Fifty Years After and It is Time the Medley Moved On

By Robert Wallace

The all-conquering Shotts band of the early ’70s

I remember the day well. It was Aberdeen 1970. The Worlds. Shotts first Muirheads second in Grade 1. Apart from Shotts’ big win (Hills of Alva or Peter MacKenzie Warren set?) what was significant was that they had done so playing a medley, not an MSR.

The conspiracy theorists back then said John MacAllister had worked his magic with the RSPBA to get them to change the playing format away from the MSR. Five years of Muirhead’s dominance of the genre had to be broken and his home band, brother Tom and Alex Duthart, were just the boys to do it. Whether you believe that or not, Tom and Alex’s Shotts band was a magnificent outfit and deserved any and all the success that came their way.

The medley has been with us ever since, for 50 years, and it has been a success. In combo with the MSR if throws up a worthy world champion every year. True the MSR has suffered. No one plays them the way they should, well certainly not at the bottom of the grade.

The medley has also given birth to a distinct genre of music, music that is distinctly pipe band, not pipe. Try it solo and it does not work. It has also led to the demise of cut and dot playing, a special skill that requires a far higher level of control and dexterity than the straight-line, round style stuff – hence the difficulties with the MSR.

Recognising this deficit, I’ve heard that the World Solo Drumming now has separate sections for ‘pointed’ and for ‘round’ hornpipes. Maybe the bands should do something similar and insist on at least one of the former in each medley.

Pipe band change moves at glacial speed. Five decades since the introduction of the medley the thing has not really developed in any fundamental way. Is it not time it did? If the music has changed why not change the musicians too?

Why do medley bands march in with a three-pace roll? Why do they still play in a circle? Is it not time to loosen up the definition of what exactly a pipe band is? Why can’t we be like the Bretons? Could we not take everything to the next level by allowing bands to incorporate two or three other musicians of their choice?

With the MSR firmly in place (get bands to change them every other year for interest) and very definitely on equal points, we have another section for the Worlds. We drop the Medley name and have a Concert section instead. Each band is given a ten minute spot to set up as they like in a covered canopy facing the crowd and a bank of judges. They do their stuff playing what they like.

How the Bretons do it….

If they get into un-Scottish, ‘We Will Rock You’ territory, judges can mark them down accordingly. But think of the scope for the music the addition of a keyboard or guitar or some interesting percussion would bring. Like seconds, judges could condemn overuse and the same if the drones were too often drowned out through lack of sensitivity for the pipe corps.

And don’t throw up the spoiler that our judges would not be able to handle it. I have yet to speak to one who is not interested in other branches of music from Bach canatatas to Frank Sinatra. They could handle the added dimension in their sleep.

The crowds? You’re right, standing room only. TV ratings would soar. What’s not to like in any of this? All it takes is a little off-centre thinking by the Music Board and Adjudicators.

Half a century after Shotts’ historic win it is surely time for change. 

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14 thoughts on “Fifty Years After and It is Time the Medley Moved On

  1. I see no point in change for the sake of change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”
    If playing in a circle is to be done away with and each band at the World Championships is going to set up, on a stage, with other musicians of their choice, it would take far too long for one thing. No one seems very happy with the current two day event, why make changes which would only drag it out even longer?
    Much as I love Breton music, I don’t think their type of contest set up is one we should be trying to copy.
    Any proposed change seems to be driven by players who no longer play in bands.
    I wonder what reaction you would have got from Bob Hardie if you had suggested this to him in 1975 Rab?

    1. In this instance it is not change for the sake of change Stewart and I think Bob Hardie would have embraced whatever musical challenge he was faced with. With your approach there would have been no grading, no Medley, No1s still de rgueur. We must move on. Take the time to sit in the stands with me for the whole of the G1 contest as I have done for the last 20 years and you will get a better idea of where we are at. RW

    2. What if Friday-Saturday trad band competition with MSRs / Medleys.

      Sunday, free form with audience response (applause and a sound meter) determining winner(s).

      BBC gets their added day.
      Bands can stay or go.

  2. I am all for adapting the presentation to be more audience friendly (not in a circle).
    And, no roll offs, expansion of acceptable pool of music, etc. All good.
    But, as nice as it might be, opening up the bands for additions of stringed instruments, keyboards, ( or other non-trad Scots instruments) is a whole other ball game.
    Would there be a house sound system for the added instrumentation? Who would provide and pay for that? Would there be rehearsal time available with that system? And, if the judges are listening to amplified sound could bands provide their own sound mixers? Sound mix at that level could be game changer so how is that judged?
    As we see with the current trend of mega -bands (and the loss of smaller regional bands) is this just another approach that self-limits the pool of competitors to those who can afford the added personnel costs and/or who can creatively address the integration of non-trad instrument?
    I love the musical creativity that the added instruments would provide.
    But, for concerts. Not competition.

  3. A vital subject
    Why not have the Medley be a performance written entirely by the band members?
    Totally in the Scottish pipe idiom; (no other instruments allowed); save them for the concert platform; and judged by both pipe band and other credible music judges
    A chance for the RSPBA to hold fast on the MSR and to open up the medley arena

  4. I just gave my answer to your article , but why, frae time tae time, my comments are not allowed on that blog ?

  5. This has already been mooted by the RSPBA Adjudicators Panel and should be up for discussion shortly.

  6. I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure it was P/M Robert Mathieson that once commented that pipe bands were the only musicians who walk onto an arena and turn their backs on the audience.

      1. It might have been both Rab. I do remember Rob Mathieson making that statement in the post contest interview the year that Shotts used the tube in the tenor drum to change pitch followed by them turning to face the crowd in the closer. This is a great topic that begs for greater discussion and action. Cheers

  7. I fully agree with all your comments for a change to the “medley” and a mandatory restriction of a band’s previously used MSR, especially for Grade 1. The problem is that “the powers that be” at the RSPBA are entrenched in a “status quo” mentality, and have shown over decades their reluctance to change. To evolve is to survive. To stand still is to stagnate.

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