by Michael Grey
Piping Today #56, 2012.

One way psychologists have been known to test how word meanings are stored in a person’s memory is by word association. In a word association test, a person is given a word and asked to respond with the first word that comes to mind. Carl Jung used this test to group related words to get a sense of personality traits. Sigmund Freud, too, believed free word associations would shine light on a subject’s personality. Jung and Freud aside, as kids, my siblings and I used to play this game in the car on long road trips. Who knew it was science?

Anyway, here are a few random personal samples: Paris – Eiffel Tower; hard – reed; sweat – bagpipes; Ireland – Guinness; and parrot – mistake-blamer.

What’s a ‘mistake-blamer’? Well it’s not a parrot but to me there’s a definite and resounding association to the mistake-blamer.

Here’s the thing. A good while ago I played in a band where there was a fellow who had the unsavoury habit during pipe band practice of turning his head to his left — or right — the nanosecond after blootering-up a tune. It never failed. Standing with his pipes in rapt attention in the direction of the pipe major he’d turn only his neck in a none-too-subtle way as if to blame his colleagues for his (pretty frequent) bungles. “It wasn’t me”, was his clear and earnest message to the Pipey.

Pipe bands being what they are — hot beds for wit of the most acidic kind — it wasn’t long before this guy, unbeknownst to him, gained the nickname “the parrot”. Get it? Head turning? Green feathers? Work with me.

So there’s one of many quirky word associations I’m stuck with.

I work with a guy who sings in one of Canada’s most famous choirs. They perform at all the big concert halls and, like bagpipes and pipe bands for many of us, his time spent with the choir is something of an avocation. In talking to him the other day I found a few parallels to pipe band life. I asked him about parrots, er, mistake-blamers. Do choirs have them?

Apparently they do — but they’re a rare bird. He advises that in a choir of 80 the conductor knows all the voices and can easily isolate the problem person — so most mistake-makers fess up. Like pipe bands, repeat blunderers are dropped from the performing roster.

I’ve always hated standing around people in a band who are chronic fidgety micro-complainers; the kind of people who latch on to every imagined error in pitch or phrasing and feel free to relentlessly pass along their golden insight. I work to avoid being that person, by the way, knowing it often gets in the way of the Pipe Major’s job. The micro-complainer just puts people off and doesn’t do a lot for building team confidence. Choirs seemingly suffer the same sort of character. In some choir circles these unpleasable and picky people are avoided at all costs (“I’m not standing next to that!”) and are known as “confidence-eliminators”.

Finally, like pipe bands, unison or ‘unanimous’ pitch and diction, is everything. Watching the conductor is essential and people are routinely called out for not doing so. Sound familiar?

While choral harmonies need to align, so too do the words. As my friend said, “If ‘Ss’ are misaligned it’s scarily easy for the intended lyric ‘hoards of Babylon’ to comes across as, ‘whores of Babylon’”. I’m not sure what the equivalent error in pipe banding might be — dirty playing, maybe?

All that aside, here’s hoping all your parrots eat crackers and mistake-blamers play in the band next to you [head turns right]. •