FT: What first interested you in pipe band drumming, and how long have you been involved?
SC: I didn't really know what a pipe band actually was when I first started out in 1987, nor did I think music would be something that I would last at. A school friend introduced me to tenor drumming and took me with him to my local pipe band in Uddingston. At the beginning, it was more about being involved in something with my friends, but grew into something that would take over my life. I have competed every year since, with the exception of 2009.
FT: Who were your main instructors?
SC: Alisdair Shaw initially taught me everything I needed to know
about being able to play a tenor and bass drum competently and I received a lot of his dedicated time working on both instruments. My learning with Alisdair was not at all built upon theory or learning to read or write music, but concentrated on the practical application of the fundamentals of rhythm, time, motion and presentation. Alisdair also introduced me to people and bands who would play an influential part in my development and he encouraged me to study what all of the bass an d tenor drummers were doing in the different Grade 1 bands.
FT: What have been your biggest inspirations in your playing?
SC: I had been playing for over a year before I truly found inspiration and it came in several forms. The most influential source was hearing Jim Kilpatrick and the Shotts drum corps in person for the first time in 1987 playing the first set of HTS 200 snare drums. They sounded and looked magical and the unique sound and overpowering presence of the corps made me realise what I needed to be part of and channel my efforts towards. Other sources of inspiration came from the Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia drum corps, which I also adored, the bass section of the Scotrail Vale of Atholl with Chris Ross, Norman MacLeod and Ian Sinclair who were fantastic and the overall package of the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band.
You have to remember that when I was a kid, there was no Internet, no YouTube, nothing. We made the best use of begged, borrowed or stolen cassettes or video recordings of bands. Often the only way to truly experience and learn was to go to competitions and seek out the best bands and drum corps, which is something I did often. I still believe there is no better way to experience a pipe band than to get up close, experience the ambience and hear all the intricacies that even the best HD recordings cannot pick up.
From those early days, I always knew that when the time was right and whenever I could put the stamp on my own identity, it would involve taking everything I learned from Alisdair at a young age and combined it with everything that was good; both rhythmically and visually, from the bands and drum corps that I admired and studied.
FT: What bands have you played with?
SC: I have played with only three pipe bands. I learned my trade at Uddingston Strathclyde Pipe Band in Grade 3 before moving to Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia Pipe band in 1989. I have played with Shotts ever since, with the exception of 2002, 2003 and 2004, when I played with Strathclyde Police Pipe Band.
FT: How often do you spend practicing and how do you typically spend your practice time?
SC: In terms of individual practice, I typically now don't spend as much time as I would like practising due to other influences such as parenthood and other aspects of my life. However, I do play every day, probably more tenor drumming than bass drumming in all honesty. I do a lot of mental practice too. If I am busy around the house, driving somewhere or just relaxing, I run through full performances in my head from start to finish. I find this helps enormously.
However, going back to my childhood, I would practice 6, 7 or even 8 hours a day. I loved drumming and it was during that time that really shaped me into the player I wanted to be.
FT: What are some practice exercises you would suggest to newer drummers?
SC: For me, technique and stick control are crucial from the outset. If a player has not picked this up from the beginning, it will lead to the player hitting a wall further down the line, often when it is too late to undo bad habits that have formed. I spend a lot of time with learners demonstrating how to properly grip and control their mallets and the best way to achieve this is by doing a lot of work on the basics of time and rhythm.
Learners should aim to become proficient at the fundamentals of playing in time. With the aid of a metronome, start with simply maintaining the beat and then progress by subdividing the time incrementally, while verbally and mentally counting the time and sub divisions. Get used to counting and sub dividing in groups of twos, threes, fours so that everything you do can be transposed into the typical simple and compound time signatures played in pipe bands. These are great habits for learners to form early on and will help guide the player through all of the rhythmical and visual challenges ahead.
Once the player is comfortable with playing in time, start applying this process to the common rudiments and develop an understanding and appreciation of the importance of maintaining strict time irrespective of what sort of rhythm or tempo is required. Single stroke, double stroke, (mummy daddy), single, double, triple and quadruple paradiddle, triplet and open roll exercises are all great rudimental exercises for improving technique and mastering control of the mallets.
Quite often bass and tenor drummers are thrown in at the deep end at an early stage and take so many short cuts so that they can essentially be fast-tracked into a band. These players almost always tend to be the weakest in the long term. It's far easier to learn good technique than it is to unlearn bad technique, so I would recommend that all learners be patient, resist the temptation to skip out on the fundamentals and become rhythmically competent long before introducing any flourishing or visual techniques. If the player cannot control their sticks or play in time, then there is no chance that they will be able to master any of the more advanced visual components or play a single note or group of notes within a voiced passage in time.
Technique and control are everything to me and their importance is always worthy of emphasising.
FT: How do you prepare mentally/physically for a band or solo competition?
SC: The only way I can be prepared is to know my music inside-out and practise it repeatedly. This will always overcome any mental or physical symptoms of anxiety or stress that I experience on the day of a competition and at the time of a performance. If you don't know your music well enough, mental and physical symptoms will adversely affect you performance at some stage.
FT: What has been the most memorable moment(s) of your pipe band career?
SC: I have been so lucky to have enjoyed so many memorable moments in competition, in fact so many that it really is difficult to select just a few, so I'll be bland and say that they've all been fantastic.
Away from the pipe band arena, performing in Basel with the Shotts drum crops in the Top Secret Show was just out of this world. The thousands of people who came just to listen to drummers blew me away. Basel really is drumming crazy and it's a huge part of their culture. It definitely felt like home and it was an unforgettable experience to be sharing the billing with many of the best marching percussionists in the world.
FT: What has been you favorite performance that you have had?
SC: I think the 1994 World Pipe Band Championships win has to be up there. We played exceptionally well in both the medley and MSR that day and it was a relief to be announced as winners that evening. I think we won straight firsts across the board. The only prize we didn't take home that day was the Best Bass Section award. I can still remember every moment and what I was playing. It just meant so much that all of the years of work that everyone in the band had put into their respective careers culminated in winning that day.
FT: It was quite a sight watching Shotts march out with two bass drummers at the 2010 Worlds, how did you think the judges would react?
SC: So by the time the World Championships came around, the band had already used the dual bass drum system three times, with mixed results. We won Best Drums Corps at the Scottish Championships, but didn't do so well in the following two championships.
I think it was one of those things worth while trying out and with the bass section in the band being the size it was, the time was probably about right to test the curiosity surrounding the big question of what a pipe band would sound like using two differently tuned bass drums. Some people liked it, others didn't. Some people understood it, some didn't. At this stage, I'm not 100% sure if disliking it went hand in hand with not understanding it, or even just not being in the right position to hear it at its best.
Getting it right for the Worlds took a lot of hard work and also a lot of critical examination of what we were getting right or wrong during the course of the year. We learned there were several more factors to producing a consistent sound over and above the obvious of drum size, tuning or the fact that it took two individual players to make the system work. Minor details made huge differences. We had to alter our positions so that we faced in the same direction in order to improve projection. Steven Roberts' drum was smaller and produced a far clearer tone on 'A' with less effort than my drum at 'G' which meant I had to strike my drum harder than I ordinarily would if I was playing on my own and also harder than Steven was striking his drum. The natural conclusion to draw from this was that harder mallets would be required on the 'G' drum to produce an attack more consistent with the 'A' drum.
Looking back, I can say with certainty that being part of the dual bass drum system was the most difficult and challenging job I have had to do in a pipe band. Having said that, it was a great experience and I feel the attention we paid to the music helped me gain a far better appreciation of the melodic and harmonic nature of piping than I previously had.
All in all, it was a neat concept, but I think to experience it and truly get what it was about, you had to be well placed close to the band and side-on to the bass drums, otherwise the intended effect was probably lost on the audience.
So, to get back on track to the original question, every time we played the system, we were presenting it to another new set of adjudicators and we had no idea as to whether or not it would be received favourably. We really had deviated from what was the accepted norm and entered into the unkown every time we competed, including the Worlds.
FT: What has been your favorite instrument set up so far for tenor and bass?
SC: I've heard three particular set-ups that I really like.
On Andante drums, I think the current Inveraray set-up with Andante Pro Series bass and tenor drums is hard to beat. They have incredibly talented drummers in their bass section and they are squeezing every last ounce of sound from those drums. I love what they are doing and the drums sound fantastic.
With Pearl, the 78th Fraser Highlanders current set of Mahogany bass and tenor drums are as smooth as silk. It's a given that Johnny Rowe will always have great sound from his bass drum and I think his current drum is his best yet, but it's the tenor drums that set them apart. They are so clear, but mellow and resonant with a tone that I could listen to forever. Matt Bellia's tenor drum is the best sounding tenor drum I have ever heard. That's going to be a difficult set of drums to replace and whoever inherits them will be picking up the pipe band equivalent of half a dozen second hand Stradivarius violins!
Finally, on Premiers, I've always enjoyed the sound that St Laurence O'Toole gets from their Professional Series drums. I don't think there is anyone out there fussier than John Dunne when it comes to tuning bass and tenor drums. He knows what he likes and how to get it. Their bass section is maybe less 'in your face' than other bass sections, but when they perform a voiced rhythmical passage, it always sounds subtle and well balanced with the constant of John's great bass drum throughout. I think their bass and tenor sound is a big part of what makes that band so enjoyable to listen to.
FT: As both a skilled tenor and bass player within Shotts, what is some advice you would offer a new drummer interested in midsection drumming?
SC: Be attentive, be patient, work hard, keep practising the things you are worst at, always be prepared to do more than is necessary, soak up as much performances as you can take in from the best performers, willingly accept advice and criticism, keep an open mind, don't underestimate what you are capable of achieving, never stop learning and be loyal to the people who support you. Most importantly, have lots of fun and enjoyment with your drumming. It's a great pastime to be involved in.
FT: What do you feel is the best structure of lessons for new tenor/bass students who have never played an instrument before?
SC: The key thing for a learner is not to get overwhelmed and call it a day. Setting out small, achievable goals and practicing smartly towards reaching each objective is what in my view makes a better drummer.
Be in a place where you can practice without distraction. That’s not so easy nowadays, but you need to be in a place where you can be relaxed and concentrate without checking what’s on TV or radio, stopping to answer a text or e-mail that’s just came in and so on. You need to make sure you’re in a place that you’re not a distraction to other people too, so maybe your practice routine has to be tailored to a specific time of day that suits you and other people. That’s not always easy. It’s also important to practice at a time when you feel alert, attentive and energetic. Your practice won’t be productive if you are tired or have things on your mind.
Make the best use of the time you have by putting it to good effect working most on the aspects you are weakest at.
Don’t try to teach yourself new tricks until the time is right. Inevitably, trying to run before you can walk will lead to bad habits developing, so learn to do the simple things well before moving on. Remember, the key to being a good drummer is consistency. Make sure that when you learn something new, that you are able to replicate it time and time again with precision until you have it mastered.
Once you get into this way of working, it will make the goal of becoming a competent drummer so much easier in the long term.
FT: What would you recommend to aspiring tenor and bass drummers who are located in regions that are difficult to find instruction?
SC: Make the most of all of the fantastic audio and visual digital recordings of pipe bands out there that you can either legally download or watch online. There are hours and hours of great footage of great bands that will help you develop and influence your style of playing just as they would if you were there watching in person. And the cool thing is that most pipe band performances can be found online through one medium or another within 24 hours of a competition anywhere in the world.
FT: What direction do you see the pipe band midsection heading in?
SC: The whole evolution of bass sections in the last couple of decades has been like setting light to an entire box of fireworks at the same time. Things, rightly or wrongly, went in a million different directions musically and visually right across the scene. Some boundaries were perhaps pushed farther than necessary, but I do believe the element of experimentation we have witnessed within different bands in recent years has helped determine what does works and what doesn’t work in a pipe band. But I think that frantic period is beginning to settle down and what we are seeing develop is the bass section starting to find a common ground that works in terms of the numbers of drummers we field, how we tune our instruments, how we compose and how we achieve a balance of musical and visual content. I don’t think we could have reached this stage without boundaries being pushed.
All things considered, I like what I’m seeing and hearing more and more these days. I think bass sections are far more professional than they were in the past, I think they pay far more attention to what they do and how they do it and I think on the whole, the level of musicianship amongst bass and tenor drummers has significantly improved as a result.
So many pipe bands at all levels are sounding like better-rounded musical packages and I feel this is a very healthy direction to be moving in the years ahead.
We would like to thank Scott for taking the time to be a part of our interview series! For more from Scott and Scott Currie Percussion please visit his website:
As a percussion dealer with three decades of world championship-winning pipe band drumming experience, Scott Currie Percussion is the perfect choice to deliver your instruments and percussion accessories.