Pipe Major Responds to Comments on his Band’s Medley at the British Championships

scottish power pb logoThe statement below has been received from P/M Christopher Armstrong of Scottish Power Pipe Band. It follows yesterday’s critique by PP Editor Robert Wallace on the performances in Grade 1 at the British Championships held at Paisley last Saturday, May 21. 

P/M Armstrong writes: ‘It’s always interesting to read your thoughts on all the bands’ performances after a contest, and as the Pipe Major of ScottishPower Pipe Band I thought I’d share with you a few notes from my perspective. 

‘Your critique from the British Pipe Band Championships got me thinking about the various aspects of the performance you highlighted and the reason behind, or application of, the tools employed in the construct of our medley. I’m not big on the explaining music and justifying its reason because I generally enjoy it for what it is, but here’s my attempt.

‘A shaky start where the low Gs and B harmonies clashed throughout the opening tune.’ That’s interesting from the perspective that the harmonies in the opening tune, a good strong George McIntyre composition which uses the A mixolydian mode, are utilised to compliment this mode which is widely used in Western Music. Basically, this mode is an A major scale with a flattened 7th; i.e. if it was a major key you would have a G sharp but the pipe scale being what it is has a G natural. In order to harmonise correctly in this mode you need the B and low G as the G major/E minor chord are present where you use them. Kilmaho is a fantastic double tonic tune, changing between A and G in every phrase pretty much.
‘Slow air went on a shade too long.’ This is also interesting as one of the ‘formulaic’ medley construction tools, I say formulaic because there are only two (it seems) agreeable formats for medleys to take currently, is to employ the use of a slow air which fits within a particular time constraint of around 1:15/1:30 minutes long so as not to go on too long. A quick check of the duration of previous years’ medleys will confirm this. Again another subjective area, but this tune was used for its majestic qualities having been sourced from another Celtic nation’s repertoire – the Isle of Man. The addition of the 2nd and 3rd line harmonies in the 2nd part help to highlight the melodic line and add a slightly more complex rhythmical structure to underpin the strong melodic line, this rhythmical enhancement being echoed in what the drum corps add to the piece.

And there was absolutely no melody whatsoever in the first jig – the harmony did not help’. This is perhaps of the most interest to me personally. The Electric Pumpkin is the only jig we played, of six parts construction. Composed back somewhere in the region of 1996, this tune is somewhat old hat and I noticed quite a few people fingering along with the band during tune up which is always a great compliment to any composer. This tune (and I hate analysing my own compositions) has great rhythmical and technical qualities and some fantastic opportunity for Jake [Jørgenson, ScottishPower’s Leading Drummer] and the corps to really come to the fore, which they do very sympathetically and tastefully. The addition of the harmonies is not an effort to improve a weak tune as there is no point in playing a tune which requires harmonies to do so. The tune, in a D major key, benefits from the addition of the harmonies in the last two parts from the aspect of ensemble and adding a point of interest as it progresses to its strong conclusion. These harmonies help highlight the technical demands of the birls and challenging note groupings  within the tune.
‘In the end, I generally accept music for what it is whether I like it or not. Your comments got me thinking more along the theoretical aspects of our new medley’s construction and having done this I can now better appreciate why I enjoy playing it. 
‘I think there may be some educational value in the information above so please feel free to publish this on your Piping Press site if you find it of educational value or otherwise. 

Chris Armstrong.’

15 thoughts on “Pipe Major Responds to Comments on his Band’s Medley at the British Championships

  1. Kilmaho is in A mixolydian which is D major the same way B minor is, ie, not at all.

    The harmony is a pedal tonic, not a functional progression, and if it doesn’t sound right, I’d suggest that’s your problem, not the music’s. Not everyone has been brainwashed by the Viennese school of music theory.

  2. Scotland the Brave is in the key of A major. The dominant 5th triad occurs in the last bar of lines 1 and 3 to provide for the semi cadence. It then occurs on the first beat of the second and fourth bars before reverting to the tonic A on the second beat to provide the full cadence.

    A “B” note occurs on the first beat of the last bar in each line being part of the E major or E Major 7th chord if preferred.

    I take it that if we were to harmonize the B with a Low G we would justify it by stating that we were playing in the mixolydian mode.

    You could justify either given that Scotland the Brave doesn’t include a G in the melody.

    In practical terms, the mixolydian mode is really just the same scale as the key of D but starting on a Low A interchanging the Doh with the Soh.

    An E Minor 7th as opposed to an E Major 7th just doesn’t sound right. At least not to musicians other than pipers.

  3. I concur entirely with Editor Robert Wallace re “A shaky start where the low Gs and B harmonies clashed throughout the opening tune.”
    When playing in the key of A on an instrument designed for the key of D, the G natural is always of concern. Thankfully being the 7th note of the A major scale it is seldom an important part of the melody though at times it does stand out (Blue Bells of Scotland). As far as harmonizing is concerned, the chords that are commonly used in the key of A are the Tonic A,C#,E, the sub-dominant D,F#,A, the Dominant 7th E,G#,B,D and the relative minor F#,A,C#,
    Thus,the only time the issue of the G arises is when the applicable chord is the dominant 7th. On such occasions it is better that other than the G is used to accompany the melody.

  4. I agree with Stewart nevling the standerd is so high and if you get such a thing too high… I don’t know wat you can do about it or if you won’t to do anything about. But it opens up wat can a judge Do bar panic and finde small faults by small I mean their is nothing in grade one bands performances.. Wich macke.a judging very difficult task in deed I also think some solo comp is in this level.
    I don’t know wat we do about this as there must be a contest of some sort but for me it’s wall around listing and speculating of all the grade. From 2 up words then go and each the grade one concert. And impeccable playing.
    Sad as it is this is way I feel

  5. I’d like to hear other top PM’s explain how and why they do the things they do. The low G is usually flat of an octave below high G, making it tough for harmonies. I quite like the fact that the low G on my new Colin Kyo chanter is in tune with the high G. Maybe that’s wrong by today’s standards. Most harmonies are just flash to me (grumble, grumble) and I have a difficult time finding the melody in many “cool” tunes composed in the last twenty years (more grumbling). However, I bow to the superior knowledge and experience of Rob and Chris.

  6. Mr Glen has almost got it right.

    The problem isn’t that just intonation renders the notes out with respect to each other (it does, but it’s not an uncomfortable sound and actually grade one players blow the notes into correct tune anyway).

    The problem is a lot simpler – the low G is not at the right pitch. It’s very well tuned as a corps but it is not at the pitch it should be. Listen to the first unison G in the third bar before the harmonies kick in.

  7. The playing standards are so high these days, I am not surprised that the judging comments leave one confused. There must be some criterion on which they are judged, and with so little to actually criticize it forces an adjudicator to really pick apart a performance. Thank you Chris for your insightful comments, and your creative musical arrangements.

  8. I think Chris Armstrong’s response is exactly correct concerning modes, harmonies and musical theory in general. But when I listen to that opening tune of the medley I also hear exactly what Rob Wallace is talking about. What is going on? I think a lot of it has to do with the tempering of the scale unique to the bagpipe. Which is to say, in order for the low ‘G’ to sound “in tune” with the drones, it must cheat a bit to the flat side in order to attain the nirvana of harmonics; something to itch that sweet spot deep inside the mysterious journey between the ear and the brain. In short :: it must be out of tune in order to be “in tune.”

    In theory, those ‘B’s, ‘G’s and ‘E’s create that “Roman-Trumpets-in-the-Collosseum” effect. But problems arise when attempting to introduce standard musical theory to the bagpipe. The harmonies that SHOULD work in theory, don’t always and need to be used as “condiments” in a medley… not as meat and potatoes. I don’t think Chris was over the top with the usage but it does introduce a slight jarring effect which, because of it, can be quite effective when used sparingly. It’s kind of what hops does to beer.

    Since bagpipes tend to be loud, they magnify all these idiosyncrasies. They are also a bit stubborn concerning that “sonic ear journey.” Most classical musicians think the instrument suffers a bit from a form of melodic Asperger’s, and don’t really get along very well with others.

  9. What an eloquent and well shaped reply. It is very difficult to get these points across in such style and poise bit Chris have a great account here . Well done indeed pipey . I do sometimes sit back and have To think more about my opinion on band sets and there construction as I can very easily assess the set and performance on what I personally would either like or was expecting to hear. Two eats to listen twice as long and one mouth to talk half as much. The thought behind this set construction is so very obviously from a very skilled and knowledgable musician and with this depth of understanding of the modem pipe band world , the set and its construction is totally in keeping. My only slight worry would be that this may be outside the musical understanding and maybe the conditioned pre-conception of some adjudicators who are not as well schooled in the much broader understanding of music on the bigger picture ? I do agree with Chris completely that it is better to appreciate music for what it is and it is for this reason that we as pipers really like to listen to many many different types of music from so many diverse cultures and genre. Music is music after all and it is only our opinion as to what we accept as such, based on the knowledge we have at any level. For today’s pipe bands or highland orchestral musicians, it is very apparent that both Pipe Majors and Leading tips are a much more the complete musician than of yester year and because of this , there music construction and interpretation may be a little advanced for the old guard. Chris’s. Comments just reminded me , as I try to remind myself so often to listen with an open mind . Much respect to Rab Wallace for his openess and strong character in publishing Pipe Major Armstrongs reply..

  10. Clearly, Chris has put a lot of thought into building this medley, and is definitely of educational value to hear his thought-process. It just goes to show that bands’ medleys are not just thrown together randomly, but flow from tune to tune, and theme to theme. Medley construction is definitely an art in itself. Brilliant job, Chris .

  11. Thank you Chris Armstrong for your valuable and edifying comments, sadly too many are quick to critique using personal preferences without the background knowledge of the arranger (PM)…great article.

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