December 12, 2011

Play well . . . or else

Fallout.The crimson-faced screaming pipe-major I think is mainly a thing of the past. There was once a tradition that I’d guess came from our roots in the military where the pipe-major would be a complete hard-assed martinet, getting in the faces of players, intimidating them into playing better . . . or something.

Civilian pipe bands have gradually lost their military traditions of #1 dress, regimented music and regimental sergeant-major-style leadership, giving way to a more congenial, team-building approach. Where once soldier-pipers and drummers had no choice but to put up with a bullying pipe-major and simply do as they’re told, I would think that pipers and drummers in civilian bands would likely tell an abusive leader to go stuff himself.

I’ve played in a total of five pipe bands in my life – four as a piper; one as a pipe-major. The ones in which I was a piper, the pipe-majors were friendly and accommodating, coaxing the best from their players through team-building and good music. Sure, they occasionally had a hissy-fit, and tried to time a tantrum for maximum effect, but they’d never humiliate someone in front of the whole band. In general they followed an essential rule of management: praise publicly; criticize privately.

I’ve only heard of pipe-majors who got in the face, or even struck, their players, and I could never understand why anyone would put up with that kind of leadership in a thing that’s supposed to be a hobby. Maybe it was accepted behavior for those who were hit or screamed at when they were children, or veteran soldiers whose idea of authority is tied to some sort of RSM-like brutality. I’m pretty sure today’s successful pipe-major needs to be liked in order to keep his or her players.

I found the recent BBC Northern Ireland documentary on Field Marshal Montgomery and St. Laurence O’Toole interesting in part because it provided insight into the leadership styles of Richard Parkes and Terry Tully. These are two pretty mild-mannered people, but it was a revelation to me how strict they can be with their bands. They clearly derive intensity from their players through an intense leadership style. I’m willing to bet that dozens of band leaders around the world, after watching the documentary, are trying to imitate their obviously effective approach to leadership, just as they try to recreate their music.

Some successful Grade 1 band pipe-majors leave the bellyaching to someone else. The P-M sedately keeps things in check, while the pipe-sergeant goes off his head shouting blue murder at pipers. Leading-drummers more often seem to be stern task-masters with their snare drummers, perhaps knowing that side-drummers tend to be loyal to them, and come to and go from bands along with their L-D. Their tolerance for shouting may be that much higher than that of a relatively more independent piper.

I don’t know. Does nonstop shouting work? Is it possible in today’s civilian bands to drive success by making players terrified of making a mistake? What’s the best way to maximize potential? What’s a modern-day pipe-major to do?


  1. Maybe it depends on how you see piping and drumming. Are bands being prepped to go to war and do battle with each other? Is it a sport in which the players of one team are doing their damnest to win against the other? If so, I could maybe see why shouting and bawling or throwing hissy fits might be par for the course. For me they’re musical instruments and people get together in ensembles to play together, and make music. It beats me why bullying, shouting, humiliating or criticising in public would even come into it. Someone just told me ‘that’s because you’re a girl. It’s a man’s sport’! Well, maybe. But maybe not. I witnessed a band member being taken down in public. He never came back to the band, and he gave up the pipes. Some would say ‘well if he couldn’t take it he shouldn’t be there in the first place’. Oh really? I disagree. Music has the potential to bring out the very very best in a person–if that person’s music is nurtured, respected, tended, and given the right conditions for growth. Where a problem or block becomes apparent, music can again be used to explore the difficulty and get things flowing again. Instil fear, panic, dread into a person, or humiliate, bully or intimidate them, and you ‘might’ get the result you’re seeking, but at what cost to the person? I hate when people say to me ‘I was told to stand at the back of the choir and just mime’ or ‘I SO wanted to be picked for violin lessons at school but because I couldn’t sing the song we had to sing to get picked, I missed out’ or ‘the teacher used to rap my knuckles with a ruler so I hated music ever after’. I watched a boy get into deep water over a week long piping summer school with one particular tutor-particularly for tuning issues. I’d a hunch he might be deaf and sure enough he was very deaf in his left ear, but was too shy to say. Harsh approaches can also tap into all kinds of pre-existing issues. I’d like to think the PM has responsibility not only for the finished musical result, but also for the musicians’ emotional wellbeing. Some would say that’s going way too far. I say you can’t go far enough in the pursuit of making great music and developing as a person and a musician.

  2. The truth be told, army pipe bands are populated by soldier, a majority of civilian bands are not. Soldiers (specifically those in the combat arms profession) train to close with and destroy the enemy. I am confident that most civilian pipe bands do not.
    Accepting and believing the fact whereby civilian pipe bands trace their roots back to the British Army and their colonial exploits of the 18th and 19th centuries is highly plausible. However this stigma seemingly attached to military pipe bands and “RSM like screaming and yelling” is questionable, if not an ignorant assumption. Most if not all contemporary military leaders (in pipe bands) who have undertaken leadership training as part of their career progression, are trained to not yell, and scream and to definitely avoid foul explicatives and threatening behaviour in the carrying out of their duties.
    One must also remember that most army pipe bands fill the dual role as machine gunners, and given the climate of the world over the last thirty odd years, certain pipe bands have operated in war zones. Training for war and preparing to take and save lives is a gruesome demanding task which takes a certain mindset. Training for this “task” often requires operating in a less than perfect environment – ie lack of sleep, food, shelter, security, etc and due to the nature of war often requires leaders to use seemingly threatening foul language in order to reinforce a point being made, or even to emphasize urgencies in a given situation.
    Case in point – 2nd Battalion Scots Guards. PMaj Jimmy Riddell – yes a very threatening individual, and definitely Last of the Mohicans vis a vis the abusive leader. While his foul temperament and wrath was felt by some of his pipers tuning up or performing on the parade square (his exploits of brutality were urban legend and perhaps exaggerated to an extent), was completely uncalled for. But, during his tenure, The UK went to war over the Falkland Islands, and the Pipes and Drums of 2 Scots Guards helped their regiment to win the day during the fierce fit for Tumbledown Mountain. The fighting as explained by friends who were present was intense, horrible and brutal. How did they do it, one asks? Through hard training and preparation involving a certain amount of hardship – and a goodly amount of yelling and screaming at times – which also has the effect of conditioning one to operate in a stress filled environment.
    Where am I going with this? The culture of army pipe majors (pipe band leaders) yelling and screaming to attain results is almost non existent. I know first hand as I am a serving pipe major in a Canadian Army pipe band, and have been for the last twelve years. Further to this, during my travels I have worked with British Army and almost all Canadian military pipe bands, and will assure you that you will be hard pressed to find any of this “bully like” attitude in any of their or our military pipe bands. The screaming and yelling routine in a pipe band, when it comes to piping and drumming does not work. Training for war… Is a different story altogether. Having also trained for and participated in various actions, I will assure you as the reader, that there is a time and a place for the raised voice and the four letter explicatives – normally when training to take lives and not prepping to march into a circle or down the Esplanade in Edinburgh.
    So to sum up military and civilian pipe bands are in a sense like comparing fruit and vegetables: not the same. Furthermore again, there is also a cultural divide amongst pipers and drummers in military and civilian bands… Haven’t even gotten in to that one. Perhaps that would be a great topic for an anthropology doctrate!

  3. Yelling, shouting or degrading of anykind in a band, at work, or amongst peers is not acceptable to me. If you think otherwise, you need your head examined. Outside of combat/training, yelling and shouting have only one place…in a marriage. 😉

  4. nice well thought reply, however you are forgetting one simple concept, power corrupts. And when it comes to corrupted power, that can extend to a corrupted mind, a mind which would enjoy and expect the existence of a roaring and shouting pipe major.

    I got a gig overseas once and the people that wanted to me to teach them, didn’t want tuition, they wanted to play soldiers and be “Scottish” (whatever that is). I really couldn’t have cared less about how good we looked as long as we sounded well, but they just wanted to play soldiers and feel like they were actual soldiers and so preferred to be shouted and screamed at. It took me about two years to realize that they wanted to be in a pseudo “army band”, and didn’t want to play pipes, they wanted to play soldiers. It was so pathetic!

    One night I had a hunch that they wanted to be screamed at, and so I gave them what they wanted, and acted like the a-hole pipe major. The most terrifying thing; I could see on the face of the people I was giving out to, they actually enjoyed it, it was that moment I had to give up.

    Didn’t you not play under Robert Mathesion Andrew? Isn’t he not one of the more notorious tirade throwers? Who hasn’t attended a pipe band contest where he was pipe major of shotts and saw him shout and roar at all around him? I have seen it so many times myself, and have asked myself the question, you posed in the blog, why on earth would you put up with that for free? some people just like to be abused, it is exactly why the abusers can get away with it.

  5. It would be interesting to compare/contrast the methods of pipe majors with orchestral/philharmonic directors as another example of a complex musical endeavor. My other thought is that in many bands the PM & PS often function as a “team”, using the good guy/bad guy or white hat/black hat dyad to great advantage to both motivate, encourage and support their band members. The relationship between the PM and the LD drummer is much more complex……likely great material for someone’s PhD thesis! Unfortunately the BBCI broadcast is not yet available to me here in America. Andrew…when you say “intense” leadership style what exactly was it that you saw/heard? Intense can mean a lot of things and my imagination is pretty active!

  6. First off, I loved the BBC documentary on FMM and SLOT. If that type of reality TV was offered I would be a dedicated viewer. I did notice the style of leadership under Parkes and Tully, which I admire, and I am sure you are right, that many of the world’s pipe majors are trying to mimic that style at practice right now.
    As for the yelling, chastising, and other “unacceptable” behaviors that we look at today as ridiculous, I am one who misses that type of leadership. Maybe it is my competitive nature from sports and my upbringing. But, I think, that too many times that we have people in leadership who do not do these types of things that many of us would respond to. Obviously, it would have to be to an extent and cannot be something that was hurtful to the corps. Also, it should be at the higher level bands, which are always trying to reach and meet perfection. But, like I said, I think many players would respond to better the music, their playing, and the overall band.

  7. Continuous ranting and raving is about as stupid and pointless as it gets. It becomes ‘ white noise’ and everyone develops an immunity to it.

    The thing to remember is that band members are there because they want to be part of something positive. They have not been conscripted against their will, or been sent there to be ‘ironed out’. It is important to communicate the problem and solution to the entire band in the midst of practice, and keep the individual issues to one-on-one chats and lessons. With some exceptions, it is normally a case of people trying to do their best and playing for the team. In other cases, there are people who set themselves up to fail via sloth and general laziness. They become accustomed to other people ‘downing tools’, at the band’s expense, to do their homework for them. These people never accept responsibility for the standard they present, they just blame others for poor ‘management’ issues. They are immune to the ranting and raving, and it ultimately makes the PM look silly in the end. I have always wondered why such people are in a team activity such as pipe bands.

    When a PM or DS then unleashes a “spray”, these sorts of people do not have the capacity to respond because they are not prepared to lift their game, no matter what. Even if it is at the expense of the team. On the other hand, there are people who need extra time to raise their standard, despite their best efforts. These people need to be carefully managed, not shamed. I once heard a PM remark to an individual (in front of the entire band) that they were single-handedly destroying the sound of the band. This person had joined just a couple of months beforehand from a much weaker band. It came as no shock to see that person hand their gear in the following week. To this day I am still wondering just what that PM hoped to achieve with a comment like that. If it was to shatter a young person’s confidence, look stupid and deny the band a much-needed player – mission accomplished..!!

    Today’s leadership style succeeds when there is intelligence and sensibility on display at all times. A bit of ‘fire and brimstone’ is good for everyone once in a while. But it only works when it is sincere, spontaneous and warranted.

  8. If you want to begin to get a handle on what goes on inside the mind of an aggressive and abusive pipe major, have a read of Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare’s book “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work”. This should be required reading for everyone involved with the competitive pipe band world! I only wish I had this book twenty years ago.



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