May 31, 2002

Getting away from the humdrum

The concept of “set tunes” is not new to most pipers. Since the Piobaireachd Society decided to standardize the top events at the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting in the early 1900s, top pipers have grown used to the notion that they sometimes have to choose from a list prescribed by contest organizers. For that matter, much of what solo pipers and pipe sections in band march, strathspey & reel events play are compositions that are more or less “set.”

We even refer to the MSR format as a “set.” Qualified judges will be familiar with the vast majority of the content played by the competitors, perhaps with the exception of the medleys of top grade bands, which often introduce new material. Side drumming contests, on the other hand, are different. Unlike pipers, who generally cull their MSR content from the bountiful repertory of great, well-established music, side drummers seem to be expected to come up with original scores, both in bands and solos (and in solos, drummers often play what they play with their band). There have been untold instances of snare drummers losing their place in the score and basically improvising for a few bars.

The judge, unless he’s intimately familiar with the score being played – which is infrequent – sometimes doesn’t even notice when a skilled, composed drummer skillfully composes on the spot. This approach to side drumming is foreign to pipers, who are used to the relatively orthodox, predictable and regimented tradition of their competition content. Pipers might believe that drumming should be more like piping, because, they say, drummers should not be allowed to “busk” their way through a serious event. And when this happens and the drummer or corps actually wins the contest, well, look out.

Beer tents heave with controversy. The predictable thing to write at this point is that drumming should be more like piping; that drummers should adhere more to classic scores by greats like Duthart, Brown, and Scullion. That’s certainly a valid opinion, but it’s not the one we’ll take. In fact, we think there’s a case for pipers to be more like drummers (gasp!). Rather than constantly dampening pipe music by expecting bands and soloists to plays mainly the tried and tested pieces and styles of the past, why not create the occasional event that calls for all tunes to be written by band members, or within the past year?

Wouldn’t this approach actually nurture the development of pipe music much more than repetitiously playing the same old things year after year? When it comes to constructing medleys, today’s bands generally play it safe.

In fact, as Ian Duncan astutely pointed out in his February 2002 PD Interview, most Grade 1 medleys have become predictable and boring. Bands are reluctant to go too far forward with new material for fear of being marked down by traditionalist judges. They strategically throw in humdrum traditional tunes to ensure the conservative judges can tuck in to something known.

To our knowledge, the first and last time that a band presented a competition medley of 100 percent original content was the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ “Megantic Outlaw” suite of 1992. The band was shot down in flames by a few musically ultra-orthodox judges, and subsequently abandoned the idea of playing the suite at the World Championships a few months later.

The 78th decided to forego a watershed moment in pipe band history for the sake of trying to win the prize, which didn’t happen anyway. But 10 years later perhaps the time is right. Judges are more relaxed, audiences want to hear different ideas, bands are ready to be judged on their content and originality as much as the quality of their technique. Drummers have been competing with their own compositions forever. It’s about time pipers, pipe sections, and judges further opened their minds and started to welcome and nurture original musical thinking – like side drummers have done for years.




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