January 05, 2021

Opinion: 2021 – a Year for Competition Music Change

Happy New Year to you, and here’s to a great 2021 – or at least a better year on balance than the nine-month dumpster fire we’ve experienced.

In May 2020, we talked about the opportunities to improve to derive from the unfortunate situation. Lemons = lemonade.

While New Zealand and most of Australia are currently enjoying a relatively familiar existence, the countries’ vigilance against the coronavirus paying dividends, those in the Northern Hemisphere face more months of exceptionally challenging conditions.

By most accounts, it might not be until September when there’s sufficient “herd immunity” to allow a return to large public in-person gatherings. There are currently problems with vaccination rollouts, and the threat of more contagious virus strains to emerge is a sad reality.

If we learned anything from last year, it’s that pipers and drummers respond well to adversity by changing for the better. We discovered new ways to stay engaged. We saw more new music and products come out than at any time in recent memory.

It continues to be a perfect time to try new things, to be open to making changes where they’re needed. Right now, we have the gift of time to renovate a somewhat stale competing piping and drumming world.

There is time now to get it right. Associations can reset the rules, putting less emphasis on technicalities and more on music.

The MSR is nothing more than a primitive medley. There is nothing extraordinary about the format, but somehow the MSR has become our sacred cow, protectionists dogmatically insisting that a good MSR is somehow more demanding.

We’ve said it repeatedly over the years: the MSR is nothing more than a primitive medley. There is nothing extraordinary about the format, but somehow the MSR has become our sacred cow, protectionists dogmatically insisting that a good MSR is somehow more demanding for a band to deliver than a pleasing medley.

As they say in the UK: Bollocks. Today, upper-grade bands maunder through MSRs like kilted zombies knowing that a simple “clean” run is the primary goal. Nothing fancy. Nothing creative. Being fancy and creative loses MSR contests.

And today, medley time constraints as we know them have become similarly outdated, or at least unnecessarily musically limiting for modern pipe bands. Five- or seven-minute time limits barely get a lower- or higher-grade band started, respectively.

The usual comparison is ice skating. The MSR has been called the “compulsory figures” of skating since the 1970s. But even competitive skating got rid of compulsory figures back in the 1990s because they were stupefying to the athletes and mystifying to the audience. There are now “short” and “long” programs with required elements in each.

But far more popular is ice dancing. Some skating killjoys might still turn up their nose at ice dancing’s lack of technical excellence, but crowds and TV love it. It attracts people to the sport. Ice dancing is engaging and entertaining.

It’s a perfect time right now to adjust pipe band competition requirements. Eliminate the MSR in the upper grades. Few experienced competitors like to play them, and fewer listeners still like to hear them. It’s a primitive medley that’s run its course.

Marches, strathspeys and reels of the “heavy” variety are still essential to learn, to hone skills and technique through Grade 3. After that, bands are free to put the tune-types in their medleys if they wish.

Recast the current medley time format as a “medley program,” but add required elements that change from year to year. One season might require bands to include, for example, four parts of the strathspey idiom and at least one four-part jig, the next year at least four parts of reel-time and a 2/4 march introduction.

But add a longer freestyle medley, perhaps seven to 10 minutes for Grade 2 and 10 to 15 minutes for Grades 1. This would be our equivalent to ice dancing, with art designed to creatively entertain, pushing our musical boundaries, pulling in new audiences who never realized how good pipe band music could be.

With an increasingly more likely prospect that competitions could well not happen in 2021, the time is perfect for the reinvention of fusty pipe band competition by redeveloping playing requirements, while still training newer pipers and drummers in essentials:

  • Grade 5 / Novice: March Medley from prescribed tunes and scores.
  • Grade 4: little MSR (two-part tunes) or 3-5-minute medley with required elements.
  • Grade 3 / Juvenile: full MSR or 5-7-minute medley with required elements.
  • Grade 2: 5-7-minute medley with required elements (submit two) or 7-10-minute freestyle medley (submit one).
  • Grade 1: 7-10-minute medley with required elements (submit two) or 10-15-minute freestyle medley (submit one).

Relax the rules in the first season back, with only one MSR or medley needing to be submitted and only one requirement for the year. In the second season, implement the full complement of musical requirements and options.

And now it’s time for the preservationists to say, “Leave the creative stuff to concerts, and keep competitions what they are,” as if to say, “Competitions must be necessarily boring for the players and the audience.”

Why do we always have to hide our creative potential in competition? Can’t we do both?

Think of what our most creative musicians could do. Imagine Stuart Liddell or Lincoln Hilton or Lorne MacDougall or Chris Armstrong or Alen Tully or Matt Welch any number of pipe band drummers might put together if released from the current pipe band competition music straightjacket. We might even repatriate some musical minds who left pipe bands because they’re too limiting.

Right now, bands have time to create. Associations have time to adjust. We can come back rejuvenated, ready to usher in a new era. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity to make something of a time everyone prefers wasn’t happening and allow more music to be played, more creativity to be deployed, more people to be entertained, more people to be attracted, engaged by the true potential of our art.



Opinion: Time for a reset
May 7, 2020

Opinion: The World’s needs a shakeup
August 17, 2019




  1. Maybe an interesting polling idea? Given an either/or choice, which would one prefer: listening to the winning World’s MSRs of the last 10 years or to the winning World’s Medleys of the last 10 years? There is no wrong answer here, but personally, while my favorite idiom has always been the big 2/4 marches and I enjoy MSRs, listening to the same sequence of tunes over and over definitely dulls the senses, especially as there are certain tunes that keep cropping up. As the saying goes “Variety is the Spice of Life” and my favorite thing about medleys the last few years: the different treatments given to old, established tunes and the inclusion of piobaireachd. Good stuff, but think what it would be like if you gave these bands more freedom to be creative. Exciting stuff!



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