Differences in playing styles is the subject of this opinion piece taken from the December 2004 Piping Times.
By Duncan Watson
A number of years ago while discussing the various aspects of The Unjust Incarceration with the late Donald Morrison, he related what I found to be an interesting story. Donald, while on leave from the Merchant Navy circa 1949-1950, attended the piper’s club in the Highlanders’ Institute in Glasgow and was asked to play a tune. He played The Unjust and afterwards an older man, aged in his 50s and who was not familiar to Donald, approached and commented favourably on the way he played it. This older gentleman clearly knew his business as he spoke about the similarities in the way he himself and Donald expressed the tune. As far as I recall, one of the similarities that Donald referred to was the handling of cadences. It should be borne in mind at that time there were very few recordings available and therefore playing a significant style to a tune was an indication of having been taught it, as opposed to picking it up from a recording. The older gentleman put it to Donald that he had been taught and was curious as to who was his teacher. Donald said it was R. B. Nicol, who had been teaching on South uist, to which island Donald belonged. This satisfied the gentleman’s curiousity. Donald, then curious himself about who he was speaking to, asked: “And who are you? The reply came back: “I am Robert Reid.”
Donald, of course, had heard a lot about Robert Reid but had never encountered him. They then went on to discuss various tunes and found while there were differences there were also significant similarities in what both played. Donald told me that he found the meeting with Reid very interesting and having heard previously that he played tunes very differently, was surprised at how much agreement they had with some of the classic tunes.
I have never heard Robert Reid play The Unjust Incarceration but look forward to hearing a recording of him if it is included in the recordings that are now being released by the College [in 2004 the College of Piping released two CDs of Reid’s playing and teaching]. I do have a record on which Robert Reid is playing In Praise of Morag. When I first listened to it, it was obvious there were differences to what I had been taught. But there significant similarities, particularly in the Ground and in the handling of cadences, and that made me wonder and query where all this talk of different schools of piping had come from. I don’t have the magazine article to hand, but recall the late James Campbell in an interview suggesting that too much importance was placed on the differences between the Cameron and the MacPherson styles. It does not appear that the persons themselves were responsible, as they all seem to agree there are as many similarities as there are differences in what they played. I suppose it is the pupils of these masters who created the polarisation. Does it exist out of some understandable sense of loyalty? It would be a disservice to them if we over emphasised the differences in their styles of playing. It could be seen as damaging or destructive, bearing in mind that individual interpretations are not written in stone.
There is an aspect to these old recordings that I think we overlook now that we have relatively easy access to the work of masters such as R. U. Brown, Nicol and Reid. It is that they were taught by master players themselves and they were indeed taught in what we might find now to be quite strict fashion. Thankfully, they stuck, as faithfully as they could, to what they were shown, thus, rather than indulging in experimental interpretation, were able to pass on as near as they could something given to them as part of traditional teaching. They clearly valued what they were taught and we are in their debt for their apparent seemingly strict adherence to it, despite it being annoyingly restrictive on occasion.
These men were genuinely motivated and have bequeathed to us a resonating transmission of their knowledge, a knowledge traceable back through the years.