On the Day: How to Organize and Manage a Drum Corps on Contest Days

Having a routine and a set schedule on competition days is one of the most underrated aspects of pipe band competition. When band members know where they have to be (and when), the day becomes much easier to navigate. The following is the rough schedule that our band uses every competition day. This schedule is the result of more than a decade of experience competing and managing personnel from grade 5 to grade 2 and is informed by my own mistakes, personal reflection and conversations with musical leaders from other bands.


Typical Schedule: Antigonish Highland Games (Nova Scotia, Canada)

Competition Time: 2:30 pm
(If the competition time is earlier or later, the schedule can be adjusted accordingly)

11:00-11:30 am: Arrival
11:30-12:00 pm: Band meeting
12:00-1:00 pm: Lunch
1:00-1:30 pm: Drum warmup #2
1:30-2:00 pm: Drummers join pipers
2:00-2:30 pm: Move to final tuning area
2:30 pm: Competition
2:45-5:00 pm: Free time
5:00 pm: Massed bands and prizes announced


Now let's break each segment of the day into more detail:


11:00-11:30 am: Arrival

Usually, I like everyone to be at the field on competition day at 11:00 am. It seems to be the “go to” time for our band. With a 2:30 pm start time, arriving at 11:00 am provides a three and a half hour window for preparation. That's plenty of time, especially on an overly hot (or damp) day. Some members of the band will arrive fully dressed but some will arrive needing time to change. Setting an early arrival time has many benefits but the biggest one is that it allows forgetful members of the band to go back to their cars or hotels to retrieve their forgotten kit!


11:30-12:00 pm: Band Meeting

The band meeting is a chance for our pipe major to lay out the critical times for the day ahead: lunch, when to get instruments out, when we're getting together as a full band and when we're headed to final tuning. There is an expectation that everyone will have eaten lunch, warmed up and visited the restroom before we get together as a band. When every member of a band is told these timings at the band meeting, there are no excuses for being late or unprepared for any part of the day.

After the band meeting, I usually get the drummers together to practice some attacks and do a couple of run-throughs of the music (no more than 20 minutes). I used to practice more than an hour with the corps but discovered that the drummers would be quite tired for the contest itself. This resulted in some excellent practice runs but some lethargic, unfocused performances in the circle. If you are practicing on the day of a contest, you are in big trouble--everything should be pretty much automatic when it comes time for contest season.

During the drummers' run-throughs, we will often stop to tweak the snare drums or tune up the tenors and bass drums. It is nice to do this a couple of hours before the contest in case anything weird happens (a blown head, rattling snares). Doing this kind of work close to contest time is extremely stressful. To further reduce stress, always bring a spare snare drum. If you do blow a head you have a drum that can be replaced immediately, thereby eliminating the time needed to remove and refit a new head.


12:00-1:00 pm: Lunch

Standing up is tiring. It's important to get off your feet for a bit. I love the lunch hour as it gives me a chance to connect with my band mates in a social setting. Lunch is a relaxing, quiet time where everyone can sit, chat and enjoy the day. It is so important to pace yourself on competition days. Ghillie Brogues are not known for their comfort (I use Doctor Scholls insoles to help in that regard) so take some quiet time and chill for a bit!


1:00-1:30 pm: Drum Warm Up #2

The second drum warm up is just to get everyone's hands moving. I don't like to play too much but we will play some attacks and maybe some breaks. Again, there may be a couple of small tweaks to bottom heads and another round of bass section tuning but nothing major here. During the second warm up I may discuss a couple of key issues that I want everyone to pay attention to when we're in the circle. This year, two of those concerns are opening up our fives and remembering to execute our dynamics.

It is always exciting when a drum corps plays their first run through of the day. Everyone has tons of energy and excitement. It is tempting to bask in these feelings and to play your competition repertoire over and over but this is a losing strategy (I have learned this firsthand). Just a couple of attacks (and maybe playing through the first tune on the march) are all that's needed here. Try to save the energy and excitement for the circle!


1:30-2:00 pm: Drummers Join Pipers

The benefit of relaxing in the morning and taking your time with warming up, eating and tuning is that when it comes time to join the pipers, all players should have a healthy reserve of concentration and focus. Lead drummers should know that energy conservation is key to a successful competition day.

What drains energy? Wearing a drum. Running through music. Standing up. Sitting in the sun. Lack of food. Walking around the games site.

How do you conserve energy? Don't over-rehearse. Stay off your feet whenever possible. Stay in the shade. Eat regularly and stay hydrated.

The good news is that all these things are easy to manage. But, manage them you must. Drummers should be monitored as to their whereabouts and eating habits. Some younger players will need to be told to sit down and stay out of the sun. Lead drummers must remember that when drummers are physically tired, they will also be mentally tired. Physical and mental exhaustion are linked.

When the pipers and drummers combine, the vibe should be calm, yet serious. There should be no yelling and not much talking. Last minute tuning should be done calmly and efficiently. Everyone should be honed in on the most important goal of the day: a solid performance.


2:00-2:30 pm: Final Tuning

In final tuning everyone should be totally focused on the upcoming performance. While the pipers are tuning drones or moving chanter tape as the pitch climbs in the sun, drummers should be standing quietly, thinking about the upcoming performance. During final tuning our drum corps usually takes the time to fist bump each other. I will walk up and down with inspirational words like “let's have fun” or “let's do this” to help keep everyone loose. I may have a quiet conference with my sound guy (the corps member in charge of tuning the snares) or my lead tenor, but usually there's not too much to talk about. The work has already been done.


2:30: Contest

Enjoy the music. Focus on points of emphasis discussed in rehearsal. Have fun!


The rest of the day usually takes care of itself. The pipe major has made clear when everyone is expected to be at massed bands and everyone (most of the time) makes it over from the beer tent in time.


Final Points

  • If there is an opening massed bands at a highland games we usually arrive an hour before to allow time for warm up and tuning
  • It is better to have more time than less time. More time = relaxation. Less time = stress


If you play in a competitive pipe band, I hope you have a great season! Best of luck to you all and hopefully I'll see some of you out on the grass this year!





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