Dan Nevans

by Dan Nevans.
Piping Today #87, 2017.

Scenario One: It’s finally happened, thanks to over population and pollution, Planet Earth is doomed and so you make your way to the nearest space port to hitch a ride to Alpha Centuri. 

In your rush to escape the heat death of the planet, you only bring your pipe case and three and a half tins of warm Tennent’s Super Lager. Once at the spaceport, you ask the bloke on the door how you get aboard one of these ships, seeing as there’s over seven billion people waiting to get on. Was there a test or something? He says: “No bother Big Chap, simply write your name on this list and you’re all set.” 

You’re dead. You did not bring a pen.

Scenario Two: You are walking down the street and see a small person with a ragged coat, burst top hat and shoes without toes. Said person is holding a sign that says “Transcend beyond mortality into the heart of enlightenment – £1”. Deciding that this is another one of those comedy signs like ‘Will use money to buy booze’, or ‘Investment banker in need of capital’, you reach into your pocket to find that once again you are only carrying £50 notes, Bond certificates and lumps of pure platinum. Not wanting to ruin the homeless economy due to your lack of small change, you decide to seek enlightenment through physical pleasure and monetary gain. 

Behind you, a lady hands the hobo a quid, blooms into a flower of pure, white light, every living being in the universe hears her whisper ‘I love you all’, giggles and disappears to explore the cosmos as an entity of purity, love and life. 

The hobo too is gone.

You shake your head and enter a Greggs the Baker to buy yet another steak bake. 

The Boy Scouts have it right

Hey listen, in both those scenarios you either die on a doomed planet or miss out on universal enlightenment because you were not prepared. Everywhere I go, I make sure I have at least two of whatever currency in coins in my pocket (when in Yankee-doodle-dom it’s not coins but notes, but let’s not be pedants and get back to the point) and I always, ALWAYS, carry a pen. Do you know how useful a pen is?  

That’s just what you can do with a pen! 

Let’s take a minute here and think about the world of sports entertainment. Pro wrestling is dumb. Your mum told you that in 98, but punk rock, sleeveless t-shirts, bubble-gum measuring tape and licking nine volt batteries is also dumb, so hear me out. 

To be a pro wrestler you must be able to “take a bump” to get hurt for real, and sell it well enough for the audience to believe it is a catastrophic clash. This takes an intense amount of mental and physical preparation. When these people train, they train to be ready for the worst possible “bump”. You can’t fake a 30ft drop from the top of a steel cage, after all. 

In the words of 16-time world champion Rick Flair: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man, WOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

You have your pipes going, your hands are excellent and your sporran is freshly filled with oats but yet there is something missing, isn’t there? A spark, a want, a je ne sais quoi? We have spent over a decade in this magazine telling you about how to prepare, repair and perform with your instrument and I’d like to take about 1,397 words to talk to you about your musical vision and its development in your performance. 

1,383 to go….

What am I on about? Well, put simply your “musical vision” is a subjective concept informed by your education and understanding of an art form. This is not to say that not having an advanced knowledge of music will make you a bad musician, far from it, your vision can be expanded or contracted by new information. For example, if we think about what piping (competitive or otherwise) was like 50 years ago, we could talk about how dull and sparse the zeitgeist was. Yet, at the same time, hugely influential composers such as Pipe Major Donald MacLeod and Captain John MacLellan were at their most active. Although it may have taken a few years for their music to filter through to the mainstream, these composers are two of many who helped change the sound of piping. They had a sound or series of sounds that they enjoyed and used that as a reference point in their compositions. If we take a competition march by each of them, South Hall and The Knightswood Ceilidh, we can appreciate how individual and well thought out both these tunes are. 

Go on, have a listen. I’ll wait here just now.

•The Knightswood Ceilidh / The 71st Highlanders played by Simon McKerrell live at the King’s Hall.
•Angus McColl playing South Hall and The Argyllshire Gathering.

Ah, good, you’re back. 

What I was saying was that in every period of piping there has been musical innovation based on the direction all music was going at the time. This is what makes an art form, an art form. Continual forward motion. In the 1960s, several changes appeared, especially with the advent of the pipe band medley, yet today we regard this period as being very stagnant and uncreative or look down on it for its musical simplicity. 

John K. McAllister was a man mentioned a lot in my early piping. He taught my father for a couple of years in the early 1970s and many of the things he had to say about the structure of music made their way to my early tuition. I now often think about how John K. McAllister’s reputation as a crabbit, cantankerous man may have been a bit one-sided; John K. was a classically trained organ player, had his Pipe Major’s certificate from the army (Incidentally John K. would have done his Pipe Major course under Willie Ross and while in the army would have been a contemporary of Donald MacLeod and John MacLellan, since all three were army Pipe Majors around the same time) and had started his engineering career as a wood turner at Sinclair’s in Edinburgh. This is a man that in the mid-1950s, when he took over the Shotts band, would likely have been one of the best informed band leaders in piping and were it not for his lobbying, the pipe band medley would have been much delayed before it’s arrival in the early 60s. This means then that for some time, players like John K. would have been lone voices trying to advance the art form and striving to achieve new levels of musical clarity and design. Both John K. and Tom McAllister Jr. were very much influenced by the dance bands of their day and even the lauded Alex Duthart sought out new and interesting styles from American jazz and Swiss style drum lines. They were all pioneers in their day and suffered the burdens for that revolution, although they were all ultimately successful. 

If you get the chance, have a listen to some of the early medleys. Shotts, Red Hackle, Edinburgh Police, Glasgow Police, Muirheads. These were bands with no real set agenda of what a medley was so they simply made it up according to the guidelines set up by the RSPBA (SPBA). I also know the tune selection is rather oblique but that’s not the point. I don’t want 1,000,000 tweets about how you think The Steamboat is a rubbish medley opener. Stick to the cyber bullying about my weight, height, demeanour, spelling and glasses please. 

Right, so I now have 793 words to help inspire you to develop and expand upon your own musical horizons. That includes those words I just used there.

And those ones.

And these ones. 

Think about this. Every solo piper or pipe band you like at some point has had to ask themselves: “What do I want to sound like?” It is a question that plagues many and if you haven’t asked yourself it yet, now is the time. Get up, go to your pipe box and ask. If the answer is “I don’t know”, then how exciting! Get yourself on the computator and Google this – “Glenfiddich piping championship video”. There’s more than three years’ worth of Glenfiddich magic there, or look at YouTube for pipe bands. The Dronechorus channel has years of high-quality recordings there for free. Really pore over it and listen for what you like and as importantly what you don’t like. It’s really important to establish what your likes and dislikes are. If, however you don’t like something just because you don’t understand it, that’s on you to repair. 

Now that you’ve established what you do like and don’t like about an art form, you have some knowledge to go out and experience another kind of art form. Spoken word, ballet, Gaelic song, it doesn’t really matter what it is. What matters is that you go out of your comfort zone and learn something new. You will take on new creative thoughts and be inspired by other artistic events and pieces. Even if for the first while all you find out is that is that you hate Icelandic folk sculpting but love extreme ironing, then you have still developed the parameters of your artistic sensibilities. 

OK, 508 words to go. 

After this article has been read, once you’ve brushed your teeth and combed your hair or pulled your breeks up and headed back into the office or your head rests upon the steamy train window, try to think about this – you should want to achieve. You should want to be the best piper you can be. Whether that means playing in the back rank of a gala day band and making it through the tunes without mistakes, taking to the Grade 1 ring on Glasgow Green or playing at your sister’s wedding. If you have a vision of the music you want to play and how you want to play it, then you will find it much easier to get ahead. 

What do you do next? Keep it simple. If you want to climb a mountain, you can only do it one step at a time but if you try to run up Everest in your undercrackers, you’ll find it’s quite a bit more difficult. Look to the written music and the instrument. You want to swing a reel like Stuart Liddell? Before you can get into the minutiae of a master performance, you must ask; are you representing the basics of the note values presented on the page properly? Are your pipes really going well? How easy to tune are they? How long do they stay in tune for? How much do they change over time? Is the quality of sound good enough? Is your blowing steady? Are you over or under blowing? Address these questions, then you should start to see a path to your vision forming. 

Dream the big dreams. Fight the good fight. Never give up. Never give in and above all –
Illegitimi non carborundum.

All done and we’re only at 1900 words. By the way I edited this quite toughly over two months and I’m pretty sure if you count up the words before all those markers they do not add up correctly. DAN