Andrew's Tips: The Piping Band Experience
By Andrew T. Lenz, Jr., Santa Cruz, California, ©2000-2011
||Santa Cruz Pipes & Drums poses for a photo.
In case you are curious, I'm the guy on the lower right partially blocking the banner—something to watch out for if you pose for a group photo!
So you've been bagpiping for a while, are feeling pretty comfortable with your skills, have played for friends and family, and you are thinking about joining a pipe band. Or maybe you are considering learning the bagpipes and want to affliate yourself with a bagpipe band immediately. The following is meant to be a guide on how to join a pipe band and perhaps take some of the fear out of the process.
Where to Begin
First you need to find a band:
- Check with your bagpiping association. (Associations are linked from my bagpipe links page.)
- Find a local piper, typically they can give you information and insight about the nearest band, especially if they happen to be a member. In order to find a local piper, you can contact a church or facility that does wedding receptions or funerals and they should be able to refer you.
- Post a message to Bob Dunsire's Bagpipe Forums or elsewhere, see my links page.
How bands operate are about as diverse are personalities of their pipe majors. Some care more about how they look than how they sound. Some never compete but sound great. Some are very businesslike, others are more like a social club. Some keep a dozen tunes in their repertoire, others dozens upon dozens. Some perform nearly every weekend, some three or four times a year.
If you are fortunate enough to have a selection of bands within a convenient distance, you may wish to visit a practice or two. Does the band waste a lot of time? Are they disorganized? Do they yell at each other? Does the pipe major only offer minimal guidance or does he or she critique the finest details? Do they bad mouth other bands? Do they get drunk during or after practice? If you have the opportunity to see the band perform live in public, this will tell you quite a bit about the band. If you have the time, observe the band before and after the performance from a little distance and see how they conduct themselves. Music sound files on the band's website can also provide insight. Once you've done your homework, you can decide which band best meets your goals, whatever they may be.
Understand that competing bands are graded by their region's pipe band association based on their skill, and are assigned a grade from V (5, lowest) to I (1, highest). A highly-graded band will almost never accept a piper with no previous pipe band experience. You'll have much better luck approaching a Grade V or Grade IV band than a Grade II or Grade I band! That said, if you want an easy transition into a higher graded band after you've proved yourself, find a higher graded band that also has a lower graded "feeder" band. If you excel in the feeder band and the more skilled band needs members, you'll be tapped to move up. Until you are tapped, you'll know what you have to aspire to.
Some bands divide members into two categories, competition and non-competition. For parades, parties, and the like, the entire band plays. For competition, the only most competent members play. When you join, you would typically find yourself in the former group and as you get your chops up, you would move into the latter.
In my case, I'd been studying with the pipe band's pipe major for two and a half years before he suggested I—along with two other pipers who began instruction about the same time I did—join his band.
Find out How to Join
Contact the Pipe Major. The band may require you to learn the complete band repertoire then audition to join. This can be burdensome, time consuming, and nerve-racking, of course. Some bands will teach you from scratch and nurse you along for a long time or merely throw you into a performance after 6 months of learning from scratch. There's a broad range of "modus operandi." But most bands will be delighted to have another piper. I had a number of offers without any of them even hearing my playing!
What to Expect at Practice
There's typically a warm-up period that can double as a grace period for latecomers. Once everyone is assembled, chanters are adjusted to be all in tune, then the drones. This is done by the pipe major and/or an assistant. After that there's an ensemble group tuning sequence to make sure everything is OK. Then some tunes are played, maybe while practicing marching, then after a little while, the tuning is done again, since the tuning will have changed due to moisture, temperature, etc. Usually a set or two of tunes will be played followed by direction/correction by the PM. Some practice chanter work may be done.
Some bands have a two or three tiered practice. That is, starting early for beginners/new members, later joined by experienced members, then later the inexperienced pipers leave as the band moves into more advanced competition tunes. Sometimes the pipers are broken into different member groups: competition (elite), performance (most members), parade (all inclusive).
A band practice can run anywhere from 1-1/2 to 4 hours. Our practice runs 2-1/2 hours with one break of about 10 minutes.
I strongly recommend wearing earplugs, especially at band practices. Some pipers don't, but then again, some pipers lose their hearing.
Tunes are usually broken into "sets" of 2-5 tunes. There's no hard and fast rule about how many tunes or which tunes are put together other than they sound good together and don't run on forever. Many band competitions require a 'MSR' (March, Strathspey, Reel) set, though sometimes lower-graded bands are not required to play an MSR.
What Personal Difficulties you may Discover
- Striking with Everyone Else. "Band . . . by the roll." First drum roll, strike-in on the start of the second drum roll, count two, play "E" on your chanter, count one, start in on the tune. (Or variant thereof.) Takes a little getting used to.
- A pipe band can play some tunes REALLY fast. Getting up to a quick tempo without messing up your fingering can sometimes be a trick.
- Endurance. Bands can practice for a long time compared to some personal practice routines.
- Marching. Starting on the correct foot, keeping in time while playing up to a quicker tempo, keeping relative position with everyone else—especially in turns, can be harder than you expect.
- Hearing yourself. When there's a bunch of other pipers playing can be a challenge. "Did my chanter cut out?"
- Commitment. You have to sacrifice sometimes to be at band practice when you really want to be somewhere else. You really owe it to your bandmates to be there.
The Benefits of Playing in a Band
- You WILL practice. At the very least once a week at band practice. But since you don't want to let down your bandmates, you are going to practice as much as you can. You don't want to be the one that messes up the band's otherwise perfect performance.
- You will play tunes right—at least with regard to timing. Tunes that you may have learned notes incorrectly or have slipped in timing here and there, will be corrected if noticeable.
- Camaraderie. You get positive reinforcement from folks that do the same thing as you. You make new friends. You can talk to them about the woes of your hard new chanter reed and they will understand—unlike your other friends.
- Learn from "elders." You are surrounded by more advanced players (usually) who have a stake in improving your level of playing skill and will be willing to answer questions, provide advice, and otherwise encourage you.
- Fame & fortune. Yeah, right. Even a piper in a World Championship band walks the street as an unknown. "You play for who? And they won what? They have a contest for that?" Those World Championship bands had to get out and raise money to fly to those contests. Pipers are not usually paid to play in a band. Pipe majors are sometimes paid (some juvenile bands, for example), but are usually not paid much.
- You're "legit." There's a certain amount of legitimacy in people's eyes when you belong to band. Pipers "in the know" have decided that you are good enough to play with them; this isn't always the case, but that's the impression.
- You may gain more paying solo gigs. If you are good enough to pipe at weddings and funerals, and wish to pursue that, band contacts can be handy. The more experienced pipers are going to be first in the pecking order, but if they are booked or busy it may come to you rather than a non-band member.
- You get to please folks. See the smiles on people's faces and hear the applause for your band. That's what makes it all worthwhile!
- You might get free lessons. Some bands offer free beginner classes or limited free private instruction. Even if formal lessons aren't offered for free, you'll get limited instruction while "in the circle" at band practice.
- You may be provided with a uniform and a instrument. Some bands loan members kilts, flashes, matching chanters, reeds, and sometimes even full sets of bagpipes in exchange for a membership fee. Other bands subsidize supply purchases. At the very least, a band will be providing you sheet music to learn from.
Downsides of Playing in a Band
- Takes a lot of time. Practice once a week for sometimes long hours. The higher the grade of band, the longer the practicesometimes two or more times a week.
- You might compromise your fingering. While errors of timing in tunes are typically caught, your embellishments/fingering may suffer trying to play fast with a band. Wrong notes or wrong timing will probably be caught, but poor fingering is harder to hear and consequently may be of a lesser priority to a pipe major.
- If you play solo gigs for money, scheduling can be difficult, sometimes impossible. Conflicts are bound to happen. Want to play at a wedding? Uh oh, parade that weekend.
- You have to be humble. You have to answer to someone else. No more "Lone Ranger." If you think you know better, too bad. You like Wygent drone reeds and the band is playing Henderson reeds, guess what you will be playing. A big ego will clash with the pipe major and lead to very uncomfortable situations that may result in a split.
- Personality conflicts. Sometimes, certainly not always, there are those in the band that rub you the wrong way and you just have to live with that situation to stay in the band.
- Some bands charge a membership fee. If the band is fairly successful, this may not be necessary or at least minimal. However, if you are getting services such as lessons, the monthly fee can often be considered a very inexpensive investment.
- You will probably have to purchase some band matching gear. Matching chanter, matching hose, matching reeds—these and other items are all possible out-of-pocket expenditures when you join a band. If you haven't purchased a kilt yet (a large expense), you may wish to purchase one that meets the band criteria.
- There may be band travel expenses that you'll have to chip in for. Some bands charter buses, travel to distrant venues requiring a plane flight, or simply require you to drive for hours and consequently use a lot of gas. All of these cost money and members may have to split the bill.
- You might let your bandmates down. In a competition or a high profile performance, if you blow your playing, you'll be letting your band down. It's a bummer to be the spoiler at a gig, but it happens.
As a new piper, some bands may allow you to perform with the band playing only the drones. Others will let you play along with a few tunes, then expect you to cut out your chanter for the ones for which you are not up to speed. Yet other bands won't even let you march until you are fully competent on all the performance tunes.
Some Band Positions/Titles
Pipe Major (P.M., PM, P/M)
Leader of the band musically. Leader of the pipers and usually the band leader in full. It would be very odd for a bagpipe band not to have a Pipe Major.
Person with the mace at the front of a marching band. Yells commands, leads the band. Band follows his command though he will typically take his lead from the PM. Not all bands have a drum major.
PM's right-hand man. Normally assists in tuning, teaching, etc. Fills in when PM is absent. Small bands may have no Pipe Sergeant.
Leader of the drum corps musically. Most often leader of the drummers in general. Often writes all beatings and teaches. Works closely with PM. Sometimes referred to as the "lead stick."
First level of supervision over "regular" pipers and drummers. Subordinate to any member bearing a title with the word Sergeant or Major in it. Looks after any administrative jobs that the Pipe Sergeant or Drum Sergeant have issued (or indirectly issued by the Pipe or Drum Majors). A large band may have several Pipe Corporals. Many bands have no Pipe Corporal.
Responsible for the safety and accounting of the band's equipment. Arranges orders of new supplies as necessary. Can make available to the members a list of the minimum items and potential sources for those items needed to be in uniform. Attends all band officer meetings. Reports to the other officers. Not all bands have a Quartermaster, but instead have a band manager or Pipe Major fill the role.
If you have comments or suggestions, please contact me.
This page last updated Sunday, May 29, 2011.
Page first created in September 8, 2000.