Vale Alex McCormick, 1913-2007
In the early morning of August 18, 2007, one of the acknowledged fathers and true greats of pipe band drumming, Alexander McCormick, passed away peacefully in hospital in his adopted home of Ballarat, Australia, surrounded by his family. He was aged 93.
Alex was born in Clydebank, Scotland, near Glasgow in the first week of December 1913. He was born into a musical family; his mother being a good singer, and his father able to play a button-keyed melodeon. From a young age Alex would get hold of the household cutlery to bang out a rhythm. He developed an interest in drumming and in 1921 joined the Clydebank flute band, where he learned the rudiments, and to read music. At age 14 he was also learning the piano and was an active choir singer, adding to his musical grounding. In the later 1920s he made his move to pipe bands, and it was in this field he was destined to make an indelible impression.
In 1936 Alex joined the City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band. He entered its ranks at a time when this band was very strong in competition under Pipe-Major John MacDonald from South Uist. He played with the band as it won the World Championships (a period of dispute between Cowal and SPBA over naming) from 1936 to 1939, and again in 1946, 1949 and 1951. Over this time the drum corps of the band won the drumming titles in 1936, 1946 and then, with Alex as Drum Sergeant, in 1951 and 1952. At his 90th birthday celebrations, the modern incarnation of the City of Glasgow Police, the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band, sent a DVD which included a respectful tribute from Eric Ward. At a 2005 recital in Melbourne, Reid Maxwell was keen to be photographed with “the great man,” such was esteem in which was held by the greats of today.
Alex was able to turn his hand to many things, especially of a practical nature. As a young man he worked in the shipyards on the construction of the RMS Queen Mary in the early 1930s on the Clyde near his home. As a policeman, he walked the beat in Glasgow during World War II under constant threat of air raid. It was his ability to turn his hand to many things that led to a dramatic change in his life.
Alex emigrated to Australia in 1952 with other prominent players of the time; Gordon Jelly, Duncan MacPhedran and Charlie Cochrane, the latter two being pipe majors of top bands in Scotland, and Gordon the then lead of Bucksburn, by way of Shotts & Dykehead. Alex left from Southampton by ship bound for Australia with his wife, Peggy, daughters Mary and Rina, (who later became Pipe Major of the Ballarat Ladies Pipe Band), and son Jim. The Scottish players all had trades and emigrated with the promise of jobs and housing offered by the Castlemaine Pipe Band in rural Victoria, which was importing the leaders of a new band. The endeavour was rather ill-fated, and Alex moved soon afterwards to settle with his family for a time in Melbourne. Alex and his compatriot brought with them from Scotland the style of drumming that caused a revolution in the Australian pipe band world. The last band he actually played with as a drummer was the Melbourne Highland Pipe Band in 1953 and 1954 before Alex moved to Ballarat in country Victoria in 1955.
Teaching was always extremely important to Alex. From 1949 to 1952, he was Principal of Drumming at the Scottish Pipe Band Association College. In this position he was involved as a teacher and also in the development of the syllabus. After he emigrated, he kept this up by carrying out SPBA College examinations in Australia for a time. He taught all over Australia and was a leading proponent of the idea of an Australian college examination system. This did not happen until 1967, when Alex became the founding Principal of Drumming of the Australian Pipe Band College, a position he held until 1979. He helped establish the Victorian Highland Pipe Band Association (established in 1920) as a focal point for musical innovation and leadership in Australia. Alex was an excellent drumming adjudicator and was a driving force involved with an early attempt to bring ensemble adjudication to Australia in the early 1990s (ensemble will finally be an aggregate component of Australian contests from the 2008 Australian Championship).
While in Australia, Alex worked for the Heinz food company and the State Electricity Commission at the Ballarat power station, teaching drumming after hours. In 1962 an acquaintance who was the pipe band tutor at Scotch College, Melbourne, informed Alex that there was a laboratory technician position available at the school, and that this would allow Alex to teach drumming with the school’s army cadet pipe band which had formed in 1946. Moving back to Melbourne, Alex held the same position, primarily in the physics department, but running drumming classes at lunchtimes and on Thursday afternoons until 1979. Through his time at Scotch he taught countless drummers who went on to bolster the ranks of adult bands and had a fair measure of competition success as well, including the Scotch College Pipe Band’s 1964 Grade 2 Australian Championship win.
Right through his time in Australia, Alex was in regular contact with drummers of all stripes from all over the world. He kept up with technology too; his e-mail inbox reading like a who’s who of drumming luminaries and pipe band personalities from across the globe. In addition to this, his broader interests in music – especially classical – flourished, and led him to take further study in it. He was constantly adapting tunes for pipes and experimenting with arrangements with the aid of his electronic organ. He was a truly versatile and gifted musician. Right to the end his drumsticks and pad were never far away, and he had a hit each day just to “keep his hand in.”
Alex’s last trip “home” was as recent as 2005. At the RSPBA’s 75th Anniversary Dinner held in Glasgow, Alex was presented with Honourary Life Membership of the RSPBA; a very fitting tribute indeed, and one of several such accolades he received from various pipe band organisations over the years. In March 2006, at the Victorian Pipe Band Championships in Geelong, Alex was presented with his Life Membership medal by visiting adjudicator Joe Noble.
Despite not enjoying the best of health over the last 12 months, In mid-2007, fiercely independent Alex was still to be found at the Wednesday night band practice of the University of Ballarat Pipe Band, teaching learners as young as eleven and offering quiet, sage words of advice to the band as it toiled away with its competition sets. When he spoke, those in the know listened!
When asked his prediction for the World’s the week prior to the event, he had replied without hesitation “Field Marshal.” The last contact Alex had with “his world” was a steady stream of visitors from the local pipe band scene – a couple with chanters in hand – and listening to a recording of the top 2007 World Championship medleys; as smile on his face, his fingers tapping to the beat.
Those who knew him will never forget him. His influence on the pipe band drumming idiom and pipe bands in general is incalculable, and he will be sadly missed by all of us. His beat will live on.
– submitted by Stephen Matthews, Australia
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