October 27, 2011

Easy image

Shiny, happy tenor.The current pipes|drums Poll attempts to discover how skilled pipers and drummers around the world (that is, the over-achieving musicians who follow the magazine) respond to the question, How long do you think it takes to become a pretty good tenor drummer? The results are interesting.

While the majority (about 32%) have so far answered “At least a few years,” the next-highest response, at about 24%, is “A day or two.”

Clearly, tenor drumming has an image problem.

I’ve coordinated these polls for many years. The high volume of participants means that after only a few hours the percentages are pretty much established. While it’s not scientific data, the p|d Poll is a very good basic gauge of the attitudes and perceptions of pipers and drummers on issues and topics of all kinds.

I really should take some tenor drumming lessons to find out for myself, but I have a hard time believing that I could become “pretty good” – to a standard defined by our competition-band format – after only a few days, even if I worked at it for 16 of each of the 24 hours. Or maybe I could. Maybe I’ll see if someone would be willing to teach me. It would at the very least make for humourous video content (particularly if I could wear a vintage leopard-skin apron).

But why would a full quarter of us think that it’s so easy? They say it takes seven years and seven generations to make a piper. That’s over-stating things, but my own experience was that I wasn’t a “pretty good” piper until at least a few years after I started. To become a pretty good pipe band snare drummer is at least as challenging. Is it because pipers and snare drummer often look like they’re in total agony in competition, drenched in sweat, while tenor drummers appear to be having so much effortless, smiling fun?

Goodness knows that tenor drumming is far more complicated and intricate today than it ever was, but should it be made even harder to satisfy possibly resentful pipers and snare drummers?

Or perhaps, to use that dreadful expression, it is what it is. Maybe it is relatively easy. Is that necessarily wrong? Maybe it’s not an image problem at all.


  1. This is a tough one…and it depends on what grade pipe band you are writing about because I think the “standard” varies.
    I know some very good tenor drummers who clearly know what they are doing in the middle section of their band. On the other hand, as an ensemble judge, I have seen/heard some pretty poor tenors, especially at the grade 4 & 5 levels. Therefore, although I did not “vote” in your survey, I honestly could answer “all of the above.”
    I would hope the end result of your pointing this out would be a re-examination of the role tenors play in a pipe band.
    All ensemble judges should have a basic understanding of the role tenors play and I hope societies and associations will address this issue at future judges’ seminars. When or if that happens, I hope you will let judges know about it.

  2. unfortunately, up to probably gr2 Pipe Bands, the tenor section is made up of a lot of wives and grandfathers of the pipers and drummers in the band.

    People that followed the band around for a couple years, supporting their loved ones. Until one day, decided they too would like the occasional subsidized hotel room during band trips. A couple band practices later, and voila. See the quartermaster for your uniform !

    Harsh I know. But, I’ve seen it more than just a couple times.

  3. This is a good question, but like many, it has the ability to polarise; be it bringing out ignorance, or bias, humour or serious contemplation. As one who has experience at on all three types of pipe band drum, I have my opinion about how long it might become to be a decent player. Ultimately, this is most certainly dependent on individual circumstances. Individual motivation plus dedication to practice, and beyond that, access to a competent tutor are surely key in this (which hits on Al’s point about the context of the learning and the standard of the band). In my experience too, aptitude – that innate ability that you either have, or don’t – is also a factor. It is my suspicion that the majority who believe it possible to play tenor well ‘in a day or two’ are simply unknowing of what it takes, at best, and at worst are probably the same people who question the current role and value of the modern mid-section drum(mmer) in a pipe band. While plenty of bands and players have done no favours to tenor drumming by going too ‘over the top’ in a generally unmusical way, there is certainly good cause to believe that mid-sections are becoming more refined. This depends on good players who know what they are doing and work hard over a long period to achieve it, just like any other muso.
    To further pick up on some of what Al has to say, the complexity of what we do in pipe bands and the focus of ensemble at the top level has had a certain impact. While we start by looking at the top level, ie Grade 1 inevitably as the place where innovations become prominent, things do eventually filter down; sometimes with good results, sometimes not. To see the change one need look no further than YouTube, where yesterday I was watching the 1986 All-Irelands with FMM coming 3rd under the (young) Parkes brothers. The band turned out with 9(!) pipers, 3 tenors, bass and 6 snares and as is relevant here, the tenors played very basic beatings, in unison, with very minimal, basic flourish. Whilst the intervening quarter of a century is a lifetime to some, in the evolution of a musical ensemble, the change from then to now is massive on so many levels in an incredibly short time. I am not talking of the technology involved in the instruments themselves (which has changed markedly), nor the tunes (which haven’t changed at all in terms of what’s written on the page), nor the situation in which the music is played (an MSR at a contest, marching into a circle); but what has changed is how it is all packaged, presented, and the quality of the music at this level. Tenors have played their role in that. The later-80s does mark the beginning of the change for tenors. More attention was paid to tuning them to particular notes, scores became more complex, and flourish started to become a key visual component to the performance that today, is very much like ‘conducting’ in the sense that good flourish matches the rhythms and flows of the tunes visually, if done properly.
    It’s the ‘done properly’ part that some struggle with, especially at lower grades. Eben then, what is good and what is bad is still a subjective matter anyway. Adjudicators (and I am one too) play their role in encouraging innovation and evolution, or slamming it, and it’s debatable if an entirely consistent view of things is reached on the matter in judging circles. Those debates will continue, but one thing that is for sure is, that to play any of the instruments in a pipe band well is not simple or quick thing.
    – Stephen

  4. There seems to be a perception (and a push from certain quarters) that tenor drumming is more ‘complex’ these days (I assume this is compared with the past). How is it more complex? And how is ‘complex’ defined in this context? Does hitting one’s drum more often (or maybe not in a mid section of 9!!) and some way-out flourishing (that is unrelated to the music, nor has it any musical context) make it more complex..? It could be argued it does in a technical sense. Is it now more difficult (working from a low base, mind you) than ever before? Again, it can be argued that it is. What does this really mean? Not much.

    In its own right, the tenor drum presents some challenges to learn and master (for want of a better term), no doubt. But compared to the pipes and/or snare, it is a relative walkover. And this is why comparisons serve no purpose. If a piper was presented with a 6 month window to learn tenor drumming, and a tenor drummer was given piping to tackle in the same timeframe, we all know who would be more advanced after 6 months. That’s a no-brainer. Anyone who suggests otherwise is quite clearly not a piper.

    However, the fact remains it is still the only non-compulsory ‘element’ in a pipe band. This is what’s either forgotten, or what really grates several of the more vocal (‘invested’) people from the tenor drummer’s camp. There is no point comparing this instrument to any other in the band. And I’ve never seen the point (beyond ego and commercial interest) in attempting to elevate the most basic instrument in the band to a level where a whole new persona must be adopted within the band’s framework and pecking order. While tenor drummers assist with some of the ensemble, they can often detract. There’s no guarantee that more complex beatings and straying from the A-C-E tuning logic actually works, per se. They’re still the bottom feeders (for want of a better term), in my opinion.

  5. How can people seriously suggest it would take MORE THAN 3 YEARS to be “pretty good” at correctly striking this drum, in time, and to flourish with a degree of proficiency….???? That is simply amazing. The irony appears lost on this group, which clearly consists a vast majority of tenor drummers who have seized on the opportunity to validate their chosen instrument as being more than perhaps just a basic drum that is not all that demanding, by suggesting it takes several years to lick. In doing so, they have inadvertently said more about their own musical talents, than the actual demands of the drum itself. I’m just glad I get to PLAY my pipes, and be judged on that, not twirl them around in the air and insist that it’s as equally important.

  6. In spite of loving Neil Munro’s stories on pipers and piping, I always resented the above mentioned line, ‘to the make of a piper go seven years of his own learning, and seven generations before’. Perhaps because of the ‘generations before’ bit, since my auld man is a drummer!
    Regarding the matter at hand, I’m happy enough that we seemed to be through with the era of excessive notes – tenors playing what’s been described as a ‘popcorn machine’ – and current mid-section scores sound more supportive of the melody instead of competing with it.
    Now to a layman or to an external viewer, i.e. someone who does not partake in a pipe band, the ‘image problem’ thing simply does not exist: this is an ‘internal’ thing, and if I had to pinpoint a reason, I’d put my money on Gregor’s comment below. This is true enough in lower grades – ‘a couple band practices later, see the Quartermaster for your uniform’… Or worse, ‘the tenor section is made up of a lot of wives (…) of pipers and drummers in the band’…

  7. What happens, I believe, is that good tenor drummers make it look easy and effortless. But as anything that is done with mastery and perfection, it does require a lot of study and training. My observations as a piper in a competition and concert Band.

  8. Re James comment “I’m just glad I get to PLAY my pipes, and be judged on that, not twirl them around in the air ”
    He might be onto something there. Just picture it. A pipe section playing a few notes, stopping, spinning their pipes around in the air, possibly tossing them across ther circle like a team of jugglers. Then striking up and playing a few more notes…
    I’d pay to see that…….

  9. Quite the ‘spin poll’, Andrew. The picture of the shiny happy tenor drummer adds a nice touch. I wonder how an orchestra or any musical ensemble could peacefully coexist if their members were rated, or berated, for the relative simplicity of the instrument that they played, and/or how long it took them to be “pretty good”. I suppose that people tossing around phrases like “bottom feeders” or (here’s a good one from Spiro Agnew) “an effete corps of impudent snobs” might be the end result…just guessing. At any rate I can’t see it as very effective team building exercise, not to mention encouraging anyone into taking up the tenor drum…unless of course: they have no talent, have a few days to spare, are egomaniacs, can’t play the pipes, can’t play the snare drum, like to play dress-up, have something to sell, are related to the pipe major, married to the leading drummer…

  10. What’s a “spin poll”? All this and every poll is intended to do is gauge perception. I find all of them interesting and, from the number of responses, so do many, many others. At any rate, I am sure that every musical group with a diversity of instruments teases one another. The strings disrespect the percussion who tease the horns. Whatever. A question that I think every piper is asked routinely by non-pipers is, “How hard is it to learn the bagpipes?” I took a year of piano in college primarily to learn more about “other” music, but also to understand just how difficult another instrument might be. The answer: the piano is far harder (for me) to learn than the pipes. Did that make the pipes a lesser instrument? No. They’re all different. Anyway, I hope to start my tenor drumming lessons soon. Maybe I’ll play with a Grade 4 band in a few years, or a week, or a month, or next season. Maybe also a tenor drummer will chime in with his/her take on just how long it typically takes to become pretty good at it.

  11. First, I would like to say that I don’t think black bars are very suiting for my face, but (even though it is old), that is still a fairly good photo of myself. Thanks to Weatherly Images for taking it.

    Tenor drum was my 3rd instrument learned, after piano and clarinet. Even with musical experience, I was not able to pick up this instrument in a few days. Currently I still play, compete, and learn on the tenor drum. I am also an instructor and I have had all ranges of students for this instrument. Some have picked up the basics in a couple days, but even the fastest students were not able to be anywhere near competition or performance ready for much longer.

    I believe any instrument is as easy (or difficult) as you make it out to be. As a child I had the basics of piano in a few days, and it wasn’t any different with clarinet. However, with both instruments it took me many years to be able to play at a level that I considered proficient. I took a class on classical guitar in university (while working on my music minor), and my professor had us sight-reading in two weeks, but that didn’t make it an easy instrument.

    Every pipe band (low or high grade) has a different interpretation of what tenor drummers should be doing, and yes, some are easier to learn than others. It doesn’t matter which instrument you choose within a pipe band that makes it easy or hard, it is the motivation, musical background, and ability to learn that the student has that defines how challenging the instrument will be.

  12. I would suggest that some of the so-called top (read: most vocal and visible) tenor drummers do anything but make it look “effortless”, as per Rafael Gutierrez’s comment. If anything, I’d say they are stopping just short of screaming “look at me, look at me, look at me!!!”. It looks rather silly at times, I must say. One drummer who springs to mind looks like a thunderbird puppet in a disco. I saw one band in Gr1 at the worlds with a tenor corps that appeared to be guiding in a jumbo jet on the tarmac, such were their over-the-top ‘flourishes’. It’s getting out of hand and starting to look like rhythmic gymnastics – silly. I once watched the tenor corps in my band spend more time on their hair, the morning of the worlds, than they did on their drums in the warm-up. And there’s one particular drummer, in a rather famous band, who makes a living out of colour changes, not technological and tonal innovation. And people flock to have the latest seasonal colour…? I predict this will come full circle, where less (flourishing) will be more, and we’ll get back to PLAYING our drums and worrying about what we hear, not see. And if it takes more than 3 years to be “pretty good” at doing this, then I’d suggest there is more emphasis on flourishing than anything else, and that is where this is heading. I predict a tenor drummer will actually lift off the ground one day, such will be the ferocity of their flourishing.

  13. I do think there is a role for tenor drummers in a pipe band but for sure their status is over estimated at the moment. Sad but true comment that they are starting to sound like popcorn machines going off during a performance by a pipe band. However, their aesthetic potential cannot be underestimated. I have a friend that has no interest in pipe band contests other than “watching” the tenor drummers performances. (I doubt she is even truly listening to their contribution to the overall “sound” of the performance)

    We get so caught up in the sound that we forget about the poor old bystander that may want to actually SEE what we are doing. To me it is a no-brainer that all pipe band performances, i.e competitions, should all face an audience rather than the audience have to look at a load of people all playing the same music while looking at a circle of fat arsed people.

    Personally I think they should push their performances to include some dancing and playing at the same time. Something along the lines of Traditional Korean dancing ( sticking (no pun intended) this in youtube would give you an idea of what I mean watch?v=XzN_54U2mYg&feature=related )

    If they danced too they could push their role in a pipe band as to a skilled performer that a piper or snare drummer couldn’t argue with. And also people get something to watch as bands play what is essentially all the same for the majority of non band member viewers.

  14. agree tenor drumming has an image problem rightly or wrongly. whilst from a musical standpoint i think most people can appreciate and respect what they bring to the band, im pretty sure if you look at even the top grade 1 bands, (and im happy to be corrected if im wrong) you could probably identify a large number of tenor drummers who have came into these bands having had very little experience or playing time at all. and thats not to say that you cant achieve a high level of ability on any instrument in a short space of time, but you wouldnt really see this happening with pipers or side-drummers.

    the general consensus over the years i have gathered from others, is that like already mentioned there are a section of tenor drummers who are maybe influencing everything, pushing themselves into the limelight, promoting tenor drumming as maybe something far more important and complex than it is, and preaching and appointing themselves as the masters of the art. which is fine, live and let live, but it seems again from personal experience and by consensus of others that it attracts an awful lot of posers and wannabes, to use a loose term. its easy to detect an exponentially more elitist attitude in tenor drumming at the top end than in piping and side-drumming, and to paraphrase a conversation with a well known piper, “the irony is you only actually have to have the arrogance to believe you are any good to be considered as such, and certainly being buddies with the main perpetrators will not do you any harm.”

    playing devils advocate, it seems as though on the face of it that tenor drummers are not undervalued – most people see the difference that they can sometimes make and give a corresponding level of praise – maybe they over value themselves though. if no-one else is seeing or hearing how revolutionary and complex we’re being told it is, then perhaps its because it isn’t.

    that said, how things actually are and how things are portrayed can be two completely different things altogether. on both sides of the arguement it would be well to remember the phrase ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’.

  15. There was a time when tenor drummers were seen and not heard. Then it changed to seen and heard way too much. Every competition sounds more and more like an Amish house building bee. Some mid sections are even wanting to play gracenotes to match the pipe corps. Enough is enough!

  16. Perhaps some may find the quote below to hold some correlation to this discussion.

    “…it is most unfortunate that religious people can be played off against each other so easily. One possible reason for this may be that people do not know enough about other people’s beliefs.”

    -Alcee Hastings

  17. An interesting quotation, MB. While I understand the message you wish to convey through it, I might skew it by suggesting that a few of the protagonists in the caper we’re discussing have perhaps been good and creating their own religion, of which they are God. 😉

  18. Mr. Cole nailed it here. We’re all in this together. We’ve all chosen this hobby, we all dedicate the same amount of time and money to it…why some need to constantly put down others in bands is beyond me.

  19. 1. WiltChamberlain – I trust you wouldn’t be so naive as to suggest that a tenor drum (that the band pays for) costs as much as a set of pipes (a personal expense)…? Not to mention the music books, reeds, lessons, maintenance costs, cases, various chanters etc that pipers must also acquire and maintain. Most drummers I know would whine of they had to pay for their own sticks. I think Mr Cole offered a perspective that is fair in many regards, however there is no denying that tenor drumming has been sold/hyped-up as something it is not, and broadly lapped-up by a market where the basic instinct of enjoying kudos is no different to anywhere else. If you read between the lines of most ‘criticisms’ (of tenor drumming) that you lament, you will note the underlying comment is ‘We want you. We value you. Just keep a lid on it and know your role (i.e. play , not pose)’. Tenor drumming is now more topical than ever. Think about why? My view is because it has gone past a certain point and into an area where it can be easily criticised for being ‘over the top’ and about all about the ‘big show’. And this is mostly peddled by certain parties who stand to make a killing from it.

  20. This has been amazing to read! it would have been even better to go through these comments and read someone explaining the complexities or simpleness of the instrument rather than everyone bashing or defending. much like the added brigdes and three part harmonies, the tenors have come along way and are now adding music to the overall performance. Some times less is more, and some times you need something of a show stopper. What I love about the twirling, is that it seems to be a means to the end. (hit drum, twirl up and out 2, 3,4, hit, hit). And now all of those people that we beg money for at our shows so we can cross the pond have something to watch other than a bunch of puffy necked, sweating, pissed off blow-hards. I’m one of them. I get serious, and it seems the only time I ever crack a smile in the circle is in the beer tent after a win or at practice because a tenor is so into something they just pulled off. If it’s not needed than maybe the different associations should stop putting in required numbers. Now, where are those bass drummers that don’t even attempt any aerial displays? I fill in occasionally for our grade 4 band when it doesn’t conflict, but I doubt our bass drummer can just pick up my pipes and help out a grade 5 band, but it shouldn’t matter. I wish I had as much fun, I wish my instrument was at times easier, but before I go on about how easy it is, I think I’ll give it a shot first. “Can’t we all just get along?”

  21. Here I am, Roland! Nice to be missed 😉 I think this is a great little blog, this one. I’m loathe to say ‘both sides’ of the argument, as there are many views. I think the best aspects of tenor drumming are better-tuned drums, flourishing that is uniformed and ‘in sync’ without being a hilarious sideshow, and sensitive and intelligent beatings. Do many tenor sections achieve all of this? I’d say not all of them, but many do in the higher grades, generally. The problem is that it is quite often the case, as it is with piping and snare drumming, that the lesser likes attempt the impossible and end up looking and sounding rather silly. But they act indignantly when pulled up on it. The one thing that I continue to be amazed by is the worship and icon-like status that one individual seems to enjoy. Websites with a tenor drummer standing on a beach in a leather jacket, Tom Cruise style. Wow. I actually think that what this person does looks hilarious, as if he’s having a lend and taking the p*ss. But for some reason this seems to appeal to some people. And he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

  22. Kudos to Tyler for not being drawn into this. I think too many people out there have had one too many glasses of Haterade, and probably just need to come to grips that a tenor drummer has not only put his stamp on the instrument, pipe band music, and pipe bands in general (including yours), but that he’s having the time of his life doing it. I’m jealous! I wish I could spend more time doing what I love, but reality is what I have made it, and you won’t see my smiling mug surrounded by 30 girls from far away countries anytime soon. One might also want to take into account that many tenor drummers have different backgrounds and also have played or currently play snare as well. not too mention the level of music theory and knowledge they have is quite incredible (Yes I know it’s only in the higher bands) but that goes for every instrument.



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