If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Don't Say Anything at All: Resetting Pipe Band Culture

The phrase I heard most often as a child growing up was repeated constantly by my mother: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all". My mother worked for many years as the fellowship coordinator at our church. Her job description was relatively simple. First, get as many people involved in church activities as possible. Second, welcome any new members and make a connection with them. And finally, make each person in our church feel like they are important, valued and appreciated.

Yes, the job description was simple. However, in practical terms it was very hard work.


Because people are people! Whether it's in a church, in an office or in a pipe band, people come in different shapes, sizes and colours with a variety of opinions, world views and personalities. I was constantly amazed by my mother's ability to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of human behaviour with humility, grace and patience.

I would describe my mother as an extra-vert, through and through. She got her energy from people. She loved talking with them, developing relationships and learning what made them tick. She was invested in her work and it was clear she genuinely loved it.

That doesn't mean it was always easy, however. Again, people are people and there were many challenging times during her ten year tenure with the church. However, she always tried her hardest and even the most difficult people recognized this fact and respected her for it.

Thanks in large part to the example set by my mother, our church became a welcoming place. All members of the congregation were expected to participate not just in the church services themselves but in the church community. Even after her departure the groundwork she had set in place remained for many years. Through hard work, dedication and an unyielding eye to the future, my mother succeeded in changing the culture of our church.

So, what did this "culture change" look like at the grass roots level?

Every Thursday, we would have a revolving door of dinner guests--usually at least ten. They were treated to a three-course meal, conversation and a chance to meet new friends. Usually, Mum tried to invite at least one young family and several elderly members of the congregation. These meals happened weekly for years on end. My family knew every member of our church (there were several hundred).

The singles group met at our house, the bible study group met at our house, the fellowship committee (of which Mum was the chair) met at our house. It was an unending stream of people meeting, eating and talking.

During her workday, Mum had lists of phone numbers that she used to keep track of church members with whom she'd not spoken recently. She was always on the phone, asking for volunteers for the Tea and Sale or the annual corn boil and setting up meetings to talk with others about new activities and groups to increase participation.

The fact that I had a front row seat to my mother's efforts has helped me greatly as a lead drummer. If I could take one thing away from my experiences watching her over the years it would be this: treat people with respect.


The Importance of Respect

Respect is defined as the "due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others". In the pipe band world, or in any organization, respecting people is the most important thing you can do, whether you are in a leadership position or a new member.

Respect means thinking about what you say before you say it. It means avoiding any inappropriate language that might offend someone. It means keeping your emotions in check to avoid unnecessary outbursts. It means being kind, accepting, accommodating and aware of others feelings. Being respectful requires vigilance and self-discipline.

I am often frustrated by the lack of respect for others that I see in the pipe band world. On social media, people too often hide behind anonymity or misplaced ego and freely offer negative criticism, comments or insults. In pipe band practices, pipe majors and lead drummers scream at, and insult, their players, berating their effort and ability. I have heard racist jokes, misogynistic quips, sexist remarks and reinforcement of tired stereotypes. It's exhausting. And, we can do better as a pipe band community.

I have also heard how exhausting it is to be politically correct all the time. This, honestly, is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. If you are feeling exhausted about being politically correct you are obviously white and most likely a man--the most privileged demographic on the planet. If you are tired of being politically correct, how tired do you think the less privileged members of your band feel when they hear inappropriate comments and tired stereotypes!

If we are going to change the (often toxic) culture in the pipe band world we have to start thinking of others first. If we can't say something nice, we really shouldn't say anything at all.

It is important to note that most pipe bands do not have a "toxic" culture per se. Most bands are welcoming to various degrees and maintain a focus on having fun and playing good music. However, because pipe bands are made of up people, they will always have some issues treating all members with the respect they deserve.

So, is it possible for your pipe band to be a perfect place where everyone is respectful of each other 100% of the time?


My mother wasn't perfect.

But she tried very, very hard to be.

Her effort was perfect.

That is the key to changing our culture.

The pandemic has wrought havoc on the pipe band world. With no competitions or parades on the horizon, interest in many bands has waned dramatically.  Membership numbers are down. As a community, we need to recruit, train and retain as many players as we can to keep our art-form alive. A culture of mutual respect will allow this to happen. We don't have the luxury to go back to "the way things were". This pandemic has given the pipe band community world-wide a chance to press the "reset button". Let's all take this opportunity to move forward as a collective with a more inclusive and respectful mindset. The world is changing and the pipe band world must change with it.