Chicks on the Line

I do not mean birds on a wire. Whole different subject. I'm talking girls and women on drum lines (particularly in pipe bands), a subject I was reminded about while standing in a dark pub with friends one night last week listening to brilliant tunes played by some of the top musicians in the field, both male and female.

The topic came up randomly. As we all circulated the room, visiting with pals and catching up on life, I found myself standing with two other drum chicks for whom I have a great deal of respect. One is just a tad older than I am and the other is a fair bit younger. Both are accomplished musicians, and, more than that, intelligent and kind individuals with interests and talents that go far beyond the sometimes insular world of pipe bands.

Despite the age differences, we rapidly found common ground. The times when guys on our lines voiced their admiration (sure, we'll call it that) for dancers or scantily clad band groupies ... while we stood right next to them, feeling sweaty, awkward, and unnoticed at best or offended at worst. The men who became insulting or insulted when we wouldn't let them carry our drums for us ... at contests where we'd just played alongside them all day. The men who have, in a seemingly kilt-induced fit of bravado, felt that it was okay to leer at us in massed bands ... forcing us to shift our position so that a trusted (preferably tall and broad-shouldered) bandmate stood between them and us. Or those who made snide remarks about our skills or "place" as they saw it ... the one man, for example, who walked past one of my friends at a solo drumming contest and lobbed at her, "The dancing's over that way, honey."

Our eyes rolled and we smirked as we discussed our reactions, which have ranged from amusement to annoyance to avoidance and, in some cases, blatant freeze-outs. Above all, we agreed that "it's not just you."

Then, in the way such conversations often do, the tide rapidly turned from situations that make us grimace to those that make us grin. All of us have experienced the chuffed feeling that comes from seeing a father (and yes, it's nearly always a father) rush his young daughter up the edge of a parade route or competition circle to point out the "girl drummer." We've all played in corps where it's purely skill, not sex, that determines who makes it onto the field, or in front of judges who place competitors only by the tone of the drum and ability of the drummer. Each of us has developed a certain toughness of skin and self-reliance that calls us to carry our own gear and try to be better than the boys. And we've all joined the sort of sisterhood that crosses the invisible pipe- and drum-section dividing line and leads to a head-tip and extra applause for any woman who wears the kilt ... from piping judges right down to novice drummers.

Throughout our chatter, the fourth member of our little circle was silent. An accomplished and respected drummer in his own right, he listened to our our experiences with interest. From the days not that long ago when I was the only "girl" in a whole band, let alone in the drum corps, to the day recently when one of my friends realized how many girls were coming up behind her. His face reflected his reactions clearly. Disappointment in people's behavior, recognition of the resilience at play, and, I thought, a few moments of self-reflection ("Did I ever do that...?" his expression seemed to say). At one point, something really got his attention and he leveled a clear blue gaze at one of my friends, a member of his own corps, his voice determined as he told her, "If that happens again, come find me. I'm not having it."

He's one of the many good ones we know, the instructors and leaders who look for talent and drive above all else, and who openly encourage the young girls in their charge to work hard, find their place on the line, hold on to the position they've earned, and aim higher. We lose too many girls when they reach an age where they feel they have to choose between being drummers and maintaining some kind of cultural expectation for femininity. There is a middle ground, but it takes all of us, along with all of our male counterparts, to help girls find it and help the guys around them respect it.   

"I noticed something this morning," our male friend said to us. He'd been working with a particularly youthful band for part of the day, one that he knows very well and sees often. "It hadn't occurred to me before, so I had to count twice. There's like 10 girls and four boys out with them. I don't think I've ever seen that happen. It's really cool!"