Bill Livingstone on Lament for Mary MacLeod and Ceol Mor (generally)

February 24, 2021 on 10:56 am by Michael Grey | In Solo Piping, Stories, Video | No Comments

I’ve known Bill Livingstone since I first met him as a young feller attending The Seaway School of Piping in 1981 where Bill was an instructor. The school was held each July centred in and around Ban Righ Hall of Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Colin MacLellan directed the school and his, dad, Captain John MacLellan, the school’s principal instructor. I recall this because, in part, the video presented here has Bill talking a little about his time there and a pithy – yet monumentally important – piobaireachd lesson Captain MacLellan offered Bill related to piobaireachd interpretation. You’ll have to watch the video to glean that secret (33’15”) and the many others mentioned connected to interpreting the big music of the Great Highland Bagpipe.

So, on offer today is a ringside view of one person’s music lesson. In teaching Thomas Bruce – currently of Calgary, Alberta – we came to the masterpiece composition, Lament for Mary MacLeod. I “got” this tune – as is generally said in the sometimes parochial world of piobaireaachd – from Bill around 1985. That would mean six years after he won his second Gold Medal (and you can only win two) at The Argyllshire Gathering, Oban, Scotland (these prizes are equivalent, perhaps, to winning a tennis Grand Slam tournament). As you’ll learn in watching this video, I still have the cassette from that 1980s lesson.

Bill has mentioned to me a number of times that his thinking around this tune has changed a fair bit. So stop there.

Changed thinking. It’s not common in life. It’s certainly not common in politics today. The same goes for music and art (I read somewhere recently that people always love best the music of their early teen years). And “changed thinking” is absolutely not the norm in the world of piping. Imagine: to win, to score a bullseye with your approach and then, on thoughtful reflection, change that tried and true path. Surely this is an indelibel mark of the artist.

I think now of a long-remembered quote from economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”. [slightly unrelated: seek out his excellent small book, “The Scotch”, his early life in Dutton, Ontario – the home of once-famous Ontario Highland Games].

So, knowing Bill’s revised outlook on one of the great tunes of both his life and the repertoire of the instrument I had to ask a favour: would he “go through the tune” (again, a phrase so often used in the language of pipers) with Thomas. I was glad to sit in and soak it all in; as now can you.

Without the pandemic I’m not sure this would’ve happened. So here is a small pencil tick in the column of “good things that happened in the pandemic”.

I tried to edit out the swearies and gossip. I think I was mostly successful.

Enjoy this: the master and legend that is Bill Livingstone walking us through, Cumha Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh or Lament for Mary MacLeod. His comments that follow the tune are equally insightful and illuminating.

M.

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