June 20, 2016

Setting free

Maybe it’s time to change completely how competitors, judges and planners approach piobaireachd competitions.

A hundred-thirteen years ago the Piobaireachd Society was formed. Before 1903 the music was scattered around in multiple settings by various visionaries and pioneers. The publications were expensive. They were hard to get. There was no such thing as a photocopier, much less an Internet, so, if the art was going to be judged and “promoted,” it made certain sense to create standard versions of the music.

Right or wrong, the Piobaireachd Society (or maybe more accurately Archibald Campbell and his allies) attempted to come up with agreeable single settings of tunes, releasing every few years a new edition of its Collection. The music contained notes about alternative settings, which we can read today, but very few pipers dared to play those alternatives in competition.

The Piobaireachd Society promoted, or certainly encouraged, adherence to their settings – and thus promoted the sale of those printed books – in the major competitions. The judges expected them. If you played anything else, the judges would almost certainly chuck you out. You might not get even a listen.

It didn’t help that many, if not the strong majority, of the judges were aristocrats – “society” folk who couldn’t play their way into a juvenile band, never mind out of one.

In essence, the onus was on the competitors to prepare pretty much what the judges expected. There was no expectation that judges should be prepared with anything but the PS Collection or the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor.

In about 1994 a thing called the Internet hit the piping world, and in 2000 a thing called the Set Tunes Series broke new piobaireachd ground. The piobaireachd scholar and nine-years pupil of Robert Nicol Dr. William Donaldson approached pipes|drums with an idea.

He recognized that here was a far-reaching online publication available for free to all who wanted to read it. The Internet presented a readily available platform for all these piobaireachd manuscripts that heretofore were only available to those rare few lucky enough to possess the printed books, or who might live near the National Library of Scotland.

And these old collections are in the public domain. That is, there are no restrictions as to reprinting them in digital form. As genius ideas are prone to be, it was obvious.

So each year Donaldson and pipes|drums worked to put together the Set Tunes Series. His thoughtful analysis considered all known published settings of each tune set each year for the major gatherings. Suddenly, it was all there at a keystroke. Pipers had access to all settings. They could easily pick and learn. There was no real need to adhere to the standardized Piobaireachd Society setting just because it was the one most readily

Now, 16 years after pipes|drums and Willie Donaldson recognize the opportunity and actually made it happen, the Piobaireachd Society itself and things like Steve Scaif’s digital republishing of the old piobaireachd collections provide an online library of these public domain collections.

Judges, players and contest organizers have access to all of it, for free. Not only that, but today’s piobaireachd judges are vastly more musically sophisticated than the non-playing toffs who once lorded their ignorance over musical geniuses who needed a standard setting of a tune in order to determine who best stayed on the prescribed track.

The onus has just about shifted away from expecting competitors to adhere to a single printed setting, to the judges, who can today be reasonably expected to come prepared with all of the settingsof piobaireachds on their iPad. Whatever the competitor throws at them, they can be ready with the score.

Is the very notion of the Piobaireachd Society encouraging pipers to play settings from their Collection severely outdated? Is it time instead simply to come up with a list of tunes, and supply the names of and links to the collections where settings can be found?

Competitors can then learn whatever setting they want without fear. Judges with their iPads loaded with all of the public domain collections can be well prepared to assess the musical rendition put forward, bringing the contests in many ways back to the thriving, musical cornucopia that they probably were before 1903.

It’s all there to take in. We are no longer encumbered by inaccessible collections. We have knowledgeable, enlightened and tech-savvy judges well capable of accepting and interpreting renditions that have been tamped down – largely by necessity – for more than 110 years.

Is it time to simply stop this boring business of seeing who can ape the exact same notes and style and phrasing of the other guy?

Time to set the settings free.



  1. I wholeheartedly agree. But then again the real question we have to ask is why we still play music almost exclusively in competitions – which is completely antithetical to the idea of music. In this respect the Bartók quote ‘competitions are for horses, not for artists’ is apt!

  2. Why indeed. The focus on competitions for the performance of pipe music has resulted in a focus almost exclusively on the technical aspects and on execution, rather than the musicality of the music. This is particularly true for band medley events. As for MSRs: Imagine if a grade-one band or professional soloist dared to come out with three tunes of contemporary composition (made, say, in the last 30 years). Would a judge say, “I’ve never heard this before or seen the sheet music, so I can’t tell if they’re executing it correctly, so I’ve DQ’d them in my head” ? There should be an openness and an encouragement of MUSIC (including the original, the alternative, and the unfamiliar), not a narrow focus on the technical execution of a few old standards everyone knows.

  3. There are a few aspects worth considering here:

    1) With several generations now trained in these standard settings, it is hard getting both judges and competitors to think “outside the box” – those competitors who have been successful coloring within the lines teach and/or are lifted up as models for the next generation to follow. Hence, the dominance of style.

    2) Reading these older manuscripts can be tough. Dr. Donaldson has gone a long way to helping us understand them. The question is: where is the incentive for doing so? I often ask competitors, “Do you compete to play music, or play music to compete?” If the latter, then stick with the standard style – you are not contributing to the musical development of the art. But if you are a musician first, then competition is simply a means toward a greater end. In which case, break out the older manuscripts and learn from them.

    3) There is a growing realization that “the goal is to perform exactly like everybody else, only better” is a really silly way of thinking. There is a competitive advantage to sounding different than others by bringing a thoughtful and informed interpretation from original manuscripts. This seed will grow, particularly when nurtured by folks demanding we take our pibroch history seriously.

  4. Definitely agree. Thankfully this sentiment seems to be in the air right now and things are moving that direction, not least the Piob Society themselves. More players now seem to approach these older settings with a both/and approach. We can augment the current style and performance aesthetic with MacDonald/MacArthur forms, rather than disposing entirely of the tradition in its current form: more or less some evolved state of John MacKay’s playing.

    Willie Donaldson actually writes about the pre-1903 state-of-the-art as being healthy, diverse, vibrant. Thomason’s Ceol Mor was a compendium of almost every pibroch arranged in affordably succinct shorthand, at least 7 years before Piob Society anthologies. If that was too expensive pipers had the option to purchase individual tunes from David Glen’s Ancient Piobaireachd, starting from 1880.

  5. All scores can assist with choice of setting and interpretation. But they are all still far from what is actually played. The old adage of memorising as quickly as possible, throwing the score away, then trusting your musical instinct with guidance from a good teacher is crucial.

    The continued narrowing of stylistic difference is a concern. A judge in a fiddle competition would be horrified if everyone played the same style or setting. We must all keep our ears open to the wonderful music in Piobaireachd.



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