Bass-section or mid-section? A ruling

Percussion section is a good name when pipe bands aren't judged.The surge in popularity of pipe band tenor-drumming might well be the most talked about topic of the last 10 years in our world. There’s no denying that the change that has been brought to bands through the development and use of more tuned drums has been profound. Love it, hate it or ambivalent to it, this section’s importance is here and it’s not likely to diminish any time soon.

But, what to call this evolved aspect of pipe bands? Traditionally, the drums that weren’t the snares were referred to as the “bass-section.” I guess that was because that “section” always, at a minimum, included a bass-drum. Before 1995 or so there would be one, maybe two or, at most, three tenor-drummers, some often not even audibly playing the drum. Bands often competed with no tenors at all.

The bass back then was the undisputed focal point of the section. So “bass-section” made sense.

These days, tenor drums of various sizes and tones, while not yet required, are at least expected in a competing pipe band. Upper-grade bands bring out three, four, five and even as many as nine drums in these burgeoning sections.

So, it makes sense that the appropriate name for this part of the band is “mid-section.” That name is inclusive of all the instruments found in the section today, and leaves room for who-knows-what instruments will be added tomorrow. Further, the section doesn’t yet lead the band, and is in middle of it – at least in today’s typical formation – so the “mid” is descriptive of where they stand.

I’ve heard traditionalists who take umbrage at the use of “mid-section,” demanding that “bass-section” continue to be used. But the truth is these sections are a bunch of differently pitched drums in the middle of the band. Others make the apt point that the bass and tenors are simply part of the “drum-section,” so that term should be used. Ideally that would make sense, but, so far, anyway, pipe band drumming judges (who are always snare-drummers) don’t appear ready or, many contend, qualified to judge today’s tenor-drumming. Bass and tenors are clearly a separate-but-integrated aspect of pipe band competition, and thus deserve a separate descriptor.

So, at least here, “mid-section” it will be.

Shiny, happy tenors

Seriously fun stuff.Okay, this is the last thing on tenor drummers for a while. I promise.

But has anyone noticed that, while pipers and snare drummers look like they’re in the midst of a battle – or a funeral, depending on how the band is playing – tenor-drummers are often smiling and even laughing during the competition?

I thought about it before, but was reminded when viewing the World’s DVD. There are many shots of flourishing tenor players who look like they’re at a theme park instead of an Every-Little-Mistake-Could-Ruin-It-For-The-Whole-Band World Championship.

Having fun is the name of the game, of course, but I wonder why tenor-drummers are so happy in the heat of competition while the rest of the band looks like they’re in complete misery.

Downturn

Looking prosperous.The barrage of bad economic news just keeps on coming and, unfortunately, the pipe band world will not be exempt. In fact, the pipe band world as we’ve come to know it, will be hit hard and will likely change dramatically in the next few years. I wish that weren’t so, but it is, so let’s talk about it.

We have seen over the last 15 years an era of unprecedented pipe band prosperity. Rosters have expanded to sizes unimaginable just two decades ago. Bands of all grades have traveled the world to support their hobby in the name of fun and glory. Bagpipes have been developed with every imaginable ornamentation by dozens of pipe-makers that didn’t even exist in 1998. Pipe band associations the world over have raised fees without raising services. Pipe band mid-sections have come from the brink of extinction to, some would contend, almost running bands themselves.

Nothing like a severe global recession to fix all that.

Bass-sections might actually be a bellwether of band prosperity. Up until the early 1970s, when bands wore nothing but ornate and expensive number-one dress, tenor- and bass-drummers were kitted out in (and this is hard to imagine today) the pelts of exotic animals. Leopard-, tiger- and bear-skin “aprons,” replete with canine-baring heads, would adorn the then most musically insignificant playing members of the band. Far more money was invested in the traditional bass-section players than in pipers or snare drummers.

It might not be a coincidence, then, that the pipe band uniform changed dramatically around 1974 when the last comparably major world economic crisis struck. Pipe bands started to cut costs, and looked to uniforms first. “Number-two” dress was adopted from the solo piping world. Not only was it a lot cheaper, but it was far easier to maintain and, most importantly, perform in.

Bands were feeling an economic crunch, and adding a player was a serious commitment. Perhaps not coincidentally, band members were shed, too. Departing tenor drummers often were not replaced.

Fast-forward, then, to the most recent economic boom, starting about 2001 after the last “mini-recession.” Again, not coincidentally, band rosters increased faster than the stock markets. The expansive modern bass-section was invented and, in fact, renamed. “Mid-sections” of four, five, even nine players were added, each drummer adding new tones, each playing an expensive instrument that utilized cutting-edge drum technology.

People still argue about whether such additions help or hinder pipe bands, whether they add or detract from the music, whether complex mid-sections have enough musical return on investment to warrant their inclusion. Robert Mathieson loves them; Richard Parkes is less keen.

If history is any indication, though, the piping and drumming times may reflect the economic times. I dislike the notion as much as anyone, but there is no doubt that the next year or so will present major challenges to pipe band events, pipe band associations and pipe bands themselves. For bands – and I hope I am wrong here – addressing those challenges could well start with the mid-section.