June 26, 2009

Tying a bridle

Woa there, little dawgie.Is it time to create a new competition event for pipe bands? Blogpipe and pipes|drums readers will be well versed in the debate, controversy and, unfortunately, occasional invective about the Toronto Police Pipe Band’s two “medleys.” (I won’t recap what they’re all about, but, if you’re not sure, just poke around the site for awhile and you’ll begin to understand.)

Pipe band people are almost equally divided between liking or disliking it, and many have a hard time juxtaposing something so musically different against the familiar idea of a pipe band “medley.” Judges have admitted that it is a difficult challenge to compare them and thus judge accurately, if such a notion is possible in trying to adjudicate any subjective art.

So, is it time to start a whole new pipe band event? Or, perhaps more accurately, is it time to put musical requirements on the “traditional medley” so as to better allow the existing anything-goes medley to thrive?

Non-UK associations have been challenged to expand musically, simply because of the pressure that the World Pipe Band Championships exerts on their bands. Bands resist most rule changes that may prevent them from preparing for their August Glasgow experience. If it doesn’t happen in the RSPBA, it tends to be rejected everywhere else.

But it seems to me that we can work around this roadblock. At the Grade 1 level, playing requirements could still be two MSRs. Associations that call for bands to submit two medleys, could reduce that to one. Then, a new event could be brought in: the “Freestyle Medley.” It could be an anything-goes piece that lasts maybe up to 10 minutes, with any instruments, provided at least some of them are Highland bagpipes and drums. Bands could assemble however they please.

But how, then, to ensure that “traditional” medley event is preserved? This would be difficult, if not impossible, since there’s nothing much traditional about the structure of non-Toronto Police medleys. Perhaps bands would be required to play only tunes from the familiar Highland piping categories. Maybe an RSPBA-like rule to start with certain tune-types? Perhaps providing a set list of tunes that could be played?

The challenge is more about what a band can’t do, than what it can.

In the 1970s there was resistance when the medley was introduced. But look at what it has done for the art. As the medley evolved bands were pressured to be different and innovative. Where once they feared not having original material, most bands now have budding composers within their ranks itching to create new stuff. Had it not been for the pipe band medley, today’s most famous tune-makers might be unknown and untapped talent. By allowing and encouraiging a freestyle / anything-goes category, a whole new level of creativity would certainly emerge, and that’s good for the livelihood of the art.

Personally, I’m against the idea of formally creating a third band competition category. I have no trouble with keeping the current medley format anything-goes. But it’s clear that not everyone feels the same way.

Perhaps it’s time to seriously consider opening things up, while simultaneously tying things down.


  1. Is there not enough controversy in judging the traditional tunes and classical music now, what criteria would judges use to try select a winner from such a diverse contest?

    God knows it’s hard enough to try teach a gr4 band to play simple marches together, and a gr3 band to play an MSR together. Would hate to try getting some of those transitions together in the lower grades or end up playing a hokey suite based on Jaysez Christ Super Star.

  2. There goes my New Year’s resolution…I post …one little post …

    I’m not much in favour of this idea if it leaves a “traditoinal medley” as an event (what the heck is that anyway?). I say leave the medley prescription as it is – open-ended. Bands can then play what they like and what they feel is right for them. A longer time frame would be nice, mind you. It would be nice, too, if associations like the RSPBA relaxed their stifling medley requirements (like crazy anti-musical tempo prescriptions). Ontario has a fair set of rules around the medley.

    I don’t understand your reasoning when you say, “put musical requirements on the “traditional medley” so as to better allow the existing anything-goes medley to thrive”.

    Evidence tells us there is neglible interest from bands in a TorPoPo kinda medley. Until there is some love – or even a little like – for this kind of approach from bands who do the performing it’s just not going to happen. Creating an “anything goes” contest isn’t going to magically engage those who cling to the “MORC” [march-opener-reel-closer] medley. I tried to introduce a super-safe grade 1 “show event” (bands play MSR AND medley) at last year’s PPBSO AGM and membership voted it down faster than jigs at a Tuesday night concert.

    I think we should just let it – the music – find it’s way.

    Michael Grey

  3. I always thought the medley *was* an “anything goes” format. Did I miss something? I don’t see how the TP medley doesn’t fit the current requirements. If the adjudicators are not sure what to do with it, that does not indicate a problem with either the event or the medley in question.

  4. RE: “Ontario has a fair set of rules around the medley.” Where can the public, or perhaps society members only, see these rules? Are they available on line somewhere or in a written document?

  5. I very much like the idea of letting the music find its way. Like water running down a hill. Over time, it makes a groove and sooner or later, there’s a well established course for it to follow, but it made itself, and other things fall into place around it. I’d say if judges don’t know what to do with this developing stream, they can either devote time to thinking about it and what to do with it, or if they get stuck with that – consult with others who can help them do so. Since readers here might be interested in Scottish scenery – I’m thinking of the hills between Dalmellington and Carsphairn. Heather clad, sheep grazing (their legs on one side about a foot higher than their other two) and an abundance of wild flowers and rocky outcrops, bracken etc. And streams which have somehow over the years carved out a niche – not because anybody came with diggers and made them, and not because anybody made a rule that they were to be introduced to the hills. Just that they emerged, appeared, came to be, naturally. Maybe just like the music we’re all starting to notice.

  6. A lot of the conversation I heard at Georgetown after Toronto Police played was not as much about the musicality (which I thought was great) but a fear of change. Several old Scots born friends while they admired the performance and it’s execution were afraid that in welcoming the new format they would be losing the old “Tunes of Glory” that we grew up playing. As this debate will continue let’s be clear just what our disagreements are all about.

  7. “Never said that judges “don’t know what to do with it,” only that it’s a difficult challenge. You should try it some time, Jim!”

    I’ve spoken with judges who’ve told me they “weren’t sure what to do with it.” I’m not saying it’s an easy thing. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, which, despite what the maxim implies, you can actually do.

    I’ve been on the field, clipboard in hand, when bands have played unusual material. I remember, for example, a Grade 2 band finishing an otherwise traditional medley with the “Can-Can” song, whatever that’s called. As a judge, it’s fairly normal to immediately feel pressure, because you’re very conscious that people listening may be as unsure as you are about the material and they’re looking to you for guidance. But I’ve always tried to go by the same criteria I’ve always used, the first of which was always, “Did I like it?”

    In terms of having a ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’ event, who’s to say what’s traditional? Was Donald Morrison’s “Donald, Willie and His Dog” traditional in 1972? Was Neil Dickie’s “The Kitchenpiper” traditional in 1975? Is Eric Rigler’s “Walking the Plank” traditional even today? What does ‘traditional’ mean other than that we’ve become familair with it? Does “Journey to Skye” fall into the traditional category now because after 20 years we’re not so surprised by it?

    I think as judges we’re a bit fearful of the material because we’ve never had to deal with this kind of originality before (which is a shame). I think other performers are fearful of it because they barely know where to start to create something that could compete with it in terms of originality.

  8. I think that we’re expending too much time and energy around a fad that really isn’t catching on. Whether that is because people can’t create something like the TPPB “things” or simply choose not to is irrelevant. The point is that they are not…So then, what next?
    It would still be prudent to take the opportunity to look at the guidelines around the definition of a pipe band medley ( if there even is one) and create a set of rules or guidelines that allow judges and competitors alike to understand what is expected of them when creating and playing one. This doesn’t necessarily have to be constrictive. The rule could be that there are no rules!
    However, in fairness to everyone, something should be done.

  9. It must be a tough job, judging. I’ve thought all year about a judge who told me he hates to hear low Gs held on to – hates to hear that sound of the low G against the drones, and it was clear that that would go against a band or a soloist if he was judging. That seems altogether not-on. It’s such a subjective thing. Another judge told me he hates to listen to piobaireachd and when he has to judge it, he just switches off. Presumably he does the gig for the money or something. I heard another judge say that he approaches each judging task with an open mind, and looks forward to what he might hear. That seems more unbiased and fair. But how WOULD judges judge music that they are not familiar with, and might even dislike? If they had the chance to listen to it three or four times, they might DEVELOP a liking for it by being more familiar with it. It makes me wonder if bands should submit scores to judges in advance of contests. Somebody mentioned a Tchaikowsky competition fpr pianists – at the likes of those competitions, the pieces selected would be well known by the judging panel, as they would have formed part of their training as musicians. But even if this or that judge didn’t like a particular piece, I guess they have to put that to the side and not let that fact influence their assessment. Another thing that sometimes happens elsewhere is that people choose pieces from set lists of tunes (like the Piob Soc!!). So there could be MSR lists and Freestyle lists but there again, it puts limits and restrictions on originality and creativity. I’m struggling to see how a piping judge can judge the actual merits of a piece of music, or why this should have to be part of what it is that’s being judged. After all the TPPB piece is only good bad or somewhere in the middle, subjectively. There is no way of saying its definitively good or bad. It is what it is, to individual people. Some will like it, some hate it, and everything in between, but the piece itself seems to me to need to be let off the hook of being judged. I can see that the tone, sound, tuning, ensemble, even the interpretation of the piece could be judged but the music itself? – that’s where I think it’s very tricky.

  10. Maybe I wasn’t clear in my thought. If we preserve the familiar “medley” format, then bands can continue to prepare for the RSPBA’s competitions and judges who respond favourably to that.

    We can also create a “Freestyle” event where there are no rules except a time-limit.

    Seems to me that this would foster creativity in unexpected ways, while preserving the familiar music that everyone still loves. Bands enjoy competition, and competition drives the music, so why not drive creativity again, in a new way, through a new competition event?

    What the pipe band medley did for composing and creativity in the last 40 years, the Freestyle medley could do for the next 40.

  11. OK. Create some rule around the traditional “Medley” regarding format, etc, and create a new separate contest called a “Musical Selection” with little or no rules and I’m in.

  12. Andrew, I remember several years ago the Chicago pipe-fest. After the fest, the grade 1 bands had a “freestyle” anything goes concert. Some of the bands were very innovative. I particularly remember the Kansas City group playing ” non-traditional” music with keyboard and non traditional percussion instruments and music. The bands were judged by the days piping/ ensemble judges and it was a great success. Something along these lines would, IMO, be very successful. I suspect it would need to be a separate competition.

    Martin Docherty

  13. I well remember those early 80’s Martin when all the gr1 bands would play at the evening Gala. Place was mobbed and people really enjoyed the show. Was with the Toronto & District band, we won in 82, so were the last to play that night and people were still eager to hear more pipes in that type of atmosphere. Beertents work well too!

    Personally, I think pipe band competitions are too stiff and cause a lot of the stagnation in terms of sticking with safe tunes that the judges will like. That’s not to say the whole format needs changing or abandoned, just some bands need to pick more energetic tunes as FMM’s new opener demonstrates.

    Unfortunatley, no matter what you do, you can only play the record so many times!



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