Published: February 28, 1998

Muddling judging medleys

[Originally published as an Editorial]

Medley competitions for pipe bands have been around for almost 30 years, yet they are still judged using the same basic criteria as those applied to March, Strathspey & Reels. In fact, they’re different things altogether, and they should be judged accordingly.

Today’s creative medley is far removed from the traditional MSR. To be sure, both are about music first and foremost, but the modern pipe band medley is also about musical evolution and progression, whereas the MSR is hidebound by tradition and preservation. Using the oft-cited ice skating analogy, the MSR is the “compulsory figures” of the pipe band world. Bands are required to perform certain moves in a certain format. The medley is the “free skate,” where competitors interpret a program within a certain time frame, choreographing its level of difficulty and creativity.

Ironically, when the medley event was introduced in the early 1970s, it was mainly in response to a recognized need to preserve and promote other forms of pipe music. At the time, there were no doubt visions of many years of “Irish Washerwoman,” “Jackie Tar,” and “Colin’s Cattle” sweeping audiences off their feet, and thus showing off important aspects of our music. A rousing “Deil Among the Tailors” was considered rakish.

What has in fact evolved is an almost entirely freeform approach where judges frequently are lucky to recognize time signatures, let alone identify tunes.

For sure, a medley must be played in unison, with good technique, on good-sounding instruments that are in tune and in tune with each other. But medleys are just as much an exposé for bands to show off their musical and creative talents.

It’s time that new criteria were developed for medley judging. Here are a few that we suggest:

1. Musical structure and content should be as important as expression, and technique. Judges should be allowed to interpret and digest the overall musical performance, and then reward bands as they deem appropriate. Currently, there is little if any room for a judge to critique a band on its musical performance. In fact, according to RSPBA rules, it’s forbidden. Perhaps a good matrix would be Tuning & Tone: 30%, Musical Arrangement: 30%, Expression: 20%, and Technique: 20%.

2. Isolated assessments of both the “introduction” and “finish” should be dropped. The notion that a band should start a medley with two three-pace rolls and an E is presumptuous, given the freeform approach. The introductory and ending effects should simply be counted as part of the overall musical arrangement. A band should be allowed to start and finish however it wants. Save rules for attacks and finishes for the MSR event.

3. Bands should submit to contest organizers (who would then pass it along to the judges) a complete list of tunes, time signatures, and breaks. This would better allow the judge to prepare for transitions from composition to composition. How can a judge do his job effectively when his mind is unexpectedly jerked from tune to tune?

Some will no doubt argue that this will encourage bands to run amok with “musical” adventurism and gimmicks. In truth, the judges will have to decide what is or isn’t musical and tasteful. (This makes it even more important to have competent, well-chosen, and respected adjudicators on the panel.)

With judges encouraged to critique what they prefer or dislike musically, bands will respond accordingly in their efforts to win prizes. Our bet is that most bands will err on the side of musical caution, thus keeping the traditionalists potentially happier than they may be now. Conceivably, with the added emphasis on musical content, the average medley actually will become relatively more conservative than it is today.

With the amendments we suggest, the MSR will continue to have its rigid structure, with defined attacks and finishes and an overall regimented approach satisfying the purists and preserving our most traditional and difficult music. The medley, on the other hand, will be the event where the art can truly evolve, where bands can combine excellence in tuning, tone, and unison with musical creativity.

Medleys should be judged in a light that better reflects the way they are created. It’s time competition medley judging was brought up to date.

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