Published: November 30, 1998

Welcome to the new era of piping and drumming

[Originally published as an Editorial]

There’s little doubt that the roots of the pipe band idiom grew originally from the military. When Highland pipers originally joined the Scottish regiments, it was only natural that they would eventually start playing together.

It follows then that drummers would get involved, since organized drumming has always had a useful place in the army. Where drummers had previously played with “pipers” (who were really fifers), the Scottish regiments created their own version and had drummers team with Highland pipers. (That’s an overly simplistic analysis, and interested readers should certainly acquire Lt. Col. D.J.S. Murray’s 1996 book, The Music of the Scottish Regiments, to learn the fascinating evolution of the pipe band.)

The military standardized our music and the way the instrument is played. Willie Ross and the Scots Guards brought much of our music into a common form, and most pipers acknowledge their contribution. Many pipers may think also that the military, because of its adherence to rules and protocol, strangled Highland bagpipe music and suppressed the natural evolution of the instrument.

Relative to most of the rest of the musical world, pipers have a peculiar commitment to written scores. In competition, there can be little if any deviation from the composer’s original rendition, or the “standard” settings of music. There’s nearly no room for personal interpretation when it comes to playing pipe music.

Many would say that we should thank the military for that too. “Piper! ‘The 79th’s’ is written this way, and it shall be played as it is written!” we can hear the Pipe Major command. There were army manuals for drill, so it follows that there should be army manuals for piping.

Other musicians viewing our art are as much fascinated by our culture as they are by our music. They see the precision and regularity involved in pipe bands and solo light music competitions, and it usually intrigues and baffles them.

For a hundred or so years, our music was strongly regimented by the military. For the most part, pipers were taught by ex-servicemen, or served themselves in the army. Until 1960, Britain’s national service required that all fit men commit two years of their life to the military when they turned 18. Consequently, as long as there was National Service, the military had a profound impact on pipers and their attitudes toward the music.

As military pipers left the army, many joined the police. The greatest years of the Glasgow/Strathclyde and Edinburgh/Lothian & Borders police pipe bands ran from about 1955 to 1987. Unlike today, the police pipe bands of those decades comprised professional policemen. They were civilian bands, but they were only marginally removed from the military structure. They learned their music and protocol from the army, and they applied what they knew to their police experience. Order, rules, and uniformity, like the military, are the backbone of the police.

There were great civilian bands of that era, too, like Muirhead & Sons and Shotts & Dykehead, but virtually all of these bands comprised ex-servicemen or, at the very least, those who had gone through their mandatory National Service.

It’s interesting to note that the last top competitor who had to complete National Service was Andrew Wright. When he retired a few years ago, that, too, was the end of an era.

To be sure, there are plenty of police pipe bands today, but most have opened their doors to non-police pipers and drummers. For all purposes, most police bands are sponsored marketing projects for the forces they represent.

The leading bands of today are civilian organizations with little or no experience in the ranks of the police or the military. Consequently, we feel that our music has entered an era of free expression, unencumbered by the musical protocols and rules originally applied by army.

The first generation of “modern” piping was from 1850 to 1945 and it belonged almost entirely to the military. Rules, regulations, and strict allegiance to tradition and protocol were the musical orders of the day. If the top pipers weren’t active soldiers, they were – nearly to a man – veterans of the Scottish regiments.

The second generation, from 1945 to 1987, belonged to the police. Musical uniformity, order, and conservatism remained strong, but police bands, perhaps like the constables themselves, were more in touch with the civilian world. Some musical boundaries were expanded, but, for the most part, bands simply did what was always done in the army.

When the 78th Fraser Highlanders won the World’s in 1987, a new piping attitude was confirmed. By receiving the World Championship, the new music that had gradually been expanded and challenged over the last decade or so was given an official stamp of approval. The post-modern era of piping was on its way.

So, the generation we’re enjoying today belongs to all pipers. Traditions are being challenged, experimentation is now accepted, and musical boundaries are redrawn daily. Think about it: to win the World’s in 1960 a band had to be anything but different. To win it today, if a band isn’t musically original and inventive it stands almost no chance of success.

As piping and drumming branch ever further from their military roots, our art will continue to evolve away from competitive structure and musical conservatism. We predict that, as we move into 2000, the competition framework will continue to erode. The place for pipe music will finally be where it always should have been: not in the competition circle or platform, but on the stage.

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