Dan Nevans: The spirit of rock ‘n roll

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Whoa, whoa, whoa!

Don’t start reading this blog yet. Go to Spotify and bang on this playlist here. No shuffling. Play as it is from end to end. At a volume that will get you an ASBO (that’s an Anti-Social Behaviour Order for those not familair with Scotland’s crime legislation).

Ok, we can now begin …

Do you ever get the feeling that we’re missing something? That there’s an innate emptiness in the pipe band competition scene at the moment?

I do.

I feel like the objective has become solely to achieve competitive success. Where are the pioneers? The bold? Where are the Neil Armstrongs and Captain Ahabs? Gone, never to return. Why? Because Ensemble Leaders cannot risk trying something different. A bad or ‘unappreciated’ season will see your best players walk out and leave you for another more successful outfit.

Most pipe bands were started as a community effort to teach people to play pipes and drums for their own personal entertainment and the entertainment of the town/ area. These bands played melodies recognised by the populace of the time. The Rowan Tree, Bonnie Galloway, Scotland the Brave … these were part of the folk culture in Scotland and anywhere Scots repatriated to around the world. Times change and musical tastes move with it – and now this music has come around to being part of the pipe band tradition rather than being a representation by the pipe band idiom.

If you spend a bit of time delving through YouTube recordings of the mid-20th century pipe bands, you will notice one glaring point: they play melodies we now would think of as being standards. The aforementioned Rowan Tree was a folk song that John K. McAllister used as an opening tune to Shotts’ 1963 medley along with The Steamboat.

Let that sink in …

The Steamboat was used in a championship-winning medley.

“yEs dAn BuT tHAt wAs fIfTy SeVeN yEaRs Ago” I hear you snipe. Yes, the art form has come a long way since then so let’s explore this a little, jump into my time machine here and let’s go back to 1956. I’ll put those blue suede shoes on the dashboard just now; they were a gift from a friend.

Shotts in 1948 after winning the World Championships.
Shotts in 1948 after winning the World Championships.

John K. McAllister was a former Pipe Major of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders post-WWII. This means that pre-war J. K. played in his Auld Da’s Shotts band which won all the things to be won. Then McAllister joined the army and took his Pipe Major’s course under the great Pipe Major Willie Ross. Tangent to this, J. K. played the church organ to, what I have been assured was, an extremely high standard. What I’m saying is, J. K. McAllister was as well trained in the music and musicianship of The Great Highland Bagpipe as was possible in that era.

This kind of musical journey lead McAllister to having a defined musical vision for what his band should produce. If you examine the music of any of the great pipe bands of all time (championship winners or not) you will find a distinct musical voice. Whether it’s Field Marshal Montgomery’s glorious technical delivery, Inveraray & District’s warm and rhythmic use of strong melody lines or St. Laurence O’Toole’s proud and impactful use of the Irish trad. music, all these successful bands have an identity and this factors in greatly when it comes to the appreciation of an ensemble by an audience.

Would you rather listen to The Beatles with the original line up or listen to an exceptionally good cover band? (Mind you, Oasis seem to have made filthy, dirty mega bucks out of ripping off The Beatles and T-Rex but that’s for another article in another publication and another pseudonym to ponder).

The search for silverware has led us down a dark path of unmusical thinking.

The words ‘March, Strathspey and Reel’ inform us of the idioms we must deliver to qualify as a competitive performance, but a ‘Medley’ has no such connotations. ‘Medley’, in its use in a pipe bands, describes a marching tune in A Major1, six-eight parts of jigs, a slow air in 2/4 or 6/8 time lasting no more than 16 bars, two 16 bar strathspeys and up to eight parts of reel/hornpipe preferably ending in A Major or D Major.

And don’t you blOODY DARE DO ANYTHING DIFFERENT OR THE JUDGING PANEL WILL FEAST ON YOUR LIVER FOR ALL ETERNITY!!!!!!!!!!

Obviously, this above statement is not true2. The repetition of the above structure is the source of much consternation for me. There is much musical worth in it for one. The structure there makes tons of sense and provides an impact on the audience. Here is the rub however: at the World Pipe Band Championships, 14 bands compete to be World Champion on the Saturday and 14 times the audience is subjected to the same formula. My questions are:

  • How can anyone judge a medley contest with such little variation without succumbing to boredom and judging by audit (grace notes missed, minute tuning variations etc.)?
  • Why would the public pay to watch this for five hours?
Which adjudicator is the Head of the Bored?

That’s enough criticising, not just from me but from you, too. The rest of this piece is going to be how we can change things. Not since WWII has the pipe band movement had such an opportunity to redirect and reassess itself. That starts with you, The Player and you, The Pipe Major.

You, the erstwhile PM has lots of responsibilities: organise practices, coach players in a style and performance practices, set chanters and drones, curate and arrange the melodies the band performs.

This last responsibility is undeniably the most important. If you aren’t playing music folk want to listen to then it does not matter how in tune or how technically well performed it is. How, then, do you ensure your curation and arrangement is of value? Well, here’s some suggestions:

  • Stop listening to other pipe bands for inspiration. Listen for direction, listen for appreciation and enjoyment. Do not try to copy someone else.
  • Start listening to music you would not otherwise listen to. This advice is not about chucking out all the things you like but more about getting you to broaden your horizons and think about different ways of putting across musical ideas. For example, if you only listen to contemporary Rap from 2005-present outside of only listening to pipe bands then this will influence your musical choices in a certain way, not in a negative one but certainly in a direction. Augment this with something close but off to the side, contemporary rap of the last 15 years has borrowed samples from Motown hits for the 1960s, go back and listen to that. Absorb the groove of The Wrecking Crew3 in the background of just about every hit from that era. Similarly, with your pipe band listening try out some trad groups, I listed a bunch above but there’s a seemingly bottomless trough of talent there to enjoy.
  • Pick two tunes a month, learn them and play them in the privacy of your own practice. If you only play tunes you’ve already learned in other bands or heard other pipers play competitively then you’re doom to repetition. Learn a tune by ear or something obscure out of the back of a collection. The point is not just repertoire building but to introduce you to music you may otherwise never have gotten round to learning. The beauty of doing this is that you don’t necessarily need to bring these tunes up to a performance standard, just that you have learned and had a go at them is enough.
  • Know your role. The job of the Pipe Major ultimately boils down to this: You must lead by service. A King does cannot command without God-given authority and, as far as I know, outside of Northern Ireland, The Lord has never bestowed heavenly authority on an individual to make them a Pipe Major. Your authority comes from your musical vision and your service as a coach to your team. Shouting at people to make changes they do not understand or to improve musical performances of pieces they were not well guided through the interpretation of in the first place does not make you The King. Understanding, patience, experience and faith in your team. These are the factors that will make you The King.

This next piece of advice is for The Player. You have signed up to play under the direction of this Pipe Major. This means that unless you are directly asked for input of music or opinion on melody/ performance then your role is to be directed and to perform at the best of your ability.

You have the right to an opinion.

You also have the right to remain silent4

Your poor PM has enough to deal with.

We’ve come to end, my friends and I want to leave you with some bits and pieces to consider in your medley construction.

  • Medley themes. You may not need to adjust a prize-winning format. You could take the format and create a theme to it. Tunes from an era. For example, pieces from 1919 (the year after the Spanish Flu epidemic) could be fitting for your 2021 medley, rearranged and brought in to fit the format. It’s not too different but will lead you on a  journey into the history of the artform and you may discover some real gems there.
  • Start and end slow. Have you got to Purple Rain yet in this playlist? If you’ve never heard it before or perhaps just weren’t listening take a minute and soak it in. This track is one epic piece. Unlike a pipe band medley, it does not rise and fall and rise again but instead simmers throughout on a medium tempo and ends in a satisfyingly glittering dissipation rather than a clean ‘bang’. Wouldn’t it be cool to do something like that?
  • Abandon the opening march and replace it with a riff. Toronto Police tried something like this back in ’08. They didn’t quite pull it off but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. Give it a go and see what you come up with.
  • Revise what you consider a slow air to be. Most classic Gaelic airs are not that slow. Pipe band slow airs are not either. What impact or effect are you supposed to giving the audience here? Is it just what is required? Where would the slow air fit best? Maybe it’s best after the Strathspeys at the start rather than after jigs or reels?

The only way we’re going to get any personal satisfaction (that is to say without the need to win prizes) is to play music we believe in. For that to happen everyone in your organization must be on the same page and have the same goals. This is hard since it’s much easier now for people to move between bands to achieve competitive success. I’d also say that most of the people doing this find themselves playing somewhere that meets the criteria I described at the start of this paragraph. Your band must have a voice. You must have a vision of the music and what the product is you are giving the audience. Only then does all the hard work to prepare performances matter.

See you all sometime, down the road


1 I am aware that the tuning of the Great Highland Bagpipe circa 2020 is closer to B Major than A Major. I am referring to this key as it is customary to describe the notation and key of the GHB pre-transposition. I hope you never get out of bed again without standing on an upturned plug, you pedant. 

2 Everyone knows pipe band judges drink blood; they don’t eat flesh.

3 The Wrecking Crew were a band of studio musicians famous for playing on hit after hit during the 1960s and 70s.

4 If your PM isn’t doing the job to a standard you deem fit address this in private and ask what you can do to help. Should this fail you may serve better in another ensemble.

*Dan Nevans is a full-time Piping Teacher at The National Piping Centre. He is a music graduate from the BA Applied Music at the University of Strathclyde. As well as being a familiar face around Scotland’s solo piping circuit, Dan plays with Glasgow Police, having played previously with Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia and Vale of Atholl.