Let’s lose the slow airs

This is a bit of a rant, but I hope it can be seen as instructional as well.

I’ve been judging solo piping competitions for a very long time. In the last decade or so I’ve judged fewer. In the last several years I’ve been inclined to judge even less. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is that I am very tired of listening to slow airs.  Let me give you an example.

Some years ago I had the privilege of sitting with Willie McCallum and John Wilson of Glasgow to judge the George Sherriff Memorial amateur competition in Hamilton, Ontario. It’s a prestigious event and well run. There were 14 competitors and each played four events, so it was a long day. All of the competitors except one played an entire slow air as he or she tuned for each event. Here is the math: 13 pipers times 4 events is 52 performances. A slow air takes, conservatively, 2 minutes to play. We calculated that by the end of the day we (and the audience) had listened to approximately 104 minutes of slow airs. It was actually closer to two hours because some pipers played one slow air, tuned, then actually played most of another. It was one of the most unenjoyable and aggravating piping experiences of my life. It was less a piping competition than a Festival of Slow Airs.

Professional players aren’t immune. I’m writing this on an airplane returning from judging the superb Metro Cup competition in Newark, New Jersey in February, where I sat on a bench with two other adjudicators and judged 16 top professionals in what may have been the best piobaireachd competition I’ve ever heard. The evening event was a medley with the same 16 pipers. Every piper played a slow air in his/her medley. That’s okay, though why they all felt the need to adopt this very band-oriented convention puzzles me. Around 10 of the 16 played another slow air to tune up. That’s 26 slow airs — nearly an hour of slow airs — over the course of a 4-hour competition. Again, a few played some or all of a second slow air.

Imagine looking forward to a professional medley event and getting an hour of slow airs thrown into the mix. (My refuge was to read the introduction to each volume of the Piobaireachd Society Collection during the tuning.)

Why this is so aggravating I haven’t quite figured out. I do know that if all of those competitors had played a piobaireachd variation instead, I’d be dozing on this airplane instead of spouting off. There is something about the lack of a strict rhythm in piobaireachd and the more obscure melody line that make it less obtrusive. It doesn’t demand to be listened to the way “Leaving Lismore” does. It’s much more subtle.

One of the other great advantages of playing a piobaireachd variation is that if you find the pipes are nicely in tune as you play it, you can stop at any point and no musical offense is taken. However, maybe the only thing more aggravating than listening to 25 complete slow airs is to listen to 3/4 of 25 slow airs.

Is somebody telling all these pipers to do this? If so, these teachers need to listen to an entire competition from start to finish real soon. If they did, I’m sure we might all be able to agree on this guideline to give our piping students: do not play any part of any recognizable piece of light music when you are tuning in front of the judge or audience. Play a bit of piobaireachd, and/or develop your own system of tuning notes and phrases.

I suspect more teachers read this blog than competitors, so please make it your responsibility to teach your students how to conduct a tasteful tune-up.

And that doesn’t include seeing how many birls they can cram into four minutes….

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6 Responses to Let’s lose the slow airs

  1. John Dally says:

    Jim, your rants are very fun to read. Not only do I learn something, but I am often grateful that someone FINALLY addressed THAT topic with clarity and courage. I am pleasantly surprised if a piper doesn’t play their band medley in the solo medley event. Competitions would be a lot more exciting if the “tuning” period was shortened to two minutes. The sports would hate it, though. Competitions are not about entertainment.

  2. Now and again you get a 6/8 recital as well!

  3. John Stewart says:

    This may sound like a stupid question, but what would you suggest be used to tune before playing in a piobaireachd competition? A part/variation of a different piob.? I’ve been playing a part of a 3/4 march for tuning, but I think I am going to give your suggestion a go…….

  4. Jim McGillivray says:

    I would always play a piob’d variation, even (and especially) in a piob’d competition. I would make sure it’s not a variation from any of the tunes I’ve submitted.

  5. Ellen says:

    Piob. variations are great for higher grade competitors. What about for Gr. 5 and Gr. 4? They’ve got to play something to tune, but playing a piob. version often is more difficult for them than the march they’re about to play! Surely you’d rather hear a good-ish slow air than a bad-ish piob. variation?

  6. Jim McGillivray says:

    I don’t think Gr 4 and 5 competitors need to play anything to tune. For example, the length of a Grade 5 performance is 2 parts — rarely over a minute. The length of a Grade 4 performance is 4 parts — rarely as long as 2 minutes. I’d prefer to hear these folks play 30 seconds of tuning notes and then get right at tuning. If the grade is low enough that an instructor is tuning their pipes for them, then yes, have them play a bit of a tune while you tune them — but only a bit. Maybe just the first part of a 4/4 or 3/4 or 6/8. There is good reason for that since they need to be playing something to ensure that they are blowing the pipes at performance strength. At this level — speaking as a judge who has to sit there and listen to a lot of performances — I could live with one part of something. That takes 30 seconds. But I certainly don’t want to hear a tune-up tune that is longer than the performance will be!