April 19, 2015

Easy prizes, or challenging fun?

Play easy and boring music well, or play harder and interesting stuff and have more fun?

It’s an age-old quandary for lower grade pipers and pipe bands. Almost every judge would say (over and over again), play tunes that your hands or your pipers and drummers can manage better.

For time immemorial, judges will sit or stand there at virtually every competition and wonder, usually several times throughout the day, why oh why that piper or pipe band is throwing away the competition trying to play a tune or tunes that they simply can’t manage. Or, perhaps more accurately, wondering why they don’t play far easier stuff to get better results.

You would think that after a hundred-odd-years of competition, competitors would learn that playing easier stuff better would more likely produce better results. So why is it that season after season pipers, drummers and pipe bands come out playing stuff that’s too difficult?

The answer: it’s more fun.

It’s more fun because it’s a bigger musical challenge. I would venture to bet that many lower-grade bands recognize that if they were to play easy tunes all year long, they’d lose their members’ interest. Practices would become monotonous, and bored members would pressure the pipe-major to make things more interesting by engaging members with more challenging stuff.

But, but . . . the name of the game is to win, right? Why risk sacrificing winning for the sake of a few musical challenges?

It’s counter-intuitive, but that kind of sacrifice (the prize for the musical experience) is exactly what we need more of – pipe bands most of all. Producing engaging and interesting music – even if it’s not played to the competitor’s potential – is better for the art than interminably cranking out boring, repetitive tunes that no one, but no one, really wants to hear again.

The choice of playing easy tunes for better results or harder tunes for more fun is one of the great strategies of our competitive game. Allowing pipers, drummers and bands the freedom to make that choice adds spice and variety to our contests. Associations might think they’re practicing tough love by prescribing tunes for lower grade competitors, but they’re not.

When I was a kid, one of the first four-part 2/4 marches I was given to play was “Abercairney Highlanders.” The late Gordon Speirs said I would get far more out of that technical challenge than playing some boring, easier thing that would lose my interest. Yes, I wouldn’t make a great job of it, but it would help my hands and give me an opportunity to expand my horizons. And, I think it worked.

After years of the RSPBA’s MAP restrictions for lower-grade bands, the dividends, if in fact there are any, are difficult to see. Lower-grade “overseas” bands still regularly come to the World’s and do well. Requiring kids to play “Corriechoille” ad infinitum for a year I suggest drives more of them away than retains their interest in the art.

And, I will say it again: requiring contestants to play certain tunes is far less about the art and learning than it is about making judging easier. And that is no good for anyone, except of course the judges.

Pipers, drummers and pipe bands need to learn to challenge themselves, expand their horizons, take musical chances, and understand that there are things far more important than winning. “Play simple better” might work in competition, but, in reality, it goes only so far.


  1. You have great points, but (I think) what is often missing in the debate is the recognition of the difficultly in playing any music well. There is a lot to be learned in executing simple tunes to the highest standard.

    And, if a band or piper follows the path of ‘playing simple tunes well and win,’ then they get moved up to the next grade with a higher level of challenges.

  2. Not to necessarily disagree but I think some pipe majors (and individual pipers) overestimate their own or their bands abilities. I know I have been guilty of this at times.

  3. I agree with much of this – very sensibly put. I do feel that often if a player aims above their level of technical ability, the music of their piece can be lost. It’s all about the music, after all 🙂

    Also, it seems counter-intuititve that you criticise the RSPBA MAP tunes here. Prior to the MAP 2/4s (and strathspeys and reels now), I recall lower grade bands would churn out endless common time marches filled with crotchets and quavers.

    Now, they must play 2/4s which range from the simple Mairi’s Wedding and Corriechollie’s as you mention, through to much more demanding material like the KOSBs and McKenzie Highlanders. These are much more technical, eg with groups of 4 semiquavers, which allow ambitious bands to challenge themselves and prepare them better for life in higher grades with MSRs.

  4. Simpler tunes may be boring for some, but there are many to choose from, and if the Pipe Major spends some time, can find tunes that are not played to death, and different enough to be interesting, to boot. There is nothing so discouraging as being out of the prize list on a consistent basis. By all means strive to improve the level of playing of the pipers in your band by selecting more challenging material, but it should be only slightly more challenging, and then it doesn’t need to be for competition right away. The slightly more challenging material could be for performance only, at least initially. That way, the PM can see whether the tunes selected are way beyond the capabilities of the pipe corp. If not, they could possible be included in next year’s competition tunes. In this way you have the best of both worlds: the greater chance at competition success, and the more challenging tunes which hold the interest of the better pipers in your corps. Success, in more general terms, does not necessarily depend on the playing ability of the Pipe Major, but the sometimes the seemingly small decisions that he/she makes over time.

  5. Having judged for 25 years, I have never found anything “easy” about judging. Most judges I know have occasionally questioned tune selections. However, in the competitive arena, the best MUSICAL performances will make the prize list.
    The burden of playing appropriate music is on the teachers, not the judges. Good instructors like your Gordon Speirs and my Bob Gilchrist knew which students were capable of meeting “technical challenges.” I doubt if either would have given Abercairny Highlanders to a student who could not reasonably meet the challenge..
    “Fun” and/or “easy” did not fit into my competitive equation. Neither did “boring.” It seems to me something is wrong or inaccurate or misguided if the use of those words are as common as you would suggest.
    As a judge, I want to hear well played music on a good pipe relative to the grade. I can’t say I have had many judging days where more than two or three performances has met that simple standard at the medium, let alone lower grades no matter what “challenge level” of tunes played.



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