David V. Kennedy from Sacramento in California had this article published in the February 1980 edition of The International Piper. Clearly, pipe bands have come a long way since 1981 and the medleys heard today are beyond those of heard in David’s day but his central theme is something that is still discussed today among pipers.

Is band piping the par excellence of pipe music?

By David V. Kennedy

History certainly seems to tell us that the Great Highland Pipe, the Piòb Mhòr or the Piòb Mhala started off as a solo instrument. In later years, during the proscriptions of just about everything Gaelic or Celtic in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the pipe became recondite but not completely extinguished. A significant resurgence of the instrument occurred when the regiments added the pipe to the bandsmen, and the instrument became approved by the British military establishment. Most pipers will agree that the continuity of our pipe over the last 150 years was largely due to the military and its pipe bands.

The fanfarron, the splendid noise, the pomp and ceremony of the military pipe band captured the imagination of the listener, be he a pipe lover or not.

In particular, the person who knew very little about the pipe, or even about Scotland and its culture, came to think of band piping as the par excellence of pipe music, with the eventual result that today, many people appreciate the sound of the pipe, only when it is played in a band, backed up with drums.

In the last 20 or 30 years civilian pipers and ex-regimentals of considerable talent have formed pipe bands which have reached a very high degree of excellence, such that some highly skilled pipers now actually prefer to pipe in a band rather than on the solo ‘boards’. There is no doubt, in my mind, that the sound coming from a group of pipes in unison is far different in quality than than coming from a single pipe. One cannot help but be impressed with the performance of a really good Class [Grade] 1 pipe band … the unity of tone and pitch, the teamwork of pipes and drums, the dexterity of fingering, and the ability to march, counter-march while playing and so on. This kind of piping definitely must have its place in the scheme of things.

But the real question is: Is this what the pipe was made for? Do we learn the pipe for the main objective of playing in a band? I believe the answer to be negative on both counts.

Limitations and advantages, both aspects
Apart from the practical, rehearsal aspects of band piping e.g. where to go? where to march? uniform and quartermaster problems, there are the subtle differences in technique between the group and the soloist. The embellishments in Scottish piping have always held a very high priority: if you cannot perform them so that they can be heard clearly and cleanly and in correct timing, then you are not an accomplished piper. (Tuning and tone are assumed to be so basic as to not constitute any difference between soloist and group; basic enough to be a mandate on any piper, accomplished or not.)

Piping in a band tends to obscure these embellishments so that they cannot be clearly heard or appreciated; and to have all pipers execute the embellishments exactly simultaneously, is a work of art which, all too often, is avoided by re-arranging the embellishments in a simpler form. Obviously, composers do not write music to have it changed, intentionally or unintentionally, by performers; but changed it gets to be by a great many pipe bands, especially those of the Class 3 and 4 categories. Ancillary to the concept expressed in the last paragraph is the technical difficulty of having groups of pipers play the classical music of the Pipe i.e. the piobaireachd. A top level band could probably get through the Ùrlar and the Dithis and Siubhal variations all right; they just might make it through the Taorluath variations (but I doubt it!); and when they arrived at the Crunluath, chaos would result, to be crowned by complete bedlam if a Crunluath a-Mach were attempted. Apart from the embellishments, themselves, there is the aspect of the need for a solo pipe to sound piobaireachd because of the unique quality of tone in a single pipe. Not only that: but the ear of the discerning listener will be able to pick out the clarity of the embellishments and the contrast and ‘colour’ between high notes and low ones … features of the single pipe which are lost in the maze of sound emanating from a pipe band.

“… the unity of tone and pitch, the teamwork of pipes and drums, the dexterity of fingering …”

The average non-student of the pipe, i.e. the man-in-the-street listener is, most generally, fascinated by the pipe band … a kind of fascination which reminds me of the uninitiated visitors to the Near East in times gone by, when the natives offered them a show called: ‘Mongoose fight cobra, sahib! Just one rupee!’ Neither the listener, in the first example, nor the onlooker, in the second example, knows really very much about what is going on.

Apart from the few who are knowledgable about pipe music, bands seem to draw listeners who want to hear tunes like Yankee Doodle Dandy, Turkey in the Straw, Auld Lang Syne, and the latest ‘disco’ song. Others, glassy-eyed, are entranced by the twirling of the ‘sticks’; the tartan; the feather bonnets! When a band circles up to go into it: MSR set, these same listeners are all at sea, vaguely certain that something uniquely Scottish and BIG is going on but not quite sure what “songs” the Band is playing. There is, of course, the occasional idiot who will wander by the solo Piper and ask him or her to play the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata #21 (for piano)! Fortunately, such requests are few and far between in one’s lifetime.

Both band pipers and soloists suffer occasionally from the malaise of their drones getting out of tune during a performance. It’s possible that in a band, I but one piper’s drones start to waver, the other pipers can drown it out … so to speak. But when a drone wavers on the solo instrument, it is caught by a trained ear right away. And, of course, what could be more disastrous than the bass drone ‘clapping up’ entirely! These things aren’t supposed to happen with a set of balanced, well-tuned, well attended-to pipes … but abrupt changes in climate on the field, or being forced to allow the pipe to dry out while waiting one’s turn (in 100˚ F. weather) and similar circumstances may turn everything topsalteerie.

“… the soloist may choose his own interpretation of the music, and not that called by a Pipe Major or other group leader.”

A soloist has the additional advantage of not having to bother about compatible chanters and chanter reeds, which are elements of prime consideration in a pipe band; and he has the further advantage of being able to set his own time for all his ‘sets’ of music, and not having to ‘march’ at street-beat rate at times when ‘marching’ is called for. Again, the soloist may choose his own interpretation of the music, and not that called by a Pipe Major or other group leader. Unlike the violin or violoncello, hautbois or cor anglais, the pipe provides its own back- ground for its music by means of the drones. No further accompaniment is essential to project the music of the pipe, although a certain enhancement can be provided by the side-drum, the bass drum and, occasionally, by the tenor drum … but most of all by the side drum, the snare. This enhancement is at its best when pipes are played in a group ie. as a full band; but the colour it provides is not suitable for even all kinds of ceòl beag or ceòl meadhon. For example, I do not think that the ‘swords’ Highland dance is improved by a drum background, nor, for that matter, is the Sean Triubhas; and quite a few slow airs lose their beauty and pathos when the solo pipe is accompanied by a drum … or any other instrument, for that matter.

I am well aware of the innovations used by Pipe Major Donald Shaw Ramsay (pipe band plus drums for ceòl mor and ceòl meadhon), and of the use of an organ with pipes by the Red Hackle; but these are non-traditional experiments, which while admirable and adaptable to pipe bands, are of very doubtful value as an improvement for a solo pipe. From an onlooker’s viewpoint, I don’t think we can question the attractiveness of such innovations in pipe bands; but we might question the inherent musical value of them. There could be a problem of where to draw the line. If accordions, organs, and the whole gamut of brass instruments and percussion are considered desirable, why not cow-bells, maracas, and ‘clackers’? It’s my understanding that the latter (or some of them) were once used by a pipe band from the San Francisco Bay Area in the Santa Rosa Scottish Games, California, but were ‘outlawed’ in subsequent band competitions. My guess is that they were considered undignified and non-traditional by the judges and Games committee. My personal feeling is that once a pipe band has gone beyond the traditional drum section, into the area of brass etc, it has already lost much of its individuality, and the addition of bugles, cow-bells or whatever else is not going to destroy much more of what individuality is left. By the time all these innovations have been added, the pipes have become just another instrument in a band, and the pipe band plus brass etc has become a ‘show’ rather than a musical presentation. Nothing is wrong with this, from an entertainment aspect; but it does not perpetuate the classical level of the pipe or its soloistic subtleties … and these are the qualities which we pipers claim raise our instrument (and other pipes like the uillean, the Northumbrian, the Bulgarian and so on) above that of the shepherd’s reed or flute; above that of a merely bucolic reed instrument for which no musical discipline is required; above that of a primitive instrument of a primitive culture . . . an instrument played a la santa gana (which is a marvellous Spanish saying meaning, roughly, “as I damn well please!’’).

Nevertheless, recognition of our pipe as a sort of ‘Jeckyll and Hyde’ character is to be pragmatic about its status. It plays its role in a band by

  • making the pipe popular with the uninitiated listener;
  • and because of this, occasionally bringing an interested person to take up the pipe and start his study as a soloist;
  • it provides an entertainment spectacle for the onlookers; and
  • it trains a piper to adapt himself to group playing to setting reeds for instrument-compatibility, and to cultivate an ear for unison tone and pitch when several pipes are involved.

As I see it, the solo role of the pipe is:

  • to train the piper in the correct embellishments;
  • to produce a ‘colour’ and contrast in the notes of the instrument, and make these audible and recognisable to the soloist;
  • to have the piper play the piobaireachd and perpetuate that tradition;
  • to have the piper play ceol beag and ceol meadhon in a very different manner from that of the ‘street-beat’ band, and to pass this on to a discerning audience;
  • to allow a piper to be a musical individualist within certain boundary conditions.

While I am biased very strongly in favour of the pipe as a sole instrument, I cannot and would not advocate an abolishment of group or band piping. As with many band pipers, I too, feel a certain exhilaration when I play in a band or a quartette of pipes. The pipe now belongs to both worlds; but the objective of those in favour of solo piping should be to convince persons interested in the pipe that pipers should be first of all soloists, and then secondly, band pipers … the same as with any other orchestral instrument; the same as with any string quartette or combined musical instrument group. This may be obvious to people back home in Alba, but there are places in the world where prospective pipers believe that the finger of God touches them so that they can play tunes in a band but cannot play them solo!