The Gender Divide in Highland Drum Corps

NYU Pipes and Drums - Tartan Day - Tom Tom Magazine Best Female Drum Corps

To look at the modern bagpipe and drum corps, you might not see the blatant sexism that once existed only decades ago.  Take most any Scottish Highland pipe band and you’ll see women and men playing alongside each other, marching in time together, and wearing exactly the same uniforms down to the Windsor knotted tie and sgian dubh (the dress knife worn tucked into the top of the kilt hose – you know, for when we need to skin a deer during a piping gig).  Given its militaristic roots, pipe bands were not always this progressive.  In fact, they’ve usually been behind the times when it comes to gender equality.  Being in a military pipe band in 17th century Scotland meant you were in the front lines of combat, a place from which the U.S. Armed Forces prohibited women until only a few weeks ago.  Hundreds of years later, even non-military bands prohibited female players, citing that it wasn’t ‘proper’ for women to play the pipes (or the drums for that matter).  This simply forced women to form their own ladies only pipe bands in response.  Today, most respectable pipe bands are integrated.  The pipe bands that are foolish enough to send away a talented female player generally show more interest in being an old men’s social club than with actually playing well and so would not be a nourishing home to a talented player of any gender.

On the surface, the modern pipe band appears to be a pillar of gender equality.  People outside of the pipe band world are often amazed that I wear a kilt and ghillie brogues (wing tips with laces that tie up the ankle) just as the lads do.  I’ve grown accustomed to the half-concealed ‘I’m a New Yorker and I’ve seen it all before’ double take on the subway whilst on my way to a pipe band gig.  I find it quite funny when a woman in particular will stop me and say, “I thought kilts were just for men,” as she tucks her hands into her trouser pockets.  But there is one area that harbors an unacknowledged gender divide, where the stain of old school sexism still bleeds through:  the drum corps.

To provide a little grounding for those unfamiliar with pipe bands, the drum corps is comprised of three types of instruments, the side drums, the tenor drums, and one bass, though some progressive bands such Toronto Police have been known to break with tradition and field two (gasp!)  The side drum is also known as the highland snare, so named because it has two snares, one below each of the top and bottom drum heads.  It shares a lot of similarities with the snare drum in a typical high school regimental marching band.  The bass drum too is not vastly different from those in other marching bands.  But the tenor is really what sets a highland drum section apart from any other drum corps one may be familiar with.  Unlike a quad tenor in a marching band, each Highland tenor plays a differently pitched tenor drum with a soft mallet to fill in the mid tones of the drum score.  This relatively late addition to the drum corps gives a melodic groove and depth to the overall sound.  In addition to playing the drums, however, tenor drummers also flourish, swinging their mallets in the air, using strings attached to the ends of the mallets and laced around the fingers, to add a visual component to the music.  It’s the tenor section that adds the spectacle to the pipe band, visually representing the music whilst seamlessly playing it.

Look at a pipe corps, and you’ll most likely see men and women playing throughout.  There generally are still more men playing these days, but this is a trend that is consistently waning, as the idea that women don’t play as well has long been abandoned as a smokescreen for old school sexism.  Playing the pipes is now being passed down to daughters as well as sons.  However, look at a drum corps, and you’ll probably find an interesting divide:  men and boys on side drum, and women and girls on tenor.  (Happily, of the bass players I’ve seen and met, it’s been a pretty even split.)  What may be more interesting than the existence of this overwhelming trend is that fact that no one really talks about it.  This begs an even more interesting question:  where does this divide come from?

Let’s just take a closer look at these instruments and what attributes they demand of their players.  The side drum is the most prominent drum in the corps, both in the amount of sound it produces and in their numbers.  The scores are fast, intricate, and require a lot of muscle memory to be able to play, even for the simplest street marching tune.  Therefore, it requires a big time investment, from both the player and the band that tutors the player.  In pipe band competitions, the side drum corps is usually given the most weight by the judges.  The lead drummer of any pipe band is always a side drummer which signifies this unfortunate hierarchy.

The tenor drums are always fewer in number and do not make as much sound as the sides.  In fact, tenor drummers of yesteryear rarely even beat their drums but were there solely for the purpose of flourishing.  In other words, they were to be seen and not heard.  At a recent Highland drumming workshop hosted by New York University, the presenter referred to the tenor section of pipe bands from years ago as a ‘dumping ground’ for wives and girlfriends of male players.  Rather than invest time in the new female player as they might with a male by teaching the snare, women were ushered into the tenor section which they deemed less important, where the female players couldn’t make much sound but were there more to be eye candy.

Today, much more importance is given to the tenor section.  Drummers are tasked with playing individualized scores on differently pitched drums as a cohesive unit whilst seamlessly weaving in well choreographed flourishes, adding grace, spectacle, and a mid-tone groove to the overall performance.  All of this takes a huge amount of cooperation and coordination amongst the tenors and is very difficult to do effectively.  The musicality that the tenor section adds has become an integral part of any good drum corps.  No upper level pipe band is allowed to compete without at least one tenor drummer.  And yet so many lead drummers don’t even bother to learn how to play the tenor drum and so are ill-equipped not only to write an interesting flourishing tenor score, but also to lead and instruct the mid-section.

Even though more importance has been placed on the tenor section, there remains an unspoken gender divide.  I’ve been a side drummer in four pipe bands, and of lead drummers I’ve played under, three have suggested I learn the tenor drum as well.  This was never asked of the male snare drummers who had equal or less ability than I.  Mind you, never have I been told outright that I shouldn’t play the snare, but there has been suggestive nudging in a certain direction, at least at first.

This nudging has worked to my advantage though.  About a year into my side drum tutelage, I was invited to play with my first pipe band in Edinburgh in a ten day Celtic music festival and competition in France – but only if I played the tenor drum.  The band was short on tenors for the trip and they needed me and another female snare drummer to fill in.  I knew neither of us was good enough at that point to be able to play with them on the snare.  We just didn’t have enough experience to play at their level.  (And yet our absolute lack of any experience on the tenor was somehow good enough to warrant them paying for us to go on a ten day trip to Brittany!)  They only offered this opportunity to the female side drum students; no male side drum students were invited.  Now, did I get all women’s studies on them and refuse to go out of principle?  Hell no!  I started learning the tenor drum immediately while continuing with the snare and got paid with a free trip to Europe.

If not for this sexist nudging, I’d probably be yet another one trick pony side drummer like so many male side drummers.  The divide works both ways.  For every female who is pushed to play the tenor, there is a male who is inadvertently told, ‘you don’t want to play the tenor, the tenor is for ladies.  Play the snare.’  This has closed many opportunities to male players, as in the case of the Brittany trip.  And why?  Some suggest the snare is more difficult to play.  Perhaps this was the case when little importance was placed on the tenor section and flourishing was very rudimentary, but not anymore.  Tenor drumming, especially when incorporating advanced flourishing, takes a lot of dedication and practice to develop the necessary muscle memory, just as the snare does.  The tenor is also quite physically demanding.  I can play a two hour parade on snare non-stop and never get tired.  But ten minutes of flourishing and my arms turn to jelly.

It’s not skill or difficulty level that is at the heart of this divide.  Rather, I believe we subconsciously genderize these instruments.  The tenor is seen as feminine – softer, more graceful and requiring more teamwork and communication amongst its players.  The snare is interpreted as more masculine – loud, brash, domineering, and isolated – requiring little collaboration between drummers.  Consequently, we’re telling women to be a certain way – soft, graceful, cooperative.  But we’re also telling men to be a certain way – loud, domineering, isolated.

Certainly there are female side drummers and male tenor drummers in the world.  Lee Lawson is one of the best side drummers in the world and she is female.  She’s won over 35 solo championship titles.  But she’s also the only female to ever compete at the Senior level in solo competitions.  Tyler Fry, by far the most well known Highland tenor drummer in the world, is male.  But Lee and Ty are unfortunately in the vast minority.  By telling women they should play tenor, we are also telling men that if they want to play tenor, they are somehow feminine.  By genderizing these instruments, we’re not only restricting women, we’re restricting men as well.  They’re drums.  They have no sex and they have no gender.  And if you’ve ever seen Tyler Fry play the tenor, he’s about as raucous as any snare drummer I’ve ever seen.

I encourage drummers to learn every instrument in the drum corps.  It serves the player as well as the band, since drummers can fill in any gaps in numbers when needed.  The tenor drummers in my pipe band in Brooklyn (all of whom are female…) now bring snare sticks to every practice, and I teach them side drum rudiments as well as advanced tenor flourishes before practice starts.  Before I joined the band two years ago, no one had ever offered to teach them.  The divide is slowly closing.  But there are those who still support these gender roles, whether consciously or subconsciously, as a mark of ‘tradition’.

This almost obsessive adherence to tradition has implications in the pipe band community beyond gender roles.  It’s a big part of what keeps Highland music from pushing boundaries in musicality and having a more prominent place in mainstream culture.  Pipe bands primarily play music written centuries ago by composers who are long dead.  Highland competitions dictate what should be played, how it should be played, and how long to play it.  Those bands that break with tradition are often heavily penalized for it.  Remember I mentioned Toronto Police Pipe Band, those kooky Canucks who would dare to field two bass drums rather than the traditional one?  For the last six years or so, they have entered competitions playing their own original (and some would say, experimental) music rather than the same traditional tunes most other bands can be heard playing.  Believe it or not, this brash display of hubris has greatly shaken up the pipe band world.  Even though many stodgy judges have criticized them quite harshly for it, mostly I believe because they are uncertain how to judge tunes they haven’t heard a thousand times before, Toronto Police have amassed a huge and devoted popular following for their innovative scores.  After all, would you rather go to a rock concert to see a band playing its own unique music or a mere cover band?  If we in the pipe band world are at all interested not only in pushing this genre of music forward, but in preventing it from dying out, we can’t adhere to tradition simply for tradition’s sake.  And this is no more prevalent than in the instruments we encourage either sex to play.

Even though women are now outwardly recognized as equally talented pipe band musicians as men, there remains a stain of old school sexism which suggests that even today, women belong in a  certain place in the drum corps.  It’s odd.  It’s embarrassing.  And it’s just as restrictive to males as it is to females.  For, as with any incarnation of sexism, as soon as you suggest that women belong in a certain place, you suggest the same of men.  It is part of a tradition that serves only to stifle a musical genre that is longing to explore new territories and break through old boundaries.


As of July 2012, Teale Failla competes in the Metro Branch of the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association as side drummer with Monaghan Pipe Band, Brooklyn and leads their tenor section.  She also competes as a soloist and plays with the NYU Pipes and Drums, NYC during the off season.  She got her start playing with Stockbridge Pipe Band, Edinburgh where she was a side drummer with their 2010 RSPBA and Lothian and Borders Champion of Champions Drum Corps.   Teale is currently the only female competing as a side drummer in a New York City pipe band.  She teaches all aspects of Highland drumming in hopes of erasing that distinction.  Visit her website at

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