Chris Thile is an incredible musician. He is without doubt the most talented mandolin player on the planet. His current band, The Punch Brothers, has pushed the boundary of bluegrass to new and unique places using unorthodox chords, complex harmonies, odd time signatures and a level of virtuosity unparalleled in the style. Even though much of The Punch Brothers' music is rooted in the bluegrass style, they are not known as a bluegrass band. Instead, they have been labelled as "progressive bluegrass" or "new grass". Even though he began as a bluegrass player Thile's musicianship transcends any style. Even in this clip of a performance with the Fearless Flyers you can still hear a hint of his early bluegrass beginnings. Prepare to be amazed!
Traditional bluegrass, however, involves much simpler chord progressions, simple harmonies and standard instrumentation: multi-part vocals, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and bass, all standing around one microphone. That is what bluegrass is, plain and simple (literally). When Chris Thile pushes musical boundaries his music is not labelled as bluegrass but as something different. Traditional bluegrass is simple and it stands alone as a well-loved musical style. There is no need to add synthesizer, electric guitar or drums. Bluegrass is what it is.
Similarly, 6/8 marches are what they are. The dot/cut feel in compound time provides a unique swing and bounce unlike that found in the other four pipe band styles. It is rhythmically simple compared to either a march or strathspey.
So why do bands have so much difficulty executing 6/8s?
The answer: it's the drummers fault!
So often, even in high-level bands, drummers try to cram in as much fancy stuff as they can. Most of the time this "stuff" destroys the basic 6/8 feel and the pipes and drums end up in a musical "fight", ruining the distinctive 6/8 "swing". Like Chris Thile's boundary pushing, drummers insistence on overplaying transforms the 6/8 march into something else. This "something else" is a weird sounding half 6/8, half 2/4 lumbering non-musical mess. Even though it is our fault that 6/8s sound bad we can make two specific changes in the way we approach the style that can have some immediate and positive impact on our band's performance. The first change is to make sure every drummer in the corps understands how to subdivide the 6/8 style.
Over the years, drummers have been criticized for playing 6/8s that sound like 2/4 marches. This is due to the fact that drummers don't understand the basic 6/8 subdivision that runs underneath each tune. This subdivision is comprised of a dotted eighth note, a sixteenth note and a regular eighth note grouped in three. The rhythm of the 6/8 march is the same as the words "Ammmm-sterdam" or "Ehhhhh-xcellent" (as said by Mr. Burns on the Simpsons--thanks to Chris Coleman from the College of Piping in PEI for that one). The "Amsterdam" rhythm looks like this:
When drummers first encounter the "Amsterdam" rhythm they tend to play it using a 2/4 feel, simply because it's easier. Yes, it's easier, but it also makes the 6/8 sound lazy and robs it of its characteristic bounce. The subdivision most drummers play looks like the example below taken from a 2/4 march:
In short, pipe band drumming teachers and lead drummers have to do better. It is our job to demonstrate the correct 6/8 feel early on in a beginning drummer's education, then hammer the point home repeatedly until the correct feel is achieved. Teaching the feel first, using a bare bones-type "rhythm only" approach (before adding rolls, flams, accents etc.) is the best way to achieve this. Even more helpful is the use of rhythm syllables, or counting, to reinforce these rhythms. Once the rhythms are learned, only then should other musical elements be added.
The only musical element that sets 6/8 and 9/8 marches apart from the other pipe band styles is rhythm. Therefore, as composers of drum scores, we should do everything in our power to fortify and emphasize the 6/8 subdivision. A 6/8 march is not the place to showcase long complex note sequences or lengthy syncopated roll passages. Composers need to remember that a simple style requires simple scores. The only musical element that should be showcased is the feel of the 6/8, not the number of notes you can stuff into a bar!
Every style of music in the world includes a unique musical element that separates it from the others. In jazz, that element is improvisation. In reggae that element is the off-beat guitar pulse. In hip hop it's the rhythmic counterpoint of drum groove and spoken verse. In pop music it's the melodic hook.
In a 6/8 march the most important musical element is the "Amsterdam" rhythm.
So, if you're composing a score (especially for lower grade bands) there are a few things to remember:
1) Try to write literally for the most part. A literal score is one that keeps to the rhythm of the pipe tune. Keep complementary rhythms to a minimum and avoid both rhythms and rudiments your drum corps finds hard to execute. If the score is simple there is a much higher chance that your corps will play it well and a well-played score will accentuate the correct feel! Sometimes literal scores can get a bit tedious and repetitive as pipe music lacks the rhythmic complexity inherent in drumming. This is where creative use of flams, drags, accents, rolls and ruffs can be used to great musical effect. Simple doesn't have to mean boring!
2) Never use a seven-stroke roll starting on an eighth note! There are only a handful of exceptional drummers that can play a seven in this location with rhythmic accuracy. Beginners have no hope as the buzzes of the seven-stroke roll must be executed at high speed to maintain rhythmic integrity. Avoid this at all costs!!
3) Remember that as a composer your allegiance is to the music, not the drummers. A fancy drum part is fine as long as it is musical. Ego should never enter into the equation when composing a drum score and certainly not when writing 6/8 marches. Again, 6/8s are about the feel, not about fancy drumming.
4) Respect the groove! Groove is that intangible musical feeling you get when everything falls into place and everyone is playing together. Groove is that thing that makes you happy and puts a smile on your face; it makes the audience move and tap their feet and causes people to cheer a bit louder at the end of a band's performance. As a composer, take the time to get it right. Make sure your rhythms and musical phrases align with the pipe tune in a way that flows easily without any awkward movements. The score doesn't have to be easy but it should be easy to play.
As drummers, if we make the effort, we can flip the narrative surrounding 6/8 marches. Poor execution of the 6/8 feel doesn't need to be our fault any longer! If your band doesn't play 6/8s the way they should be played, it's time to make a change. Together we can save this important musical style!
Until next time, happy drumming!