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Monthly Archives: July 2009

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That was good. Now do it again.

These are words that are frequently spoken when I’m giving a bagpipe lesson. I don’t teach that often, and have only one student at the moment, but I still say it a lot. I’ll ask him to play an exercise or a bit of a tune, and after two of three tries he’ll play it pretty close to right. He looks at me seeking approval, and my response is “Good! Now do it again.”

At first he would always look disappointed when I told him this. “But I just played it right,” his face would say. And I can see how it could come across as being a bit harsh, but he quickly caught on that when I told him to play something again it wasn’t to play it better, but just to play it again. Things like grips, throws, doublings, birls, etc have to be repeatable. If you once played a C doubling correctly that’s great, but if you can’t do it on command it won’t do you much good. Like the brakes on a car, it’s all well and good that they used to work; it’s very important to know that they work now, and perhaps more important to know that they will work when you press the pedal in the near future.

I’ve heard the saying that “Winners practice until they get it right. Champions practice until they can’t get it wrong,” and I like that quite a bit. In piping terms, it’s the difference between being able to play a tune and being able to play it while thinking about what you might fix for dinner tonight.

I’ve seen a number of bands (mostly non-competing) that are willing to settle for “good enough.” When that same level of playing becomes “pretty good,” the band has doomed itself to mediocrity until the attitude changes. When the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band was practicing their medley, what did they do when they played it well? I would bet dollars to pesos that they played it again. And again. And again. When they stepped onto the field at the Worlds, how many times had they played their competition sets? I don’t think I can count high enough. As a result their performance wasn’t “good,” nor was it “pretty good;” it was “really good,” or even “really damned good.” At the end of the day they were world champions, and it was smart practice and preparation that got them there.

I’ve lately adopted this mindset while I’m practicing. At the end of a session I always remind myself that I could have played better, and when I finish a tune pretty I tell myself, “Good, now do it again.” It’s not a “pretty good” performance that wins prizes, and settling for “pretty good” is not good enough for me.

They started something

I’ve posted before about the new medley performances from the Toronto Police Pipe Band that has started such a dialogue in the piping world. They came on with their medley in 2008 and a different one in 2009, both of which were completely different from anything the piping world has ever seen. One of the big differences is that they don’t start with the usual three pace rolls and “marchpipe” (marching hornpipe). This doesn’t break any rules for medley competitions in the US or Canada, (Scotland is a different story, where it’s specifically stated that the medley must start with three-pace rolls), but it’s certainly not what is expected in a band contest, and it’s “just not how things are done.”

I can’t really think of a worse reason to keep doing things than traditions like that, so I applaud the innovation. And I think they’ve started something, because this year I’ve seen several bands following this idea, throwing out the rolls and  starting their performance before they start marching into the circle. Two that come to mind are the grade 2 City of Regina Pipe Band from Regina, Saskatchewan, and the Grade 3 MacMillan Pipe Band from Rockville, MD. Any others that you’re aware of?

I like to see things change. I’m glad to see things shift away from “the way they’ve always been,” especially if there’s rule to prevent it, so good on you for breaking from the norm. Keep it up, and I’ll predict that in five years this will be the norm and the three pace rolls to start the medley will be much rarer.

More piping that’s out of this world

A while back I posted about a Canadian gold medal-winning  piper who was in the final stages application to Canada’s astronaut corps, and this post follows the theme.

As posted on pipes|drums, the Hamilton Police Pipe Band has recorded a tune to be transmitted and played as wake-up music specifically for the two Canadian astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station. Way cool! I’m always a fan of sending pipe music to new places, so I’m all for it.

The only problem I have is this statement in the article “the transmission will take several hours to reach the astronauts.” The science geek in me must stand up and point out a correction, but first let me adjust my pocket protector and push my glasses up the bridge of my nose.

Any communication from Earth to any artificial satellite would be made using radio waves, and radio waves travel at the speed of light. Now light goes very very very very very very fast: about 300,000 km (186,000 miles for the non-metrically inclined) per second. If we could isolate a single photon (light particle) and force it to follow the curvature of the Earth as it traveled, one second after we let it go it would be literally halfway around the world… having already made seven complete orbits. It’s fast. In fact nothing goes faster than light in a vacuum, except of course the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise.

Because light goes so incredibly fast, after traveling for a few hours it would have already left the ISS in its proverbial space dust. In fact it would be well away from the inner solar system as well. The light from the Sun takes about 4 hours to get to the planet Neptune. By contrast, light from the Sun takes just over 8 minutes to get to the Earth, and about 11 1/2 minutes to reach Mars. Gives you just a little idea of how big the solar system is, and most of it is nothing.

So how long would the recording take to get to the ISS? According to Heavens Above, the current height of the ISS is somewhat higher than 347 km above the surface of the Earth; doing a quick calculation shows that it will take about 0.0011 seconds for the radio waves to travel to that altitude. It’s slightly less than several hours.

Ok, I’ll take now put down my slide rule and go back to the glasses that aren’t held together with tape. I realize I picked on a very small point, but I am a science geek. But yeah, bagpipes are awesome. Play them on Earth, in space, on the Moon, I’m all for it.

Up to my elbows…

In entries for the Maine Highland Games! It’s actually kind of fun to process them, and it’s interesting to see the different ways people fill out the forms. Some make for interesting stories, like the guy who sent me the piping and drumming for to register for the heavy athletics competition. I wonder about people sometimes.

If you’re interested in entering (for piping and drumming, not athletics), I’m accepting entries until August 1. Get those in to me ASAP!

Just wanted to post that my computer is going away for a bit, so my posting might be somewhat limited over the next week or so. It’s doing some funny things, so I’m going to send it back for maintenance while the warranty still worked. I will have access to another machine, but not continuously. I’ll post as I can.

Pure quackery

I’m going to take another aside from the thrills of bagpipes to post about one of my favorite topics: alternative medicine and natural cures. It’s one of my favorite topics because I don’t believe that any have shown to be effective, and they range from completely ineffective to downright dangerous.

My topic today is one of those on the left side of completely ineffective, or at least no more effective than a placebo. Because that’s just what it is: a placebo. I’m tackling homeopathy, which has been attacked many times by real science and medicine but somehow keeps on going. Here’s a brief introduction to homeopathy if you’re interested. The basis is this: identify the symptoms, say, vomiting and diarrhea. Now identify something that causes those symptoms, like arsenic. Now take some arsenic, put in water and shake it, then take a bit of that water, put it in other water and shake it, and do that about ten or twelve times. Each time you shake it some of the “essence” of the remedy is passed into the water, and each time it’s diluted it becomes more potent. Let me say that last sentence again: “each time it’s diluted it becomes more potent.” No comment should be necessary from me. So once your solution has been diluted far beyond the possibility of containing even one atom of the original solute, your “remedy” is prepared. Infuse it in a sugar pill or take it straight, and it’s supposed to cure whatever ails ya.

Even if you failed chemistry in high school, you should be able to figure out that a homeopathic remedy is just water. It contains no active ingredients, so to focus on the positive side there are no side effects and no risk of overdose.

The reason for this little soapbox rant is a website that came to my attention this morning: They claim to have a homeopathic remedy for AIDS called PC1, and that they have used it extensively in Africa. For a subsidised price of just €10 ($14.22 US as of this writing), you can buy a series of 5 doses made specifically for you (and everyone else of your gender). The store also sells a homeopathic remedy for treating the “trauma of rape.” Seriously. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

There’s a few places on the site they really set themselves up for people to cry foul. In the FAQ section, the question posed is “Is PC1 safe?” The response is, and I quote: “It contains no substance so PC1 cannot be toxic nor have side effects” (emphasis mine). By their own admission, there’s nothing in it!

The instructions call for “banging” the bottle on “a book or wooden surface” (why not just the palm of my hand?) as you are preparing the remedy, and there’s another FAQ that asks “Why do you bang it?” The answer: “This activates the resonance and has been used successfully in homeopathy for two hundred years.. From material science we know now there are mechanisms how this works. Thin films and nanobubbles are two such mechanisms.” They are trying to confuse the reader by throwing out big sciencey-sounding words in the hopes that people will be distracted and not ask further questions. This alos happens a lot with words like “quantum” and prefixes likes “bio,” “astro,” “micro” and “nano.” By the way the two periods in the answer is direct from the site, so I think they need a proofreader too. It’s not the only place that could use some editing.

One last FAQ: “What happens if my HIV-negative child accidentally drinks some of PC1?” The answer: “Nothing happens.” Why not? Well, see the answer to the question “Is PC1 safe?”

The last one is my favorite though. The instructions page gives, well, instructions for preparing your remedy after receiving the bottle of pellets. It can be prepared in either a 30-50 mL dropper bottle, or a 250-500 mL water bottle (plastic ok, but glass is preferred). In either case, drop two pellets into the water, bang five times, and, um, hang on a second. Both bottles call for the same amount of PC1, even though the bottles differ in volume by a factor of ten. That’s crazy; would you use the same amount of instant iced tea mix if you were making one gallon of iced tea or ten gallons?

Sometimes I wonder why people still use homepathic remedies when this information is quite clearly stated in their own literature. I think they’re setting up people like me when they make these websites, and I can’t help but jump up and spike it.

Glasgow Lands Wrapup

Yesterday was the Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival in western Massachusetts, my fourth solo competition of the season. The forecast was for quite a lot of rain, but it turned out to be a very nice day. The humidity in the morning was oppressive, but in the afternoon in seemed to break and turned out to be nearly perfect. Alas I didn’t have my videographer, so there is not a visual or audio record of the day’s events, but I’ll recount now as best I can.

This was another games with only two solo events, piobaireachd and MSR. It was the MSR I played first, and judge Peter Kent picked Mrs. John MacColl of my two marches. It was the first time I’ve played that tune in competition this year, and that considered it came out fairly well. I also switched my strathspey to Shepherd’s Crook, replacing Arniston Castle, and the strathspey I felt went very nicely. The reel started well, but I had a memory bubble in the first part (the same place as my first mistake in the reel in this video). The judge commented after I finished that I “skidded, but didn’t wreck,” which was a good way to put it. I spoke to him after the competitions were over and said that mistake had knocked me out of the top prizes for the day. As it was I came out 5th place of 17 people, and after that slip I was quite pleased with the result.

I then went to play my piobaireachd, and I was extremely satisfied with it. I did feel that I couldn’t really get my pipes in tune (I felt that about the MSR as well), but after messing with it for a while I decided that it wasn’t going to get much better and just went with it. Judge Nancy seemed to think it was ok though, so I’m thinking that I might have been trying to get it perfect when I had already gotten it to the point where it was very good. I don’t have much else to say besides first place, so I’m happy. They had split the grade 2 piobaireachd into two parts, so I was only played against six or seven others in this event.

It was after my solos that I really started enjoying myself though; I wandered off to get some lunch (fish and chips were good, but not as good as the ones I had had in Scotland; go figure), and spent some time waiting for results while chatting with some judges and fellow competitors. I think my favorite part of going to the games is seeing the other people there, and seeing the same people at many events. I then grabbed my notepad and folding chair and settled in to judge the pipe band contest from the sideline.

The grade 4 medley contest was enjoyable, and it’s been a while since I was able to watch a band contest at this level all the way through. Stuart Highlanders were on first, and they started well with a very strong performance for grade 4. They were only eclipsed by the Schenectady Pipe Band, who played a medley worthy of grade 3, and were the clear winners. For the record, I had picked all five bands in the order in which they finished, so that made me feel like I know what I’m talking about.

I wasn’t so successful with the grade 3 MSR, though I did pick the winner correctly. The Stuart Highlanders were the last band to play, and they were the clear winners in my opinion (and the real judges’ opinions as well, apparently). Of the seven bands that played, they were the only one in the prize list I had picked correctly.

The grade 1 contest was very enjoyable, and featured the east coast’s two grade 1 band, City of Washington and Oran Mor, as well as a challenge up from the grade 2 Manchester Pipe Band. There was an MSR and medley contest, and again it turned out I had picked the order correctly in both events. I wasn’t taking notes for this one, but I went with my overall impression, and I felt the results were pretty clear.

I watched the closing massed bands from the sideline and was somewhat surprised to hear my name announced as half of a tie for piper of the day. I figured the 5th place would knock me out of contention, but I guess not. The award is a story for another day, but I’m not upset or anything. Seriously.

The only thing that could have made the day better was if I had been able to stay for the Enter The Haggis contest in the evening, but with a long drive home I figured I had better get on the road. It was easy to spot the people who had come in just for the Haggis concert, as they are a unique crew. That’s a story for another day again.

Competition Journal 2009 #4

The results from my solo piping competitions.

Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival, Florence, MA, July 18, 2009

Event: March/Srathspey/Reel
Peter Kent
2/4 marches submitted: Major Manson at Clachantrushal, Mrs. John MacColl
Tunes played:
Mrs. John MacColl, The Shepherd’s Crook, Major David Manson

Event: Piobaireachd
Nancy Tunnicliffe
Tunes submitted: The Massacre of Glencoe, Black Donald’s March
Tune played:
The Massacre of Glencoe

A blue streak

Andrew Berthoff over at Blogpipe had an interesting post this morning about swearing. He references an article suggesting that swearing can be good for you because it relieves stress, and comments on the role of swearing in a pipe band setting. It got me thinking, and I realized I haven’t seriously considered my stance on swearing recently.

For a time in high school I promised myself I didn’t swear, and in college that changed somewhat. Recall that I went to a military college, and being in that environment I started swearing like, well, a soldier. I never went as far as some of my classmates though, some of whom were completely incapable of switching from their conversation from “barracks mode” to “classroom mode” to “polite conversation mode.” After college I went through another phase of trying to convince myself that I didn’t swear, but the words have slowly crept back in to my vocabulary since then.

I don’t really have anything against swearing, but I like to think that I’m intelligent enough to be able to express myself without resorting to profanity. Indeed, coming with alternate swears is kind of fun, and people look at you kind of funny when you say something like “Oh snot, I dropped my phone.” Try it sometime.

I have some friends who cuss blue streaks, and I don’t really think of as serious adults. Punctuating every sentence with a full complement of naughty words seems juvenile to me. On a similar vein I don’t like comedians who rely on bad language or racy subjects to be funny, as I think it’s much funnier to write clean content; case in point is “Who’s On First,” which is perfectly clean and one the funniest things ever recorded. Some TV shows on the premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime tend to throw in a lot of bad language, and it strikes me as something they do just because they can. It doesn’t have the same shock value when it’s gratuitous.

I’m a classroom teacher now, and I find myself very careful of what I say. I’ve heard stories of casually said things coming back to bite the sayer, and I figure the best way to not be the sayer is to not say something controversial. My students are relatively mature when I get them as juniors and seniors, but they’re still teenagers. I don’t have a problem dropping the occasional D or H in class; it usually gets some giggles and brings the daydreaming students back to reality. Anything more potent than that though is very rarely heard coming from me, especially if there are students nearby.

Yes, I swear, but as with anything else, moderation is the key. Except in piping; give me as much of that as I can get.

Going to Canada…

…with an aching in my heart? Nope. But it’s official, the PPBSO has received my entry for the Glengarry Highland Games on July 31. I had hoped to enter the solo competitions last year, but found that the international mail runs slower than domestic so my entry didn’t arrive before the deadline. I still went last year and had a great time, but this year I’m looking forward to competing. Piping competition in Canada is very strong, and I’m interested to see how I stack up.

Beyond his personal capabilities

This morning I was looking through the Scots Guards Book, Volume II. The Scots Guards collection is known among pipers as a standard book, and both volumes have some great tunes. I think I prefer Volume II, which has more hornpipes than Volume I, as well as more notes on the history of tunes and composers. Even for a non piper, it’s interesting to flip through the pages.

After the main categories of light music is a section of tunes for highland dancing. The introductory page suggests that all pipers learn to dance “in order to promote an instinctive awareness of the rhythm underlying the steps and thereby improve his own musical performance.” I understand the logic, but I’m not sure I want to learn dancing. I’ve actually had the same thought about drumming; I feel like learning the snare drum can only make me a better piper. I’ll get on that when I have time (read: not any time soon).

The next paragraph is a great one, and I quote it here:

The piper should not necessarily always follow the steps of the dancers since this may divert his attention and result in an uneven tempo. He should endeavour to maintain a regular rhythm throughout. Should he digress he must improvise until he is able to revert to the original tune. He must never break down completely, as many a good dancing performance has been ruined by incompetent piping. In addition, he should never overtax himself by playing tunes which are beyond his personal capabilities.

I’ve never played for dancing, but I have played for solo drummers, and the same advice can be applied for that. I find playing for another competitor is nerve-racking, In a solo competition, if I make a mistake it’s not such a big deal. I’m disappointed in myself, but I’m the only one whose results are affected by that. But playing for another person’s competition is just the opposite: make a mistake and let that person down. Making a mistake it’s far better to come back in at the beginning of the next phrase than to stop completely, and I’ve had to do that a few times.

I especially like the last bit of advice, and it’s one that should be recommended to all pipers for competitions and performances: don’t play tunes that are above your ability level! I’ve heard many pipers trying for the fast and flashy tunes, and they should really be focusing on getting the basics right first. Know your limits, and know when a tune should stay in the practice room.

I’ll leave you with this video, which is a good example of someone who should not be playing in public. He’s got an idea of what he’s doing, but until he can make it sound like music he should go back inside.