P/M Terry Lee and L/D Reid Maxwell made one of the greatest pipe band combinations of all time. Whilst they were at the helm of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, Burnaby, BC, they won no fewer than six World Championship titles. They travelled thousands of miles each year to compete against the world’s best and were never out of the top six in all that time. So when they talk of what they did to create that success then we are duty bound to listen. The following is a paper they wrote for the BC Pipers’ Association Newsletter some 12 years ago. It was reprinted in the Pipe Band Magazine with permission. It is still highly relevant today. Terry may have retired (handing over to P/M Alan Bevan) but his legacy lives on. Reid is, of course, still leading tip of one of the world’s greatest ever pipe bands. The picture above shows Terry and Reid on stage with the band at last August’s World’s Week concert. Read on to learn more about……
The Simon Fraser Approach to Creating Good Ensemble
By P/M Terry Lee and L/D Reid Maxwell
For many years at SFU Highland Arts Festivals, we have given a course called ‘The Pipe Major and Lead Drummer Working Together’. This title says a lot about the way we approach the creation of good ensemble.
For us, this collaboration starts at the beginning of each season with the decisions on music. The style of music that we play is greatly influenced by our preferences, which has made SFU known for playing great traditional music with modern ensemble, while using some contemporary and even avant-garde music to add balance.
This is our ‘theme’, the principles of our musical statement. It is important for a band’s musical leaders to determine their theme and to select music appropriate to it and within the ability of their players. The focus for music depends on whether it is a year for mainly competitive events or for mainly concert events. We open up the discussion of concept and specifics for the year’s medley and for the year’s concert music to anyone in the band.
These discussions are held outside of regular band practises and several creative members join in. While the discussions are essentially brain storming sessions, the two of us make the final decisions, not as a group. The medley and concert music is never decided in one or two nights. It is very much an interactive process that only gets finalised a couple of months before the first competition or concert of the season. Our preference is for traditional tunes and those by some of the great composers of the 20th century, such as Donald MacLeod and G.S. Maclennan. There are hundreds of tunes that have stood the test of time because they are great music.
We find it enjoyable to play these pieces on well set-up instruments with modern percussive effects. While we do use contemporary compositions in our medleys and concerts, it is because they are good music and the fit of these tunes is right for the given medley or concert selection. Note that ‘flashy’ and ‘a brand new tune’ aren’t part of our selection criteria.
Once some tunes have been decided, pipe music is printed and distributed to pipers and to Reid. He uses this as a reference for the melody line of each tune and encourages his corps members and students to develop their ability to sing or hum the melody line of the tunes. Reid composes the scores for the sides, tenors and bass for what he calls the ‘total percussive sound’.
Pipers are expected to come to practice with well set up instruments and with the tunes learned so that pipe section practises are focused on expressive aspects of the music as well as breaks, transitions, and harmonies.
We spend a lot of time at practice playing as a band. For tunes that drum scores haven’t yet been written for, we will still play through the music with Reid ‘busking’ and experimenting with ideas. Also, we don’t spend a lot of time at each band practise on pipers or drummers finely tuning instruments. While attainment of a great sound is very important, these refinement activities are done at other times.
Our band practices are focussed on group playing of the various competition/concert selections as well as experimenting on pipes and drums with arrangements of tunes/scores, harmonies, transitions and bridges. To have informed discussions on enhancing these aspects and the ensemble, we believe it is very important for the pipe major (and other pipers for that matter) to recognise and understand the key elements of the drumming.
In the same way, the lead drummer (and other corps members) should be able to sing/hum the melody line of the tunes. Because the drum scores and quality of drumming play a large role in achieving good ensemble, there are times when we will make a small change to the pipe music to allow a particular percussive effect to be used. For example, in a jig, replacing a group of three eighth notes with a quarter note and an eighth note can be used to break up a repetitive pattern. It is amazing how the drum corps can use such simple changes that do not affect the musical theme of the tune to provide powerful percussive effects.
The practice a day before a competition or a concert is reserved for setting instruments. While the foundation of a good pipe sound has been laid in earlier practices, exact and fine-tuning of instruments takes place on this day so that there is no major work required on competition/concert day. Drum tone is also set and harmonised with pipe tone on this day. When this is complete, we get together and play through three to four selections. They are not heavy workouts and nor should they be.
We use the competition day just to tune the instruments, briefly run through some parts of the selections, possibly play one selection/set all the way through, and then go and play the performances. All this takes place in the span of about 45 minutes.
This is not a lot of activity because all the preparatory work was done in the preceding days, weeks and months. If you have properly prepared, all the confidence will be there. If you haven’t, no amount of practise, rehearsal, or reed/drum manipulation on the day will improve things.
Competition/concert days are the real opportunities to showcase our band’s musical statement and ensemble to the public. In the end, these opportunities are the reasons why we put in the hours of practise and rehearsal in our art. They should be your band’s reasons too.