Top Piper Queries Tune Selection Comments By the Editor

Top professional piper Alex Gandy from Halifax, Nova Scotia, has written regarding a recent blog post by the Editor concerning the selection of tunes for Former Winners’ MSR contests…..

Alex wrote: I wanted to get a little clarity on what maybe the judges are looking for with regard to tune selection, as it appears you weren’t 100% enthused with Mrs. MacDonald of Dunach. I’ve played the same marches two years in a row [at the Northern Meeting, Inverness], both times I’ve been eligible to play in the Silver Star: Mrs. MacDonald of Dunach and Jimmy Young. My thoughts on tune selection are that there should be a mix. 

The tunes I had submitted were; Morag Ramsay, Mrs. MacDonald of Dunach, Jimmy Young, Donald MacVicar of Partick, P/M George Ross’s Farewell to the Black Watch, and John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage. For my hands, Morag Ramsay, Jimmy Young, and P/M George Ross aren’t even close to easy, while I do believe Mrs MacDonald is a superbly musical tune that deserves to be heard at that level. Donald MacVicar of Partick is an outstanding Peter MacLeod tune that I’ve never had picked but it is definitely worth hearing.

What I’d really love to know is how a judge can decide to criticise the difficulty of a tune, when they chose the easier tune over the hard ones in the list. My first year in the Silver Star I played Neil Angus MacDonald and Back of the Moon for reels, and one of the judges said the same thing: Back of the Moon is on the easy side. I had submitted Ca’ the Ewes, and two extremely difficult Peter MacLeod reels, Duncan MacIntyre RMS Athenia and Donald MacLean RMS Athenia. While I can appreciate that Back of the Moon isn’t as technically demanding as some of the others, there’s a reason we submit six tunes. It’s hard to balance. I don’t want to be the guy that’s playing the same old tunes that other competitors are playing, not that there’s anything wrong with John Morrison of Assynt House.

Alex competing at the games
Alex competing at the games

Just looking for a little more perspective from the other side of the table. I don’t know if this is worth posting on the website either, but feel free if you want to as any insight you can provide with me I feel is worth sharing with the world as well. Hope you’re keeping well, and I hope to hear from you soon.

Alex’s piece followed on from earlier comments by PP Editor Robert Wallace and to save you looking them up, here they are again:

‘Listening to part of the Former Winners’ MSR at the Northern Meeting this year I was struck by the number of comparatively easy tunes some pipers are submitting. All great tunes of course, but is Mrs MacDonald of Dunacht suitable for this level? And whilst I love Donald MacLeod’s music I’m not sure that some of the reels such as Drumlithie are as much of a test as, say, eight parts of Pretty Marion; well I know they’re not.

‘I think this latest trend is a consequence of Inverness’s decision – some years ago now –to go with two different marches, strathspeys and reels, rather than stick with the old format, still used at the Argyllshire Gathering, of twice through the same tune. When the easy stuff is paired up with the more testing pieces the piper gets away with it. No chance if he has to play Mrs MacDonald twice through; but stick it in with Abercairney and no one notices the easier ride.

‘These contests are always very difficult to adjudicate and consideration of the weight of tune should, in my view, form part of the prizelist discussion – especially when it can be such a fine art trying to separate these expert players.

In reply to Alex the Editor writes: I think the comments made in my original blog are still relevant Alex but all credit to you for firstly speaking up and secondly for trying to highlight some seldom heard pieces of real quality. I think the adjudicator who mentioned Back of the Moon to you was quite right to do so and he was, I suppose, giving earlier vent to my own thoughts on these easier tunes. On this occasion he clearly had not picked the tunes for you. On a three-man bench usually the judges take turns each at selecting the pieces to be played. So you can see how personal preference could count against a piper.

My advice to all young expert light music players such as yourself, those who are thrusting for the top honours, is this: don’t take a chance on easier tunes which might not find favour with the bench. There is a huge difference between a first prize and a second and a Mrs MacDonald of Dunacht or a Back of the Moon could mean second place on the podium instead of first, or no prize instead of fourth.

However, I hear the counter argument already: Willie Murray, Thomson’s Dirk, Caledonian Canal, Loch Loskin, have all won major prizes in the past so why not now? Why not indeed. But if you have the fingers, bagpipe and the musical nous – as you most certainly do Alex – then winning big with the big stuff is surely the sign of the true champion and something worth aspiring to.

• We would be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this issue. Please email with your comments. Alex Gandy is 28 years old and was taught by his father Bruce, one of the world’s top pipers. Alex is currently P/M of the Grade 1 78th Highlanders Halifax Citadel pipe band. Listen to them here: 

Listen to Alex playing here:

1 thought on “Top Piper Queries Tune Selection Comments By the Editor

  1. If Angus MacColl can be winning (big) contests with Colin Campbell and Lachlan MacPhail I’m not sure the argument that easier tunes aren’t enough really holds water.

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