Let’s Harmonize the Set!

November 16, 2008 on 1:37 pm by Michael Grey | In Music, Pipe Bands, Tips | 18 Comments

Music that never fails to make me feel better for listening is the kind made on the accordion – especially Scottish dance band stuff, though any accordion, in almost any style, will do. Piano or button key, the accordion is boxtastic.

Accordion players and bagpipers are kindred spirits: both play an instrument that people either love or hate.  I can clearly remember as a kid countless trips to 48th Highlanders band practice in Aberdonian George Walker’s canary yellow Austin Mini. His natural Northeast taste in music satisfied by a huge in-car cassette collection of Scottish dance band music: John Ellis,Fergie MacDonald, Jimmy Shand: the background music of each trip to and fro’ Moss Park Armouries (always played louder on trips home).

An awful lot of Scottish accordion music draws on the bagpipe repertoire, and sometimes returns the favour to pipers and provides us with great tunes like Phil Cunningham’s “The Centenary Jewel” and Jimmy Shand’s “Kirkwall Bay”.

Pipe tunes suit the accordion perfectly: structure, rhythm, embellishment and tonality; the ingredients for fine interpretations of pipe music are all there. “John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage”, “Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban”, all the big competition marches, in fact, all the big competition tunes, take on a powerful new dimension when played well on the accordion. One of the reasons? On most accordions melody and accompaniment can by played at the same time: the right hand usually plays the tune and left hand the chords. Sweet.

So as I (happily) listen in the office to Robbie Shepherd’s radio show it strikes me that pipe bands might be missing out on some of the accordion’s “left hand stuff” – chords, harmonies.

Harmonies in competitive march, strathspey and reel sets! Why not? A whole new musical dimension awaits. Another fun way, too, to fire up the intransigent pipe band adjudicator (rare as they may be).

I wonder if the TPPB guys will go for it!



  1. Sounds like you’re a man with a plan!
    I remember when I was a kid the band I played in used to be the half-time entertainment for Jim MacLeod. It amazed me how those ‘old guys’ in his band really got the music going and the harmonies / counterpoint side of things to drive the foot tappers faster on the dance floor.

    Does this mean we are in for another reinforcement of the neuvo-medley paradigm from you guys in 2009? I say go for it!

    Comment by IainMcLean — November 16, 2008 #

  2. o IainHM: “Half time entertainment for Jim MacLeod”!!! Dunblane’s finest! Lucky bunt! Um, haven’t yet hatched the idea with the band; would be surprised if they went for it – I have a sense the medley “stuff” uses up most, if not all, my musical currency. Stay tuned, though!

    o Stephen – harmonized sets in Oz in 2010! I’m liking that idea more and more! Has the venue been set yet for the 2010 Oz championships?


    Comment by mike — November 16, 2008 #

  3. Mike-
    Perhaps you could play MSRs with harmonies whilst facing the crowd from the ring (and perhaps tenor drummers blowing down tubes to alter pitch on-the-fly as well)?
    If the TPPB can play such an innovative medley in a contest – as they have – all the rest might be a no brainer. And I might add, the southern hemisphere is a suitably scenic and out-of-the-way place to experiment (Australia/New Zealand 2010 remember?)!

    Comment by srmdrummer — November 16, 2008 #

  4. Mike
    As mentioned in one of my other replies, the Oz Champs are Easter 2010 in Caloundra, Queensland (details here: http://www.pipebandsqld.org/Documents/AC2010_1.pdf). New Zealand should be in the same fortnight (time for a TPPB concert or two around the place!) in Wellington, NZ North Island. Don’t worry, I’ll keep reminding you about it… and spreading encouraging rumours (surely some of your TPPB colleagues read this blog too?). I might just pop onto Bob Dunsire, and start a “Did you hear… TPPB, 2010, Great Southern Tour…” thread – only joking of course! I can promise you’d be made to feel very welcome, as SFU were, though beware the ‘traditionalist adjudicators’. Having said that, there is absolutely nothing in the rules to prevent harmonising…

    Comment by srmdrummer — November 16, 2008 #

  5. Michael, Michael… I am fired up… what an idea! … Do you envisage the pipe band to also adopt the rounder up beat style of the dance band music a la Jimmy Shand or Bobby MacLeod?… wow!… sounds great – no dots, no cuts…just let the music flow…. Donald MacLean can leave Oban (in harmony) a little faster now! If that doesn’t fire up an old intransigent , nothing will!

    🙂 Ken

    Comment by Captain — November 17, 2008 #

  6. Now that is a tasty idea! Please make it happen.
    LOOONNNGGGG overdue.

    Comment by dundrummer — November 18, 2008 #

  7. o Stephen – thanks for the info – and the encouragement. What a trip we’d have!

    o Kenny – Happily you’re not one of those rare IJs (intransigent judges) – round as a wheel! There’s an idea. One step at a time, though!


    Comment by mike — November 18, 2008 #

  8. Harmonizing the set seems to be an interesting, musically sound, and not-distasteful innovation. The idea has occurred to me before. When listening to an MSR strathspey, for example, I’ve thought, “Harmony would be cool here.” But then I thought, “Ahh, that’s probably one of those non-traditional things that ‘a band just doesn’t do’. Another innovation that’s occurred to me is having the entire snare line playing the whole time, through every line of every tune, rather than doing the traditional lead-follow. I first heard Gordon Bell mention the idea, years ago, of having his snare corps play the entire first part of “The Links of Forth” together. I thought this was a great idea, then I thought “Why not the whole thing [MSR]?” From an ensemble perspective I think this would enhance the performance, and give it a thickness or punch or “presence” that it doesn’t necessarily have otherwise. Dynamics can still be observed to good effect, by having all the sides be that much more attentive and sensitive to piano and forte while playing the whole thing. Why the heck not? (Perhaps a counter argument would be that it would bury and obscure too much what the pipers are doing.) Pipers all play the whole thing together; they don’t use a “lead-follow” method, so why not drummers? It’s worth at least an experiment! (The ego of the lead drummer may suffer, of course, but oh well.) I’d like to see the TPPB try it – especially since I love Doug’s snare sound.

    Comment by ChrisZ — November 19, 2008 #

  9. The problem with aging is that old becomes new again….and Chris Z’s suggestion above has been done extensively by the corps of John Kirkwood of the 60’s and Jim Kirkwood of the 70’s with the Clan MacFarlane Pipe Band…while his observations are perhaps correct about dynamics, drummers over the years have not been sheepish to follow. Can there be a reason for this? During those years in the 60’s I heard beer tent discussions that forethinkers like John Kirkwood just might be 20 years ahead of their time. Given that it is almost 2009, I might suggest that they were 40 years in advance. Michael might be the same… Let’s consider being transigent on this one…. harmonies for the naysayers…. I am fired up! Ken

    Comment by Captain — November 19, 2008 #

  10. Ken – I don’t think you’ve said: If you were adjudicating, and a band harmonised or otherwise ‘tinkered’ with the standard MSR, how would you critique it from a piping point of view? “Fired up” how much?
    There is more to this issue than meets the eye, isn’t there? If something isn’t precluded by the rules, then we (well those who adjudicate) default to what has been ‘traditionally accepted through common use over time’. Change (and innovation – therefore ‘traditions’) start somewhere, even if those changes aren’t adopted universally at the time (as you point out Ken).
    I’ve been trying to think of how I’d receive such an occurrence from a drumming adjudication point of view. If, for example, a band left the line with the entire corps playing continuously, I would think it interesting, different, and as long as the corps was dynamic, sympathetic, accurate and all that it should be musically, then I wouldn’t give it a thought beyond mentioning I found it ‘interesting’. One could actually debate which is that harder way to go: all drummers playing dynamically well all the time, or drummers managing the unison parts of the piano accurately with the lead – so it should be a question of ‘taking the easy road’ or anything.
    Well, that’s just me from a drumming point of view… but what about piping adjudicators out there? What say you if faced with non-traditionally expressed or harmonised MSRs (or both)?
    – Stephen
    PS: VOTE 1 – TPPB Oz/NZ Tour 2010!

    Comment by srmdrummer — November 19, 2008 #

  11. Stephen – you have raised a critical adjudication question and the answer fortunately must lay with personal taste. What has traditionally been the norm might not fit here. Michael has raised the issue of harmonies within the traditional MSR, and for once in my life, I must get off the proverbial fence and say “go for it lads”… harmonic effects are a part of music and music evolves. The MSR has never been challenged as to its musical authenticity, so I cannot see that adding harmonies can possibly offend even the most traditional of us on the panels around the world. Having said that, please don’t mess around with the phrasing, pulsing, and tempos as we accept them … certain things are carved in stone for the contest arena (but not the concert stage)

    PS: VOTE 2 – TPPB Oz/NZ Tour 2010!
    PPS: VOTE 1 – the Captain to go as well!

    Comment by Captain — November 19, 2008 #

  12. Ken, thanks for the response. Of course this is about ‘personal taste’ and a lot of adjudication is subjective. I guess my thoughts focus on the *degree* to which personal taste should dictate a competition result in this aspect of the music. Hopefully all of us ‘with a clipboard’ are beyond the notion of penalising a band for playing a tune we personally detest, right? This is more subtle. I totally agree that MSR harmonies or drummers playing more constantly are really quite minor (well ‘minor’ to me) changes that do not impact on the fundamental structure or phrasing of the set. It is an interesting thing to contemplate and think we should always be open, discussing and challenging – even if nothing happens immediately.

    It would be good to have you down to this part of the world for a visit, by the way. You could catch up with your mate Nat in his part of the world, for once. I managed to have an in-depth one-on-one conversation with Nat last week at the Andre Rieu stadium spectacular (there was plenty of sitting around time to be had before our finale!). Come to think of it, maybe you should suggest your availability to adjudicate at a contest or two in Australia/New Zealand? My master plan is taking shape now… I’m on a roll (as any good drummer should)!

    Comment by srmdrummer — November 19, 2008 #

  13. o Kenny – you’re a master (something)! Snagging invites to judge in the Antipodes off of MY site!

    o Stephen – I, too, am an accredited judge guy 🙂

    o Chris – great thoughts on mixing up the snare side of sound: it would be good to hear some corps provide more variety in their approach

    o Kenny – as regards the phrasing, etc of MSRs carved in stone: I still think we’re all too precious here. MSR “stylings”, as pipe bands play them today, are still closely rooted in the same Govan-Bowhill-Shotts area triangle of sound circa 1935 or so. What about a pipe band playing a nice roundish Gaelic-feeling march a la Dr Angus MacDonald? Not “Scottish” enough? M.

    Comment by mike — November 20, 2008 #

  14. Love it Mike…master (something)!…I am afraid to fill in the blank! Will let you know when my ticket arrives!

    But more importantly, the roundish gaelic style is precious and reserved (preserved) for that highland expression using the solo pipe. The pipe band was indeed nurtured and matured in Govan, Bowhill, Shotts and Grangemouth, not to forget Edinburgh and a couple of Fife locations…Not a highland thing… it is an idiom to itself and I feel compelled to keep the two separate…for the sheer sake that if we attempt to merge or compromise, we might very well lose both… can you imagine those that play in bands today who have difficulty playing the current style of MSR, ever getting a hold of the gaelic idiom and doing it the same service?.. a concern if we musically cross pollinate!

    Vive la differance!…


    Comment by Captain — November 21, 2008 #

  15. Hmmm… perhaps at this point I should stress that I am a humble drumming adjudicator in a state not running the 2010 OzChamps nor do I hold any sway with the RNZPBA across ‘The Ditch’!

    That said, having the illustrious Ken Eller and Michael Grey on offer, would surely be too good for them to turn down!? NZ are bringing out Messrs Richard Parkes MBE and Alistair Aitken for 2009; we had a tribe (the accurate collective noun, I might add) of Kiwis this last go round and Malcolm Mackenzie and Joe Noble before that… so why not look to the North Americas beyond that?

    If I say it and write it often enough, maybe it will happen…

    – Stephen

    Comment by srmdrummer — November 21, 2008 #

  16. o Kenny, not entirely sure I agree with you on this; I just don’t view the pipe band MSR as a precious museum piece that needs kid glove treatment to retain. Like a favourite pipe chanter (or drum): better to play, cut, carve, tighten – do whatever it takes to get the relative best out of it – until it breaks …and then you get the new improved version – and evolution continues

    o Stephen – humility is one of the best characteristics of any pipe band adjudicator!

    Comment by mike — November 22, 2008 #

  17. Michael…I like the suggestion that the pipe band MSR might be a museum piece and much the same may even be said about the pipe band medley. Perhaps both have evolved as far as they are going to, in which case it just might be time to put these relics on public display in a separate gallery and open up a new room at the ROM. If I read you correctly, this just might be the point you are making, given your recent developments and suggestions about the MSR, the medley as well as the contest format. One thing for sure, progressive thinking has to convince the status quo masses to push the evolutionary window. How long is a Darwinian cycle in pipe band music?

    Comment by Captain — November 22, 2008 #

  18. Kenny – points well made, and taken.

    Generally, though, I’m beginning to see that there is no majority interest to change the pipe band status quo.

    C’est la vie, c’est la guerre.

    Comment by mike — November 22, 2008 #

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