Monday, July 30, 2012

European Pipe Band Championships 2012

Oh, the week I had...

A week ago last Friday, while LC and I were travelling down to my cousin's wedding (more on which later), the pipe major of the band finally decided that enough was enough, and resigned, effective immediately. To be honest, I couldn't blame him either for doing this or for his timing, nor was it at all surprising. But it did drop me in it, of course.

Over the course of the weekend, before I could get everyone together and try to start rebuilding things, it all kicked off. I guess it's the down-side of things like Facebook - people can say things will an immediacy that wasn't previously available, emails can be sent while angry, and so forth. The upshot was that by the Monday, my already-hard task of getting the band ready for the competition was suddenly that much harder.

So, I spent the week running here and there, speaking to various people, smoothing ruffled feathers, and generally getting things back to some sort of normality.

Anyway, we had two practices, and I was gratified to learn that all the band members who had signed up to go to Ireland were still intending to go to Ireland, and indeed were mostly planning to stick with the band. Unfortunately, though, quite a few people couldn't make it to practices that week - two pipers and more than half of the drum corps were missing. This would come back to bite us.

So, we got ready as best we could. And then, come Friday morning, we got on to the bus at the disgusting hour of 7am. (Which had meant getting up at 5:30, which is pretty evil.)

The journey to Ireland was then mostly uneventful. There was a blessed lack of drunkeness, and things were generally calmer than they had been the previous couple of years. I was actually a lot happier about this trip than I had been.

We arrived at the hotel about 2:30 in the afternoon, got checked in, and spent a little time wandering Belfast city centre, although we had to return to the hotel to avoid a nasty shower. Sadly, the available time wasn't quite enough to do anything meaningful with the time; LC and I will have to return to Belfast some time for a real visit. Later, several members of the band went out for the evening to grab a bite to eat, before returning to the hotel for a pint, and to watch some of the Opening Ceremony (and more on that later, too). And then, bed.

The start of the Saturday did not go well. I had made certain to tell everyone, "meet in reception at 8:45". That gave us plenty of time to get on the bus, get to the competition site, and get set up. 8:45 came and went, and a key member of the band was missing. (We later learned that he hadn't slept well, had therefore slept in, and so was running very late.) After a significant delay, we set off without him.

We got about 300 yards, just far enough to make turning back an impossibility, before we discovered that we didn't have the bus pass needed to get us into the car park. Our travel convenor wasn't on the bus (she had decided to stay in Belfast and join us later), and had forgotten to hand over the pass.

So, we made a call, and she jumped into a taxi to follow us. Meanwhile, the bus carried on, and I desperately hoped they'd let us in anyway... or at least let us unload before banishing the bus. In the event, they let us in... and the travel convenor arrived two minutes later with the now-unnecessary bus pass.

The band were given instructions to gather to get started at 10am. Meanwhile, I went to sign us in and get a programme. And things started to calm down.

We gathered, we proceeded to get ready, and things proceeded... okay. Not great, but okay. This was the point where we really started to suffer from the loss of our previous pipe major, though, because we didn't really have anyone with the expertise to set up the chanters and the drones just so. (For those who aren't experts, a single piper typically has three drones that need to be tuned to match the individual chanter, which can be set to a more-or-less arbitrary frequency; a band requires that all the chanters share the same frequency, and indeed that all the individual notes be adjusted using tape so that they all match, and then that all the drones be set to match.) And the guy who is our next-best option? He was the guy who slept in.

Oh, and of course the people who hadn't made it to the practices were quite far out from where they should have been - an inevitable consequence of missing those practices. So, there was work to be done, and nobody really with the time or expertise to do it. Damn.

About 10:20, our late-sleeping member arrived in a taxi, and started to get ready at some speed. Ten minutes later, we moved round from the bus park to the tuning field, and had our final tuning. The net result? We knew there was still a lot to be done with the pipes, but just had to go with it. But the play... I was reasonably happy with the play. Anyway, the steward came, so it was time to go on.

I remember very little after that. I remember messing up the command to halt (pipe bands, unlike the BB, don't use check-paces, which means everything I know is wrong). I remember shaking as I told the band to relax and enjoy it. And I remember being enormously relieved when it was all over. That's about it.

To be honest, I was delighted just to get on and play. So, once the band was off the competition field, I made sure to thank and congratulate everyone. And then, we waited - because that was just the qualification round, and we might have to do it all again later.

Well, no such luck. They announced the results at 12:30, and we didn't make the cut. This wasn't really a surprise - in Ireland, against all the Irish bands (who are generally very good) it was always going to be a challenge, and that was before the pipe major quit. With that, and everything else we'd been fighting against...

LC and I went for lunch at this point, and ate far too much. We also proceeded to get both rained on and sunburnt, because that was the sort of day it was.

At 2:30, they released the commentary sheets. There were thirteen bands in our qualifying heat, and we were last. We came 11th and 13th in piping, 10th in drumming, and 11th in ensemble. But, to be honest, I wasn't bothered by that in the slightest - I take the view that only the qualifying positions matter, and that the difference between 7th and last is essentially meaningless. (Incidentally, of the six qualifiers from our heat, 5 were Irish. Of the prize-winners in our grade, all six were Irish. That's not a complaint, merely an observation - as I said, the Irish bands are very good.)

What was surprisingly reassuring, though, was the commentary on the feedback sheets. Both judges put a great deal of emphasis on the pipes not really being set up correctly. Which sounds bad, but is actually a good thing - both because we knew that, and also because it's a mechanical thing which is quite easy to fix. The other thing they said was that the play was quite nervy, which is also not surprising. It is, of course, difficult to get people to relax in a situation than that... but I guess that's what we'll need to do.

But the important thing was that this was not the critical mauling that I had feared. And it gives us a platform from which to proceed. If we can get the pipes set up better for the Worlds (which should be easy enough), and if we can just get a bit of confidence into the play, that by itself will be enough for a better result.

The rest of the afternoon dragged past slowly. It would have been good at this point to gather the band back on the bus, return to the hotel, and call it a day at that. Unfortunately, we had sold a number of seats to another band, and they had qualified, so we were stuck there. (There might have been options, but we didn't explore them. Perhaps a mistake.) Still, we waited, and then we did the march past, and then we waited some more. It was somewhat heartening to see two of our local bands win the Grade 2 and Grade 1 contests. Congratulations to them.

We eventually got back to the hotel, LC and I had showers, and then we went for dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was okay. And then we went to bed.

The journey home was largely uneventful, although a few people had a few too many. Still, we got home without any fights, without any travel sickness, and without any great trouble. While on the ferry, I spoke to the committee, and said that I want to lead the band out at both the Worlds and Cowal (since I won't get another chance), but that I'm not a candidate for taking over permanently.

My current plan is to remain in position on an interim basis, until the band finds a new permanent PM. At that point, it is my intention to fade out of the band - firstly by reducing my attendance at practices and by not competing, and then later by giving up my various responsibilities altogether at the end of next year. I've come to the unfortunate realisation that the only time I've really been happy at the band recently is when the PM has been away and I've been in charge... but that I'm also not the right person to take the band forward (and don't have the time or energy besides). So, for the good of the band I have to step aside, but for the good of myself, I don't really want to work with another pipe major (whoever that may be).

There are now two competitions remaining. The Bridge of Allan Highland Games have been cancelled, and any effort to put together a band for a contest on the Saturday have failed (can't say I mind that). That leaves the World Championships in two weeks, and then the dread Cowal in four weeks. After that, the band will take several weeks off, before returning for our AGM.

There was one other really good thing that came out of the weekend: I finally finished "Clear and Present Danger"!

#24: "Clear and Present Danger", by Tom Clancy (the worst book of the year to date)
#25: "Pathfinder: The Island of Empty Eyes", by Neil Spicer
#26: "Pathfinder: The Price of Infamy", by Time Hitchcock

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