March 31, 2006

Two musics

[Originally published as an Editorial]

“Pipe music” as we know it is changing. We’re not just talking about creative new tunes, but more about how we consider the music itself. We’ve talked before about how there seems to be “pipe band piping” and “solo piping” categories of pipe music [see “Muddling judging medleys,” Feb. 1998], and today that has never been more evident, especially when we look at the RSPBA’s move towards its Musical Appreciation & Performance (MAP) system for its Grade 4 and Novice Juvenile competitions.

Let’s go back 50 or 75 years and take a look at what a pipe band’s pipe section was supposed to do: play together as a solo piper would. That means “sounding as one,” with all of the doublings, the expression, the tone and tuning and the various exigencies that are attached to the competition solo piping. The pipe section would play marches, strathspeys and reels with settings straight from Willie Ross and pity the poor band that left out a doubling from the “correct” setting.

Then the pipe band medley competition came in the 1970s. But still, hornpipes, jigs, airs and two-parted tunes would still be played as a solo piper would play them. Pure solo pipers—that is, guys who never really played in a top competition pipe band—judged many, if not most, contests. Seumas MacNeill, Capt. John MacLellan, John MacFadyen were frequent and respected adjudicators on the SPBA/RSPBA circuit. To be sure, these guys knew a decent pipe band when they heard one, but their ears were attuned to solo piping standards. Omitting technique and adding such heretical things as “seconds” could be met with derision and a low placing.

But gradually these solo-only, non-band pipers stopped judging pipe bands, and the RSPBA developed sophisticated judging exams and recruited not solo pipers, but people with pipe band experience to sit them. Occasionally, as in the cases of Andrew Wright, John Wilson, Iain MacLellan and others, these new judges would have a solid pedigree of both band and solo competition success, but, by and large, the RSPBA’s judging panel now comprised pipers who never had much interest or success in treading the solo boards at a high level.

So, without piping judges cracking down on bands scrimping on standards applied to solo piping, bands gradually have found that they could do a lot more with the pipe music. If a band wanted to strip — or “clear-cut” as we’ve heard one prominent player call it — “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran” of all the tricky full F doublings from high G, a band could safely do that. No Seumas- or Captain John-types to worry about.

And over the past 10 years the acceleration of change in pipe band pipe music has been rapid, to the point where, in the case of many pipe band medleys, the music has little if anything to do with what the solo piping crowd would do. In fact, if a solo piper got up and played a band medley to a bunch of other solo pipers, he or she likely would be laughed at.

Today’s pipe bands are all about creating a musical effect. And rarely is that effect achieved by leaving a tricky D-throw in a certain spot. It’s achieved by a side-drum-line complementing the music, by a bass section that builds dynamics, by complex four- or five-part harmonies within the pipe section. Doublings and the strictures applied to “good” solo piping be damned.

And the RSPBA is recognizing that. Its MAP program provides simplified scores for traditional tunes, and encourages lower-grade bands to play them to their best musical (and not necessarily technical) effect in a “spirited and lively” fashion, pretty much by whatever means they want to use to achieve it. The drum section can provide the elements left out by the pipe section. The true objective of the pipe band—to create a music effect—is left not to the tenets of solo piping, but to the creative minds in the band itself.

Instead of assessing piping and assessing drumming, the RSPBA’s judges will critique these Grade 4 and Novice Juvenile bands on broader, ensemble terms. Instead of necessarily hammering an entire band for a bad start or trailing drone, judges will assess the musical performance as a whole. Instead of automatically tossing out a band for not playing the tricky F doublings, judges are encouraged to envision the bigger musical picture. It is a bold and courageous move ahead for the RSPBA and, if it proves effective and popular, could well trickle up to the higher grade bands and the manner in which they are judged.

Never has it been truer that music for solo piping and band pipe music have relatively little to do with each other. There seems to be no chance that solo piping will soon abandon its strict criteria for what’s “good” and “bad.” Its rigidity and regimentation are here to stay. Pipe bands, however, are pushing the art, ensuring that the goal of the music is to create a positive effect and not simply to make the judges’ work easier. Bravo.


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