I once worked with a record producer who was full of musical perspectives and alternative ways to make ideas happen. You’ll know that’s a big part of their job. He remains a great talent. Still, he often defensively couched his thinking (aka ‘crazy ideas’) with a slightly crass observation – “opinions are like navels: everyone has one and they’re all ugly”. Not the most elegant image but I got it, and still do. So, to the ugly.

I’d guess I’m in much the same boat as you. We all navigate the global pandemic in the best way we see fit; what makes sense to both our personal lifestyle and to that of the community where we each live. Of course, all our situations are different: our ages, the place we live, along with our general healthfulness and personal economic situation are among the things that stand as a sort of baseline for deciding what we ‘see fit’. It’s from the perceived reality of each of our respective perches that we make sense of the world. As it has been forever true.

In southern Ontario, Canada, where I live, the pandemic is as virulent as anywhere. But we’ve (mostly) taken to ‘masking up’, distanced ourselves socially, closed schools, worked from home where possible and generally muted the economy and our social life to save lives. To date, we have been fairly successful. Our healthcare system (socialised – think NHS) has performed as planned. We have transitioned from lock-down to a place where people can have, among other things, haircuts, pulled pints in bars, meals in restaurants and gym workouts. Professional sports teams, like those that play ice hockey, baseball and basketball, can all compete against each other. There are restrictions but still the teams share pucks and balls. Schools, too, are set to open the first Tuesday in September with many of the restrictions you will know.

In observing people as I drive or walk, I sometimes wonder at the personal situation that might call for a motorist to wear a mask while driving solo. Or the often-seen person walking their dog on a pedestrian -free road wearing a mask. Or, as relayed to me by a friend who was at Vancouver airport not too long ago, a passenger checking in wearing a Hazmat suit (not kidding).

In all the news and information I’ve seen since we’ve been faced with this pandemic, one voice, especially, has resonated, one imbued with experience, common sense and – most importantly – science: Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It somehow helps me to know that he is in his ninth decade. This experienced and exceptional guy is 80. He’s a heavy in the world of infectious diseases and science. He’s a possible equivalent to a multi-time Clasp winner (if he could play a crunluath … maybe he can). To those in generally good health yet still feeling a sort of relentless distress or vulnerability – and, yes, agreed, we’re all vulnerable – this is what Dr Fauci said a few days ago (on August 13):

Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“For goodness sakes, we are living – all of us – in a historic pandemic. We’ve never had anything like this for the last 102 years since the pandemic of 1918. You can’t interrupt your life, totally, indefinitely. You’ve got to try to safely get back to normal …

“I think people, sometimes, they go to one extreme versus the other. Either you’re going to lock yourself in a closet, or you’re going to be out partying with no mask. But that doesn’t have to be the case … You don’t need to be locked down outside.”

I don’t feel any rush to get outside, to play in a recital or contest. Nor to pipe band practice. But rush is the wrong word. I see little evidence of a rush. We’re entering the half-year point of a pandemic. We’re not rushing. We’re tip-toeing in pumps with four inch heels (or so I imagine). We need to think now of what this means to piping and pipe bands in the medium to long-term.

The backbone of what is the Great Highland Bagpipe (and snare drumming) is in competitive piping and in pipe bands. I suggest that these are at real risk. The very infrastructure that supports what we do is in danger of teetering: governing organisations, formal piping programmes, school tuition, bagpipe manufacturers and all the ancillary jobs and economy that spins off from these activities are all imperilled: no piping, no income.

Most importantly, young people are not learning. They are not being fully engaged with the music or, for that matter, inspired. Inspiration is everything when you’re a kid (of any age). Each week that passes is another week with no new aspirants – and who knows how many fall away to video games or other ‘safe’ online pursuits. We’ve already seen a drop generally in entry to the sterile online contest (I base this comment, in part, from having judged a half-dozen of these events to-date). One fine Ulster-American piper said to me recently, “I’m just tired of playing into my phone”. How many people will leave their instruments in storage or flog online after having discovered, “more time with family and friends has been just great”, or “the chance to finally <fill-in-any-hobby-or-activity-here> has been amazing”?

So. What to do? Don’t wear your mask in a car when driving alone. And look at options to bring people (appropriately) together to play pipes.

A pre-war photograph of Northern Meeting Park, Inverness. Inverness Castle can be seen in the background and the cathedral on the right.

Consider that the pre-WWII Northern Meeting piping contests were all outdoors. Oban, too, as we all know, has a grand tradition, generally, of outdoor competition.

And pipe bands? Ugh. We’re in a more dangerous place than the World Wars when no competitions were held. Then, people still came together – and pipe bands played. Bands may not have competed, but they played. Today, we do not.

I sense I’m in the minority again and paddling in a tributary of the mainstream. Pipe bands: to start, agree to physically-distanced ‘concert formations’ in lieu of the anti-audience closed circle. To those pipe band folk that maintain that pipe band sound is most sonorous in a circle formation, I ask: then why do you play in a ‘concert formation’ when performing tunes in a concert? Is crappier sound reserved for the ticket-buying public?

There’s a lot of need around the world right now. When it comes to piping and pipe bands: We need to be safe. We also need to be open to change. And we need to be creative, thoughtful and up for a bit of scientifically-based risk – like our piping and drumming ancestors who competed at Cowal Games in 1919 just as the awful ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918 waned, a pandemic that killed a quarter of a million UK citizens.

  • One of today’s foremost pipers, Michael Grey has been a member of the 78th Fraser Highlanders (a founding member), Peel Regional Police, Toronto Police and Glasgow Police. He has published seven volumes of original pipe music, his most recent being 2018’s Even More Music for Everyone. He is in demand as a teacher, workshop leader and a judge.

* The views expressed in all blogs that appear on Bagpipe.News are not necessarily the views of the National Piping Centre.