July 09, 2009

Our drumming duty

The Black Bear, twice over, wot?It’s often the most obvious ideas that are the best and often not realized for decades. The introduction of a “duty piper” for Grade 5 solo drumming competitions is a notion so clear-cut that you have to wonder why it wasn’t always offered.

We pipers have always understood that competing in solo competition fosters involvement and skill, which are then transferred to pipe bands. Bands full of players who also compete in solo competition are inevitably better in terms of technical ability.

As long as I’ve been around pipe bands, I’ve known that all pipe bands could use more snare drummers. We’ve all seen bands fold because they don’t have enough snare drummers, and every year there are several bands that can’t compete due to a thin snare line.

Solo drumming competitions are not, of course, “solo” at all. They require a piper, since a major challenge is how well the competitor accompanies live music and all its spontaneous changes and nuances. Drummers are constantly challenged to find a piper willing to practice with the drummer and then hang about waiting for the competitor’s turn to come up. It’s a lot to ask of a piper, who often has other things to do, like his own solos or sleeping-in.

The obvious idea is to provide a piper, who is standing by ready to play a score to a number of set tunes. In time I think this approach could be something like that of Highland dancing, where a few pipers take turns playing for snare drummers, offering a repertoire of 10 or so set marches, strathspeys, reels, hornpipes and jigs.

My prediction: offering a piper for solo snare competitors will be adopted by many associations around the world, and the PPBSO will gradually apply it on up the grades. We can either sit around bemoaning the lack of available drummers for another decade, or we can do something about it. Encouraging and fostering snare drumming is not just smart, it’s our duty.


  1. Right on! As a parent of 2 snare drummers in the ’90’s, it was always a challenge to get a piper the day of. Fortunately, my sons quickly learned that it was better to have the same piper for each contest, so they paired up with the same person for most of their solo careers at the amateur level. That way they grow together, piper and drummer developing along the way and each learning so much from the other. Excellent initiative, I hope all associations take this up!

  2. Should have added that This will work great at the lower level grades, perhaps up until grade 3, but I can see problems at the 2, 1 and open level if it got that far. At that level, the drummers are not playing ‘set’ scores any longer, either writing their own, or making their own arrangements. But still great for the beginners.
    In our youth band, I tried to get a system working where each drummer would work with 1 piper from the corps. There were 4 drummers and 20 pipers. No takers!

  3. Could someone explain how a duty piper is chosen? This would be a key part to making this a reality but I suspect it might be difficult “covering” all the contests. Don’t misunderstand, the concept sounds great. Questions that come immediately to mind: 1. What happens when a grade 5 drummer shows up and there is no duty piper? 2. What is being done, expense wise, for the duty piper? 3. Who picks the duty piper(s)?

  4. A few thoughts in addition to prefioys comments posted in the news article.
    In the ideal world, competing bands would furbish pipers from within their own ranks who are NOT competing in solo piping events to accompany their solo drummers. Note that in a fair and just world, the Pipe Major as well as Pipe Sergeant would be included in that list if they were not competing or judging!
    In the real world, this almost never happens. I can personally attest to that having competed with bands and in solos over a period of 15+ years.
    This is why the idea of Duty Pipers for drummers is a step forward and was necessary to implement. I would suggest that since it is the “laziness” (there is NO OTHER FEASON WHY) of the non competing pipers within the bands that has caused this situation to become necessary that the funding to pay for these duty pipers come from increased Band entry fees and NOT from the solo players, who are doing everyone a service by trying to improve themselves and push the art form forward.
    If the program is expanded to include higher grades, it may require that the tune list submitted by drummers using the services of Duty Pipers be restricted to an official roster of popular classics (most play from an unofficial select list anyway, as eluded to earlier…..). In the case of a drummer that wants to play something that isn’t on the roster, they may have to furbish their own piper instead.

  5. I remember as a young drummer the problem had always been finding a piper.. I played in my hometown pipe band, study with Jimmy Agnew, and always had a difficult time with finding a piper, then blending with a piper as from week to week it could change, It was fustrating at the best of times, I wanted to compete but when the band you where playing in is having a hard time playing “Scottland the Brave” together finding a piper to run thru “The Highland Wedding” was futile at best. I was lucky for the most part during the competition days as Mr. Currie seemed always to be around, and Various other piper, Ross Brown is another who comes to mind.. “Sorry for those i forgot”. I also remember playing at Georgetown with out a piper and taking a 2nd, as the rule had change in the off season to let drummers play piper less if the judge was comfortable with the tune.
    My feeling towards the solo drummers problem is this, move the grade 5, 4, 3, 2 competions to the off season, and conduct the champion supreme contest at each branch with each branch putting forward 2 or 3 dummers, to a play off conducted at a host venue.(The Highland Ball morning would be good)
    I know, it is part of the games but isn’t fostering true competition, and perhaps a better quality event would be good, and not to mention giving drummers a chance to obtain a piper who can work with them a little more closely.
    Just a thought, from someone who was that drummer, a drummer with out a piper

  6. A duty piper would be certainly welcome and is a very good idea. The games committee could hire a piper for those drummers in the lower grades who would require one. Entry forms for these drummers could also request the tunes being played and then the tunes forwarded to ensure that the duty piper would be given fair notice of what would be required for each player needing this service. Perhaps an additional fee could be attached to the entry fee for those requesting a duty piper?

  7. If encouraging drummers to compete is the goal of providing a duty piper, asking them to pay an additional fee to cover the cost of said duty piper would probably have a negative outcome. This cost should be covered by the Pipe Band association, games organizers or a business sponsor, not the competitor.

  8. There’s an equivalent situation when pupils sit their music exams and instrumentalists-violinists-flautists etc need a piano accompanist. It’s often a real struggle to find one, and it puts some people off entering. The pupil has to find their own accompanist, and pay for them. I’ve often thought it would be so much better if the organization provided the accompanist as you’re suggesting here. The cost would be negligible presumably to an organisation, but even if they charged entrants, spead across the whole entries for the day, it wouldn’t come to much per drummer would it? Would drummers mind having the one piper fo all, or would some want to bring their own that they were used to playing with or something?



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