The competition march

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Today, we once again delve into our not inconsiderable archives to bring articles that we feel will be of interest to pipers, regardless of whether they are a student or a seasoned competitor. 

These articles remain free to all and we will continue to add more each week.

Today’s article is a fascinating account of the 2/4 competition march, written by one of its finest exponents, Captain John A. MacLellan MBE, and published the May 1980 edition of his International Piper magazine. 

By Capt. John A. MacLellan MBE

Next to ceòl mòr it is a fair assumption that the competition march is the most importance branch of Highland Bagpipe music. Both have in common that they are original music invented by players of the instrument. Most of the other classes, the dance music, comprising strathspeys, reels and jigs, and even the light 2/4 and 6/8 marches have much of their origins in indigenous airs.

The competition march made its first appearance in the 1840s and ’50s, beginning with a number of adaptions from older airs by Angus MacKay of Raasay and compositions by him and by Hugh MacKay of Stirling.

What makes a march a competition march, how is it different from other marches and what is required from the piper to play this music properly?

In contrast to the other marches it could be said that competition marches are purely for entertainment value, The tempo at which they are played is much too slow for the practical purpose of marching: 72-80 beats per minute, compared with 100 — 116 of the 6/8’s and light 2/4’s. Thus, competition marches are ‘listening’ music, which is usually profusely embellished with various gracenote combinations and which has a bar content which exceeds that of the lighter tunes. Consequently, the player requires to have a fingering technique which is deft enough to handle the intricate notation and sufficient musical acumen to express the melody properly.

Having said all that, let us look to the modus operandi!

Firstly, let us examine the dictates of the time signature which is 2/4, meaning —

(a) Two beats per bar

(b) The notes per beat equal in value a 1/4 note

Furthermore, each beat has within it a secondary pulse as follows:

It is the correct expression of these pulsations, coupled with good melodic production which constitutes good march playing.

It is in the expression of the four pulsations within each bar that the art of the piper can be fully exploited, in other words that oft used word … pointing.

It is also here, that the solo player has the edge over the pipe bandsman, who must play with others in unison and who is also ‘hedged in’ to some degree by the rhythm of the drums which, while they complement the melody, do dictate a fairly strict rhythm to which the pipe band piper must conform, pulse by pulse.

The solo piper can steal (ever so slightly) a little time from one pulsation to the other, while keeping up a strict tempo from one main beat to the other. For instance in the following two bars –

– it will be possible in time-group one, to extend the time on the double C by stealing just a little from the B and A. However, to keep the tempo steady and the music flowing well, the time taken to play the succeeding time-groups, must be the same as that taken for the whole of first group, C to A.

Erratic playing comes about when a piece is over pointed, by the giving of too much emphasis, or by too much stealing from one pulse to the other.

Needless to say, the expression of the proper melody from the notation is essential. However, the player might well ask, “What is the proper melody’’? and “How does one find it?” In the following bars, part of Kantara to El Arish; the notes of little consequence have beer struck out, These are connecting note: which help to keep the flow of the tune going and while they are most essential to the finished article, they have little to do with its melodic content.

The notes which are left contain the real melody of the tune and are the notes which require to be emphasised. It should be realised that the time given to all demi-semi-quavers (1/32nd notes) is not always the same. Some are shorter than others.

In addition, the pulses marked _ when given full value will produce good expression. The study of the notation, marking with a pencil (which can be eventually rubbed out) will reveal the true melody of the tune.

With regard to the fingering of the embellishments, all doublings should be crisply made, using neat gracenotes, properly spaced. Large gracenotes lead to clumsy and coarse playing, and although they should be large enough to be heard distinctly, gracenotes, should not overpower the notes they are to embellish.

Doublings are simply, means by which notes are stressed and the very act of placing a doubling on a note makes that note stand out. It is very, very seldom indeed that a short note is embellished with a doubling in competition marches. With this stressing of the beat note and as well often the secondary pulse within a beat it may not be necessary to lengthen or point the notes which are doubled. A group which comes readily is the type which is found in the penultimate bar in each part of Bonnie Ann:

Here many players may find that good strongly made doublings will be sufficient to emphasise the D and B in group one and in contrast cut and point well the notes in group two.

The final bar can be found in many competition marches and in many cases the double C is incorrectly fingered playing one gracenote on top of the other. Suffice it to be said that all the good march players take pains to produce this doubling in this situation so that both the G and D gracenotes are distinctly heard with the C between being given just a little more prominence.

The final ingredient in good march production, is Tempo. No hard and fast tempo can be laid down. Much depends on the temperament of the player and the particular tune to be played. However, anywhere within a bracket of 70-80 should be reasonable. One might say that a jump from 70-80 is a large one, but it is only an increase of 10 beats per minute, not really a great deal, but which in piping circles often makes the distinction between a slow player and a fast player of marches. There is, however, a danger for both types of playing. The slower player can often over-point, giving too much emphasis to the note which is on the beat, which results in stilted playing and lacking musical flow.

John MacColl pictured on the cover of the collection of his compositions that includes all his excellent 2/4 marches.

On the other hand, if the quicker player does not match his increased tempo with more agile fingering to produce good pointing, there is the danger that the production will be over-round. Indeed, styles in piping do change from time to time and the musical taste of the current experts, has much to do with setting particular trends.

The melodic structure of the tune itself can often assist the player to good rhythmic music and it is here that the good composer’s musical genius comes to the fore and to this end, John MacColl in particular was most adept.

To sum up then. Competition marches are really not tunes to march to, unless the marchers wish to move just a little quicker than slow march tempo. They are true bagpipe music and a product of the pipers art which require considerable fingering dexterity. Above all, study of the tune’s proper melody is most essential to reveal the lights and shades, which puts the artist above the technician who often leaves the listener unsatisfied because of the lack of musical taste.