For decades, possibly even centuries, pipers have been vandalising their own performances. I have been fortunate enough to hear some of the finest pipers ever, and I must admit that many of them have been as guilty of this crime as the rankest amateur.
The vandalism I refer to is defacing their own performances by tacking on the end ‘wee twiddly bits’ rather than cutting off smoothly. Bands are expected to make perfect cut-offs. Why is so much less expected of soloists?
I know of no other musical performance where it is considered acceptable to conclude a respected and much-loved masterpiece with several meaningless notes of one’s own invention. Certainly other stars in the music business would rather chew broken glass than deface their greatest hits by sticking some totally inappropriate twaddle on the end.
Yet many pipers regularly vandalize the greatest compositions of such geniuses as Donald Mor MacCrimmon, John MacColl, or Donald MacLeod. These great compositions were created as complete entities — including well designed endings. Only applause should follow the last note of such masterpieces.
Why do so many pipers do this? Surely they can’t believe they are improving their performance? They must know how to cut off their pipes. Do they have left-over breath they don’t want to waste? This mood destroying nonsense transforms many a wonderful performance into an amateur production.
It’s as if Leonardo da Vinci, upon completing the Mona Lisa, discovered a little paint left on his brush, and daubed a moustache onto her intriguing smile.
The editor writes: Jim makes a very good point but I think it fair to say that in piobaireachd competitions this is something of a rarity. Most pipers these days will return to the ground and play the first line before coming to a stop on a long note preferably in the major scale.
This return to the ground was not a feature in days of yore and there are recordings, for example, of Robert Reid finishing his tune with just the sort of finger flash that Jim abhors. Though paradoxically he doesn’t do it in the PP Audio clip below, finishing nicely on low A.
P/M Robert Reid with a 6/8 March and a Strathspey & Reel:
We can thank the late Lt. Col. DJS Murray for effecting this change in piobaireachd performance. It was David, whilst Piping Convenor of the Northern Meeting (one of the best they ever had) who insisted that competitors end their piobaireachd with a line from the urlar and it certainly rounds things off in a dignified way consistent with the rondeau that this form of our music is.
In ceol beag it is a different story. I can’t explain why some pipers do it. If the drones are out they might not want to hold a long low A which shows up that fact. If they are ‘in’ then they don’t have that excuse. That said, I would not want the rapid cut off we hear in pipe bands, often with the last note clipped to extinction even at the expense of a deficit required the time signature:
• Read Jim McWilliams’ article on his friend P/M Donald MacLeod here.