Bruce Gandy shares a couple of fine tunes

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•Photo by Ryan MacDonald

Bruce Gandy is being kept busy with weekly students for piping tuition and also with his Clubhouse Sessions project where he has a group of up to 15 pipers visit his house to spend three hours going through two piobaireachds. Bruce told bagpipe.news: “We usually go through an entry level piobaireachd and then a bigger piece. I put out a lot of advertising for the Clubhouse Sessions and it’s been great to have 40 or more people attending online as well.

“I’ve also recorded more than 70 of my own compositions into a learning project where you get an mp3 of me playing, a pdf of tune, a written page talking about the tune and the movements in it, and finally a 5-10 minute video on how to play it. I begun to do this with piobaireachds over the past four years also, giving a full video package of three to five videos on a tune.

“I published a book in August 2020 called Performance: Delivering Your Own Awesome which is doing well in its second print and now I have it in ebook and audiobook.” All of Bruce’s current projects and publications can be found on his website at brucegandymusic.com.”

Back in 2011 Bruce was interviewed by Stuart Robertson for Piping Today magazine all about his composing process for the Nine Notes and More series of articles.

NINE NOTES AND MORE…
by Stuart Robertson.
Piping Today
#53 2011.

In this feature we talk to one of the most prolific composers in the last two decades, who, as a piper has won a World Championship with the 78th Fraser Highlanders, Gold Medals at Inverness and Oban and has put together no fewer than four books of his music. He is of course, Bruce Gandy. 

Bruce began to play the pipes more than 40 years ago in Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. His first teacher was Hal Senyk, who took Bruce through the first exercises and tunes. When Hal moved to Scotland to play with the famous Muirhead and Sons Pipe Band and study under Robert G. Hardie, Bruce turned to James Troy for tuition and over more than a decade, he was given a foundation of playing that would benefit an entire solo and band piping career. Also during this time, Bruce spent many summers down in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, at the piping school studying under Bob Hardie and Andrew Wright. These summers, combined with regular instruction, helped to instil a lifelong love and understanding of piobaireachd.

In 1982, Bruce moved to Ontario to join the 78th Fraser Highlanders, where he spent 15 years, and this was where he began to mature as a player. The innovative band had a growing need for new music and Bruce was inspired to compose very particular elements to add to their repertoire. Bill Livingstone recalled: “He has a gift for writing what we needed, at any particular time for the band. Whether it be a medley tune or a jig or a piece in a certain rhythm, he always came back next Sunday with our answer.”

In 1997, Bruce moved to Summerside, Prince Edward Island, to take over as piping instructor at the the College of Piping, Canada. He worked there for three years, setting up individual study programmes, and part of the job was being pipe major of the College of Piping Pipe Band, which meant teaching all of the fundamentals of pipe band playing as well as choosing and arranging all of the music for the band. This led to more composing to try to give a lower grade band a fresh edge, which eventually led to his third book of music being published.

In 1998, after an eight-year absence from the Northern Meeting at Inverness, Bruce returned to the world’s top competition and won the Competing Pipers’ Silver Medal, along with second in the jig and hornpipe and third in the strathspey and reel. He returned for the Gold Medal in 1999 and was fortunate enough to win both the March and Strathspey and Reel but no prize in the medal. The medals did come, however. He won the Inverness Gold Medal in 2003 and was able to capture the Oban medal the following year. Following that, he also captured the Bratach Gorm [Blue Banner] at the London Contest. the Silver Star for Former Winners March, Strathspey and Reel and was 2nd prize winner at the Glenfiddich Championships in 2016. As well, Bruce has published four books of music, produced online teaching and workshops that reach around the world, developed his own pipe chanter with McCallum Bagpipes and he is in regular demand as a tutor and performer.

Here is Bruce’s insight into the composing process.

When did you start composing?

The first tune I composed was when I was nine, I believe. It was my parents’ 25th anniversary and I think my teacher, Jamie Troy, had suggested that I write a tune for them. The tune had some base to it and I’ve often thought of reworking it but then my “smarter” side decided the right thing to do was leave it be and try to grow from there. The tune was a (70s style, dot and cut) hornpipe that I simply named The Anniversary Hornpipe and I still have an original copy somewhere in the house. This tune followed a simple phrase pattern and was as much a music writing/theory exercise as anything.

What inspires you to write?

I write tunes for a great number of reasons these days. I may hear something in the band set or medley that has a musical hole in it and I can hear or see in my mind’s eye (for lack of better words) what I’m thinking in terms of key, rhythm and feel. Other times, I just get a feel for a new tune from humming something and away I go. When the kids were young, not being a real singer, I used to sort of hum tunes and I wrote a lot of slow airs, and compound type tunes, singing them in slow air time that ended up being 6/8 marches.

Over the years, I have written many little tunes for commission from people. Those are always fun projects as these people give you an idea of the person they are celebrating and you try to build a tune around their story or the mood of the person. These are very rewarding compositions to make.

Modern day composers…who do you rate?

That’s a tough one, there are so many great composers out there and it depends on if you’re looking at total portfolio or tunes. Plus, I like to think of myself still as a modern day composer even though I am getting up there a bit and wrote my first tune 40 years ago. I enjoy hearing tunes by soloists in recital because they are the pure version of a tune, without all the ensemble features in them. But, having said that, there are many good composers writing stuff for bands that are different types of tunes. These may not all stand up on their own but put together with the other “band” components, they are great. One of my personal band tests is to listen and say to myself, “This is a great sounding tune being played by, say Field Marshal Montgomery or St Laurence O Toole or any of the great Grade 1 bands. But, if it was not too difficult for a lower grade band to play, would it stand up musically?”

Locally, I still feel that Michael Grey is one of those at the forefront of real innovation. His mass of work, all different types of tunes, in different feels and varieties has to rank him among one of the greats. In this last decade, tons of great people have come alive for me. I love a lot of Kyle Warren’s tunes for their key structure and their originality. Fred Morrison’s pure music that comes from his compositions is truly inspiring. Don Bradford has a great collection of tunes that is ever expanding and he’s written some great tunes that are now showing time behind them and still holding up as great tunes.

That’s the true test — many tunes are superb sounding but after a year or two seem to lose their “sizzle” and just become another tune out there. Personally, that’s my worry. It’s all fine for people to hear a tune and say, “Hey, that’s great”, but what I find rewarding is hearing a tune I wrote 10, 15 or 20 years ago showing up in a medley or in someone’s recital. 

I know I’m forgetting some other very important people here but this list could go on for a long time with a paragraph on each of those composer’s strengths and uniqueness. 

How do you mould a tune from conception to completion?

First off, I have heard lots of people say, “I just had an idea and wrote the tune right then.”  Wow, I wish I could just blast them out. I spend a lot of time to make sure that I have what I think is a good base and good theme and it’s original etc. 

As I said before, sometimes I think, for instance, that a nice upbeat major key strathspey would be really good here. So I have some sort of key in my head or even some scales or arpeggios running through. I would say I work more with the rhythm and straight “natural” note progressions than trying to design something with some array of notes that is designed purely to make sure it doesn’t sound like something else.

Once the base is set, and that can be the key, or the pure rhythmic structure, or even one phrase, I usually design the tune around that. When it’s finished and on paper, I usually play it for a couple of days to make sure I’m still happy with it and I don’t have a bad note, or I’ve done all that I can to have the timing and the use of the dots and cuts to where I am happy. EVERY tune I make goes to a very well educated piping friend with a tremendous repertoire, more than 40 years of playing experience and a serious attitude about the job I’ve asked them to do, and they look over the tune and relay comments back to me. Firstly, is it original? Secondly, is it any good? Thirdly, is it finished or are there parts that just don’t seem to fit quite right?

One of the major downfalls I see of many tunes is that the composer just doesn’t get their music screened by a trusted adviser before they go public. There may be a good idea there but the tune can fail because there are poor rhythm designs or they’ve written something that maybe only 10 people can play with all the extra technical “tricks” they’ve thrown in. The other thing I notice with my own writing is that, if you’re in the second part, for instance, trying to write, say, bar three and four, if you play it enough times, it will sound right. That’s where you need a screener with experience and an open mind who will be honest with you. 

The tunes you have given us, how did they come about and what was the inspiration?

Coppermill Studio is a 9/8 jig, often called a slip jig, which was written to commemorate a studio recording that we created an album in back in the 80s. The studio had an eight-track mixing board, two or three mics to capture the pipe, and a nice chair and table for the operator. The studio also doubled as the living room in the home of Michael Grey’s family, Coppermill Drive, in Toronto. We couldn’t afford to rent all that studio time so we brought the studio to his house and had a wonderful day recording all the music. 

The jig itself is not that difficult, as far as jigs go, but will take you a bit of time to master the strong, medium, medium pulse which gives that wonderful lopsided feel to tunes with an odd number of beats in the bar. I wrote the fourth part with the gracenote on the B strike but you should feel free to choose whether or not you play it. I feel it adds some power to the bar but is not necessary if it upsets the musical flow of the tune.

I was commissioned to write the second tune by the Halifax Citadel Regimental Association in 2009 to commemorate the inaugural voyage of the Queen Mary II and its arrival in Halifax that summer. Knowing that it could be any level of player that may be performing this tune on the ship when it arrived, I chose to compose a 3/4 retreat march, both for its technical ease to play and for the power of the strong melody line of this type of tune. 

My father left me many years ago and, rummaging around my home one day, I found a bunch of his manuscripts with several “broken” pieces of tunes. I felt this would be a wonderful opportunity to take some of his original ideas and collaborate some 40 or 50 years after his ideas were scribbled down.  The tune would probably be described as being in one of the “major” keys of the pipes with the use of D throws and D strikes in the first part. 

•An example of the tuition video that Bruce provides for his tunes on https://www.brucegandymusic.com/

You should not have too much trouble with this tune once you get the opening bar with the D throw and D strike together clearly and accurately. Be careful not to “rush over” melody notes anticipating the next technical embellishment. 


Other articles in this series published so far:
Chris Djuritschek with The Pingat Jasa Malaysia
• Lorne MacDougall with Scalasaig
• Murray Blair with Ross’s Farewell to Pangnirtung, New Year in Noosa and PTE Joe McConnell
• Bob Worrall with Last Train to Malaga and Bob Cooper of Winnipeg
• Jim McGillivray with Skye Rovers


Stuart Robertson is originally from Ardrossan in Ayrshire and was previously Pipe Sergeant with Torphichen & Bathgate Pipe Band in Grade 2, and played under Robert Mathieson at Shotts & Dykehead Pipe Band in Grade 1. He moved to Australia in 2010 to work for WAPOL as a piper in the band and was Pipe Sergeant under PM Jim Murray and Pipe Major for seven months until a full time replacement for Jim could be found. He is currently at the police mounted section.

Stuart released a solo album called North to South last year which can be downloaded at all the usual streaming platforms (Apple Music, Spotify etc) and also available from Bandcamp. He is also a member of the high octane traditional music band, Spirit of Alba, who are currently recording a few tracks for release sometime in 2022. You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram @spiritofalbaband. He is still enjoying life down under and composing now and again.