Pipe Major Derek Potter – Interview 2008

Pipe Major Derek Potter

PCM: You opened your tour last night. (1-9-08)

Pipe Major Derek Potter: Yes, we played at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Everything went well and it was a good show.

PCM: How many shows will you have done by the time you get to Philadelphia?

DP: We will have done four shows so Philadelphia will be our fifth show.

PCM: The bands will be much tighter.

DP: Over the Christmas break we actually did our tour rehearsals which seems quite a long time ago back in November. The main thing with that was the heavy schedule for both the Cold Stream Guards and our band with other engagements. We didn’t have much time for rehearsal. So as you see we’re running under the gun over the past few days to get good rehearsal days. The other thing as well is we have to slightly alter the show as it depends on each venue. Each venue is different in its makeup.

PCM: The history of the Royal Scots Dragoon goes back to 1640 but the pipes band became official in 1971?

DP: Actually we became official in 1946. What happened was after the demobilization of the British forces there were six pipers who went across to the Scots Greys. As it was at the time they started a pipe band. Then what happened in 1971 the regiment amalgamated with them and we became the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. At that point that is where we took the title, but we always had a small element of pipes & drums in the Scots Guard.

PCM: How long have you been the Pipe Major?

DP: I’ve been Pipe Major for five and half years, I took over in 2002. I’ve also done service of 20 years within the British military all in the pipes & drums and I worked from being a piper through the ranks to become the rank of Pipe Major.

PCM: What are the steps to become a Pipe Major in the British Army?

DP: There’s certain criteria, first and foremost for us is time accruement with the main battle tank the Challenger Two. Our role there is how we enter the course. Each member of the pipes & drums will be part of a crew as a driver or gunnery commander and will work through his career. We have to continue courses at the army music school. There are five courses a piper would complete and five courses a drummer would complete.  The emulation of that is the Pipe Majors course which is seven months long and the Drum Majors course which is slightly shorter. It is three months long.

PCM: What gets you elevated into the position?

DP: Normally what happens is the pipe major enrollment is a three year period and that Pipe Major might be at the end of his career or he may well be moving into another role with piping or another role in the battalion. The previous Pipe Major was moved up to Captain after he left the pipes & drums.

PCM: Your new cd The Spirit of the Glen is your fifth cd as Pipe Major and the first with Universal.

DP: This is the first cd that has been recorded and marketed in a classical classification. All of the projects we’ve done before have been for the pipes & drum market. This cd through Universal was made specifically with larger arrangements and to have pipes & drums on arrangements you would usually never hear them on.

PCM: Where you involved in the negotiations?

DP: Yes, myself and the band president were the people who sat down with Universal and had shown them what we did previously through various albums and DVD’s.

PCM: Did they give you freedom in the studio?

DP: It was a collaboration between us our and producer Jon Cohen when we went into the studio. It was by no means that they told us what to do.

PCM: You recorded the cd between two tours in Iraq?

DP: When operational tours come out for the pipes & drums we would go as first line soldiers and we had come back from one tour and started to work on the collaboration while we were out and we returned to Iraq and when we came back again we finished all the elements of the project.

PCM: That is two extremes. Is that psychologically difficult?

DP: They are. That’s the day to day diversity of our job. The pipes & drums have always been an integral part of regiment and the British Army and the pipers and drummers have marched into battle with the soldiers. So we use it also as a tool for morale and to make sure of that we play at Christmas, Bums Night and other festive events. We play for regimental parades which we still carry on in any operations. So the focus of the pipes & drums is still there. Sometime these experiences bring more emotion to the music as well. The musicians observations have been through compositions from their emotional experiences that have been recorded on previous albums.

PCM: The band is grade two are the pipers individually graded?

DP: We are in the top six bands in Grade 2. The pipers will be graded individually with the courses within the army school of piping and the standards within the band. Many of the members have played with top civilian bands before they came in so there is a wealth of experience between the pipers and drummers in the band.

PCM: There are no guarantee’s in a musical career but does being in The Pipes & Drums of Royals Scots Dragoon give you a secure feeling towards a good future as a professional piper?

DP: I don’t think it guarantee’s it, I would agree that it can elevate you outside of the army with the high esteem that our band is associated with.

PCM: How much time does the band practice?

DP: The time varies between the musical roles and the military roles. In any year it can be 60% piping & drumming and 40% military. Normally on a day to day basis all twenty eight members of the pipes & drums are together within the pipes & drum building and practice but within that is our military duties. We don’t have the luxury of practicing with each other every day.

PCM: How do you train beginners?

DP: When someone comes to the band we work with them to bring them up to the required standards of the band. So we work one on one with a lot of people and we have the piping class and drumming class within the band which the experienced corporal and senior members take the new members through.

PCM: Are the pipes military issue?

DP: We actually play silver and ivory bagpipes and we bought several sets that were made for us from the time of our Amazing Grace Album and those have been carried on since then and are very good bagpipes made by Hardy. We have several members who buy there own sets like myself. I have a  ull silver set by David Naill.

PCM: Who makes your band chanters?

DP: We use R.T. Shepherd pipe chanters. We use different chanters depending on whether we are going to competition or whether the whole of the army comes together for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Currently on the tour we are using the new Shepherd orchestral chanter which is pitched specifically for playing with a military band. That is the chanter we used on The Spirit of the Glen.

PCM: Do you use Shepherd reeds?

DP: Yes we do, that’s a personal preference, we like the combination of the fact that he makes a good reed for his chanter. For us it’s a working relationship between chanter and reed and that’s what we prefer to use.

PCM: Do you come from a musical family?

DP: On my mothers side my uncle, and great uncle and grandfather all played the pipes, fiddle and accordion so there was always an element of Scottish music in the family. My great uncle was in the 57th Scots Highlanders so there was a military connection there with the Scottish Regiments. On my fathers side there were guitar players and keyboard players.

PCM: When did you start playing the pipes?

DP: I started at eight years old playing coronet and trumpet. I played in the Scottish Highlands National Youth Orchestra. I started the pipes when I was twelve years old. When I picked up the pipes I was playing with the McKenzie Caledonia Pipe Band in Dundee. When I became eighteen years old I decided that I wanted to take piping full time from a hobby to a profession. So my goal was to get a degree as a  Pipe Major. At that time universities didn’t offer the piping classes that they do now.

PCM: In an earlier interview you said with the new cd The Spirit of the Glen you want to convert everyone to the pipes.

DP: There are people who wouldn’t normally listen to bagpipes so I wanted to show people there is more to the make up of the bagpipes. I think most people are surprised that there are only nine notes on the bagpipes. It is a very difficult instrument to play and there is so much music that comes form those nine notes.