Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tune selection for lower grade pipe bands.

This is an interview that was conducted by Alvin Chung of the Hong Kong Pipers Society with Brett Tidswell. I thought it may be of interest.

Q: What general guidelines should band leaders follow, when it comes to setting up a band repertoire? (especially for learner or lower grade bands in Asia)

A: I have always been of the philosophy that music selected should teach the band something. Look at the basic idioms of piping and ensure that they are encompassed by tunes that will teach the band how to play these types of tunes well. They obviously have to be musical and entertaining, but there should be some sense of direction and a teaching plan behind the music selected at a lower level.

Q: Apart from marches, which most uniformed or youth groups in Asia tend to play for parades, what other sort of things should learner bands here be playing?

A: I think all bands should play a good selection of march tunes of various time signatures, but also basic strathspeys, reels, airs and maybe even some simple jigs and hornpipes. The suggestions that I made above apply here.

Q: When it comes to setting up medleys for lower grade bands in particular, what should leaders pay attention to?

A: I think with medleys lower grade bands need to be careful not to over reach and play music that cannot be controlled by the band. I think musical tunes, within the bands playing capacity, but still giving the members a challenge are important. Good key and idiom changes between tunes makes for a more interesting medley. Music may need to be re-arranged or modified to suit the band's capability.

Q: “A band can only be as strong as its weakest player”
But playing easy tunes all the time may just bore seasoned players to death. How do we find a middle ground?

A: This is always a difficult problem, but can be addressed by having a tiered structure of music, where the upper echelon are learning some additional more challenging sets. The weaker players however should always be put slightly above their comfort level, so that they have to work and improve.

Q: “Picking tunes a level higher than what my band is will drive players to progress faster”?
Is that wisdom or rubbish? What are the pros and cons?

A: I think this is often a bad plan. Usually it just results in band playing technically inaccurately and out of control and serves only to have band members practising a lot of mistakes. Tune selection has to be challenging but also realistic. I rarely see it succeed and result in improvement.

Q: Could you name a few underrated tunes, which an average band in Asia should seek out and explore?

A: I am a big fan of some of the old favourites. Played well tunes like Cabar Feidh, Earl of Mansfield, Brown Haired Maiden etc. can be a delight to listen to. You should always mix it up with some more contemporary pieces to make for a varied and entertaining repertoire.

Q: Any concluding remarks? Any further questions relevant to the topic but not covered here?

A: I think the main point is to have a plan of attack, a purpose for the music and a direction in which to take the band. I hear far too many badly played "itchy fingers" and simialr tunes. Keep the repertoire simple, challenging but realistic. Aim to keep the playing technically accurate, with correct phrasing and expression and at a level that the band can control. I think this makes for better music, a greater chance of improvement and ultimately more enjoyment for the performer and listening audience.


  1. Thanks Brett, this was very helpful. The band I am working with now is having growing pains. The "better" pipers want to play more advanced music because they are bored. Unfortunatly they are in control of the band and are forcing guys to "keep up or step aside" when it comes to jobs. I think we are going to see sloppy piping but few see it that way YET. further the band is not willing to hire a teacher thinking we can work it out ourselves. I think we are on a proven path to disaster.

  2. I think it is important to have a vision and aim the music at teaching people to play at the required level. Then again if you have a huge diversity of standards, you maybe need to eventually say that some will not make the cut!

  3. I liked the arrows for their help in organizing your notes.