Arranging tunes with Finlay MacDonald

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Finlay MacDonald is Head of Piping Studies BA (Scottish Music — Piping) degree course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He has been in demand as a performer and has toured with top Scottish bands such as Deaf Shepherd, Battlefield Band and Old Blind Dogs, and, as well as having recorded on more than 20 albums as a session musician, he has released two albums with his own Finlay MacDonald Band.

“There are a few approaches you can take when arranging set of tunes and it really depends on how you want to portray your music. There is nothing wrong with playing a big set of tunes which sit really nicely on the pipes and are comfortable to play. Though at other times it is good to stretch yourself with tunes that are difficult and awkward to play, maybe in a situation where the tunes have been composed by musicians who are not pipers and which don’t quite sit as well on the pipes. It is good to challenge yourself and push that out, though it is equally as satisfying to rattle into a set of reels which naturally feel good.

“When it comes to arranging I like to pick tunes which sit comfortably on the lead instruments in the band. So if it is pipes and fiddle which are leading, then I will naturally tend towards pipe tunes to give a big, strong feel to the sound, or just write tunes to give the feel I’m looking for. When I’m arranging I sometimes need a tune in a specific key and with a certain vibe and if I don’t know one I will just write one.

“I now often find that it is possible to do more with an arrangement when it is a simpler tune; and in the past I have probably been through the mill trying to play and arrange the most complex of tunes. Those complicated tunes do have their place and it is all to do with how you want your music to come across but I now feel that you can’t beat a lovely 3/4 march with nice chords, harmony and a bit of percussion behind it. That is where I am at the moment; enjoying these big strong tunes.

“Tune players generally have an inbuilt ability to put sets of tunes together, without really analysing what they are doing. I could be playing a tune and think, ‘that would be good for starting a set’, and then I will just naturally feel what the next tune should be. It is important when you put a set together to think about it as a piece of music, rather than individual tunes, so that it has a start, a middle and an end. There are so many ways to go and you don’t need to follow the same formula — start with a big tune, then go small and have a big finish; or start small then get bigger before coming back down — there are so many options and it is great to explore them.

“It is quite different arranging for a folk band compared to a pipe band where everyone has to be playing all the time and it is impossible to use dynamics. It can feel limiting when arranging for a pipe band but it becomes a challenge in different ways. When arranging a tune for various instruments I always like to think of a spectrum of sound with the pipes always fixed at one level, and then consider what the other instruments can do to fill in the spectrum above and below the pipes. So you will have the bass guitar or drum filling in the lower end of the spectrum, the snare away up high above the pipes and the fiddle, whistles or flute weaving in and out and above and below the level of the pipes.”