Drama is not a word you hear much in piping circles and I’m not sure why. The best pipe music is dramatic, and good pipers and pipe bands use drama all the time, whether they are aware of it or not.
Many years ago when pipe band medleys were first breaking free of traditional bonds, the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, still not yet winners of a World Pipe Band Championship, stood at the starting line at a Highland games in Ontario. Rather than two-three beat rolls, they struck up standing and played the Irish air “My Laggan Love” borrowed from singer Van Morrison. Harmonies began four notes into the piece, and the drum corps toggled between dynamic rolls and shadowing the melody line. The piece ended with an unheard-of “slide” from a long low G to an even longer low A before the band marched into the circle. It was the most dramatic moment I’d ever seen or heard in pipe music and I’m not sure I’ve heard it equalled since. Ironically, Scottish Pipe Band Association rules barred the band from beginning in the World Championships with anything but two three-beat rolls, so the rule book denied the biggest stage in the pipe band world this breathtaking display of sheer musical theatre.
Today, pipe bands continue to strive for moving moments, though the dramatic effect is not limited to bands.
Take the competitive solo piper breaking from his or her strathspey to the reel, hitting the first two or three notes slightly under tempo, then ramping up to full full by the end of the first bar. When this is done well, the listener feels a slight quickening of the heart. The player will often feel this too, and it’s a wonderful feeling when you know your little dramatic device has clicked.
It takes a certain degree of artistic judgement to pull it off successfully, and the best bands often learn from the best solo players. Frequently (I’m sorry to say), you’ll hear a band break from a strathspey into a reel by sitting on the last note of the strathspey for two or three seconds before flying into the reel at full tempo, as if this pregnant pause has left the listener wondering might possibly be coming next. Oh goodness! Of all things, it’s a reel!! This is drama done badly. It is maudlin and unimaginative and it stirs nobody’s blood. You will almost never hear a band led by a top solo player do this, and bands would do well to pay attention to how the best soloists play.
Drama can also be achieved simply by playing with key changes between tunes. If you’re playing a set of four jigs, try alternating keys between tunes. You don’t need to be an expert in music theory to do this: play a tune that has lots of D’s and F’s followed by one full of low A’s, C’s and E’s. Then maybe look for low G, B and D tunes. Play around with the order until each break between tunes makes you feel something. Don’t just play the tunes in whatever order they pop into your head. This lacks musical imagination.
Do this with band sets too. Don’t play “Scotland the Brave” (ends in low A) followed by “Flett from Flotta” (also low A). Play “Scotland the Brave” (low A) followed by “Brown Haired Maiden” (D) and then maybe “Flett from Flotta” (low A). Juggle the flavours of the tunes. Give the listener some emotional variety. Give them some tonal drama. This can bring interest and texture to very simple sets. It stirs the blood a wee bit.
No where is drama more neglected than in piobaireachd. Despite what punters might say, piobaireachd isn’t bad music. But it’s played poorly far too frequently. Even if the pipes are in perfect tune and not a gracenote is missed, a piobaireachd lacking drama is a big loud bore with perfect technique. Managing tempos, manipulating breaks between variations, turning loose the dogs when the tune calls for it — these touches all take courage and musical charisma too often lacking in the play-safe world of competitive piobaireachd.
Sadder still, too many piobaireachd judges are willing to accept this because the tune is error-free. Should it win the prize over the an edgy performance that had slight technical faults but which stirred the blood? Playing with flare and boldness is hard to do, so cut the guy a break. A mistake comes and goes in a second. Cautious playing lasts for 12 interminable minutes. Playing boring music is the biggest mistake of all.
Drama — remember that word in your breaks, key changes, medley construction, and in the expression of your slow airs and piobaireachd. Maybe even in the way you march. There are lots of young players who can impress listeners with their fingers. It’s much more challenging to turn the audience on with your musical personality.