July 14, 2015


An unwritten rule of competition: no one is rewarded for difficulty. There are no bonus points for playing hard tunes. There are points for playing hard, medium or easy tunes well.

There are points taken away for playing hard stuff poorly, and on a related note, no judge is going to let you off easy for making a hack of a tough tune, just because, well, it’s so hard.

I remember some years ago playing in a band. In the winter someone had the idea that we should play “Eileen MacDonald.” It’s a clever and relatively obscure, jig written by Charlie Williamson. It’s a whole lotta handful for a top soloist, let alone a whole pipe section.

We toiled away at the four-tentacled thing through the winter and spring, chanters getting slapped relentlessly with marvelously syncopated combinations. We worked and worked at it, because, aside from it being a good tune, it was so impressively hard. Goddamit, we’d show them!

The contest season carried on and the band did well, but it seemed like we weren’t getting much attention, let alone extra credit, for the amazingly difficult four-parted jig.

We played the medley with “Eileen MacDonald” at the World’s. I can’t remember the result, so it must not have been a memorable prize. What I do remember, though, is after we played, the late great Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald had listened to the performance, and a few of us spoke to him afterwards.

Angus, in his famously surprising-for-a-big-man high-pitched voice with one slightly raised eyebrow remarked, “Aye, ‘Eileen MacDonald.’ Tough tune.”

One comment from one solo piper. All that diligent practice to play a very difficult tune well came down to one comment. That was it.

“Aye. Tough tune.”

And I can’t remember a judge ever writing anything to the effect that he/she was impressed or that the tune was even positively noticed. I’m certain there were comments about the tricky passages not being quite together. Easy pickings for a piping judge.

Was it the right thing to do? In hindsight, I would say it wasn’t. It’s a clever jig, and the composition itself is unique. But is it so musically brilliant that it’s irreplaceable in a medley? Do people pine for a band or soloist to play it? Don’t think so.

In solo competition, we all submit tunes that might be deemed difficult. I admit that as a competitor and a judge I know what it’s like to submit or have submitted to me three or four tunes, and the one more difficult tune gets picked – not because it’s the musically superior tune, but simply because, Well, it’s your funeral, buddy.

If the idea is to win the competition, why put yourself at a disadvantage? I remember a lesson with Captain John MacLellan. We were discussing what light music to put in for solo events. We were trying to determine tunes that might suit me better than others. Since he said I had a stronger top-hand, I suggested “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran.” In his rather straightforward manner the good Captain said something that always stayed with me. “Why play six parts when four will do?”

Now, I readily admit that that comment was made 25 years ago, and to me, an American going round the Scottish games trying to “get in.” I wasn’t playing in the Silver Star. But I think the message was clear: Why make it any harder for yourself?

As a judge a few weeks ago a young piper submitted “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.” Nice tune, but no more technically difficult than the other three he put in, so I picked it and he played it. There were enough problems with it by the crunluath variation that he wasn’t in the running, but he then commenced to play an unexpected open fosgailte variation. I say unexpected, because most pipers wouldn’t do that. The tune is far more often played without one. Unlike a few remaining piobaireachd pedants who insist that this is “wrong,” I’m fine with anyone playing it if they want. It’s music.

But why play it? In competition, why would you tack on a very difficult variation at the end of the tune when it’s completely optional? Is it an attempt to get extra credit? Do they steadfastly believe that the tune is incomplete without it? As I said, I don’t think bonus points exist in piping and pipe band competitions, and insisting that it must be played is as pedantic as someone insisting that it should not be played. It’s optional.

Rather than help, the open fosgailte variation was not played well this time, so it actually made matters worse for the competitor, again supporting my argument that there are no potential positives that I can think of, and only probable negatives.

Unlike diving or spelling bees or freestyle skiing, there’s no reward for technical difficulty in what we do, and nor should there be. One person’s “hard” is another’s “easy” in our music. But the question – or perhaps debate – remains: Why play six when four will do? Why play “Eileen MacDonald” when another jig is just as compelling musically and less demanding technically?

I’m sure there are flaws in my argument, so feel free to point them out. In the meantime, I’ll keep slapping my chanter trying to get the syncopation right.



  1. I once had the good fortune to be in a workshop with the late Donald MacPherson, and he was putting us through that year’s Silver Medal tunes plus any other ceol mor that we brought to the table. By and large the tunes were easy to medium and in the 6-12 minute ballpark. He said that we can become great at these little and midrange tunes but in the contest all it takes is for someone to do a good job on Donald Gruamach’s and guess where the prize is going.

    Also I wonder how many of the top bands will take this to heart and replace the 6-parted marches with less commonly heard 4-part gems.

  2. Actually, if you remove the welter of pointless gracenotes, it’s a simple enough little tune as long as your bottom hand isn’t lazy with the false fingering. Playing it as written is asking for trouble, and to my mind gives no musical benefit.

    Not that I disagree with the thrust of your post.

    1. I’ve just come across this response and find it one of the most disrespectful things I have ever read. You call it a “simple enough little tune” then you criticise how the composer chose to ornement it. What condescending nonsense! I had the pleasure & privelage of knowing Charlie Williamson and spent many hours in his company discussing all things music as well as other things. When it came to composing pipe tunes Charlie, as well as being years ahead of his time, was passionate about his tunes. Every gracenote was there for a reason and he could explain and justify each one. When he played or sung one of his tunes for you the ornementations made perfect sense, giving exactly the rhythm, dynamic and pulse that he was looking to convey. Nothing in Charlie’s music was “pointless”. How dare you!

  3. I can’t help thinking two things: 1. You’re absolutely right, and 2. I really wish you weren’t.

    You said, “There’s no reward for technical difficulty in what we do, and nor should there be,” and I just can’t help thinking that SHOULD be completely wrong. There absolutely needs to be a standard of tunes appropriate to the various grades, solo AND band (yeah, I know, who’s going to do it). Without a doubt, a competitor should be VERY careful about “overreaching the grade”, but playing basic music at, say, grade 2 is just disappointing. And if doing that helps you win, it’s just lame.

    1. I think there are tunes that are commensurate with grades, as another unwritten rule. A professional piper isn’t likely to submit “Walter Douglas MBE,” however musically superb that composition might be, but if he/she did, and the judge picked it, then it should be judged equally. After all, if it was among three other more complex 2/4 marches it was the judge who wanted it, so the judge can’t very well say that it was an easier tune against others who played, since it was the judge’s decision for the piper to play it. I have been the victim of a judge explaining that what I played (and he selected) was not as difficult as what someone who finished ahead played, as if that’s a reason. Yet I had submitted “harder” tunes that he did not pick. It appeared that he consciously admitted putting me at a disadvantage in his mind by choosing an easier tune. Baaaad judge. But I could see a top-tier Grade 1 band opening with a great orchestration of “Walter Douglas MBE” and doing fine with it, similar to ScottishPower’s rendition of “Castle Dangerous” a few years ago. “Hard” is subjective, and probably can’t be fairly assessed. “Lament for Mary MacLeod” is generally considered easy, but it’s anything but. It’s a subtle tune that requires creativity and nuance, like many piobaireachds that have a compound rhythm. It’s hard to play it well. The comment about “Donald Gruamach” is apt, but a Silver Medal piper in an own-choice year who submits it is begging for failure. It would be picked and many judges might sit back just waiting to unload on every blip or over-cut note. There’s going for it and there’s stupidity. Why be stupid?

  4. When I entered my first piping contest ever I think I was about 14 years old, my tune was a four parted 2/4 March, at the time the requirement was a 2 parted 2/4 march, coming from the country and not knowing the rules, I submitted my tune, I was told “OK but you will be judge on all four parts, I dont think I was in the prizes but was happy the judge let me play, it would have seemed pointless to practise all four parts if only two would be judged. My advice is to always aim high, in the end everything seems so much easier down the road.

  5. As far as bands go: Inasmuch as a high degree of unison is looked for, it may be that the more technically difficult tunes enable bands to exhibit this unison more than do the simpler tunes. When FMM play “The Piper’s Bonnet” jig tightly, as a corps, and everyone is playing the hard passages together and you can hear the articulation distinctly from 24+ pipers, could the *effect* be that a higher degree of unison seems to be demonstrated than if the same band played “Paddy’s Leather Breeches” equally as well? Just a thought.

    The 78th Fraser Highlanders played all four parts of “Eileen MacDonald” at the Diamond Jubilee Pipe Band Championships in 1990. (It’s on Spotify, if you don’t own the recording. At the Worlds that same year they played a different medley, and a video of that is on YouTube. The jig is “Annette’s Chatter”.) Not only is “Eileen MacDonald” a compelling tune; it is also used to great effect in that medley, after “Tom Anderson” and as the culmination of a musical “story” that has drive, direction, and modal/thematic unity from start to finish (unlike many “patchwork” medleys one hears, which are just strings of unrelated pieces). Just going by the recording, it got the best crowd reaction, and – even though the band might not have won – I’d MUCH rather hear a compelling tune like “Eileen MacDonald” (just as I’d rather hear “The Argyllshire Gathering” than “Arthur Bignold”, the former being both more technically difficult and more musically compelling), and if I were a judge the prize would go to them, all other things being (roughly) equal. Being technically difficult may be just an incidental property of a melodically compelling tune, but it might be that the cooler-sounding tunes are just harder to execute, in general — and I think everyone wants to hear (and play) music that is interesting and compelling, not just that which minimizes the possibility of a mistake. The performer who plays a harder / more compelling tune as well as another who plays a less difficult tune should be evaluated higher. That just makes sense (and other kinds of competitions / sports have recognized this).

    So I agree with Rich (above) in that I think technical difficulty should be weighed into adjudication. If two soloists or two bands are roughly the same in every other category (tone, unison, etc.) but one plays a harder tune, then this one should be placed higher. If not an explicit, written rule, then it should at least be implicitly followed and understood.

  6. All true, but as an earlier commenter noted, I wish it weren’t. If it’s any consolation, Andrew (and it probably isn’t), I was a very young, very new piper at the time the grade one band I think you’re referring to was playing “Eileen” and it hooked me and hooked me hard. It made a lasting mark on my impressionable young ear and really set a high musical standard for someone just coming into the piping world. It may not have won you any prizes, but it did win you fans and helped create some better pipers (I hope…) down the road. All the best.

  7. I remember the first year I really got into piobaireachd competition. At the Pleasanton games I submitted Black Donald’s March. When I submitted the tune the judge asked if I was going to play the a mach as it was not written in the Kilberry score, but was generally considered an a mach tune. Wanting to “show my stuff” I said that I would. The tune went pretty well, but the a mach was a bit of a struggle. I was in still the lower prizes, but I remember reading some critique of the a mach on the scoresheet and under the comment he wrote “Remember, it was YOUR choice to play it!”. I always remembered that and at the following competitions was able to win many prizes with that tune without the a mach.



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