June 30, 2005

Question authority

[Originally published as an Editorial]

“Authority” is a word often used when it comes to Highland pipe-music. We’re taught from an early age that what we play must be have “authority” attached to it. A piobaireachd setting isn’t acceptable without a connected recognized “authority.” If a piece of ceol mor wasn’t learned from an “authority,” it’s sure to hold no truck with judges. Wo betide the competitive piper who competes with an “unauthorized” setting of a 2/4 march.

Certainly, musical excellence is key, but where does authority start and stop? What constitutes authority? How does one become an authority and why do we associate prizes with authority?

The Piobaireachd Society used to use the authority word when it published its list of tunes set for the Argyllshire Gathering and Northern Meeting, strongly suggesting that only settings with “recognized authority” would be considered. That was to say, Don’t bother showing up playing something different; you won’t win. The Piobaireachd Society has softened somewhat this year, stating, "Competitors are not restricted to the settings or styles in [the Piobaireachd Society Collection or the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor], and any other setting or style may be played, provided that the judges may take into consideration the authenticity and merits of such setting or style.”

This pleads the question: Why do we routinely limit our music to something that has already been done and established and accepted? Isn’t this approach stifling? Doesn’t it promote same-old-same-old? Doesn’t it invite boredom to set in to our music?

Speaking of boredom, it’s remarkable that even the die-hards who show up to listen to piobaireachd competitions often doze off over their Kilberrys and Collections. There’s often more life at a convention of embalmers. Someone famous said that if his piobaireachd puts someone to sleep he knows he’s done a good job. Nothing could be further from the truth. Art that lulls is art that’s dull. Our competitions basically test a piper’s ability to mimic what has been done before, to capture what pleases the judges, rather than play what pleases him or herself. If a piper cuts a single note that is usually held it becomes a major issue. For the good of the art, this restrictive attitude has got to stop.

Believe it or not, piobaireachd can and should be bold and exciting. Courageous people like Allan MacDonald, Willie Donaldson, Barnaby Brown and Jimmy McColl have proven that. They have looked at what was done before the music was standardized for competition by society-folk lacking substantial musical talent, before “authorities” got hold of the art and made it so amateur “gentlemen” (read: upper-class) pipers could better judge and control the working-class performers through judging and controlling the music. Control the music and you control the pipers. Control the pipers and you control the art. Control the art and you control your spot in history.

There was a time when piobaireachd and light music competitions were as varied and exciting as anything imaginable, where pipers and audience were on the edge of their seats not knowing what the player would do with a tune, and obtained original and new ideas on how things might be played.

With that in mind, shouldn’t we stop using “authority” as a crutch for our own broken courage, and simply play and award prizes to the music that we like and which is played technically well? It’s time that we banished the word “authority” from piping and started to enjoy the music once again. Let’s make it so that sleeping at contests is a thing of the past, and return to the music the vibrancy, excitement and currency that it once carried. Sure, play all the right notes in the correct sequence, but do it with new-found musical conviction, courage and panache. In any other domain. interpreting and challenging the art is to be expected of the artist. So why not us?

Suggesting that our best performers don’t have the authority to interpret and play the music how they feel fit, even if it is radically different from what we’re used to hearing, is an insult. Just as the tradition of amateur gentlemen “pipers” judging has been put out to pasture, so too should the concept that competitions should be based on who does the best impersonation of “authority.” Resurrect the art. Question authority.


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  1. without ‘authority’, how would ‘Old’ Masters guage upcoming wannabe Masters against each other?; the whole idea of ‘authority’ is to eliminate relative hacks who haven’t the inclination or talent to excel within the ‘authorized’ and established mores of Ceol Mor and who waish to demand to squeak by, playing rubbish no one else knows or will have seen the score for …irrespective of how well scored or played. Learn ‘authorized’ tunes from a respected authority…show all how the cream rises to the top..then you’ll be ready for kitchen piping the piping world would respect.



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