He didn’t play in one set way

One of legendary piper Donald MacPherson’s catchphrases was “No-one has a monopoly on taste”. In about 2003, on one of my many visits to Donald’s home in Balbeggie, Perthshire, I remember how his normally unassailable state of calm was perturbed by a Piobaireachd Society judges’ seminar. Someone had played a recording of Bob Nicol interpreting a tune in a way that, to Donald’s ear, sounded stilted. Donald didn’t mind Nicol’s interpretation, but was irked by some people’s infatuation that this was how it should be played.

Donald was the most senior pibroch adjudicator at the time. He had consistently beaten Bob Nicol on the competition platform when the other judges at the seminar were boys. Why was this recording more precious to them than an insight from Donald? The answer isn’t just that Bob Nicol was a fervent disciple and prolific teacher, actively passing on what he received from John MacDonald. He also had a ‘purer’ piping lineage: Donald learnt many of his tunes from the book and his interpretations drew on a wider range of musical influences, so didn’t qualify so clearly for pedigree status.

Reverence for a master in any tradition plants a deceit; before you blink, a disciple says “that’s the way he did it” and an in-the-moment impulse becomes gospel truth, fixed for generations. The institutionalisation of that impulse gives rise to two false notions: firstly, that the master did it this way only; and, secondly, that convergence of interpretation is desirable. The first is delusion; the second leads to dullness and decay, discouraging questioning and diversity, putting off the brightest young recruits.

John Shone illustrated the deceit in a story he told at the Piobaireachd Society Conference, 19 March 2011:

I went to JB Robertson and was given Mary’s Praise and MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart and he was a very great teacher because he used to say to me – “Don’t just go to me – go to others.” And so because of Jack I ended up at Blacksmith’s Cottage. And there I went on several occasions to Bob Nicol and Bob sat me down and said “Who taught you?”
I said “JB”
“Oh! Then you’ll play me a tune.”
I said “Yes”
“What are you going to play?”
“Mary’s Praise”.
And I played Mary’s Praise, then I played MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart. And if people knew the cottage, there is that beautiful plate glass window looking out into the glen, it was lovely. And I played and at the end I put my pipes down and he said “Awful. That was not how it was given to me by John MacDonald. MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart – you’re cutting it up into little chunks.”
“Oh” I said. “I’m sorry Mr Nicol.” I was only very young – about 24 years. “Sit down,” he said. He then gave me MacCrimmons’s Sweetheart as John MacDonald played it.

Years went by and I thought that’s interesting and I’ve got this given to me from the man who was taught by John MacDonald. I get the tape and the tape is MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart. John MacDonald plays that as you’ve just heard, identically to the way JB gave it to me and not as Nicol. When I spoke to Bob Brown about it, he said “what you don’t understand is he played the tune in various ways so don’t judge either Bob Nicol or John MacDonald. He didn’t play in one set way.” So he may have written the tunes differently to us and played them differently – so we’ve got a real problem, haven’t we.

Proceedings of the Piobaireachd Society Conference xxxviii (2012): 19-20

I’d suggest it’s a relief to know that John MacDonald could tickle his audience with something slightly different from what they were expecting. Although it can be uncomfortable for students when certainty is removed, it is vital for professionals to keep their mind and craft bright and fresh. This fluidity is centuries old in pibroch: it permeates every page of the early sources.

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2 Comments on “He didn’t play in one set way”

  1. Simon Chadwick Says:

    Hi Barnaby, do you think it is a bad thing to make students uncomfortable by not giving them the “certainty” of one single correct model? There’s the implication here that the fluidity and diversity of approach is best left to more advanced musicians?

    Also, what a fascinating story. Amazing to respond to a young person’s performance by saying “Awful”.

    • Barnaby Brown Says:

      I don’t think one rule fits all: everyone needs comfort and discomfort along the journey in order to grow. The teacher’s task is to judge how much and when.
      Consistency, predictability, even clarity, aren’t necessarily the best ways to elicit greatness. And if a student becomes too brainwashed, that rigidity of mind becomes a ceiling preventing mastery. So, I’d encourage some fluidity or controlled creativity at early stages, right from the outset. I’m not convinced that encouraging individuality is a modern thing, out of step with the medieval aesthetic…

      I had an inspirational flute teacher who praised me to the sky one week and made me leave the lesson feeling like dirt the next. I never had the same respect for another teacher, whose praise was empty by comparison. I hear classroom teachers and parents constantly praising; this takes all the power out of it. A well-judged “awful” is sometimes just what we need. Tough love.


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