Bill Livingstone: not the singer but the song


by Bill Livingstone
Piping Today #98, 2019.

I once was judging a piobaireachd competition with the great John MacDougall and a piper performing before us had finished his tune. It had no errors, the pipe was fine, technique fine, but John turned to me and said: “Bill, I’m not hearing the song.” Wow, I thought, what a succinct way to put the problem. No long story about the lights and shades, expression, pace – the tune just left us uninterested, unmoved.

How does a piper get to that place where the song appears to the performer, and it gets reproduced on the bagpipe? I would venture that the first requisite is innate musical ability or intuition, for we all know of pipers who struggle with piobaireachd and seemingly never quite get it… the song, I mean. I have thought a lot about this and firmly believe that no amount of listening to CDs of great players or accessing the countless other platforms available in the 21st century will do the trick. 

Nothing other than tuition, one-on-one, with an acknowledged master of the art, who must be a very good teacher as well, will get the piper there. It’s the face-to-face conversation, the exchange with a master, the “one-on-oneness” of the relationship that prepares the pupil for a strong learning experience. And in fairness, once that thorough grounding has been accomplished, then one can “take from the listening”, as Captain John MacLellan once put it to me.

•Bill Livingstone playing with the Toronto Police Pipe Band in George Square, Glasgow, at Piping Live! 2012 ©

Not to be too solipsistic about this, but I relate my own experience with The Lament for Mary MacLeod as an example of how I believe this works. I began my serious study of piobaireachd with the late John Wilson (Edinburgh). I was taught Mary MacLeod by him. I then went to John MacFadyen, where I again studied Mary MacLeod one-on-one with him… he was something of an acknowledged expert in the tune, and my understanding of it grew. Then to Donald MacLeod, the best pure teacher of piobaireachd I ever encountered. His little tricks of instruction and communication, coupled with his expressive singing opened up great possibilities… he used “little ‘and’ notes”, and counted rhythms in twos and threes, always found and demonstrated the hidden compound rhythms in the tunes, and used vivid examples: “Bill, this a carry over high A, by which I mean you pick it up, lift it gently over the fence, and put it down on the other side.” He too went over Mary MacLeod with me.

Lurking in the background of all of this teaching was a tape of R.U. Brown playing the piece in a live broadcast from the Aberdeen studios of the BBC. This tape was a gift from my late friend, the great Ed Neigh and I cherish it still. 

So I tried to put all of this together at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1979, where I was given Mary MacLeod to play in the Gold Medal contest. Indeed, I did win the Gold Medal with it. But someone gave me a cassette recording of that winning performance, and it was clear that I had not internalised Brown’s playing of it, or I lost the courage to go full tilt for it.

The greatest expression of grief on the bagpipe without actually weeping. Take it firmly in hand, break the rhythm and extend this wailing note to the maximum.

While preparing over the last few years for the recording of the balance of A Piobaireachd Diary series, I vowed to have another go at R.U. Brown’s treatment. What emerged was a recognition of Brown’s ability to extract the maximum of “touch” by extending held notes beyond what typical current performance style embraces, and in contrast making short notes noticeably shorter than currently heard. Coupled with that was a clear intention to avoid any suggestion of strict rhythm in the variations. It’s not unusual to hear Mary MacLeod with the first variation doubling, and both the taorluath and crunluath as bits you could march to. The rhythms were quite broken in Brown’s treatment, and bordering on lopsided at times. This is not an easy thing to describe in words, but if you’ll indulge me I’ll give it a try.

It’s likely best to have the score in front of you while I try to put into words what I learned from Brown’s playing. And bear in mind that I am not a dogmatist, other than being insistent on attempts to extract the maximum in musical interest from piobaireachd. So you may disagree with me, but for an example of how listening to a master perform a piece can affect a piper’s approach, I invite you to listen to my playing of Mary MacLeod on the upcoming editions of A Piobaireachd Diary. How I arrived at it was directly because of the influence of Brown, and I believe its quite unique approach to piobaireachd treatment in today’s world.



Bar 1…long introductory E, well held low A after the birl

Bar 2…first C a fairly open “and” note, followed by a well held E, and a short “and” note B, followed by quite long C and low A

Bar 3…as bar 1

Bar 4…as bar 2


Bar 1…well held low A after birl, long F, with a short “and” note C to a long low A

Bar 2…fairly short E to F, “looping” to the next very well held F followed by a short “and” note C to low A, A well held

Bar 3…as Bar 1

Bar 4…as Bars 2 and 4 line 1


Bars 1 and 2 as above

Bars 3 and 4…stepping down smoothly, sounding the C before the C grip clearly, final C well held, long B after cadence to end the line.



There’s a clear pattern to this line, and it’s shown in bar 1. The first of the three tied eighth-notes is well heard, the middle one extended a bit more, third is a short “and” note to the standalone quarter-note which is well extended before dropping to the concluding low A. In bar 4, the treatment is the same, but the general feel is fatter.


Bar 1…well heard Low A to a long F, followed by a short “and” note E, and a long F, tumbling down to a short C and a well held low A.

This pattern holds until bar 4 where the cadence to B dominates. (I am familiar with the style which omits this cadence…it seems neither here nor there to me)


Follows the same pattern as line 2 until the last 2 bars where the rhythm is something like 2-3, and 2-3 and 2-3, with the final C not cut but held, and a stretched cadence to B and a very long low A.


This variation is one which often gets the drum corps treatment, with a rigid 2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 in a nearly march-like feel. Brown’s playing of this was very elusive, but what I took from it was a willingness to stretch it out of that martial feel, by extending some of the middle notes of the three note groups, and in the last bar fattening the first E and noticeably lengthening the second last note C.

Line 2 received very a similar treatment, with the E connectors being very short “and” notes. Of course the C in bar 4 well extended.

Line 3 followed the same pattern, but when in bar 3 the option to play high G was provided, (and who would not take it? The greatest expression of grief on the bagpipe without actually weeping) take it firmly in hand, break the rhythm and extend this wailing note to the maximum.


Here R.U. Brown put paid to notion of rigid metre in tunes of this type.


Bar 1 sets his  pattern. First note, low A taorluath…the low A is not very long, next note E is stretched a bit, B following is a very short “and” note, and the last two notes (the quarter-notes) are held well beyond what is typical. This gives the bars an uneven feel, like a wheel somewhat out of true. The first half of the bar creates an impression that a typical taorluath rhythm is about to be heard, and the last two notes, the quarter-notes, bring the movement of the variation almost to a halt. And it seems to me at least, to actually sing this song of lamentation.


Bar 1 sets the pattern again. Taorluath as described above for line 1 bar 1, very short “and” note E, to a very well held F, then resolving to short C “and” note and finally closing with a long low A.


Follows this pattern, and concludes with a very long B and low A.


This variation is very tricky to master. It’s more of the uneven wheel, with Brown seeming to toy with a strict metre and then back away. I think he does this by lengthening the first note after the taorluath movement (both Es in the first bar), again giving us a fresh understanding of the possibilities of the song in piobaireachd. The lesson for me is that there is room for toying with the metre in this music.


Again a fairly tricky metre. 

Line 1 opens with a well heard low A, then the crunluath movement, straight down to a short low A and  then up to a well held E, short connector B and finally to a long C closing gently to a long Low A. This pattern obtains throughout the singling.


The wheel now gets very uneven: long theme notes before the crunluath movements which are followed by very short low A connectors back up to E, which is also well held. By now, the feel of what is going on will be apparent.

To depart from what some may see as a very tedious way of explaining this presentation of the tune, may I suggest Jimmy MacIntosh’s advice to me: “The pulsing of the individual bars is Medium, Medium, Strong, Medium: always reach for the third beat in the bar and stress it: don’t be afraid to take it a bit out of strict rhythm.”

There is indeed a song in there, and in the case of Lament for Mary MacLeod, it is a powerful and plaintive one. I hope the BBC can find that tape of Bob Brown and make it available to all piobaireachd players…  it’s a revelation. Failing that, when the next entries in A Piobaireachd Diary appear, perhaps a listen to my playing of Mary MacLeod after my epiphany per Bob Brown, will shed some light on what I discovered in the performance of the tune to make it sing, or at least sing in a way that moves me.