May 07, 2024

Opinion: Tenor drummers – is the pipe band world going backwards?

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By Dr. Iona Underwood

It’s always a running joke that tenor drummers are more interested in their hair and nail colour than drumming. Comments and disagreements have led to mass walkouts of tenor drummers from World Champion Pipe Bands in the past. However, in this day and age, wouldn’t the pipe band world have moved on from this?

We need to start with the RSPBA. Clarification this year given on minimum numbers required for competing:

“Minimums in Grade 1 for major and minor contests will be eight pipers, three sides and a bass. For all other grades it will be six pipers, two sides and a bass.”

So, in 2024, tenor drummers are not even a requirement. Additionally, anyone who has read an adjudication sheet from a major championship, the tenor drummers are lucky to be mentioned. Or if they are, it is by a snare drummer who has no experience or skill in playing a tenor drum or understanding what it means and never a line yet a word about the flourishing involved.

So, what’s the point?

A good tenor section shall be split with every drum having a different pitch to match the bagpipe notes’ 8-flat Mixolydian scale – namely high A, high G, F#, E, D, C#, and in very few cases low A. Some bands double up notes instead of using the full range of notes or as well as if they have a full complement of tenor drummers. A musical tenor score, usually by someone who understands the music of the snare corps and the pipe music combined, will split the tenor score to what the pipers are playing at that moment in time, taking into consideration harmonies, and what will provide the most musical appreciation of the score. In addition, the flourishing, which the layperson may not realize when written well, will complement the musicality of the overall performance. Including the following accents the snare drummers hit, emphasizing this with a sharp and abrupt stall, for example, or a long, flowing flourish such as pushing out into a windmill movement for a reprise of a slow air movement in a medley. Split flourishes are added, where, for example, in a crescendo run that the snare section is following, would contribute tenors into a long flourish to emphasize and reach an overall accent when the snares reach their fortissimo point of a phrase. These are small insights into what tenor drummers can add to a band.

From the amount of work that goes into this, it is essential to fully understand how the tenor section works before commenting on it. Do we need to educate the snare drummers that judge tenor drummers? Is more weighting required on the tenor section? How do we educate this pipe band world we live in going forward? This is a question I am still determining if there is an answer to yet. However, leading Grade 1 bands should encourage tenor sections to be their best and leave it to the professionals.

World Champion drum corps have put in back-sticking to their scores. It’s not a necessity, but if it’s done well, it’s impressive musically and visually. Why are tenors being treated differently?

Insight from a current leading drummer from a pipe band quoted the following in an email he sent to his corps:

“I think the bass section should consider simplifying the flourishes. Impressive as they may be, the band receives no credit for doing split flourishes/very difficult flourishes and it seems to me the natural place to take pressure off, with less time available to work on it.”

Should the other leaders of the band not be encouraging their tenor section to be the best they could be? Do they really understand what it is to be a tenor drummer?

To add to this, we should be playing to be the best drummers and cores of drummers in the World. You wouldn’t tell a gymnast not to perform a Yurchenko double pike just because the judge’s eyes are down at that moment, and they might miss it. So, when did it become appropriate to tell tenor drummers about flourishes?

Another quote from a leading-drummer:

“Just some of the stuff that is more time consuming and that won’t be appreciated by the judges.”

Should tenors be fighting back and telling snares not to show off, then? World Champion drum corps have put in back-sticking to their scores. It’s not a necessity, but if it’s done well, it’s impressive musically and visually. Why are tenors being treated differently?

If they don’t understand flourishing, cannot perform flourishing, and are not experts at it, why do they think they have the qualifications to comment on it?

Suppose you are a competent tenor drummer playing at the Grade 1 level. In that case, you should be able to play accurately, musically, and dynamically, and have excellent flourishing skill and technique. These skills take years to master.

Another question one should ask oneself: If they don’t understand flourishing, cannot perform flourishing, and are not experts at it, why do they think they have the qualifications to comment on it?

“I feel we are doing too much squeezing flourishing into small spaces, which looks confused/fragmented and potentially distracts the player and the listener from the precision and dynamics of the rhythmical parts.”

If flourishing is not being done well, this could be an issue. However, as mentioned above, a Grade 1 tenor drummer with years of experience should be able to do both. If they can’t, maybe they shouldn’t be in Grade 1.

The tenor drumming culture

Aside from the playing aspect, we should move onto the cultural side.

As mentioned, tenors are often stereotyped as females who care more about how they look on the day they compete than how they play or sound.

With insight into what a tenor section must do to core their flourishes, this stereotype can soon be overlooked. Additionally, some of the tenor sections in Grade 1 have more degrees and qualifications than the rest of the band.

This highlights a further point: snare drummers and pipers can go on to study their instrument at National 4, Higher, Advanced Higher and onto degree level, but the tenor drum is not recognized as a real instrument in SQA examinations or above at the university level.

With an instrument that one can rarely make a career out of, a tenor drummer has to want to play and commit to an instrument where, unlike their other band members, they know they cannot make a career out of it.

Also, there is no reason why a female cannot play the tenor drum, or any instrument, while pregnant. Women have won major pipe band championships while pregnant. Additionally, members of the snare section are not questioned about their plans for a family. Assuming or holding this against a female at the peak of their pipe band career is unacceptable.

Athletes compete at a world-class level all the time while pregnant. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won two medals at the Rio 2016 Olympics while pregnant. Regardless, a woman’s family planning is no one’s business but her own.

Overall, tenor drummers are being put in their boxes by members of their own band and told not to excel at their instrument, not to bother flourishing because the judges will not care and dissuaded from playing if they are planning a family.

Highlighting the problems modern tenor drummers face today might make the pipe band world realize there is more to tenor drumming than one might think.

I hope tenor drummers can be treated with the respect they deserve, both in and outside the circle.

Dr. Iona Underwood is a tenor drummer who was a Grade 1 Inveraray & District member from 2005 until 2013 and the leading tenor drummer with Grade 1 ScottishPower from 201 until 2023. She placed sixth at the 2023 World Solo Tenor Drumming Championship. Iona Underwood is currently guesting as a playing teacher with Kirkwall City in Orkney, a band attending the Barbados Celtic Festival this month. She works as a medical doctor and lives in Glasgow.


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  1. Last season our band had a mistuned tenor drum at a contest. After the results were announced we found out we lost drumming & ensemble because of it & the contest. The judge explained to me in Ontario the drumming judges have been told the mid-section is added into the overall drumming result & therefore can affect the outcome. In our case it definitely did! It may not have been about the flourishing but shows the judges are listening.

  2. There is a reason tenors drummers refer to ourselves as “the redheaded stepchild” of the Pipe Band World. Too many people in leadership positions do not fully understand or appreciate the advantages of having a top notch midsection. They literally pick the worst Piper to be the Bass Drummer and maybe the daughter of one of the band members to go out and do what the other tenors do for Mass Bands. These are the bands that usually finish towards the bottom in large competitions.

    Nor do they realize all the hard work put in by the midsection to coordinate the rhythm sequences and the choreographed flourishing. I literally was in an extra 3 hour plus work session with the midsection and the Drum Sargent last night, trying to be better prepared for band rehearsals and competitions.

    Do tenors try to do to much at times, yes. However, a lack of guidance and education leads to that. Just like with Pipe Tunes, inexperience folks will try and pick a tune above their abilities, tenors will try something more challenging that they can’t pull off constantly.

    There is also a lack of training in tuning drums, especially in the lower-grade bands. I have seen Drum Sergeants just send the tenors out with no tuning. Even worse, more than one Drum Sergeant turns only one lug to tune the drum, including the bass drum. That one was brought to me later, sounding just awful. There was a reading of 20+ difference between the highest lug and the lowest lug on the drum dial.

    Now, this is where I was enlightened by a friend from Canada. Here, the Tenor World is mostly one big family. We work together to make everyone better in their abilities, no matter who they play for, because the more experienced drummers know there is a lack of training within most bands. We even have a weekend workshop every winter for anyone who wants to attend. Apparently, outside my bubble, this is not the case. My friend was working with one band who abruptly told them not to return when they found out she was working with another band.

  3. Dr Underwood has written an excellent article to which I can add little. I’ve been an accredited ensemble judge for many years and what I’ve learned is that I pay particular attention to the mid-section from the get-go. Not only does a good mid-section compliment the sound of the band in a very pleasing way, but good flourishing will always display the phrasing of the music. When all 3 parts of the band are phrasing the music together with a nice balanced sound, I can hear it and I can see it. That’s when I know the pipe band has good ensemble. And that coordination or lack thereof always shows up in the comments on my score sheet and in particular I always mention the flourishing as in my opinion it is a very important factor when considering ensemble. I’m a piper by background and had to retrain my eyes and ears to do this. Judging clinics helped, but so did experience.



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