Everything that’s wrong with your pipe band medley

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Dan Nevans

by Dan Nevans.
Piping Today #89, 2018.

Do you know what the first sign of madness is? It’s repeating the same actions over and over and expecting a different outcome. The second sign is hairy palms.

Friends, bandspeople, country folk… lend me your reading apparatus. I am about to attempt to discuss the elephant in the room here. Three pace rolls please…

Every year, in the mid-winter, we all start to discuss what music our bands and our friends in other bands are playing. I hear the same thing over and over: “We have to make sure it’s stuff the judges know and like.” 

After 22 years in the pipe band game I have come to take this statement with the same facial expression that one would have biting a lemon. Who are we to be guessing what an adjudicator might or might not be familiar with or like? For all we know the adjudicators’ panel is bored to tears with the same kind of MSRs and medleys every year. If we keep making our artistic decisions based on the above paranoid statement then we’ll probably never develop. We’ll just keep repeating the same things over and over.

In a previous issue I discussed “musical vision”. It’s so important that we continue to be inspired and  progress the music of the pipe band. Your creative vision is just as important as anyone else’s, the difference being that if you’re not a pipe major/leading drummer then you have elected to follow someone else’s vision. You can still throw darts at the dartboard though. 

There’s loads of great music out there in old collections and being written today. I bet in your pipe band there’s someone who writes the odd tune. I also bet there’s someone who has a shelf creaking with collections of tunes or a person who is mad for trad. If you are a pipe major then this is your “creative council”. I’m not saying these folks will steer you right all the time or that you even have to use their suggestions but at least their interest and creativity will drive yours. Once you have discovered this group (which in some bands can be 20 people – don’t think you need to limit yourself), you can start to filter through the suggested ideas and see what you like and don’t like. That’s the thing about being the leader of a musical ensemble; it is as much your job to direct the music as it is to direct the people. 

So here’s what I’m really up for discussing this issue – pipe band medleys – where they are and where they are going. In my opening foray I have talked about how we get can get an individual musical voice in a pipe band but then the question is what do we do with it?

As it stands there are two accepted formats on which the pipe band competition medley is based:

  • March tune
  • (Hornpipes, simple time marches) 2-4 parts
  • Jigs – 3 x two-parted tunes, 2 x four-parted tunes
  • Slow air – Compound time, 2 parts (16 bars)
  • Strathspeys – 2 x 2 parted tunes
  • Reels 2 x 2 parted tunes, 1 x 4 parted tunes 

OR

  • March tune
  • (Hornpipes, simple time marches) 2-4 parts
  • Strathspeys – 2 x two-parted tunes
  • Reels 2 x two-parted tunes, 1x four-parted tunes 
  • Slow air – Compound time, 2 parts (16 bars)
  • Jigs – 3 x two-parted tunes 2 x four-parted tunes

There are, of course, additions to these, waltzes and bridges etc, but these are the basic layouts I feel we can all agree on. Now, I’m not saying that there is a problem with these formats. Let me be very clear about that. These formats have served us well in delivering interesting and exciting music for decades. 

But that’s kind of the point. We’ve been doing it like this for decades. Let’s not chuck out the baby with the bath water. I am not saying we entirely change the format of the competition medley but we could at least experiment with style and ordering. 

I’m going to tell you a dark and shameful secret now. I know this salacious piece of information has been muttered in the dark corners of beer tents for many a year but I will now confirm for you what you already know; my father is indeed a pipe band adjudicator.

The shame…

In my formative years I asked a lot of questions of my dad regarding medley set-up and I came to realise a few things. The first is that the medley competition is actually a very young art form. The very first medley competitions for Grade 1 were held in 1962/63. In fact, my father has a reel-to-reel recording of Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia’s mini band under PM J.K McAllister playing their Rowan Tree medley in the winter of 1963. (By the way, the next tune in said medley was The Steamboat, it goes to show how far we’ve come.) What really comes across when listening to that old medley is that there was a true freedom at the time. There was no set fashion so the bands took to doing all sorts of stuff. In J.K’s medley the whole thing opens with a simple time march then a compound time march, the effect being that of double time. We wouldn’t even consider this as an option today but back in the early 1960s there was no well-known and successful formula to use and therein lies the freedom I mentioned before. 

The second thing was that a medley is greater than the sum of its parts. We’ve all stood on the park or combed through YouTube and thought, “Oh, that’s a good tune”, then the next one that comes on is also good but they don’t really work together. Eight good tunes do not a medley make. 

So what trait do all successful medleys have? They sound complete. Every tune compliments the set as a whole. You might find, for example, that you pick three two-parted jigs, one in a major key, one in a minor and a final one in a major key again. You’ll find there will be a pleasing “resolving” quality but one must consider rhythm: are you playing three busy tunes one after the other? Surely this will reduce the impact of the most impressive piece. These are things you must consider when putting your medleys together.

We all talk about medleys like they are some kind of timeless art, I’m sure there is a Piping Times editorial out there from the opening days of the pipe band medley condemning the idea as a death knell in the traditional performance of the music. What we do know is that the medley competition is a chance to display our own musical acumen beyond three time signatures. We are open to a world of adventure and that scares our pretty conservative culture. The truth is we all want a go at the spikey trophy and there’s nothing wrong with that aspiration but success without innovation can be saccharin.

“You don’t get to lift the big one by rocking the boat”, I have often been told! But I don’t really believe it. The best bands of all time were always innovative in their own way. (Sure, if we all innovated the same way that would make no sense.) The 78th Fraser Highlanders of the 1980s played round (Irish-style) reels and snappy short openers. The Vale played music from other Celtic nations outside of Britain and Ireland. SLOT embraced their Irish trad background and continue to bring us some real gems from south of the border. Robert Mathieson produced excellent, memorable melodies that you would walk away whistling after the first listen and the tune-writing team at Victoria Police gave pipe band music a modern edge that even into the 90s we were lacking. 

The list is gigantic. That’s just some melodic pioneers, the performance of these pieces has the bar raised every year but for all the great bandspeople and ensemble leaders of history we can point to two pipe majors as the prime movers – Iain MacLellan MBE and Richard Parkes MBE. Without these great men I think we wouldn’t quite have achieved the level of timbre and clarity in our general standard of performance we have today. 

I guess I’m not talking to the pioneers here. This article is directed at the lost. If you are out there in pipe band land thinking you can copy your way to success then you are wrong. I’m trying to get you to think as an individual. This year I listened to the medleys of various bands across Grades 1, 2 and 3 and the amount of copycat medleys I heard was pretty shocking. Why would you want to play “covers” of more successful band’s pieces? All you’ll receive in return is comparison with their performances of the same thing. 

It makes me think of being about 12, standing in my parents’ front room playing “pipe bands”. I had learned pretty much all of the Worlds CDs from that year (2000) and would play the medleys from the top six bands (pretty poorly, I imagine) as a way of getting the pipes going. It was a great laugh and I developed a lot from experimenting with it. However, if I was in a pipe band playing other people’s material every year, two practices a week of it and all the intensity that entails, I wouldn’t be doing it for long. 

So let’s make sure we don’t bore ourselves out of the game. Here are a few conceptual ideas to ponder on while you’re putting things together.

We have historically always started with a marching tune. We have the physical issue of having to get from the line to the circle so something you can walk and play is certainly useful but why do we need to play something fast? Johnstone Pipe Band opened a medley this year (2017) with The Piper’s Warning To His Master, a grand old piobaireachd and the sort of thing that has become quite in vogue in recent years. Why stop at piobaireachd? On the scale of marches to piobaireachd, these musical styles are at polar opposites. What sits at midnight? Slow airs. Yes! Why not, according to the RSPBA “The introductory tempo shall be not less than 60 paces per minute”. That’s bonkers slow! You have so much scope of choice. 

If you listen to orchestral music many great pieces start in this manner: slow, strong melodies developing into a complex and powerful finale (For example, Handel’s Messiah Overture). There are so many great tunes out there untapped by the pipe band culture because they don’t fit well in the middle of the set but they would work great as opener. Big dynamic melodies like Fear A Bhata (The Boatman) or any number of Gaelic airs and modern airs could give your band a much-needed sense of originality and independent voice. 

The Reprise: why do we recall like eights bars at a time in a reprise? Why not play the whole thing with perhaps a different drum score or harmonies that change the presence of the piece? What about reprising a fast tune rather than just the usual slow air reprise in the last part of your finisher? The opener, for example, could be brought back in. 

Strathspeys: stop being a such a woose and play more strathspeys and fewer jigs. I hear people complain all the time that there aren’t as many strathspeys as there are everything else which is not true. It just happens to be that a lot of strathspeys are pretty rubbish. However, why are we so into playing six parts of jigs but only eight parts of strathspeys? “But Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnn, they are so hard to play.” Nonsense. Get your practice chanter out and get on with it. 

Whatever happened to 9/8 and 12/8 jigs? I know I just said play fewer jigs but I didn’t say play none. In fact, what happened to irregular time signatures in general? There’s loads of good stuff out there that doesn’t fit into 2/4 or 6/8. Go find it in the Mark Saul/Murray Blair collections or the Allan MacDonald, Donald MacLeod, Finlay MacDonald/Simon MacKerrell books to mention but a few. 

It’s time for my Jerry Springer-esque final thoughts. The future of pipe bands is in your hands. In the past, pipe bands were a good excuse to get get drunk in a park in the summer while wearing a funny costume. As we have grown and matured as a pseudo sport, the stakes are higher and so is the expectation. What I worry about is that in five years, time we’ll all still be doing the same things we are today. Change will not occur overnight, change will be subtle but change will come if we all buy into it. 

It’s up to you to change the world. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. You do it.