May 27, 2012

On the beat

Buddy Rich was a master of playing 'in the pocket.'I’m often intrigued when a pipe band is first from a drumming judge, but far back in ensemble. One of the adjudicators must be wrong and, call me presumptuous, but it’s usually the drumming judge.

To me, the very first function of a pipe band drum corps is to play in time with the pipe section. That is, on the beat. Not slightly at the front or the back of where the pipe section’s tempo is, but absolutely with it. A drum section can be insanely impressively technically complicated, inventive and together, but if doesn’t play on the beat that the pipe section establishes, it is missing its first essential function as an ensemble instrument within the band as a whole.

Playing on the beat would seem to be an easy task, but it is in fact extremely difficult. Even the world’s greatest pipe bands suffer from tempo drift, as they try to keep 20-odd pipers, eight or so bass section players, and upwards of 10 snare drummers together. The complexities of centering the beat from the pipe-major, to the leading drummer, to the bass drummer, to the leading tenor, back and forth with each other, and then across their respective sections is a study in focused concentration. A slight deviation from the beat set by the pipe-major creates an immediate cascading effect throughout the band, and that previously toe-tapping tune suddenly and mysteriously feels oddly scattered.

I come from the piping side of things, but I assure you that when I assess ensemble, my focus is almost always on the drum section. First order of business: is it one the beat? Second, is it enhancing, neutral to, or hindering the melody? Third, is the drum corps supplying the dynamics inherently lacking in pipe music, and are the tones of the drums complementary to the piping and each other?

Drumming judges who lose sight of the ensemble nature of a drum section lose sight of its fundamental role within the band. I have spoken with many drumming judges who support this concept, and actually can’t think of a drumming judge who would refute it. But when it comes time actually to judge the drumming, they often seem to forget their “ensemble ear,” and simply assess each corps in isolation from the balance of the band. Perhaps they worry that if they don’t reward the technically superior, they will fall out of favour with the drumming tradition. The consequence often is the drumming prize going to a band that received a poor market from the ensemble judge.

The Kingston Scottish Festival in Ontario has for several years now had each of the four pipe band adjudicators judge ensemble. The post-event consultation is always illuminating, and inevitably the discussion with each certified ensemble adjudicator – whether he or she has a piping or drumming background – begins with how well the band as a whole was knitted to the beat. There have been many times when the drumming judge has said that the drum section that was technical superior did not in fact help the band much, and gave the nod to a band with a relatively inferior technical corps. The consultation process (which Ontario continues to conduct to very positive effect, I might add), is a respectful, educational dialog that informs the decision in a purely constructive way, and there’s hardly any commentary on the minutiae of blemishes within the three sections, but rather an open discourse of the “big picture” of the band as a whole.

A drumming prize awarded to a section that does not play in time with the piping is a prize awarded incorrectly. It all starts with a single beat.


  1. Does that mean then that a good pipe corp cannot suffer from a poor drum corp (in terms of piping place), but a good drum corp will be punished for a poor pipe corp? I don’t think that’s right – that’s why ensemble is there, to capture it. You may argue that there should be more weight to ensemble – that’s a different argument.

  2. Never could get the hang of playing on that “one”. I started as a piper and tried to drum, but found I played the drum that millisecond after the beat, just like I am trying to play the melody on a drum. I admire people that can do both drum and pipe.

    I also found when I played in competition on the bass, as I walked up to the line I constantly had to remind myself I was not playing the pipes. you would think not being able to see where I was walking and the strain on my back would be reminder enough. Every time the pipe major gave the shout to march off I would think I was a piper and stroll off waiting for the fifth beat to hit my pipes up! I had to force myself to not go into automatic pilot and repeatedly remind myself to bang the drum as soon as we walked off.

  3. Wow. Presumptuous, indeed! In most bands i’ve played in, to throw the drum corps at the complete mercy of the pipe corps “beat” would be suicide…

  4. On the beat is not necessarily on the beat. Try putting a rock drummer in a jazz band and they will eventually stop or try putting a jazz drummer in a rockband. They, on the other hand, will end up with a speeding ticket. Good drum sections should be able to shift the beat according to what they want.
    I do not blame drumming judges for not checking the ensemble unless there is no designated ensemble judge.
    A step forward would be no drummning or piping judges but only pipe band judges. Think of a solo contest where one where judging the drones and another only the top hand.

  5. “On the beat bagpipe melody” is a rare thing indeed. When I joined the [78th Fraser Highlanders] in 1993 I felt like I was wind-surfing, playing in the middle. I would play the centre of the beat and neither the melody nor the accompaniment were with me. And there the journey began, 20 years later the conversation continues. The late Alasdair Gillies could play in perfect time, I’ve heard very few others. Nor have I met many that could adjudicate time, feel, groove or god forbid,,,, flow.

  6. I’m not sure if I might sound like the black sheep here, but as a drummer, I actually agree. To a point, anyway. Technicality is still very important, especially when distinguishing among drum corps at the top of the grades, but it is also important not to sacrifice ensemble and clean playing to get there. Perhaps its the product of spending so much time in the center of the circle with one eye locked on the pipe majors foot, and the other on the leading drummers hands, although I suspect not, but no matter the technicality of a piece, in any section, I find that there is nothing more distracting than an out-of-place-sounding flam on the sides, boom from the bass section or harmonies from the pipes (because a bad note in the piping harmonies are, indeed, just as distracting as a bad beat on a drum, and do, in fact, affect the rest of the band and how well other parts also match the music).
    Of course, not every beat is on the beat, as has been pointed out above. Accents in the pipe music can happen all overl. And, of course, every side drummer who writes music will have to pick out those which seem most obvious to them. However, as each person has different musical preferences, these same accents may not be so obvious to some other pipers and drummers. One way this could be helped is simply to listen to the pipers when they are having a chanter practice. In those practices I have sat in, merely to listen to, there is so much talk about phrasing, held notes, emphasis on certain movements, and so on, which could be replicated, and used to improve the ensemble of the drum scores. An extra millisecond or two on a held note can make the difference between the pipes and drums landing on the next beat together, or apart.
    There have been many times where I have found myself in argument with someone else over how well a drum corp has played, but perhaps it is exactly for this reason. I do give a lot of my weighting on ensemble, whereas others may not. But most often, not so much for the ensemble between pipes and drums, but in the individual sections of the drum corps itself. Its all very well having a technically brilliant side corp, but if the ensemble between the sides, tenors and bass is not so good, it has an effect on the whole performance, and should affect the drumming results, as it is wholly a drum-corps issue, although for this rarely seems evident in the actual results and in crit-sheets. In fact I often find tenors are largely neglected in the drumming crit-sheets, which is, just perhaps, a little unfair. They are, after-all, an integral part of the drum corps.

  7. My point was not whether a drummer or drum section inherently plays “on the one” on their own, but how they play on the beat that the pipe-major and, by extension, the pipe section set — or should set. A band with a bass drummer trying to set a beat that is not what the pipe- or drum section is carrying is destined for ensemble chaos. It would be like a symphony conductor following the tympani player. My favourite drummer is Carter Beauford of the Dave Matthews Band. He’s incredibly inventive and often very complex, yet always centered on the beat that Matthews sets, whether live or on live or studio recordings. The energy that Bill Livingstone and Reid Maxwell created, both driving slightly on top of the beat, was one of the great ensemble sounds, to my ear, anyway.

  8. On the beat?…let’s save that for the police….The object is to produce music vs a strictly precise technical exercise. It is actually possible to play together and not necessarily be completely robotically mathematically metric and correct. To understand what I’m driving at, go and listen to some guitar tabs (pick your favourite tune) on line played back via a midi player. It is absolutely on the beat, but, does it sound musical to you? The human element which provides subtleties in timing, commonly called expression and feel, is missing. …Note that I would have suggested “Bagpipe Player”, but the embellishments (grace notes, etc) present a unique problem to the poor old computer clouding the issue even always sounds odd when played back via a midi player.

  9. Hi,
    Agreed. The drum corps must play with the pipes. To place a drum corps 1st when it hasn’t played to the pipes does no good to Pipe Bands.

    By the way, oddly, as he wasn’t a Pipe Band drummer, Buddy Rich is a good example of ‘drums not playing for, or with, the music’. He was a master of the sticks, but a wise crtitic once wrote “Buddy Rich’s drumming does not serve the music, it serves Buddy Rich”.



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