Pipe Band Workshop: Focussing on Melody and the Importance of Tune Selection in a Band’s Presentation

SLOT on stage in Armagh

Within the pipe band idiom there are a number of different melodic disciplines to consider, viz. tunes for competition march, strathspey and reel, tunes for medley construction, tunes for concert performance, tunes for parade and ceremonial occasions, certain tunes that are more sympathetic for tuning the bagpipe. With bands at different levels of expertise, tune selection becomes an art in its self.  

By Barry Donaldson

Many pieces suitable for Grade 1 are completely inappropriate for lower grade or juvenile bands. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for these bands to attempt Grade 1 tunes without giving due consideration to the level of technical difficulty or understanding the complexity of the melodic line.

I admit that with some of the bands I have taught and led, I have personally fallen into this trap. The reason is that some of the excellent modern compositions from people such as Ryan Canning and Robert Mathieson are extremely enticing. But trying to incorporate them with integration within a lower grade but hard working pipe corps with different levels of ability can be a nightmare.

In so far as the medley is concerned, modern Grade 1 bands have developed considerably since my days with Strathclyde Police. The type of tunes, style of delivery and orchestration has taken the music to a new and exciting level.

Grade 1 Pipe Majors require to be imaginative and innovative in medley construction, indeed, there is an expectation  that year on year, new and original material will be produced. This has resulted in composition of excellent pieces as well as a plethora of music publications.

Grade 1 bands no longer feel constrained in their choice of music and if that includes arrangements of themes from rock, jazz or classical music; great! However, Pipe Majors of bands below Grade 1 need to be careful to ensure their selection of music is suitable for their own band. If it is not, the effect will often compromise sound and musical performance. 

Adjudicator Robert Mathieson who is Secretary of the RSPBA’s Adjudicators Panel and a composer of ‘enticing’ tunes

I recall at the conclusion of the St Laurence O’Toole concert in the Royal Concert Hall Glasgow (one of the finest I have experienced), an RSPBA piping judge asking what my thoughts were. Magnificent! was my reply –  ‘Ah, but how many tunes did you recognise’, was the disquieting response. I doubt if any such comment could ever have been made by a drumming judge!

This leads to my next assertion, ‘Avoid competing with your own compositions or for that matter original material by other composers, or obscure tunes’.

The general exception to this is Grade 1 bands, however even at this level care needs to be exercised. What must be appreciated, is that the majority of judges  hearing an original piece for the first time, will not readily appreciate the music the way the composer or band does. 

This is a particular fault amongst lower grade bands and to some extent the MAP structure for Grade 4 and novice juvenile, is having an impact on this.  For many reasons, this does not generally apply to Grade 1, one of which is that they have the musicians to present the piece at it’s best. However and notwithstanding my considerations, if the original piece has been successfully presented in Grade 1 and is simple to play, by all means use it. Judges will be familiar with the melodic line and will at the very least, give at a hearing.

  • To be continued. Barry Donaldson is an Adjudicator on the RSPBA Panel and a multiple winner of the Worlds with Strathclyde Police Pipe Band. This article first appeared in Pipe Band magazine.

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