By Dougie Pincock
I was very pleasantly surprised a couple of weeks ago to be contacted by Piping Times editor, Stuart Letford and asked to make this contribution to the Bagpipe.News Blog. I met Stuart when I was an instructor at The Piping Centre (before it was National!), and hearing from people I saw a lot of in those days always starts me thinking about what’s happened since.
I left the Centre in April 2000 to come to Wester Ross and take up the post of Director of The National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton. Nobody knew what that was at the time, and some days I’m still not sure, but after nearly 20 years in the job and in this beautiful part of the world, there’s a lot to reflect on.
I’ve been fortunate enough to make a career out of music, and that all started with becoming a piper. I have one or two other things I do nowadays, but anybody who knows anything about me will know that I identify as a piper, and that piping is what got me where I am today. I was a competitor and performer for a good while, and then, as many of us do, I drifted into teaching and that’s how I pay the bills nowadays. It’s not an uncommon career path, but everyone who treads it takes their own route. I often look back on mine, and what I’m invariably struck by is how lucky I’ve been to meet the right people in the right place at the right time.
By way of a bit of research for this task, I read John Mulhearn’s recent blog. John is a man whose work I greatly admire and in his blog he talked about listening to music, but to set that in context, he used these wise words: “I often find myself reflecting on the tuition I received as a youngster. All of us that teach pipes rely heavily on our own early role models, the teachers that laid the foundation of our own playing, and in turn influenced the way we approach teaching.”
Well, I often find myself doing the same reflecting, and for many, many years I struggled hugely with the idea of how to repay the marvellous people who gave so freely of their knowledge and experience to make me better. There’s a plethora of formal educational opportunities available to young pipers now, but it wasn’t always like that. It certainly wasn’t like that for me, and if I know anything at all about music, it’s because I asked thousands of questions of hundreds of people, and then did my best to remember the answers and start figuring a few things out for myself off the back of what I’d learned.
So for a long time I thought of myself as somehow being in debt to these people, and unable to pay them back. But the penny eventually dropped when I left Battlefield Band at the end of 1990 and started going back to Duncan Johnstone for a few lessons. I had kept in touch with Duncan on and off since I met him in my mid-teens, and now here was a chance to get right back into it. I did that, and enjoyed it, but possibly the most significant thing Duncan did for me was to unwittingly help me cut my Gordian knot.
He was busy, and couldn’t cope with the number of people who were coming to him asking for lessons. So he asked me if I’d be willing to take a couple of them on. Problem solved. I’d been looking in the wrong direction.
I was looking backwards trying to figure out how to repay the people who had come before me, but you can’t do that, and they’re not looking for it. What we need to do is look forward, and take what we’ve been given by the people who came before us, and pass it on to the people who come after us.
And that can happen in many, many ways. Not all of the people who helped me were teachers. Some were performers, some were critics, some were record producers, some were audience members. Some were close friends, some were professional colleagues, some I met only once. But they all did the same thing, in their own different ways – they tried to help. They passed it on.
Sometimes they gave me advice about what I could or should do. But many, many times, they told me about good stuff to listen to, or about great experiences they’d had that inspired me to try something similar. Sometimes they told me I was great, sometimes they told me I was rotten. You can learn from both of those things, and I did. Sometimes they knew what they were doing, and sometimes they had no idea.
The point about all this is that you can do it, too. You may think of yourself as knowledgeable about music, or you may think you know nothing. You may yourself be a teacher, or you may be a pupil. You may be an expert, and you may be a novice. Sometimes the most important things I’ve learned have been from people I was teaching at the time. And very, very often, I have learned from people who claimed, often correctly, to know nothing at all about music.
And it never ends. I’m now surrounded by great teachers and musicians on a daily basis. Specifically in piping, I share my working life with Iain MacFadyen, who is our tutor at Plockton, and Niall Stewart, who is the local schools instructor. These are two of the most successful pipers of their respective generations, and in many ways they are now my route back to the piping world. I marvel continuously at their never-ending and untiring efforts to help young people get better. They do it in different ways, but they do it very effectively, and they do it in the spirit of our great tradition. They pass it on.
If you want to find out a bit more about what I do these days, go and have a look at www.musicplockton.org. If I’m fortunate enough to be invited to do this again, I’ll maybe expand on that a bit.
In the meantime, though, the crucial thing to remember is that whenever you’re talking to someone about their music, in whatever capacity, you can help them. All of our experiences have value, and when we share them, that value is greatly multiplied. Whatever you’ve got, pass it on. It can only make our lives richer.
• Dougie Pincock is Director of The National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music, which is based at Plockton, Wester Ross, Scotland.