Today is Christmas Eve and approaching the time of the year for celebration, but also reflection. So today bagpipe.news rewinds 70 years to the December issue of the Piping Times. Looking through that Piping Times edition is a window into times gone by, and to ‘hot topics’ from the early 50s when piping journalism was still in its infancy, but setting high standards. In it Seumas MacNeill gives an insightful article on the standards of competition march playing in 1952.
By SEUMAS MacNEILL.
Reviews of ceol mor playing at the open competitions are increasing in number so rapidly that they will soon reach the stage where they are adequate. Without doubt one of the best features of the Piping Times is its coverage of piobaireachd contests and its publication of the invaluable comments made by such eminent authorities as Archibald Campbell of Kilberry and Col. Grant of Rothiemurchus.
Not quite so important, perhaps, but equally interesting to most of us, is the standard of playing in the other events. Circumstances conspired to make it possible for me to hear most of our best players at some of the games this year, so I took the opportunity of paying more attention to my earlier love, the playing of competition marches.
There is no doubt that these fascinating tunes demand the closest study and require the finest concentration that the piper can devote to them. Ever since Angus MacKay turned his genius to the production of this branch of our music, the output of marches and their performance has occupied the attention of all the best players. Sometimes the compositions have got themselves into a groove, and many stultified pieces with no musical merit at all have been produced. Too often too many pipers have propagated tunes which they claim to have liked when all that could have appealed to them was the technical difficulty of performance.
Such phases are fortunately always passed over by the really good march player, and it is obvious that in the past the champions have had as their favourite pieces those which contained primarily a first-class melody. The other qualities which made them suitable for repeated use in competitions were the subtlety with which the melody was presented and the technical difficulty required in this presentation. The tunes which William Ross and G. S. MacLennan, for example, seem to have favoured were all in that category.
Talking of these and other past champions, I wish someone who heard them often would write a review, or rather a series of reviews, of the kind of performances they put up. Such information would be invaluable to pipers today and might help considerably the preservation of much that these former experts discovered in the past.
For my own part, I paid a great deal of attention as a boy to the playing of John MacDonald, Robert Reid, James B. Robertson and others, but it is possible that, apart from the three mentioned (whom I have heard regularly) my judgment is not to be trusted too much, as the older players were probably past their best and I was not mature enough in any case.
The three pipers I have mentioned were all excellent march players, each the top player of his own particular style. John MacDonald had the bright, steady rhythm and the regular, rounded form of playing which represents a model for all pipers. Robert Reid had his own personal ideas about timing and phrasing, and these were not always acceptable to the conventional purist. One might say he treated marches as he treated piobaireachd, and endeavoured to extract the maximum in expression even if regular rhythm had to be abandoned. His wonderful fingers and excellent musical taste made each performance a master piece of his chosen style. The one big snag is that nearly all who have followed this style have copied, like most imitators, all the faults while retaining none of the virtues.
James Robertson was, in my opinion, the march player par excellence. He had, as the first requirement, the strongest fingers of any piper I have heard. His sense of rhythm was beyond reproach, and his planning of the whole tune was a revelation. To hear him begin his piece, one would think that this time he had made a mistake and had started too slowly. Then, so slowly as to be imperceptible except to the critical observer, the tempo would increase until about half-way through the tune, one would realise this was the way a march should be played, and when the end came the effect on the audience was something which had been built up from the first note. One other piper must be mentioned in any review, no matter how brief, of recent march playing, and he is John Allan Macgee. I believe Macgee was capable of expression unequalled by any piper, except perhaps one whom I shall mention later. The only trouble is that he was not so consistent a performer as the others. Some of the clearest insight I have had into tunes was when listening to him playing such pieces as John MacDonald of Glencoe and Glengarry Gathering.
The performances of the present-day champion march players are to a large extent dependent on the styles and standards of playing which have been prevalent in their immediate past. It is possible, therefore, to hear much of yesterday’s piper in the piper of to-day. The influence of the experts who were mentioned last month is very obvious in many competitors, good and bad, for while it is true that nobody can play a first-class march who has not heard and studied first-class march playing, it is equally true that many who have studied the subject are incapable of becoming masters of it. Again, imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, but it can also develop into an exaggerated form of caricature, and it quite often does.
The first requirement of a good march player is a highly developed sense of timing. This does not mean that he must necessarily play with metronome-like pre cision, but the top performer will be able to play with that exact regularity if he ever wished to do so. His sense of timing must be so acute that every beat in his tune occurs exactly when he decides it will, and not (as so often happens) approximately at the instant he desires. The complete march player represents the antithesis of “woolly” fingering. Every change of note is done with the greatest rapidity, so that one may say that another essential quality in his make-up is strong fingers, and it is true in my experience that no piper ever reached the top without that important attribute.
A sense of accurate timing probably can be developed very little, and I believe that, like an “ear for music,” its presence or absence in an individual depends on random chance.
Closely allied to timing is the necessity for the highest development of the sense of rhythm, so that not only must a piper be able to put the beat exactly where he wants it, but also he must be able to decide when exactly the accents are required in order to produce the most pleasing effect. And, what is equally important, he must be able to make the same decisions with the weak notes. The sense of timing corresponds to that required by a juggler. The piper deals in notes while the juggler works with objects, but while the rules governing the movements of the latter are rigid laws of nature, the behaviour of the former is determined by a more elusive quality—the piper’s sense of rhythm. With rhythm alone, a man will be an armchair critic; with timing alone he will be a fine, but possibly an exasperating per former. Variations in ideas of what constitutes rhythm produce the different styles of march playing which we hear. The successful piper is the one whose choice of phrasing is most pleasing to the majority of judges.
I played in two march competitions this past summer, and listened carefully to two others. I was placed at Luss and Cowal and, having been fortunate enough to have won the event in previous years at Oban and Inverness, I was able to hear all the competitors in these last two meetings.
At Oban, of the six who reached the short leet, three are expert march players. James MacColl is a steady performer who will, when he reaches his prime, be something like John MacDonald. He invariably plays his tune very correctly, with a splendid steady swing. Thomas Pearston is an expert whose sense of rhythm has to be kept closely under guard, for on occasions it escapes him. At one contest last winter he showed that he could do anything with his fingers, but he showed also in the march that he hadn’t quite decided what he wanted to do with them. This summer, however, he has had no trouble, and his win at Oban, apart from Jim MacColl’s challenge, was a walk-over. The third expert at Oban was John MacKenzie. John is the most recent addition to the ranks of the top performers, and without doubt he must be included in any selection of the best march players of the present day. At Luss, where I heard him for the first time this year I was tremendously impressed with his improvement, but thought that he and James MacColl played much too slowly. The tempo chosen by John Burgess helped to emphasise this impression but the judges did not find that it detracted from the tune, for they placed us in inverse order of the speed with which we played.
At Inverness the three best march players in the short leet were John Burgess, Donald MacPherson and again John MacKenzie. They were not, however, the three who played best. Young John usually plays much faster than most of us, and this time he strode out at a very steady 85 to the minute, but it was not a very good tune. Obviously his mind was somewhere else for he played far below his usual high standard.
Donald MacPherson played second in the leet, and here we have another piper with all that a march player requires. His fingering is a model for any player, and his timing and phrasing are un-excelled. Playing immediately after the fast man, he must have been slightly influenced, for he actually played faster than John, at about 87 to the minute. Nevertheless he put up a great show.
Third to play was John MacKenzie who, at 74 to the minute, seemed to be doing a slow march, but once again the expression and control were of the highest order and it was not a surprise to find him placed first.
In this review I have mentioned only the names of those whom I believe have a certain extra genius in the playing of marches, which makes their performances quite outstanding from even the very high standard we hear today. In order to make the record complete, three other names must be mentioned. One is John MacLellan of the Seaforths, who did not compete this year. Another is Ronald MacCallum, who has been a consistent performer in march events for many years, and the third is Archie MacNab, who is perhaps one of the greatest of all time. His tunes at Oban and Inverness had technical flaws, due no doubt to his prolonged absence from competitive playing, but they were sufficient to remind us of the beauty of expression of which, in my opinion, he is the supreme exponent.