If you were going about promoting a Highland Games, or a pipe band contest, and investing piles of your own time and money would you want the pipe band contests across the grades to be designated a “set” (march, strathspey and reel) or “medley” contest? A set contest, where listeners hear the same narrow repertoire, a maximum of three tempi and two key changes? Or a medley contest where, from a repertoire perspective, almost anything goes? What would an audience prefer? The overwhelming majority would opt for medley. I’d bet my outside tenor on that. If I were a games promoter I’d insist on an across-the-board medley designation.
The promotable “products” that pipe band organizations offer the world are limited. For instance, in the case of the Pipers’ & Pipe Band Society of Ontario, the most entertaining offerings are, in order of paying punter appeal: the massed bands, and the medley events through the grades, with the most experienced bands probably leading the pecking order. Solo piping? Forget that. Player’s family and especially loyal friends aside, no one gives a rat’s ass for solo piping.
I don’t think the PPBSO is any different from other like organizations around the world. The set bores. Scintillatingly soporific. The pipe band set represents a configuration of tunes that represents a singularly unimaginative representation of the best voice a pipe band can offer. The pipe band MSR is a parochial “treat” we can no longer afford. To reach a broader audience, engage new markets and really let the pipe band art blossom, we need to seek to promote our movement’s best musical offering. Like a jittery pre-contest piper or drummer, we need to drop the set contest.
Set loyalists will point to tradition. I say, the set is more habit than tradition. We’ve been playing sets for less than eighty years. Set loyalists might say it’s the meat and potatoes of the music offering players technical and performance discipline. Yes, half point there, but there’s far more opportunity to learn about music, technique, harmony, rhythm and the magnificent possibilities of ensemble in a medley performance.
Training for a set contest makes a piper or drummer a pipe band sportsman, a competitor, perhaps. The medley contest makes a piper or drummer a musician. Are we about Beckham or Beethoven?
Sets gotta go.
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