What have the Romans ever done for us…?


by Michael Grey
Piping Today #61, 2012.

The pipes, and maybe along with the accordion, are the poor bullied souls of the music world.  So often the butt of jokes, especially in the world of “classical” music — and, by the way, that’s only from my own experience.  

The pipes seem magnetic in their attraction of jibes, jokes and untoward drollery.  And a couple of recent jokey gems — and these to my face (with pipes on shoulder):  What do you call someone who hangs around musicians?  A piper [rim-shot].  How can you tell if a pipe’s out of tune?  Someone’s playing it.  Yes, that’s pure comedy gold — to empty-headed louts.  

Loud and proud, has any piper not been asked if they can play quieter?  On the one hand, the question is an insult as in, “Man, yer hurtin’ the ears” and on the other, well, it’s a chance to educate, to inform the uninformed.  We’re all missionaries, really, when it comes to spreading the good word of the Great Highland Bagpipe.  Though, while we have a good book, a good story to tell — and perform — in our piping, I sometimes wonder if we are our own worst enemies — at least when it comes to our PR.  

In our performance culture we’ve developed a longish list of quirky tics.  Let’s generalise:  consider lengthy performance preludes, complete with repeatedly hiked bag, fidgety uniform adjustment, a strafing of mostly tuneless notes on the chanter (even a little lifting of the chanter to move tuning tape); we’re a long way from the cool that is Leonard Cohen with fedora or the instantly elegant Yo-Yo Ma.  We’ve seen pipers give recitals empty spittle-sodden “water” traps on stage.  Well, I have.

There’s one more thing.  Pipers march.  We love to march.  But why?  Well, the empty-headed crowd might tell us — ready for this — that it’s harder to hit a moving target [belly laugh here].  In fact, it was in having someone recently pass along that funny that got me to thinking about the whole marching thing.            

Groups of people have always marched; to protest, to rally, to intimidate, to make a point, to impress, but most all, I think, to just get just from A to B — to move efficiently.  We know marching helps people move in time.  And marching goes way back.  We only have to look to Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, the (sort of) well-kent funky-named man of the early Roman Empire.  From Vegetius, his go-to name (not to be confused with MC Bulldog Vegetius), and his military manuals:  “Have them march in cadence,” he said, “there is the whole secret, and it is the military step of the Romans.”  And so they did, in a big way.  

Marching in time enabled the scheduled arrival of troops to any given place: measure the pace and the cadence and, voila, instant pre-satellite GPS intelligence.  In fact, Frederick the Great recognised the value of moving troops by cadenced marching.  And he’s the guy people generally credit for reintroducing this kind of measured marching to 18th century European warfare.

And so we come to the pipes.  The Scots Guards picked up on Frederick’s marching trend and in 1714 we know, “…the Highland Company of the Scots Guards marched through London arrayed in Caledonian Dress and preceded by their Pyper”.  What a sight and what a precedent.  I don’t know if that was the beginning of marching pipers but, surely, the occasion marked an early part of our marching history. 

I wonder: did Donald Ban or Patrick Og MacCrimmon march when they were playing their great tunes; that is, when their tunes were played in time.  Did they march and tramp amongst the ferns and gorse?  I mean really march, as we do, in strict time?  My gut tells me no.  I think of their genius and one that was surely a kindred spirit, Albert Einstein.  Einstein didn’t think much of the marching thing, “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt.  He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.”  Ouch.  Fighting words for any piper who has ever served in the military — or has formed a pipe band St Andrew’s cross (I’ve done both, for the record).    

In the context of piping, in solo piping, at least, it seems to me that a casual observer might wonder at the marching piper’s lack of musicianship:  “Bloody hell, can’t that chappie play in time without marching!?” Of course
s/he can.  So, I ask again, why march?

I can only think it’s tradition; recent tradition, say two or three hundred years’ worth.  I’m no anthropologist, but could it be more than that?  More than the hoary old excuse for doing anything: “that’s how we’ve always done it”.  I guess, possibly.  But then, we only have to look to our man Vegetius.  For him marching was more than just moving troops.  For him the act of marching got to the heart and soul of people, to the very centre of what made them tick. 

He clearly was the inspiration for the 18th century French General, Maurice de Saxe who said:  “Everyone has seen people dancing all night, but take a man and make him dance for a quarter of an hour only without music, and see if he can bear it [suggesting a person could not].  This proves that tunes have a secret power over us, that they predispose our muscles to physical exercise and lighten the exercise.”

And so they do.  Tunes are magic.  The best do have a secret power over us.  

And why do we march?  Because we can’t help ourselves.

And how can you tell when a drummer is at the door?  The knock speeds up.

By the right… •