Underrated and Underappreciated: The Importance of the Mid-Section

In a pipe band, the mid-section consists of the bass drummer and tenor drummers.  The bass and tenor drums are tuned to specific pitches that support the melody of the pipes but their rhythm is always complementary to the snare scores.  The mid-section acts as a bridge between the pipes and the snares and, when used effectively, can enhance the rhythm and melodic elements of each section. The mid-section has always been an underrated and under appreciated part of the pipe band.  In competition, the mid-section never gets their own score sheet and therefore usually falls to third in the priority list for most bands--first priority being pipes and second being snares.  However, the mid-section is incredibly important when it comes to ensemble. In fact, a bad mid-section performance can lose a contest for a band (I've seen it happen).

The mid-section is integral to the overall sound and look of a pipe band.  Over the last several years as a lead drummer I've learned to love the mid-section and appreciate its role in the band.  Here's a couple of things I've learned...

Tune the bass drum EXACTLY to the drones:  The bass drum provides the foundation for the pipe band.  Just like with a house, if the foundation isn't solid the house will crumble.  If the bass drum isn't tuned correctly or has too many overtones (pitches coming off the drum other than the "A" being played by the drones) it will cost you dearly in ensemble.  To rid your bass drum of overtones it is essential to ensure that each head is tensioned evenly and also that both heads of the drum are tensioned identically.  Use a tension watch or other tool to be sure the heads are at even tension.  This will produce a solid and booming "A" note free from unwanted overtones.

Write a musical score, NOT a "cool bass drum score": As far as a bass drum score is concerned, try to make it reflect the rhythm and melody in both the pipe tunes and the snare scores.  Try your best to mix in syncopation and straight time where required or where effective.  In general if your bass drummer is doing their job they won't be noticed.  You never want to hear someone say "wow your bass drummer's awesome".  Instead, you'd rather hear "wow your band sounds great!"

Tune your tenor drums to notes in the pipe scale:  I think of the mid-section as a bass guitar.  Bass and tenors provide harmonic support to the pipe tune just as a bass guitar provides harmonic foundation in a rock band.  In a rock band, if the guitarist is playing a C chord, the bassist usually plays either C, E, or G (the notes of a C chord).  If the guitarist plays a G chord, the bassist usually plays G, B or D (the notes of a G chord).  The notes of the guitar player are always supported by the bassist   It still amazes me that I hear tenor drums tuned to notes other than those in the pipe scale.  It doesn't make musical sense.  It's impossible to provide melodic support to the pipe tune if your tenors aren't playing the pipers' notes!

A musician should write your mid-section scores:  Every pipe band contains at least one person who has received some form of musical training outside of the pipe band.  Choose someone to write your mid-section scores who understands the relationship between melody and harmony.  It could be either a piper or a drummer, as long as they have some knowledge of basic music theory.  I know of one successful grade one band in Scotland that has tasked their pipe sergeant to write not only the harmony for the pipers but also the mid-section scores.

Write flourishing that complements the music: Tenor flourishing is the equivalent to lighting at a rock show.  The best rock shows always have the best lights.  A great light show sets the mood, controls the reaction of the crowd and is completely in sync with the music.  Just like effective lighting, tenor flourishing is the element of pipe band performance that catches your eye.  If you see young children at a highland games they are always watching the tenor drummers.  The best tenor sections take advantage of the fact that the eye is drawn to their flourishes by using those flourishes to add a visual element to the music.  Even a simple thing like all tenor drummers bringing their arms down simultaneously on a big snare accent can really add to the music.  Flourishes can be played with finesse, aggression, subtlety, flow and exaggerated movement that can affect a performance in many positive ways.

It's a tough gig!  Respect your tenor drummers:  As a percussion student at university I became accustomed to counting many bars of rest only to play one note on the triangle.  Counting and keeping my focus was nearly impossible while counting 80 bars of rest but it definitely gave me respect for pipe band tenor drummers.  If possible try to put your best and most focused musicians on tenor drum.  Tenor drummers need to be able to subdivide perfectly, have an innate understanding of the groove, produce a full round note from the drum at the same volume as the other tenors, flourish rhythmically in sync with one another and play occasional notes (many of them off the beat) in precise spots in the music.  This is the hardest musical job in the band.  If you disagree, just try it out and see what you think!

Next week I'll be discussing note choices for tenor drummers.  As always if you have any questions or comments send me an email or leave a comment below.  Happy Drumming!

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