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David Fletcher Interview

Pipe Drumming and the Scottish Tradition

Starting with traditional orchestral percussion aged just 11, David has performed across the country with county youth bands and the Leicester Symphony Orchestra. Having worked the professional circuit as a drum kit player, playing shows at venues such as the Savoy and the Dorchester Hotel, David also runs the Amber Valley Drum School, and cofounded the Nottingham Drum Centre.

Since 2007, David has played drum kit and marching snare drum with a military band, and began exploring pipe drumming of the Scottish tradition. These roles have seen him perform in the Royal Military Tournament in Earl's Court, the Berlin Tattoo, and many more shows with a massed band around Germany, France, and Norway.

The Aspects of Scottish Pipe Drumming

JC: What do you consider to be the main conceptual aspects of pipe drumming as an individual tradition. For example, musical traditions based in the military and marching world tend to favour strong pulses and simple time signatures. How much of the pipe drumming idiom is based on its military roots?

DF: Having had experience of regular, traditional military bands and pipe bands, the main difference I see in the two styles is the complexity of the latter. Whilst the snare drum beatings for traditional military snare drum are obvious and fit the music perfectly, those of the pipe band drummer are complex and may sound irregular to those not used to the genre. 


For marching purposes, both styles rely on a steady and loud bass drum beat in order to keep the troops marching in time, and indeed for these types of events the pipe band snare drummer will tend to play slightly simpler “massed band beatings” in 4/4, 2/4, 6/8, and 3/4 times. For pipe band competitions however, more complex snare drum parts are played, usually in a medley setting involving marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs, slow airs, and so on.


JC: Does the pipe drumming tradition favour the massed band format over the individual soloist? What sort of emphasis is placed on the synchronisation and unity of the corps as opposed to the virtuosity of the individual? Is that influenced by the military roots of the style?


DF: For the overwhelming majority of pipe band snare drummers, 99% of what they play will be in a full band setting along with a bass drum, tenor drums, and bagpipes. This will be playing for parades (using the simpler massed bands beatings) or for competitions (again as a full band).  Only a very few drummers go on to play in solo snare drum contests, and whilst we all love to go and watch the likes of Jim Kilpatrick, for most of us its very much a side-line that we’ll never do. They are not held as often as regular band contests. The whole drum corps of a band may perform a “drum salute” on occasions, playing without the pipes and throwing in some fancy stickwork (back sticking etc.) but that's it.


Each band has a lead snare drummer (or lead tip) and they are the only ones who play throughout the entire piece. The rest of the snares are a little like a chorus line, playing a call and response with the lead drum, and it is imperative that the snare drum line play exactly together when required. So generally the drum line has to play to the abilities of the weakest player.


JC: What sort of elements would a soloist incorporate into their performances in competition or performance that differs from the massed band format? Within the pipe drumming tradition, is there a lot of room for individual virtuosity? How does this manifest in somebody like Jim Kilpatrick who embodies this style of drumming?

DF: For those soloists like Jim [Kilpatrick] who do take part year in it year out, it gives them an opportunity to really play to the best of their ability. They don't have to worry about the rest of the drummers being able to play the same beatings to the same standard, so its a chance for them to step forward and play to the absolute best of their ability. They are still performing along with a piper playing set tunes, so whatever part they think up must fit into the context of the music as a whole.


JC: What are the main aspects of the pieces in terms of their composition? For example, how do the reels, jigs, strathspeys etc. differ, and what is the function/role/main idea behind each type of composition? Do the compositions use standard musical devices like theme, motivic development, or is it particularly based around marching and decoration of the marching pulse?

DF: Firstly, the pipers will be given a tune, usually something traditional and well known. The pipe major will usually record himself playing this and pass it onto the lead drummer. They now have the job of putting a drum part to the tune. As mentioned earlier, they really have to take into consideration the limitations of the rest of the drum corps; it's no good writing a drum part that the lead drummer can play but the rest will struggle with, so there has to be balance between complexity and playability.

Pipe band tunes are classified into various styles; a medley might be 3 pieces, a march, a strathspey, and a reel. The march is typically a 4/4 march, the strathspey is also 4/4 but has a very strong pulse where the 4 main beats in a bar are played strong - weak - medium - weak. the bass drum really accentuates this and the drummers play a part with a strong emphasis on beat one, with lots of dot and cut notes and triplets. The reel has a dot and cut - cut dot feel. Other common pieces may be jigs (6/8 triplet feel) or slow airs (like Amazing Grace).

JC: How does pipe drumming in the Scottish tradition differ from other (English, American, Swiss) military drumming and marching styles? What are the individual characteristics of Scottish pipe drumming in contrast to other marching styles?


DF: The pipe band snare drum beatings are usually very complex and at first appearance hardly seem to fit to what most other drummers would  consider a regular 4/4 march.  The bass drum will still play to keep the musicians and troops marching in time but the snare parts seem to be in a world of their own: accents in strange places, lots of roll based rudiments, lots of flams... almost trying to cram as many notes as they can into a bar!

JC: What is the approach towards rolls within the pipe drumming tradition? For example, in the rudimental tradition, there are open rolls, closed rolls, buzz rolls, and numerous techniques within each - single strokes, double strokes, buzz strokes, finger/wrist/Moeller strokes etc. What are the main concepts and techniques surrounding pipe drumming rolls?


DF: Rolls... I can only speak from my own experience here. Rolls play a huge part in the pipe band drummer's arsenal, all carefully defined (5 stroke rolls, 7s, etc). Unlike other styles of drumming, the rolls tend to be buzzed rather than open, maybe because the pipe band snare drum has no sustain at all. Open rolls would possibly sound a bit “machine gun”? The buzzed rolls on a tight kevlar head and top snare mech give a nice smooth roll. These rolls are punctuated with accents, made by playing, for example, a few 5-stroke rolls with no gaps between and accenting, say, the last of each 5: rrllRllrrLrrllRllrL.

Single stroke rolls are widely used, especially when a more open effect is required, again often with accents. Wrists are loose and relaxed. In my circles, I've not heard drummers discuss techniques such as Moeller but maybe asking that question to a top grade solo snare drummer may well give you a different answer.

JC: How is the buzz roll achieved with large sticks on the pipe drum? Do you think this technique is the same as on a drum set, marching, or orchestral snare, or is there a unique type of technique for buzz rolls in pipe drumming?

DF: As per all other styles of drumming, really. Buzz right, buzz left, buzz right... gradually increasing speed until a relaxed, smooth roll is achieved.

JC: What are the main practice habits within the pipe drumming tradition? How would a student be told to work on the particular techniques and musical passages? For example, the orchestral tradition uses a lot of etude-based practising, while American Drum Corps has things like check patterns, well-known exercises, and a well defined curriculum through which a student would progress.

DF: Many bands have their own little group for beginners, and this often involves going through a book of the popular rudiments. Once a drummer starts to progress with these, small chunks of something like a massed band 4/4 may be approached.


As far as the drum corps is concerned, the lead drummer takes responsibility for practice sessions. From my own experience, this usually involves the first half of the evening with drummers in their own room on pads; maybe a warm up through some massed band beatings, and then going onto learning some of the competition pieces. This is often a slow process, learning a bar at a time, then maybe putting four bars together until all the corps are comfortable with the piece.


Often the lead drummer will video his drumming so the rest of the corps can practice at home and play along. This is especially useful for learning where the unison parts (with all drummers playing) come in.  The second half of the practice is on real drums and playing along with the pipers, so we can get a feel for how the drum parts fit with the music.

JC: How well formed is the Scottish tradition of pipe drumming. Previously, you have talked about competitions with mass bands - presumably there is a whole institution and community based around these competitions and the mass bands that take parts. Do you feel Scottish pipe drumming is as developed artistically as, say, the American rudimental tradition, or do you feel it is underrepresented on the world stage?


DF: Yes, on one hand it is under represented, yet if you look for it there are loads of bands and events.  The ruling body is the RSPBA (Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association). Bands are affiliated to this and the RSPBA organize all the competitions in the UK. These included minor contests such as Colchester and Corby where only bands from, say, England might decide to compete, up to major contests usually held in Scotland and attended by bands from across the world.


The world pipe band championships are held in Glasgow every summer, and this has bands from the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, Middle East and many more, all attending and playing in their respective grades (4B being lowest, 1 being highest). The top grade 1 bands usually have their performance televised and broadcast on the BBC, and the sheer size of the event is immense.

Likewise, when we go over to Europe, I play in a massed band made up from drummers from the UK, Holland, Germany, Poland, and others, so the pipe band world really is worldwide and seems to be well received by audiences of all nationalities.

The pipe band scene is very healthy, well funded, and enthusiastic. Some drummers will have their preferences as to which parts of it they enjoy the most. For me it is the massed bands and parades. I really enjoy being part of this as it is a performance that audiences seem to love.

Think of the Edinburgh Tattoo at the castle, where the huge group of pipers and drummers emerge from the castle gates amid smoke, it's a very impressive sight. Other drummers that I know are more into the “artform” of pipe band drumming, and these guys prefer the competing element, constantly coming up with new ideas and pushing the boundaries.

David performs at the British Military Tournament, Earl's Court, London, 8th December 2012

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