Traveling to the World Pipe Band Championships: Music and Music Rehearsals

This is part 2 of a series I am writing about traveling to the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.  In my previous post, I went into the planning of going to the ‘Worlds.’   In this post, I will go into detail on how we prepared MUSICALLY for the World Pipe Band Championships.

What are we going to play?

In Pipe Band Competitions, bands compete against bands of similar ability levels and perform required tunes.  Competitions are held all around the world, and many bands travel great distances to compete.  In North America, most competitions are held between May and September.  Winners receive a trophy or award, in addition to prize money.

GRADING SYSTEM:  Bands in the U.S. are graded from 5 to 1.  The most serious, professional pipe bands with the largest number of experienced players are Grade 1 (highest ability level), and the beginner bands with the newer players are Grade 5 (lowest ability level).

JUDGING:  There are typically four judges that critique a competing band.  These judges are usually seasoned professional players, and must pass an exam to be certified.  In most games, there are two piping judges, one drumming judge and one overall ensemble judge.

Pipe and drum sections are judged on tuning, tone, tempo, unison (playing together across the sections), expression, phrasing, execution musicality, the balance/blend between the pipes and drums, attacks (starts) and cut-offs (stops).

Capital City Pipes and Drums competes at the Grade 5 level in the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association (EUSPBA) and Grade 4B in the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA).  According to the contest rules of both associations, we are required to play 4 marches together in a medley, simply called a Quick March Medley (set).

Picking our 4 Marches (Set)

The EUSPBA provides a listing of marches they recommend when competing.  Our Pipe Major, Brian Batty, obtained this list and picked out 6 tunes in which he thought the band could learn and compete.  As Pipe Major, Brian is, for all purposes, our musical director.  He picks and provides tunes for the pipe band to learn and perform, with some influence and suggestions from the band as well.  So we meet and played through the 6 marches Brian had selected and we all weighed in on which tunes we wanted in our set.  Even though Brian has the final say, he does take our suggestions in consideration.  After our meeting we selected our set:

  • Greenwood Side
  • Sweet Maid of Glendaruel
  • The Drunken Piper
  • Men of Argyle

Music Rehearsal: Sectionals

We start out each of our weekly rehearsal with sectionals.  Pipes are in one area practicing on their practice chanters. Drum corps is in another working on our music (scores).  We usually spend about an hour in our sectional time.  During this time, at least the drum corps, works on our competition set breaking down each measure in each tune.  We do this break down to ensure each measure is as ‘clean’ and perfect as possible.  We focus on three areas: timing, dynamics, and expression.

Timing:  The drum corps is the time keeper of the band.  We make sure that the ensemble keeps a steady tempo

Dynamics: Bagpipes do not have the ability to play louder or softer, they pretty much play at one sound level.  It is up to the drum corps to had dynamics, which adds texture and depth to the music

Expression/phrasing: The typical march has four two-bar phrases in each part.  The phrases are often arranged in the pattern:  A – B – A – C, where C is the closing phrase that recurs at the end of each part.  Identifying the phrases reveals the structure of the tune, and helps in memorization.  The challenge of repeating phrases is that they must be played the same each time they appear.

Drum Scores

One of the draw-backs of playing in the drum corps of a pipe band is that there really is no standard in drum corps music.  Why is this?!?!?! Pipers (although they vary in talent and skill) have standard pipe tunes. Yes, these pipe tunes do vary in difficulty, but they are not really any “arrangements” of a pipe tune for less talented pipers.

Drum corps (usually the drum sergeant) writes the music (drum score) based on the pipe tune and the skill level of the whole line.  Luckily for Capital City, We found a book called the PIPE BAND DRUM SCORE BOOK – GRADE 4 written by James Laughlin.  In his Drum Score Book, we found all of the marches we were to play for our set.  We re-wrote some parts that were rhythmically difficult for our corps, but we still played 98% of what James wrote in his scores.

Full Ensemble

Rehearsal is not the time to learn your part; it’s the time for everyone to learn how to play their individual parts together

After sectionals and working through music, we had full ensemble rehearsal.  This means that the pipers pack away their chanters and assemble their Great Highland Bagpipes and the drummers gear up on our drums.  Bagpipes take a long to tune, I mean, a long time to tune.  For an instrument that only plays 9 notes, it’s the most difficult thing to tune.  Not only do pipers have to ensure that their pipes are in tune, but like any other ensemble, they have to be in tune with each other.  The overall goal is that all the pipes sound like one bag pipe (when playing in unison).  After the pipes are in tune and the drummers are done waiting for the pipers to tune :), we play through our set.  Brian would take some time to offer critique and feedback.  We would also do walk-through’s or March-ins.  This is where we practice marching into our completion circle.

Capital City Pipes and Drums were VERY fortunate to have a couple of great pipers and clinicians come by and help us prepare.  Dave Hopper is a Grade 3 piper and member of Capital City and also competes with Chatham-Kent Police Pipes and Drums.  Recently, Dave is now associated with Peel Regional Police Pipe Band.   Also, Jon Maffett, Jon is an Open/Professional level piper and current member of the North American Champion Grade 1 Peel Regional Police Pipe Band Jon is also owner of The Piper’s Hut.  These two pipers spent time to help our pipers with any instrument issues, help us tune, and listen to our set afford feedback.

Please stay tuned to my FINAL post in this series where I talk about our experience ‘On The Day.’




Categories: Music

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