Rudimental drumming is awesome. The physical and mental demands are intoxicating, the benefits can be felt in other areas of musical development, and a particular discipline is ingrained that can be carried into nearly all facets of life. The popular activities in the United States such as DCI, WGI, BOA, DCA, high school bands, and college bands provide lifelong experiences and friendships that can take us all over the world.
While nearly every PAS member has had some, if not extensive, American rudimental studies, the unfortunate reality is that after age 23, our performance opportunities become limited. While teaching and composing in the various marching activities is indeed rewarding, there is simply nothing like strapping on a drum and feeling the raw power of music through rhythm.
This article serves to introduce an entirely different world of drumming and to pique your rudimental interest, as DCI perhaps does or once did. This article is about Scottish pipe bands, and its unique style of snare, tenor, and bass drumming. For some, it’s time to get those chops back into shape, and for others, it’s time to continue the discipline. Either way, it’s time to drum like you’ve never drummed before.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Like all rudimental drumming genres, Scottish pipe bands stem from military roots. The lineage of the Great Highland Bagpipes has a clear connection with the exhaustive disputes between the Celts and the English. Bagpipers and corps of pipers as serviceable military positions, however, did not come into effect until the mid 19th century during the Crimean War. The civilian and competitive bagpipe band units began soon thereafter, circa 1870. At present day, hundreds of competitions occur all over the world each summer as Grade V (the most amateur bands) through Grade I (professional-grade bands) compete in their respective categories for trophies, bragging rights, prize money, and prestige.
Pipe band drumming found its first revolutionary figure in Scotsman Alex Duthart (1925–1986). Duthart ushered in absolute virtuosity of playing, a musician’s approach to composition, and an intuitive nature to the construction of the instruments.
When I ask people if they’ve ever seen a pipe band, the typical response includes giggles, rolling eyes, some nods, but mostly blank faces. The giggles and rolling eyes are no doubt from those who have seen the prototypical parade band. These union- or government-operated units are the most common type of pipe band in the U.S, maybe even the world, and offer much enthusiasm but often little musical appeal. They are amateur groups equivalent to that of a community softball team: fun to participate or watch on a Saturday afternoon, but not representative of Major League Baseball. While these participants certainly have the spirit of this culture, they usually do not represent the music or style.
The highly competitive pipe band community consists largely of hobbyists rather than career, professional musicians. Most PAS members will have far more musical and educational training compared to most pipe band participants. Most pipe band players, however, will accrue decades of performance experience beginning as young as 3 or 4 years old and extending well into their 60s. An important realization is that the Scottish pipe band community is truly worldwide, and participants can play for the bulk of their lives.
There are only four different instruments in any bagpipe band, and the number of players depends on availability of personnel and the musical level of the ensemble. First there are the Great Highland Bagpipes, featuring six to thirty players. The lead percussion instrument is the Scottish snare drum with numbers anywhere from one to twelve. The “midsection” or “bass section” has the Scottish tenor drums with one to eight players and the Scottish bass drum, where there is always only one player. I specify “Scottish” for the percussion instruments because they are quite different from the make and models used in American drumming, let alone the musical and technical style. Following are details of the three types of drums:
This instrument is very similar to that of contemporary American construction, but the differences lie beneath the colorful custom coating. The shells are usually birch and only 4-ply to 6-ply. The high-tension top rim setup is the same as American models. There are bottom snares of thin metal coils very similar to a typical junior high concert snare drum.
There is also a top bed of snares on a movable system that adjusts both the height and tension of the two-inch-wide metal coils.
The top heads are made of Kevlar, but thinner than the American equivalents and with less coating on some models. The bottom heads are standard plastic heads, never Kevlar. This setup allows for the sound to be very bright, high-end focused, very sharp, and extremely wet and “snarey.” The desired pitch is much higher than U.S. marching snares, but this is not (or should not be) due to greater tension. The drums are worn with various contemporary carriers that position the drum close to the player’s body.
Scottish snare drum sticks are made of maple rather than hickory. This aids in the “snappy” playing style as well as the very bright overall sound production. The weight distribution and balance point are also quite different due to the taper occurring much sooner and being more gradual. The heads are acorn-shaped and a bit bigger than regular marching sticks to accommodate the frequent use of buzz-roll figures.
There is a single drum per player, each of which is tuned to a precise pitch. Pitch selection per drum is chosen from and tuned to the bagpipes, whose chanter is only capable of nine different pitches. Tenor drums can range in size from 12x14 to 16x20. Each drum’s shell is 4 to 6 plies of either birch or maple. Top and bottom heads are both 10 to 14 mil of either coated or clear plastic heads. Tenor drums are usually worn with slings and hang at the player’s side. The sound of the drum is very warm and subtle, has a short sustain, and exists to enhance and provide color to the snare and bagpipe lines.
Contemporary Scottish pipe band tenor mallets feature a soft, round core and a furry exterior. The plastic shafts are only about six inches long and have strings supported by a round ball at the end of the mallet. The string is the foundation of the tenor technique/grip, as half of a Scottish tenor drummer’s responsibility is visual, involving very intricate flourishing patterns supported by the strings wrapped around the fingers.
Contemporary Tenor Corps are heavily involved with the visual aspect of the ensemble and are continuing to develop musically. While the musical responsibilities are nowhere near the virtuosity of American Bass Drum lines, they have a unique sonic contribution necessary to complete the ensemble package.
With only one drum and one player, this instrument serves as the musical backbone of any pipe band. This drum is tuned specifically to the same pitch as the bass drone of the bagpipes, which is the instrument’s tonic, existing anywhere between concert B-flat and concert C, but all bagpipers and bagpipe music refer to their tonic as A. The shell is 4- to 6-ply birch or maple and varies in size between 14x26 to 18x30. The drum is supported by a contemporary bass carrier.
The sound of a Scottish bass drum is similar to a subwoofer. The slightest touch provides a very long sustain with very focused low-end harmonics and usually very little attack. Musically, the drum provides the heartbeat of the band while occasionally accentuating big moments for the snares.
Pipe band bass mallets feature a short hickory or maple handle with a large, puffy mallet head. The core is generally heavier with a very soft, felt exterior and is usually played by grazing the head with as little articulation as possible.
As with any percussion instrument and music, the various techniques for each Scottish drum is to accommodate the desired sound and suitable style. Though the bagpipe is limited to just nine pitches (the closest relationship is B-flat Mixolydian, beginning with the subdominant low G), and one dynamic (let’s call it “loud”), an endless world of interpretation exists. The very unique and culturally iconic use of the embellishments (anywhere from one to eight grace notes), along with its unmistakable timbre give bagpipe music its distinct sound.
The music is most often swung or dot-and-cut and derived from either military or folk music. Tune types used include Marches, Jigs, Hornpipes, Reels, Strathspeys (the most unique), and Slow Airs. For any given tune, the purpose of the drum corps (which is the pipe band terminology for “drum line”) is to enhance the linear bagpipe line by providing musical direction, groove, contour, and dynamism. Specifically, the snare drums create a constant flow of complex rhythms and unique rudiments that bring out selected points and moments from the pipes while supplying a rhythmic counterpoint and groove. Musically, the tenor corps peppers the snare music with sporadic shades of rhythmic color and exciting visual emphasis for the constant musical lines. Rhythmically, the bass drum plays a more simplistic roll, but is fundamental in creating the right style, flavor, and feel per tune, as well as a much needed low-end presence.
While American marching drums necessitate strong wrist motions to produce a large, robust, and dark sounds, Scottish snare drumming requires the use of smaller muscle groups for lighter and brighter sonorities. Traditional grip is the most common technique, though many players use matched or even “reverse” traditional grip.
In using traditional grip, the right hand is primarily motored by the back fingers—primarily the middle finger. A three-point fulcrum is needed to lightly grip the stick with back-end focus for the very quick single-stroke figures, and front-end focus for the common buzz-roll figures.
The left hand is controlled with only the thumb. It is a true one-point fulcrum (whereas American left hands merit a two-point fulcrum), gripped at the very base of the thumb with the remainder of the digit slightly bent and laying on the stick with the pad facing down. While small wrist motions similar to orchestral snare drumming are used throughout, the way to achieve a variety of light and snappy articulations is through the use of the right middle finger and left thumb.
The overall physical approach is more relatable to a jazz drum set player with the arms in fluid motion and faster figures facilitated by the fingers. With all terminology debates aside, the use of Gus A. Moller’s approach to drumming must be incorporated to phrase and swing with the pipes accurately and tastefully. While this style of snare drumming demands just as much stick control as any other, there is a constant sense of relaxed and fluid motions led by the arms and wrists, often preceding the stick and fingers.
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The musical technique of playing the tenor drum is quite simple as it requires no specific muscle training beyond basic wrist movement. The greatest challenge is in griping the mallet. Only the thumb and index finger contribute to the two-point fulcrum that holds the round ball at the butt-end of the light, plastic shaft. This is to accommodate the unique Scottish tenor flourishing style. A simple string (of personal preference) is tied then looped between the pinky, ring, and middle fingers, laid across the index finger, and tied with a Lark’s Head knot around the mallet shaft, which is held by the contrasting round butt-end. This allows the string to move freely between the middle finger and thumb when flourishing. A player must learn not only to “spin” the very fast and flashy patterns on cue, but to also catch the mallet with precision immediately after to strike the single drum. The contemporary flourishing patterns and choreography would merit further discussion—an equally interesting percussive subject for another time.
The style of the tenor drum and tenor corps is a constant mixture of visual and musical support. The various drums will oscillate between split and unison responsibilities, both visually and musically. Large arm motions, usually in repeated eighth- or quarter-note phrases, called “piano patterns,” provide a visually rhythmic drive without an overbearing sound presence. Sprinkles of sparse rhythms help color the constant snare drum sound and can also provide chordal or tonal direction for the linear bagpipe lines.
In contrast to the high-impact, multi-tonal, and complex patterns of American bass drum lines, the lone Scottish bass drum requires constant smooth and fluid arm motions that aim to graze the low-tension heads to variable degrees. The ideal sound is closer to the orchestral grand casse and is produced with the lightest touch at the end of a full roundhouse arm swing. The goal is to generate a very full and sonorous sound with very little articulation.
The mallets are held in the normal matched grip fashion while motored by everything from the shoulder, upper arm, and lower arm to the wrist and fingers. The bass drum also frequently utilizes “piano patterns” for visual drive and reiteration of the agogic stress of a given tune type. The primary musical purpose of the Scottish bass drum is to supply the heat-beat of the band with some occasional punches with the snares.
All bagpipe band repertoire consists of traditional or new tunes of Celtic influence from Scotland, Ireland, Brittany (France), Nova Scotia (Canada), and Cape Breton (Canada). The leader of the band is called the Pipe Major and selects the music for a given set. The lead snare drummer, known as the Drum Sergeant, writes or acquires original snare, tenor, and bass scores for the drum corps. Though pipe corps can make subtle changes to a given tune, the melodic content and structure remain largely unchanged from band to band. Every drum corps, however, will have uniquely written scores all their own.
In nearly every Grade II and Grade I band (which are the top classifications of bands), the lead drummer writes every note for the drum corps. Writing a great score for Scottish snare drum is an art unto itself, comparable to the classic writings of John Pratt, Mitch Marcovich, and Marty Hurley for previous genres of American drumming. The greatest difference is that all Scottish drum scores are composed to accompany and enhance the bagpipe tune, never as a true solo piece. Even during “solo” snare drum contests, a Scottish snare drummer is required to perform alongside a bagpiper. Solo tenor and bass drummers require a piper as well as a snare drummer.
All level of bands learn a series of traditional Scottish marches for parades or Massed Bands. Massed Bands is the gathering all of competitive bands from the day that parade on and off the field while everyone plays simultaneously. For pipers, this is more straightforward, as every bagpiper is taught standard marches such as “Scotland the Brave,” “Highland Laddie,” “When the Battle is Over,” etc.
Drummers are required to learn a set of parade or Massed Band charts that generically fit a given time signature. Each drum corps might have its own unique parade sets, but every drummer is taught the Standard Massed Band scores. While variations exist in every part of the world, they are all largely the same. There is a Standard Massed Band score for 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 6/8 march tunes.
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Example 1 is the Standard 2/4 Massed Band Score. The sticking system used is known as the “Berger Sticking System,” named after Swiss Basel drumming legend Dr. Frtiz Berger. This system is actually used by most styles of rudimental drummers worldwide. The notes above the line indicate the right hand, and the notes below the line indicate the left hand.
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To better understand the swung notation and interpretation, Example 2 shows the same 2/4 score written in Western notation. Bear in mind that ten different professional Scottish drummers could “swing” or interpret even this standard score ten different ways. This is yet another remarkable and beautiful aspect of this genre, as there is no singular interpretation of a given score’s swing.
Understanding how the notation works is obviously required prior to analyzing a given drummer’s style and particular flavor. The transcription in Example 2 will present the mathematical elements, which must be quickly abandoned to properly perform and execute with another drummer or corps. In other words, if you play precisely what you see on the page, it most certainly will not swing well.
The pipe band competition season runs from late spring into early fall in each country or region. There are local, regional, and national Scottish Highland Games all over the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K, Singapore, France, Germany, Switzerland, and more. Scottish games will host a variety of events including pipe band contests, solo contests, dancing, olympics, etc.
The World Pipe Band Championships is the most prestigious contest in the world. Every second weekend in August over 250 bands from a dozen or more countries gather on the Glasgow Green in the east side of Scotland’s second largest city. Combined with the other events the week proceeding, it is one of the largest annual Celtic festivals in the world.
All pipe bands and individual performers are categorized by a strict grading system. For competition bands, there are five grades. Grade V is the most amateur, and Grade I is considered professional level. There are also Juvenile Bands (age 17 and under) that have their own category in some countries. For individuals of all four instruments, there is an additional Open Class grade that is above that of Grade I status. Bands and individuals must compete for years to work up the grading system, which is determined by the respective Scottish associations and judging panels. Players and bands can be automatically promoted or demoted based on their level of performance. There is also the option of petitioning either down or up a grade from season to season.
Many non-competitive units are organized by various service departments such as police, fire, or even sanitation precincts. The vast majority of these bands are truly service units, as they perform at city functions, parades, government events, and funerals. On the other end of the grading spectrum, there are only about 20 to 25 Grade I bands in the world at any given point. Due to membership changes and various budgets requirements, many bands’ grade status will fluctuate quite often over time. Grade I bands often perform formal concerts and presentations all over the world as well.
Like many musical adventures, a good first step is to find your local participants. There is a good chance that you will find several bagpipe bands within your town or region, especially in the U.S. Whether they be service bands or competition units, odds are that you will find someone doing something with Scottish drumming and music right next door.
YouTube will also allow you to see and hear most bands and soloists. I would advise searching for any of the following:
• Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia: Scotland
• Field Marshal Montgomery: Northern Ireland
• Greater Glasgow Police (former Strathclyde Police): Scotland
• Inveraray & District: Scotland
• Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia: Scotland
• Police Scotland Fife: Scotland
• ScottishPower: Scotland
• Simon Fraser University: Vancouver, Canada
• St. Laurence O’Toole: Republic of Ireland
• Gordon Brown, Boghall and Bathgate
• Stephen Creighton, St. Lauwrence O’Toole
• Alex Duthart (1925–86), Shotts and Dykehead/British Caledonian Airways
• John Fisher, Independent
• Tyler Fry (Tenor Drummer), Independent
• Jim Kilpatrick, MBE, Independent
• J. Reid Maxwell, Simon Fraser University
• Steven McWhirter, Inveraray & District Pipe Band
• Eric Ward, Independent
In most fields of percussive study, there is an abundance of books, CDs, DVDs, methods, etc. from which to draw professional demonstrations and information. Unfortunately, there are very few resources for seekers of Scottish drumming. The only online resource can be found at www.rhythm-monster.com. Rhythm Monster offers a massive library of classes and concepts specifically for Scottish pipe band snare drumming, technique, musical style, and music theory via a comprehensive Western approach. The best players in the world are featured, and new classes and scores are added each month.
While often difficult to locate, two books of Alex Duthart’s scores and studies were published after his untimely death in 1986:
• The Duthart Book 1: While the front half of the book contains exercises and fundamental builders, there is no mention of the required technique and approach. The second half contains invaluable Duthart compositions that are essential scores for all Scottish snare drummers. This book is a “must have,” but it does not instruct the unique Scottish style.
• The Duthart Book 2: Contains more classic Duthart Marches, Strathspeys, Reels, Jigs, Slow Airs, and Hornpipes. No exercise materials, just great music for Scottish snare drumming.
Rudimental drumming is awesome, and for those of us past the age of 23, there are very few places to use our hard-earned skills. There is no “age-out” in pipe bands. Some of the very best Scottish drummers in the world today are well into their 50s. This world of music can give you the challenge and dexterity found in the American marching idioms along with worldwide musical opportunities. I often tell people that Scottish drumming will put your hands and mind in places they have never been. I can honestly say that every aspect of my overall musicianship is dramatically improved because of my studies in Scottish drumming.
For lifelong learners and lifelong performers, this activity will suit your deepest musical needs.
There is so little time and yet so much music that our students need in order to be successful musicians and educators. While I truly believe that Scottish music classes, programs, etc. belong in many musical institutions, this ensemble requires bagpipes, which are very difficult to learn and play in a small amount of time. Most professional piping instructors do not recommend performance for their beginning students until after a solid two years of instruction.
For percussionists, however, learning a small amount of material for a semester’s concert or a single piece for a recital is completely manageable. High school and university programs can also utilize www.rhythm-monster.com by facilitating these online classes and studies to their students.
Another issue is the instruments. Though there are sonic equivalents, there is simply no substitute for a Scottish snare, tenor, or bass drum. A possible resolution to this as well as the “piper problem” could be found in your neighborhood pipe band. It is very likely that a local bagpipe band could lend some drums as well as some bagpipers for your concert performance. I believe that local pipe bands and university or high school percussion studios have a lot to offer each other. A simple concert or similar performance proposal could be a great initial step.
For those of the competitive persuasion, the United States has participated in the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland since the 1950s. Only one Grade I band from the U.S., the Wooster Kilties (comprised largely of recently settled and seasoned players from Scotland) has ever placed in the prize list, placing 6th in 1957. Since then, no American band has placed higher than 10th. In other words, the U.S. has never even come close to winning in this worldwide rudimental drumming music contest. This is not a fun fact, but one that we must live with until something is done.
Within the pipe band community, the U.S. has produced dozens of Grade I bands over the years, each of which has eventually disbanded. The reasons range from lack of rehearsal etiquette to musical disagreements, politics, shirt color, mustache length—you name it. I believe that Scottish drumming can offer American percussionists a whole new world of musical enrichment and challenges. I also believe that YOU, a pupil and product of Western art society, are necessary to give the United States its first Grade I World Pipe Band Championship. YOU can help your country succeed where it never has. YOU can be a part of the first World Championship from the United States. What say you?
In addition and prior to the rigor of competing at “The Worlds,” being in a competitive bagpipe band is a ton of fun. The process of building a competitive unit is just as rewarding as being in DCI, but you get to sleep in your own bed, and you don’t have to run around half-naked in the sun all day during the summer. Rather, you get to wear a formal kilt, play while standing still, and enjoy a spirited gathering of all the bandsmen at the end of each competition full of music, laughs, and libations.
An entire world of music, performance, and growth awaits you. Most likely, it’s closer than you realize. If you think rudimental drumming is awesome, then you’re going to love Scottish pipe band drumming. I hope to see you at games very soon!
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