Before we start - I just want to thank my diligent co-author Dr. John Holcombe for helping me assemble this article!
This article was formed based on an unofficial "survey" of our Dojo U Membership, and formulated as best as we could into 10 simple clues. Let's dive in!
OK, Ok, I get it- Your reaction to the title of this article is likely one of surprise, or even outrage. I mean to be provocative, in the hopes that you will read what I have to say about the shortcomings of many pipe majors, perhaps especially in the lower ranks of pipe bands. I think it’s really important that you felt a “fight or flight” response to the title.
For well over five years now, I have been teaching piping in the trenches here at Dojo University, our exciting bagpipe school based here - on the internet. Over that time, I have come into contact with hundreds of piping students of all ages and stages. Through writing extensively, creating innovative educational videos, and interacting daily via live classes, I come into daily contact with pipers who are exceedingly frustrated and who feel developmentally and creatively stifled --- to the point that they’re often ready to quit piping altogether. More often than not, there seems to be a clear pattern behind the pipers’ frustrations. Since that pattern is so pervasive, in my mind at least, I am going to come out and just say it:
Too many Pipe Majors are suffocating their constituents, and it’s got to stop!
Before you start writing hate mail letters to me and posting on social media that I don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain some things.
First of all, I have been a Pipe Major of several different bands, at several levels of play (from “parade” band level all the way to Grade 1). Looking back, at times I think I sucked as much as the pipe majors I’ll soon go on to criticize here in this article, so I want to make it clear that this article isn’t to come off as “holier than thou”. This is just about putting some of these frustrations out there - because it’s a giant elephant in the room, especially here in the USA.
Before I get to my “gripes” about many pipe majors, let me next acknowledge that there are some outstanding and amazingly talented pipe majors out there, and some of our Dojo students are lucky enough to associated with their bands. In fact, I have played for such Pipe-Major-Giants as Jim Clough, Donald Lindsay, Terry Lee, Adam Holdaway, and Stuart Liddell - these were (some still are) great pipe majors who taught me a lot about what I should be shooting for when it came time for me to run my own band.
Pipe majors are usually volunteers in volunteer organizations, and for the most part that is good. The best pipe majors often have characteristics that are opposite to the traits I will discuss below. Sadly, (in my opinion) the Pipe Majors out there with predominately bad traits far outnumber the ones with the good traits. One of my goals in writing this article is to expose the truth as I see it, in an effort to shake things up enough so things can improve. Now, let’s get started.
First, I can’t read minds, or ascribe motives for anyone else’s actions, as much as that would be a lot of fun to do. But I can describe personal characteristics of pipe majors whom I have observed, whose actions make a band better or make the band worse.
A word of caution! All of the following clues that suggest your PM actually sucks must be accompanied by a common sense clause. It’s possible for each of these clues to be flipped back onto you if you misunderstand their meaning, or try to abuse the leader-to-follower dynamic. An example of such a situation: The Pipe Major is attempting to run a practice, but you keep interrupting with criticisms, ideas, or other “input” that undermines their efforts and their authority. Doing this publicly during a rehearsal is not the right time nor place to voice your concerns! Thus, you sacrifice the right to accuse your Pipe Major of sucking. You suck more! Be cautious, and be sure that you yourself can’t be accused of something you’re saying about your PM. This is the common sense clause.
Now, on to the topic at hand. Again, the following are my personal observations only:
Clue #1 - Big Fish Syndrome
Based on their actions, many PMs seem to “want to be a big fish in a small pond”, an unassuming, small community of friendly bagpipers, where no one wants (or has enough ability) to rock the boat. Yet, there are individuals in such a band who may truly want to get better, but with a poor PM as the leader, that’s not likely to happen.
The “Big Fish” PM doesn’t seem to care about the band’s improving – they’re happy to play the same tunes, and badly, year after year and they claim the audience “won't notice”. This PM can't or won't push/help pipers to improve (beyond just “do as I say!”). Unfortunately, this ego-protecting, musically-disinterested approach leads to a lackadaisical attitude among the pipers.
With this PM, even if a guest instructor comes to the band for a teaching session, concepts are rarely implemented.
This PM, who settles for less than making good music, is letting down not only the audiences, but also the individual pipers in his band by prioritizing his stature over a hunger to make better music.
A Big Fish PM shows little interest in grooming others toward leadership spots in the band.
Related Clue: A poor PM openly criticizes pipers or drummers who “leave” the band. Not for good reason - just because they have left “the pond.”
Clue Two: They Know Everything (But don’t sound good….)
A poor pipe major doesn’t sound good when they play, and they don’t take private lessons or strive for their own continual improvement. (this should be its own clue). But how is it that they seem to know everything about running a band, and never need to soak in any feedback from anyone?
A “know-it-all” PM knows the answer to every question and has an opinion on everything. Such a person may say, “don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is made up”, and they often use the phrase "we've always done it this way".
Clue Three: “I hate those guys!”
A poor PM “hates” bands that are better than your band. Whether it’s a performance band or a competing band, this PM is highly critical of their scores, their uniforms, their marching, whatever. If they win prizes, it’s only because of some shameful behavior (not because they are totally spanking you musically!!!)
All score sheets and other feedback meant to be constructive are viewed as “stupid”. This PM never concedes, out loud at least, that the other bands’ musical qualities are what make them clearly better than his (or hers).
Clue Four: A Suffocating Repertoire
With regard to the band’s repertoire, a poor PM often has several characteristics in this category.
Clue: They won’t put tunes into the competition sets or the general repertoire that they don’t already know. Tunes become old and stale not because the constituents refuse to learn new ones - it’s the PM who refuses to learn new ones!
Clue: They put in tunes that are clearly beyond the reach of many of the pipers. All pipers should be challenged with the music, but the inability to know the right tunes at the right time is a detriment to the entire band.
Clue: A poor PM refuses to record new (or old) tunes for the band’s repertoire. (Should they be heavy-handedly leading a group when they’re too insecure to record tunes for others to practice to?)
Clue: A poor PM insists on setting tempos that, realistically, only he (or she) can “manage”. This shortcoming usually has different causes, but not recognizing or implementing solid learning of new tunes is a major culprit.
Clue 5: Disrespecting Your Time.
Poorly managing time (also known as disrespecting YOUR time!) is often a trait of a poor pipe major. Running a band rehearsal should be efficient so as not to waste the band members’ time, and to maximize productivity during your valuable time together. If the practice “starts at 7pm”, then everyone should be ready to play at 7, not 7:30. Some PM’s have a problem with starting on time, but by being so lax the late comers are rewarded, while those truly on time are punished.
Side-note: This behavior tends to keep the Pipe Major in the “cool” zone, especially amongst players who like the fact that they can be lazy and show up unprepared. But it sucks for you - the person who’s trying to get better and to explore better and better music on our great instrument.
Set times should be a hallmark of an efficient rehearsal.
Clue 6: Cutting Down Talent at the Ankles.
A poor PM often tends to dampen down or criticize pipers in the band who are actually better (and/or more “talented”) than himself. They resent high aptitude, sometimes even before it’s fully developed. Let’s face it, and depending on the circumstances, the PM does not necessarily need to be the best piper, but knowing that and skillfully using and developing the talents of others is a hallmark of a good PM.
A good pipe major will see anyone with enthusiasm, talent, or great ability to be an asset to his or her role as leader. A bad pipe major will see anyone with enthusiasm, talent, or great ability to be a threat to his or her role as leader.
Clue 7: Ever Notice How Nothing Ever Really Changes?
A poor pipe major never really changes the playbook. They have only a very small “bag of tricks” and will be willing to use only those few strategies or tactics in any given situation.
A poor PM does not identify specific areas of weakness within the group or that of an individual, nor does he offer direct and objective metrics by which to effect and measure improvement.
A small-bag-of-tricks PM may share copies of the judges’ score sheets with the band, but generally he derides the comments and/or never takes them seriously enough to work on specific areas for improvement. Perhaps the PM doesn’t have the ability or confidence to implement the corrective comments.
Clue 8: Just let me do it!
A poor PM micro-manages, and entrusts as little as possible to his constituents. For example, the micro-manager-PM wants to be the only person who should be in charge of bagpipe maintenance. “Don’t ever fool with your drone reeds, ever! I’ll do that for you!” Other examples include using phrases such as, “Don’t ever move tape on your own chanter, even at home. I’m the only person in charge of your chanter tuning.” Or, “There’s never a reason you should open your zippered bag, because I don’t want you messing anything up in there.”
Clue 9: Missing the Forest for the Trees
A crappy Pipe Major will often insist on things religiously, even though they don’t make any darn sense!
A poor PM will insist that you play a reed that is without question too hard for you. Yes, a slightly harder reed than is perfectly comfortable for the piper is good (for more on this you could refer to our Bagpipe Fundamentals course here at Dojo U), but a reed that is impossible to play helps neither the piper nor the band.
A poor PM also is more likely to rely on ‘gimmicks’ in an attempt to get a better sound, such as the mis-named “tone enhancers”, or the newest chanters or chanter reeds (often designed by their pal, who also coincidentally “knows everything”), or that water control system that promises a superior sound. All of the gimmicks are to no avail when the PM seeks an easy route to a good sound or good playing, while ignoring the basics of common-sense fundamentals...
Clue 10: Un-Great Expectations
A poor PM consistently has poorly run band practices. Folks show up not knowing what to expect, as those practices have no focus, no instruction (other than ‘orders’ to play it better!), and changes to the music are often made extemporaneously without much thought. Or, changes are NEVER made even when common sense dictates they should be!
In addition to poor practices, the band will inevitably experience poor attendance at functions, weak player-retention at the end of each season, and (needless to say) poor results in competition or on parade.
Sometimes simply setting basic expectations (and asking people to rise to meet them) can be the difference between the aforementioned and a successful season.
Closing Thoughts and Implications
Well, there you have it, my personal thoughts about how to recognize that your Pipe Major sucks, or a better way of saying it would be “your pipe major could be doing a lot of things in a better way”.
I have seen some great pipe majors and played in top bands over the last twenty years. I also have extensive experience working to implement these traits while running my own bands.
I have come to recognize and admire the truly great Pipe Majors in the world today. But unfortunately, I have also seen, through dealing with countless frustrated students, the detrimental effect that poor Pipe Majors have on their individual pipers, and as a result, their entire band.
Particularly in the USA (but not just here…) we tend to struggle to produce pipe band music of any real relevance on the world scene. Our communities are often thin, spread out, and often frustrated… it’s very difficult for great music to come out of this situation. Obviously, there are amazing exceptions to this statement, but I am purposefully generalizing here because in most cases it’s true. Congratulations to those who are out there building strong communities and having a positive musical effect on the piping world!
Pipe band leaders out there - I would call on you to become stronger leaders, so we can start to turn things around! I’ll reiterate that as a leader in pipe bands, I personally have failed in many, many ways over the years. I don’t think my message here is that you should be perfect. But, re-focus on great music-making, and relinquish some of your obsession with remaining the big fish in your little pond - your constituents deserve it!
Meanwhile, rank-and-file members of bands out there - it’s time to demand more of your leaders! Demand that music be the highest priority in your group, while decreasing the overall importance of the “title” of pipe major. We all work hard to produce good music, and we all deserve to feel the benefits of that hard work and dedication to the great music of the bagpipes.