September 30, 2005

Changing our set ways

[Originally published as an Editorial]

It is time top face the music: the Grade 1 and 2 pipe band March, Strathspey & Reel competition should be dropped. It is almost out of petrol. It has been the “compulsory figures” of pipe bands for years, and even figure skating got rid of that a decade ago. The MSR is driving on fumes.

We know that some traditionalists will protest our suggestion, just like traditionalists protested the addition of ensemble judging and the Medley event in 1970. To them we say, Go home and hug your buggy-whip. The undeniable truth is that the March, Strathspey & Reel is not what the majority of bands want to play, it’s not what the audience wants to hear, and it’s not what the judges want to judge. It is a stifling event: it stifles the evolution of the music and those listening stifle yawns after they hear their ninth “Blair Drummond” of the day.

The MSR was originally simply a little medley. There’s no sacrosanct reason why these tunes should go together, or that it’s any more testing than a bigger medley. Some MacCrimmon didn’t decree that all pipe bands must play the hallowed MSR. On the contrary, we submit that a five-to-seven-minute medley—or even a three-to-five minute one—is a far better test of a band’s technical, musical, creative, and ensemble excellence than an MSR.

The MSR started mainly so that contests would be easier to judge. It was made not for competitors or listeners, but for judges and associations. Other than the Highland dancing tradition of a strathspey & reel, there was no evident rhyme or reason for tacking a 2/4 march at the front. Until the 1960s, marches, strathspeys and reels were what bands played. Solo pipers played that other stuff.

The five-to-seven-minute “Medley” was brought in because bands were already introducing non-MSR tunes to their repertoire. Top bands were making popular recordings, so it made sense to bring some of that onto the contest field. The MSR has been preserved because the 50-year-old set “tradition” had to be preserved.

At the Grade 1 level, the five-to-seven-minute Medley is a proven favourite. A recent Piper & Drummer Online poll showed that a mere 16 per cent of pipers and drummers prefer the MSR to the Medley, and we’re certain that the percentage of non-players would be nearly zero. As lovely a tune as it is, no audience jumps out of their seats and lets out a roar at the end of a band playing “Alex C. MacGregor.” Grade 1 bands are now only getting started by the time they hit five minutes. They are trying to cram as much variety as possible into seven minutes, and it’s clear that they are feeling suppressed musically.

Bands could reasonably be asked to go to 10, 15, or even 20 minutes for their performance. Pipe- and drum-sections could play solo for part of that time, and the band as a whole could really stretch the boundaries of musical adventurousness, and prove that their pipers can sustain a bagpipe just as well as a top piobaireachd player. There is no reason why this should not happen.

We are confident that audiences would grow, being attracted to the concert-like appeal of an extended medley. The pipe band concert is proven popular with non-players, so why not bring it to the competition field? Why not showcase the real talents of pipe bands by allowing them really to entertain creatively, while at the same time demonstrating their technical excellence?

To be sure, big marches, big strathspeys and big reels are great pieces of music and are a challenge for bands to play well. But artificially propping up an art for the sake of “tradition”—as has happened with piobaireachd—is eventually the death-knell of that art.

Again, taking the cue from figure skating, why not create “short” and “long” programs? The current five-to-seven-minute Medley could be retained for the short program, while a new 15-minute Medley could be the long event. As in skating, where certain elements are required, bands might be mandated to include at least one four-part march or strathspey or reel in their long selection, not to preserve tradition, but to ensure that at least some material has certain technical difficulty. (And, also like skating, create a panel of 10 judges. But that’s another story.)

We agree that it is important that young pipers and drummers know how to play an MSR, that they should have a good foundation of essentials. So keep the MSR competition for the lower grades, and get rid of it for grades 1 and 2.

In any thriving art-form, the artists set the direction of the art. Pipe bands have clearly indicated that the Medley is what they like the best, and the Medley has allowed the music to go in new and exciting directions. If the Medley were twice as long, the music would be twice as enjoyable, twice as adventurous, and twice as good.


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  1. There are a couple interesting aspects to this article. I particularily like the paralells drawn to Figure Skating. I think the comparisons are valid. I have always thought of the MSR/QMM as the Compulsary Figures of the bagpipe world. But I don’t agree with eliminating it. I think many band people appreciate and enjoy watching and listening the grade one bands play the MSR. This is entertainment for the educated” as opposed to massees. To further the comparisons to figure skating



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