November 19, 2008

Shiny, happy tenors

Seriously fun stuff.Okay, this is the last thing on tenor drummers for a while. I promise.

But has anyone noticed that, while pipers and snare drummers look like they’re in the midst of a battle – or a funeral, depending on how the band is playing – tenor-drummers are often smiling and even laughing during the competition?

I thought about it before, but was reminded when viewing the World’s DVD. There are many shots of flourishing tenor players who look like they’re at a theme park instead of an Every-Little-Mistake-Could-Ruin-It-For-The-Whole-Band World Championship.

Having fun is the name of the game, of course, but I wonder why tenor-drummers are so happy in the heat of competition while the rest of the band looks like they’re in complete misery.


  1. In all fairness, I would probably smile too if my instrument was as straight forward as tenor drumming!

    The fact they can smile shows how little effort they can put in to focussing on what they actually do.

  2. Ya know – you are right about the smiling thing. Never thought of that before now but it is so true. I think it is because there is no real pressure on them unless they drop a stick mallet thing. I seen that happen a few times and the judges did not seem to care. Even remember a big drummer dropping his stick and getting the bass award! Different kettle o’ fish from what pipers and sides face on the park….

  3. Some of the comments already made are sure to garner a backlash from some quarters (or do only ‘miserable’ pipers and snare players comment here?). What follows might fall into the backlash category.
    Cards on the table. As a 12-year-old, I started on bass. Along the way – in the distant past – I played some tenor; at a time when tenors are not what they are now, to say the least. I made the transition to snare because I could – not that I thought the basic section was ‘beneath me’ or not ‘difficult’ enough. In my near thirty years of drumming competitively I have managed now to play at national championships on ALL three drums (not at once, naturally!) and I suspect there are few out there who have done so. So I take the standpoint of being an experienced, yet impartial commentator.
    This season, I was asked to move on to the tenor to provide a third pitch to our band with the (belated) advent of ensemble in Australia. I found it, to be blunt, bloody difficult! Getting the weight and balance right, getting the feel and timing right in relation to the snares/melody line and the other three (including bass) pitches in the mid section. Initially, no flourishing either. Of course, knowing the snare scores as a player made things, perhaps easier, but it hasn’t been easy… just very rewarding (1st in drumming, equal first in ensemble at the national championships in our grade two weeks ago). I know some might suggest it, but I will point out that I am not a ‘failed’ snare drummer being fobbed off into the mid-section, having played in a corps that has won successive state, national and international titles as a snare drummer. I don’t think I smiled at all whilst playing in the championships, by the way – concentrating too much. And although I agree generally with Andrew’s generalisation that you will see it more among tenors than anyone else, it’s not the rule. It’s also a given that it’s difficult to smile whilst blowing into the pipe!
    What I am thinking is that the culture may be different amongst those who learn, and then play tenor right out into the competition ring. They are trained – as demonstrated by the flourish – to ‘put on a visual show’. Perhaps it is just the joy of putting on that show. Furthermore, depending on the arrangement in players in the circle, tenors are not, like most snare players, watching the lead’s sticks whilst the lead watches the P/M’s foot; or pipers who watch the P/M’s fingers/foot. Tenors are not stick watching, simply because often they are not playing the same thing. What they are doing is listening for relative volume and timing. This then gives them the chance to eyeball each other – if they wish – and react to the emotions or even slight slips during the performance with humour. Further, with multiple pitches involved more, there are longer rests in their scores at times, which yes, does allow for a degree of relaxation.
    I think there are still limits. I have adjudicated bands where the tenors have been seemingly deliberate in their face pulling at each other. This was, I thought at the time, going too far and didn’t convey to me the right ‘tenor’ (HA!) in the performance. But within limits, I think it’s great to see the enjoyment, isn’t it?
    So with all due respect to some of those who made previous comments, they have missed the point, or at least not thought about it enough. Obviously none has had any tenor experience – and perhaps should endeavour to give it a try at band practice.
    And Andrew – don’t worry – we all know you are a piper, but this is respected publication is called Pipes|DRUMS and should reflect both ends of a band (and the middle)… so who cares if your blog is drumming-centric now and again?
    – Stephen

  4. I’m not trying to belittle tenor drummers…we have to have them. But, I think the smiling comes from the fact that they just aren’t doing as much. I have smiled while playing pipes, isn’t easy though. Those of us who play together a great deal know when the guy or gal across the circle from you is “smiling” or happy…their whole face lights up…even with a stick in it. For pipers, if you play a wrong note or make a crossing noise, people hear it. Drummers, if they’re off from the Lead Tip or make a bad clank, people hear it. How many people besides judges (questionable) and other tenor drummers *really* notice a misplaced little thud (in various “voicings”) from a tenor mallet?

  5. As a piper, I’m a tad embarrassed to see my fellows exhibit such a high and mighty attitude.
    Tenor drummers don’t smile because their task is so simple, and I highly doubt that they smile because they really enjoy what they’re doing (otherwise everyone in the band would smile and the pipe section would turn out looking like a bunch of goofy morons). The midsection is the aesthetic element of a pipe band. They’re meant to be watched in addition to being heard; which, I would argue, adds more pressure. Because of this, just like other visual entertainers such as figure skaters, or as Andrew points out, synchronized swimmers, they smile for the audience.
    It’s not because their job is so bloody simple they just burst into uncontrollable fits of giggly euphoria.

  6. I have said this on many different forums on different topics but its all the same……..

    I challenge any snare / bass / piper to do WHAT tenor drummers do in a competitive tenor corps, and I am sure you would re-think your negative comments towards tenors. Maybe juuuuuuuuuuust maybe they are smiling because they are more prepared then you? Mayb they put in that extra 2 hours of practice so they dont have to have the death stare and locked down just praying to not make a mistake? Were making music, not curing cancer. Try having fun the next time you are playing, maybe you will enjoy your instrument and take the death grip off your chanter / sticks………..


  7. Ryan – wise words. I am always amazed at how my fellow pipers key themselves up for a big performance. It is incredibly counterproductive. The best performances are produced by people on top of their game, their instrument, and their music – giving them the mental space to be able to observe and direct the performance.

  8. Brill. I am trying to think of ANY serious competitor that smiles or laughs while trying as hard as he can at whatver he is competing at. Do you ever see Tiger Woods grinning away when he sets up a drive?? What about Federer serving?? How about Sidney Crosby on a faceoff or Ronaldo taking a penalty??? Snooker players?? Nope. Smiling and concenrtation just do not mix. Just tenor drummers and syncrinized swimmers.

  9. McFlea
    Highland & Irish dancers, other ethnic dancers, bodybuilders, gymnasts, insane people with high powered rifles and some judges from time to time………..

  10. Seamus Og > Granted, tenors aren’t generally doing as much (after all, more pitches/voices means more rests, ie “flourishing time”) as pipers or the lead tip (forte/corps drummers don’t play for slabs of the piano parts either). Granted tenors are often playing alone, and therefore, *most* listeners/adjudicators wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between an intentional and unintentional beat. Having ‘done it all’ (all 3 drum types) in a serious competition drum corps, I would go with Ryan’s challenge to all non-tenor players.

  11. Stephen Matthews,
    you seem very intent on blowing your own horn on having played three drums. how about you give your hand a go at piping and then we’ll see if you still believe everyone should give tenor drumming a go?

    i for one think that everyone has an equal place in band- and ryan, as for your remark on everyone else needing to boost their practise are you having a laugh?! you make it sound as if the tenors are they only ones who practise. how often do bands have a break, for the pipers to go back and not see the drummers for at least a month after the break resumes.

    why cant people just accept that we all have our place within a band and they’re all equally as challenging and important as each other.
    end story.

  12. I agree with the post above in that all positions in the band are equally IMPORTANT. However, I do not believe that all instruments are equally CHALLENGING. I see a lot of drummers come into bands on tenor drum, then work their way up to snare if they choose. Leads me to believe to playing your “average” tenor score is easier than your average snare score. You WILL never make me believe that playing a big MSR score on tenor drum is the same as Highland pipes. They are not “equally” challenging instruments. This touchy-feely politically correct crap of making everyone feel “equal” is for the bin. Do I value what tenors drummers do for the band? You bet! But, they do not make an “equal” contribution. We don’t have drum corps’ with chanter accompaniment do we? Doing a little boom-thud isn’t the same as blowing a big reed, blowing steady tone, and hitting every doubling & embellishment spot-on. Tenor drummers do make a positive contribution to bands. They’re doing some pretty progressive work but let’s keep things realistic and in perspective.

    Finally, I think the notion that tenor drummers smile because they are some sort of “pretty decoration” is garbage. If they’re smiling akin to syncronized swimmers, they should be lobotomized with a bass mallet. I can’t imagine the DM or PM saying, “Smile! You’re the only ones who make us look like we’re enjoying ourselves!”. Smile if you want, scowl if you want, just play good music because you want to and play it well!

    Seamus Og

  13. After some thought, I agree with Seamus… this politically correct stuff IS for the bin.
    Don’t get me wrong, tenor drumming is great; it adds an entire musical dimension to pipe band playing, and it looks cool too, and I don’t mean to take anything away from the difficulty of a tenor drummer’s task.
    However, the fact remains, that if worse came to worse, a band could be fielded without tenors. You can’t say the same about pipes or sides. This leads me to believe that the tenors, though they add so much to the way a band both looks and sounds, are not an INTEGRAL element of the band.
    I’m just sayin’…..

    …don’t kill me..

  14. I think our tenors smile because when they practice off by themselves they are normally having a better time than the rest of us, doing what they love. And it obviously shows. I love playing pipes, but when something isn’t going right, it’s hard to have that look. I got the opportunity to fill in and tour with Seven Nations for awhile, and about the third show, somebody said, ” man you look like you really enjoy yourself up there while you play” I sum it up to finally being comfortable on stage with the music the timing, and in tunr less self pressure. As far as the challenge Ryan….My lead tenor won’t teach me. I’ve asked. But anyone can do this on there own. pick up a pair of snare sticks, and play a role (might not be great) but you’ll do it. pick up tenor stick, and try to do an opening flourish………..that’s what I thought.

  15. I think tenors do a great job. Their job is not easy, but it it potentially the most artistic of the instruments on the field, which I think inspired the smiling and laughing. it’s hard not to smile when you’re doing something beautiful. As a piper, I find that just the effort of keeping my lips glued to my mouthpiece, blowing tone tends to contort my face into something rather nasty. I couldn’t smile and pipe if I wanted to. A PM of mine once said that a pipe band competition is like banging your head against the wall – it feels great when it’s over…

  16. Two things:
    1) Hello! They’re smiling because they have a union that runs the world! Do you people not read “By the Left”?? Oh wait, that doesn’t happen until 2011 or something – never mind.
    2) Ryan Barr – everyone knows you smiled when you were next to me in the circle, and haven’t smiled once in a contest since we parted ways. You miss it. You know those were the best days of your drumming life…:)
    Hope all is well – pls say hi to Chris as well.

  17. 1 Thing: Joel Kimball, I made an expression that may have looked like a smile. Actually, my cheeks were being blown back from your drones howling in my face. Also, your freaking bagpipe was loud! Good, but loud………….I do miss you though! Best days of my drumming life…………….ummmmm……well…………….

  18. Hi, I took the photo that is featured at the top of this blog. I think the best tenor drummers would agree with s. Mackay when it was pointed out that the tenors are the aesthetic of the band and though their every mallet stroke counts they manage to charm the audience as well as add to the musical dynamic on the field. In addition, I add my own observation about those drawn to the instrument. It takes a special kind of humor to play an instrument that hits back. 🙂 While many beginners to pipes and snare can look stoic as they make those early mistakes, a tenor drummer recognizes a certain element of chaos in the beginning that is hard not to find amusing. A great tenor drummer learns to laugh at those flailing moments that eventually become the strong, artistic, visual interpretations for the band. My two cents for what they’re worth. 🙂



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