Euros Preview: For Pipe Band MSR Read ‘Mostly Sadly Repetitive’

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].

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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).

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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?

Inveraray, play a souped up version of John Morrison in their medley

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).

Field Marshal….same strathspey won five Worlds

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.

• What do you think? Is it time we changed the MSR format? Take part in our poll or comment below to register your view.[polldaddy poll=10029688]

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10 thoughts on “Euros Preview: For Pipe Band MSR Read ‘Mostly Sadly Repetitive’

  1. The idea that there was a halcyon age of dreamy variety in MSR playing is total nonsense. Here’s the program from the 1965 All-Ireland:

    There are a few tunes there that have dropped off the map – in some cases for good reason – but the majority that aren’t heard to day are because they are the likes of the Marketplace of Inverness, a completely inappropriate tune for a high level contest.

    And 31 out of 47 strathspeys consist of the same three tunes. Susan MacLeod, of course, would not be published until 1967.

    For the most part, pipe-majors select MSR tunes because they are a suitable display of technical ability that can be mastered by both pipers and drummers.

    Lastly, I think the idea there’s an enthusiastic audience out there that is but put off by the repetition of Highland Wedding is a somewhat fantastic one.

  2. It really would help if people for a moment put down the big yellow books, any book that rhymes with Scots Guard, and possibly anything else printed before 1970. Loads of composers have churned out fantastic tunes over the last 40-50 years. I think it’s time we start to make some “new classics”.
    With that being said, when one of the big bands is playing a spot on rendition of anything, it’s always worth a listen.

  3. When preparing an MSR, so much work in the first instance is put in to get the march up to scratch (starting at the beginning), that the strathspey and reel tend not to get the same effort. Perhaps bands should begin putting the reel together first and work backwards towards the march – this could change the emphasis and brighten up both tempos and selection.

  4. Is this post by “the analyst” supposed to be taken seriously or has it been done with tongue in cheek?
    Seems a bit like it is just an attempt to still up some controversy.
    I’d leave things as they are and let the best bands in the world choose which tunes they want to play and how they want to play them. They are there to try and win the world title by impressing the judges, not to please the crowd.

    1. If the audience is of so little consequence Stewart why are they charged admission at the Worlds? I would have thought, too, that any discerning reader could tell from the research that has been gone into that the writer is serious and has been diligent in his pursuit of the facts on which he bases his piece – or are you disputing his findings? If so please submit the contrary stats. RW

      1. Hi Rab, as you may have guessed I have no “contrary stats” to submit, but we all know the famous phrase about statistics anyway. While the author has done a fair bit of number crunching regarding the MSR tunes being played, it in no way makes the conclusion he/she has come to factual. They say themselves it is their “humble opinion”. It could also be the case that the paying public just enjoy the medley side of the contest more than the MSR. Who is to say crowd numbers would change if grade one were given more obscure tunes to play. Most bands would choose to play these “classic” MSR tunes for a good reason, because they are simply that, classic compositions. The less popular tunes have maybe become that way for any number of reasons. On payment to the world championships, I suspect (but could be wrong) that Glasgow Council charge as it is a chance to make some money. I believe entry into the championship held at Dumbarton is still free, so would that make the crowds attending the two events different in some way.
        I see no need for change from the current set up. The world championships are what they are and I believe they bagan as bands wished to compete against one another and not through any great public demand, but that is only my opinion.

        1. Please join me to sit through the MSR this year Stewart; too many opinions are formed by those who don’t.

          1. I’ll have to decline your kind offer as I’ll be competing, so it’s “pot boilers” for me too.
            I’ve just had a listen to Inveraray’s MSR from Glasgow Green on youtube. It currently has almost 15,000 hits, so there still seems to be at least some interest out there despite the empty seats.
            Also having spent 29 seasons competing in grade one, I think it gives me a reasonable base to form my own opinions.
            Will you be sitting beside “The Analyst”?

          2. You are absolutely entitled to your view Stewart and I have every respect for it but you make my point for me. Very few competing bandsmen / women actually sit through the contest. I never did. The Analyst may well be at the Worlds but probably with some other shifty character rather than yours truly.

  5. Very Interesting. And also true.. it should be a mark of ability, and set tunes allows for that..

    And I truly believe introducing a set tempo would be worthwhile..

    The tempos are so stale nowadays

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