November 08, 2008


Looking prosperous.The barrage of bad economic news just keeps on coming and, unfortunately, the pipe band world will not be exempt. In fact, the pipe band world as we’ve come to know it, will be hit hard and will likely change dramatically in the next few years. I wish that weren’t so, but it is, so let’s talk about it.

We have seen over the last 15 years an era of unprecedented pipe band prosperity. Rosters have expanded to sizes unimaginable just two decades ago. Bands of all grades have traveled the world to support their hobby in the name of fun and glory. Bagpipes have been developed with every imaginable ornamentation by dozens of pipe-makers that didn’t even exist in 1998. Pipe band associations the world over have raised fees without raising services. Pipe band mid-sections have come from the brink of extinction to, some would contend, almost running bands themselves.

Nothing like a severe global recession to fix all that.

Bass-sections might actually be a bellwether of band prosperity. Up until the early 1970s, when bands wore nothing but ornate and expensive number-one dress, tenor- and bass-drummers were kitted out in (and this is hard to imagine today) the pelts of exotic animals. Leopard-, tiger- and bear-skin “aprons,” replete with canine-baring heads, would adorn the then most musically insignificant playing members of the band. Far more money was invested in the traditional bass-section players than in pipers or snare drummers.

It might not be a coincidence, then, that the pipe band uniform changed dramatically around 1974 when the last comparably major world economic crisis struck. Pipe bands started to cut costs, and looked to uniforms first. “Number-two” dress was adopted from the solo piping world. Not only was it a lot cheaper, but it was far easier to maintain and, most importantly, perform in.

Bands were feeling an economic crunch, and adding a player was a serious commitment. Perhaps not coincidentally, band members were shed, too. Departing tenor drummers often were not replaced.

Fast-forward, then, to the most recent economic boom, starting about 2001 after the last “mini-recession.” Again, not coincidentally, band rosters increased faster than the stock markets. The expansive modern bass-section was invented and, in fact, renamed. “Mid-sections” of four, five, even nine players were added, each drummer adding new tones, each playing an expensive instrument that utilized cutting-edge drum technology.

People still argue about whether such additions help or hinder pipe bands, whether they add or detract from the music, whether complex mid-sections have enough musical return on investment to warrant their inclusion. Robert Mathieson loves them; Richard Parkes is less keen.

If history is any indication, though, the piping and drumming times may reflect the economic times. I dislike the notion as much as anyone, but there is no doubt that the next year or so will present major challenges to pipe band events, pipe band associations and pipe bands themselves. For bands – and I hope I am wrong here – addressing those challenges could well start with the mid-section.


  1. A little surprised to click on the “cutting edge technology” link to see what came up.

    Highland drums are sadly far behind the technology in use in standard drum corp (DC) drumming. It is within recent years that no one would be caught kilted playing a drum with a carrier. Now, something commonplace in the 70’s in DC is the norm in Highland. Even today the complex multiple snare systems that adorn the entry-level DC drum are not found, on highland drums.

    Cutting edge technology means exactly that … vibrant shell technology, covering and gluing systems, contemporary metals, snares that have individual strand adjustments, and tenors and basses that sound with a full tone all the way to the back of the stadium. This is largely custom work and assembled by small precision companies … not in China.

    Take apart the standard highland-made drum and check out the bearing edges. Odds are you are looking at factory seconds when it comes to a DC drum … and then you wonder why you can’t get it to tune. The shells are not prized Kellar VS stock … and the covering is taped or tacked on. The only thing truly cutting is the price.

    As mid-sections continue to become more prominent, as the sound of a snare changes from resembling a Formica tabletop to producing an actual snare sound we are seeing more “cutting edge technology” thrown on the trash pile in favour of solid, old-school craftsmanship. A true drum craftsman will spend more time leveling and cutting the bearing edge then many off-shore companies spend from start to shipping.

    TPPB is on the right track. Their shorter drums are bringing highland snares into a world of new stick technologies, head, strainer, snare and equipment technologies that are the norm in the true world of the cutting edge drum. Their hand built mid-section drums … it is only the start of something much bigger.

    And you can hear it.

  2. I’m not so sure about the mid-section slant of Andrew’s post. However, I do strongly agree that this economy will change bands dramatically. The change I anticipate is a contraction in the geography that supports bands (particulalry Grade I). It seems unlikely that players will continue to make the long treks across multiple borders week in and week out for what is ultimately a hobby. I think it’s time (economy or not) that bands start becoming more of a true reflection of the regions they represent. I would call it an appropriate correction. Less travel means bolstering the ranks of hometown bands with quality players. Thus the top bands can become a little less predictable as “Anytown Pipes and Drums” gets back three grade one players that have been playing in a band 500 miles away for the last five seasons. I think it’s exciting and long overdue.

  3. Jaso….I don’t agree with you. Piping has truely become international and it will never go back. What’s changed it is the internet, message boards, chat rooms, facebook, You Tube, MP3’s, Ipods and streaming video. The Spirit of Scotland isn’t the only band that learns band tunes and intetgrates them electronically. Most everyone does it these days. It’s a new age when anyone, worldwide can take live, streaming video lessons from gold medalists. Piping students are not limited to the local instructional pool. And it’s quality instruction that makes all the difference. The piping world is becoming more international and less provincial every day. In fact gas proces will effect local weekly commuting, much more then international travel.

  4. John – you’re comparing apples with pears.

    A piper can purchase a set of pipes and play them in a band, regardless of what make they are, so long as the plays with the right chanter etc for that bad. The chanter and other ‘peripherals’ are, in general, purchased by the band and not by the individual piper. The piper, should he/she decide to change bands, can also take those pipes (minus the peripherals) and easily play in another band.

    Additionally, the pipes are instruments which the player can use to entertain or compete with outside of the pipe band world – be it at weddings, in another form of band, solo piping competitions etc.

    Finally, the set of pipes is likely to appreciate in value, rather than depreciate.

    I’m sure I don’t need to explain the latter half of the arguement but suffice it to say, none of the above applies to a pipe band drummer and the intrument he plays.



  5. Isn’t the actuall subject, that cost are going to be up and we could see cut backs? Our band is choosing not to burn our bank account, by skipping the worlds this year, rebuilding, and going over in 2010 with both the grade 3 and grade 4 band ready to take a real shot at winning. For this year we will fundraise, and stay state side, to save money, and to not drain the people that will no doubt want to give to the band, but are also feeling the economic effects.

  6. Doc may be onto something with this electronic internet stuff. We could take this one step further to help reduce cost and end the era of the “Parachute Club”.
    Theoretically it is possible to compete, judge, and listen to contests via the internet, similar to MSN multiplayer gaming zone. All a person needs is a high speed internet connection, a microphone, internet camera and speakers to participate. Think of it: entire competitions like the Worlds done via the net and within the comfort of your own living room or back yard. No need to book expensive flights or accomodations, no jet lag, no stolen passports, and no rain!
    Yes my friends, it is a brave new world!
    Perhaps we’re not quite ready for this just yet

  7. A few years ago I had the fortune of listening to some of the Grade 1 Final on headphones from the BBC’s remote truck. It was absolutely terrific. I mentioned to a few people (and even may have written about it) that it might make sense to have the judges in the BBC truck, listening with headphones, not knowing which band they’re hearing, getting exactly the same sound experience (i.e., not moving around the band) from performance to performance.

  8. I already don’t care for driving the 75 miles round trip to practice. With the mileage of my truck, fuel costs add up quickly. Especially when I arrive and pipey announces a PC only practice or that we’ll be playing for only 30 minutes. I spent $15 and wasted an evening out of the house for this…?

  9. Art… are truely a sick, sick mam!


    PS Andrew…your BBC comment has a lot of weight to it. This is much better then my old idea of blind-folding the judges….actually…I would bet the judges would correctly guess the bands on audio the great majority of the time….if not from the piping, then from the drumming scores.


  10. Kent- I respectfully disagree. It’s great that sound files and virtual lessons and things of this nature can come into play to help players breach long-distances…but what method produces the best results? Real practice in a band setting. Some Ontario Grade I’s practice twice a week leading up to the busy season. Players who commute from 180 miles away can’t do that when their work schedule is cut to 30 hours or their adjustable rate mortgage has gone up a point and a half. We’re not talking virtual piping here, we’re talking real bands and players that have been driving 5 hours one way to play with them. We’re also talking about real economics. People will have to decide how their dollar is spent. Commutes to band practice will take a hit. Something will give, mark my words.

  11. ” (i.e., not moving around the band)” Really? This comment, from the guy that raked a certain trouser wearing judge over the coals in a trailing drones article I think, about sitting there, and not moving around. Honestly, when do we realize that all judges are not made equal nor perfect? That my friends is the beauty of competing. Even on a great day, you play against the elements. not too mention, I would quit piping, if playing at the worlds, meant doing it via internet from the band hall. make an envelope and put away money, month by month. Don’t rob yourself of the experience of competing.

  12. Andrew, my respect for taking the brave pill and wading into the “midsection” tempest…again. And I must say, a very creative take linking economic cycles to pipe band regalia, size, etc. Thought provoking.
    Where will current conditions lead us? I’m a “five-hours-one-way-to practice” for ten years, and “three-hours-one-way” for the ten years prior kind of guy, so I lived the issue of “travel expenses”. I believe that people will make the trek and spend the money and figure out how to make it work if the band is important enough to them.
    Current conditions will cause some people to decide not to travel to be with a band, but I don’t think we’ll see a mass exodus from the “international” bands we see today.
    I’m more concerned we’ll see highland games and other contests biting the dust b/c of reduced attendance, sponsorship, etc. etc. FMM, SFU, Shotts, 78th, TPPB…they’ll still be around, playing great music, with players from across the globe in many cases. No worries. I’m not so sure about the fate of some of the contests…

  13. Good memory Jamie D.E. But Harry Tung writes Trailing Drones and always has. And I don’t agree with everything he says, but I generally find it quite thought provoking. On that note, one of the most thought provoking discussions I’ve heard was Bob Shepherd’s discourse on ensemble in Dunedin, Florida, last April. Didn’t agree with much of it, but came away with lots of new ideas.

  14. DANG! almost had it right. Well, I still think it’s a good idea for judges to walk around a bit, instead of trying to locate the worst piper, and park them selves behind them so they can judge a whole band based on one players issues, just to make life easier for themselves. I’m not saying to do laps, but if you hear something locate it. If it’s right in front of you, write it down and move on so you don’t find yourself distracted from the music being played. On the other hand, I do feel that ensemble judges might on the other hand benefit from being in one spot off to the side. As they are to judge on the mix between sections. (I know this is way off subject)

  15. Heres something to chew on….. has it gotten harder for the bands to go over this year from North America? While things have certainly tightened up, the price of gas is at it’s lowest in over a year, and the british Pound is lower than the second time I went in 1998. Unless you are a stock broker, I would imagine, it’s quite affordable to go. My recent comment about our band spending the money, still stands, but we have quite a few young people, who also have to have their parents go, so we will be staying here this summer to make it less costly next year.



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