The Ups and Downs: My Six Year Journey as a Lead Drummer

On August 2, 2019, the Dartmouth and District Pipe Band from Nova Scotia won the North American Pipe Band Championships in grade 4. I am fortunate to be the lead drummer. We won every judging category (1,1,1,1) against some very stiff competition. We got to march off to cheers from all the other Canadian East Coast bands, play in the beer tent to hundreds of screaming folks and continue the party throughout the bus ride home and into the wee hours of the night. It was a day and night that we won’t soon forget. 

Upon our arrival in Nova Scotia we were inundated with texts, messages and phone calls all congratulating us on our accomplishment. Our phones were exploding with congratulations from other East Coast bands. We made the paper. We were on the radio. CBC news called. It all seemed a bit surreal for a small grade 4 pipe band from Nova Scotia. Even though we never expected to receive this kind of reaction we have all relished those few days. Winning in Maxville is very hard to do and this may be a once in a lifetime accomplishment—especially winning straight firsts across the board. So, we appreciate it. We appreciate it because we know the story behind it. We remember the lowest moments. We remember how we got here. 

 

Early Days 

In 2011, I got a message from a friend asking if I would be interested in playing with Dartmouth and District. I had last played at a highland games in 1992 with the Rob Roy Pipe Band from Kingston, ON. I then took almost two decades away from pipe bands getting my music education degree, gigging, touring, teaching drum kit and learning to navigate the music business. After meeting with my friend and several others from the band at a local Starbucks I agreed to give it a go. My wife Adelle (having never played in a pipe band before) even decided she would try tenor drumming. 

At my first practice, I realized the severity of my mistake in taking twenty years off from pipe band drumming. My hands were garbage, I couldn’t read the music very well and memorizing the scores seemed like an insurmountable challenge—I eventually got my music (mostly) memorized sometime in July. Despite my initial failings, I enjoyed being part of a drum corps again and so did Adelle. All was good. 

The band travelled to Scotland in 2012 and got a respectable ninth place finish in grade 3A. It was the first time Dartmouth had been to the Worlds and everyone was pleased with the result. We enjoyed the trip, even stopping over in Iceland for a couple of days. Great first year. 

My second year with the band was also a success—to a degree. We played well in competition and the drum corps placed well, eventually winning best grade 3 drum corps at the North American Championships in Maxville. Things were going well... 

But things were about to change... 

In the fall of 2013, Dartmouth’s lead drummer left and took with him most of the grade 3 drum corps. Three snare drummers and a bass section remained. Upon hearing the news, the band executive began a search for a new lead drummer. The search for experienced/qualified candidates dragged on through September and late into October. In what I still believe was an act of desperation the band eventually reached out to me. Members of the executive knew I taught drum kit and that I had a music education degree and, for them, that was enough “qualifications” to offer me the position. I thought about it and accepted, having no real idea what I was in for. It would be a very interesting seven-year run... 

 

Year One (2013/2014) 

Dartmouth began year one with a strong pipe corps and a meagre drum corps. Fortunately, snare drummers that had either played in Dartmouth before or with other bands signed up to play with me (I have no idea why, as I was a complete unknown). We set about learning the music and learning about each other. The vibes were good. Everyone knew they would play every competition (I abhor cutting drummers) and we had a lot of fun. 

But, in May of 2014, something truly terrible happened: we got the news that Ian Green, one of our young tenor drummers, had passed away. He had been at band practice goofing off and making jokes the day before. We were stunned. The band lost one of its favourite members. We attended the wake. We played at the funeral. It was truly awful. 

None of us felt like playing, let alone competing. But, the memory of our friend and bandmate made it impossible not to. We all knew he would want us to play—so we did. 

Watching the members of the tenor corps that year was heart wrenching. Not wanting to let the band down, Ian’s friends in the tenor corps gutted it out through the entire season. One tenor drummer’s sister stepped in and learned all the music in a month to replace Ian’s part. Practice was a daily reminder of how much we all missed him. 

Before the first competition of the season we placed his picture in the bass drum so he could be in the circle with us at every contest. The drum corps dedicated its season to Ian. 

At the Antigonish Highland Games that year something special happened. Ian’s mother showed up to present the first “Ian Green Award” for best bass section at the games. The band greeted her with hugs and kind words as we waited to hear the results of the day. Then the competition results were announced. Dartmouth and District grade 5: first place. Dartmouth and District grade 3: first place. And, after challenging up to grade 2, Dartmouth and District: first place. The emotions poured out of us. People were openly crying throughout the band, hugging each other and the march off was one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever experienced. 

The competition season of 2014 passed by in a blur. Our results were mixed but we almost didn’t care. We were thinking of things more important than pipe band. 

 

Year Two (2014/2015) 

In September, the band decided to go to Scotland. We set about learning a new MSR and Medley for the trip. I had never written an MSR drum score so I assembled scores written by others—a “dumbed down” version of a complicated march score, Duthart’s “Maggie Cameron” and I wrote a score for Loch Carron. The Duthart strathspey turned out to be more difficult than the corps could handle so that also had to be simplified. 

Then the learning began. As I had virtually no experience teaching a strathspey it took a while for me to wrap my head around it. Strathspeys are very complicated (a fact of which I was slowly becoming aware) and the corps struggled with it. We were playing virtually no dynamics and weren’t really paying attention to how the music gelled with the pipe corps. This was evident when we got our first sheets back at our contests in the Maritimes: “No lift”, “lacking forward motion”, “no dynamics” etc. I was frustrated and didn’t know where to look for answers. But there was no time to look for answers—we were going to Scotland (gulp). 

Two days before leaving for Scotland I got a call from one of my drummers letting me know he wouldn’t be able to make the trip. Unfortunately, he had been taking care of drum tech duties for us all season. Due to laziness, delegation and a feeling of overwhelm with the drum scores I had neglected to learn how to properly tune a snare drum! I knew I would have to try and learn to tune the corps quickly. It was going to be baptism by fire. 

Upon arrival in Scotland our drums sounded terrible. The heads had been loosened before the flight to prevent them from breaking in transit and, try as I might, I could not get them up to pitch. I had another corps member step up to help me but neither of us was having much luck. 

We attended North Berwick and finished middle of the pack—with several comments about the drum sound. Next day, we went to Perth and again tried bringing the drums up to pitch. We finished 17th out of 17 drum corps. I was discouraged beyond belief. I felt useless and stupid. We had paid all this money to come to Scotland and our drum sound was going to be our downfall?? 

Coupled with our drum sound issues was a major problem with our intro rolls. They sucked. We had received comments about them at every contest up to that point and, after a weekend of bad results I finally lost my patience. I can’t remember what day it was but the drummers were subjected to a very blunt and grumpy lead drummer leading an “intro rolls only” practice for more than an hour. For the practice to end, my requirement was that each corps member would need to play ten good intro rolls in a row with me. Once they accomplished that, I would move onto the next drummer (victim). I never got past the third or fourth drummer. I was steaming mad. What I failed to realize at the time was that our terrible rolls were all my fault. We hadn’t worked on them much at all and I was blaming the drum corps for my mistake. My stress level was nearing the breaking point. 

After Perth I was chatting/apologizing to our pipe major when he suggested I contact Hugh Cameron to help with our drum sound. For those who don’t know Hugh he has been a fixture in the pipe band scene in Ontario for more than 50 years. He is always willing to help when he can and his reputation for tuning snare corps precedes him. He told me he would meet our corps on the Green the day of the Worlds and help us out before our contest. This made me feel a little better at least, knowing that some help was on the way. 

The morning of the Worlds I put my drum on the bus early in the morning and walked down to the Green alone. It was nice to have some time to think and reflect on what had happened on the trip so far. I was the first one to arrive at the Dartmouth tent. The Green was quiet but growing slowly louder as the crowds began to file in. Hugh arrived fifteen minutes later and began working on the drums. As he tuned he told us exactly what he was doing. It was an impromptu tuning clinic on a competition day! The drums started to come up to pitch and you could see the stress dissipate from the snare drummers’ faces. The stress of our wonky drum sound had been so intense that it felt like a huge weight had been lifted. We went out and played and the drummers got third place in the qualifier. The band was going to the finals! 

When we heard that we made the finals we were over the moon. That had been our goal all along. Our goal was never to place at the Worlds. It had never even occurred to us. We went out and played like we had nothing to lose and we played great. After our play, we had no expectations at all. We didn’t really talk about it, we just grabbed a drink at the beer tent and waited for the march past. 

Standing, listening to the results, is something I’ll always remember. “Fourth place: Dartmouth and District”. We freaked out. After all of the ups and downs of the trip we got this incredible result! The 78th Highlanders Halifax Citadel sprinted over to us to join in the celebrations. It was crazy. The celebrations continued into the night. The drum corps shaved my head. The pipers shaved our pipe majors head. It was an improbable but incredible feeling. 

The next morning I was on a train to London to visit my wife’s family. The pipe band season melted away. 

 

Year Three (2015/2016) 

My struggles with drum score writing and execution had finally caught the attention of our pipe major who suggested I could use some help. I agreed completely. In 2015, we got a grant and brought Reid Maxwell in from B.C. Reid is one of the best drum score composers on the planet and walks the walk as only the top drummers can. Reid’s visit was the beginning of my pipe band drumming education. 

Reid made some changes to our drum scores. By “some” I mean EVERYTHING! Marches were reworked, strathspeys were completely rewritten and medley arrangements were turned on their head. I had so many passages scratched out and arrows pointing every which way that most of my scores were illegible. It was a complete reworking of every aspect of our music. I would describe that two-day workshop as perhaps the most mentally taxing two days of my life. I learned a ton of new information about composing, arranging, chips, placement of dynamics and personnel management. I drove Reid around the city to his hotel and back and the learning continued in the car. It was an unbelievable two days. 

One week after the workshop we had a gig promoting the band at a local pub. We had decided as a group to try our best to play Reid’s new versions of our drum scores. It did not go well. I remember a drummer from another band coming up to me after our performance offering the comment “that was interesting!” 

The competition season turned out a little better thanks to Reid’s help. We got some good results and we were feeling good going into Maxville. We were proud of our 4th place finish at the Worlds the year before and we were feeling confident we could keep our positive momentum going. 

On the day, I thought we played well. The morale was good in the corps and spirits were high in the beer tent. When the results were announced, we found out the band had come second—very respectable... until I heard the drumming results: eleventh out of 14. Ugh. 

The feeling of thinking you’ve done well, and then finding out you really didn’t, is not a good one. It causes you to lose trust in yourself. It causes you to question everything you’ve been doing. 

And I did. 

I struggled to figure out why. I just didn’t know. I needed to know. So, I started asking questions: “What is lift?”, “How do you get better at dynamics?”, “How do I improve our unison?”, “How can I write a good strathspey?”. I came up with as many questions as I could and I started asking. 

Some bands would have lost patience with me but Dartmouth stuck with me for some reason. My drum corps made it clear they had my back and, even though they were disappointed, they all let me know they were willing to redouble their efforts to improve. It was during this difficult time that the idea for PipeBandDrummer.com was conceived. 

It was clear, after our Maxville results, that our drum corps was lacking many of the fundamentals we needed to succeed. Many members of our corps couldn’t read music, many struggled with their rudiments and it was clear I needed to completely overhaul the Dartmouth teaching program. 

In the fall, we set up a system of rudiment standards for each band. Every drum corps member in the organization was required to play all rudiments with a metronome. This was the beginning of the process that began to “turn the ship around”. 

For the final three months of 2016 I worked on the planning for PipeBandDrummer.com. I wanted the site to offer free resources to pipe band drummers that hadn’t been available to me. I wanted it to have a reading component, a rudiment component and some world-class practice tracks drummers could use to practice their solos. The site was released in January of 2017 with little fanfare, essentially as a tool to help the drummers in my drum corps improve their fundamentals. Slowly but surely things began to change. More drummers could read and our rudiments were improving. Things were moving in the right direction... 

 

Year Four (2016/2017) 

In September of 2016 I was informed that the band was moving up from grade 3 to grade 2. I knew this was a giant step for the band but I also knew we were up for the challenge. The drum corps began working on more complex rudiments, we got some scores from Reid and I started to use the knowledge I’d gained on Reid’s last visit to write our remaining scores. 

Soon, however, we realized we had a massive challenge in front of us. Grade 2 requires two MSRs and that is a big chunk of material to wrap your head around. It took us almost the entire year to learn our music. We were struggling with mistakes and memory lapses right up to our first contest. 

I was very proud of how hard everyone worked. We grinded it out with difficult scores and exercise sheets all year. There were many moments of frustration and feelings of hopelessness as we worked our way through the material but, looking back, it was probably the best development year for the corps. 

We tried our best during that competition season but it was clear the drum corps was out of its depth. We didn’t have much success at all and were constantly dragging the pipers’ results down with low drumming marks. 

Then we got to Maxville and things went from bad to worse. My wife and I had gone up to Ottawa a couple of days early for a mini-vacation. We did a ton of walking around the city (mostly on pavement) and after a few days I started to notice a tightening in my back. I’d had a history of back trouble dating back to my time carting a drum hardware bag across the country. As we joined up with the band a couple of days before the competition I could sense that my back problems were going to be an issue. 

On competition day, my back was very sore. It was hard to stand upright and I had trouble walking. I had told our pipe major but I hadn’t let anyone know exactly how bad things were. I avoided putting a drum on for as long as I could but when I finally did the pain was intense. 

My back spasms started on the walk over to final tuning. To say I was distracted was an understatement. I tried my best to keep everything to myself but at this point it was getting hard to hide what was happening. We played our medley first and I managed to hold it together. Then we marched over to play our MSR and the pain increased. On top of everything else the skies opened up and poured rain for the duration of our performance. We finished and I hobbled back to our bus, took my drum off gingerly and eventually managed to sit down. The back spasms continued. I couldn’t move. The rest of the band went off to the beer tent and I remained at the bus, sitting in a lawn chair wincing for the next five hours. 

Eventually, one of the drummers returned and let me know the results: two last place finishes. Morale was low in the corps and my personal morale was even lower. We had worked so hard all year to get these terrible results. 

Upon returning to Ottawa I went straight to bed. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I wanted to quit. 

 

Year Five (2017/2018) 

Even after our poor showing in Maxville I was told that the band would remain in grade 2. I was also informed that we would be going to Scotland—a decision that I, and most of the band, disagreed with. Many of us knew that continuing in grade 2 was not sustainable but we began the year with the mindset that we would be competing in grade 2 the following summer. 

To make a long story slightly shorter, our grade 2 band folded in May of 2018. Attendance had been atrocious all year and the Scotland trip disintegrated. Now Dartmouth was left with two bands: one in grade 4 and one in grade 5. 

One of my philosophies is to train new lead drummers whenever possible. I like inexperienced players to play lead at parade band practice or, in some cases where I feel they are ready, to experience leading their own drum corps. The grade 4 and 5 bands were already set up with their own lead drummers so, rather than step in and take over, I decided I would learn the music for our grade 4 band and simply play in the corps. Several other players from the grade 2 followed suit. 

That summer was the most relaxing summer for me since I’d become a lead drummer. Once I learned the music all I had to do was to show up, play and keep my mouth shut. It was wonderful. The grade 4 band was a fun crew and I enjoyed my time as a corps drummer. 

In Maxville that year, the grade 4 band came a respectable fifth place. There was a feeling that things were looking up for the organization—a welcome change from the sometimes-overwhelming stress of the year. 

After several discussions with the grade 4 lead-drummer, it was decided that I would return to lead-drummer duties with the grade 4 band for the upcoming season. I couldn’t wait to get back at it. 

 

Year Six (2018/2019) 

At the beginning of the year we had a meeting for all the drummers in the organization. I had big plans. We were going to work hard, start several new initiatives and we were going to have fun. The mood in the corps was good and we were all excited to get going. Blaise Theriault, the grade 4 pipe major was very organized and also very ambitious. We had a ton of music to learn and new scores had to be written for all of it. By the end of December, I had written 40 drum scores plus a new drum fanfare. Because of Blaise’s organization (he had the tunes decided before October) I had time to write everything by Christmas—even most of the bass section scores. Incredibly, this beat the previous “I’ve finished writing all the scores” record by four months! Before this year, I had never finished writing all the scores until the end of April. 

The extra four months were a gift and they were used to concentrate on some fine details—maintaining our unison during quiet passages, honing the rhythms of a 9/8 march, interpreting a strathspey correctly etc. The most important thing we did in these four months, however, was reps—lots and lots of reps. And, we did reps as a full band at every practice. What’s the best way to memorize music? Lots of reps! Most people were off their written music in February even though we had learned eleven brand new scores and a new drum fanfare. 

We also benefitted greatly from workshops by Doug Stronach and Alex Gandy. Doug gave us great ideas on how to improve our unison through attention to subdivision and gave us some great tips to expand our dynamic range. He also pointed out flaws in our fundamentals and execution which, when corrected, vastly improved our overall unison. Just as I had done with Reid a few years earlier, I volunteered myself to chauffeur Doug around town. Every car trip was another drum lesson! 

Alex Gandy was the next clinician in late April. He worked primarily with the pipers but was very helpful with the drum corps as well and gave us some great tips to improve our ensemble—especially with our strathspey playing. I was very impressed with Alex. I had always known how great a piper he was but I was even more impressed with his understanding of music in general. In fact, all three clinicians that have come to Dartmouth during my tenure have been great musicians first, pipers and drummers second. 

Our competition season began in Moncton, New Brunswick in June. The Atlantic Canadian season currently involves only four contests so there are no real “warmups”. And, as the band travels regularly to Maxville to compete at the North American Championships, each contest becomes even more important (you’ve only got four chances to figure things out). 

The band played well in Moncton, not so well in Pugwash, fine enough in Antigonish and quite well in Fredericton. It was one week to Maxville. I couldn’t put my finger on it but I had a good feeling about where we were as a band. Somehow, through the work we had done that year, the band had raised its overall performance standard to a point where even if we had a performance we considered “bad” it would still be considered “okay” by many. We were becoming more consistent and with that consistency came a sort of low-key confidence. No one really talked about it but you could see it during warmups and contests. Maxville was a different beast, however, and during my time as lead in Dartmouth we had never had much success there. 

In the previous six years, any drum corps led by me had never finished higher than sixth place at Maxville: 6th in 2013, 6th again in 2014, 11th in 2016 and 6th out of six (other known as “last”) in 2017—mediocre results at best. 

Looking back, I remember feeling “behind the 8-ball” from the time I started as a lead drummer. I always felt one step behind and, at times, that it would take forever to catch up. When Dartmouth moved from grade 3 to grade 2 those feelings were amplified ten-fold. But, when the grade 2 band folded and I spent a summer as a corps drummer with the grade 4 band, I had a chance to reflect, accumulate more knowledge and plan for the upcoming year. Then when I assumed the lead position with the grade 4 band it felt like I had a second chance at being a lead drummer. It was like starting again but with six years of experience under my belt. Everything felt more comfortable and for the first time in my career as a lead drummer I finally felt like I belonged there. 

Our time at Maxville was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. There was no talk of beating another band, only talk of playing well ourselves. We played relaxed and with the confidence that had been building all season. We played as well as we could and “left it all on the field”. 

As the results were read out, I had to laugh. After so many years of mediocre drumming results bringing down our overall scores, no one celebrated when the placings were read out. Sixth... Fifth... Fourth... Third... Second... 

...and then that feeling of dread: “not again!” 

Then... first place... “Dartmouth and District”. Then the cheers! East Coast bands and others flooding over to congratulate us. High fives. Hugs. Tears. 

Six years of hard work. Six years of self-doubt. Six years of grinding it out. 

Finally. Paid. Off. 

We got our pins. We formed up at the front of the massed bands and played off as every East Coast band cheered us on. We played all the way to the beer tent and then played in the beer tent surrounded by hundreds of people. It was unreal. I tried to give a speech to the corps. All I could manage to say was “I’m so proud of all of you”. I choked up. I couldn’t talk. I was beyond happy for everyone.

 

In closing, I know our pipe band is not special. Every band is like ours. Every band goes through the highs and lows. Members come and go. The band moves up a grade, then back down, then maybe down again, then up again. We struggle choosing music and writing scores. We all host fundraisers and try to increase our visibility in the community to attract new players. We all have fun times and sometimes we’re all miserable. 

The reason we all choose to play in a pipe band is that we love it. We love playing music, we love being part of a team and we love to compete. 

Whatever happens in your own band, make sure to stick with each other through the ups and downs. You’ll be glad you did. 

 

I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the last six years. Here’s a few of them... 

 

My Takeaways from the Last Six Years 

  • Hire a clinician to help your band. Do it as soon as you can. 
  • Learn as much as you can. 
  • Ask questions and pay attention to the answers. 
  • Help others to learn. 
  • Stay humble. 
  • Know that it’s okay to doubt yourself but don’t ever give up. 
  • Lead by example. 
  • Trust your corps members. Don’t micro-manage. 
  • Results aren’t everything but it’s nice to win sometimes. 
  • Appreciate your successes and build on your failures. 
  • There’s no shame in asking for help. 
  • Let your drummers know you appreciate them and they’ll stick with you. 
  • Don’t yell—keep it positive. 
  • Work hard to get better every day. 
  • Communicate effectively with every member of your corps—not all people communicate the same way. 
  • If your corps is doing something wrong, figure out how to fix it. If you can’t figure it out, ask someone who knows.

10 comments

  • David Galbraith

    David Galbraith Saint John, NB

    Very well said, and so inspirational Zach. You have been a very good source of education and knowledge to our band, and to all who follow you on your very good site.

    Very well said, and so inspirational Zach. You have been a very good source of education and knowledge to our band, and to all who follow you on your very good site.

  • Chris Welch

    Chris Welch Saint John

    Excellent piece of inspiration Zack. This story of your bands path to a North American Champioship along with Tripert Singh's story of the Sri Dasmesh Pipe Band's World Championship should inspire us all to practice just a bit harder. Congrats on the win.

    Excellent piece of inspiration Zack.

    This story of your bands path to a North American Champioship along with Tripert Singh's story of the Sri Dasmesh Pipe Band's World Championship should inspire us all to practice just a bit harder.

    Congrats on the win.

  • Pipe Band Drummer

    Pipe Band Drummer

    Thanks for the support and encouragement Dave!

    Thanks for the support and encouragement Dave!

  • Pipe Band Drummer

    Pipe Band Drummer

    Thanks Chris! I've got to check out that article about Sri Dasmesh. Have you got a link?

    Thanks Chris! I've got to check out that article about Sri Dasmesh. Have you got a link?

  • David Dabrowski

    David Dabrowski

    So..your next writing will define and describe "Lift"??? I hope so

    So..your next writing will define and describe "Lift"??? I hope so

  • Pipe Band Drummer

    Pipe Band Drummer

    Great idea Dave. Might do a video too :-). Thanks for the suggestion!

    Great idea Dave. Might do a video too :-). Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Terri

    Terri Halifax

    Great job with the band and the blog Zach! You're an awesome educator, in any context!

    Great job with the band and the blog Zach! You're an awesome educator, in any context!

  • Pipe Band Drummer

    Pipe Band Drummer

    Thanks Terri!

    Thanks Terri!

  • Drew McPheeters

    Drew McPheeters Colorado

    Nice article, Zach. Your approach to diagnosing issues, accepting responsibility and working on solutions is inspiring. I have a lot to work on in my bands, and will take a lot of good information from this article! Cheers

    Nice article, Zach. Your approach to diagnosing issues, accepting responsibility and working on solutions is inspiring.

    I have a lot to work on in my bands, and will take a lot of good information from this article!

    Cheers

  • Pipe Band Drummer

    Pipe Band Drummer

    Thanks Drew! Yep, the learning continues... onwards and upwards!

    Thanks Drew! Yep, the learning continues... onwards and upwards!

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