September 30, 2003

The World’s 2003: A Judge’s View From Outside The Ring

By Jim Hutton

With the season drawing to a close I felt that some attention should be drawn to areas of band performances that deserve airing for the general pipe band community.

Having played at the Worlds for thirty-five years, and judged there for the last eighteen, I was pleased to be picked to judge the Grade 1 MSR final, and the Grade 4B section in the morning, which I will deal with later.

The plus points this year were undoubtedly the weather, the large attendance, and 246 band entries. The layout and facilities much criticized in the past were first class, and the RSPBA and Glasgow Corporation Council have to be given well deserved praise.

The Stewarding was also extremely well handled, speaking for myself, and the team in the 4B section we were due to start at 9:10 a.m. and finish at 11:20 a.m., which we did—a good job well done.

After Judging the MSR in the early afternoon, I moved my position to a chair about ten yards away, to listen to the fourteen medley performances, and produce a list of my own preferences.

Following the Worlds and reflecting on the many competitions I judged in 2002 in the United States, Canada, and also taking in the New Zealand Championship at Napier, as well as my U.K commitments, I am disturbed by what has crept into band performances across the grades and in many, many cases dominates the band sound—namely, what is sometimes referred to abroad as the “mid section.”

I am well aware of the background to this name, although with the agreement of my fellow adjudicators, and the RSPBA’s Music Board, we still prefer to hear it referred to as the bass and tenor section of the drum corps (defined in the dictionary as a organized body of drummers).

The main thought for this title was through Tyler Fry of the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band from Toronto, who I admire for his enthusiasm for bass and tenor playing within the corps, and for the knowledge he and Mike Cole showed in articles in recent issues of the New Zealand Pipe Band Magazine.

All good stuff on tuning, pitch, and some of the sophisticated equipment available for this purpose. However as Winston Churchill one remarked, enthusiasm is a wonderful attribute, but must be controlled.

I would draw your attention to replies to these articles, by Allan Cameron of Auckland New Zealand, and Alex McCormick, a drummer from Melbourne Australia, who is a very fine musician on many instruments. Both touched on the most important aspect of the competence of the player to be able to participate with side drummers playing complex rhythms over a large range of time signatures that do not have a high degree of ability on the rudiments of the snare drum, or indeed can play to a reasonable standard within the grade they are participating in. I am also very aware that there are many who have this ability.

Integration of different tonal qualities at times does not allow musical flow due to so many players being involved in anticipating their reactions.

Where is the evidence that the actual area and methods of striking, coupled with the wide range of sticks (mallets) that are widely played, which in many cases due to their size and texture muffle the true tone and clarity of the present day bass and tenor drums?

The major point of this article is to come to terms with the number of tenor drums now being played in drum corps and where it will all end.

I have know doubt that various percussion instruments with a pipe band playing in a concert situation could add to that form of performance. However, I would draw your attention to an orchestra where the size of the percussion section is fairly small in number to the overall size of the orchestra. Within this situation the range of drums and other percussion instruments give a wide variety of tonal and pitch. There is also the ability for key changes to be made instantaneously depending on the music being played. Alas, the percussion section within the pipe band has a limited ability to carry out much of these functions.

The issue I bring to the table from listening from various locations around the band during the MSR performances at the worlds are:

1. In this competition many bands were dominated by their there bass and tenor sections.

2. Many bass drummers could not be heard at times again due to this domination

3. With tenors and bass so compact between pipers and snare drummers, a complete wall of sound was masking the balance of the band.

4. The number of complex rhythms tackled throughout the performance were almost continuous, and with very little variation in tonal quality from the tenor tones did little to create good ensemble playing.

My first awareness of this new format was in the Grade 2 competition at Maxville in 2002, where many good performances of piping and snare drum sounds were spoiled by what to me seems like a desire to be recognized as a separate section, rather than part of a percussion section striving to bring the total band balance together by creating a sympathetic accompaniment through expression and dynamics.

A suggestion, and where do we go?

I consider that three tenors more than sufficient to have good integration with fifteen to eighteen pipers and six to eight side drummers

The norm is growing to four or five tenors, and with the addition of eight or nine sides and a bass, we have drum corps ranging in size from thirteen to fifteen total players. With a pipe section of eighteen this gives a ratio of between 43 to 45 per cent in a band where only 55 to 57 per cent are playing melody. What other forms of musical groups could sustain or indeed want such an imbalance of sound?

Would the works of the late Alex Duthart lasting four decade been any better admired if he had used more tenors? Would the Victoria Police of 1998 with three swinging and rhythm tenors have been a better band? Would the 78th Frasers of 1987 fame been any better if Luke Allan had more tenors? Would Andy McMillan of Shotts and Clan MacFarlane play better in this new age?

The answers lie with the pipe-majors and leading drummers of Grade 1 to control the situation. Why? Because in the Grade 4B contest in the morning of the World’s I was faced with the same situation where new, inexperienced bands that struggle to get good tuition were lining up with three, four or five side drummers and three or four tenors, and a bass supporting pipe sections ranging from seven to fourteen.

The sorry tale is that this is now mirrored through all grades, with the exception of the Juvenile bands both from home and overseas who over the last three to four years have been privy to good tuition both in piping, and drumming.

There are good bands in all the grades, but from Grade 3 down the major need of these groups is to ensure that they can, where possible, add better players to the band and secure teaching facilities that will improve basic skill levels, and lead to greater enthusiasm to progress to higher levels.

Here is a list of problems that may help bands to focus on key areas that need attention:

1. When you are aware that some members are not up to standard, play them only in small competitions, so the band will be better placed at championships. This will encourage the performers, and also the others to practice to reach higher goals.

2. Play two tenor drummers and have them involved in side drum instruction.

3. Increase drummers’ awareness to practice an even sustained pulse rolls. It is surprising to hear poor rolls even in the upper grades, where a variation of tightness of pulse can be heard throughout the corps.

4. Teach settings so that pupils get to know the melody, and teach from an early age variation in stick weight and dynamics. This should be done in all time signatures and in street parades so expression to melody becomes second nature.

5. In many instances where unison is played throughout a competition, the judge will be aware that there are players who are not always playing. This happens in all grades, and can be caused by lack of concentration. As I remember, no one admits to it after they finish, especially if the judge has it on the sheet.

6. When complex tunes are being played, with little or no melody to show the finger dexterity of the pipe section, the need for side drummers to follow with high intensity of demi-semi-quavers will lead to a disturbance in ensemble.

7. Most leading drummers have a good feeling for dynamic flow, but in many instances some of the corps will be so intent on ensuring they play together, they will play with constant volume that negates the other players’ efforts.

By this time some readers will feel I’m biased against tenor drummers. I strongly refute this, and my main concern is for good band ensemble, and the use of good structured performances being produced from all areas of the band.

If bass and tenor players want competitions for their own enjoyment, I can go with that, and have done so in United States and Canada for many years. If other instruments are used in concert work. many bands have proved that this can work.

Concert work will develop further for pipe bands, but sadly it will be for mainly the top Grade 1 bands that the paying public have an ear for, the marketing and management skills, and, most importantly, sponsorship. Even at this level the number of concerts either solely produced or in tandem with other Celtic events will not produce many opportunities for most of the 246 bands at the World’s.

In ending I would ask that you consider the size of bass and tenor sections, their influence on the many lesser grade bands, and the effect on the quality of music produced on the major pipe band contests held in the present format.

One problem that still exists for all drummers is the reluctance of drum manufacturers to produce a small guide book with information on the basic care of drums and methods of tuning. I have spoken to the directors of two major companies on this over the last four years, and so far there has been no action. They should remember that the largest number of sales come from the lower grade bands where knowledge of the instrument is at its lowest.

If you buy a electric Kettle for £40 you are given a guarantee, and an instruction book on how to get the best use out of the appliance. Surely when drums can cost from £400 to £900, a little £1 book would be a nice touch.

I was pleased to see that the attendance was again up this year at the World’s, especially when 600 were additional tenor drummers.


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