Band Cut Offs and Why Do Some Pipers End With a Rabble of Finger Gymnastics?

By P/M Jim McWilliams

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.

David Murray announcing  results at the Northern Meeting

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.


4 thoughts on “Band Cut Offs and Why Do Some Pipers End With a Rabble of Finger Gymnastics?”

  1. > These great compositions were created as complete entities — including well designed endings. Only applause should follow the last note of such masterpieces.

    I am fascinated to learn what evidence you possess that this is the case. Some cache of notes made by McLeod on the piobaireachd played by his MacCrimmons around the dinner table, perhaps? Does the third volume of Nether Lorn canntaireachd include performance directions? Perhaps I should read the Donald MacDonald MS more thoroughly.

    The inclusion of prelude and postlude musical phrases is not exactly unusual in any tradition, and was common in solo classical performance at one time. One can of course have an aesthetic opinion, but to suggest there is authority as to why they should or should not be played is ridiculous.

  2. Hi Jim, Donald MacLeod himself can be found guilty of “vandalising” a tune with “wee-twiddly-bits.” You’ll have to look no further than the PipingPress audio archive – just look for Donald MacLeod’s reel set. I think it can certainly be jarring and obnoxious sometimes (like anything done in poor taste) but you’ll hear that Donald brings his set to finish in fine form not despite but perhaps because of his “twaddle-bit” ending, like most of the top pipers of the day.

    Most of our reels and many of our jigs are what we might call ‘circular’ tunes. These traditional dance forms don’t have the strong cadence at the end of a part as commonly found in 2/4 marches and hornpipes. Each part sort of throws you into the next part adding an exciting insistence to the dance. This makes looping a single tune fluid without sounding tedious. Often the last beat only feels resolved when we get to the first beat of the next part. I think in part to throw oneself out of the magnetic pull of going into the next part, we’ll play a “twid-bit”. Though typically abstracted at present, if we consider the original function of these tunes being used for dancers, a leap out the dance with a bit of tune vandalism tells all the dancers very clearly that the dance is over. After many reels strung together or even one tune on repeat, this is quite helpful and certainly present in other dance traditions (such as in Brittany and Cape Breton).

    As typical of music composed in the traditional sphere, I know quite a few composers/tunesmiths happy to hear their tunes altered without resorting to “chewing broken glass” (hyperbole, I know…)

    Rather than make rules against adding a few notes at the end of a tune set, I’d argue that we should aim to do it musically and with good taste. Highly relative, of course, based on our differing aesthetic approaches. I’m not trying to be a hater, just trying to offer up a viewpoint that maybe not all these top pipers (including Donald MacLeod himself) are all wrong.

  3. I would like to mention the opposite problem which is mechanically chopping off a piobaireachd ground at the end of the first line. For example, ending Earl of Antrim on the B instead of playing a hiharin to finish on the tonic.

  4. Angus MacKay’s book goes so far as to mention a Cadenza to be played in 5 of his scores. And pay attention to what he says about when:

    Cadenza, imports a pause which gives the opportunity for the introduction of an extempore flourish, according to the taste and fancy of the performer. It has a peculiarly happy effect at the close of a variation, in serving to introduce the thema, or groundwork, Urlar, before Da Capo.

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