Published: February 11, 2021

Opinion: Tune! Tune! Tune! Time to stop the tradition of interminable in-performance tuning

The author tuning at Crieff Games many years ago. The judges barely survived a full day of performances that, like every piping contest, were probably half tuning.

Imagine going to a concert. For old time’s sake, let’s say it’s the Rolling Stones. The crowd’s excited. The lights go down. Suddenly, Keith Richards nervously comes out on stage and, instead of the famous first riff of “Satisfaction,” he proceeds to tune his guitar. It was in perfect tune two minutes ago and likely will be again in a few seconds, but he must make sure it’s perfect before starting the song. And Keith has a bit of stage fright. He takes two, three, four minutes futzing. Ping-ping. Pling. Strum. Pick. Ping-ping. It’s interminable. The audience wonders, What the #@&% is he doing?

All musical momentum is lost. Even the roadies are bored. The crowd starts talking among themselves. The moment evaporates in a cloud of obscure and tuneless notes as Keef is in his little world delaying, delaying. Wait, we think he might be ready to start the song . . . but, no, he goes back to playing random notes, ping, pluck, ting, strum. Mick, Ronnie and Charlie stand around daydreaming. As he settles his nerves, the audience tunes out. They finally play the song, only to do the tuning thing for the next. And the next. And the next.

If that scenario sounds absurd, it’s because it is. But it’s what pipers do at every single competition.

Our tuning habit is a bizarre tradition that distances everyone from the performance. Our tradition of interminable tuning makes what should be an immersive musical experience into a challenge of patience and stamina.

Obviously, a Stones concert is not a solo piping competition. But they are both performances, and it is the performance that is the important common thread. We asked around, and couldn’t find any competitions for similarly temperamental reed and string instruments where the contestants are allowed to spend any time, let alone five or more minutes, tuning before their performance.

We pipers and drummers too often prefer perfection over performance. As they say, perfect is the enemy of good and, in our eternal pursuit of perfection and our intolerance for flaws, we lose innumerable potential fans of our music.

Who among us has not been with a non-piper at a solo competition who asks: “Has he started yet?” only to break it to your near-catatonic friend that, “No, he’s still tuning, so please stop talking.” By then, your friend has probably made up their mind never to attend another one of these boring things.

Synthetic reeds, bags, moisture-control gubbins, and other gizmos have resulted in instruments that are far more stable and reliable than ever. But the bizarre thing is that on-stage tuning is every bit as tedious as it ever was. Despite these massive advances in stability, pipers still insist on tuning, tuning, tuning as much as ever.

We can only conclude that lengthy tuning is simply a traditional stalling tactic. We teach by example that competitors must “settle” their nerves and instrument with endless random notes. Whatever you do, you must retune your drones, futz with tape, play their dreariest slow air or the least melodic bit of piobaireachd they know, just to buy time before they start their performance, forgetting that the tuning is also the performance.

The most prestigious solo piping competitions in the world put a limit on tuning – a limit of three or four minutes. If you think that’s not a lot of time, try just sitting there for four minutes. It’s an eternity. Almost all of these top competitors use up every second of their time, and their pipe is rarely substantially better when they’re mercifully finally done than when they started tuning.

When we allow the world’s elite players to futz around unnecessarily, it only teaches lesser pipers that excessive tuning is simply what you’re supposed to do.

Pipers are already well prepared when they enter the stage; their instrument is or should be as ready as it can be. If the bagpipe falls out of tune during the performance, then so be it. Better luck next time.

Eradicating the traditional acceptance of tuning will make our music and events more accessible. Tuning confuses and alienates the audience. It can put the judge’s teeth on edge and, worst of all, makes the music secondary to a bizarre requirement for perfect tone that ordinary people do not understand. Our constant requirement that we can only perform on a perfect bagpipe spoils things for everyone.

Interminable tuning is not necessarily the fault of pipers. Judges generally place far too much emphasis on perfect tuning, so much that they let an imperfect instrument obliterate an otherwise excellent musical performance. When judges do that, then, of course, pipers will spend all afternoon trying to get their pipes perfect before they start their competition performance. Judges should adjust their priorities.

Pipers should approach the judge, confirm their tune (or better yet, dispense with this and have the steward handle it), sound their pipe for no more than 15 seconds and begin their performance. With those conditions applying to all contestants, everyone is on equal footing. If a bagpipe falls badly out of tune, them’s the breaks, so work on it for next time. As long as it’s closely (but not necessarily perfectly) in tune, we can still focus on the delivery of the music. We’ll keep listening. Everyone’s happy.

While there are no competitions in most regions, it’s a perfect time for pipers to rehearse this process. When practicing, test how long it takes for your pipe to maintain its tuning. Then stop for a minute – about the time it takes to walk up to the judge and tell them what you’re playing – strike up and, after no more than 15 seconds, play your competition material and see how well your pipes are and remain in tune. You’ll probably be surprised.

So, here’s our proposal: Change the traditional tuning habit. Tuning of more than 15 seconds needs to be banned, or at least severely frowned upon, or perhaps even docked against the overall competition performance.

Are there more important issues right now? Sure, but long-term perhaps the most effective and easiest change we can implement to make our piping events more enjoyable for all is to stop torturous tuning and put all focus on the performance.

 

9 COMMENTS

  1. Nothing more annoying than the final tuning in front of the judge. Most games or contests have a FINAL tuning close to the contest area. It’s also got to do with time management. Make sure you check in with the steward if there is conflicts with other contest the steward can arrange a time slot change.
    You can tune right up to the time the judge lets the steward know he’s ready.
    A quick last touch up if needed and do what your there to do Play!
    This would save so much time at contests.

  2. If I had done the tuning thing the first time, as a young Black Watch of Canada piper in 1965 at Camp Gagetown, New Brunswick at a Regimental Officers’ Mess dinner, there wouldn’t have been a second time – straight to duty in a rifle company!

    Hugh Macpherson
    Pipe Major (Chief Warrant Officer Retired)
    Ottawa

    1. Hugh you always taught me to be tuned before addressing the judge. Just strike up and go. And I won almost every contest I entered and was ALWAYS complemented on my tone. None of this none sense of dragging on the tuning to satisfy your ego.

  3. The best performances come from being prepared; that includes tuning. The hardest thing to prepare for is playing in a venue where the environmental conditions are different than from the warm-up or final tuning area. In an outdoor setting… it’s almost always the same. Indoors events are far more stable than outdoors, yet there can be slight variations; not enough to have an effect on the instrument.

    With today’s technology, pipes can remain stable and in tune for long periods of time… it is more likely that ones blowing will have a greater effect on the instruments tuning and tone than any environmental factors. I’m all for getting rid of the tuning prior to performing or competing… even 15 seconds is too long… blow em up and play.

  4. From a corp piper in a local band who has only dabbled in solo work: Tune in the tuning area, enter the competition area, 15 seconds max and play.

    I know it’s not the same, but if a top flight band can be tuned and just play, why not a solo piper?

    We tend to play for the pipers. As in the article, maybe loosening up by shortening the non music part of the performance might entice more listeners to our events.

  5. a couple of observations, and a question.

    I’ve had the fortune of sitting with the judge, as the reader, and have heard _every_ piper’s complete performance over the last 12 years at the Maxville Gold Medal. Avg 20+ pipers and doing the math, that’s give or take 20 hours of tuning. Because some pipers do actually start ahead of the red light, I’ll trim it back to about 18 hours. Oh my.

    Having suffered through all of this pre-piobaireachd tuning i can say that majority of pipes arrive on the stage in near perfect tuning. Many are quickly/nervously put out of tune, and require the next three or four minutes in *trying* to find that sweet spot again and only end up adding to the player’s anxiety. The harmonic/resonant ambience of this new stage space (compared to the final tuning room at the other church, or their practice room back home) may lead most pipers, in the first few seconds of playing, to think that their pipes are out. Hyper-critical. If they would only play for 20 seconds and really listen, they would find things pretty much OK. A tiny tweak, and on with the performance.

    And, regarding the ‘performances’ while marching down the sidewalk as competitors nervously play from church to church: yes, these tunes often come across as being pretty hyper, and as they come into earshot they destroy the serenity of the ceol mor-induced audience awaiting them; not to mention announcing a grossly flat high-A, etc.

    Also, what’s with that 15 to 20-second long low under-pressure drone-rattle attack? Once, the first time, maybe OK, but 10 times over the course of the 5-minute tuning time!!!??? Give over. Who started that habit? Forgive me, but I’d be surprised if it was Donald MacPherson. Stop it! You look and sound like some pompous ‘one’ who knows something we don’t; do you believe 15 seconds of drone rattle is better than 2 or 3? I really hurt for the person in the audience checking out the beautiful music for their first time under these conditions.

    …. Start Me Up!

  6. Is eliminating tuning going to make solo piping a wider appeal to the general public? Who are we doing this for? It’s not a concert or a recital. We really do it for ourselves. I’ve seen gold medalists playing a beautiful piobaireachd under a tree by a bathroom with 1 or 2 people caring to listen anyway. If someone spends months practicing in their basement and travels hundreds of miles and spends of dollars to travel to a elite competition and their pipe needs to be settled from final tuning to the actual performance, so be it. WE collectively have MADE it about perfection. You can’t just simply say now go on an play before your drones are settled. I agree that it does seem to go on too long though. 15 seconds would not usually be enough time to bring things back, but maybe a minute, not 5.

  7. I find it annoying, as a judge, when tuning drags on more than a brief touchup. Most of the time, particularly in the upper grades, it does not get significantly better the longer one fiddles. Many’s the time I’ve heard a piper strike up with a nice pipe, and proceed to spend several minutes de-tuning it, then panicking and commencing the performance with a far worse instrument than they’d brought to the boards.

    I’ve always felt the most confident and played my best when I walked up to the judge, gave the tune, struck up, and the pipe was either 100% in tune or darn close. A few seconds of “stability testing” and away you go.

    The tuning work should be mostly done in the tuning area (conditions permitting). Try it, you’ll like it!

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