10 Minutes of Planning: The Benefits of a Yearly Schedule

In a couple of days, both Dartmouth and District Pipe Bands (grade 5 and 3) will be presenting a joint concert with the grade one 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel). This concert is one in a series of steps to prepare the band for its upcoming competition season on the Canadian east coast as well as a trip to the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow. As anyone who has been in a competitive pipe band knows, the work that it takes to prepare a band for competition season takes an entire year.

However, the planning for an entire year of work doesn't take as long as you might think. For the last three competition seasons I have taken about 10 minutes in September to consider how the year will be structured. I come up with deadlines for myself and the drummers in the corps and write these dates in my calendar. Once the planning is done I can set about creating materials and planning rehearsals to help myself and the corps meet these deadlines.

When I first took over the lead drumming position with Dartmouth in 2013, I had no idea of how to plan or pace individual rehearsals let alone plan for an entire season. But, after talking with many lead drummers and reflecting on my own successes and failures, I have come to realize the positive difference that ten minutes of planning in September can make to a pipe band's season.

Essentially, my planning consists of setting realistic deadlines for both myself, as the lead drummer, and the corps. These deadlines happen in the following order:


  1. Pipe major selects new music
  2. Lead drummer produces snare scores (by composing, finding online or hiring a composer)
  3. Bass and tenor scores are composed
  4. Music is learned
  5. Music is memorized
  6. Clinician visits
  7. Pre-season concert
  8. Outdoor practices begin
  9. First Competition


1. Pipe Major Selects New Music (August/September)

I count myself lucky to work with a pipe major who understands the importance of selecting tunes early in the season. If pipe tunes are selected in August, the composition of snare scores can begin in September and scores can be completed by October. If tunes aren't selected until much later, all deadlines get pushed back resulting in significantly less preparation time. It is important that pipe majors understand that they select tunes but drummers have to compose their scores!


2. Lead Drummer Produces Snare Scores (September/Early October)

As a professional musician, I enjoy the challenge of writing my own scores. September is my busiest month as a lead drummer but I look forward to it every year. When I started composing scores in 2013 they were (admittedly) not the best--a visit from Reid Maxwell confirmed this! However, over the years I have gotten better and now I'm quite comfortable writing scores in any pipe band style. I have even started composing scores for other local bands.

Not every lead drummer has the training or the musical chops to write their own music and this is totally fine. Sometimes, a lead drummer feels comfortable writing snare scores but is not as comfortable with tenor or bass. This is also totally fine. This is when it's time to reach out to a reputable source. There are many score writers out there that have scores for sale: Reid Maxwell, Gordon Brown, Steven McWhirter and James Laughlin are the most well-known. There is also a large collection of scores on the Ensemble music notation platform. If you are looking for scores, please purchase them from the composer. This allows these great composers to keep composing and that is something from which we can all benefit!


3. Bass and Tenor Scores are Written (October/Early November)

Writing bass and tenor scores can cause lots of stress--that is because the breadth of musical knowledge required to compose effectively for tenor is somewhat intimidating. I have actually met the tenor score composer from a world champion grade one band who also happens to be the pipe sergeant (and an accomplished pianist). Anxiety surrounding tenor score composition can also lead to procrastination, setting back the progress of the tenor section. It is important to reach out to a reputable source to help. In Canada, Taylor Page (78th Fraser Highlanders) and Kate Dudek (Guelph Pipe Band) could certainly point you in the right direction.


4. Music is Learned (First Week Back in January)

In Dartmouth and District I set a hard deadline: all music learned by the end of Christmas break. This means that all corps drummers should have no issues playing any of the rhythms or rudiments in any score. Once music is learned, a drum corps can focus on other musical elements like dynamics, phrasing, tempo and breaks between tunes.

To help my drummers learn their music more efficiently I send out exercise sheets in October that focus on the challenging rudiments and rhythms in our drum scores.


5. Music is Memorized (First Week Back After March Break)

To help my drummers memorize their music we have been running a month-long “contest” type of thing with the corps. Last year we held it in February and this year we did it in January. As lead drummer, I also participate. Every week, each member of the corps keeps track of the number of “reps” they have done of each score we play. Then, at practice, we report to each other how many reps we've done. This open and transparent approach works well as there is nowhere to hide--everyone knows how everyone is doing and nobody wants to be that person who hasn't done the work.

The reps we do in our “contest” have the added benefit of expediting memorization. As a 51 year-old drummer, my brain is now incapable of memorizing drum scores the way I could in my teens. I depend on multiple reps of the music to develop the “memory” in my hands. I am jealous of my younger players that have their music memorized in January with seemingly little to no effort. I've just got to do my best with my old brain!

When band practices resume after March break, no written music is allowed at the table or in rehearsal. This has the effect of turning late March and early April into an awful mess as drummers fight their brain cramps and mistakes abound. As lead drummers, we need to preach (and have) patience as things normally start to clean up about a month after the “no music” deadline.


6. Clinician Visits (February to April)

Having an experienced pipe band drummer work with your band is an underrated but incredibly valuable way to improve your drum corps. Dartmouth and District has had the good fortune to work with two of Canada's best pipe band drumming educators: Reid Maxwell and Doug Stronach. It sounds dramatic but these clinics have shaped every aspect of who I am and what I do as a lead drummer. And, the effects on the drum corps have been profound. A clinician can help you re-work your music, suggest fundamentals on which to concentrate and offer anecdotes about their own history as a player and their experiences in the drumming community. If it's not possible to hire a clinician for an in-person visit, an online clinic is another (usually cheaper) option.

When it comes to hiring a clinician, think about why you are hiring them and then schedule them accordingly. This year I put on a clinic with a local band and they requested that I help them with their music literacy. The clinic was in November and that made sense as they wanted to improve their reading and score writing abilities.

When Dartmouth hires clinicians, we try to get them for March or April so that if they suggest any changes to the drum scores, we have time to make those changes and re-learn the music in plenty of time for contest season.


7. Pre-Season Concert (May)

Last year, Dartmouth played a concert at a local theatre in the middle of May. Both bands from the Dartmouth organization combined with the 78th Highlanders from Halifax to present a two-hour program. In this concert, each band presented their competition sets for the upcoming season as well as some less traditional show repertoire.

Normally, the first competition in our pipe band season happens in the middle of June. Having a concert in May forced us to have our music ready for public consumption a month earlier than usual. Did it feel like a rush getting ready for the May concert? Yes. Were we much more prepared for our competition season than in previous years? Also, yes! I have no doubt that our concert this year will have a similar effect.


8. Outdoor Practices Begin (First Week of June)

Dartmouth's piping and drumming school holds their student recital the last week in May. That day is also the last day we can use the high school for practicing. For the remainder of the season we practice outdoors. If it is possible for your band to get outdoors sooner, you should seize the opportunity. However, whenever that first practice is, things will always be a bit rough!

Traditionally, Dartmouth's first outdoor practice is… not good (this is an understatement). Outside I can hear every mistake my corps is making that was previously hidden in the echo of our indoor practice space. In addition, all the drummers can now hear their own mistakes, leading to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.

Lead drummers need to navigate these first few outdoor rehearsals carefully, balancing the feelings of drummers with the need to mention and fix problems in the music. This can be a tricky time that I tend to navigate with humour, encouragement and a non-reactionary demeanour (sometimes unsuccessfully).

After a couple of weeks, things tend to clean up nicely and the musical vision set forth by the lead drummer usually emerges just in time for the first contest.


9. The First Contest (Middle of June)

In the Canadian Maritime provinces, our first contest is in the middle of June. Last year this contest was a miserable, rainy affair. Drummers complained of cold hands (the temperature was 11C) and our performances were preceded by a violent thunderstorm. Expectations should be set high for this first contest but also somewhat tempered. This contest is a starting point and not your end goal. I find it helpful to set out some small goals for this first performance so that even if a high placing isn't achieved, the drum corps can still feel good about what they have achieved.

In the past, some of the goals I've given the corps are: executing a solid attack, maintaining consistent tempo, creating a good groove, hitting the breaks between tunes with confidence and playing dynamics. Sometimes, depending on the level of your drum corps, it is only helpful to state one or two of these goals. Then, as they are achieved, more goals can be added in subsequent contests.


Everybody is Different

Pipe bands exist all over the world, on different continents, in different time zones and in different climates. Deadlines that work for me may not work for you, and that's okay. As long as you have a year-long structure that is realistic (and you stick to it) your drum corps will set itself up for success! Ten minutes of planning can result in several weeks of extra preparation for contest season and nothing is more valuable to a competitive pipe band than more practice time!

I would love to hear about other ideas for deadlines or different timelines/yearly plans you might use. Let me know in the comments!

Happy Drumming!