June 30, 2004

With a flourish

[Originally published as an Editorial]

It’s remarkable that only 10 years ago the tenor drum was going the way that cane drone reeds and the 3/4 march are today. Tenor drumming was seen by many as little more than a distraction from the pipes, snares, and ensemble.

Back then, most tenor drummers were no longer twirling, or “flourishing,” their sticks. Many didn’t even play the drum. If they actually played the instrument, it was rare when tenor drumming actually added competitive points to the band’s performance. Ten years ago, if a judge were even to comment on the tenor work, it would be usually negative: “Tenors too loud,” “tenors distracting,” “tenors too dominant.”

The Piper & Drummer picked up on this in 1994 (“Has the tenor drum reached the end?” Vol. 11, Issue 2), in which we wrote, “The tenor drum is becoming an expensive and risky part of the competition pipe band.” Corroborating our views was the fact that not a single reader bothered to write a letter arguing against our premise that it may well be time to get rid of the instrument altogether.

The death-knell was sounding for tenor drumming.

But just when not a few top bands were toying with the notion of dropping tenor drumming, a remarkable renaissance occurred. Taking his cue from the great Clan MacFarlane flourishing tenor Andy Miller, the then teenaged Tyler Fry of Kincardine, Ontario, pulled the twirling art from the ashes and injected the visual, physical display back in to his pipe band. Fry got attention, his band’s bass-section won a few World titles, and people took notice.

Since then, flourishing and “rhythm” tenor drumming have become the biggest trend in pipe bands. House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead won the 2003 World’s with five tenors. Leading-drummer Jim Kilpatrick is tuning his tenors at different pitches, each suitably complementing specific portions of pipe melodies. Shotts has since added Fry and acclaimed tenor drummer “Haggis” MacLeod to the ranks.

So, with tenor drumming again firmly entrenched in the pipe band, where does it leave them competitively? Every drumming judge we know has a background only in snare drumming, with the majority of them enjoying their competitive glory years when the tenor drum was on life-support.

Similarly, every ensemble judge is either a piper or a side drummer. They understand the importance of the bass- or mid-section to a band’s overall effect, but do they truly understand the new art of tenor drumming? We don’t think so.

Ten years ago, if someone were to say what we’re about to say now, we wouldn’t have believed it: It’s time to introduce bass section judges to pipe band competitions. The tenor and bass element of the pipe band has become critical to a band’s overall appeal. The dynamics of our music can come alive through tenor drumming, and the visual effect of flourishing tenors can elevate a band to a completely new level of excellence.

Not only should bass section judges assess the musical contribution, they should also consider the visual. It is plain to us that flourishing tenors can colour the music visually, and alter the impression of light and shade in the overall band performance. The musical nuances that good flourishing delivers should not be underestimated. Bands that do it well should be rewarded, not simply for what they bring to the music, but for the entertainment value they deliver.

Tenor drumming has not only been resuscitated from its early-1990s deathbed, the art has become vital to the overall success of a band, both as a competitive unit and an entertaining show. We should now encourage the further development of the bass section by formally acknowledging its role in the pipe band.


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