by Fergus Muirhead, at the Glenfiddich Piping Championship 2019

One of the biggest decisions a competitor has to make during his or her preparation for a competition is the tunes they are going to submit. In some events they have a free choice of music while in others they have to pick from a list that is effectively chosen for them.

For the Glenfiddich Championship each player needs to submit six piobaireachds and six each of a march, strathspey and reel. continued below photo and tune section…

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•The 2019 Glenfiddich competitors pictured above from left: Callum Beaumont, Iain Speirs, Connor Sinclair, Niall Stewart, Jack Lee, Finlay Johnston, Glenn Brown, Andrew Hayes, Stuart Liddell and Gordon McCready. Photo by Derek Maxwell.

Overall WINNERS: 1. Finlay Johnston, 2. Connor Sinclair, 3. Glenn Brown

Ceòl Mór

  1. Glenn Brown, Farewell to the Queen’s Ferry
  2. Finlay Johnston, Donald Gruamach’s March
  3. Iain Speirs, Scarce of Fishing
  4. Jack Lee, Lament for the Laird of Anapool
  5. Connor Sinclair, Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarbert‘s Fancy
    Judges: Patricia Henderson, Colin MacLellan and Stuart Samson.

MSR (twice through)

  1. Connor Sinclair, Major Manson’s Farewell to Clachantrushal, Susan MacLeod, Broadford Bay
  2. Finlay Johnston, Inverlochy Castle, Cat Lodge, The Smith Chilliechassie
  3. Niall Stewart, P.M.J. McWilliams, Glentruim, Ca’ the Ewes
  4. Callum Beaumont, The Stirlingshire Militia, Lady Louden, The Little Cascade
  5. Stuart Liddell, Mrs John MacColl, The Shepherd’s Crook, John Morrison of Assynt House
    Judges: Murray Henderson, Dr Angus MacDonald and John Wilson.

Continued from above…

They all go about it in different ways, and pick tunes for different reasons. First-time competitior this year, and eventual winner of the MSR competition, Connor Sinclair, explained his thought process when putting together his piobaireachd list: He said: “I had the four tunes from the Gold Medal already there and had learned them fairly well and was comfortable with them. I’d been playing them all year and I thought they would be a good four to start with. Then I added in The Viscount of Dundee and The Battle of Auldern No 2 just because they are two tunes I was comfortable playing as I was growing up. I knew them, if not inside out, then nearly inside out.  So although I had to re-learn some old tunes, I didn’t have to learn any new ones. I don’t know if anyone else does that, I didn’t ask, but I wanted to keep it simple. I like playing the other two and always did well in competition with them when I was growing up.”

He adopted a similar approach with the MSR, although with perhaps a slightly different thought process. Connor siad: “I used the tunes I’d been playing for a few years for the MSR. You need six for the Former Winners at Oban so I had them already. You need to watch out for dodgy breaks between strathspeys and reels but marches to strathspeys are OK but if there is a birl from D, for example, then you have to think about your transition from strathspey to reel.”

The added difficulty at The Glenfiddich is that each tune needs to be played twice. That wouldn’t be Connor’s preference if he had a choice: He explained: “Because you have to play each tune twice, it’s harder on the mind because you need to really keep your concentration on where you are, especially with variations in the parts. You could go between the first and the third part very easily so I would say that twice through the same tune is really difficult. I prefer to listen to two different tunes and think I would rather play two different tunes. There might be a different key, for example, that would make it less monotonous if you play two different tunes. I’d think about keys if I was choosing tunes with the folk band but not so much when competing. And because I don’t choose the tune that I have to play on the day, you can’t really choose different keys from the six. You just have to choose tunes that you are comfortable with and where you think there will be a decent break from the strathspey to the reel.”

•Finlay Johnston (centre) won the overall prize at the 2019 Glenfiddich Piping Championship. Finlay successfully defended the title he first won in 2018. He gained this year’s win by placing second in both the Ceòl Mór and the MSR. The Ceòl Mór competition was won by Glenn Brown playing Captain John A MacLellan’s Farewell to the Queen’s Ferry, and first-time competitor, Connor Sinclair, won the MSR playing Major Manson’s Farewell to Clachantrushal, Susan MacLeod, Broadford Bay. Anne Spalding was awarded the Balvenie Medal for a lifetime of service to piping. Photo by Derek Maxwell.

Gordon McCready agreed that it makes sense to stick to tunes that you know, although he has tried to be a bit different his year. He said: “A lot of the tunes will be tried and tested, tunes that I’ve played for a number of years now. This year I qualified from The Glenfiddich through the Former Winners at Oban and I chose different tunes there that haven’t been played a lot. In fact, with a couple of them I don’t think I’ve ever heard them played in a solo piping competition and I’ve included them this time just for something a wee bit different.” 

Gordon reckoned that this approach would go down well with the adjudicators on the day. “I know from speaking to a couple of judges that they would like to hear more variety in the tunes that are played in these competitions and so I’ve sought out different tunes. I’ve done some research and been on a lot of websites looking for different tunes and then making sure that they are acceptable for a solo piping competition – that is, they are of a standard that matches the standard of the older tunes that have been played, such as the classics like Susan McLeod, Ewe Wi’ the Crookit Horn and Piper’s Bonnet. They have to stand up to those kind of tunes or it would be pointless submitting them because you’re never get anywhere with them.

He found help from a fellow competitor’s website. Gordon said: “Jack Lee’s website is really good, he has thousands of tunes. If you have the time and patience, you can go through them and hear Jack playing the first part and if you like it you can download the full package. I’ve got quite a few tunes that way. It’s very accessible and easy to use.”

Gordon also reckoned that by the time competitors arrive at Blair Castle it shouldn’t really matter which tunes the judges have picked for you to play: He said: “At this stage you should be comfortable with whichever is chosen for you. You should be able to play all of your six tunes well. I have three I’m be happy with and the other three I’d be happy playing but they’re a bit newer so concentration levels would have to be a bit higher. With tunes you’ve played for a while, you know them inside out and you know your cues to get from one bit to the next and make it musical.”

Dougie Pincock, Director of The National Centre for Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton, believes that when the pipers put together their selection of tunes, they are not really starting with a blank sheet the way an observer might think. He said: “They are all really experienced competitors, they wouldn’t be in this competition if they weren’t, so they already know what tunes they’re good at and which ones they’ve been successful with, both piobaireachd and light music. It would be daft to try to change it or freshen it up at a competition at this level because they’re here looking for a prize.  They’re coming with a particular aim in mind, which is to win, so their selection of tunes is influenced by the fact that they know what they’re good at and in any given year they have been playing off the set list and they’ve done well to win prizes to let them qualify for this competition.”

Dougie feels that competitors should perhaps take a different approach with the light music to ensure that tune selections are fresh. He said: “It’s free choice for the MSR so there is a decision to be made and, in my view, a wee bit of responsibility on the part of some of the competitors to freshen things up. So they maybe should start with a clean sheet on the MSRs.”

He also thinks that increasing numbers of younger players qualifying to play at The Glenfiddich could help the variety of tunes heard by the judges, and the audience. Dougie said: “Andrew Bova is doing a bit of work on repertoire. Personally I think it’s a bit of a lost cause with pipe bands because it’s all about winning and they’ll pick tunes that will win them prizes. With solo players, and Andrew has done a bit of work on this, there are a few guys who are starting to freshen things up a bit. As part of the changing of the guard perhaps some of the younger guys coming through will look at the repertoire, particularly the guys coming out of the Royal Conservatory of Scotland. They have been studying this and will have reasonably wide repertoires there’s maybe a chance they’ll freshen things up a bit, at least as far as the light music is concerned.”

Having said that, he recognises that the aim of a competitor is to win a prize, and that will always be at the back of their mind when choosing tunes. Dougie added: “I took a decision to stop competing many years ago because I was sick of playing the same three MSRs all the time. The competition system does nothing to increase repertoire and one of the factors is that people think that if they put in new tunes the judges won’t know them, and that’s a bit of sleight on the judges because these guys know tunes. It’s a bit presumptuous to say that you won’t play certain tunes ‘just in case John Wilson doesn’t know them’. He will.  It takes a bit of courage to change and someone has to have that courage. Most of the people doing it are the younger guys. These different tunes won’t always get prizes but to go into a competition knowing you’re reducing your chance of getting a prize but you’re putting a couple of new tunes into the repertoire is what’s needed. So more power to them.”

When it comes to piobaireachd, there is less flexibility for the competitors than there is in the MSR competition as Tom Speirs, who has both played and judged at The Glenfiddich, explained:  “Most players have their own repertoire but quite often it’s imposed on them. Certainly as far as piobaireachd is concerned because the music committee of the Piobaireachd Society select a list of tunes each year for each of the competitions. Some years it’s an own choice list, but in the majority of cases they are selecting about eight and you have to submit four of them and you are asked to play one which rather dictates the tunes that you are obliged to learn. Frequently if you like a tune that you have played previously then you will keep it in the  list. For example, this year if I was still playing in the Gold Medal then I would have chosen The Battle of Beallach Nam Brog because that’s the one I won my medal with, but it only appears once every decade. So with piobaireachd, the music is virtually selected for you.”

Dougie and Tom have slightly differing views on why the Piobaireachd Society select certain tunes. Tom explained: “The Piobaireachd Society prescribes tunes because it wants as many tunes to be played by as many pipers as possible. There are some tunes that I would consider to be Silver Medal tunes. There are some that I would consider to be Gold Medal tunes and there are some that I would consider to be Former Winners’ tunes. Let’s say there are 30 tunes that are appropriate for the Silver Medal. Why not set that for six years? Each player should submit five tunes each year from that list of thirty, and they wouldn’t be allowed to submit the same tunes the next year so they’re learning another five tunes. So everyone who plays for six years has learned 30 tunes and with the quality of technology and teaching that we have nowadays it’s not a terribly hard job. It’s a very committed job and you would need to be watchful but I think it would work.”

Dougie is slightly more cynical on tune choices. He said: “The raison d’être was to bring tunes out of obscurity and that’s laudable, especially at a senior level, but the emperor is strutting about naked here because there is a reason why some tunes are obscure. I’ve spoken to senior pipers who will dutifully learn these tunes when they are set, but will never play them again unless they are set again. There is all sort of mystic and lore built up about piobaireachd, mainly by people who have reputations to protect, but not all piobaireachd is great – it’s just not. But not all jazz is great, not all classical music is great. Some piobaireachds stink and that’s why they don’t get played.  I’ll say it because nobody else will but the other reason to bring these tunes out of obscurity is to sell books. The Piobaireachd Society published books 15 and 16 but most of the good tunes are all there already in books one through eight. They need to sell books, nothing wrong with that, so they set the tunes from books 15 and 16.”

It’s not all doom and gloom though as far as Dougie is concerned: He said: “I’ll now praise them because they are doing a much better job at setting modern tunes now, although the point has been well made that it’s scarcely credible to call a Donald MacLeod tune a modern composition considering he died in 1982. But I’d say anything post-Second World War – let’s call that modern. They have been more successful at setting these tunes and that’s great. They may or may not be good, but we don’t know yet because they haven’t had a chance to stand the test of time the way that the 300-hundred-year-old tunes have.”

Livestream tickets for the Glenfiddich 2023 are available here.