Another list

Since I made my picks for the top-five competition band pipe-majors of all time, it’s only fair that I try the same for the lead-drummers. Both of these lists are prompted by recent pipes|drums polls, which proved popular and effective conversation-starters.

Granted, I know the ins-and-outs of piping more than I do drumming. The criteria for those listed on the drummers’ poll was less defined than the pipe-majors’. The drummers listed by and large were those who had some combination of World Drum Corps, World Solos or teaching achievement.

Before I give you my list, I have to remark on something else. Each poll entry could submit five choices. That means that, if a drummer were named on every submission, he would get 20 per cent of the overall vote. I may have relatively limited knowledge of snare drumming, but I do know this: Alex Duthart and Jim Kilpatrick should have been named on every submission. Since each received a less-than-20-per-cent share, that means that they both were left off of quite a few entries.

Maybe these submissions were from infants sneaking on to their parents’ computer. Perhaps they were mentally challenged. Or maybe they were from folks who are so vindictive and twisted that they would take leave of their senses. But not selecting Duthart or Kilpatrick makes my mind boggle.

Anyway, based on my admittedly limited knowledge, using competition success and teaching impact as criteria, here are my choices for the top-five pipe band drummers of all time.

1. Alex Duthart. No one has had a bigger impact on pipe band drumming as the elder Duthart. He essentially invented modern music for the pipe band snare, adapting concepts from Swiss-style drumming, and composing some of the most musical scores ever. He is to drumming what GS, Willie Ross, Angus MacKay and Donald MacLeod were to piping.

2. Jim Kilpatrick. While he is by a wide margin the most successful competitor in pipe band drumming history, with solo and band records that may never be topped, Kilpatrick would probably be the first to admit that he trails the legend that is Alex Duthart. But it can be argued that KP has made a bigger impact on the development of the snare drum itself than anyone, and his tireless teaching around the world certainly rivals, if not bests, that of Duthart. History may well eventually decide that Kilpatrick deserves the number-one spot.

3. Reid Maxwell. He’s won the World Pipe Band Championship Sash numerous times, and with two different bands. As a member of Dysart & Dundonald in the 1970s, the 78th Fraser Highlanders in the 1980s and Simon Fraser University in the 1990s and 2000s, Maxwell has won World Drum Corps championships in four decades. For my money, Maxwell is most responsible for SFU’s always terrific ensemble production. He’s taught dozens of top-flight drummers, many from scratch, and he still seems to have many playing years ahead of him.

4. Tom Brown. “Tam Broon” has played such a major role in the development of drummers in the West Lothian corridor over almost forty years with the Boghall & Bathgate organization that he has to be in my top-five. In the 1980s he made great use of the bass-section, experimenting with differently pitched tenors and a rhythmical bass that, along with a technically brilliant snare line, would lift Boghall further up prize-lists at majors.

5. Wilson Young. It may sound trivial, but Young was the first drummer to actually incorporate other percussion instruments into the pipe band. As Lead-Drummer of Red Hackle – a band that narrowly missed winning the World’s several times – Young partnered with Pipe-Major John Weatherston on several albums to raise the musical complexity of the modern pipe band. Wilson Young is an unsung pioneer of pipe band drumming.

History will determine whose names will live on, and who knows who the next Alex Duthart or Jim Kilpatrick will be? I’d love to hear your choices for the top-five pipe band snare drummers of all time and why.

Musical ecosystem

Balanced on an axis.Every ecosystem reacts to foreign invaders. Earthly things merrily exist in their particular environment, change occurring over eons and epochs in Darwinian sloth . . . then suddenly a bunch of things come off a jet plane and all hell is unleashed.

Scotland is not called the Auld Country for nothing. The “New Town” in Edinburgh was first established 230 years ago, about the time that the United States was born. While Scotland’s cities are among the most modern in the world, and it’s the place where many great inventions were made, paradoxically there are centuries-old traditions that exist simply because they exist and that’s the way things have always been done.

The new worlds of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, by comparison have few traditions, and those that exist are years rather than centuries old. Religious holidays become commercial festivals; days of homage to great leaders are declared; musical trends start and stop every minute.

Thanks to jet travel and other technology, Scotland’s piping and drumming ecosystem has been infiltrated by foreign invaders, brought on partly by Scots themselves. The missionary work in the 1960s and ’70s of Seumas MacNeill, John MacFadyen, John MacLellan, the Balmoral Bobs, Donald MacLeod, Alex Duthart and others brought the gospel of good piping and drumming to the colonials. Other Scottish pipers and drummers, like John Wilson, Roddy MacDonald, James Barrie, James MacColl, Jim Kirkwood, James McIntosh and others – outright emigrated to the new world, and embraced the cultures of their new homes, profoundly improving things through their tireless teaching.

New world pipers and drummers not only worked to perfect their craft, but injected into it new traditions by consistently questioning why things are done the way they’ve always been done in Scotland for hundreds of years. Piping and drumming’s new world has readily tweaked and even thumbed its figurative nose at the traditions of the art. Those disruptions have usually not gone over too well in the Auld Country.

It’s a culture clash. While Scots are accustomed to maintaining traditions, the new world generally has less tolerance for doing things the same way. As such, the challenges to established piping / drumming ways over the last 30 years by and large have originated from outside of Scotland: the resurrection of the bass-section; the rise of summer schools; judging accreditation; solo grading systems; new light music compositions and styles; pushing the boundaries of the pipe band medley; “kitchenpiping”; aristocracy replaced by meritocracy . . .

As with everything, there are exceptions, but the large majority of biggest challenges and changes to piping and drumming traditions over the last 30 years have originated from outside of Scotland.

I’ve been a piper and bandsman in the United States, Scotland and Canada for decent amounts of time in each country. The three cultures treat change very differently. The struggles with change that piping and drumming has had, I believe, are largely due to a struggle of cultures. The Scottish piping ecosystem that existed and hardly changed for hundreds of years was significantly disrupted by an influx of foreigners, exiting jet planes with their new ideas and acceptance of change. It has been an invasion of fresh ideas to some, of pests to others.

The remaining traditions of piping and drumming – the MSR, the uniform, competition formats, to name a few – are sure to be challenged by the pressure to change. The mindsets of players from various countries vary, each with different ideas of what’s “acceptable” and what’s not. These clashes of cultures are responsible for the massive changes to our musical ecosystem that will continue faster than ever with the worldwide piping and drumming population explosion.

There can be no doubting that great changes have occurred since the advance of piping skills in North America and Down Under. Now, as piping and pipe bands go even more global – continental European countries and Asia, especially – how will these diverse cultures further impact upon the traditions and mores of our musical environment?

Foot forward

Free kicks.Coincidental to the “Family time” post of a few weeks back, some recent events got me to think further on the topic of passing down hobbies and skills. This is going to be a bit of a gush, but stay with it. My 17-year-old nephew, Daniel (to his family, anyway, but “Danny” professionally), made his debut as a starting player with Glasgow Rangers’ first team last night. He played the entire Scottish Cup quarter-final match against Dundee, making several nice clearances helping the ‘Gers to a 3-1 victory.

Daniel’s dad, my brother-in-law, John Wilson, played professional football as a goalkeeper for Celtic and Hearts until a knee injury forced him to settle into a great career with the Lothian & Borders Police force. John also played – pipes – for a spell with his school band, Craigmount, working with the famous Jennifer Hutcheon, as did my other brother-in-law, Martin Jr., and my wife, Julie.

Their dad, my father-in-law, Martin Wilson, was a piper with one of the first truly world-famous pipe bands, the Edinburgh City Police, being a part of five World’s victories under Pipe-Major Iain McLeod. Piping and football run in the family.

But why is it that piping and drumming so often have not been passed along? If one considers the greats from the 1950s to 1970s, relatively few (pun intended) sons and daughters of the leading pipers and drummers of that era seemed to become equally good or better players, and more often than not didn’t bother to take up the instruments at all.

Donald MacLeod, John Burgess, Hugh MacCallum, John MacDougall, John MacFadyen, Seumas MacNeill, Ronnie Lawrie, Donald MacPherson, Iain MacLellan, Willie Ross, G.S. McLennan, Hector MacFadyen . . . none of these greats, I believe, had a son or daughter who pursued piping in a major way. There are exceptions, of course – John A. MacLellan, Tom Speirs, Alex Duthart . . . but these examples are in the small minority.

But I have a feeling that things are changing. Perhaps it’s the rising popularity of piping and drumming outside of the UK since the 1970s, or maybe it’s the “family time” factor, that’s spurring more kids to take up the instrument that dad or mom plays, and then become as good as or even better – the Gandys, the Lees, the Hawkes, the Hendersons, the Maxwells, the Troys . . . just a few examples, and, yes, there are exceptions.

It’s good to see that that talent, in past generations so often not passed along to sons and daughters, is now more than ever the cool and fun thing to do. Anyway, there’s hardly a better feeling than seeing family follow in family footsteps, and take even bigger leaps.

Sing it, Alex

I have stacks of old cassette tapes from piping schools and competitions and private lessons from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. When Bert Barr died suddenly on September 24th I was sad for his family and friends, and that the piping and drumming lost this quiet and unassuming giant of the game.

I didn’t know him well, but I was well aware of his importance in the art. About five years ago I tried to convince him to do an interview. Most interviewees don’t take much, if any, persuading, but there have been two people over the years who have just flat-out refused. Bob Hardie was one and Bert Barr was the other. Despite my attempts to change his mind, Bert Barr insisted that people aren’t interested in what he had to say. Even though I and many, many others feel that the interviews are important educational and historical documents, Barr simply didn’t want to be seen as being self-promotional.

But I remembered that, somewhere in my collection of old cassettes, there was one that included something of Bert Barr. I used to like to get little recordings of unusual things. (In high school, my near-delinquent friends and I would carry around this boom-box and scout out recording artists at their sound-checks. We’d try to get members of the band to say things on tape, and I actually have a recording somewhere of an 18-year-old Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, saying how his “best friends in St. Louis are Andy, Keith and Rick.” True story.)

Anyway, in 1979 the unusual 3/4 march, “J.K. Cairns,” by Archie Cairns was hitting the big-time. Seriously. Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia featured the tune in one of their medleys. So when I found myself at a piping school with Alex Duthart and Bert Barr, the two of them were quite keen on the tune. They both liked to sing it; I just had to get them on tape.

So, here is the little recording that I made and saved. Alex Duthart does the singing (and the hilarious yodeling at the end), while Bert Barr provides the bom-bom tenor embellishments. In there somewhere, too, is Harry McNulty providing further ensemble depth.

My favourite part of the snippet is Barr saying, “Sing it, Alex” between two of the phrases. There’s something about this little recording that I think shows the fun that Barr and Duthart had shared.

Since the World Solo Drumming is this Saturday, I thought it might be timely to share it.

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