November 08, 2023

Opinion: Why can’t we retain most older pipers and drummers?

Editor’s note: with an aging population in most parts of the world’s more significant piping and drumming countries, pipes|drums will explore the challenges pipers and drummers face with getting older and remaining in our competition avocation with various features over the next year. We start with an opinion piece designed to stimulate constructive conversation.


Piping and drumming always looks to youth to sustain its future, and rightly so. We should consistently recruit kids so that they might discover the wonders of the art and keep everything moving ahead.

But, after all these years, it recently occurred to us that piping, drumming, and pipe bands suffer from substantial attrition. Look around – you don’t see that many active competing players older than 50. To be sure, they exist, but not in the numbers they should.

Are we so busy bringing kids into our hobby that we forget to retain the veterans?

Why don’t most older pipers and drummers stick with the competition scene? Age presents challenges with playing our physically demanding instruments. Older players have to work harder to keep up their musical chops, and some suffer from age-related disabilities that prevent them from continuing.

But the vast majority of older players simply drift away. They lose interest or perhaps become so disenchanted with the constant pettiness of competing and toxicity in some jurisdictions that they just want to be shot of it.

Losing older players is a loss, especially considering that most once-vibrant piping and drumming geographies have declining membership numbers.

Simple math: more people are leaving than joining.

Why is that?

The adage that retaining a customer is easier than creating a new one somehow doesn’t seem to apply to piping and drumming.

What might be done to keep older players engaged and involved?

The better bands generally want younger hands and wrists because they play more complicated music that demands more precision. More often than not, younger players have more dexterity and desire. Yes, there are exceptions, but the attrition rate is remarkable.

The constant push for youth can implicitly signal that older players aren’t welcome.

Associations could do a lot more to hang on to members. How often do they simply say thanks? Do associations express their appreciation to members or tacitly and unintentionally foster negativity by treating them as just another dues-paying number? The constant push for youth can implicitly signal that older players aren’t welcome.

Juvenile and Novice grades exist because we want to keep younger players interested. These events ensure that kids who don’t yet have the ability are engaged in competition.

But, considering the generally declining abilities of older players, why not have a pipe band grade for bands of all players older than 55 or 60? To be sure, older players who still have the aptitude and the drive can play wherever they like, but for those who don’t, create a place for them.

Some jurisdictions still have solo competitions for older pipers, but most have gone by the wayside, and we know of no band grade for senior pipers. Maybe it’s time to repatriate them. We could even grade the Senior into A and B, or Masters and Veterans.

Dues-paying members and competition entry fees are the lifeblood of associations. So it makes sense for them to 1. have more members and 2. offer more competition events.

Many upper-grade bands have at least one feeder band. The general rule is that players only move up and rarely back. They are probably welcome to accept relegation to the feeder band, but the 50-plus-year-old who the newest hotshot kid just edged out might be disinclined to step into a lower-grade band full of the same hotshot kids.

It’s disconcerting that so many accomplished players drift away. We miss them, and they could still contribute to a more vibrant scene with their wisdom and experience. How often do we return to the new competition season and wonder where so-and-so is? How often are they never seen again, even as spectators? Are they so disenchanted or bored that they give up competing and even stop listening to piping and drumming altogether?

Bands and associations are understandably scrambling to create brand-new members through recruitment and teaching.

But how much are they working to keep the players they have? Perhaps they need to adjust their thinking for the times.

What’s your opinion? As always, we encourage readers to contribute their thoughts with our Comments feature below, where you can express opinions with your name or anonymously.

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  1. I just want to comment in any sport around the world do you see many people competing at an age above 50?
    Not usually, it’s the same with competing in pipes and drums.
    What we should be doing is trying to get more young people involved and keep them around. There is a countless number of young people who play when up until 18 and then quit, we need to retain these people.

    1. We have the reverse problem. Prior to COVID we had fairly successful grade 4 and 5 bands. During COVID, though thankfully not directly from COVID, we lost a couple of younger adults and all of our kids. We consolidated to a single band with an average age in the 60s. We have one kid under 18, and he’s a beginner.

    2. Piping and drumming isn’t the same as “ any other sport”. There are multitudes of over 50’s who are more than capable of competing and they are more likely to stay in one place and help retain the team that young people come into and then leave for varied reasons. It’s keeping up with tutor programmes supplying a steady stream of new players that ensures the survival of teams— not age discrimination based purely on a number. No business would survive if younger replacements weren’t being nurtured and coached by the more senior experienced employees, likewise with pipe bands.

    3. This certainly is not just a “older” piper and drummer problem. Consider the case of many talented young players in their twenties. One would expect them to keep competing upon reaching open level. But how many of them do we actually see at open events at high games? Many young players just stopped competing when they reach open level because all professional level competitions are dominated by the same few top players.

  2. I have never understood why some people who stop playing are never seen again. One of the cool things about our art is that, depending on where you live, you can play in a band that matches your skill and inclination. It’s nice seeing bands that are a mixture of young players on the way up and the experienced who have plateaued. I love the camaraderie so much that I could never give it up!

  3. Having spent the last 20 years studying this and finally starting a band and teaching program around adult returnees, I have a unique perspective on this. I will put together a response and forward.

    1. As a former drummer who fits into this category, I see a number of issues that contributed to my departure. One factor – which has been discussed in many articles here in pipes|drums – is the way that competitions are run, they are so often run by people who have never competed and therefore they don’t respect the competitor. After years and years this wears on a person to the point of having had enough. There are a number of other factors, but I will allow others to list them.

      1. Couldn’t agree more with your comments. I am a former drummer also haven’t played since 2014 . Another thing I would suggest may have something to do with the issue is the inconsistency in judging which is nothing new. Look at grade 2 at this year’s worlds P1 18 P2 18 D 18 and ensemble 2 how can this be correct.Older people like myself just won’t accept it and therefore quit. It takes a huge effort of time and money to participate in these events to be treated like that is not acceptable. I now put all my time and effort into helping a NJB band.

  4. I have been piping for 61 years, 41 of which were with a successful EUSPBA competition band. Last year, due to the fact that we now spend summers in a different state, I was fortunate to be able to join a band in Ontario for competition. The band is mostly populated with young people, which makes participation more fun. The band has been very welcoming. During the summer competition season, I am fairly close to practices and to competitions. In the winter months, I travel to a few practices, but, mostly work on the music at home. Being able to compete with this band has allowed me to be able to challenge myself to continue to pipe at a competition level, rather than just let my piping die on the vine. It also has given me the chance to reconnect with my old PM from 40 years ago who also joined this band last year. I hope that
    the band appreciates some of the experiences I can share from my many years of playing. I am having fun being in the band, and finding it enough of a challenge to keep my piping fresh,

  5. A few thoughts…
    -Common Pipe Band leadership styles conflict with “mature” musicians and don’t bring out their best, but instead berate and embarrass
    -Musicians are “uncomfortable” playing in a grade appropriate band that is not at their highest life-timelevel of achievement
    -Highland Games are not accommodating to “mature” individuals….e.g. hot temperatures, no shade, no place to sit, no water stations, standing endlessly in massed bands, easily walking 4 miles on the day of the games…we all know the drill…

  6. Great article.

    Is anyone asking players what THEY want? Is anyone listening to the reasonable suggestions.
    Are there prevailing attitudes that are hindering people from moving down grade(s) because of family commitments or are bands too afraid of losing a reliable player so they just keep pressuring them to stick around. I’ve seen too many people in that place. I’ve been there myself.
    This is supposed to be fun. What I see is a lot of bands practicing like they’re in the running for the grade one final. They would be better off setting realistic goals and seeking help from top players to help to make their playing easier. Most bands could benefit from someone teaching the pipe major to set reeds and tune drones. They could benefit from learning to make their instruments more efficient so they’re not struggling with their instruments. Maybe some lighter drums for aging players. I’m sorry I don’t have more suggestions for drummers. I’m a piper.

    Maybe we should be looking at things from an evolutionary psychology perspective. What do people enjoy? How can we introduce a little friction and stress to overcome as a group.

  7. There is an age old understanding. When a musician leaves for College, they don’t return. A persons body chemistry plays a big part in their Banding career. At some point interest fails. I have been drumming for 65 years and can still play the scores of my Grade One Band. A short time ago, I made a decision – no more parades, no more cold weather drumming – no more long drives. At one point, I drove 3 hours to practice. I currently play for a Brass Band where I sit on a float working a drum set. There is always a place for you if you want a place.

  8. From where I live, lower graded pipe bands have been all but killed off due to the school system, whereby the kids aren’t allowed to compete with both bands, or choose not to, often, having been told on several occasions, due to an aloofness inherited by some teachers. This is often opinions passed on about older pipers’ attitudes, and therefore cause the kids to not feed into those bands.

    Many will be sent to higher graded bands, sit out the first year, and by the coming year, the instruments have been packed up and other interests have been sought.

    Older pipers have a wealth of knowledge, but many instructors pass on negative comments (wrongly) about them.

    The schools initiative in our area is sorely needing reform so to help out lower graded bands, which should in turn give kids exposure to the experience needed to further progress, rather than going straight to G1 and being put off piping and drumming for good.

  9. I‘m from Germany, 59 years old. I started learning the bagpipes in 2008, with 44 years. During Covid I played many online competitions in America in G2 and the 50+ level. I like it very much and I would bring the idea to Germany, but I‘m the only advanced piper over 50 in Germany. To establish that level in Germany, we could offer an open Slow Air and an open March to get participants for that level.
    In Germany, it is not easy for older players or older learners, because all bands want young players. Everyone must be young in Germany in every genre. They say „you are too old“ and so on. Older players have less self confidence because of that. This is a pity and I think, older players need more support, that they can feel like an important member of the piping szene.

  10. I think the characterization of piping and drumming as a sport is apt. Like other sports, players age out of the competition system, and there is no good outlet for them to move to. When one moves out of competition playing, the alternative is often “street bands”, where the practices are largely chat sessions and the band sticks to playing a handful of massed band tunes. It would be interesting to see a performance-oriented band with interesting arrangements geared to the skill level of its players.



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