Bands in France striving to maintain their cohesion

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Since the first lockdown in March 2020, pipe band practices have been taking place online with a varying degree of regularity. We are aware of some bands meeting weekly, some monthly and some that have hardly met at all. With the COVID-19 situation in France evolving rapidly – a month-long lockdown across 16 departments and encompassing 21 million people has just been announced – Emmanuel Corbasson of the Fédération Française de Pipe Bands describes the pipe band picture there.

By Emmanuel Corbasson

The activities of French pipe bands and the French Federation of Pipe Bands have been seriously impacted by the various decisions of the French government in its attempts to slow down the pandemic. The decision to close performance or meeting places and the ban on meeting with more than six people severely penalised the activity of associations.

With the exception of Brittany and some places in Gironde, the bagpipe – and the Scottish drums – are not taught in schools but by voluntary associations. Without premises, associations can no longer provide their lessons and rehearsals.

There are rare exceptions such as in the suburbs of Bordeaux in the south west of the country, where music teachers like Mickaël Cozien and Quentin Viannais, members of the Aquitaine Highlander Pipe Band (AHFB), have continued to provide videoconference courses for band members. After the first lockdown, Vincent Jimenez, president of the AHPB, was able to maintain the group’s cohesion with rehearsals in a city park with the permission of the municipality.

Since the second lockdown, Gomez has been trying to maintain the cohesion of the pipe band with face-to-face classes but in very small groups.

Maintaining the cohesion of the pipe band. Pipe Band Val de Somme pipers gather online for a band practice.

The same goes for Lorient in Brittany where Gilbert Le Bian, the Pipe Major, splits his pipe corps so as to organise four practices per week using videoconference software.

With all in-person tuition and performances in public spaces cancelled, pipe bands in France are suffering financial losses. Performances are where they generate most of their income.

Pipe Major Baptiste Dherbecourt of the Pipe Band of the Val de Somme, in Amiens in the northeast, has encouraged his players to switch to playing the smallpipes. “The advantage of this instrument is to be able to work your breath while maintaining good neighbourly relations,” he explains. Along with Matthieu Bellanger, Baptiste is also producing tutorial videos for a beginners group and organising one-to-one sessions by video call.

The approach is even more advanced in Riedisheim near Mulhouse in Alsace where Jean Luc Jallier, the president of Celtic Ried Pipe Band, encourages his pipers to practice using either Twist Traps (made by R. G. Hardie & Co.) or electronic pipes. “The advantage of the electronic practice is that we can organise rehearsals in small groups while respecting shielding measures,” explains Jean-Luc Jallier. Already six pipers have acquired Twist Traps. Just like in Lorient, Celtic Ried Pipe Band works face-to-face and in video on many pieces adapted to the levels of their players. “It is very important to maintain the motivation of our musicians” insists Jean Luc. “20% of our musicians are in difficulty and we must work twice as hard in order to help them.”

Vincent Jimenez, from the Aquitaine Highlander Pipe Band, does not encounter this problem but recognises that you have to pay attention to the motivation of each one, including the band tutors. The same goes for the Pipe Band in the Val de Somme, where a majority of are working from home and are confronted with ‘Zoom fatigue’, this professional exhaustion that consists of spending days in meetings under video scrutiny.

However, even if everyone works in order to keep their groups motivated, pipe bands face other concerns. From Lorient to Mulhouse, Amiens to Bordeaux, from west to east and from north to south, all performances in public spaces have been cancelled. To the financial losses you can add the difficulty of rehearsing for events that have not yet been scheduled or that will be cancelled. In 2020, the Val de Somme Pipe Band only made an appearance between two lockdown.

The same goes for Celtic Ried, who were able to organise a concert – see photo – for nursing staff at Mulhouse hospital which was hit hard by the pandemic (€2,300 was collected for the benefit of hospital staff).

These demonstrations remain anecdotal and the French pipe bands have not received any financial income for 12 months. It should also be noted that apart from a few pipe bands such as the Lorient Pipe Band, French formations, as elsewhere, have none or few benefactors/sponsors and only live on shows and performances.

shielding measures for pipers
The FFPB’s shielding advice for pipers.

In 2020, the French Pipe Band Federation (FFPB) had to cancel its two annual training courses as well as the French Championship (Category B) scheduled in Aubigny-Sur-Nère [in the Loire Valley; it is twinned with the Scottish town of Haddington – Editor] during the Franco-Scottish celebrations. The prospects for 2021 are not very encouraging and members are already worried about the lack of meetings and internships.

The FFPB authorities took advantage of this time to expand online resources (scores, a technical booklet on maintenance, etc.) for its members. It also provided technical support to explain the gestures and postures to follow when playing the bagpipe during this pandemic. The recommendations of the RSPBA were used as the basis for the drafting of the adjacent poster.

All these individual or collective initiatives do not replace the pleasure of getting together and playing together. With us all having more time on our hands during, we have devoted ourselves to cooking and DIY. Many have experienced much weight gain. All pipers and drummers are impatiently awaiting the moment when the halls can reopen, a sign that our shows can return.