelming as last season.  The highlight of our competition season is the Glengarry Highland Games of which we are the host band.  It is the North American Championships and you always want to do your best in front of your home crowd.  With 53 bands and almost 200 solo pipers competing across the 5 grades it's safe to say that there were a lot of pipers in Maxville, Ontario this past weekend.  The games are much more than just the solo and band piping competitions.  There are Highland dancing competitions, the Heavy events including the caber toss and hammer throw, the tug of war which had 10 entries of military teams and so much more.  Oh, and lots of food and beer.

My personal experience at the games this year included solo piping and our grade 5 band competition.  This is my first year taking part in the solo piping event.  It's pretty straight forward actually.  You choose a tune at the start of the season and learn it well.  You play for a judge and he evaluates you on many facets of piping.  At the grade 5 level (beginner) you see old guys like me who are adult learners and you see kids under 10 in the same event.  Kids learn the bagpipes much easier than us old guys so it's not uncommon for the youngsters to take the top spots.  There is no real audience while you perform other that the pipers who are piping after you.  It's not really a spectator sport.  The most valuable part of the exercise is the judges score sheet for your performance.  The judge writes on how you performed and includes both what you did well and what needs improving.  It is very constructive so even if you feel your play was weak you also get positive reinforcement for what you did well.  Oddly, even though the score sheet tells you what you need to work on you usually already know where your difficulties lay.  Knowing what you need to do and actually being able to do it under the stress of judgement is a whole different thing.  I won't be graduating out of grade 5 solos into grade 4 any time soon but I know I have learned a lot this year with respect to playing alone in front of a judge.  The tune I played all season, Lochanside, will be retired from my solo playing repertoire and next year I will try something different. It's not that I don't like the tune...I've just played it enough to last me for a while.

Our band competition this year at Maxville did not go as well as we had hoped.  Our numbers are a little lower than we would like with just 9 pipers.  More pipers, although not a guarantee of better results, do give you a bigger more full sound.  The first part of any band competition is the march into the circle while starting to play the tune.  The play begins with 2 rolls from the drums followed by the drones of the pipes and then an E followed by the first tune in the medley.  This is routine but things can happen during this "simple" exercise.  Stress and nerves can cause all sorts of problems including a poor strike-in (to get the drones going) or the dreaded early E.  In an effort to get that good strike-in one can sometimes blow and squeeze too much which causes the early E.  It stands out to all who are listening and as soon as it happens everyone knows it.  It's not a competition killer at the grade 5 level but it certainly doesn't work in your favour.  This year it was I who had the early E and I felt terrible about it.  The important thing about an error like that at the beginning of your set is to not let it rattle you.  It is so easy to start making mistakes in the tune because you are fretting about what just happened and it can be all downhill from there.  Luckily I was able to play the tune without any errors at all which is actually an improvement over the past few Highland games this season.  Nerves sometimes get the best of me and at some point during a play there is a wrong note here or there even though I have played the tunes a hundred times.  Another problem that can happen is the momentary loss of focus.  All it takes is letting your mind wander for 2 seconds and you can lose your place.  It seems simple enough to keep your focus but it isn't as easy as it sounds.  So, despite that nasty early E I played better than normal.  We didn't place very well and it is definitely disappointing that the early E had a big part in that.  You feel like you've let your band mates down.  I know it's happened at Highland games hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the decades and I know it will likely be quickly forgotten but it doesn't make you feel any better.

We have 1, possibly two, more competitions remaining and I know they will be fun as they always are.  The sense of family that you get from a pipe band is difficult to describe but it's like having a bunch of siblings who all have the same hobby.  Pipers and drummers all working to the same goal.  Just as in any family there is drama, arguments, cheers, laughter and sometimes disappointment.....oh and a lot of waiting.  As the 2-year mark approaches since I first picked up the practice chanter I realize how far I have come.  I played tunes fairly well this year that I stumbled through last year and i learned others from scratch that I had never heard of before.  A lot has been learned but I've only nicked the edge of the iceberg of what there is to learn.  I don't aspire to be a grade 1, top level, player.  I know that won't ever happen.  Heck, I don't even know if I'll ever get out of grade 5.  The only thing I aspire to be is better than I was yesterday.  For me and probably everyone else learning to play an instrument there are good days and there are bad days but as long as I'm improving and having fun doing it I'll be happy.

Glengarry Pipe Band - Grade 5 Piping competition in Maxville, Ontario.  2015

Glengarry Pipe Band - Grade 5 Piping competition in Maxville, Ontario.  2015

Photos courtesy of Fred Cattroll

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