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.