August 21, 2018

Editorial: Ensemble preference

The ensemble judge was introduced to pipe band competitions in the early 1970s. Some people still question the merit.

We believe that at least one ensemble judge is essential.

Despite its name, a pipe band is a pipe and drum band, a drum and pipe band, a band made up of pipes and drums. It is the collective whole of two, or, if you like, three parts: the pipe-section, the drum-section – or the drum-section delineated by its snare line and its bass-section, commonly and perhaps more accurately referred to as a “mid-section” (since there’s more than a bass drum in it).

By definition, a band is an ensemble. How its parts sound together is the central idea. A band might have a nice pipe section, but if any other section is dragging at the back of the beat or otherwise disrupting the music, the entire thing is upset. Or vice versa. The band is not playing well as a band.

Similarly, if the snare and/or bass and tenor scores simply complement but fail to enhance the music of the pipe section, there’s not much point in having percussion at all. Rarely if ever, though, does a drum section fail to enhance at least somewhere, so identifying areas where the sections lapse or drift apart is essential to the ensemble judge’s task.

There is endless debate, too, that in addition to piper-first ensemble judges, there should be well prepared and experienced ensemble adjudicators who are drummers. We agree, but ideally it should not matter. An ensemble judge with a drumming background should have the ability to discern at least the big picture traits of a pipe section, particularly items of tone, tuning and harmony/counterpoint orchestration that are critical to the ensemble sound. Unison within a section and, say, leaving out the F doublings in “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran” should be far less important (but not entirely unimportant) to the ensemble judge, anyway.

And again vice versa. A piper ensemble judge should be able to understand and identify the pitch, volume, dynamics and overall orchestration and scoring inherent in all percussion parts. Critically, he or she should be able to hear the integration of percussion with the pipes, and how the drums enhance the music coming from the pipes for a pleasing ensemble effect.

Similar to a Highland dancer moving and adapting to what the piper plays, a pipe band drum section must as a rule follow the pipes. The analogy won’t please all drummers, but it’s apt. If you’ve ever listened to a piper and snare drummer struggling to find a tempo as a duet, it’s almost unbearable. The drummer might be technically brilliant, but it’s ruined because all that technicality is pointless if it doesn’t elevate piping.

At least with pipe bands, there will never be a pipe section that regularly adapts to the drum section. There might be instances where a pipe-major recognizes that the lead-drummer is amped up and pushing the beat, for example, and will try to press the pipe section ahead, but that inevitably ends in a musical crash-and-burn, an ensemble wreckage that’s towed away to the last-place junkyard for salvage at the next practice.

The ensemble judge’s mark should be fairly aligned with that of the drumming judge. They are each ideally listening to the sound with a holistic, band ear. It’s disconcerting when ensemble and drumming marks are far apart.

Believing somehow that the musical orientation (pipes or drums) of the ensemble judge will correspondingly sway in favour of the band with a stronger pipe or drum section is a mistake. Most good  ensemble judge will train his or her ear on the section other than that of their background, pipers on drumming, drummers on piping. Why? Because inevitably they will hear the nuance of the section they’re more used to listening to without having to try too hard. Focusing on the other helps to balance the impression for the overall band effect – the ensemble.

Given this, a drumming judge who rewards a technically excellent drum section that fails to play with and enhance the pipes (unison, scoring, tonality, dynamics . . .) is a poor drumming judge. Accepting that a drum corps’ core function is to complement and enhance the pipes, it’s pointless to have a technically brilliant snare section that performs in relative isolation, out of sync or unbalanced against the pipes. This has been a major failing of drumming judges who reward the complicated and ignore the fundamental. A Highland dancer who leaps perfectly 10 feet in the air but fails to dance to the music of the piper should not be rewarded.

Similarly, a drummer-ensemble judge who rewards a band with a technically superior snare line that doesn’t enhance the piping shouldn’t be judging ensemble . . . or drumming. A tenor drummer who comes in late, or a bass drummer who chronically disrupts the beat should show up in the drumming and ensemble assessment.

Good ensemble is by no means limited to everyone playing to a single beat. A badly tuned pipe section not playing well together, yet playing to a beat, is still negatively impacting the ensemble, the total effect, of a band. A raucous, but on the beat, drum section is still disruptive to the totality of the band’s sound, and should be considered. But, rest assured, a band with the “best” pipe section or “best” drum section should by no means automatically have the best ensemble.

Contrary to those who might feel that the ensemble category is unnecessary or superfluous, there are those who believe that all four judges should be assessing ensemble. That all-ensemble-judge approach has been tried before and it’s worth considering again, particularly given the above belief that a drum section’s first role is to complement and enhance the pipes. In that regard, pipe band percussion is pretty much entirely the ensemble effect that it generates, while achieving technical excellence.

More or all ensemble judge panels might come in time. For now, the familiar format of two piping, one drumming and one ensemble judge is balanced weighting, and the ensemble judge is indeed necessary and the most appropriate first tie-breaking, since playing as a band is the most important objective of a band.

Bands strive for technical excellence within their specific sections, but it is the sum of the parts – ensemble – that truly defines a pipe band.



  1. I agree that at least one Ensemble judge is necessary, and a drumming background is perhaps preferred, since as we all know, lead drummers know exactly what the pipe section is doing wrong. In my opinion there needs to be a third piping judge so as to avoid situations where one judge gives the pipe section a 2nd place and the other awards them dead last. With a third judge the two most similar marks would count and the third be thrown out. A move toward the more equitable judging system such as exists in figure skating.



Forgotten Password?