Analytical Theorising is Worthwhile and Valid but Keep it in its Place

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

Re-reading Dr J David Hester’s letter of a few weeks ago has caused me to reflect…. Judging, any sort of judging – bands, solos, cattle shows – is not easy.  I remind readers once more of the late Donald MacGillivray’s immortal words at Strathpeffer Games in the 1970s, ‘I hate judging – cattle shows or piping – one is always surrounded by a sea of disappointed faces at the end….’

But, Donald conceded, someone had to do it or piping competition there would be none. It is essentially a subjective art, a subjectivity fed by experience, knowledge and ability. After many years playing and listening, one gets to know what one is looking for and, to quote another respected figure, P/M Donald MacLeod, after a lifetime at it one’s mind crosses into an area where that experience matures into instinct. ‘If it sounds right, it is right,’ as Donald put it. Adjudications then become easier; books are needed only for note reference.

On a given day one is confronted by a series of performances and is contracted by the promoter to put them into an order of merit, an order one hopes will be agreed to by your comrades on the three-man bench if such be its make up. One listens and the prize invariably goes to the piper with the best instrument, technique and musical interpretation – and one who plays all the correct notes as per a chosen setting.

In essence, it is what the piper delivers on the platform that matters, not the theoretical source of the music that he or she plays. With ceol mor, anything that interrupts the flow of the tune from the first note of the ground to the last of the crunluath will be a negative – no matter if a passage of rogue timing is  ‘the way McGonagall played it’ or ‘the way it is in MacTumshie’s MS’. It is what the piper delivers in real-time, on the board, there and then, that gets the credit. Does it catch the ear; does it fit; or did it cause pause for thought?


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In my experience all senior adjudicators operate the same way. Their honed instinct is such that there is no need to revert to any sort of book learning justification for why they prefer one player over another. So when Dr Hester writes about run downs in Angus MacKay and how MacArthur has his variation two in the Laird of Anapool, that is all fine and perfectly valid in an academic sense. In the competition arena, in the cockpit of adjudication, it holds very little sway in the final analysis.

My advice to pipers is to play whatever settings you find pleasing but don’t trial the wacky stuff just to impress – it seldom does. And  if you do play a piece that is not well known, let the judge(s) have a copy of it. But more than anything make sure it makes musical sense and you can deliver it in a fully rounded context.

The late P/M Alasdair Gillies, one of our greatest ever exponents of the competition March, Strathspey and Reel, talked of how he always went through every one of the tunes he submitted, sometimes as many as 18 pieces, looking for possible rhythmical pitfalls; nothing must be allowed to interrupt momentum, melodic progression, call it what you will. Ceol mor is no different; to P/M Robert Reid it was all about passage and phrase linking together, the balance of one against the other.

And so to execution where each doubling, taorluath, dre, dare, or embari must be completed with slick precision, never at any time compromising or interfering with melody but adding interest and emphasis to it. No worthy judge will be a slave to immaculate technique however; many a good prize has been lost on the altar of sterile perfection. Credit will be given to the musical piper  – even one with one or two fingering indiscretions. How many before he is out of the list? I hear you ask. As with analytical theorising, instinct and common sense will tell the listener when enough is enough.