Some Innovative Suggestions on the Way Forward for the Pipe Band Medley

RSPBA Adjudicator Robert Mathieson concludes his series on the future of the pipe band medley. The series was published by kind permission of the RSPBA. Read part 1 here and part two here.

At the end of the day results are merely an opinion – and we all have those. It’s a by-product of the comparative analysis system we use. Yet I hope this three-part series, plus my earlier report on the Grade 1 contest at the British Championships, will help shape the progression of our music and the way it is judged.

For judges, delivering a result is relatively simple and Greenock was a great listening experience. It has firmly put the RSPBA Championship events back to the fore…. BUT, that said, it’s time to let these musicians out of the cage!

By Robert Mathieson

I would respectfully ask the performers and decision makers to consider the following observations and suggestions: 

  1. Every empty space in the melody should NOT be claimed by drummers as their right, subdividing and filling with rhythmical content. (Tenor drummers please note!)
  1. Simplicity, space and silence within the music is NOT the enemy; silence is the loudest accent.
  1. Harmony is an added ingredient NOT an alternative musical language. It will never totally stay with the listener or be as potent as a strong melodic motif. 
  1. The starting options for each medley should be a musical decision of choice made by the performers as they see as appropriate to the music they are about to play. It should NOT be stipulated within the contest rules. Why only two three-pace rolls? Why not a five-pace roll OR pipes only, OR a solo piper starting, OR a drum intro, OR whatever the band thinks works within the context of their music.
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  1. We should consider a slightly longer performance time for Grade 1 – perhaps 7 to 10 minutes. This is the ideal time to try it out when the grade is reduced in size. There’s time available to make this work.
  1. Performers should be allowed to stop and start in various group or solo permutations within the musical presentation. (Perhaps accompanied by a simple stipulation that the whole band should perform for no less than 75% of the presentation.)
  1. Dare I say it – maybe include the option to let the bands face the audience if they so wish.

There can be no doubt that after 50 years without fundamental change, bands, adjudicators and audience deserve a refreshed blueprint for the medley. 

I realise that at times, I am in danger of sounding like an old codger complaining that ‘the future isn’t what it used to be’. I am a firm believer that any progressive art form experiencing a ‘new wave’ in presentation will always go well beyond the point of attaining a new level of improvement and expertise.

It will be overcooked and caricatured beyond the point of good taste. But eventually when its measure and currency is fully understood it will find its natural proportion, shape, and place in the music. That is why I look forward to the next phase in the development of our great music.

In closing I might add a well done to the RSPBA for hosting the British Championship and getting us all back on track, and much respect to Piping Press for giving this exercise digital airtime.

As an adjudicator very often people want to hear my result, without my opinion. It made a pleasant change to give my opinion without a result. I wish all the bands a great productive contest season.

8 thoughts on “Some Innovative Suggestions on the Way Forward for the Pipe Band Medley

  1. Thank you Rob, for saying what needs to be said, and let’s not wait another 50 years to advance this art. I had a non piping friend who was a pipe band fan. Putting it in Figure skating terms, He called the MSR “the compulsories” and he only wanted to listen to the “Free Skate” Lets open up Medleys to be more free, and honor the requirement of a good MSR.

  2. Mr Mathieson is saying out loud what has been on many peoples minds for years. The contest format has been mired in antiquated rules long enough that are strangling bands. The “prescribed tune list” and restricting them to 2/4 marches is smothering creativity or individuality at the entry levels. Yes it makes it easier to judge 15 – 25 bands when most play one or more of the same tunes but it’s not supposed to be about convenience for the judge. The high end should be encouraged to experiment musically, maybe even adopt concert formation instead of the sacred circle. I’m not a fan of the starts and stops by pipe corps, I find it very hokey and probably circumvents the minimum playing time rule for the contest. Band rosters need to be capped. The ever increasing number of players being vacuumed up by the upper grades are robbing lower grades of talent that they need to survive. Increase the number of drumming and ensemble judges used in contests for the same reason 2 piping judges are present. Stop letting bands play possum and continue in the same grade if they have proven to be consistent winners. How many times have we all heard about band XYZ being allowed to stay down because they’ve changed a couple players or that moving them up will kill them? What does that say or do to the other bands in the grade?

  3. Rab has opened a thought provoking discussion, and certainly one that is overdue….History is great teacher…… long before the 78th won the World’s in 1987, the Clan MacFarlane in Canada were starting their medley with a solo piper (Scott MacAulay, ex Muirhead’s) and the full pipe section, in an open crescent behind him; facing the crowd and adjudicators with the drum section behind the pipers…. solo, then band…. and the intro note for pipe section was B, the first note in Neil Dickie ‘s “The Haunting” (a slow air)…. with the snares providing crescendo rolls….Chicago Highland Games in Grant Park. So evolution of thought started back in the 70’s with the advent of the medley… and progressed – long before the “novel ideas” appear in 2022 (note 40 years later)… history seems to be very dependent on ones’ longevity in the game! Progress perhaps, is slow to develop due to the rigidity of the system we play in…. I admit that we never performed this medley in Scotland due to the RSPBA rule for 2 X three pace rolls…. ” a pity, they say”….. but heeding progressive thinking like Rab’s in the immediate future could very well take us into the next musical era…. kudos for Rab’s thoughts…… I remain patient that we will see the day…. Ken Eller

  4. All of the responses to Robert Mathieson’s posts, here and on Facebook, are positive, but timid. Where’s the enthusiasm! I’m excited by what he’s said and cannot disagree with any of it. Surely this is one of those pivotal moments in history when we can do something. What next Robert, you have the floor.

  5. They are indeed, Stewart but gold in itself is worthless till it is converted into something that the owner values. Will PM Mathieson’s articles be converted into something of value viz. reflective thought, discussion and action by the powers that be – whoever they are? Or will we go further down into the vortex of over complicated, over harmonised performances that neither take the art form forward nor provide true enjoyment through appreciation of the beautiful melodies?

    Time alone will tell, but I fear the worst.

  6. I have to admit that Robert’s comments are at the “about time some one has said what we all might really be thinking” stage, re music in pipe bands. I think he has some really good points and agree this just might be the time to give a few of them a try at one or more of the contests this year. Get into a more musically creative platform rather than the hide bound one we have been working in.

  7. PIPE BAND MEDLEY (Follow-up comment)
    Most readers will agree that Mr Matheson’s full list of musings on the possible future shape of the Pipe Band Medley are are worth pondering. Indeed some of the suggested elements have already proved to be popular on the concert stage eg. ‘different combinations introducing the medley’; or ‘facing the audience.’ Change which is manageable rather than managed will no doubt evolve. So, lets have a response from the the bands, adjudicators and enthusiasts first; before providing the RSPBA Music Board with the broadest range of opinions on the subject in question.

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