by DAN NEVANS • Piping Today #92, 2018

Being in a pipe band can be a real labour of love. You’ll know of people who seem to live for the band. They are at every practice, they are on the committee and take an interest in the running of the band. It’s important to note that to get you across the line and hopefully soar into the prize list, there are a lot of things that need to be taken care of. Without these heavily committed members, it would be very difficult to get a practice organised never mind getting to a performance.

I wanted to put together a piece to share some observations I’ve had in more than 20 years of playing in pipe bands – both well-run and poorly-managed bands. If you are a pipe major or a leading drummer reading this who feels the background organisation of your group could be better or (probably more realistically) are a person who aspires to be a pipe major or leading drummer, then I hope to give you some food for thought. Or if you have trouble thinking yourself, you could hand it to a adult who can give you the crib notes. I won’t pretend to have contained all of the ins and outs of managing an ensemble in this article but I hope to give some general guidelines to assist you in the smooth running of the band for next season.


About a year or so ago, I put out an article about the music we choose to play in pipe bands and what our options are. In that piece, I mentioned that within your pipe band, you will have people who have different viewpoints and creative input you can use to the whole group’s advantage. Cultivating a group who have these individual ideas is paramount to success. When recruiting to your band, it is important to gauge the individual appropriately in terms of their performance ability but also on their opinions on the music. I mean, if you recruit someone who hums and haws about every musical choice the band make, then realistically they won’t stay in your band very long, but they will also exude a fog of doubt around every performance. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t say I have adored absolutely every MSR and medley that I’ve ever played in a pipe band, but I can say that I have liked playing the vast majority. I may have been luckier than others in that field but I also know that if I was in a band where the direction of the music was not to my liking, I would, sooner rather than later, probably move to a band whose music I enjoyed more 

The long and short of it is, you need to be picking people who will share your vision or at the very least support it. There is no point having someone who, regardless of ability, is going to battle you every inch of the way. Life is too short – sack ’em and get back to the important stuff. 


I’m not going to tell you what music to play. Play whatever you want but play it well. You (the corps leader) must have a clear vision of what you want to hear from your band. These don’t have to be lofty goals. If you have a Grade 4B band (Grade 5 across the pond) then the basics of having the music in time and in tune are super-important. You don’t have to worry about the subjectivity of Grade 1 piping and drumming because that is not where you are at yet. What is most important in terms of the performance of the music is to have a plan set in place for development. Today you might not be punching your weight with the best bands on the planet but that doesn’t mean you can’t! It simply means you have to look at difficulties you have in your performance, analyse them and find a way to improve. More on that later…

Too many bands are disorganised in their setting of music. I cannot tell you how many years I have stood on the floor in various bands playing sets and stopping at different points because certain tunes aren’t available for learning yet. It’s difficult enough to build up confidence in the pieces you are playing, and prepare them for the coming season, without having the figurative sword of Damocles hanging over your head while you wait till March to get the remaining parts of whatever set. 

Please pipe majors and leading drummers – begin the music selection process for next season as soon as possible. Ideally, you want to have the new music out to the band before Christmas. It might sit under the bed till January but if the corps have it off or on its way in November, then the hard months of January and February can be that little bit smoother. This also gives you time to tweak sections and really get into a groove. Worst comes to worst, you have five months to chop and change tunes,which is much better than leaving it late and either not having the time to develop the flow of the music, or being stuck with a poor choice of tune. 

Once you have chosen what you want to play, you then need to decide on how you will play it. For PMs and LDs that means a lot of practice. A lot of practice at times of the year when you have earned a rest. Sorry, that’s the job. When you pull your band together to practise you, the corps leader, must be confident in what you want to do with the music. Many of our greatest leaders make recordings of the tunes to give out to the band. This is a very common practice in Grade 1 but I wonder how many Grade 3 and 4 pipe majors/leading drummers would be willing to let their corps listen to them play in such a vulnerable and direct way? If your immediate reaction to that was:  “No way would I record myself for everyone to listen to”, then hand in the stripes my friend because here is the 4-1-1: your corps are a reflection of your ability in all aspects.

That’s the truth. You need to teach the band how you want to play the tunes. If you cannot confidently display that vision, how do you expect anyone else to?

When in doubt, reach out

One of the hardest things to do is ask for help. It can make us feel weak and in terms of being a leader, and the group’s vision of your leadership, it can be a dangerous move. You don’t want your corps’ belief in you to diminish in any way. Bringing in the wrong sort of assistance can undermine what you are trying to achieve. Bringing in the right advice can be supportive and positive. 

If your band are struggling with a certain element of their performance and you are unsure of what to do next, then you should probably talk to someone about it. The first step would always be the management team: PM, PS and LD. Get the three of you together and ascertain what the problem is. Try to keep that group small, no need to make it any bigger and once you know what the problem is, keep it to yourself. Do not walk into the next band practice and announce whatever the weakness is to the rest of the band. In your management group meeting, the three of you should have concocted a plan to repair or improve the situation. If you don’t know what to do next, seek the advice of someone with more successful experience. I appreciate that not everyone lives in Glasgow where I could chuck a penny and hit a well-known piper or drummer but there’s this thing called “the internet” and you can contact people through it via things like “electronic mail” or “the FaceBooks”. 

Sometimes it can be good to bring in an outside voice and let them be the villain. If you bring in, say, a retired adjudicator or a notable teacher/peer to listen to and critique the band and they are highly critical, then you get to say to your band: “We’ve got work to do but I believe in you and together we can do something terrific.” 

Which sounds a lot better than: “Thanks for confirming my thoughts.OK, everyone, let’s pack it in and try again next year.”

The flipside being, of course, that if you get a glowing report and then stick the boot into the band for the things you don’t like, then that could take the wind out of everyone’s sails.

Man management

A queue of men who know one or two things about how to run a pipe band, waiting to collect their prizes at the World Pipe Band Championships in 2019. Photo:

I do not know the secrets of man management. People like Richard Parkes and Nat Russell would likely be the best people to ask about that. But I have watched corps leaders and their different management styles. I certainly wouldn’t want to make suggestions about how to deal with individuals. My thoughts here are in terms of the whole ensemble. What I have observed is this – your band need confidence to succeed, therefore part of your role in guiding the band should also be reassuring the group that there are positives in the playing. Turning up to two practices a week and listening to different bits of the band getting a solid two-hour roasting (a chewing-out or a telling-off) gets really old, really fast and doesn’t make anything better. In my experience, having a tense and aggressive atmosphere in the practice room is counter-productive for the majority of players – mistakes creep in and the general confidence goes down. However you, the corps leader, cannot drop your standards to allow for poor performances, otherwise what’s the point of practising at all?

It’s much better for everyone to instil this simple notion in your corps: “Home is for rehearsing, practice is for performing.”

Make sure your team know when they roll into a band practice it is an opportunity to self-assess your performance ahead of a contest. The band practice is not for learning music or for fixing instruments. The odd daft thing can occur, sure, but make sure your ensemble know what they are there for. 

All the old boring nonsense

Congratulations! You are now the new pipe major/leading drummer of Auchenshoogle and District Pipe Band. Here are a list of responsibilities that are nothing to do with the performance of the music:

  • Practice facilities
  • Equipment     
  • Branding         
  • Transport     
  • Accommodation                                                                            
  • Sponsorship/Funding
  • Equipment storage and up keep
  • Administration
  • Social media presence
  • Event booking

You were not expecting that, I’m sure. You’ve stood in the beer tent and espoused the virtues of March, Strathspey and Reel-playing and the finite details of Medley construction and finally, someone’s given you a band. 

Now book the buses Smarty Pants 

On the point of booking buses. You’re spending the money and, yes, your band will likely behave like a herd of buffalo on the the way back from contests, but you must insist on a few things before signing the cheque to pay for the bus:

  • There should be a bin bag on every aisle seat.
  • When possible, make sure you have a bus with enough seats for your pipe corps to have room for cases.
  • The chemical toilet should be emptied AND cleaned. No one wants to ride in a stinking ammonia pot for four hours from Glasgow to Inverness. 
  • It’s your money, don’t spend it without ensuring you’re getting what you want. 

The most intriguing responsibility on that list is “Branding”. Most of you reading this will be thinking that I’ve gone all Hollywood and that pipe bands don’t need to think about branding at all. Well, you’re wrong. What I am getting at here is aesthetics. If your band look the part, then your players feel like they can do it and that’s one more layer of self-belief. Many pipe bands have very similar uniforms and that’s fine. Most pipe bands are: black brogues, coloured socks, flashes matching the prime colour of the kilt, kilt, waistcoat, blue or black Argyll jacket, white or blue shirt, tie and black/blue glengarry. Wander about at any games, anywhere, and that’s pretty much what you’ll see. No big worry there. When we talk about branding, we are immediately talking about three things:

  • Bass drum heads
  • Bag covers
  • Cap/sporran badges

Hire yourself a graphic artist, or if you are lucky enough to have one in or related to your band, get them to knock up a logo that is recognisable as your band’s logo. This logo will be on the three physical things listed above, but it will also adorn your social media and your website. Likely your members will want some sort of product with that logo on it to wear about the Street Cafe bar during Piping Live! Or to take nauseating Instagram pictures wearing it with some sports psychology quote incorrectly spelled beneath it such as: “Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up.”

Either way, it gets your brand out into the world. People will eventually recognise it, and as long as it’s original and tasteful, you cannot go wrong. This is a good thing as it can attract players and when you bring the band to the line, it gives off a sense of professionalism. If you are lucky, your sponsor (if you have one) will have a logo that works with yours, or if you are a band operated on behalf of a business (a la ScottishPower Pipe Band) then you will have logo supplied. 

On the subject of this branding, please make sure to order all of your uniform needs (not just kilts and jackets but bag covers and sporrans etc) before Christmas. Funding can be an issue, of course, but that’s a conversation you need to have with the secretary and treasurer to ensure the money is there to turn the band out as well as possible. 

Most of the listed responsibilities are handled by a group of people, but, ultimately, as the leader of the group, you must watch over everything. From registering players and entering contests to the shade of blue for your hose. All this stuff falls at your feet and that is on top of the musical vision you are trying to define. 

The role of a pipe major or leading drummer is not to be taken on lightly. The energy of a lot of people is at your disposal and, frankly, their enjoyment of a whole summer is kind of your responsibility. To get the band across the line, the rock ’n’ roll stuff of setting tunes and chanters is great but on the flipside of that, you still have to make sure all the other, less cool, bases are covered.