Pipe Band Ensemble: The Wark–Ward Way

By June Hanley

“ ‘The Green Hills’ is ‘The Green Hills,’ but it’s still a piece of music.” So PM Jimmy Wark of the Strathclyde Police began his tutoring of the juvenile Guilford and Glencoe Pipe Band on ensemble playing. The setting was a Sunday morning ensemble workshop at this year’s Mid-Atlantic (Delco) Workshop, who were pleased to have Jimmy and DS Eric Ward from Strathclyde Police Pipe Band as instructors for the first time.

The workshop was organized around having a couple of bands play their competition music for these instructors and getting immediate, live feedback and then, the chance to play again to see what difference they could make. Guilford and Glencoe, a Grade IV juvenile band led by Roderick Alexander, and the Grade III MacMillan Pipes and Drums, led by Chris Hamilton, played their up-and-coming 2005 music for Jimmy and Eric, as well as approximately thirty workshop attendees.
Having students able to listen to the bands’ performances, and then hearing the judges’ feedback on those performances, allowed attendees to take home some very valuable perspective to their own bands. Meanwhile, G&G and MacMillan got the real advantage of a workshop with some of the world’s finest achievers of exceptional ensemble. Here are some of the points that they had to make.

Simple Music Isn’t Simple

Jimmy’s point about “Green Hills” was that, although it is a simple piece of music, you must still think about how you’re presenting it. Often the danger in a simple piece of music is the very fact that it’s simple, and therefore sometimes it is difficult to inject vitality. Players need to concentrate, even in simple tunes, on bringing out the vitality of the music.

Play Together

Corps playing separately is not helping you play together as a band. There are too many bands where pipers play in one room and drummers play in another for the better part of a practice. Jimmy Wark advocates that both at the practice hall and at the contest, pipes and drums need to play together. Even while pipes are being tuned, he advocates warming up with your medley or set and have the drummers play with the pipes instead of stand around or playing on their own. Otherwise, pipers begin to tire before the drummers get warmed up. Always think of yourselves as one big unit.

Pipers provide the melody, and they are giving the drummers an opportunity to shine and add lift to the music. The bass section provides the orchestration, or the pulsating effect that permeates the whole performance. In today’s good bands, if you take the midsection out, there is a huge hole in the quality of the performance. Tenor drummers provide orchestration too; they serve as the cellos, the woodwinds, and are absolutely vital. All players in the band have a vital role and an opportunity to contribute musically.

Be Aware and Be Focused

Don’t give in to distractions. All players need to be aware of not only their own playing, but of everyone else’s as well. In orchestras of 100 people, everybody has to be concentrating and ready to start and play together, and the same is true for a pipe band. You must maintain a constant level of concentration and focus. When you get ready to go onto the field, every player must have that focus. There should be silence, with everyone “switching it on.” And right on through the performance, the pipe major and drum sergeant must have constant eye contact, and the rest of the band must have a strategy for remaining aware and focused.

You must be aware of your surroundings but you also must concentrate on your own playing. You cannot allow other people’s mistakes to influence you. If one person is rattled by another’s mistake, and the domino effect starts, you’re done for, whereas a judge may not even have heard the first mistake. Bands have won contests even after bad starts or big mistakes because they were able to get past it. If a mistake is made, your immediate reaction must be “How can we recover from this?” not “Well, that’s us finished.” And you never react physically to hearing another person’s mistake.

Placement of Players

The placement of players in the circle is extremely important. The first time the MacMillan band played their MSR, they were standing quite far apart from each other. Jimmy asked them to play the same thing, and they started in the same positions they were in before. Then on cue, they closed in the circle so they were much closer together, probably 12 to 15 inches apart as opposed to 30 to 36 inches apart. The effect on the sound was remarkable. Drones had been in tune before (this was the Tone Czar’s band, after all), but as they came closer together, the harmonics from the drones began to wrap around each other, and it actually had the effect of a much bigger sound.

Jimmy’s other point was that the pipers who stand next to the drum corps are extremely important, and the rest of the band needs to take some cue from their position as you are forming the circle. You want to be able to hear the person next to you, and you want a “wall of sound” right around the band. You will lose this if people are too far away from one another. When marching to the line and forming the circle, pipers must take their cue from the pipers standing next to the drum line so that the corps are close together, letting the communication happen and the “wall of sound” come through.

The Sound

The band is like a hub and spokes—the bass drum is the hub, and all players should be the same distance from the bass. You want to produce harmonics outside of the circle. You can’t always hear what is being heard outside the circle from the inside. Place your midsection so that the snares and pipes are not too far away from each other; if they lose contact, sometimes one section will play a bit behind the beat of the other.

There was some discussion about setting the pitch of the tenor drums. Ultimately there are several schools of thought about whether they should be able to match key changes of the pipes. Jimmy and Eric maintained that they are like the bass and tenor drones: if their tone and timbre is pleasing to the ear, and they blend well with each other, they don’t have to change keys with the chanter, they will blend in the same way that the drones blend. The harmonics of the bass section are far below those produced by the chanters, and they will blend.


Transitions (or breaks) between tunes must be definite, together, and must create a sense of excitement about what is coming next. The band should know its music well enough that everyone knows what is going to happen. Players should be focused on the leader of their corps, and the PM, DS and bass drummer must communicate during the breaks.

Tune Selection

When picking tunes, communication between the pipe major and lead drummer is imperative. As Eric told Jimmy, imagine being forced to play a tune you don’t like—and not only do you have to play it, you also have to be creative and write a score for it. You have to think about the drummers, because they add the vitality.
It is important to pick tunes players can enjoy, because learning them should be an investment that will last for a couple of years. If you are playing something you enjoy and you think “this is great,” you will communicate that to the audience and they will enjoy it as well.

Have a Long-Range Plan

Both Jimmy and Eric made the point that tune selection and learning the tunes should be a long-term investment, not something that you throw together this month to play it next month. Plan things now to play two years from now. Eric’s point was this: when a tune is selected, he has to (1) write the snare score (2) write the bass and tenor score (3) have everyone learn it (4) get the unison (5) get the polish. Eric’s goal is to get everything written, distributed, and learned before Christmas, so that after the holidays, the band can be out on the floor. Playing chanters and pads is fine, but the learning will happen playing in the band. He schedules deadlines for playing the pad, playing the drum, and playing with the band that allow plenty of time to develop the unison and polish that can only happen after players are comfortable with the tunes on their instruments.
Working with a band is making an investment in people; their improvement over the years is the “interest that accrues.” Develop a five-year plan. It takes time to evolve a vision.

Be a Team and Respect the Coach

Successful bands understand the value of every member of the team. Each player has a role to play. Always think of yourselves as a unit and strive for the best ways that players can complement each other: Together-Each-Achieves-More.

Everyone should be allowed and encouraged to make suggestions, but the Pipe Major has the final word. Someone has to steer the ship. You can make suggestions, but you can’t be offended if they aren’t taken.

Finally, Jimmy came to me at the end of the workshop and left me with the anagram below, at left. His point is that “ensemble” is a concept, and this anagram is designed to get the whole band thinking about what you want to achieve before the process of tune selection begins. And again, these are not strategies that you can pick up now and achieve miraculous results in a week (at least not entirely). You must look at the real payoff as happening in the long term (e.g., tune selection for the next medley, the next group of 6/8s, etc.) and how the whole team responds to that opportunity.

All in all, the attendees of the ensemble workshop session got the full Wark and Ward way and left getting their money’s worth.
Nuance, shade, or variation in tone or voice
Sounding heard
Entirely in combined effect, is
Musical pleasing to the ear,
Balanced not unnecessarily dominated by any single voice,
Logical is sensible and satisfying, and
Eloquent is played fluently, with conviction, to stir feelings and emotions in everyone.

June Hanley, is past president and currently recording secretary of the EUSPBA. She serves on the EUSPBA judging panel as a piping and ensemble judge. She has served as Pipe Sergeant of the Oran Mor Pipe Band and now plays with the City of Washington Pipe Band. She is keenly interested in furthering bands’ thinking about ensemble.

(This article first appeared in The Voice, Spring 2005)

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