July 31, 2010

Old School: thoughts on ceol mor with four piping legends – Lt.-Col. David Murray

Now, as I’ve said before, Iain, I think that people are taking it, are playing tunes straight off the music. It comes to mind that a tune like “The MacKays’ Banner,” or “Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarbert’s Fancy,” and we get to the stage where certain passages are played the same way wherever they occur. Let me get my chanter and I’ll just show you what I mean. I’m out of practice, but I’ll try to show you one or two things . . .

[Click here to listen to this section in which Col. Murray illustrates several examples on the practice chanter.]

DJSM: What I mean is that in a phrase like this which occurs very often in piobaireachd . . .

Because the low-G is written shorter than the following A, we get this . . . or words to that effect. The low-G is cut practically out of existence. The same goes for this note. You get . . . and except when you take, “Lachlan MacNeill Campbell.” Do you play “Lachlan MacNeill Campbell?”

IS: No, I’ve heard it, though.

DJSM: Yeah, you’ve heard it. Well, it’s played this way . . . That method of playing derives from reading the printed score, from playing the printed score exactly as it’s written instead of . . .  which is the way in which it would have been played when I was being taught piobaireachd by Robert Reid and William Ross. And I think this habit or this practice of playing these movements . . . the same way wherever they occur is leading to a distortion of the melody line of many tunes and is being overdone. The other thing, of course, is the playing of . . . in which the E and the A are written as crotchets. And when you’re starting one of these tunes the thing is to come up and put your left foot down on the E and you’re right down on the A. . . . Whereas 50 years ago both of my tutors always treated the E as the introductory note and the A as the theme note so it was played much shorter . . . and so on. That is the trap into which a lot of people fall at the present time – of playing everything the same way wherever it goes. Did you get what I mean, Iain?

IS: Yes. I understand that you’re re-writing one of the books yourself.

DJSM: I’ve revised Book 6 [of the Piobaireachd Society’s Collection] and it’s in the hands of the Music Committee. And I think some of the suggestions that I made will be incorporated in the next re-write. There’s scarcely a tune in Book 6 that doesn’t give rise to some comment or other if it’s looked at dispassionately and from a couple of paces away from it. I won’t say too much about that because, as I say, it’s with the Music Committee at the moment. But I’d be very surprised if Book 6 is any different from any of the other books. I should think from books one to 10, and indeed further, from books 1 to 13, they all need revision.



  1. Brilliant, of all these great interviews this one strikes home the most. If you love the big music then reading this is a boost to your stand. While friends and all say that the piobreachd is just too much maybe they’re not giving it the chance it deserves. Great stuff.

  2. It would be very interesting to read an interview with Murray today, to ask him some of these same questions, to ask him if things have changed for the better over the last twenty years ago. Very valuable interview series. Thanks for publishing it here.

  3. That’s a very moving interview. Here is someone talking about questions rather than fixed answers, discussion and debate (rather than rules and dogmas), the possibility of different interpretations and ways of doing things. Open-ness and thinking, rather than the closed book and one way of doing things. Music to the ears. Thanks you for this great interview.



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