Strathspey and Reel Guide Tempo Calculator
[Update: May, 2011]
The march, strathspey and reel is a cornerstone of pipe band competition the world over - it is something of a common denominator. Observation would indicate that, aside from execution and expression, an area where an MSR performance can be dramatically affected is tempo, and more specifically, changes in tempo between tunes.
A problem that often exists for bands with less experience, is achieving a complementary progression in playing tempos between each of the tunes. A tempo change that is too fast or too slow when compared with the preceding tune, can spoil the entire performance. More often than not the playing tempos will be limited by the combined ability of the band - pipers and drummers - to execute the tune clearly and with good expression.What is the purpose of this calculator?
This calculator is intended to provide a guide to playing tempos for a march, strathspey or reel based on a desired benchmark tempo. The calculator will provide an ideal complementary tempo and also a statistically determined upper and lower tempo range, based on a single input tempo benchmark.
What this calculator does not do, is specify any particular tempo. This is for each band or soloist to decide. It would be foolhardy for bands of lesser ability and experience to aim for the average tempos set by the top bands in the world. What the calculator does do, is ensure that, if a march is played relatively quickly, then the strathspey and reel are also played relatively quickly, and vice versa. Most importantly, the tune tempos will be in proportion with one another. Hopefully, this would avoid the problem of excessive and incongruous tempo changes between tunes, and lead to a more pleasing performance overall. That the playing tempo of each individual tune should to be kept as steady as possible goes without saying.
So, if a band is comfortable and satisfied playing a particular tune in the MSR set at a given tempo, then it can use that tune's tempo as the basis for identifying tempos in the two remaining tunes, safe in the knowledge that the tempo relationships are sympathetic. In a competition situation, minimising risk, or at least giving the adjudicator fewer areas for obvious adverse criticism should be an aim. Removing tempo change problems would be one less thing for a band to worry about on the day.
How does it work?
Currently based on a sample of 443 Grade 1 standard MSRs representing the work of 53 bands - past and present - and top soloists (piper(s) with snare drum) recorded between 1987-2008, a series of ratios have been statistically determined that govern the relationships between each type of tune in the MSR set. Based on any one tune in the MSR set, this statistical relationship is then used to calculate appropriate tempos for the remaining two tunes.
Digitally recorded performances from the world's top bands and soloists have been used because they represent the pinnacle of quality in our form of music and the audio reproduction is accurate. Even though there is a vast range of tempos that may be heard across the three tune types from band to band, and tempo fashions have also shifted over the years, the ratios between each of the MSR tunes has remained relatively constant.
As an offshoot to the data collection process, the observed tempos for each tune in the MSR set was also recorded and averaged year-by-year. A graph of the annual tempo trends is provided with the trends themselves shown as dotted lines. It reveals that strathspey tempos have fallen significantly since 1987 and reels much less so. Marches have remained fairly constant. What is noticeable, is the fact that reels have moved much closer to the march tempo over time, something which many bands aim for today. It should be kept in mind that these tempo trends are derived from Grade 1 performances, and that these tempos may not suit bands with less experience (or even particular tunes), and therefore, should not be seen as 'ideal' for all. It is the ratios which do retain their relevance, regardless of a band's grading, experience or ability.
Note: For those who wish to delve further into the figures, including case studies of top individual bands, here is some further tempo data. Here, overall averages and tempo ranges are shown, as well as some long term trends for selected top bands.
How might this guide be used?
The links below will take you to tables that allow you to calculate the ideal complementary tempo with an appropriate tempo range based on your:
Simply enter the desired tempo (in blue, accurate to 1 decimal place) in the input box, and click the 'Recalculate' button or click somewhere in the window.
The ideal complementary tempo will be provided in the middle column in red - for the remaining two tunes in the set - with the lower and upper limits in the columns either side in orange. Results are rounded to the nearest full beat, making it easier to set using a metronome. It should be noted that the ranges provided do allow for considerable scope, and that the range either above or below the ideal tempo, is not necessarily uniform (because it is statistically derived from the performances in the dataset).
If your current playing tempo(s), based on one tune, fall outside the nominated range(s), then there is a case for making the necessary adjustments in playing tempo(s) to achieve more harmonious results. Even playing tempos that see-saw from one extreme of the range to the other should be cause for reevaluation of the tempos overall. Certainly any MSR performance where any tempos fall outside the ranges given here would give rise to a situation where tempos would sound mismatched to an astute listener, that is, the adjudicator! Caution should also be exercised when altering the tempo of one tune in the MSR set without monitoring, and perhaps changing the other tunes, within certain tolerances
A note on playing to a metronome
Once tempos are decided upon a metronome is a useful tool to set a steady tempo, especially for the march at the start of the set. Following the metronome exactly, especially as a band, is extremely difficult to achieve. The fact is that even the best bands in the world have a degree of minor tempo fluctuation across tunes and even with parts or phrases. This is the human element, and may also be desired expression, at work. To play exactly to a metronome could lead to a rather lifeless, mechanical performance. So just remember, even fractions of a beat per second in variation will put you out from the metronome, but these types of variations will not be discernable to the listener (and most adjudicators). Do avoid the more obvious tempo fluctuations, that is, one or more beats per minute. Although this should be an aim, even top bands occasionally suffer from noticeable tempo change in major contests, so no-one's perfect!
The MSR... on the way out?
Every now and again the place of the MSR is challenged as a relevant and useful aspect to piping, drumming and pipe band contests. There are some - both prominent and populist - who believe the MSR is an irrelevant, boring and anachronistic aspect of our art.
According to Michael Grey, the top class Canadian piper and prolific composer, "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."
The criticism is often levelled that the same tunes are always played and the genre means nothing to the 'ordinary' non-pipe band listener. There is certainly some truth to this, but this data base represents 44 different marches, 22 strathspeys and 24 reels. Even though there are certain 'favourites' at the Grade 1 level; the Clan MacCrae Society or Highland Wedding, Susan MacLeod, Dora MacLeod or John Morrison of Assynt House and John McKechnie's Big Reel, which are certainly heard often, with the numbers and possible combinations, there is a lot of variety. Another worry to some is the current Worlds Qualifier system in which a band stakes everything on an MSR to get through to the final.
The MSR certainly gains strength as a staple for top solo piping and drumming events, not to mention its global standing - still - in pipe band contests. Interestingly, in January 2010, the respected online journal Pipes|Drums conducted a survey with a question asking whether or not the MSR should be kept. The "eye-opening" results saw 90% saying "Keep it - an essential part of our tradition", whilst only 10% opted for "Drop it - players and crowds want medleys". That is quite an emphatic result.
At the moment, whilst many speculate and even lobby for changes to the various possibilities for contest formats, the Set is popular, accepted and used enough to remain for the foreseeable future.
What about the medley?
During a presentation on ensemble given in Melbourne on 5 March 2006, Bob Worrall, noted piper, composer and adjudicator, made a specific mention of the 'balance' of tempo between a strathspey and a reel, but in the context of a medley, rather than a MSR. Could the 'balance' to which he referred be the same tempo ratio seen between the middle and last tunes in the competition MSR?
It is very common in many musical selections, or medleys, to hear strathspeys followed by reels. It is a fairly standard and totally logical construction. Often though, these are two-parted, rather than the 'big' strathspeys and reels of the competition set; although some bands do play selected parts of the big tunes within their musical selections and often modern reels are more creatively, rather than traditionally phrased. Worrall also noted the pitfall of playing two successive tunes of the same 'family' at different tempos, ie, one strathspey or reel after another but at a different tempo. So, we should assume – and this is confirmed by what we actually hear in top performances – that two or more small strathspeys or reels played in succession will invariably be of a consistent tempo within that type of tune.
This then begs the question: Might the guide tempo calculator be used to assist with the setting of strathspey and reel tempos in a musical selection? It would seem to be logical that the calculator might be of use here too. Give it a try. Use either the Strathspey or Reel Guide Tempo Calculators and simply ignore the figures relating to the march. Just remember to keep successive strathspeys or reels at a consistent tempo.
Achieving accurate tempo breaks - some guidance
With any performance where changes of tempo are involved - breaks - it is fundamental to the quality of the piece that these are definite, clear and confident. Unlike the modern medley, where bands might experiment with 'hidden' breaks (transitioning into the next tune's rhythm and tempo before the preceding one is totally finished) and bridges, the breaks in the MSR - march-to-strathspey and strathspey-to-reel are more 'standardised'. Although standardised, there are really two distinct approaches. The choice of which style is used is reliant on three factors: 1) the tunes either side of the tempo change, 2) the preference of the band's musical leaders, or the soloist, and 3) the ability and experience of the player(s).
The 'traditional' break
The traditional method of performing the tempo break in the MSR is relatively straight forward. This involves starting the next tune in the set on the next full beat derived from the tempo of the preceding tune. In simple terms, this means starting the strathspey one full march beat after the march's concluding beat, or starting the reel one full strathspey beat after the strathspey finishes. This is the simplest method to achieve a clean break because the changes work from established tempos. This is certainly recommended for those new to playing MSRs.
The second style has become far more popular in modern times. Whilst difficult to perfect, the key to this type of tempo transition is that the pause is not ill-defined or held at the whim of the Pipe Major or soloist (though this does occur sometimes, but is ill-advised, because it is too subject to human error). The paused transition is still clearly tempo-based.
March-to-strathspey: The principle of this break is to immediately initiate the strathspey tempo from the concluding beat of the march, and to count two of those beats, then initiate the strathspey on the third beat at that tempo. To the uneducated listener, a pause will be heard, but to the players themselves, it is a clear, tempo-defined change. This is the more difficult break because all players must have a clear idea of the next tune's tempo from the last note of the tune before. In a band setting, this will most frequently be given by the Pipe Major's foot.*
The two styles of tempo break for the march-to-strathspey change are shown in diagrammatic notation form below. Note that the grey notes are counted, not played.
Strathspey-to-reel: This tempo break is relatively simple because it is an extention of the 'tradtitional' break for one extra beat in strathspey time. The reel is started on second full beat after the end of the strathspey, rather than the first. This should be easier to achieve than the pause break between the march and strathspey because the anticipated tempo does not regulate the change itself. Once again, in most circumstances, a band's Pipe Major will use their foot to regulate this tempo change.*
The two types of tempo break for the strathspey-to-reel change are shown below. Again, the grey notes are counted, not played.
* It goes without saying that players in a band should be watching the Pipe Major (or whoever is responsible for tempos) during changes. In the band 'contest circle' set-up, however, it is possible for players to have their vision obscured, or indeed be looking the other way. A clear example of this might be tenor drummers who are facing their leading drummer, rather than the pipe corps. Whetever the case, if players cannot see the tempo leader during changes, the only solution is to establish comfort and confidence with changes through rigorous practice. The key to making this possible is consistent tempos to a degree, but moreso, the use of consistent ratios of change between each tune, independent of the inevitable tempo variations over time (as noted here). This Guide Tempo Calculator should assist with this process.
There are no rules about which breaks should be employed or when. Some bands use a pause between the march and strathspey but a traditional break between the strathspey and reel because this suits the tunes better. Bands with less experience should probably employ the traditional change for the sake of ease and clarity. Whichever breaks are chosen, they should be kept constant to a band's set as far as possible, and should be rehearsed until they are second nature. This level of comfort with the breaks goes back to the premise of this Guide Tempo Calculator; that there is indeed a complementary tempo progression that will be felt intuitively by experienced pipe band musicians.
With his kind permission, this page is dedicated to the legendary Alexander
McCormick. Alex, an acknowledged pioneer of this drumming idiom, was leading drummer of the World Champion City of Glasgow Police
Pipe Band of the early 1950s and the RSPBA Drumming Principal (1949-1952) responsible
for the first College drumming syllabus. Without Alex's contribution, the global
pipe band community would be very much the poorer in ways too numerous to list.
At the RSPBA's 75th Anniversary Dinner held in Glasgow (2005), Alex was presented with
Honorary Life Membership of the RSPBA - a very fitting tribute indeed. In March 2006, at the Victorian Pipe Band Championships in Geelong, Alex was presented with an RSPBA Life Membership medal -one of only a handful in existence - by visiting Scottish adjudicator Joe Noble. He is pictured below proudly wearing the medal, and back in 1951 holding the World Drumming Championship trophy. Alex passed away on 18 August 2007, at peace and surrounded by family and the music he loved and to which he gave so much. Alex was a Life Member of the University of Ballarat Pipe Band.
About the author: Stephen Matthews is an educator and author from Victoria, Australia who has thirty years' experience in pipe band drumming initially as a bass drummer, then a corps and lead side drummer and also a tenor drummer, a drumming tutor, and more recently, a drumming adjudicator. He an active player with the University of Ballarat Pipe Band - pictured at the top if this page - and a member of the Australian Pipe Band College drumming panel in Victoria. He was College Administrator (Victoria) from June 2005-2008. From 2004-2006 he was also Vice President of the Pipe Bands Victoria and Vice Chairman of the Australian Pipe Band Association (Victoria Branch). In 2010 he withdrew from competitive playing to concentrate on his dractise as a drumming adjudicator and to complete his accreditation as an ensemble adjudicator. Stephen is actively involved on the organising committee of the 2012 Australian Pipe Band Championships to be held in Ballarat..
© Stephen R Matthews, 2004-2011. This calculator is based on data originally collected for an article in Piper & Drummer magazine (June 2004, pp 20-25) and updated using subsequently available recordings. It is provided solely as a guide, free for use by members of the international pipe band community. Comments to the author are welcomed. Enquiries regarding linking to this site are also welcomed and should be directed to the author. Revision date Wednesday, April 27, 2011 5:06 PM
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