Fifty year-old editorial on conducting a pipe band

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Every so often we hear suggestions about opening the pipe band competition circle to make it more audience friendly. This Piping Times editorial from Seumas MacNeill shows it was being discussed 50 years ago along with an even more radical suggestion of adding a conductor to the performance!

Seumas MacNeill

By SEUMAS MacNEILL
Piping Times
December 1973

In recent years we have seen considerable changes in the pipe band scene, not least of which has been the introduction of medley selections in competitions. As a result, repertoires have increased, accent on technical ability has diminished and the audiences have apparently been better entertained.

Instrumentalists playing together have always found considerable difficulty in knowing when to start and stop, at what tempo to play, when to speed up or slow down, when to play softly and when loudly. Except in small groups—trios or quartettes—the solution has been to have a conductor. Orchestras, brass bands, dance bands would find it almost impossible to operate without the men with the baton out front, and indeed, groups of singers have the same solution to the same problem.

Pipe bands are about the only groups who have tried to go it alone. Starting together of course would always be a difficulty, but this has been overcome as well as is possible with the instruments concerned. Tempo and its variation however call for more than just a general agreement made beforehand. Bass drummers have been tried as the dictators of tempo, and leading drummers also, but these are not successes. At present the pipe-major does the job—mainly by keeping his left foot firmly fixed on the ground and using all the rest of his anatomy to attempt to convey the nuances of expression he wants in the tunes.

Again not a great success, and not even a pretty picture.

Why not a conductor then ? The first reaction is naturally from the conservative side of our nature—it just would not look like a pipe band. But all kinds of innovations seemed peculiar when they were first introduced—for example trousers, tramcars, traffic wardens—but soon we accept them as part of our way of life.

John MacLellan has suggested elsewhere that a band should be arranged as an orchestra, so that instead of seeing the back view and hearing the scraps of music which the bandsmen cast behind them, we could get the full effect of both their music and their handsome physogs. (Come to think of it, standing in a circle must be about just the worst possible formation for any instrumental group supposed to be playing for an audience—no wonder the judges look worried and the BBC engineers go hysterical).

Another advantage of a conductor is that an important place could now be found for some of our older retired pine-majors. And it’s not just a case of finding a place for them—this would make use of their tremendous musical knowledge which in the present system is discarded as soon as the fingers begin to slow down. If Toscanini can go on till he is ninety there is nothing to prevent senior citizens of the pipe band world playing a useful part in the development and presentation of our music at least until they see the ton coming up.

•Bagad Lorient at Celtic Connections 2013. Photo: JohnSlavin @designfolk.com / Bagpipe.news