I have observed over many years that the simple art of playing 6_8 marches has all but disappeared in the pipe band and solo piping world. I take great joy in immersing myself in the fantastic music buzz of playing a 6_8 march with the proper swing. This article tells about my approach to the enjoyment of 6_8 marches.
For many years, I have listened to pipe bands and soloists playing 6_8 marches. *1 I am so often sad at the missed opportunity for enjoyment of the swing these tunes offer, as the ability to time things correctly has all but been lost. I have taken the approach of keeping that swing in there by very specific methods, which are simply natural to me in how I want to express the music.
Do you agree with me? Consider these 6_8 marches.
Have you ever played Cock O’ the North and wondered why it’s all going well until you get to the second part, and then something shifts in the rhythm to make it sound right? And when that shift happens, ISN’T IT GREAT TO PLAY!! What has happened is that SWING *2 has taken over. Usually, that swing then carries on into the 3rd part or another 6_8 march for a while until it, unfortunately, peters out.
The point is that the swing created in that second part feels good. In fact, it would feel wrong to play it any other way. That swing should be part and parcel of the rhythm of all 6_8 march playing.
Another case in point is the 4th part of Farewell to the Creeks. At the start of the 2nd bar of that part is a piece of the tune that always feels rhythmically distorted. To have a long E and a short F requires some unnatural rhythmic acts which never feel quite right. I have even seen music which adds dots or ties to the E to try and push the correct timing. The fact is that if proper 6_8 rhythm had been used throughout the tune, that E and F would simply follow that rhythm and fit in nicely.
And a 3rd case is that of the Glendaruel Highlanders. I played this as an accompanist hundreds of times for the highland dance Flora MacDonald’s Fancy and the very movements of a dancer’s feet call for a swing rhythm. But it was made so clear to me by, of all people, Andy Stewart. Regardless of whether you considered him a good artist or not, he took that tune and sang it with tremendous swing under the name Campbelltown Loch. I challenge anyone to tell me they don’t feel the powerful swing of Andy Stewart singing that song.
How do you know if you’re playing it correctly?
So, here’s an easy way to see how correctly a 6_8 march is being played, by you or anyone else.
First, teach yourself about beating double time. A good tune with which to practise that is the 2_4 march The Brown Haired Maid. In the 1st part, the 3rd and 4th bars readily lend themselves to beating 4 beats per bar, one beat on each note.
When beating double time, the beat that matches the actual tune’s beats is called the down beat and the extra one added in between is called the up beat (as in lifting your foot up when marching).
When you can comfortably beat double time, listen to a 6_8 march being played. If you can comfortably beat an evenly spaced double beat rhythm, then it is being played as a 2_4 march, not a 6_8. It is not hard to find recordings on the internet where this is the case. In fact, I have struggled many times to find one where it is NOT the case.
In my previous example of Cock O’ the North, usually a band will start playing the up and down beats evenly spaced, with an easy ability to beat evenly spaced double time, but then the rhythm shifts to have a longer down beat and a shortened up beat in the 2nd part, which is exactly how the music is written to be played. Then it unfortunately shifts back again.
The reality is that we are re-interpreting the music back into 2_4 march rhythm, and in the process, losing that great 6_8 swing, but reviving it momentarily only for that 2nd part.
Where did my feel for 6_8 marches come from?
When I was still a teenager, moving up the solo contest ladder, I learnt that great 6_8 march, Angus MacKinnon. I was very taken by the 3rd part, which had a beautiful melody line and a rolling rhythm. I just could not fail to feel the beauty in applying some swing to that part of that tune – long dotted notes and not too long on the quavers at the end of each group. It has been the foundation of my research, both theoretical and practical, into 6_8 marches ever since.
Some 6_8s have beautiful melody lines, which are absolutely highlighted by applying that proper 6_8 rhythm – Jennie Mauchline and Ellen Orr spring to mind. And how could you enjoy the tune John D Burgess without it!
However, I am also strong on music theory, specifically note values and rhythmic structures. So, while I am discussing feel and expression in this article, I have a strong grounding in the theory underneath it. I know exactly what is happening to put these timings out of kilter.
How do you fix it?
I have developed methods to help bands and soloists move to proper 6_8 rhythm. I used these methods with one band over 10 years ago, and I can still, with a blindfold on, pick them by their 6_8 swing.
I intend to build a class in 6_8 playing. It is work in progress.
A challenge for you
Listen to some 6_8 marches played by anyone, be it soloist or pipe band. Listen to the “greats” and the “not so greats” and try beating double time. If you find an example where it seems they are playing correctly, because you can’t readily fit evenly spaced double time rhythm to their music, let us know. If you try for a while and don’t find any, also let us know. Attach a comment to this article on The Bagpipe Academy blog site.
If you’d like to try it out, this recording plays the 3rd part of Angus MacKinnon both correctly and incorrectly. See if you can recognise the difference between the two renditions.
While I don’t like the overuse of the word “passionate”, this topic is one I am truly passionate about. I hope this article has given you food for thought and an opportunity to consider improving your enjoyment of 6_8 marches.
In my view, we have all, for a long time, been following what everyone else does and essentially entrenched the issue. How about stepping outside that and trying it a different way?
The Bagpipe Academy
1. Almost everything said in this article applies to 9_8s and 12_8s, usually classed as retreats. Jigs are a completely separate genre to 6_8 marches and 9_8 and 12_8 retreats, and so the commentary herein does not apply to them.
2. See my related article on swing and lift for further clarity on swing https://thebagpipeacademy.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/the-difference-between-swing-and-lift-and-why-it-matters/