Tempo has been an issue in every pipe band in which I've ever played. There have been tempo discussions at practice, tempo related comments after competitions and I have been yelled at and lectured at for tempo related issues. Tempo is a big problem for most pipe bands.
But, with some planning, organization and directed practice, tempo needn't be an issue for any band.
To understand the root of tempo issues in pipe bands it is important to know the key members of a band involved in setting and maintaining tempo throughout a performance.
The pipe major sets the tempo at the beginning of a performance. This tempo is set when the pipe major marks time in front of the band. A good pipe major will mark time for several paces before the commands "BAND - BY THE RIGHT - QUICK MARCH". The command "BAND" should fall on the left foot. The command "BY THE RIGHT" should fall on the next left foot and "QUICK MARCH" should fall on a left, then a right, at which point the entire band steps off on the left foot.
This is where the drummers take over and reinforce the tempo by playing their intro rolls at the same tempo established by the pipe major's commands.
Establishing tempo is the responsibility of the pipe major. This is why they make the "big bucks".
Once the tempo is established and the intro rolls have been played the tempo is now set. Contrary to popular belief it is not the lead drummer's job to maintain the tempo of the music. It is the responsibility of every member of every section!
If a band is performing a competition medley, the pipe major is in charge of changing the tempo as the styles of the tunes change (moving from a march to a strathspey). The new tempo is established by the pipe major's foot taps.
The responsibility of the lead drummer is to prevent members of the corps from deviating from the set tempo. An important thing to note here: a lead drummer is powerless to influence rushing or dragging of corps drummers during a performance or competition. A lead drummer should plan months in advance to avoid these issues. I'll discuss this in more detail later.
The Importance of Confidence in Maintaining Tempo
When I started out playing drum kit in rock bands my tempo was... questionable at times. This was due to a few different factors--alcohol among them--but my main problem was that I played in a few bands where my tempo was often questioned by other band members. As the years have gone by I have become somewhat desensitized to criticism (in fact I crave it now) but that was not the case in my younger years. I took every critique of my time-keeping personally. The constant comments about my tempo eventually caused me to lose confidence in my ability to maintain the speed of a song. And, once I lost the belief in my time-keeping, my ability to play at a constant tempo sufferered. I over-analyzed, over-thought and over-compensated constantly. Those were difficult years for me as a musician.
In the middle of my tempo crisis I was invited to join a band of veteran musicians. To this day I have no idea why they chose me but it turned out to be a turning point in my music career. The band, "Good Question", was well established in Halifax at the time and all the members had been playing for many years. In my first rehearsal I learned what it was like to play with true professionals. They were so confident in their own sense of time that I didn't have to worry about my time sense at all. I just played. They never commented about my tempo and even set me up playing with backing tracks to a click track. They were complimentary of my playing and respected the skills I brought to the group. After a while, my confidence returned and with it, my sense of time.
When pipe majors constantly blame drummers for tempo issues it erodes drummers' confidence. The more they are blamed, the worse they will play.
I have lived it and it's not fun.
Using a Metronome
First, let's bust a myth that a metronome is somehow a crutch and those that use one don't have a good sense of time. That is ridiculous. A metronome is merely a useful tool that can be used to improve your performance and reinforce tempo. Anyone who has ever recorded anything in a studio must be comfortable playing to a click track. This skill is expected for every professional musician. In my experience, anyone who thinks the use of a metronome is a bad idea is usually someone that can't play to one! A metronome can be used to improve a pipe band's sense of time by following these simple steps:
First, it is imperative that the pipe major figure out the tempos at which they would like the music performed and then communicate those tempos to the lead drummer. Then, during every practice, a metronome should be used to reinforce these tempos. Next, both pipes and drums should play to a metronome often--both when practicing separately and playing together as a full band. If a metronome is used often a "feel" for the speed of the music is "installed" in each player's brain and body. After eight months of rehearsing the correct tempos players' "spidey senses" will start to "tingle" if the music strays from its intended metronomic "sweet spot". And, with enough repetition, this "sweet spot" will become automatic, even with the increase of adrenaline before a competition.
Mitigating the Adrenaline Issue
Adrenaline is the main cause of tempo issues in most pipe bands. Typically, a rush of adrenaline stemming from nervousness or excitement causes individual members to rush. This rushing causes a "musical fight" within the band as the pipe major struggles to reign in the tempo by stomping their foot emphatically and contorting their face into a "slow the hell down" expression. Inevitably this leads to a blame game and sometimes an all-out fight between band members or section leaders. With the use of a metronome, this extraneous "tempo drama" can be avoided.
Before a competition, and if possible, just before marching up to the line, the pipe major and lead drummer should briefly check the metronome. It is amazing the difference that nerves, weather, mood and myriad other factors have on a player's perception of tempo. The metronome check will eliminate many of these factors and greatly improve a band's chances of executing their planned performance speed.
Once a band enters the competition circle all band members should understand where to look in order to keep their tempo in check. The "conductor" of the pipe band is the pipe major. The pipe major "conducts" the band with their foot. Pipers should watch the pipe major's foot for breaks between tunes and their fingers during tunes. The bass drummer should watch the pipe major's foot exclusively. Tenor drummers should watch either the pipe major's foot or the bass drummer's arms (if they are blocked from seeing the pipe major). Snare drummers should watch the lead drummer and the lead drummer should watch the pipe major's foot. In addition, every band member should listen to what's going on around them! Listening and watching is the "glue" that holds a band together.
Section leaders who are insecure about their ability to set and maintain tempo are the cause of most speed-related drama. It is the duty of section leaders to lead by example and they must be the best time-keepers in your pipe band. If you're going to be a pipe major you need to be able to tap your foot and play to a metronome at a high level. If you're going to be a lead drummer you need to be able to play anything to a metronome, no matter how syncopated, and also be able to tap your foot simultaneously.
In addition, if your section leaders are secure in their sense of tempo they will be able to have calm, logical discussions about tempo without shouting or arguing. No one will be offended or defensive and, in most cases, the section leaders will agree about any tempo issues that crop up.
Practice Your Time Keeping
Some musicians have natural time-keeping ability. Others have some natural ability that needs to be augmented by regular metronome work (like myself). Time-keeping is a skill that should be practiced regularly. If you want to be a lead drummer someday you must be able to play at a steady tempo. The beauty of metronome practice is that it can immediately be added to your practice routine! Practice your rudiments, technical exercises and drum scores along with a metronome every day and your confidence will grow!
Help keep the world free of pipe band "tempo drama". There's a lot more important stuff to worry about in the world these days. Stay safe everyone and happy practicing!