On the Sunday after the Worlds in 2012, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Worrall over a glass of bubbly in the Champagne Bar in Glasgow’s Central Hotel. Guided by the time of the meeting and the setting I decided to keep my questions light — early beginnings, tutors, favourite tunes and pipe set-up — and allow Bob to take them in any direction. He did, giving lots of great answers and took the conversation into some of his thoughts on judging pipe bands, new music and overall standards of playing.
By John Slavin • Piping Today magazine #61, 2012
After discussing the previous day’s events at Glasgow Green, we started with Bob’s early musical life. He took piano lessons as a boy, but growing up in a community with strong Scottish roots meant it wasn’t long till he heard the sound of a pipe band. When the opportunity came up to learn the pipes, he jumped at the chance.
His first tutor was Bill Millar, who moved from to Canada from Omagh in Northern Ireland in the 1950s, and who came to Bob’s village to teach once a week. Eventually Bob would join Bill’s pipe band and stayed as his pupil through the amateur solo ranks.
Once Bob moved to the professional ranks, his teacher announced that it was time for him to get some heavy-duty piobaireachd tuition. Bob explained: “He told me I had to go to John Wilson in Toronto, and I said ‘No, you’re my teacher’. Bill told me I could come back and play tunes for him any time but that I didn’t have a choice in the decision as my first lesson with John Wilson was already arranged for the coming Saturday.
“I was grateful for that, as so many tutors hold on to their pupils when it is time to let them go — he knew it was my time to move. It meant I was going to Toronto every Saturday. Then I started playing with the City of Toronto Pipe Band and would go to practice every Wednesday and Sunday. My father drove the 240 mile round trip three times a week giving me unbelievable support for what I wanted to do.
“When you talk to so many people about John, it sounds like he was a different teacher to different people — which is the sign of a good teacher. What he gave me was perfection, absolute perfection. I never felt that he was domineering or in my face, I found him very gentle and supportive. He knew I was working extremely hard and a good pupil wants to please the teacher. How could I not, for here was a man who was in his early 70s with lots of health issues, and when you went for a lesson he would not miss a grace note. The perfection he demonstrated made me strive for the same excellence.
“His style was to present me with a role model and I tried to match that to the best of my ability. When I went to university, and he knew I was putting myself through my programme, he refused to take a penny for lessons and said ‘We will talk about this when you graduate.’ He was fantastic.”
I didn’t ask Bob what prizes he had won in his career as it almost seemed irrelevant — his reputation has moved him above and beyond the prizelists long ago. However, just for the record, Bob was seven-time Piper of the Day at the North American Championship. He toured the Scottish Games circuit in 1976 and 1977 winning both the March and Strathspey/Reel events at Inverness in 1977.
He retired from competitive piping in 1983 but has never stopped playing. He still enjoys the music and believes an adjudicator carries more credibility with solo pipers and bands if they know he can stand up and perform the music. Bob added: “It is also a soul thing. I’m not content if I’m not playing on an almost daily basis. I find that if other things have disturbed my regular practice, I will get edgy and uptight. When I start to get like that at home I find the phrase that gets used is ‘Why don’t you just go and play your pipes?’
“Quite often when I get invited to adjudicate I’m asked to give short recital afterwards and I enjoy that. I like to rise to that challenge. I really enjoy learning new music, so when I have a recital on the horizon I might learn four or five tunes that I have never played before and that is good fun.
“I will only ever play a piobaireachd in the longer recitals and I would say my practice is split 50/50 between light music and piobaireachd. I’m very much enjoying learning new piobaireachd at the moment, ones that I may have studied before but never performed in recital or competition.
“Within light music I have always been drawn to a tune like Captain Carswell, and for a softer style of 2/4 march where you bring the tempo down a couple of beats per minute and go for a more off-beat lift and accenting. The Knightswood Ceilidh by Donald MacLeod is one of my favourites.
“There are contemporary tunes that are absolutely first-rate and one I have recently taught to a pupil at home is Angus McKinnon of Eigg, written by Iain MacDonald. It is included in Allan MacDonald’s second collection. I’m convinced it will become a classic.
“When I competed, I had a range of tunes. Take the reel John Morrison of Assynt House. I played that a lot and for something totally stylisticially different I played the Ness Pipers by Ian Morrison. It was a very popular tune in the 70s and when I heard Ian play it I was so drawn to it.
“I would say my style of playing reels is completely different — I think I understand them now. When I competed I went by the seat of my pants when playing reels. You should become more analytical as you get older, and rather than just playing and hoping it sounds musical, you should be looking at the structure of the music and thinking of the shape and definition of the tune.
“I used to compete with the jig, The Loch Ness Monster. I loved that tune and I have dusted it off in the last few years. From a performance standpoint, the hornpipes I’m really drawn to are what I would call the ‘real hornpipes’, the dancing style hornpipes with a strong dot/cut feel to them. I used to play the late John Wilson’s Bobby Cuthbertson, and also Lucy Cassidy, and those are a few of the tunes I have come back to playing.
“My own hornpipes are more suited to band playing. They are funky sort of tunes that a drum corps can do a lot with. I’m not sure they are meant so much for solo playing, so I tend not to play my own hornpipes.
“ScottishPower marched off the field at the Worlds playing From Maui to Kona and I was really honoured to hear them playing it. I play that in recital now and then, but I’m hearing percussion in that tune and I feel kind of naked standing up playing a tune which was meant for a whole ensemble effect.
“One tune I’m surprised that hasn’t been picked up by bands is a smashing 6/8 by Angus Lawrie. He sent me some tunes over for consideration for one of my collections and this one didn’t have a name. When I told him I wanted to include it he told me to name it. At that time a good friend, George Sherriff, had just passed away so it was named after George. It is a great four-parted 6/8 and is highly musical and so playable — it just flows with lovely question and answer phrasing.
“It is tough to say what are the favourite tunes I have written. I’m quite partial to a couple of my 12/8s, Return from Glengarry and Halligan Street, and of the waltzes, Iain and Keeley’s Waltz, that I wrote for John Wilson’s son’s wedding. It goes nicely with The Maestro and the Minions, the first waltz that I ever wrote.
“There is an air, A Song for David, that I wrote for my brother who I never knew. He died before I was born. I can’t bring myself to play it at home, but I will play it every two or three years in recital.
“Peel Police have recently been playing Ardara House which I wrote for Richard Parkes just after his health issues a few years ago. It was great to see that in their medley. The first tune that I wrote was St Ninian’s Parish Centre Ceilidh and I think it still stands up fairly well and I’m starting to play it again.
“I only include a smattering of my own tunes in a recital and the same in my collections,” said Bob.
As we were discussing tunes, I asked Bob if he thought it would possible to compile a top 10 of ‘greatest tunes ever’ that would be considered untouchable or unarguable. Considering we are talking about pipers I guess that is an impossible task, but to start the discussion I threw in some of my own favourites; Mrs MacPherson of Inveran, Susan MacLeod, Lucy Cassidy and Fiddler’s Rally.
Bob said: “I have been asked a similar question before and I also had MacPherson of Inveran, along with another GS McLennan tune The Little Cascade. I had Captain Carswell in there and also The 93rd at Modder River. I also chose quite a number of Donald MacLeod tunes like the Knightswood Ceilidh and Susan MacLeod, and his reel Neil Angus MacDonald.
“When it comes to piobaireachd and the grand, big tunes, The Lament for the Children is without a doubt my favourite. His Father’s Lament for Donald MacKenzie ranks up there but I wish it didn’t have a few variations which I feel are a bit superfluous to the whole impact of the tune. I have always been quite partial to The Big Spree and then you get the smaller tunes that are loaded with music and subtlety which you just can’t take for granted, like The Lament for Donald of Laggan and MacFarlane’s Gathering.
“While I had my original piobaireachd tuition from the late John Wilson, I had my latter tuition from the late Willie Connell. Willie was taught by Robert Reid, so I got the whole Reid/MacDougall Gillies approach to many of these tunes. In a number of these variations they would play certain passages very differently to what you will hear with other players. He taught me The Bells of Perth which is a glorious piece of music, particularly when you do that in one of the variations.
“One of the hallmarks of a great piece of music is what can be done with it. Look at what people have done with Fiddler’s Rally and with Fred Morrison’s strathspey Seonaidh’s Tune. One of the bands played it as an air and then a strathspey at The Worlds — and it worked beautifully as an air. Great tunes are great pieces of music, and you can interpret them as an air, a strathspey, or a jig — for example Cabar Feidh.
“In the Triumph Street medley at The Worlds, they played the great 2/4 march Captain Carswell as a powerful driving 4/4 march, giving a different interpretation to the tune, which I thought was fantastic.
“There were many other bands doing things with the big classic reels at the end of their medleys and I think that is terrific. It demonstrates the stylistic flexibility of these tunes and prevents what can become a ‘forced fit’ at the end of a medley.
“At home, I have heard a few bands take different variations from piobaireachds and use them as an air within a medley and that morphs into the same melodic pattern but as a jig. Super-traditionalists may find that offensive but I find it very creative and quite appropriate.
“The limits of pipe band music are controlled by rules from a competitive standpoint, but in concert format there are no limits. If you take a look at a standard pipe band medley from this year, 30 years ago it would have been frowned upon by the adjudicators. I don’t know how many of today’s medleys would have been understood by the adjudicators from 30 years ago — especially with the time signature shifts.
“Quite often I’m standing tapping my foot to a performance and then I can’t tap my foot any more, they have switched to waltz time or whatever. You just have to stop and let your heart get tugged along – as they are directing you, you are not directing them.
“There was a time many years ago when I was adjudicating a contest in Cambridge, Ontario, when the 78th Frasers played their Megantic Outlaw medley. It was quite adventurous for the time — you either loved it or hated it. I loved it and I was judging ensemble that day and the other two adjudicators that day didn’t love it! They were quite critical of a number of things then which have become commonplace today to the point that you know what certain bands are going to do with their transitions. What is formulaic today is what was adventurous in those days, so now bands are trying to push the envelope a little more within the rules.
“As an adjudicator you are the ‘keeper of the faith’, and we all have a vision of where the appropriate line is. In a solo march competition, there are two tempo lines and if you are below one line you are losing the music and not having enough forward motion, and if you are above the other line you are going so fast that there is no definition to the music.
“That being said, if you listen to some of the old recordings of John D Burgess playing as a child in front of Willie Ross, and Willie Ross playing on his own, they are ripping through the tunes.
“What was an appropriate tempo then and what is an appropriate tempo now? There are lines in the sand which shift through time.
“Sometimes there will be an adjudicator who will come along and hear something new or different, and say, ‘I’m ready for that’. He will give it his approval and maybe that will give other adjudicators and the audience the green light to enjoy it. Many in the audience may be sitting back thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready to like what I’m hearing, but if the adjudicators have given it their approval then maybe I need to give it another listen’.
“I find if a band comes on with a medley introduced with a contemporary tune that I have not heard before, that challenges me — and I like to be challenged. If the next tune is of a similar nature, then it takes me out of my comfort zone. My advice to people putting medleys together is to have a balance. If you have a new composition, follow it with something more traditional, or sandwich the contemporary tune between the traditional tunes.
“If we look at what some of the bands are now doing, like ScottishPower starting their medley with Castle Dangerous and now the Battle of Waterloo — that puts people in their comfort zone. There is plenty of time left for the technically and rhythmically challenging tunes. Yesterday, quite a few bands were playing two or three contemporary tunes in a row before playing a traditional tune that we could hang our hat on. Bands should try to keep the audience in their comfort zone and, at the same time, provide musical challenges for the listener.
“If we go back to the 1980s when Ian McLellan led Strathclyde Police, he had a very smart approach. He would always have something new in the medley and then some tradition.”
Bob plays a Naill pipe with a MC2 chanter, a synthetic bag with a Ross moisture control system, and chanter reeds from various makers including John Elliot (Toronto), Jack Lee, Colin MacLellan, Donald MacPhee and David Chesney. He added: “My drone reeds are synthetic — two Rocket drone reeds for the tenors and the bass is a Kinnaird. I’m really loving that set-up.
“I don’t have the MCS tube connected to my chanter as I want to allow some moisture to get to my chanter reed. I hear a lot of dry sounds in top hands with people playing synthetic bags and it is caused by the chanter reed not getting any moisture. You will hear a tight, choked top-hand sound which lacks the desirable depth and richness.
“When playing sheepskin there is no doubt that when someone’s pipe is spot-on, it sounds excellent. But how often will sheepskin be spot-on and hold for a decent sized piobaireachd? That is the issue. When you compare that to a player with a synthetic set-up that sounds good, and I believe Angus MacColl and Willie McCallum play a synthetic set-up, they have a really good sound that holds. So the choice is to opt for an excellent sound now and again with a sheepskin bag or choose a really good sound consistently.
“I’m a really wet blower and I wish that I had the option of a synthetic set-up years ago when I was coming to Scotland to compete. That would have saved me a lot of hassles and a lot of grey hair.
“Sheepskin does make a difference to the really top bands and you hear a lot of depth and richness in their sound. When you compare other bands who are maybe playing a hide or semi-hide set-up, there is a certain lack of richness in what there are producing.”
The bag set-up mainly affects the top hand notes but Bob has also noticed that a lot of the low-G notes he hears are flat. On further examination of the chanters, he sees that the G notes have been taped which is making them flat.
Bob explained: “I just don’t understand it. When you hear harmonies utilizing low G you hear a screeching dischord and even when the G note is part of the melody and another note is harmonising there is the same discord. I didn’t hear that very often with the Grade 1 bands at The Worlds yesterday (2012), as I think those bands have mastered that note, but as you go down the lower grades it is a big issue. Even with a number of the soloists it is an issue — I think low G is the most overlooked note on the chanter.”
Bob doesn’t tutor any bands on a regular basis as he feels that would compromise him somewhat as an adjudicator, but he does do one-day workshops throughout the year with bands in Canada and the US.
He believes that the standard of bands has improved in every grade since he first started piping and puts it down to the sound that the bands now achieve.
“It is a huge difference,” said Bob. “I think back to the late 80s when I first came over to Scotland to adjudicate in Grade 1. There were a small number of very good performances and then there would be the rest in the middle of the pack that would be very difficult to separate.
“Strathclyde Police were so strong in the MSR category back then and a lot of other bands were struggling to meet that standard. Now there are many bands who are playing at a very high level in the MSR event — I know that there are people who would disagree with me, but I stand by that. Most of the Grade 1 pipe corps today are populated by top-flight soloists and that wasn’t the case back then. There would be very good bands then with no top-flight solo players, who would have a good overall presentation, but the fine unison and precise articulation of doublings, taorluaths and the rest would be missing.
“I hear many MSRs now, and marches in particular, where it is like listening to a solo presentation only 10 beats per minute faster, and the expression and phrase definition is as I would expect.”
Overseas travel makes up a big part of Bob’s year now, as he is in great demand as a tutor for bands or workshops or as an adjudicator at competitions. As a retired geography teacher, it is a perfect way for him to indulge in his love of exploring different cultures in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand or regular trips to Brittany and the Lorient festival. Recently, he was invited to Zimbabwe to work with the pupils of St John’s school in Harare. “They had been taught the fundamentals very well by their tutors and were extremely enthusiastic and hard-working while I was there. I also delivered the Piping and Drumming Qualifications Board Scottish Qualifications Authority exams to them.
“I also learned very quickly that I had to stop using a particular canntaireachd phrase when singing the tunes. It turns out that it has a very definite meaning in the local African dialect which had the kids in howls of laughter,” said Bob.
As a result of all his travelling I thought he may have a highly developed palate and asked what was his favourite delicacy? “Shiraz,” said Bob. “Period.”
So if you are lucky enough to have Bob Worrall visiting your part of the world for workshops or adjudication, be sure to greet him with a welcoming right hand while passing him a large glass of red wine with your left.