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Monthly Archives: July 2011

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Don’t mess with the classics

As I write this, I’m preparing for the second day at the Glengarry Highland Games, the site of the North American Pipe Band Championships. It’s a two day event, with amateur solo piping and drumming events taking place Friday and professional solos and bands on Saturday. I spent a good part of yesterday at the games, floating around and watching some of the solo competitions. I sat in on a few of the Gold Medal (Canada) performances, and it really scratched my piobaireachd itch.

I happened to hear a bandmate play in her grade 3 piobaireachd competition. It wasn’t a tune I was familiar with and it sounded pretty nice to me, but she said afterwards that the judge had chewed her out for the version of the tune she played. Her instructor had given her a setting different from the “accepted” one, and the judge didn’t like it. As a result, this very talented and promising young piper did not appear in the prize list.

I’m not pleased with the judge’s reaction in this case. In a lower grade contest such as this one, players are still new to piobaireachd and play tunes chosen by their instructors as taught by their instructors. This particular piper didn’t know one version from another and was just playing what she had been taught. The judge should take that into account and make his decision based on the performance itself. Regardless of what setting was played, how well was it played? That’s the only thing that should factor into the contest results.

What I’m most upset with here is the student’s instructor, who is teaching students her own particular setting of this tune. I’ve pondered the subject a bit since yesterday, and I think I’ve decided that you shouldn’t mess around with the old tunes. Stick to the authoritative sources. An orchestra performing a Beethoven or Mozart symphony wouldn’t dare change notes on the page. There is certainly room for interpretation (listen to the same piece of classical music performed by two different conductors and you’ll see what I mean), but that doesn’t involve changing what’s written.

As for piobaireachd, leave the old tunes untouched. Notes are notes, and the composer had a good idea of what he wanted when he assembled those tunes. Feel free to add your own interpretation, but do so within the notes that are written.

Piobaireachd Wednesday: MacLeod’s Controversy

Our tune this week is a special one: MacLeod’s Controversy, played by John MacLellan in 1964.

Here is John MacLellan’s bio From Andrew Lenz’s list of Who’s Who in Bagpiping:

MacLellan, John A., Capt. (1921 – 1991) Scottish. World class piper and composer. A career soldier, initially with the Seaforths and later with the Queens Own Highlanders. At 19, was the youngest PM in the British Army. First piper ever to be commissioned as an officer. Won every major title including Gold medals at Oban and Inverness and the Clasp for Piobaireachd. From 1961-1974 was the Director of Army School of Bagpipe Music. Revised the book, Logan’s Compete Tutor for the Highland Bagpipe and published many collections of bagpipe music including Bagpipe Music for Dancing andCeol Beag agus Ceol Mor. Longtime member of the Piobaireachd Society and was Honorary Secretary of their Music Committee. For a number of years was in demand as a judge at the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting. Awarded MBE by the Queen for services to piping in the early 1960s. Ran summer schools for young pipers in North America. His son Colin was born in 1958.

The tune was sent to me by his son Colin, a distinguished piper himself, whom I met at a piping summer school a few years ago. Thanks for sending it in!

To submit a recording to be featured on Piobaireachd Wednesday, please email me at

Piobaireachd Wednesday: Lament for Donald of Lagaan

The next installment in our Piobaireachd Wednesday series comes from Marty McKeon, of Lancaster, PA. Marty is a friend of mine, and I invited him to think about recording a tune for us. He’s playing Lament for Donald of Lagaan.

The Lament for Donald of Lagaan is my submission.  My name is Marty McKeon and I am a Grade IV piper within EUSPA.  Like Nate, Piobaireachd is my passion.  I’ve been learning this tune for several years and it continues to keep my interest.  I find my self continually learning about ways to improve this tune which is likely why I still enjoy playing it.  From what I’ve been told, it is one of the greats.   There is no better time than the present so I made this recording in my basement, July 7th 2011.  Thank you Nate for being an advocate for all players.

My pleasure Marty; thanks for sharing a tune with us!

To submit a recording to be featured on Piobaireachd Wednesday, please email me at

Piobaireachd Wednesday: Lament for Liam

Here’s the first reader-submitted tune for Piobaireachd Wednesday. Today’s tune comes to us from John Bottomley of Bethlehem, PA. John is a piping judge in the EUSPBA and a self-desribed piobaireachd fanatic.

His tune for us this week is from his most recent CD, Back To My Roots. The tune is Lament for Liam, and was composed by John himself. From the description on the back of his CD,

I composed this tune for a friend and former student of mine, and for her family. Their son, Liam, passed away the day before he was born; a devastating loss, but through this personal loss and in memory of Liam, special-needs young people are rewarded yearly for their educational endeavors. To learn more about the fund, log onto

To submit a recording to be featured on Piobaireachd Wednesday, please email me at

What are your goals for new competition tunes?

This past weekend I played my first solo competition of the season, and the results indicated the amount of practice that I’ve been able to do over the last few weeks, i.e., not enough. It was a small contest with only one other competitor in grade 1, and I finished 2nd in all three events.

I wasn’t expecting prizes going into the competition, so I was focused on playing well. In addition, fully half of my tunes ones I had never played in competition until Saturday; two of them were tunes I’ve learned since January and the other was one I had submitted before but hadn’t been picked.

Of those tunes, only the MSR contained tunes I’ve played before in competition. The hornpipe and piobaireachd were new tunes that I’ve learned since January, and the jig was one I had submitted a few times last year but was never picked.

(In case you’re wondering, the tune were Tam Bain’s Lum, Lament for the Viscount of Dundee, and Old Wife of the Mill Dust, respectively).

It’s always good to learn new tunes, and rotating your competition music can only help you grow as a musician. As such, there’s always a time when you’ll be playing a tune in front of a judge for the first time. This leads to my question…

What goals do you hope to accomplish when you play a new tune in competition for the first time? Are you hoping to win? To get feedback from the judge? To not make note mistakes? To get the jitters out?

When your reporter doesn’t understand what he/she is reporting on

I came across this article today; it was published last summer, right after St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band won the Worlds. It seems to come from a radio station in the Vancouver area, and focuses on their local band. There are a few clues that the article was not written by someone who understand how piping competitions work. What gives it away for you?

SFU bagpipe team tied for third at Worlds

Readers’ Piobaireachd Wednesday

I’ve recently been bitten by the piobaireachd bug. I’ve always enjoyed it, but I’ve learned a few new tunes that I really like, and it’s all I want to play.

I’d like to start a new feature here on the blog called Piobaireachd Wednesday, where I highlight a reader-submitted piobaireachd video or recording each Wednesday morning.

Why Wednesday? Well Wednesday is of course hump day, and I figure that listening to a piobaireachd on Wednesday morning is a good way to get to the top of that hump and begin the race to the weekend.

I am actively soliciting submissions from you, dear reader, of your recordings or videos. Please email me a link to your video or audio recording, the name of the tune, when and where the recording was made, and why you like the tune. Your recording can be new or old, amateur or professional, practice or performance, perfect or not so perfect, but please make it yours.

This is not a venue for criticism or judgment, but rather to share some tunes for other to appreciate in a low-pressure setting. Play any tune you wish, from an old favorite to a new tune you’re working on for competition to one that you’ve written. I’ll use any video you’d like to submit.

I’ll start the feature with a recording of mine; the tune is The MacFarlanes’ Gathering. The player is me, the video recorded in April 2010 in a grade 1 piobaireachd contest in Concord, NH. I first learned this tune in 2004 when I began competing regularly, and when I won my first contest it was playing this tune.


A pipe band for all players

In 2008, a group of some of the most decorated pipers and drummers in the world came together to form the Spirit of Scotland Pipe Band, which existed for one week. The idea was to get these top players together, practice hard for a week, and compete at the World Pipe Band Championships.

The beginnings of the band was born at the Glenfiddich Solo Piping Championship as several of the competitors were chatting and said that they’d like to play at the Worlds but didn’t have the time to commit to a band. Roddy MacLeod was the pipe major, John Fisher the leading drummer, and the ranks were filled by many top soloists who were not attached to a band (and some who were). The band qualified for the final in Grade 1 and finished 11th overall.

A documentary film was made about the event: On The Day. It’s very well done and worth watching if you can get your hands on it.

Yesterday I heard about a documentary film made about a band that is the exact opposite of the Spirit of Scotland. Called Follow Me… I’m Right Behind You, the band is formed by the College of Piping Training and invites people who otherwise would have no chance of playing at the Worlds. They play in grade 4B, have no intention of winning (or, I imagine, finishing anything except last), and the whole point is to allow the players to say that they’ve played at the Worlds.

I rather like the spirit of this band better than the Spirit of Scotland. Here’s my favorite quote from the trailer:

“No matter how bad the playing, and no matter how much they go to pieces on the day, we don’t turn anybody away.”

That really goes to the heart of teaching. Most of the bands who play at the Worlds, especially lower grade bands who travel from overseas, are not expecting to win. They go to play at the largest pipe band contest in the world, to get the experience of playing on the Worlds stage, to be there with 200 bands and 8000 musicians from all over the world, to say that they’ve done it.

I’m in favor of this band for bad players, and I hope they continue for years to come. I’d very much like to see this film, and if anyone knows where I can find a DVD copy of it, please let me know.