The Gathering

This weekend brings in another weekend full of pipe bands playing in Glasgow for the World Pipe Band Championships. From all over the globe, musicians gather to play and ultimately compete in the biggest event of its kind.

Glasgow is home to the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA) and the Worlds have been held in this great city for a long time, as long as I remember. Other competitions that are majors (RSPBA organised) or the local competitions held around the world, everyone aspires to come to Glasgow in August and try their best to place among the winners.

It’s a lot of fun, meeting up with friends from all over the globe you don’t see apart from when you’re all at Glasgow Green and after at the many band gathering water holes around the town after it’s all over. There is a party going on somewhere, win or lose.

But there is a serious side. It takes years of practice at home and in band halls to get to a level where you’re ready to play with the band. Then in close season, the Pipe Major and Lead Drummer will get together to sort out the competition pieces for the year, which is followed by months of practice at home / practice halls, as corps as well as a band, refining, honing, developing.

All this practice is judged in either around  3 minutes or 6 minutes, depending on your grade and what you are playing, medley or the more traditional march, strathspey and reel (MSR). This is done by four people who make or break your season depending on whether they like what you’ve done or if your performance is not your best, maybe by one or two players affected by the occasion.

I played side drum since I was 11 years old, starting off in my home town and was fortunate to have been trained by a couple of greats in the pipe band world but I was lazy and didn’t progress as I should have. Then other things called – football, drinking, women – and my life changed a bit until I was living in England, 30 years old and thought that playing again would be a good idea.

It was. I started off in an aspiring local lower grade band and played in Grade 2 with a band a bit further away. I competed at all the majors with some great people who are still friends today and they are amazing musicians, even the pipers, when they finally stopped tuning their instrument. I’ve been in bands that have placed at majors and the worlds, playing in finals and it was a great experience. The downside for me was time commitment and then there was the added pressure in performing to a high level every time I played which was sharper the further up the grades I went.

That pressure only added to the strain my work stress was giving me and I had to stop playing. As we know, that all led to my fight with mental illness that really is burn out in the most horrible crashing way. I do miss the camaraderie of competitions, meeting with old friends, meeting people and listening to some really kick arse music from some of the best musicians and bands in the genre.

It was not only a pleasure but a privilege to play in pipe bands. It took me places I’d never have visited and experiences I’d never have had without the bands. I’ve been chased by bulls in Basque country, had my kilt lifted by an octogenarian male in Poprad, Slovakia while on stage in front of nearly a thousand people and in Donegal, had a few great nights laughing at chicken farmers from Monaghan, as well as my mate Antoin trying to split a wedding fight between the bride and her bridesmaid.

And the music. Playing and listening to some of the best food for the soul that can be had. Not everyone gets bagpipes but when you do, it’s electrifying. From the high tension snares starting with the three pace rolls, the pipes hitting their E bang on time and the music rolling, underpinned by a magical multi-tonal bass section, you are taken on a journey by the performance of every player contributing to the sound.

Good luck to everyone playing this weekend. I hope you have one of those worlds you think about for years and if you’re lucky, hear your name read out on the Green.

There really is nothing like it.

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