Pipe Band Workshop: Some Tips on Competition March, Strathspey and Reel Tune Selection

A general rule of thumb for tune selection in March Strathspey and Reel competitions, more especially in the lower grades, is to avoid six-parted tunes. With them you increase the potential for error and you will succeed just as easily with four-parters.

Check on the most popular pieces – the RSPBA programmes from Major Championships are good source. There you will find all the tried and tested, quality tunes. Lower grade bands should leave innovation and promotion of lesser-known tunes to the top grade.

By Barry Donaldson

Do not be frightened to rearrange passages which present technical difficulties for your band (within reason). And if an embellishment is too difficult and is disturbing the melodic line, consider changing it or leaving it out. The flow of the melody should always take priority.

Marches: Avoid tunes which are less common on the pipe band competition circuit, for example Kantara to El Arish or Parker’s Farewell to Perthshire (tunes I have heard lower grade bands attempting).

Such pieces are perhaps best suited to the individual player. Tunes like Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban and Willie Gray’s Farewell to the Glasgow Police are more than acceptable and the simplicity of the melody will allow most pipers to make a reasonable attempt – though the first has some tricky tachum movements that need to be played correctly.

‘The flow of the melody should always take priority……’

Strathspeys: Generally speaking, these have complex embellishments. Take for example Shepherd’s Crook and Atholl Cummers; full of C and B doublings and taorluaths. 

Avoid this type of tune and look those that are constructed differently, for example Willie Lawrie’s Inveraray Castle, plenty of runs, and a strong melody which flows. This type of tune is far easier to perform by players who do not have the best dexterity of finger .

Consider also Captain Colin Campbell or Caledonian Canal, excellent simple pieces which flow with relative ease.

Reels: Pretty Marion, John MacKechnie? These tunes are Grade 1 standard and very difficult test pieces, ‘test’ being the operative word – and this level of test is best left to G1.

Again, avoid tunes that have complex embellishments. Simpler compositions such as P/M Angus MacDonald’s Kalabakan are much more suitable for lower grades, yet are more than acceptable within the competition environment. Bessie MacIntyre and Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree are two others.

Consider the style of reel you select too. For example the Rejected Suitor is a tune which requires to be pointed. Compare that with Donald MacLeod’s Traditional Reel, which lends itself to a more free flowing, rounder, interpretation.

Understanding, how a particular piece should be interpreted is as important as knowing whether your pipe corps has the technical expertise to handle it.

  • This article first appeared in Pipe Band magazine. The author has since been appointed an Adjudicator on the RSPBA Panel. He is also a senior judge on the solo circuit and a multiple winner of the Worlds with Strathclyde Police Pipe Band.

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