June 30, 2000

Choosing the Set Tunes

Editor’s note: Each year the Piobaireachd Society recommends three lists of tunes for the Silver Medal, Gold Medal and Senior competitions at the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban, Scotland; the Northern Meeting at Inverness, Scotland; and the Piobaireachd Society (Canada) Gold Medal Competitions at Maxville, Ontario. From these lists, competitors generally have to choose a certain number of piobaireachds—usually four, six or eight—to be submitted in the competitions. We asked Piobaireachd Society president Andrew Wright to tell us the process of selecting the tunes each year, and he was more than pleased to accept our offer.

The learning of set tunes every year takes up much of the practice time of pipers whose aim is to win the premier prizes for piobaireachd. The question is often asked, who selects the tunes and what are the factors that influence the choice?

The Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society chooses the set tunes. The main objective of the Society is to encourage the study and playing of piobaireachd on the Highland bagpipe. Formed in 1903, the Society undertakes the task of selecting the set tunes on behalf of the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting. These gatherings of long standing and tradition have the added distinction of awarding gold medals presented by the Highland Society of London.

The characteristics of piobaireachd vary from tune to tune by degrees of length and difficulty. There are many great pieces — tunes with long groundwork and short technical variations and others with short groundwork and lengthy technical variations.

One of the general objectives in setting tunes has been to group tunes together of the same weight for the same competition and, so, lessen the difficulty in assessing the merits of one performance against another. This policy has been departed from on recent occasions, as in the case of the Silver Medal events where there is a wide diversity of skill levels over the competitors. In these instances, longer pieces have been included along with shorter pieces in order to allow those who are able to demonstrate their skill.

When “The Blue Ribbon” was set for this event a few years back, it was submitted by about thirty per cent of the competitors. However, with the three grades of competition (the Silver Medal, the Gold Medal, and the Senior events) the policy is to weight the tunes to each event. This would to seem to make good sense, but the larger numbers wanting to compete, along with the great improvement in standard, has resulted in skill levels being evened out at the top and bottom of each section. The distinction in tune weighting cannot now be all that clear cut.

It is a fact that the understanding and depth of interpretation of the music increase in direct proportion to the size of a player’s repertoire. The Music Committee is mindful of this, and, in line with the aims of the Society, care is taken in tune selection to take in as much of the available repertoire as practical. Although the view has always been that because a tune is published it is not necessarily seen as suitable for competition.

Records of what has been set in the past are kept and these are referred to when compiling the lists. Likewise the number of times a tune is submitted is noted and pieces that have been neglected and which the committee think are worth playing and being heard are often inserted into the list a few years later.

There is no fixed rotation system for the setting of tunes. Categories of tune by title (i.e. salutes, laments, and gatherings) are not taken into consideration when compiling the lists. There is no policy of including an equal spread of each type. Occasionally, a number of tunes have been set from the same Piobaireachd Society book, usually the later publications. This is not to boost sales of any book, but is due to the fact that the later books contain the highest number of least played or obscure tunes. Once a book has been published for a suitable time it might be used as the basis for selection, but mostly for the senior events.

Over and above the large increase in the number of people playing, listening to, and wanting to learn about piobaireachd, there has been a tremendous improvement in the standard of play overall. Today there are more people playing piobaireachd worldwide than ever before. This can at least be partly attributed to the set tune policy that spreads the repertoire, challenges and extends the ability of those who play, fascinates audiences and stimulates discussion. Furthermore, the set tune system encourages research into the music.

Andrew Wright is president of the Piobaireachd Society and one of the world’s greatest authorities on piobaireachd. In his competing career, he won almost all the top prizes, and today he is sought after as a piping judge and teacher. He lives in Dunblane, Scotland.


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