What Motown can teach pipers

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GREY’S NOTES
by Michael Grey
Piping Today #53, 2011.

It seems like the more stuff there is on TV and the more channels there are available, the less there is to watch. This way of things has made me an impatient channel-clicker: two seconds on that show, nine on the other. I think I must use up what little attention span I have on the bagpipes. Sometimes rapid-fire channel-surfing gets results, sometimes you hit on a good show — one not devoted to Colin and Justin, naked cooking or guessing the value of old stuff.

A little while ago I clicked my way across a quirky little documentary about Motown great Martha Reeves (Martha and the Vandellas). She was working with a bunch of high school kids on a music programme they were putting together. The students were, in fact, all talented musicians — the school was dedicated to the performing arts — and the deal was they’d work with Martha and be her local support as band and back-up singers. A daunting task, I’d say. Martha Reeves is a legend and from what I could see, a pretty big force to be reckoned with. She made songs like Dancing in the Street pop music anthems.

Like a lot of pipe majors I know, she didn’t seem to suffer fools gladly. Imagine. Pipe major Martha Reeves. Anyway, after almost 50 years in the business, Reeves has the chops and can still hit a groove and make good music at a finger snap.

Reeves did her best to help the students “get” the music. They thought they knew the music; they knew the score, they knew the chord progressions, they mostly knew the cues and their technique was pretty solid. What more was there? They’d learned the music from manuscripts and recordings. They thought they were good to go. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Like trying to learn piobaireachd from a recording alone and expecting to create greatness, Martha was all over the students and what they thought they knew. She pummelled into them what they missed: the feel, the vibe, the essence of the music ­— music she helped invent. They had Martha to deal with now — a sort of Motown John MacDonald of Inverness. She was the master, they were her pupils.

What really struck me was one of Martha’s statements. To a student who was attempting a new take, a new riff, on one of her standards, she said: “Baby, ya gotta know the rules to break the rules”. It got everyone’s attention and helped the cocky student musician understand a core truth when it comes to creating art: in order to understand where the music can go you have to understand where it’s been — though I like Martha Reeves’ words better.

“Baby, ya gotta know the rules to break the rules”

I can’t think of a great artist (musician, painter, composer, writer, and so on) who ventured forward to create dazzling new artistic interpretations without first having expert knowledge of the form they worked in. Think of Pablo Picasso, the poster boy for modern art. Many may think of only cubism and abstraction but the guy is generally acknowledged to have been an impeccable craftsman, one who drew on his classical training to launch into new and innovative artistic directions.

Classical music composers Hector Berlioz, Igor Stravinsky and Franz Joseph Haydn, the inventor of the string quartet, all stick out a mile as artistic trail-blazers, yet their great achievements could never have happened without expert knowledge of the music — and the instruments that made that music.

“Know the rules so you can break them effectively,” said the Dalai Lama. I’m not sure if he and Martha Reeves hang out but they’re clearly on the same page.

So we come to bagpipes. And I say this: the greater the depth of a player’s traditional repertoire, the greater will be their understanding of where the music has been – and where it can go. The less chance, too, of rehashed “old” music, you know, tunes already lodged in the repertoire yet inadvertently — almost always innocently — passed off as “new”.

If anyone aspires to be the piping world’s next Picasso, Berlioz or Martha Reeves, make sure you’ve a library of our best collections of music — and know them well. •