The status of females in piping and drumming in 2020
Editor’s note: We had prepared the following feature article almost a month ago to coincide with International Women’s Day. But then the global pandemic hit, and the topic has dominated most of the news. It will continue to influence coverage but, with this article, pipes|drums hopes to introduce more non-virus pieces. The following is a topic that we have covered and followed for the last three decades.
March 8th was International Women’s Day 2020. Many female pipers and drummers around the world marked the occasion as they normally do on a Sunday: by faithfully attending band practice or otherwise committing themselves to being better musicians.
There’s no doubt that women hold a strong place in the pipe band world, with about 20-30% populating band rosters.
The annual Uist & Barra Invitational Solo Piping Competition in Glasgow was on March 7th, with only Sarah Muir participating as a competitor and Patricia Henderson one-third of the judging panel. As testament that female pipers are every bit as talented and accomplished as their male counterparts, Muir won the March, Strathspey & Reel event, adding to her expanding trophy case.
When Faye Henderson made history in 2010 by becoming the first woman to win a Highland Society for London Gold Medal, it seemed as if the floodgates might open for female pipers.
Faye Henderson wins Oban Gold Medal – first ever female winner
August 31, 2010
While there were several of women competing at the great solo events at Inverness and Oban in 2016, the numbers have actually declined from a handful to a paucity now.
pipes|drums has consistently paid attention to the strides that female pipers and drummers have made. Going back to the 1990s when we highlighted the experiences of several women in the game, as well as placing a spotlight on trailblazing leaders like Gail Brown, Patricia Henderson, Jennifer Hutcheon, Anne Johnston, Rhona MacDonald and Anne Spalding, recipient of the 2019 Balvenie Medal. We’ve done interviews with Brown, Henderson and Spalding, as well as with Edith MacPherson, one of the first female solo piping prize-winners in Scotland.
The presentation of the 2019 Balvenie Medal to Anne Spalding
October 28, 2019
We were also the only piping/drumming publication to pay appropriate heed to the historic #MeToo movement. To this date, Megan Harrington’s relatively astonishing open and frank discussion of the issue is one of the most important and read features in our almost 40 years of publishing.
#MeToo: A collective call to members of our community
November 1, 2017
There are certainly examples of current obvious success. The Grade 2 Portlethen & District from the Aberdeen area of Scotland is led by Pipe-Major Julie Brinklow and the band’s drum section is a full 50% female. Pamela Whyte, like Brinklow, one of the more accomplished female pipers after serving as pipe-major of the Grade 2 Grampian Police, is now a piper with the Grade 2 Buchan Peterson. It’s perhaps not a surprise that the Aberdeenshire area is rich with female piping and drumming talent. It is, after all, the home of the Deeside Ladies, one of the last all-female bands. Led by Pipe-Major Fiona Cruickshank the band rose to Grade 1 in 1986, only to fold shortly after.
There are many, many examples. We can’t cite them all. But the fact remains: there is still an obvious disparity between the number of males and females in piping and drumming. And the situation isn’t exactly improving.
Jenny Hazzard is a member of Grade 1 Field Marshal Montgomery of Belfast, one of the best bands in the world, and she herself is one of the world’s most successful solo pipers. Though Hazzard lives in Edinburgh and is a director with a highly successful international environmental engineering company, she is able to keep up with the music and competition rigours of one of the world’s most demanding bands.
“I do see a change – not a good one. In recent years it seems clear to me that number of females in piping is actually declining.” – Hazzard
Has she seen a change in the last few years when it comes to women in piping and drumming?
“I do see a change – not a good one,” Hazzard says. “In recent years it seems clear to me that number of females in piping is actually declining. This is at the top level, down to maximum two or three in the A grades, and more worryingly at lower grades and junior levels. I’ve judged a few junior competitions in recent years and have been surprised to see only a small handful of girls competing. Certainly no more than when I was young, and I would guess actually less. The proportion of girls in pipe bands (at junior/lower grade level) may be a little bit healthier, as opposed to solos, but that’s just pure anecdotal guessing – and it certainly doesn’t seem to be going up – at best just staying steady.”
Ironically, while pipe bands have become completely inclusive of women over the last 30 years, they might not have been terribly accommodating, more or less treating all members as men would be. The familiar concept of an all-female “ladies band” pretty much evaporated in the 1980s and with it a more feminine uniform.
Bands today, with rare exceptions, more or less expect females to wear the same fairly masculine garb as their male counterparts. The band “uniform,” with few exceptions, is uniformly the same for all members, replete with necktie, brogues and sporran – and perhaps females are loathe to protest for fear of being seen as somehow special – and special treatment for any band member is generally unwelcome.
“Maybe trying to move to a less masculine uniform could help,” Hazzard adds. “For example, more girls might be cool with the Breton style outfits, or something that was just a bit less military-man. Obviously, in solos there is a bit of an option open there and some women have chosen different styles, but still very traditionally limited and let’s face it, still not terribly flattering.”
In Ontario, Trish Kirkwood has been a leader for many years of the highly successful Hamilton Police Pipe Band organization in Ontario. Kirkwood, who is a schoolteacher by profession, has had a major role in Hamilton’s teaching of pipers and drummers. Originally from Cape Breton, Canada, she learned piping in a very different scene from what she sees today.
“I was surrounded in Cape Breton by bands that were predominantly female-based where I grew up,” Kirkwood said. “The Gaelic College Pipe Band, Sprigs of Heather, the McDougall Girls – I don’t believe that there are as many female pipers and drummers as in the 1970s and ’80s. Having said this, it was more of a cultural existence in the east coast, where Highland dancing, Gaelic singing, step dancing, and ceilidhs all played a part of the overall make-up of the island.”
“I would say that it is still a male-dominated hobby.” − Kirkwood
“Although I do see female pipers and drummers in the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario, I would say that it is still a male-dominated hobby. Continuing to highlight females as players, instructors, and leaders might be a good way to promote the gender and gain better participation.”
Shaunna Hilder is also one of the most accomplished female pipers in the world. Previously the pipe-sergeant of the now-defunct Grade 1 Dowco Triumph Street, with her husband, David Hilder, the pipe-major, they both are now members of Grade 1 ScottishPower, commuting to practices and championships from Vancouver. She grew up in the British Columbia scene, including being a member of the famed Vancouver Ladies Pipe Band, which in 1980 won Grade 2 at the World Pipe Band Championships. The band soon after dissolved, many of its members disseminating into other top bands in the area.
“I grew up on the Canadian west coast at the very tail end of the ‘boys learn with boys’ and ‘girls learn with girls’ era as part of the Vancouver Ladies Pipe Band,” Hilder says. “It’s just the way things were back then. Looking back, I am so grateful for the sisterhood experiences with those girls – like an invisible net of adventures, trips and magical friendships that resonate with me to this day. There are so many great female players. Let me say I am not a feminist. I believe in old-fashioned hard work from the ground up. I don’t believe in special treatment for girls – or boys – and that all students should be encouraged and taught to work hard and the best person should be in any position based on their skill.”
Like Kirkwood in Ontario, Hilder sees a disparity in the current balance of females and males in British Columbia.
“I believe we need to be in the ‘encouragement business:’ ” – Hilder
“There are simply more boys that start piping than girls,” she says. “I see about a 4:1 ratio. It’s always been about this ratio for both youth girls and adult female learners. As a dedicated instructor, I believe we need to be in the ‘encouragement business:’ girls and boys, all youngsters, all youth. Youth today are pulled in many more directions, with many being overscheduled, (sports, music, math, language, dance) and perhaps not achieving greatness at any one activity. As a youth, piping was my main thing. I loved it, and I worked hard at it every day. I wanted to impress my instructors by returning better week over week. Teaching a work ethic to students of mine has always been a main priority, both the girls and the boys.
“This area struggles to get and retain kids, as we don’t have the school programs. Here on the west coast, all the youth teaching is privately funded by parents and is completely outside the school systems. Scotland has a massive, massive advantage with the school systems producing in some cases hundreds of youth players per school.”
She says the challenge to keep females interested and committed to piping and drumming as pretty much the same as for males.
“I think the two bigger questions are, first, are how do we keep all youth (girls and boys) piping longer, beyond the stage of getting driven to piping by mum and dad, and second, how to have piping as their main activity. Some of this is parental education as well, resisting over-scheduling, allowing the boys and girls to really develop their work ethic. It’s key and an essential life-skill. Sadly, 18-20 is the age where we see a drop-off in girls and boys. Even great championship players have pressures of university, and beyond many ladies move on to have children. I married David, and we grew up in piping and together kept piping. Maybe that’s the secret.”
“I think in all things, you need to have clear goals, whatever they may be, and attach yourself to a mentor. Piping truly is a life long journey of learning.”
But, all considered, is it easier or harder today to be a female in the piping and drumming world?
“The opportunity exists equally,” Hilder says. “It’s all in what you make it.”
What might associations and bands do to improve the participation and tenacity of females?
“My working theory is that social media and the massive importance of looks and image are not helping – with everyone posting selfies and pictures all the time, I think the somewhat unflattering-ness of playing the pipes comes into it for girls and young women,” Hazzard says. “Sounds far-fetched maybe, but I’m convinced it’s true. And bands/associations can’t make someone look better while blowing their pipes! I do think role models are super important – so bands and associations maybe highlighting their female members more could help. Coverage of females on websites, programs, etc., and maybe trying to get more women working with junior bands and in schools.”
It’s 2020. The piping and drumming world is still dominated by males. There’s no compelling argument for why that should be but, clearly, there’s a long way still to go to bring and keep female pipers and drummers involved and engaged in the art.
If anyone believes that women have “equal status” in piping and drumming, they might want to speak with a few women who are actually involved. Inroads have been made, and more opportunities exist, but the scene is clearly far from “equal.”
Your thoughts, as always, are welcomed. Please use our comments tool below (allows for attributed or anonymous posts) to contribute your observations and opinions. By doing that, readers of this piece in the future will be able to benefit from what you’ve said.
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Oban and Inverness lists beg the Q: Where are the women?
August 1, 2018
Jolly Boys . . . and Girls: RSPS votes to admit women
March 1, 2015
It seems to be endemic. It has made me think back to seasonal schools. I remember the tutor announcing to the class (of men) that ‘Janette will show you where the kettle is at tea break’, and at another being placed with a group of young kids (to look after them ?). Interesting about the uniform. It’s very unfeminine. What would be wrong with a dress? Not that I am or would ever be, but if I was a top female piper, I’m pretty sure I would still be associated with making tea, looking after kids etc. I was a disaster on pipes, but used to be quite good at the chanter stage and I remember in a piobaireachd class, when I was doing pretty well, all the men were invited to play for the class, and the top tutor said ‘we’ll not ask the lady to play’. I could understand it if I was about to make a pig’s ear of it and he was sparing me the embarrassment, but it wasn’t that. He thought he was being courteous. In all the examples above the tutors/teachers were all lovely people, just marinaded in the fact that men are men and women are women, and women have and look after children and make the tea, and men dress like men and go out and blaw the pipes and batter the drums!!! It’ll take at least one more generation to change it I fear!!