February 07, 2016


I was reminded to remember a topic I’d forgotten to write about: memory. Specifically, the unwritten rule or tradition that pipers and drummers must memorize music.

As far as I know, there is no specific rule with any association that competitors must play from memory. But I often wondered what might happen if I walked up at some piobaireachd competition, plopped down a music stand with the score of the tune, and proceeded to play from it.

Would I be disqualified? I don’t think so, since there’s no rule that says it’s not allowed, let alone that I could by rights be DQed. Would the judge mark me down for reading from music? Again, no rule so that’s questionable. But anyone who would try it no doubt wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

There were times in my solo competing piping life when I’d have 15 piobaireachds on the go, most of which were tunes that were set for competitions that I would never have learned otherwise, mainly because I thought they sucked. Every piper who’s had to learn four or six or eight tunes from a list in which maybe three are truly attractive compositions knows what I’m talking about.

It’s a particular battle of will to memorize music you don’t like when practice time is short and the memorable melody is scant. You have to will yourself on, tricking your mind into memorizing the notes and phrases that come next, using mental cues – a bit like schoolkids making up acronymical sentences to help memorize obscure facts that will be on the test, e.g., A-B-D-B, A-D-B-B – “Anyone But Donald Ban, Agony Donald Ban Ban.” I’ve played tuneless tunes at Inverness or Oban that I would have a hard time today telling you how they start. (Ahemsobieskissalute.)

I admit that there was the rare time when I had a piobaireachd picked where my memory was a bit sketchy. It would be one of those dreadful obscure tuneless tunes that the judge also didn’t know well, so he’d be watching the score closely with his head down, which was a perfect opportunity to take an upside-down peek at the manuscript on the table.

There. I said it. Was that cheating? Not by the rules as they are written, so I still sleep well.

I noticed in a few photos of the recent Live In Ireland In Scotland concert that the snare drummers had the manuscripts to the scores in front of them. At last, I thought, common sense prevails, and good for them for putting the audience and the show before, in this case, a rather useless tradition of being expected to memorize music. It’s a mountain of material for musicians to squeeze in among their own band’s stuff, so of course play from the scores. I’m surprised the pipers didn’t as well.

I’ve poked around the rules of other music events. The International Tchaikovsky Competitions require material to be played from memory. But I couldn’t find many or any other examples. Even Drum Corps International, as far as I can see, expects memorized performances, but there doesn’t seem to be a rule. “The memorization of music is usually a matter of pride for the marching band, however bands that regularly pull from expansive libraries and perform dozens of new works each season are more likely to utilize flip folders,” according to a the Wikipedia entry for marching bands.

As pipe band music becomes increasingly complex, and the demands on top solo pipers rise, the tacit expectation that all music will be played from memory comes into question. Is it necessary? Will the performance improve when the score is there for reference? The old reliable memory lapse as a means to knock out a competitor might go away, thus making the judge’s task harder, but so what?

If I remember correctly, it’s more about the music and less about the memory.



  1. It goes much deeper than during performance. Many Pipers believe that having music on front of them is only done if they are playing Practice Chanter. Reading Music, whilst playing Pipes.. or even possessing a Music Stand is an un-thought of, or even unthinkable concept for some. I find that 11 x 17″ Biggie size, landscape scores are best. They are pretty much the same size as a music stand. With the large score, I can still easily see it while playing a Pipe a step or two away from the stand. The Biggie Scores also share better at band. I keep the Biggie scores in an Artist Portfolio.

  2. FYI the EUSPBA does have a rule prohibiting sheet music. Taken directly from its rule book: “Competitors are prohibited from competing in either solo or band events while using any form of printed music on the competition field (i.e., sheet music taped to drum heads, etc.).”

  3. As usual, the Bretons are miles ahead of us; clearly visible at this year’s contest at Lorient was a certain vertically challenged grade 1 pipe major who read the entire fifteen minutes worth from the music.

  4. “… tunes that were set for competitions that I would never have learned otherwise, mainly because I thought they sucked.”

    I laughed out loud at this. Startled the wife. Thanks for that.

  5. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth requires the competitors to have 2-1/2 hours of solo recital music and two piano concertos for the competition, all of which must be played from memory (OK, they can use sheet music for the five-minute piece commissioned for the completion, but the remaining 145 minutes of solo music must be from memory). There is also a chamber music round where sheet music is allowed. But to meet the requirements is a prodigious feat of memory. Having to know 4 MSRs and 6 piobaireachds pales in significance next to those requirements.

  6. The great Chinese pianist Lang Lang (ph. long long) has said of performance technique (I paraphrase) “First comes memory. Only then can the musician turn to fully expressing the music”.



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