Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions

June 17, 2008 on 1:52 pm by Michael Grey | In Music, Pipe Bands, Whinges | 7 Comments

Last Saturday at the Georgetown games the band I play in, The Toronto Police Pipe Band, participated in the grade one pipe band contest. The event was a “medley” event and we played a piece of music I built called, “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions“. What an experience.  We had all anticipated playing this “medley” and the crowd reaction was spine-tingling.  I have never in my long piping career experienced spontaneous, mid-performance cheers from a crowd at a pipe band contest. I’m not sure about the other players  but it was all I could do to hold concentration.  Believe me, these are the kinds of “challenges” we want to be faced with when competing! Forget the results for a moment, reaction like this is a performer’s triumph.  It is what this is all about, or should be. 

We all knew the music would be controversial, a real love-it-or-hate-it sort of thing – like art!  Someone said the opposite of art is not ugliness but indifference – and that makes good sense to me.  Not a lot of indifference among reaction to “Good Intentions”.

Comments I’ve heard around have been really interesting, and sometimes surprising – and sometimes disappointing (particularly when you know the person, sometimes a friend or friendly acquaintance, who made the unhelpful comment).

I don’t want to write a defense or an apology for this “Good Intentions”.  It has been a great learning and team-building experience for all of us in the Toronto Police Pipe Band.  But I do feel compelled to clear up a few misconceptions of the “Good Intentions”.

It is a piece of music made for performance.  At a concert, at a games, in a boat, with a goat.  Competitions are one of the only performance venues we have in pipe bands (and solo piping) so why can’t we make our best musical efforts here – whatever that effort looks like?  I include composition, arrangement, musicianship under the “musical” banner.  “A piece for a concert”? How many pipe band concerts happen around the world in one year? Six? And, again, music made for soft concert seats works just as well in the wet, green grass of competition.  Maybe better.

It is not a “medley” of wee top-tapping tunes, the kind I have made forever – and most of the pipe band world, too.  It is not a “suite”.  It is one “tune”, one “thing”, inter-connected.  Like a pibroch? I don’t know. Breton music?  Nope.  It’s no where near as subtle.  But there is no innovation that I can identify.  This piece of music pretty much represents the standard way everyone else in the world of music approaches composition.  “It all sounds the same”? Hardly. “Rubbish”? Well, that’s a hurtful rather than good intention, that’s for sure. I know I have a bit of a track record in building a few tunes a lot of people don’t think are rubbish. 

“Good Intentions” is absolutely “judgeable” in the traditional pipe band sense: there’re clear phrases (and phrasing), technique, tempo, harmonic construction, traditional piping idioms, like jig, reel, hornpipe and old-fashioned dime-a-dozen Royal Conservatory musical principles – and, of course, there’s tuning, timbre, rhythmic integration, dynamics and unison all to consider. 

In 6 minutes and 40 seconds we have crammed 6 key changes and no fewer than 8 rhythmic shifts – more doesn’t feel right for this particular piece, for the time frame allotted.  The average premier grade competition medley might have a similar musical profile.

OK, I am sounding a wee bitty whingey and defensive – not my intention, believe me! I suppose that’s what happens when you’re passionate about something; same, I’ll acknowledge, for those that dislike this music – and are passionate for wee tunes knitted together in bridges (selections like that work for me, too!).  Spirited dialogue can’t hurt!

I was around for the 78th FHPB’s “Mason’s Apron” medley. I played it, loved it.”The Immigrant’s Suite” and “Megantic Outlaw” ,and all the other various “medley selections” over the years, too – all great adventures in music. 

Of pieces, or “medleys”, I have made, “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions” took the most effort and the most time to put together.  I’m grateful for Ian K MacDonald’s and Doug Stronach’s leadership and the band’s wherewithal to give it a go. It really was – and is – fun.  Pure and simple.  I recommend fun to anyone, wherever you can get it.



  1. Even though I had heard lots of talk about the new medley being “different” over the winter, a lot of it caught me by surprise, too. I thought, “WTF?” at the intro, and then laughed when the crowd started cheering as you marched in. OK, THAT’s cool. There are parts that I like better than others, but it hangs together, makes sense, and at the same time challenges. The drumming is great. I love how it lit up the message boards, and for once in a long while people aren’t talking about numbers of players! And on that subject, who says you need 30 to be “orchestral”? I think this is a great bit of writing, and it’s something I could NEVER do. I think I can put together a good “medley,” but I couldn’t do this. It’s a level of composition and understanding that most of us don’t have. My hat’s off to you, and the entire band for pulling it off so well.

    Comment by iainmacd — June 17, 2008 #

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Iain. Much appreciated. And I can tell you there are parts I like better than others, too.

    Agree – we have more than enough “numbers” in the group to be orchestral – was it 16 pipers, 10 percussionistas? MORE than enough.

    You’re way too generous in your composition comment – but I will take it and thank you! Cheers, Mike

    Comment by mike — June 17, 2008 #

  3. Mike, it has been a very long time (20 years I’d guess) since I had that much fun playing in a medley competition. Thanks for giving us (TPPB) a chance to present that really cool piece of music.

    Comment by ianfmoir — June 18, 2008 #

  4. Me too! Thanks, Ian

    Comment by mike — June 18, 2008 #

  5. While playing the role of the “arm-chair critic” this spring by listening to contests (like the Scottish Champs & the Speyside/Georgetown games) VIA the net and YouTube…I was a little bored with what I was hearing. Now, I’m not saying ALL of it was bad! Nothing of the sort, however there seems to be “unified sameness” going around the world of pipe bands. Same: pitch, medley construction, MSR tunes, mid-section drum riffs, flashy over the top endings for medleys and drummers are now playing for these MEGA airs again (gone are the 1980’s, hail the 70’s)!
    So Mike (and Ian, Doug and the rest of the TO-POLIS) you really reshaped what the world can expect to hear from a pipe band. Through your composition you showcased the virtues of the bagpipe “that it’s both a melodic and percussive instrument” AND that (in the right hands) a highlands snare is a “percussive-melodic instrument” that doesn’t have to be limited to the stucture of “folk” music idiom! Well Done!
    I’m now wondering Mike, do you think Mr. Livingstone would ever put “In Celtic Times” on the field? (It would work well along side the “Good Intensions”)…Hmmmn?
    I’m glad you “got that feeling” from the crowd,band…the experience! I had that feeling once in Kincardine when the crowd erupted into a standing ovation when the band finished it’s performance! (You can’t ask for more than that – That’s a real connection!)
    Keep on doing what you’re doing, every artist must stay true to themselves…and I think you’re doing just that!
    All the best,


    Comment by blackwater — June 18, 2008 #

  6. Mike,

    It was and is a pleasure to be playing with you again in a truely energizing musical ensemble. I like it, IT IS FUN!!! I cannot wait to see what comes from this new direction. Doug and Ian are great leaders and are very inspiring.

    Thanks to all the band for making this happen!

    Comment by tfoote — June 19, 2008 #

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful note, David – all true to my mind!

    And Tom, the pleasure is all mine! Thanks! M.

    Comment by mike — June 19, 2008 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Dunaber is using WordPress customized and designed by Yoann Le Goff from A Eneb Productions. feeds rss Entries and comments feeds. Valid XHTML and CSS.