Today marks the kick-off for the National Piping Centre’s E-Learning program! It’s more than well-known that I’m a bit of a fan of the Piping Centre, so I’m obviously very excited for this new venture of theirs. In my experience, the Centre has always had a very logical and streamlined approach to teaching, and it looks as though the e-learning program will be just as excellent. I’m planning to register for the program myself, and will hopefully post some reviews about the program in full once I’m in it, so stay tuned for updates!
Last night was the 45th annual National Capital Scottish Festival at Rockville High School in Rockville, MD. My band, MacMillan, was one of several bands there supporting the fundraising event for the Rockville High School Pipe Band in the free concert. This was, I think, my third year performing at the Scottish Festival; it’s a great event for a great cause, and I highly encourage everyone to make donations to the Rockville High School band and their scholarships.
Here’s a clip of the MacMillan Grade 3 band; I’m in the trio at the start of our third set, which is the second half of our competition medley. We’re really sounding good this year! I’m proud of the work we’ve put in thus far, and I look forward to a great season.
It was an uncharacteristically warm day at the Southern Maryland Highland Games this past Saturday. The forecast earlier in the week had predicted a high of a mere 60 degrees farenheit at best, but when the day came it could not have been a more perfect climate for a pipe band competition. Unfortunate for me since I used the weather forecast as an excuse to wuss out and scratch my solo events in advance. However, while I regret not playing, I also realized that there is only so much that I can do in one day, and not playing solos in the morning really enabled me to relax and focus on what was important: my bands.
The Southern Maryland Games mark the start of the season for many bands in the Mid-Atlantic region of the EUSPBA, and it certainly was for my band(s), the MacMillan Pipe Band. We’ve been working hard all Winter to prepare for this season, so it’s great to finally get ourselves out there. After being cooped up inside for six months, there is nothing better than being outside at the games playing your instrument in the circle.
Overall, we had a really nice outing for all three bands, and while the grades 4 and 5 would have liked a more favorable result, it gave us a benchmark and a platform to build on for the rest of the season. I’m proud of the work we’re putting in and have confidence that we’ll be even better as the season progresses.
The MacMillan grade 3 band received some great comments on our medley; though we were yet again the only band in our grade, comparing ourselves to our past performances at the same contest puts us far beyond where we were this time last year. The hard work is paying off!
Here’s a video of the Grade 3, definitely some adjustments to be made and blooters to be hammered out, but we rocked it!
One of my newest passions has been tune writing, and over the course of this past year I’ve been working to develop my skills as a composer. It’s been an interesting ride, and there have been a number of new tunes born of that process. I reserve judgement as to whether any of them are any good, but a good and trusted friend of mine certainly enjoys playing them–as he should since several of them he has co-written with me.
Everyone has a different process for writing tunes, and not everyone uses the same process all the time. My process, if you can really call it that at this point, is still being refined while I learn what works best for me personally. The early stages almost always start with my smallpipes in a room without distraction; I’ll tune the drones and sound the chanter and just start playing something–whatever comes to mind. Sometimes it’s crap, and it so often is in the beginning, but with repetition a melody starts to form and reveal itself out of the muck.
I almost never have a plan when I sit down to create music of my own, and most of the time I don’t record or write anything down. I find the futility of it to be refreshing and in a way highly therapeutic: a fleeting moment in time where you know that what you play then will never again be played quite the same way ever again, and none but yourself will ever hear it. It’s a powerful exercise in presence.
My personal zen-like view on composing is to let nature take its course: let it flow out of you like water. If a tune feels forced when writing it, it’s going to sound forced when played, and that doesn’t make for good music. When I sit down with the intent to actually write a new tune, as I did last night, the sessions can vary from being highly productive and cranking out two or three quality parts of music in an hour, to extremely frustrating with nothing accomplished and I wonder why I thought I could write music at all. Last night was one of those head-against-brick-wall kind of sessions, and I’ve found that it’s sometimes best to walk away, let the project marinate, and come back to it at a later date.
Some tunes make themselves known immediately and demand to be written, while others need a little coaxing to get them out in the open… often with a large hammer and possibly some Acme TNT. For reasons stated previously, I would never recommend the violent options, but to instead line your arsenal with the skills and tools needed to safely and cleanly excavate your new tune.
For practical tools, learn music theory and practice writing music: start with tunes you know from memory and work up to tunes of your own. Hone musical skills by learning to improvise and learning to hear with a scrutinizing ear: pay attention to what sounds good in tunes you like and reflect on why that is–what about it makes it pleasant? Most importantly, enjoy what you do and take pride in your personal style. No one can teach you how to create your music; that’s something that you have to discover all on your own.
1. Well posted start times and judging areas.
2. Designated tuning areas.
3. Well-trained Stewards.
4. Unwavering order-of-play.
In my view, none of these are too much to ask, and they keep the contest running as smoothly and efficiently as possible. If people know where to be and when to be there, no one stumbles over top of one another running to the steward to see if they’re next on, events don’t overlap, and no one needs blood pressure medication at the end of the day for stress-related injuries. For the competitors, in a well-run contest the focus is on their setup and music only–not logistics.
I’ve experienced both sides of the coin, and taking into account every competition I’ve ever attended or participated in, the best of them was the non-sanctioned Metro Express back in February. The stewards were professional, knew the competitors by name, knew exactly when and where to fetch people, understood instrument warm-up necessities as they were all musicians themselves, and took time to make sure you as a competitor were comfortable, at ease, and ready-to-go. Water stations were set up in several convenient locations, warm-up rooms (it was an indoor contest) were private, available, and on a rotational schedule based on your spot on the order-of-play.
Every competitor had a place to be, a time to be there, and a steward who knew you and would give five-minute warnings before it was your time to go on – ample time to put your mind at ease and put your game face on before facing the judge. It was a pampering I hadn’t ever experienced before, and it got me thinking – why hadn’t I? Sure, competitors don’t need water stations, and we don’t need stewards to know us on a first-name basis–those are just going the extra 10%, but the experience and efficiency of the contest seemed so basic to me that I wondered why I hadn’t seen it before.
Not to place blame or point fingers, but the average solo competition in my part of the world isn’t up to par with the basics presented at the Metro Express. Lots of factors play into that I’m sure: volunteers are hard to come by–nevermind their level of experience–and things can and do throw monkey wrenches into the engine on the day of the contest. However, to reach the ideal, there is no denying that improvements can be made. Going back to the list from above:
1. Most contests do well with posting judging areas and start times. Receiving an advance order-of-play is a nice touch, which more contests are doing, but it’s not an absolute necessity so long as the events start at specific times. Some contests aren’t as obvious where the judges are, but on the average it’s been ok. The extra mile would be to post estimates as to what time each competitor would be starting their individual contest(s), which some games are doing this more now as well. However, what’s the point in having individual competitor times if you’re not going to stick to the order-of-play anyway? (This issue addressed on number 4.)
2. This is more relevant for indoor contests, but even in outdoor contests, it would be nice to know where is and where isn’t a place to go warm up and tune. Most of the time it’s a free-for-all, and a bit of lifting the leg to mark your territory once you’ve found a good spot. Other things to consider are judging area and other games events: An experienced competitor knows not to tune up near the judging area, but for the less experienced – it’s not so clear until the judge yells, and sometimes in cramped quarters it’s hard to find a spot to play that doesn’t interfere with other events going on at the games during the day. Also, having a designated on-deck final tune-up area makes it much easier for stewards to find competitors.
3. Stewards are often uninformed about piping and the way competitions work: they are high school students, people sentenced to community service (yes, it’s happened!), and well-intentioned locals who like to hear “The Old Spice Song” now and again, or sometimes there just isn’t one and the competitors have to wait until a lull to go up to the judge and ask when they’re next on. Rare are the occasions when you get a steward who was once a competitor and knows the drill, but often they still behave like the average because that’s all they’ve ever experienced. I don’t mean to bag on stewards-it is certainly a thankless job, and I appreciate that they’re there at all. But as a steward, you can’t just sit in a chair next to the judge and wait for competitors – once they’ve checked in with you, it’s your job to keep track of them and make sure your judge’s event is running efficiently. Which leads me to…
4. Order-of-play. If there’s anything that will get me in a rant in a big hurry, it’s a contest taking competitors out-of-order! There is a list for a reason: it keeps events from overlapping and taking up more time than they should, and it keeps competitors informed about when they need to be in front of the judge. It has happened more times than I can count that order-of-play, while well posted, is ignored on games day and competitors are ordered on a first-come-first-serve basis when first checking in with the steward. This should never happen, and yet it does, and it causes all sorts of confusion and timing issues: competitors need to know when they’re on so they can time their warm-up accordingly. It also causes bottlenecks where everyone tries to tackle the steward all at once to find out when they’re on.
Stick to the order of play, and competitors should only have to check in twice with the steward: once early on to let them know who you are and that you’re around, and once right before you go on in front of the judge (and really this should be the time that the steward goes and fetches you from the final tuning area, so it’s the steward checking in with you-not the other way around). So, for the sake of everyone’s sanity: stick to the order-of-play… don’t take anyone who enthusiastically jumps in front when it’s not their turn, disqualify late-comers (within reason obviously), leave no-show slots and break-downs’ remaining time open or very courteously ask if the next player is ready to go on, but be prepared to leave the slot open anyway if not.
Keep it simple, stick to the basics: It’ll keep your event running like a well-oiled machine.
It was just after 6pm on Friday evening, and I had just finished tucking-in to a pile of the world’s messiest (but tasty!) hot wings in the hotel’s in-house pub, which had quite possibly the world’s slowest and surliest wait staff. I had competed earlier in the afternoon in the National Piping Centre’s Metro Express amateur competition, and was busy calming my rattled nerves with a pint and some friendly chatter, while trying to forget all of the little slips and bobbles I had made in front of the judges.
The conversation started to drift toward the topic of the results (which I had somehow convinced myself would be announced at 7pm), when a kilted someone, who I’m afraid to say I forget his name, leaned over the table and asked, “Are you Michaela?” Confused, I nodded. “You might want to find out how you did in your Piobaireachd.” Just great… not only did I miss the start of the results, I was also severely lacking a wet nap!
I rushed to scrape the wing goo from my fingers, threw some cash on the table, and hurried over to the room where the results were being announced. When I made it to the room they were announcing my name for 2nd place in the Grade 3 March event, and I almost literally had to be pushed to the front of the room. “No way, not true, I didn’t hear that correctly, I’m a hot mess, and there’s sauce on my face, what do I do?!”, Raced through my mind when I crossed the threshold. “They’re calling your name, get up there,” I heard someone say.
I felt my legs take me to the front of the room, but my brain was still in the pub, and my ears were full of static. Glenn Brown was handing me Chris Armstrong’s new book (in cool usb format), and a gift certificate for a new pipe case from the Piping Centre’s shop. “You know you’ve won the Piobaireachd, Kayla,” Roddy said, and then someone proceeded to explain what I needed to do with the gift certificate to get the pipe case, which I of course heard none of. I thanked them and made my way to the back of the room, where I embarrassingly situated myself directly in front of Alex Gandy (like that jerk with the big hair who sits in front of you at the movie theater). “You might want to stick around,” he said.
They announced the Strathspey and Reel winners, and my name came up again for 1st place. Awkward Kayla walked back up to the front of the room, received her awesome new Canning drone reeds, and walked back again. At this point, the brain had found its way back to its body, drunk, and was asking “What’d I miss?!”
“And the overall winner, Grade 3 – Michaela Harper.” Holy poop. By this time I had processed enough for it to finally register, and I was more than excited. I was now the proud owner of a brand new set of McCallum bagpipes. I only hoped that I didn’t get wing goo on Roddy’s shirt when I gave him a huge thank-you hug.
This weekend is the annual Metro Cup invitational competition for Grade 1 and Professional pipers, and tagging along with it this year will be the first Metro Express competition and workshop. The Metro Express is different from the Cup in that it is designed for pipers who are in grades 4-2, and is sponsored and organized separately from the Cup by the National Piping Centre. The Centre is also holding a weekend workshop as part of the Metro Express event, with a wide variety of classes to choose from, so there’s a little something for everyone.
Despite my personal misgivings about competing, I’ve decided to go ahead and throw my hat in the ring for the first time in a good long while. The prizes are awesome, but I think the best part for me is getting the opportunity to play for some fresh faces. Also, it will be interesting to see how the event may be different from those I’m used to attending – I’ve been to the Cup, but never as a competitor, so this almost-new-experience is exciting in a way. Win or lose, it will be a good time.
In addition to the competitions, I’ve also signed up for two of the many workshops offered. I’ll be with Finlay MacDonald learning how to play better in ensembles with other non-piping instruments, and I’ll be learning how to compose new tunes with Bruce Gandy. So, definitely expect to see some new tunes posted up here in the coming weeks: I have a couple ‘in progress’ at the moment, so maybe after this weekend they’ll be fully fleshed out and ready for your piping pleasure.
And here’s the absolute best part about this weekend: Finlay MacDonald will be holding a folk session on the Friday evening! Bring an instrument, play along, have a listen – whatever you choose to do, you won’t want to miss it!