Some thoughts on preparing tunes

BLOGMany students often ask me what new tunes they will be learning for solo competitions each year.  They are generally quite keen to learn a new set each year, to keep it interesting. To be honest, I often try to discourage them from changing solos sets too much. What is the point in changing for changing’s sake? If the tunes are working well then I would be asking the student to hold onto them as a set and develop them. After all, it does take months, often years, to fully develop the musical style of a tune. If you listen to some of the all-time greats like Andrew Scullion and Jim Kilpatrick you will hear Donald Cameron and Highland Wedding being played for years and decades at a time. The tunes are fantastic, so there is no need to keep changing them up.

I do believe in keeping it interesting though, but that’s where concerts and performances come in handy. You can develop sets to play at other events, outside of your solo competition sets. Learning lots of tunes can be a great way to expose yourself to lots of different pipe band drumming styles. I recall as a young drummer listening to (on repeat!) – Victoria Police Pipe Band, 78TH Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, the RUC Pipe Band, SFU Pipe Band, FMM Pipe Band, Shotts, Jim Kilpatrick, Andrew Scullion and so many more. I would try mimic or copy what I heard (not very accurately of course!) and it has really influenced my style of music today.  Honing in on one style as a learner has its pros, but it also has its cons. The more varied styles you can listen to, and appreciate, the more rounded your ear will be and it will give you a broader platform to start from. Obviously you will work out what your own unique style is in the end, but always keep an open ear. I still listen to bands now to see what I can learn from them. Every band always has some quality that is appealing, no matter what the grade.

Back to getting tunes prepared for solo performance. I dislike when a student picks a new tune 4 weeks before a contest and is adamant that they will learn it “in time”. In recent years I have been a lot firmer with my students and will not encourage them to play a tune in solos that they haven’t had prepared for six months or more. By “prepared” I mean – memorized, polished and up on the instrument. Getting a tune ready for competition is a process – a long one at that. When the pressure of competing goes on, you need to know you can fall back on thorough preparation. Last minute attempts simply will not work on a consistent basis.

If you have a solo set, try keeping it for two full seasons. During that time ensure you record practice sessions, and actual solo events. Spend the time after each recording to write a few notes on your performance. A few simple headings could be : Accuracy, Flow, Dynamic Range, Musicality, Expression and Phrasing (there are lots of others but these are a good starting point). Give the tunes a chance to develop and mature. If you aren’t getting the results you want, or a judge suggests you change tunes, take a breath and give it some time. If every judge suggests you change the tune then listen up and act quickly! Another option would be to send some of those recordings to someone and ask them for a professional opinion.

It is St Patricks Day and so a little Irish Quote is appropriate and applicable to your drumming.  “ Like a pint of Guinness … Good things take time”.

James

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More drum scores added to the Library

My large compilation of drum scores has just gotten a little larger. I have added another 20 compositions to my www.come2drum.com library and will continue to add further scores in the New Year. Come on over and check out the scores.

Newest scores added this month include :

King George V’s Army

Colonel McLeod

The Hills of Argyll

The High Road to Linton

Mrs MacLeod of Raasay

Rocking the Baby

The Caledonian Canal

The Pikemans March

The Crusaders March

Pay the Piper

Mozart on the Rampage

Captain Horne

Molly Connell

The Old Rustic Bridge

The Dunkirk Boatmen

The Campbelltown Kiltie Ball

Hag at the Churn

Corkhill

Maids of the Black Glen

The Famous Ballymote

Electric Chopsticks

 

I hope you enjoy the scores.

James

 

A pipe band adjudicator’s sheet

We have all signed up for a hobby that is subjective, we perform in front of a judge and accept their decision on our placement in a contest. All too often I hear people complain about the result – but at the end of the day the judge’s job is to pick the prize winners and place the other competitors based on their experience whilst listening to your performance. Of course, we all hope that no political or tutoring bias weighs on the judges decision, and this aspect is of course a grey area and something that we are discouraged from dwelling on or discussing.

Let’s delve into the adjudication sheets.  Some sheets provide generic observations and others go into part by part detailed analysis of the performance from a technical standpoint.  What is right and what is wrong?

So, what is the adjudicators key role?  To decide on the positioning of the competitors? I feel that competitors often look to the sheets to see why they have placed where they have placed. “A great sheet, all mostly positive, great tone – 7th place!?!”. Honestly I hear this so many times from competitors and even from some parents! Reading into the sheets to try and justify the position you received is probably not the best approach.

What is the best way to create an adjudication sheet? Should it detail each part with the rights and wrongs from a technical aspect?  To me, this is more of an instructional lesson than an adjudicator’s sheet. When a soloist competes (at any level), they shouldn’t necessarily expect a sheet detailing how a flam should be played, or how to orchestrate a throw on D. Naturally at the lower levels, it can be valuable to offer up some advice to the rookies if they aren’t getting the instruction from a tutor. But generally, it becomes a tedious task for the judge to write notes on every aspect of every part that goes right or wrong. They would spend so much time focusing on parts and keeping track of errors that they would potentially lose the opportunity to enjoy the big picture.  Honing in on the small detail in my mind may be more of a coaching role (at a practice or rehearsal) rather than a judging role? Again, this is just totally my perspective and I’m all ears if anyone else feels otherwise.

Some of the best sheets I have read are the ones that address tone, depth, colour, dynamic presentation, execution, clarity, composition, integration, phrasing and musicality.  The sheet usually overviews the performance relating back to most of the key headings above. Often if something terrible happens (like a major fault or breakdown), the judge may note that a slip occurred. But honestly, I think these type of sheets are the best. They really make you think as a competitor – “what does he/she mean by that? I wonder where exactly in the performance is that happening? “.  To me, this should inspire the performer to approach the judge respectfully after the contest and ask if they can expand on their comments to help develop any personal weaker areas. The judges have so much value to offer, and a ton of experience. It seems a wasted opportunity not to reach out afterwards (it doesn’t need to be straight after the results either, it could be a few weeks later) and seek some feedback. I know some people feel that asking the judge why they placed in a specific position is not “the done thing”. Some people feel that it may appear that you are questioning the judges decision or his/her integrity. But I think there is a way to approach that situation and if you handle it correctly it can be a great learning experience for the competitor.

I see adjudication sheets vary in style and approach from country to country. This can be good and bad. But at the end of the day, I think a measured, consistent approach to adjudication is key for the pipe band fraternity. The RSPBA has an extensive training program for judges and you can see this in their sheet-writing. However, some other countries have their own processes for electing judges and they don’t always seem to have the same depth of training as the Scottish system. I really think this is an area that could help strengthen our competitions worldwide – a centralised adjudication training and appointment system can only be a good thing.

A big thank you to the judges out there who put their pens to paper, listen to all of our performances and make the tough decision to place the competitors as they see fit. It’s a tough job, and often only one person or band is going to be happy at the end of the day.

All I ask is that we all look at our current education programs and appointment processes for adjudication around the World.

James

Want to learn from a structured guide to pipe band drumming? Check out the digital version today!

Is competition healthy within a pipe band?

I look at some of the most successful teams around the world, whether it be rugby, soccer, AFL or NBA and they all have many things in common. But the one thing to me that really sticks out, is that they are all competitive within their own group. This breeds a mindset of mental toughness, drive and excellence at each and every game or practice.

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Let’s take the All Black’s (just because it’s Rugby World Cup time) for example – their individual talent level is extremely high. Each individual brings something special to the table, and they are determined to continually demand more from themselves and from their teammates. Self-ego is often viewed as a negative attribute, but to continually strive for that “X factor” or “next level”, players must posses some form of egoic mentality.  Each player doesn’t want to be outdone by the next, so they are driven to really push themselves to their limits, every time they step up to the plate.

There is no reason why the same approach couldn’t work for pipe bands. Creating a culture of healthy competition within the group cannot be a bad thing. So long as it is managed effectively it can really enhance the overall level that the team operates at. Seeing team players compete against each other in solo contest’s is a fascinating scenario, and at a subconscious level can really motivate the individuals to dig deep to get that advantage on the board. Some of the best pipe band drum corps’ of all time have all showcased a large number of the best solo players – I don’t think this is a coincidence.  The individual effort of each player can only enhance the collective product of the group.

There may not be a solo circuit happening everywhere globally that allows all bands to have their members competing regularly, however would it not be wise to consider an “in-house” solo? A way to have your players ranked by an external adjudicator?  I do feel nowadays there has been a push in some camps to make sure everyone feels good about their place and that everyone gets a prize in competitions. But at the end of the day, the only way to encourage world-class athletes or musicians to strive for new world records or Olympic bests, is to ensure that the best players and the greatest talents get the rewards. In life, there has to be winners and losers. That’s just reality. Those not getting prizes will be driven to work even harder to reach those new levels of performance. It’s a way that might help guarantee our art form will continue to develop for generations to come, just as it has done over the past century.

Do you know that moment when you witness a human being doing something freakishly amazing with their talent and you think, how on earth is that even possible? Or, Wow, I just witnessed something that this World might never see again? I recall such moments – watching George Best dazzle his fellow soccer players, being mesmerised by Jim Kilpatrick drumming up a storm on stage, watching Serena Williams dominate centre court with such ferocity … there are only a handful of things that come to mind that are truly freakish. Truly special. Once in a lifetime type things. These are the moments that make the hairs stand on the back of your neck. The moments that remind you how fortunate you are to be able to see these things with your own two eyes.  These moments are why it is important that we continue to reward the winners, the workers, the grafters and the lifers.  When a player see’s that they get the peer recognition for their sacrifices and passion, it continues to set the bar higher. And we all get to relish in the amazing potential that human beings are capable of.

Intra-corps competition in my mind – can only be a good thing for our little World.

James

www.come2drum.com

Press Release : Snare Line Product Launch

11202966_497138653771121_4441679629901280368_oI am excited to support the Snare Line brand and stock their new drum pad range.  The official launch of the pads has finally arrived, after many months (actually, years!) of research, testing and adjusting. For pipe band drummers, this is a must-have product – the feel, texture and response are fantastic.

The pads look stunning, with high-end finishes and superb quality materials. Drummers enjoy slick gear, and the Snare Line brand has hit the nail on the head.

Check out their official page for full information – www.snareline.equipment

You can grab yours at your local retailer (we have them here in stock at www.come2drum.com)

Tuning a Pipe Band Drum – the Complete Guide.

STAGE 1

Tuning a pipe band snare drum is straightforward, provided you know the basics and use your ear.

Firstly, make sure you know what type of sound you are searching for. If you don’t know, either stop before you start, or get to a pipe band contest and have a listen to see what you like. Nowadays, tone plays a pretty vital role in the overall performance, and in the end – the result.

Let’s start at ground zero.

When you receive your pipe band snare drum you should dismantle it. Yep, you read it correctly. Dismantle it. Why, you’re asking? Well, you cannot guarantee that the manufacture has correctly lubricated the drum.  Therefore, if you just start to tighten the bolts, it will be metal on metal. Not ideal, and will also result in possible corrosion or jamming.  You really want the drum to last you as long as possible.

1. Lower the height of the snare mechanism. Take the top suspension ring off using a tuning key.  Remove the head. Take a cloth and wipe around the bearing edge (the rim of the wooden shell).  Ensure there are no loose particles inside the shell. Take some lubrication (vaseline will suffice) and place it around the bearing edge where the head will sit.  Also, generously lubricate all of the holes where the bolt will insert.

2. Lubricate in between each washer using an industrial oil.  Again, this will prevent warping and friction. This is a pretty messy part of the set-up – but don’t skip it out!

3. Place the head back on the bearing edge (ensuring you have removed any stickers from the head) and then place the top hoop over it and set the bolts in. Using the tuning key, start slowly tightening the bolts so that they just initially “catch”.  Then you will want to work clockwise from bolt to bolt and gradually bring the head down. i.e. increasing the tension.

4. Introduce the Jim Kilpatrick Tuning block. This little beauty is a saviour. It helps you to ensure that you are evenly bring the head down, and is WAY better than using a vernier caliper. Start at the largest portion of the block, and work your way down. I would say go at least half way or two thirds of the way on the block to start with. This will give you something half reasonable to play on (but still pretty tubby/flat). I have gone further, and tend to do so more often than not.  Once you have got to a point where you are happy, only tighten the top head sing 1/8 turns clockwise.  This doesn’t need to be done at every practice. Try to think of when you want the drum to be “at its best” – and work your way slowly towards that.

There you go, that’s stage 1 completed! Easy.

STAGE 2

We have already talked about dismantling the drum as soon as you buy it and preparing the top head and hoop for playing.  The next thing we need to look at, is the bottom head and mechanism.

1. Remove the bottom snare wire, carefully. Use your key (or tool) to remove the snare, just loosening it off enough to wiggle it free. Then remove your bottom snare head exactly the same way as the top head, by loosening the tension bolts.  Remove the bottom hoop followed by the head.

2. Take a cloth and wipe any residue or dust from the bottom bearing edge.  Remove any other debris in the shell or cavity. Take the vaseline and place a generous amount around the bottom bearing edge of the shell.

3. Lubricate all of the bolt holes with vaseline.  You will be thankful you’ve done this months down the line. Place the head on the bearing edge, and set the bottom hoop on.

4.  Screw the hoop down evenly as per the top head.

5. Introduce the Drum Dial. This is another little gem in the process of drum tuning. Most drummers use it for tuning bass and tenor drums, but there is huge value in using it for your bottom head. It helps you ensure you maintain an even bottom head tension. This will also help ensure you have your whole corps of drums set up as close to each other in tension (and hopefully pitch) as possible.  The drum dial indicates a reading when you set it on the head. You want to ensure you set the dial in the correct position on the head – in line with a tension bolt. Also, you will notice reduced readings where the snare sits – this is due to a groove in the shell (this is the case for most drums). As for a number – well this depends on your desired tension.

6.  Take the head down until the point where the shell is sitting above the hoop. This will give you a great starting point. Also, you will notice the head creaking and making noises as you tighten it. Listen to those noises. Don’t push it too hard, too quick. Take your time if it isn’t liking the tension you’re applying, and consider stopping for a day!

7.  Set the snare back on (the correct way up, and YES, I have made this mistake!!) and tighten it until it sits snug.

There you have it – the bottom head of your pipe band drum is now ready to go.

STAGE 3

Let’s continue on with the pipe band drum tuning series. We are getting down to the nitty gritty of tuning your pipe band snare drum (scottish snare drum, side drum, marching drum or whatever else you wish to call it!).

In the last two posts, we looked at setting your drum up correctly from the point at which it arrives with you from the factory.  The key reason for doing this : you simply don’t know exactly how much lubrication has been applied at the factory.  By taking the time to do this, you will increase the life-span of the drum and burn through less consumables such has heads, bolts and snares.

Now we are going to look at setting the top snare – something that is totally down to personal preference.  No matter how you like the sound of the snare response – you need to apply the same principles or formulae to get the end result.

1. Get your top head tension to a point where you are happy with the pitch.  In the middle of winter, this might be quite dull compared to where you will have it during the summer pipe band season.  Remembering to use your Jim Kilpatrick tuning block (or old school calipers if that tickles your pickle). Once you have got to a point where you are happy, only tighten the top head sing 1/8 turns clockwise when required.  This doesn’t need to be done at every practice. Try to think of when you want the drum to be “at its best” – and work your way slowly towards that.

2. Figure out how to lower and heighten the snare mechanism.  Nowadays, drums come with “dummy proof” signs on them to show you which bolts are for tension versus height.  Lower the height down (of the) the snare mechanism – as you are doing this, confidently tap the drum in the centre of the head. You will hear the snare mechanism pull away from the head to leave you with a dull and snare-less sound.  IMG_5137Slowly, bring the height back up. You will soon hear the snare wires re-engage with the head. This is where you really want to take it slowly. The slightest turn of the height can push the snares so far into the head that you get a “choked” sound – where the snare wires don’t vibrate at all. You want to find a happy medium here – try playing with it. Don’t be afraid to lower and heighten the snare mechanism a number of times until you are comfortable with what you are doing.

3. If you aren’t getting the sound you want, then take a look at altering the tension.  By altering the tension, you are simply stretching the snare wires or loosening them.  By stretching them you will get less vibrations, and therefore less “snare sound”. By loosening them you will get a looser snare sound, or “snarey”  sound as some people refer to.  This again, is about finding the right balance. If you go too loose, you face the possibility of the snare wire falling off whilst you are playing it (and Yes, this has happened to me!). If you go too tight, you risk the chance of a choked and boxy sound.  Set the tension, alter the height, and continue to do so until you are happy.

4.  Where is the best place to get the true sound of the drum? Well, the best place is to stand where the listener stands. This will be different from the solo platform to the band platform. For the solo drummer, you need to focus more so on the top head and what the drum sounds like from the front. For a pipe band performance, you need to focus on the sound from behind. We will take a look at the bottom head in our next instalment. But here’s something to think about – if you hear a slight rattle from off the top head when you are standing over it – walk around behind. The chances are you probably wont hear it.  But if you tighten the snare and the rattle off the top disappears, chances are it may sound choked from behind. Use your ears!

5. Once you are happy with your snare setting, you wont have to adjust it every practice like the bagpipers or mid-section drummers.

6.  Make sure you look after the drum and store it in a sturdy case.  Flimsy cases are going to allow the drum to be battered and bruised – and probably damaged. If you are serious about getting the best case in the World  – you have GOT to check out the HardCase case. They are absolute life savers, and come with wheels and extendable handles. A pipe band drummers dream!

STAGE 4

Well drummers, we have finally come to the end of the Pipe Band drum tuning series. All we have to do now is look at the bottom snare setting and head adjustment.

So many people underestimate the importance of the bottom head and bottom snare wire.  The largest amount of focus is on the top head. From experience, and asking lots of questions (I was one of those annoying kids who constantly prodded for answers), many drummers think that the top head is where all of the brightness and pitch comes from.  Ok, so they aren’t totally wrong, but certainly aren’t totally right either.  I can see why they think the top head is important in terms of pitch as it’s made out of Kevlar.  They can stretch this Kevlar super tight, and get a “higher pitch”.  However, it is SUPER important to understand the the tonal quality and pitch of the drum is a result of both heads, snares and the shell being in tune with each other.  When things aren’t balanced, we get that dreaded “overtone” – or weird melodic tone that rings from the drum when you strike it.

Here’s something for you to try.

Strike the top head and listen to the overall tone and pitch of the drum.

Now loosen the bottom snare wire off until it’s drooping down.

Strike the drum again and listen to the overall tone and pitch of the drum.

Now tighten the snare again, and repeat.

What did you notice?

Well, hopefully, you would have noticed how dull and boxy the drum sounded when the bottom snare was too loose.  This is probably the one thing I check on my drum the most. It is quite easy to knock or bang the bottom snare wire – even just by taking it in and out of it’s case. It’s just such a simple fix, but one that many forget to check!

Ok, let’s get that bottom head and snare sorted once and for all :

1) Take the bottom snare off. Get the DrumDial out and ensure your head is where you want it to be on the dial. If you are setting up a whole corps of drums, line them up (upside down) and pitch them evenly. Use your ears!!! Or if you are tone deaf, get someone in your band who isn’t (a piper could come in handy for once!!).  You should really be tightening the bottom head often, especially during the competition season.  Only turn each bolt 1/8 of a turn clockwise each time. There is no need to do more than this in one sitting.

2) Set the snare back on and ensure it is sitting evenly across the head. You don’t want one end being lop-sided.

3) You are able to adjust the height of the snare mechanism. This is something that many drummers overlook.  Use the height adjustment to ensure the snare is sitting snug on the head. You don’t want it to be sitting too far away from the head. Remember as you tighten the drum head, you will need to adjust this. Make sure you set the drum on a table or on the side so that you can get eye level with the snare. Using your finger, tap the snare near the edge of the drum to ensure it isn’t sitting to far from the head.

3) Gently strike the bottom head and start tightening the snare. You need to use your ears again!! You will hear the overall pitch of the drum increase as you tighten the snare.

4) Keep tightening and listening. There will be a point where that bright pitch turns into an overtone.  This will sound strange and unpleasant. And you don’t want this.  Loosen off the snare and gradually take it back up to tension. You want to reach that point right before you have choked it!

Okley, Dokley. You’re ready! Yup – we have successfully set your drum up to be played.  Well done.

You should adjust your drum as often as you need. Don’t assume it will sit perfectly for a year without being maintained. Also, you should consider changing heads and snare wires once every 12-18 months, as well as re-lubricating all of the areas we covered in the previous posts.  Another thing to consider is your pipe band stick pitch.  If you have old sticks that are low in pitch, this will clearly affect the sound of your drum. Combat this by getting a fresh pair at the start of each contest season – and keep them dry!!

Thank you for your input, and support. I hope these posts are of some help to you.

If you haven’t already, please pop your email into the subscribe button on the top right and continue to get updates from me. Also, please check out my website www.come2dum.com for all of your pipe band drumming requirements and educational resources.

Happy Drumming!

James