King of the high Gs

Published: September 21, 2007

Gie' it laldy, big man! I read an obit recently for Luciano Pavarotti, the great opera singer. Pavarotti apparently couldn’t read music for many years, and at the time of his death had only gained a little ability to do so. “Learning from a score, is like making love by mail,” he famously said.

The oral / aural traditions of pipe-music and drum-scores are well known. Ours was comparatively late to the notation party, and there are piobaireachd purists who believe that the music began a steady decline once it was written down.

While Pavarotti’s intelligence and memory must have been incredibly high and good, his various female assistants reportedly stood in the wings with cue cards to help him with the words, but to say that he usually got the tune right would be an understatement.

“The book, the book, the bloody book, I can’t do with it at all!” Bob Nicol, a piobaireachd Pavarotti of years past, said when ceol mor started to be standardized by the Piobaireachd Society. Nicol and Bob Brown always taught through singing first. They learned that from John MacDonald. Any scores, they said, were only a guide, like cue cards in the wings.

One hears of great snare drummers who just barely read music, yet can produce and teach incredibly complex scores. The fact that they can survive and thrive in a pipe band makes it all the more uncanny.

The most apt comparison to opera singers in our idiom is of course piobaireachd, which unfortunately is only heard in competition, and then pretty much by piobaireachd players.

I wonder if there were Pavarotti-like piobaireachd-players if that art could better hope to communicate with the masses. Imagine throngs of adoring ceol mor enthusiasts chucking roses (or heather) at the artist who has captured the tune in an entirely personal way, while playing a perfect instrument that always nails the high G.


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