By Arvey R. McFarland
Over the years, I’ve read commentary in the Piping Times regarding the fact that piping receives very little of the same respect and appreciation afforded to other forms of classical music. After attending professional competitions in Scotland and the US, and most recently, one held by the San Francisco Caledonian Club in Pleasanton, California, I’d like to discuss one reason (among several) why this is so.
The world of piping has artists equal in talent and musical skills to any music in the world today, but it has been my experience that very few solo pipers – regardless of their degree of playing ability, possess the skills necessary to properly execute and enhance their performance before an audience and competition adjudicators.
As a former professional touring bassist with Natalie Cole, and several symphony orchestras, one important thing I’ve learned in my career is the importance of stage performance skills. Great musical performances are enhanced by great stage performances, and less-than-robust musical performances are improved by them as well!
One need only attend a piano, violin, or operatic singing competition to notice the immediately apparent differences between them and a piping competition. In their ‘culture’, a performer does many things to enhance their musical performance. Here are just a few:
• They tune backstage, and if they must tune onstage, the exercise is very brief.
• They dress appropriately for a stage performance.
• They carry themselves onstage in a humble yet dignified and poised manner.
• After the adjudicator gives them their performance pieces, as a courtesy to the listening audience, the competitor announces them.
• Their instruments are in top condition for the performance.
• They never turn their backs to the audience or the adjudicator.
• Regardless of the outcome of their performance, they recognise the audience’s applause with a slight bow or nod of the head, and say ‘thank you’, then exit with the same poised attitude in which they entered.
At piping competitions, rarely does anybody witness the skill or courtesy outlined above. All too often they enter the stage in ‘military’ fashion — with a stern countenance, and exit the same way without so much as a nod in recognition of their audience.
Many competitors torture the adjudicator and their audience by walking aimlessly in circles, holding high A, and tuning for periods sometimes in excess of five minutes. At the recent professional competition held by the San Francisco Caledonian Club at the Hilton Hotel in Pleasanton, California, one competitor tuned his drones for three to four minutes, adjusted the adhesive tape on his chanter for another five minutes, then re-tuned his drones again! Other competitors had pipes with cords and tassels worn and frayed to the point that they looked like fuzzy balls hanging from the drones. A few competitors’ bag covers had unsightly stains that were easily seen from the seated audience.
On the positive side, one competitor, John Partanen, announced his tunes to the audience; another, Ken Sutherland, marched in a ‘figure eight’ so as to avoid turning his back to the audience. Both these competitors entered with a smile, were well dressed, had instruments that were prepared for a performance, thanked the audience for their applause, and exited with a smile. In a word, their stage performance skills were ‘professional’ (The following day, Mr. Sutherland’s son, John, exhibited the very same skills in his Grade II competition.).
As a rule, female piping competitors dress in male Highland attire, and to me this is very odd indeed. I can neither imagine, nor remember, attending a piano, violin, or operatic competition where females dressed in tuxedos!
I remember seeing Patricia Henderson compete in Scotland, and rather than dress as a man in Highland attire, she wore a kilt skirt, jacket, blouse, and shoes that were colour co-ordinated, complimented her gender, and enhanced the dignity and poise of her outstanding performance.
In closing, as a piper, I’m hopeful that everyone in our ranks will take the time to learn stage performance skills, and do what is necessary to elevate our art, and enhance public opinion and audience enjoyment wherever we perform.