What Do We Mean By Pipe Band Ensemble?


Alistair-AitkenThis article first appeared in PIpe Band Magazine in 2008. In it, author Alistair Aitken OBE (left), then a senior RSPBA Adjudicator, asks the question: ‘Pipes and drums….how do we assess their ensemble effect?’

In recent editions of the magazine we have attempted to provide an understanding of how the RSPBA expects its adjudicators to operate as well as explain the parameters which piping, drumming and ensemble adjudicators are expected to cover in their assessments.  However, as hopefully these articles have been illustrated, while the Association can train adjudicators to adopt a structured and analytical approach covering a broad range of factors, adjudication is unlikely to ever become an exact science since personal opinion and subjectivity play such a large part.

In the last edition we suggested that ensemble adjudication in particular had possibly strayed from the original concept or, perhaps more accurately, is not reaching the boundaries of the original concept.   It is arguable that there is a tendency for many ensemble adjudicators to focus on integration between pipes and drums and on issues of tonal balance.  It is also arguable that musical effect and musical balance, which many people see as the fundamentals of ‘Pipe Band Ensemble’, are frequently not taken into account.  Certainly that impression can be taken from many of the written critique sheets although, to be fair, musical aspects may be being taken into account in the minds of the adjudicators as they make their assessments.  It is also often claimed that there can be a bias towards piping or drumming depending on the primary discipline of the ensemble adjudicator.  There may also be some ensemble adjudicators who have a tendency to go to the opposite extreme.  It is of course for the RSPBA itself to consider whether the concept of ‘Pipe Band Ensemble’ should be reviewed and possibly re-defined.  It does no harm, however, to explore some of the issues associated with the subject.

Firstly, the debate is not a new one.  As far back as 1947- 48 one of the key individuals involved in the development of the then Scottish Pipe Band Association, Drum Major A D Hamilton, was arguing as follows:
“In dealing with the combination of pipes and drums, I prefer to use the word ensemble because I think it describes best what we mean by both sections of a band taken together for musical effect; but, call it what you may, my chief concern is that we understand the subject under discussion.  It is fortunate that we have a number of enthusiasts amongst us keen on a better musical combination but, on the other hand, we still have a very large proportion who might become a little more enlightened if they could be made to take a little interest in the combined effect of a pipe band and not look on the band either from a piping or drumming point of view.”

The birth of ensemble.....AD Hamilton (far left) with RSPBA drummers. How many can you name?
The birth of ensemble…..AD Hamilton (far left) with RSPBA drummers. How many can you name?

Drum Major Hamilton went on to say: “Our present method of adjudicating at a contest will never encourage collaboration between pipes and drums.  A Pipe-Major judging the piping and a Drum-Major judging the drumming with no award for the best combined effort is hardly likely to improve the standard towards a more musical performance.  Another obstacle in the way of a better combined effort is the present practice of awarding a drumming prize at some contests.”

There have been many developments in pipe band music since the 1940s but it is interesting that these issues are still being debated some 60 years later, despite the fact that at least some of Drum Major Hamilton’s concerns were addressed with the introduction of both Ensemble adjudication and the musical medley to pipe band competitions.  Nevertheless, the concept of ‘Pipe Band Ensemble’ had a controversial introduction and there was a lengthy debate during the 1960s before it became a reality in major championships in 1970, many in the pipe band world remaining unconvinced of its need.  From a simplistic point of view, perhaps the most compelling argument is reflected in the name “Pipe Band Competition” which arguably conveys the message that performances should be assessed on the basis of the combined “Pipe Band”.  The challenge, which still appears to be with us after all these years, is to reach some form of consensus on what that actually means as it would seem that there are still widely diverging views.

A ‘musical ensemble’ is normally considered to be a group of musicians who perform instrumental or vocal music.  For example, in classical music ‘Ensembles’ are often referred to as small groups using string or wind instruments etc.  The dictionary defines the word ‘Ensemble’ asthe degree of precision and unity exhibited by a group of instrumentalists or singers performing together”.  In a pipe band context, however, ‘Ensemble’ is defined by the RSPBA in its Structured Learning Book 3 in a broader context as “the coming together of the component parts to establish a complete entity.  A ‘good ensemble’ is the combination of well matched and balanced components that successfully produce a pleasing (harmonious) effect.”

The significant additional part of the RSPBA definition is the reference to ‘pleasing (harmonious) effect’.  The word ‘harmonious’ has various definitions such as a combination of notes sounded simultaneously; fitting well together; tuneful’; melodious; or musical.  It can be argued, therefore, that ‘Pipe Band Ensemble’ is not just about a group of pipers and drummers performing and integrating well together in terms of execution and tone; but it is also about the ‘orchestration’ of the available instruments to produce musical impact.

If we accept this interpretation, the parameters of pipe band ensemble arguably should cover a much broader territory than the current situation appears to convey, embracing aspects such as the:

  • initial impact of the performance in terms of sound clarity and precision;
  • construction of the musical performance (i.e. choice of tunes, time signatures, how the tunes relate to each other, breaks, style of playing, intended musical theme etc);
  • weight balance between instruments (which may vary throughout a performance depending on the desired musical interpretation/musical balance);
  • musical influence of the drum corps (effective use of snare, bass and tenor drums collectively);
  • tonal relationship between the different instruments;
  • sound projection (which can be affected by variations in player positioning);
  • integration and co-ordination of the collective pipe band; and
  • overall dynamic and musical effect produced in terms of rhythm, melody and harmony.

In recent years there have been many developments in pipe band music which include a wider range and better quality of instruments, changes in sound quality and new methods of tuning, more innovative use of bass sections, a wide range of contemporary tunes, increased numbers of players in bands and new approaches to medley construction.   Many people also have concerns about the extent to which the traditional boundaries of the pipe band idiom can be further extended.  Perhaps it is time to have a wider debate about these issues as the pipe band world looks to the future to ensure that there is a common and shared understanding of the concept of ‘Pipe Band Ensemble’.

•  What do you think? Have things moved on since 2008 or the views expressed above still relevant. All comment welcome.

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