Published: October 31, 2003

A Response to Jim Hutton’s Article On The 2003 World’s

By Scott Currie

There has never been a better time to be a bass or tenor drummer than now. Bass sections have never been so innovative or effective than they are today, pipe-majors and leading drummers are exploiting their bass sections pro-actively to enhance their bands ensemble effects, the quality and range of instruments available is unsurpassed, and tenor drummers worldwide have the opportunity to compete in solo competitions.

All of this begs the question of why Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association adjudicator Jim Hutton would make an unexpected and outspoken attack on what he refers to as the disturbing and dominant “mid section” that has crept in to pipe band performances.

There is absolutely no doubting the impressive credentials of the author as an accomplished snare drummer and adjudicator. However, with all due respect to Mr. Hutton, with no apparent competitive experience as a bass or tenor drummer, it remains to be seen whether or not he has the mandate or authority to act as a public critic of bass and tenor drumming or the progress that it has made in recent years.

Mr. Hutton’s article on today’s bass sections offers a wide array of personal criticisms with very little suggested alternatives. Indeed, many of the arguments made are contradicted by the author.

Impartiality without prejudice by a senior adjudicator is paramount to ensuring that a competition is judged with all due fairness towards every competitor. Some areas of the article cast doubt over such impartiality, with some of the personal opinions offered on the make up of a bass section and how it should perform leaving the reader to wonder how his drum corps can ever achieve success when the author is adjudicating if the number of drummers or style of performance doesn’t conform to his ideals.

Since the publishing of Mr. Hutton’s article on Piper & Drummer Online, tenordrummer.com has received a number of e-mails from concerned tenor drummers around the world venting their anger at the nature of the article’s content. As tenordrummer.com is a Web site which has a global audience of bass and tenor drummers visiting more than 12,000 times a year, it is incumbent on the site to offer a response on behalf of the bass and tenor drumming community in defence of the article in question.

As the article is lengthy, there are a number of points of contention:

Albeit Tyler Fry advocates the use of the term “Mid Section,” he will be the first to tell you that he did not invent the term, rather, it has been a term used in reference to the bass section for much further beyond the years that Tyler himself has been drumming.

“Enthusiasm is a wonderful attribute, but it must be controlled.” By whom exactly? The enthusiasm, creativity and innovation shown by today’s bass section is one of the most exciting areas of the pipe band performance. For a bass section to stifle any enthusiasm they have towards their art serves only to create strict uniformity throughout the discipline – a trend that has taken the best part of 20 years to break away from. These areas should be left to the performers alone to decide where the boundaries lie, unless directed otherwise by the governing associations. It certainly is not the role of the adjudicator to stipulate what each bass section should or shouldn’t integrate into its performance.

The reference made towards integration of tonality interrupting the musical flow could be said of any aspect of a pipe band performance where an element of reaction is involved, per say a piper playing seconds in a slow air or a snare drummer playing chips in the piano fortes of a march. Listening to the recordings of Grade 1 from the 2003 World’s, it is difficult to ascertain any evidence of any integration troubles between tenor drummers struggling to come to terms with when to play their part of a split rhythmical phrase.

To attempt to draw any parallels with the percussion section of an orchestra and a pipe band bass section is inherently flawed. However, today’s bass sections can provide an array of tonality to a performance if there are sufficient numbers in the bass section. Much of this is down to the wide range of sizes of tenor drums being utilised and the quality of their tuning. In fact, orchestration within the bass section is nothing new. As long ago as 1973, progressive leading drummers were incorporating orchestrated effects into performances, an example being the use of tenor drummers to good effect in The Intercontinental March, written no less by a current member of the adjudication panel who helped advocate the effective use of tenor drums that is more than evident today.

One of best examples to cite from this year’s World’s would be the bass section of World Champions House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead, in which they have five tenor drummers playing different sized drums, fine tuned to specific notes on the major and minor scale which are conducive to matching rhythmic passages to phrases in the melody and assisting in key changes independently from the melody. Both of their bass section performances provided excellent tonality to their performances, executed with a level of accuracy which showed no evidence of integration troubles.

Indeed, the same could be said for many of the bands that performed in the Grade 1 Final. As for dominance, again, there is no apparent evidence of this from any recordings or of any of the performances heard on the day. It is also worthy of note that being the professionals they are, none of the pipe-majors, leading drummers or indeed bass sections themselves in Grade 1 would have taken a performance onto the final of the World’s that would have been likely to spoil their chances due to dominance by volume or rhythmical content. This being the case, any dominant performances would definitely have been in the minority and hardly worthy of public broadcast here. In any case, it is unfair to generalise that dominance by bass sections and tenor drummers is a problem throughout the grade.

In the suggestions as to where we go after considering the arguments presented, the author suggests that 3 tenor drummers are sufficient. This suggestion draws three possible questions from the reader:

If my bass section has four or five tenor drummers (as the author qualifies is becoming the norm), does it have any chance of winning a best bass section award or the drum corps winning the contest if the author happens to be adjudicating them?

If three tenor drummers are the correct amount to play, why then did the author award the best bass section to a “mid section” consisting of four tenor drummers and the drum corps to a corps with five tenor drummers? Actions speaking louder than words perhaps?

Why is three tenor drummers the correct number? Why not four or five?

The essence of the use of tuned percussion as is now the best term to apply to modern bass sections is that each player sounds a particular pitch and as such, only one tenor drummer plays at any one time. Simple observation of Grade 1 bass sections such as HOE-Shotts & Dykehead, 78th Frasers, Boghall & Bathgate, Dysart & Dundonald and Strathclyde Police (to name but five) would reveal this to the onlooker and the question of dominance due to numbers of players is therefore a fallacy. The greater number of players means a greater spread of pitches, not increased volume.

It was also unfair to draw comparisons between performers and performances from the past with those from this year’s World’s. The fact is, those performances were in the past. Here is now, five years of evolution and progress ahead of the most recent of the performances identified. For anyone who knew Alex Duthart, he was renowned as a pioneer of innovation and progress. Who is to say that the great man himself wouldn’t have played more tenor drummers if he was still with us today. Being the innovator and leader that he was, in all probability he would have been the first to introduce four or indeed five tenor drummers to his bass section and made a success of their involvement, but such an argument is hypothetical and only serves to cloud the issue. At least we acknowledge this.

The final response is sadly in relation to the bands further down the grades, whose bass sections didn’t escape criticism. For many in such grades, this may be the best they will achieve or may just be the beginning of a blossoming future. Either way, it is unfair to blame the tenor drummers for being too ambitious in their efforts, or indeed those in Grade 1 who they are attempting to emulate. For many lower grade bands, half of the enjoyment of performing in competitions is having the opportunity to put into practice some of the tricks they have gleaned from their favourite bands in Grade 1. The same criticism aimed at the quality of Grade 4B bass sections could be levelled at pipe corps and snare sections in that grade too, but It would be just as unfair as it is to criticise those in the bass section out there trying to do their best.

The majority of advances which have taken place in Grade 1 bass sections have occurred with the active support and input from pipe-majors and leading drummers and are here to stay. Like it or not, that’s progress. Only time will tell if the advances evident today stand up to the standards from years past, or conversely if those standards from the past would stand up to today’s.

The complete bass section is no longer a dumping ground for failed snare drummers or pipers. Tenor drummers are now being given the recognition they deserve and are being acknowledged as performers in their own right. Popularity in tenor drumming is now at an all time high. This is reflected by the enthusiasm of the performers, which the article states should be controlled. The belief of tenordrummer.com is on the contrary – enthusiasm should be encouraged, for without it, the art form cannot evolve.

Such advances through enthusiasm and innovation are best left to those who perform and the criticisms levelled in this article are best left for the yellow adjudicator’s sheets.

Tenordrummer.com would welcome the opportunity to host Mr. Hutton at a designated time in an online chat session with the bass and tenor drumming community to further debate the points raised by him. There must be at least 600 extra tenor drummers who would be very keen to chat with him.

Finally, this reply has not been made with any cynicism or malice intended towards the author, it is a forthright and measured response to many controversial points raised, which hopefully provides an outlet for the questions in the minds of the many tenor drummers who read this article.

Scott Currie has been a tenor drummer for 18 years, the last 14 years of which he has spent in Grade 1 with Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia and Strathclyde Police pipe band, winning bass section championships as a bass and tenor drummer. He is founder and editor of tenordrummer.com, the world’s first tenor drumming networking resource.

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