FT: What first interested you in pipe band drumming and how long have you been involved?
MB: I became involved with pipe bands by mistake – seriously. I was at a friend’s house on a Sunday afternoon and he had to leave to go to ‘pipe band practice’. I asked if I could join along to watch, showed up, got sticks slapped in my hands, and the rest is history I guess. That was in February of 2005 and I’ve been attending Sunday band practices ever since.
FT: Who have been your instructors throughout the years?
MB: There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child, and I really think that’s the experience I’ve received and I’m still learning. There have been so many people that have helped me in one way or
another. I started playing when I was 15, and had no personal connections on the scene. The amount of help and advice I’ve received and continue to receive is humbling.
I’ve never had an instructor that I went to on a regular basis - ever. At first, before the days of YouTube, I would video tape the 78th and try to teach myself what they were doing. I went to every workshop my parents could afford. I watched midsections practice. I still watch midsections practice. I consider myself to be a student of my craft, and I try tobe aware of what’s going on globally. It’s an ongoing education.
Pete Aumonier and John Gaudet, the leadership from my days in Hamilton, did a lot for me as a young kid. They would pick me up from the train, let me stay at their homes, and really made me feel welcome. They continue to mentor me, either directly or indirectly. I have a lot of respect for them.
The individual who moulded me into the musician I am today is undoubtedly Drew Duthart. Drew took an interest in me as a young kid who had some potential, and I’ve tried to absorb every bit of knowledge he has to share - and that’s not limited to drumming or music either. I can’t even begin to explain what Drew means to me, and to all of us, in the 78th. Without Drew Duthart, there is no Matt Bellia – at least not the Matt Bellia sitting here today.
FT: Do any styles of music influence your technique?
MB: Quite literally every single style has some pull on me in some way. I like 'funky' music, so anything with a killer bass line groove is usually on the playlist. Some of my favourite drummers to listen to are Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Tyler Stewart(Bare Naked Ladies), John Bonham (Zepplin), and Neal Peart (Rush).
Drew has a natural tendencey to include various jazz riffs into what we're playing, so it's an area of music that I'm trying to become more familiar with.
FT: What have been your biggest inspirations in your playing?
MB: When I was 15, I was at the Ancaster Highland Games (now defunct) with my family. It was 25 degrees before the humidity, and the whole day felt like you were walking in a sweaty armpit. I had finished the day with my own band, and was standing in the crowd to watch my first grade one contest with my dad (who had the video camera).
First up was Toronto Police. They had a huge pipe corps (18 or 20) and a snare line (10 - which was incredible for me considering my band played with only 2). They just looked so professional, shirts pressed, ties tied, hoses height, etc. They were what you'd expect a grade 1 band to be. I don't remember their performance, probably because it was the first grade one band I had ever seen and I was overwhelmed.
But then, almost as if it was fate, the 78th walked up. They had a slightly smaller pipe corps, and a drum corps of 6. They didn't have the polish that Toronto did, from a visual standpoint. I remember Bill walking up to the judge and asking him if he wanted earplugs, while Drew had just - this look - this killer instinct in his eyes. I knew that one way or another, these guys were going to put on a show. I'll never forget it.
"Brigadier General Cheape, Blair Drummond, Charlie's Welcome" Bill shouted to the band and started waving his hand, pulsing the beat visually (maybe Bill always wanted to be a tenor drummer?) with the metronome to his ear. They were off and finished in the blink of an eye. I looked at my dad when they were done, after that aggressive 7th and 8th part of Charlie's Welcome, the drumming with 6 was louder than Toronto's 10, the midsection was flying and then it was done, almost as quickly as it began. They tapped off and everyone sort of sauntered away, probably to grab a drink before final ceremonies. I didn't move, not a hair. I looked at my dad and said, "Dad, I'm going to do that. I'm going to play in that band" and that's that, really. I made a decision at 15 and went for it.
I guess now my inspiration is to try to replicate that experience for someone else. If there's a kid, or maybe two brothers, who sit at the computer with a worlds CD and high five during our medley, tap out the drum fill to the reel on the table, hum the opener as they're walking to school in the morning even if it's just one person, just one of the many who listen to our music that I can inspire to work a little harder, set goals, and achieve them, then I've done my job.
FT: What all bands have you played with?
MB: I've played with 3 bands during my career, those being the Strathroy Legion, Hamilton Police, and 78th Fraser Highlanders.
FT: How often do you spend practicing and how do you typically spend your practice time?
MB: I practice daily, but to say I sit and practice a set schedule of material would be dishonest. I sit with snare sticks and slap them against the heel of my palm to work on my striking technique. I play various rudiments, band material etc. I spend little time practicing flourishing, the majority of my time is spent on rhythmic and rudimental technique.
FT: What are some practice exercises you would recommend to newer tenor drummers?
MB: A few things that work for me are as follows:
-Play all of your rudimental work with snare sticks on a drum pad (harder the better). This will strengthen your muscles and improve your dexterity.
-We use the ‘Vic Firth’ rudiment book. It was given to me by Lauren Bonnett when I joined the corps at 18, and she told me that I had to learn how to play drums before I could play tenor.
When learning intro flourishes, put your elbow on a table to isolate your wrist and fingers. Sometimes new players get frustrated because their strings tangle. That’s usually an issue of elbow gyration, which affects the momentum of the stick and causes it to tangle. If you learn to take your elbow out of the equation, everything else becomes that much easier.
FT: How do you prepare mentally & physically for solo contest?
MB: I think, first and foremost, that my preparation before a contest is the most crucial component of my performance. In any contest, all I can really bank on is my own personal preparation and rehearsing the material with the other guys until it’s locked down.
I didn’t really ‘get’ that aspect of preparation until I asked Drew to play for me at a contest. For maybe 6 weeks before the contest, we would meet an hour before band practice and practice for the solo. Having someone of his calibre take an interest in me was very humbling, but he really taught me how to work for it. I remember Drew breathed a lot of confidence in me when I was young and maybe a bit more unsure of myself. It’s a great lesson, not only for music, but for life, that if you work as hard as you can, no matter the result, you can be proud that you gave it your best shot.
When it comes to my solos, I can’t say enough about the two guys who I’ve partnered with over the past few years. First, my brother Jon, is a very intelligent young man. He’s also very confident, so he has no problem telling me where I’m out, or if what I’m doing isn’t flowing. The other individual is Zack Miller, who, like Jon, is very accomplished and confident in his abilities. I’m comfortable playing alongside them, and I think the three of us gel quite well. I don’t have to worry about either of them when I’m performing, which eliminates a lot of stress and uncertainty from the process. The three of us are able to lock into a groove and just have fun, which, at the end of the day, is really what it’s about.
These days, I’d say that when I’m preparing for a contest a few weeks in advance that the majority of my prep time is mental. I sing the tunes in my head and tap out what I want I intend to play with my fingers on my chest, sometimes I rattle my tongue in my mouth to the rudiments, grind my teeth, wiggle my toes, slap my feet off of the floor etc. I need to be 100% behind what I’m going to do. If you were to ask me what bar 3 of the 2nd part of my strathspey was, I could tell you immediately. I immerse myself in the repertoire and do my best to perfect it. I need to.
The only other thing I can think of, is that, if I wasn’t at 100% (in my opinion) I’d pull out of a contest. I really respect the other competitors, judges, audience etc. I feel that if I was going to play with anything but my best, I’d be letting down myself, the band I represent, the other two musicians on stage etc. I feel like I have a duty to play my best, almost like it’s not up to me to decide how to play, that it’s expected - there is a standard - and if I fail to live up to that standard (either real or perceived), then I don’t belong in the contest. That’s the criteria I hold myself to.
FT: How do you prepare for a Band Contest?
MB: The band contest is 100% different type of preparation for me. I’m a perfectionist. I stress a lot. I’m very aware of our presentation and perception.
The 78th has always had a very prolific and relevant bass section and if you look at the people who’ve come before me, there are some very well respected individuals who have spent time with our group. That’s always in my mind. I have a responsibility to those who have come before me, and to those who will come after, to uphold that reputation. That being said, I’m Matt Bellia. I am not Hoss or Tyler Fry, or Lauren Bonnett, or Luke Allen. I have to do things to the best way I can.
When we arrive in the morning I strip the drums down and clean the hoops and bearing edges. Then we tension the drums, tune them, and put them in the conditions where they’re going to be played in the afternoon (ie. shade vs sun). Then I take everyone’s tuners and drum keys - I don’t want anyone touching them. I check over the drums roughly every 30 minutes to see how they’re being affected by the conditions. I usually consult with Big Johnny during the day to see what he thinks, or if he hears anything that maybe I’m missing. We work very well together.
Drew will have the whole corps practice for roughly 3 hours on and off before the contest, so we don’t have any real opportunities for individual prep. That’s probably a good thing for me.
FT: What's your favourite set up?
MB: Disclosure: The 78th Fraser Highlanders are currently endorsed by Pearl and TyFry Ltd.
I've been fortunate enough to try a lot of different products. I'd encourage players to actually try things out and foster their own opinions about products rather than maybe take my word (or anyone else's) as fact rather than opinion.
I've been around enough to try my hand at most of the products available. I love Pearl drums, I really do. They're made so well, from a manufacturing perspective. They stand behind their products and are great on the customer service side of things. For us, and the sound effect I look for, I pair the Pearl's with a two ply predampened head. The two
I'm most familiar with are the Aquarian Articulator and the Remo PowerMax. Both are great ( and I can't personally find much difference between the two).
With regards to tenor sticks, we play TyFry Ultimate model across the crops - with white heads. That's actually very important. From a visual perspective, the colour of your mallets actually matters in your performance. White stands out. I read an article once in Sports Illustrated regarding the colour of goalie's hockey pads with regards to save percentage. While it was not overly scientific, those who played with yellow pads had the worst save percentage. Why? Because shooters could see them easier when making split second decisions. We will always play white sticks.
What I'm trying to get at is the subconscious level of performance that the audience takes in. Without delving into an entire other topic, midsections are not a trick and pony show. I think white looks clean and professional. I also think they pop and give us the best visual representation.
I felt absolutely gutted when I watched Inveraray on the BBC this August and their aqua sticks blended in with the turf. That's one of the best midsections going, and what they do visually is ground breaking - but you could only see 50% of it.
FT: For anyone who does not know about your newly designed tenor harness, could you share some of the finer points about it?
MB: For years I have had shoulder and neck problems from a result of my football days and drumming career. I was going to physio for tendinitis and shoulder bursitis and brought my sling in for the doctor to take a look at. He couldn’t believe that I played a drum and put all the weight on one shoulder, then had the audacity to violently raise my arms with almost no warning.
We decided it was time to try something a little more ergonomic. My dad came up with the concept of a sling that distributed the weight over both shoulders, the waist, and the pelvis. I never intended to make the sling for anyone but myself, since everyone is tied to brands and the traditional style of sling, but after talking with a lot of individuals it became apparent that I wasn’t the only one facing issues. There have been several modifications over the past 3 years, lots of feedback, opinions, advice etc.
The sling goes over both shoulders, crosses in the back, has an eight inch stainless steel plate on the front, and a waist belt. There are 4 points for adjustment and comfort feel. The drum fits right into the plate, but still allows for the drum to resonate and swing as if it were a traditional sling. It’s like a sling/harness hybrid. The best part is it’s so sleek and fits without bulk under a waistcoat and the steel plate looks like a belt buckle, and looks pretty sharp as well.
I think I’ve already alluded that I’m a perfectionist, so I wasn’t going to do something unless I did it the right way. I made a rather sizeable investment this fall to get them made professionally at a very high standard using industrial grade materials. I currently have the latest and final version in production and being used by several prolific grade one bands. At this point, I don’t think it would be professional for me to disclose exactly who, but there are some big players in this final trial phase before we take them to market.
FT: What was it like winning your second gold medal in KC?
MB: It was a bit surreal. I always have said that winning your first contest is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. I approached this contest differently than I did when I won the first one.
I approached the first one like it was a boxing match. I prepared mentally, I didn’t speak to anyone. I repeated to myself over and over that I was going to win. I convinced myself that I had already won before I played. That’s a very dangerous approach to playing, because, if you don’t win, you’ve set yourself up for a world of disappointment (even if you’ve played very well).
Bill Livingstone pulled me aside once after I won a big contest. He told me once you’re on top every wants to bring you down - and that I would be an idiot to assume that I’d always be on top. He just told me to enjoy it, to live in the moment, because there are no guarantees in life. The Kansas City Gold medal is the best Senior Tenor event in the world, it brings the very best players together on one stage. I’ve been fortunate enough to win the event twice now, and I think I appreciated this one more than the first because I realized that that might be the last contest I ever win.
On a side note, it felt great to share the experience with my dad, I think he was happier than I was. He’s made a lot of personal sacrifices to enable me to pursue my dreams. I’m sure he could care less if I won or lost, I think he was just genuinely happy for me that’s worth more than any gold medal.
FT: What has been the most memorable moment(s) of your pipe band career?
MB: It’s hard to say, because I still consider my career to be in it’s infancy.
I think I’ll always remember the down years we’ve had as a group together after the personnel shuffles we experienced for a few years. It’s easy to win and keep going, but it’s really hard to face the adversity we went through and stick together. It would have been easy for Doug, Drew, Big Johnny and the rest of us to throw in the towel and go play in a band that’s established. But that’s not us, that’s not who we are. I’m proud to say that I play in a group of my best friends, and what we’ve gone through has really tied us together.
That’s why winning in Kincardine this past summer was so special. It was our first win in Ontario since Bill retired. It was Doug’s first win as Pipe Major. That meant a lot to me. I have a strong personal friendship with Doug, and I was over the moon when he was able to go up and receive that trophy. I’m not sure what word I’m searching for validation maybe? It was as if all those sacrifices over the past few years meant something, they served a purpose. Obviously we have many goals we want to achieve over the next few years, but Kincardine was our first real step towards that.
FT: What’s your favourite performance you’ve had?
MB: Hmm, there have been a lot of performances that were a lot of fun. I think, for me personally, this past year’s Hornpipe/Jig contest in Kansas City will stick with me for a while. I was in the hallway waiting to go in, and we were just having a casual chat together when I stopped and said to the guys “let’s just rip it” - and I think the performance video shows that we just went out and had fun. Obviously I’m standing in the middle, but Zack and Johnny played out of their skulls. That was as much of a team victory as it was solo we all played very well.
In a band setting, when I played with Hamilton Police in 2008 our medley performance in Maxville was stunning. It left me literally buzzing, I was overcome with this - emotion? as we were playing. I remember running over to John Gaudet as soon as we got off the field and I couldn’t speak, so I jumped in the air and screamed and he did the same. That was special. I still talk about it to this day with my pals.
FT: One thing I’ve talked with multiple drummers about is how relaxed you seemed while competing at Winter Storm. Any tips for drummers getting prepped for solos big or small?
MB: My composure while performing is something I’m very mindful of. In all honesty, I don’t consider myself to be as calm as some people have suggested. If you look closely, you’ll notice that I often forget to breathe, and take quick sharp gasps of breath. I worry, I overanalyze, I become irritable the night before, I consider things that shouldn’t matter (how bright will the lights be, will my glasses slip off of my face, should I mark time during the first part of my march or will there be an echo, could they mistake that echo for an overtone on my drum). I’m aware of all of these things, so I try my best to reassure myself that all of the hard work is already done and just try to make the most of the moment.
If I can get a handle on all of those things, then the results don’t matter to me which might result in a relaxed appearance.
FT: What do you feel is the best lesson structure for beginners?
MB: Practice as much as you can. Game Theory suggests that it takes roughly 10000 hours to become perfect at something. That’s a lot of daily 30 minute practices, which is why I believe we never really stop learning.
Some basic things you’ll need are a metronome, snare sticks, and a drum pad. Learn the foundations of rudimental drumming and pay attention to details. 30 minutes a day and pick maybe six 5 minute exercises.
If you hate practicing, maybe this isn’t for you. That’s ok, not everyone needs to advance to a professional level. I find a lot of joy in improving, looking back and seeing how my hard work has paid off. I’m not saying that that’s the way to go about it. If you’re playing in a band, spending time with some friends and enjoying yourself, that’s what it’s all about.
FT: What would you recommend to aspiring tenor and bass drummers who are located in regions that are difficult to find instruction?
MB: Really, just work hard. Work very very very hard. You might live in a location with limited instruction for tenor drumming, but there is a multitude of free online resources for theory and rudimental drumming.
You have to know music theory, and you have to have the basics. If you can give yourself a solid foundation, you can only get instruction a few times a year and make the most out of it. Think about it, if you’re at a workshop would you rather learn how to voice runs, play intricate passages etc. or how to count quarter notes and subdivide for eighth notes.
I promise you you’ll get more value if you do the nuts and bolts work yourself.
Other than that, do whatever you can to get some good instruction.
Whether that be a Skype lesson, weekend workshop, or summer school, if this is something you want to do, there are people available to help you achieve your goals.
FT: What direction do you see pipe band mid sections heading in?
MB: I think we’re in a very exciting time of midsections from a global perspective on many fronts.
First and foremost, the future lies within our younger players. I’ve already mentioned it, but I received a lot of help and guidance along the way. It’s now my responsibility to pay that forward to the next generation. That responsibility, however, is not unique to me. Everyone has that responsibility. People in positions of influence have an obligation to inspire these youngsters, to make instruction readily accessible, to establish professional standards, to teach, and to give opportunities to individuals for professional development.
There was a lot of talk about adding more bass drums into the mix a few years ago. I’m all for it, but not in the fashion that it was executed originally. My drum is, by all definitions, is a bass drum. We will have 3 tenors in the corp this year that are ‘bass drums’ by definition and size specifications, we just play them like tenor drums. I’d love to take the credit for it, but Johnny Rowe suggested that we order our drums to the specifications of a Gretch kit from the 40s with custom depths and mahogany shells. We’ve ran with that school of thought for the last 5 years.
The next step for midsections is to refine their contribution on an aural front, specifically in the quality of sound being produced. The instruments available are top notch, the sticks are all amazing, and the heads available for purchase are great. There is no reason for things not to get better, individuals just need to take the time to learn, refine, and perfect their approach to tuning and sound quality. I think you’ll see midsections and the piping community to really start to appreciate the quality of pitch being produced.
The most encouraging thing I’ve witnessed is the movement towards global collaboration. Band ‘rivalries’ are becoming extinct. Obviously things are tense before a contest, but the comradery between individuals in the community is really inspiring. We’re deviating from the “Us and them” school of thought and moving towards an “us and us” mindset. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together, and that’s the way we’re going to move things forward.
We would like to thank Matt for taking the time to be apart of our interview series! If you are interested in hearing more from the 78th Frasier Highlanders please visit their website: