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Pipe band

A pipe band is a group of pipers and drummers.

The most common kind is the Scottish pipe band, consisting of Highland pipers, snare and tenor drummers, and a single bass drummer.

The pipe band began life in the military, but its origins are obscure, and historical records exist mostly in hints gleaned from contemporary regimental records that had no direct interest in pipes. We do know that pipers served in regiments from the earliest times; the Royal Scots have records referring to pipers dating back to the early seventeenth century. Where pipers were employed as pipers (rather than just happening to be a soldier that also was able to play), they were employed by the officers of the regiments as private pipers. This situation continued until the 1840s, when Queen Victoria's enthusiasm for all things Highland was instrumental in the War Office's decision that each regiment be allowed five pipers and a Pipe-Major, which continues to be all that the British Army provides funds for to this day! By this time, pipers were already playing together with drummers, probably modeling themselves on the fife and drum bands which had existed in Switzerland since the fifteenth century.

Drumming is, of course, as ancient as the Army itself, and to be a drummer in the Army even today carries a cachet unlike any other Army musician.

By the time of the Crimea, pipe bands were well established. The first civilian outfits to take up the pipe band idea were police and fire brigade bands; even today, several forces maintain bands that play to a very high standard. By the time World War One broke out, the pipe band was a popular image of Scotland, both internally and externally.

WWI was both a tragedy and a boost for piping: during the early years of the conflict, pipers played over the top of the trenches as they had done since the time of the Jacobite Risings. Three thousand died before the War Office banned the practice in 1915; although that ban still stands today, pipes have occasionally played into battle, notably on the Normandy beaches and the crossing of the Rhine. The Royal Scots played them going into battle in the 1970s, and the Black Watch played into battle during the second Gulf War. However, WWI also created a huge demand for pipers, and huge numbers had been taught to play by the end of the war. This and the similar effort which went on during WWII ensured that there was a critical mass of people able to play and create a thriving pipe band scene from the 1950s onwards.

In 1947 (??) the Scottish Pipe Band Association (Now the Royal SPBA) was formed, and immediately held a World Championship. Competition was by no means a new thing to pipe bands; indeed a thriving scene had existed in the thirties. Since then, pipe bands have become more and more popular; in 1987, a Canadian band, the 78th Fraser Highlanders, won the World Championships, and since then several overseas bands have gone on to lift the title.

The future for pipe bands is unclear. At present, the vast majority of bands exist to compete, and only to compete. This system is increasingly felt to be musically stifling, although it does demand high standards. Whether it is possible to transition to a Breton model, where competitions are far more unrestricted, is under discussion. Other alternatives, such as bands dropping out of the performance scene entirely, seem unlikely.

A lesser-known type of pipe band is the bagade, a French invention modelled on the Scottish pipe band. They began in the thirties, to counter the widespread decay of the living Breton folk tradition. Nowadays, a bagade consists of a cornemuse section (a cornemuse is essentially a French made Great Highland Bagpipe which has a characteristicly Breton tone), a bombarde section, a drum corps, perhaps more accurately described nowadays as a 'large and varied percussion section' (one band's percussionists lug around a huge metal model elephant), and any additional musical instruments the band wishes to add. Common additions are small jazz orchestras, guitars, and binious.