Strathspeys – right or wrong?

There seems to be a few grey areas in pipe band drumming, and in the pipe band idiom in general. One of those areas that seems to be a hot topic worldwide is how should a pipe band drummer compose their drum setting for a Strathspey?  

From a young age the idiom was drummed into me – Strong, weak, medium, weak.  i.e. A strong accent on the first beat of each bar, a weak note on the second beat, a medium accent on the third beat and a weak note on the fourth beat.  Pretty simple, right?! Well, it still seems that people have conflicting views on this.

When a pipe band drummer plays the Strong,Weak, Medium, Weak perfectly through a whole strathspey they get criticised for being to monotone and predictable – and to be honest I must agree. Also, some drummers believe that Strathspeys should have very few triplets in them – I recall a top drummer saying that he uses a rule of no more than 4 triplets per line (this includes subdivision of triplets such as 5’s, ratamacues etc).  I have tried this but it really feels insipid.   Yes, it matches the melody. But it’s a little uninspiring and lifeless.  

There is the other field of thought where pipe band drummers feel that the snare score should enhance the lift of the melody.  This involves a lot more triplication and off beat accenting.  Pipe bands who play this style sometimes get criticised for being “too jig like”. But to be honest, I think this creates great feel.  The corps’ that I personally admire have way more of the triplet feel and groove going on.  Growing up in the Northern Ireland pipe band scene provided me with the opportunity to listen to some of the greatest Strathspey composers of all time!  Bobby Rea, Andrew Scullion and Harold Gillespie all penned some of my all time favourite Strathspeys.

I guess it all comes down to personal preference and your background of learning. At the end of the day, as long as the Pipe Major is happy – then that’s all that counts.  Many judges will comment on the sheets (or in the beer tent afterwards) that the Strathspey is the clincher when it comes to winning the contest. All in all, it’s a pretty important style of tune for us all to grasp!  Perhaps we should the opinion of a highland dancer on this front?

I’d be totally keen on your thoughts on how a Strathspey should be played – or even an example of a band that you think plays them brilliantly!

JL

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15 thoughts on “Strathspeys – right or wrong?

  1. I love a good mixture of both the traditional SWMW and offbeat inside a strathspey. I use my mid section to drive more swmw in the piano time, while maintaining good ensemble both with the piping and snare score. Some strathspeys naturally drive a swmw feel.

    It is obviously important not to make it too jiggy however.

    Some of my favourite strathspeys are written by Paul Turner and Reid Maxwell.

  2. I don’t have a solution. I believe their are very specific places in the pipe tune where the subdivision is triplets versus sixteenth notes. Now, it is up to the composer to choose whether they want to follow the Pipe subdivision or not. The turmoil around this idiom is the passion that pipe bands have for the style; and I believe that this passion is driven because the strathspey is the only style that is solely bagpipe. Jigs, hornpipes, marches, reels, and ballads are very common across all walks of music, but strathspey are ours.

  3. I feel that when you play solos, you may have to play a little differently to the way that you would when in a corps. You are supported by the midsection when playing in the band – and they can really bolster the SWMW feel. This allows the side drums scores to be more subtle and complex.

    When you play solos, I think there is an expectation that you will support the SWMW idiom.

  4. Until recent years, I was in the camp of playing a strath almost entirely triplet-y. Until I noticed that the pipes were going for more sharply cut notes than what you get in triplets, which was when I switched out of triplets for the most part.

    SWMW is a good starting point, but you need to throw in variety. I tend to do things like make one measure out of 4 different for dynamic effect, while keeping SWMW for the rest.

  5. If I listen to you tube, “Shotts at North Berwick highland games 2013, warming up”. The way they start the strath, the structure, the unisons building to a climax at each measure. You immediately start tapping your feet and the groove just lifts you and carries you along. SWMW is def the building block for me but this can be varied to help build a story in the tune. For me triplets and subs are the perfect fit to provide the lift and drive particularly when I there is a lot of cut and dot and not the reverse.

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