Dan Nevans: a guide to constructive critique in an ensemble setting – the language of leadership

Dan Nevans

by Dan Nevans.
Piping Today #94, 2018.

I pure love swearing. I started at an early age and have peppered swear words into my day-to-day vocabulary for as long as I can remember. I think it might be something to do with being of Celtic descent: Gaelic has a certain ebb and flow that the Queen’s English does not. With the use of the extended syllables that Gaelic is famous for, I wonder if the Celtic gene pool in such anglicised areas as the central belt of Scotland perhaps somehow misses phrases being more rhythmically complicated, and to compensate, we insert rude or offensive words to make up the difference. 

Or, more likely, it’s a way of inserting a space into the sentence so you can think up the next thing you are going to say. 

When I was a wee boy, I remember pipe bands were rough as rough can be. I distinctly remember watching a world-famous band tune up in the early 2000s and a piper being reprimanded with great flourish and gusto for unsteady blowing. At the time I thought that was just an aspect of playing at a high level; do something wrong and you will receive a thorough telling off using a variety of key phrases and words which may or may not hurt your feelings. In fact, I thought how cool it would be to become one of the players who never got a roasting, a solid player, a pro… 

Talk softly and carry a big stick

Here’s the thing about people who “go pro”; they are very passionate about what they do. Serena Williams, one of the world’s finest athletes, hit the headlines a few months ago, not for a stunning tennis performance but for going off her nut at the chair umpire. Passionate people care and therefore the activity they choose to focus on has a lot of personal currency. The language we use in training can affect the worth of this currency just as much as a world leader praising or deriding a product or industry can affect the markets. Keeping players passionate is the key to development and achievement.

Let’s say you are at band practice this week and it becomes apparent that one player has not learned a tune and hasn’t even been through it enough to ghost. There are a variety of reactions available to the band management to confront the issue:

1. Nothing. Do nothing and maybe the problem will go away.

2. The tried and tested disciplinary option of shouting, swearing and shouting again.

3. Calmly approach the player and ask in a non-threatening tone: “Why has this tune not been learned?” This option may be the only positive move. At worst, you will learn that this player does not have the right attitude to be in your band. At best, you will find a way of helping the player. They may have difficulties in interpreting the music that you didn’t know about. By asking the question to one player, you will set your whole corps thinking. 

Pipe bands are changing. The whole culture is changing. I’d like to believe pipe bands are becoming a much more youth centric, forward thinking pseudo-sport.Some of you may be very uncomfortable with this concept. There are always those among us whose rose-tinted glasses are firmly welded on to their heads and can only imagine their version of pipe bands being the fundamental vision of the sport. That’s all well and good but listen here – you will be left in the dust just shortly. 

The vast majority of people picking up the bagpipe in this modern era are under 18. Sure, in central Europe and North America there may be a big culture of adult learners and that is wonderful. However when it comes to developing the next generation of world pipe band champions and solo piping title
winners, you generally start them between age seven and 12. 

There’s one thing about champions that ties them all together regardless of what they compete in: discipline. 

Think back to being about 10 or whatever age you were when you first blew a note in a pipe band. You’re playing the 3/4s (That’s pretty universal, right?) and you play the start of Green Hills when you were meant to be going into Battle’s O’er. The pipe major stops the band at the end of the set and singles you out because of the mistake. Because you’re wee, you get a finger wagging and told to do better. The language used in this moment can make or break a player. 

When people talk about discipline they often think of a person being “disciplined”, to be chastised or threatened with consequences as imaginative as they are violent. That’s not what discipline is. Discipline is getting the pipes or drum out every day and making your playing better regardless of any other factor. Discipline is planning and preparing every piece of your musical routine. Discipline is acting on the directions given to you by your ensemble leader without delay. 

Pipe majors, leading drummers, sound setters and coaches. Lend me your ears! When you have to critique a  performer inside your ensemble, please consider a few key factors:

Personality: Know your team. If you bark down a wallflower, they’ll crumble. Conversely if you lose the tattie at someone who is foolishly confident or obtuse then you’ll be wasting your energy. If you have an insight into your players’ personality then you will have a blueprint for motivating and developing them.

Experience: All players need support. New players need to be taught the process and disciplines required to be a successful member of your team. Experienced members need to be maintained, give them an inch and they’ll take a foot but at the same time, these are the players you expect to know the score.

Ability:  not all players are born equal. You, the ensemble leader, have to organise your corps so that individual strengths can balance out individual weakness. You can’t lambast someone for doing all they can in the moment. You could, however, refine your process to develop them. 

In short, discipline takes a lot of energy. If you are leading an ensemble and find it frustrating or difficult, well, bad news.It is frustrating and difficult to lead an ensemble but you have taken the job, so lead. You have to discipline the way in which you develop players, this means taking the bad with the good and having a plan to deal with both. 

Earlier in this piece, I asked you to imagine being a child, without experience, playing for the first time in a pipe band and getting a roasting because I wanted you to remember that feeling. The excitement, the attainment of the sense of worth you had that first time playing, then the sinking feeling as you make a pig’s ear of something. 

The vulnerability is breathtaking. What I am saying is, wouldn’t it have been great in that moment for someone to let you know that one little mistake isn’t the worst thing and also to show you how to discipline yourself to make sure you don’t make that mistake again?

We have to decide as a culture how we want to appear to the world. Is it as a professional and upwardly mobile musical artform or as a tartan-clad rugby team? The appearance all starts with discipline.

A quick tale before I wrap this article up. In June, on the way home from the European Championships in Forres, the band stopped in Aviemore to grab some food for the rest of the journey back to Glasgow. A few of us popped down to the chip shop at the bottom of the town and waited in the long queue. Most of us had changed into civilian clothes for the return journey so were pretty much in disguise as non-pipe band folk. The chip shop was full of members from another band, a lower grade band who I will not embarrass directly.

Their band members, including the Pipe Major, were not just drunk but trying to outdo one another in their use of swearing and vulgar imagery while they harangued the staff cooking their food (which, by the way, is an easy way to get your mushy peas spat in).

I stood and listened to all this and thought about the young family, obviously not with the band, who were further up the queue. The mother was mortified and the father bristling with discomfort. Their small boy was visibly intimidated. There’s one wee lad who will never pick up the pipes. Three people to go out into the world and tell others that pipe bands are full of louts and vagabonds. 

I’m not saying everyone has to act like monks. Like I said at the beginning, I’m a fan of the comedy swear as much as the next person and under stress I am wont to express myself in such a manner. I am saying, however, that there is a time and a place. In your band uniform in public is neither the time nor the place. Every pipe band represent something, a community, a company, a regiment, an emergency service. When you put on the tie, you are a symbol of that entity. 

For ensemble leaders, I offer these three keys nuggets of advice for the coming season. 

Leadership has a trickle-down effect. If you behave like a shaved ape inside and out of rehearsals, then so will your corps. What goes around, comes around. This also applies to what you are trying to work towards. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, your band’s performance is a reflection of your own. 

Manage the expectations of your corps. If you spend the winter treading water without positive development, you will find players listless and bored. This saps discipline and pulls the ensemble backwards. Create an objective and lead your players to it, not with shouting and swearing but with education and compassion. 

Talk softly and carry a big stick. A quiet word in private will have more of the effect you are looking for than the dramatic speech or lecture. If a player does not appear to be developing towards the shared team goal then this needs to be addressed, not in public but in private where one doesn’t have to worry about social standing. This also eliminates fear in the corps. Come January, your competing team should be made up of veteran players, surviving new players and players you wish to develop.

The experience of surviving the trial period and moving into the formative part of the year can bolster confidence and stoke the competitive fires. After all, if you’re getting a game, it’s 1000 times better than not getting one.