Michael Grey’s Notes: A band, a team, is not a thing. It’s people.


by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #72, 2014.

If you want to make a fast million, forget trying to invent the perfect set of drones or never-fail chanter reed, like, say, a possible brand like the SkweelAway or, maybe, the NaySkirl 2000. If you’re looking for fast coin to roll in hard and fast, figure out a way to build the perfect team — and sell it.  The business world is reeking with countless people, companies and websites touting answers-for-a-fee to the forever-old question: how to create a great team. Now that’s where the money is.

Google delivers over 20 million possible connections when “team-building” is queried.  You hear the phrase, or one like it, almost every hour of the day in the working and sports worlds. Companies often rate their employees on their ability to work in a team and apply “teamwork principles” [through a mostly hated annual review process]: “Grey was effective in bridging interdepartmental collaboration by reaching out to key stakeholders in order to triangulate a favourable team position.”  For those aspiring for a working life in a “corporate setting”, you have something like this to look forward to. 

“Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” “None of us is as smart as all of us.” “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.” “It takes two flints to make a fire.” “Yadda, yadda,” as Jerry Seinfeld might say.

Then there is the all-time classic aphorism, one of hazy origins, “there is no ‘I’ in team”. Said often and always by people trying to get across their contention that great outcomes are only achieved not by any single person, but through people coordinating their efforts together.

One of the best teams I was ever part of was an absolute petri dish of out-sized ego. “I’s” galore. Echoes of Pavarotti abounding at every turn: “me-me-me-me-meeeeee”. The team would offer Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories a right good workout.  In fact, indulge me and think of Freud gleefully hanging over the cooker, with a big pot of fast-boiling egos, lid rattling, water and steam sputtering, spitting out all over the place. That was the team. Probably the greatest I’ve yet experienced: the 78th Fraser Highlanders, roughly 1982-1992. I was so great. 😀

Small by today’s standards, at any one time the band was never more than 18 pipers, eight snares, and four in the mid-section. In fact, the 1987 Worlds, won by this band, saw the band field 11 pipers, six snares, three tenors and a bass. 

So people knew each other pretty well and there was a lot of socialising outside of practice. We weren’t all good friends — to keep it real — but we were friendly, the odd fight aside. To add to the swirling mix, more than a few successful solo careers were at play in tandem with the band’s adventures. If only then practice space was as easy to come by as hard, determined opinion. If one definition of character talks to the strength and originality associated with a person’s nature, then there was no shortage of character — or characters, for that matter. 

This band was surrounded by a sort of force field of constant, unrelenting creative tension — something I have never experienced before — or since. This pull was the real source of the single-minded, hyper-focused drive for excellence. In aiming to explore different takes of traditional pipe band music, the band’s vision was the natural source for the kind of tension I’m talking about.  Everyone has their own idea of good music, different music — just music — and maybe more than a lot of bands, individual band member impressions, and the sureness of the players holding these impressions, are at the root of [what I imagine was] the band’s atomic-powered inventiveness.   

A band, a team, is not a thing. It’s people. And these people played close to the bone when dealing with each other: we bantered, yes, and fought, argued, embarrassed, teased and probably, more often than not, crossed the line when dealing with the varying shades of our individual musical tastes. I mean, what’s the big deal when it comes to the occasional huff among band mates?  

Proposing tunes to the band was a serious exercise in character development. We’d sit with our chanters at the practice table, ideas and tunes would be played and reaction was unfiltered: “crap” “don’t get it” “sounds like a bad (insert name of rival band name here) tune” and — the worst — a choir of laughter.  No. Wait. Laughter wasn’t the worst. What was almost always inside-tear-inducing was the playback of your offered-up tune by way of someone at the practice table singing or scatting back in that whiny, derisive, schoolyard bully sort of way: “nanana-nanana-lalala-blaaaaah…” Pick your favourite tune and sing it that way. I don’t care what it is; even Lord Alexander Kennedy comes back as mature cheddar.    

I can’t say exactly what this ego brought to the team. I do know I got more good back from the whole experience than I gave. There was zero political correctness. It was all straight-talk, usually metaphorical face slaps and a whole lot of laughter, fun and a bottomless well of collective enthusiasm. I gained an appreciation for hard edges — including insight to smoothing out my own a little. This team had a vision, and that vision was pursued relentlessly — by all the many individual members – the “I’s”.  The team was kismet from the beginning: a moment in time when the stars aligned and the right people came together and, as the output of the team proved, at the right time.

It must be said that the shepherd of the I’s on this team was masterful in bringing the thing together. A pipe major is nothing if not Chief Ego and ours, the charismatic Bill Livingstone, proved time and again that there are lots of “I’s in team” — and they were all members of his.  

And so, a small example of what I’m going on about: a tune.  This week I came across an example of a ditty that ended up being titled, Up to the Line, an early copy of a score that would eventually become the real thing.  My super-ordinary 12/8 march, scored in March of 1984, and thanks to the discernment and inspiration by one of my band mates — friends in this case — would become, five months later, something, I think, not ordinary.

Bruce Gandy and I were part of this team of “I’s” and egos. And, with an idea of making the six-hour car ride pass a little easier on the way back to Toronto from the 1984 August Maxville-Montreal contest weekend we chipped away at my seriously ordinary March ’84 tune effort.  And so, with a tip of the hat to friend, fellow competitor and then band member, the tune Up to the Line entered the world. Had we never played together this would never have happened and a memorable medley may’ve opened with something else far less wonderful. 😀    

And so, in my experience, I put to you a great team has a shared vision, a leader who fits the character of the team — and that team has lots of characters: big “I’s” who give a lot, laugh a lot, yet know when to get down to business. Throw in a handful of the indescribable [that which you are going to figure out and sell and become a millionaire] and a bit of luck and you’re on your way. The best teams: Complementary egos who never compliment — that would just be crazy.