Today we introduce our newest correspondent. He is highly placed in the piping and pipe band worlds. He has chosen to submit this article on condition of anonymity. (See what you’ve started MacStig!) He writes of the malaise that afflicts pipe band MSRs. Read on and you will discover that – let’s call him The Analyst – is no fool, nor is he MacStig nor the editor on a good day…..
The first Grade 1 championship in which the protagonists are required to submit two March, Strathspey and Reel sets is almost upon us. This coming Saturday at Stormont I confidently predict that the educated and enthusiastic Ulster audience will be subjected to countless renditions of Lord Alexander Kennedy, Susan MacLeod and John Morrison of Assynt House. Their reaction? Seriously? Boredom.
Why, might you ask, has the playing of the classic music of pipe bands reduced us to rows of empty seats at Glasgow Green every August? None to be had for love or money for the Medley – but the MSR? In my humble opinion the answer is two-fold. Tempo and choice of tune. If that is the problem, what is the solution? Tempo is up to the bands – play it safe and put the audience to sleep or crank it up and catch the judges’ attention. Think the 78th Fraser Highlanders in 1987 [pictured top].
Choice of tune is another matter; and it’s here that the custodians of the pipe band genre, the RSPBA, could and should step in for the sake of the audience. If the RSPBA is serious about MSR contests, it’s their duty to do something to re-invigorate them. Take last year’s Worlds – 20 Grade 1 bands submitting two sets each. Dream scenario 40 different tunes in each category. The reality? A passable 18 different marches (half of which were only submitted once); a less than impressive 13 strathspeys (five of which were submitted once); and a depressing nine reels (two submitted once). While the marches and strathspeys were each a mix of four and six parted tunes, not one four-parted reel was submitted.
Is this a new phenomenon? Nope. Go back 10 years to the 2007 Worlds. That year (under a different format to that which currently operates) there were 27 MSR performances in Grade 1. Only 13 marches (six of which were only played once); ten strathspeys (four of which were played only once); and nine reels again (three of which played only once).
Seven of the nine reels submitted in 2017 were played in 2007. Plus ça change etc. For the curious amongst you, the changes between 2007 and 2017 were Ca’ the Ewes and The Brown Haired Maid out and Loch Carron and Pretty Marion in. However, since the latter two were both played in 1990 it hardly counts as progress.
The reel (sic) problem is just that – the reel. No-one dare play a four-parter. Thirteen out of 20 bands submitted John Morrison of Assynt House (and that does not include Inveraray including an interesting version of it in their qualifying heat medley – a topic I will muse over next time round). Is it any wonder audiences are bored?
Marches are better in terms of variety, but a look at the history books will tell you that if you’re serious about winning these days, you daren’t play a four-parter. Last band to win Grade 1 playing a four-parted march was Shotts & Dykehead – in 1997!
Strathspeys are a different ball game – there are so few of them that have more than four parts (only two played in 2017), the shorter tunes get an airing, but not that many of them and little changes from year to year. Great tune though it is, Susan McLeod still gets churned out by one band in three; and only one strathspey played in 2007 wasn’t played in 2017 (Struan Robertson). And on the subject of variety, a remarkable statistic is that the Field Marshal Montgomery have won their last five Worlds titles playing the same strathspey in the final – John Roy Stewart (which no-one submitted in 2017).
Enough of the problem. What’s the solution? Well, that’s one for the RSPBA but here are two suggestions. First, set tunes. Works for piobaireachd – why not for pipe bands? Ten of each – set some tunes that were written post-1950. Introduce variety. Exclude pot boilers (i.e. Lord Alexander Kennedy.)
Second, require all G1 bands to submit one MSR with tunes of only four parts. Other one remains ‘own choice’ (and ban Susan Macleod – get bands playing The Falls of Forsy, Catlodge or Sandy McPherson instead). Over to you RSPBA. I’m off to lie in a darkened room.