Monday, September 27, 2004



It wouldn't be unfair to say that in this last weekend's competitions at the New Hampshire Highland Games, I played better than I ever have in front of a judge - on both instruments. And the results were a serious let-down.

On the pipes, I took 1st in the 6/8 march (YAY ME!), and 5th in the 2/4 march. I thought I might have done better in the 2/4, but it's still a respectable showing. I didn't place in the slow air, and the only problem the judge had with my execution was that on some notes I wasn't keeping perfect time. Of course, I had meant to play it that way. It's called "playing rubato", and the notes I held beyond their time were the notes indicated were the very ones the composer, J. Scott Skinner, marked with fermatas on his original score for the tune. Oh well. It was my instructor's idea to play rubato, and I agree that it sounds better that way. On the piobaireachd, the judge said only nice things about my playing, but I didn't place. His only complaint was the pitch of my chanter (which all the other judges shared). Here we go again.

The fiddle contest was a disaster. I don't know what the judge was thinking, or what criteria he was using for the judging, but it was as if I was auditing a class instead of taking it for credit - no matter how well I did, I wasn't going to place.

The first to play was a young man who seemed just out of Novice. He played like I might have in the summer of '02 (if that well). Then were some girls who gave competent, if unspirited and often undynamic, performances. Lindsay Turner's performance was the best, if a bit subdued, and her march wasn't, well, marchable. One girl, a former Junior National champion, played very well, but was having major intonation problems (largely with her A-string not staying in tune), so I knew she was out of the running.

My performance was outstanding, easily my best contest performance to date. I hit all the highs and lows, I put in a lot of emotion and dynamic range; moreover, I had almost none of the "nervous bouncy bow" that has plagued me in other contests. I had a slight flub just at the end, but that was about it. When I finished playing my MSR set, the applause went on and on, much longer than for any other contestant. I was clearly the crowd favorite.

There was a runoff between Lindsay and another girl, meaning there was a tie, which I thought was for 1st and 2nd (and turned out to be 2nd and 3rd). Then the judge started to announce the results. The young man who played as if he were fresh out of Novice placed 5th out of 7, to everyone's surprise. Lindsay Turner only placed 2nd out of 7 (when I think she should have won). After Lindsay's placing was announced, all eyes turned to me, including that of someone who judged me at a previous contest. My mouth gaped - I didn't feel that my performance, though awesome, had beat Lindsay's. And it hadn't. 1st prize went to a girl who played competently, but with no spirit or spark, no dynamics, and nothing to make her stand out. Everyone was shocked. The other former judge said, "Congratulations on an excellent performance" - with a look in her eyes that silently said "You should have placed".

I was shut out completely. I ranked behind the Novice. That wasn't merely bad judging, that was a slap in the face. I am at a loss to understand what happened. The judge's comments were all very complimentary, except for mentioning my one or two rough spots, and saying my march needed to be a little bit bolder (which would have cost me dynamic range). So I'm not going to change the way I play. I gave a top-notch performance, and it seemed like everyone knew it. The former Junior National champion approached me later and agreed.

Two more contests to go this year. I've qualified for next year's Nationals on fiddle back at GMHG, but unless I clean up at Anne Arundel and Richmond, it doesn't look like I'm going to have much of a shot of being upgraded to Grade III on pipes this year. Pity, I was so close. But I need to be placing in all my events, not just half of them.

Addendum: It seems that what cost me was the reel, Lady Mary Hay's Scotch Measure. The judge consistently rated my "style/interpretation" about 33/40 for all my tunes but the reel, which he gave only 23/40. This is odd, because the comments in the box were complimentary, and offer no explanation for the low score. What was it about the interpretation of the reel that he didn't like? Didn't he like the semi-baroque interpretation (which, considering that it's a Nathaniel Gow tune, is appropriate), or did he have his own ideas about how that interpretation should go? I suppose I'll never know...

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


A Touch of Gas

I went to see a Scottish folk band called North Sea Gas this weekend; considering that the band's been around for 25 years, I'm ashamed to admit that I hadn't heard of them prior to seeing their name in the Potomac Celtic Festival lineup (but I missed them then). My pal Trisha saw them during an outdoor concert near where she works, so she recruited me to meet her at Flanagan's in Bethesda for the show. The guys were very good, and very tight. They were about 85% songs, 25% instrumental sets, but it worked. Their vocal harmonies were also quite tight, and it's nice to hear the voice harmonizing in a deeper register for a change. I chatted with Cameron, their new fiddler for a while (a great guy), and all in all had a good time.

It was nice to see an unabashedly Scottish act booked into Flanagan's, especially since I'm pretty sure that - with Anders' connections - I can get us booked there. There were a couple of funny incidents during the show, the most noteworthy being during a MSR set, when the band got to the reel, 4 girls got up and started dancing figures (spiritedly, but amateurishly). When the set was over, one of the bandsmen said, "And I'd like to thank the Two Left Feet School of Irish Dance for the lovely dancers over there". I'm saving that line for future use.

I only caught the tail end of the previous act, a very fine flautist/whistler & singer. Only caught her first name as well, sadly. But she's local, and hopefully I'll see her perform again. I need to keep an eye out for DC-area flautists and whistlers that might be able to be recruited into The Devil's Tailors.

I went to practice in the park again for the first time in months, and who can blame me? There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and it was 71 degrees out. I had a couple of young guys (one more interested than the other) come over and chat me up, and I played a few tunes for them. Always nice to get an audience. Also of note, I played an MSR straight through without hesitation or major mistake for the first time on pipes: The 24th Guards Brigade at Anzio/Fiddler's Joy/Alick C. McGregor. Okay, one teensy mistake; I ended Fiddler's Joy with the last 4 measures of the B-part instead of the appropriate measures of the D-part, but unless I'm playing in front of a judge, that's a variation, not an error.

My new reed is crowing way too much still on high A. I may ask my instructor about sanding down the tips of the reed a bit to ease the crow.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


The Devil's Tailors - Finding our "One"

I got the spend the last week with my guitarist-to-be, Anders Johannson, with the putative purpose of rehearsing sets for our pending band. I confess that I came less prepared than I'd like, but I think Anders also mostly wanted to hang out (when his clients weren't distracting him). But we did get two great rehearsal sessions in, and as Anders put it, "This week, I thought it was most important to find our 'one' and get the first set really together. After that, everything's a breeze". And we did that in spades. We noodled about with several sets of tunes, but really started cooking on a set that includes When the King Came O'er The Water/Tommy's Tarboukas/Tam Lin and raised the roof on the set that includes Coilsfield House/The Athole Volunteers' March/Caledonian Canal/My Only Jo and Dearie/Lady Mary Hay's Scotch Measure, the latter of which will be our show-stopper. It was all very encouraging, and we plan to get together again in November, at the latest, to work up more sets. This is going to be a very pyrotechnic band, and we're going to make a point of digging deep into the repertoire.

Anders also heard me practicing my competition piobaireachd during my stay, and Thursday night, he approached me with the following suggestion - that we end some festival sets with a short piobaireachd on the Highland pipes, possibly on an A chanter, and as I sustain the final note, he will launch into a guitar intro for the final set, into which I will join him on fiddle. I'm all for this plan. The non-pipers I've played my piobaireachd for have all loved it, and as long as I can keep the tune under eight minutes, I think they'll sit through it without squirming.

In other news, Matthew Williams offered me a gig to play with Jiggernaut in Memphis in two weeks, since both their 1st and 2nd string pipers were going to be in Annapolis that weekend. I had to decline, firstly because I don't think I'm quite ready yet, and secondly because I'll be at the New Hampshire Highland Games. But it was very flattering, and I think I'll ask Matthew for the sheet music and such, so that if it does come up that they need a piper on short notice, I'll be able to fill in and feel comfortable doing it.

I also now have whistles/flutes/fifes in low D, low G, low Bb, middle C, D, Eb, F, and high G. Now I just have to come up with places to use them, so I have an excuse to practice! I have been practicing scales on my flute, from Ab major up the circle of 5ths to B major for the last week, and not only am I slowly becoming comfortable with the keyed notes, but my embrochure has really improved. This has finally inspired me to start playing scales on fiddle, something I've needed to do for a long time, again, from 4 flats to 5 sharps.


Competition - Informative Disappointment

I'm in a mid-season slump, it seems.

I competed on pipes at the Capital District Highland games in Altamont, NY over Labor Day weekend, and the Ligonier Highland Games in Ligonier, PA the weekend thereafter. At both contests, during the 2/4 march, my bass drone cut out - though not in the piobaireachd. Nonetheless, I didn't come away empty-handed - I took 5th in the piobaireachd (ground only) at Capital District, and 7th in the 2/4 march at Ligonier. Still, I should have done much better.

My blowing, as always, remains an issue, along with the obvious issues with losing drones (though I'm proud to say it didn't make me break down). In all cases, the judges heaped praise on my musicality and execution, with the partial exception of the piobaireachd (full score) at Ligonier, where I was told that my ornaments were beautiful when done right, but I seized up too often, muddling them. I was actually quite surprised that I did not place in piobaireachd at Ligonier, considering how effusive the judge was in his praise. The judge for my 2/4 at Ligonier, known for his harshness, wrote "winning fingers, not winning pipes!".

These comments are encouraging. I know my blowing is an issue, and I know I do tend to clamp the chanter after playing for a while. So it's back to the manometer and 90-minute uninterrupted practice sessions, and a conscious intention to relax the fingers.

What hurt me most of all was my pipes. Firstly, there's the drone cut-offs. I disassembled my bass drone reed to clean it, and may have reassembled it incorrectly. My blowing unsteadiness also certainly contributes. I need to work out these issues. But more, they loathe my chanter (add: or reed), and they loathe my instructor's chanter (add: or reed), both of which pitch in the neighborhood of concert B-flat. And while I disagree with the aesthetic that is turning the pipes into a dogwhistle, there may be a kernel of truth to the idea of running with the herd, pitch-wise.

I could be playing a perfectly tuned chanter at 466 Hz, tuned admirably to my drones, with perfectly steady blowing, and the judge will still hear my chanter as dull, and out of tune with the drones. Why? Because 30 feet away from me on all sides are other pipers warming up for their contest, and they're pitched at 475 Hz or more. No matter how discriminating the judge is, my pipes are just going to sound off by comparison, and the drones will beat - as if out of tune - to others' pipes, even if they're not beating to mine. Add this effect to my own imperfections in blowing and intonation, and I sound horrible in that setting, when, alone in a field, I might sound decent.

In the future, at higher grades, when the field of pipers warming up around me isn't so thick, I might get away with a lower-pitched chanter. But until then, I think I need to give serious consideration to pitching with the herd, for competition at least. To this end, I may play with my band chanter for the remaining three games of the year (add: though not for piobaireachd - since my band chanter won't give the proper piobaireachd high G).

It is my hope that this will push me over the edge and get me to place consistently for these remaining three games - something I'll need if I want to move into Grade III next year. I've got the fingers for it.

At the fiddle contest at Ligonier, I was very proud of my performance, but didn't place. I suspect I got 4th or 5th, but the judge (Ed Pearlman) didn't rank below 3rd. His comments were also very helpful, the most noteworthy being that I need to use my whole bow, rather than just the upper portion. Barbara MacOwen and Elke Baker have made the same comment in the previous 2 contests, so this semester, Elke and I will concentrate on my bowing - both the remedial material (bowing with the wrist, & learning to take advantage of the properties of the lower half of the bow), and new bowing pyrotechnics.

Addendum: In talking with my pipe instructor, and after he looked at my (mildewy) reed, he's convinced that my problem was three-fold. Firstly, there was my reassembly of the bass drone reed - and he adjusted the upper bridle accordingly. Secondly, he feels that my bag was probably waterlogged. I blow very wet, but while I was a beginner, he deferred judgement (since newbies slobber a lot, apparently). But I've been on the full pipes for nearly two years now, and it's pretty clear that the bag is - when I practice a lot in humid conditions - waterlogged. Combine this with a very heavy practice schedule, the humid conditions up in MA and PA, and the fact that I kept my pipes in Anders' very humid basement all week, and the reed was drenched. I was aware of this part; it had begun to break down in my practice Thursday night before heading to Ligonier, it was so soggy. I was advised to remove the drones from their stocks, and swab out the stocks, after practicing - though this advice will not hold in drier conditions, such as winter. Thirdly, he attributes my problems to inexperience in playing my pipes under different weather conditions. My pipes were probably waterlogged before I even got to Ligonier, and an extended warm-up just made it worse. Between my inherent wet blowing and weather conditions (a cold misty morning), my chanter reed was saturated, and hence pitched very low and thin. "Half of competition is your performance. The other half is understanding - by intuition or force of intellect - how your pipes will behave on a given day." Sound advice. I need to spend more time on maintaining my pipes, or rather, understanding them. I need to feel the bag on a regular basis to see how tacky its seasoning is, I need to check the reed for mildew, and so on. I need to re-mark my preferred bridle positions on my drone reeds. And sometime after competition season is over, I possibly need to re-hemp my pipes and re-season my bag, not to mention having the drones rebored (and possibly the drone top replaced).

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?