We Need a New 2020 Vision as Historical Change Beckons for Pipe Bands

Safe and sensible….concert formation must now become the norm for pipe bands

By The Editor

A week on Saturday the RSPBA Music Board is hosting a meeting of all Grade 1 pipe majors and leading drummers. The main topic for discussion in what is billed as a ‘ground-breaking eventis the future of the pipe band medley.

The current shutdown has afforded an opportunity for those at the top of the movement to get off the treadmill, think outside the box, go left field and put into practice all the other clichés associated with forward thinking.

It is ironic that it will take a world shattering event, the pandemic, to get bands to seriously consider playing, henceforth, in concert formation; for that is the truth, inconvenient for some, that we must now face.

With a mindset mired in the past and the ‘it was good enough for ma faither’ outlook shared by many, it should be no surprise that the majority would be happy to stick with the military circle, first formulated in 1938, as the prime mode of pipe band music delivery, backside to the listener, and contrary to the performance practice of every other ensemble in the history of world music.

But the virus trumps all that. Concert formation it has to be guys – aerosol spray and possible face to face transmission of the deadly bug make it compulsory. The circle is dead, gone, finito and thank goodness for that. Just wait and see the audience reaction and the musical improvement that comes from this simple restructuring.

Next, the medley. It is 50 years exactly since I stood outside the circle and listened to a Shotts band winning the Worlds in Aberdeen at the first ever medley championsip.

78th Frasers….never afraid to break the mould

P/M Tom MacAllister and L/D Alex Duthart led the way into a new dimension in pipe band music. It was thrilling, innovative. Bands of the era all played their part in endorsing the change. Over the years the music developed, pointed stuff gave way to even lines. Reprises and counter melodies, harmonies and rhythms didn’t always work but demonstrated the peak of piping and drumming versatility.

The medley has become as stale and formulaic as the MSR…’

All good, but for the last 20 years the medley has marked time. Stuck for somewhere to go, pipe majors started playing dubious material nobody wanted to listen to, adjudicators included. The upshot is that the medley has become as stale and formulaic as the MSR but without the equivalent musical demand. Half a century on from that great Shotts win it is time for change. Don’t you feel the moment, the hand of history?

The all-conquering Shotts band of the early ’70s and winners of the first medley Worlds

I say do away with the introductory rolls. Let bands start as they please either marching on or in situ. Let them have a couple of other instruments to enhance the show. Allow every band in the G1 Worlds final 10 minutes set up time. The era of the tartan roadie could be upon us. We have to follow the lead of our Breton cousins here. If we do we will take the pipe band into another dimension just as we did in 1970.

P/Ms and L/Ds….the chance won’t come again. You can make history….

The crowds at these shows in Brittany speak for themselves. My worry is that over here the popularity would detract from the March, Strathspey and Reel. Well, make it the tie breaker. Bands equal on placings? The best MSR gets the shout. That way we protect this important traditional format – the one that guarantees continued excellence of technique and control and the highest levels of unison playing.

The P/Ms and L/Ds zooming in on August 15 must not squander this opportunity to do something really significant for the movement. The chance won’t come again. You can make history; you can turn a deeply negative year into something positive by providing a 2020 vision, a future you will be proud to say you had a hand in shaping.

5 thoughts on “We Need a New 2020 Vision as Historical Change Beckons for Pipe Bands

  1. I recently posted a snippet from an Australian Pipe Band Championship from the early 1950s about points allocated. The medleys now are so predictable. The early Cowal programs had the tunes published in the back that the bands were drawn to play from a pool of about 150 MSR combinations.That sounds like a great idea. Why not have a competitve marching element too? Lets have the judges in the crowd or online, then well get ‘innovation’.

  2. I would love to be able to listen in on this forum. Any possibility of the RSPBA releasing the Zoom call afterward?

    Regarding crowd placement at the Worlds, I’ve never understood why the grandstands are placed so far away? Not all that long ago, as you can see on YouTube and elsewhere, the stands were pretty close, that should be brought back and expanded!

    I do like the classic MSR. Not against trying something new. Maybe there could be a year or two experiment with Set Tunes for band MSR’s? Give bands a year or two advance notice?

  3. A full consultation of all bands, all grades is essential at this time re changes which are being floated at present ie playing requirements/static position in competition/arrangements for viewing public etc.
    Grade 1 is the pinnacle of our Association and is very important to everyone. However, so too are all the other Grades to supporters, unattached spectators and from which Grade 1 bands recruit their members.
    Change is a constant in life, but in this case to be successfully achieved, it needs the positive support of all bands and their membership.
    It is really good to hear the views of interested individuals, though, from my experience, it would be much more helpful to gather the opinion of the Association membership. Furthermore, I suggest each Branch of the Association and the Affiliated Associations should be requested to carry out a survey of the supporting public on the matters in question. Lets have, for a change, informative change driven by those who must deliver on the ground – the bands and the public and administered by a competent leadership.

  4. I remember P/M R Mathieson being criticised during a meeting in the early days of National Piping centre. Someone complained that his tune selections for competitions were not to their taste. He replied that he was paid to win competitions and neither his taste nor the taste of the complainer trumped the taste of the judges.
    I speak from a position of almost total ignorance but I thought it would do no harm to mention it.

  5. I congratulate the “powers that be” for agreeing to examine the pipe band medley, to identify a format suitable for the 21st century, hopefully in a covid-safe arrangement and in a visionary manner that will stand the test of time. It would also be highly appropriate to discuss the traditional MSR event. Arguably, the MSR is the greater test of a band’s technical ability, but it has become stale and unexciting in recent times, with too many bands opting for the same “safe” tunes, such as LAK, Susan MacLeod and Mrs MacPherson which can often be heard multiple times in the course of a Grade 1 MSR event

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