Interview with Donald Lindsay (Part 1)

Donald Lindsay is a living legend.  Taught by Bob Brown (and Bob Nicol), he was the first American to win a major prize in Scotland: the Silver Medal at Oban. He went on to become America’s first full-time professional piper.

But I believe what makes him special is the dedication to teaching he has shown for over 50 years, bringing the living history of pibroch to his students. From personal tuition to the Invermark College of Piping (co-founded with his father in 1961), his mark is felt upon generations of pibroch performers.


JDH – I think one of the most promising things to happen to pibroch is the advent of streaming technology and the access that people have all over the world to experience the best players of pibroch perform in competition.  What do you think this might spell for the art of pibroch specifically, and of bagpipes in general?

DL – I think that can only benefit us.  If we embrace the whole notion of competition and the art form and put them together for a minute and try not to separate them (it can be argued for sure that each may have differing criteria, but there still is a commonality): no matter what the perspective, the players are trying to achieve excellent renditions of the tune the best the can. The whole activity is a good activity from my point of view, and streaming these high level competitions will advance piping.

To your point about accessibility: this is a major point. I’ve been thinking – where I am right now, I am taking a little break from living on the East Coast.  I’m in British Columbia, and part of my experience here is that I am in a very remote area.  I am surrounded by thousands of acres of forest. I’m at the end of a road (so to speak), the nearest mid-sized town is about 1.5 hours away. So I’m a little bit removed from my old community and the kind of stimulus I’m used to having around me, and that’s giving me a chance to think a lot about piping, about pibroch.  

People are very sage who live here.  There are a lot of artists and writers. They are pretty grounded on what they are trying to do.  But a part of that grounding is day-to-day living: making sure you have enough heat, enough food, enough clothing, transportation.  It’s interesting to observe what that does to piping: Piping can become a major vehicle for personal expression.

So I think about this thing we do: You do this, David.  I do this.  We are very interested in the music and we set personal goals for ourselves to make a study of the music, to look at other ways the music can be performed.  These are discoveries that we experience and lie ahead of us. 

Pibroch was generated in communities where, for the most part, the artistry of this could be given to people who would have an immediate response.  It doesn’t mean that everyone who heard a Donald MacDonald setting of “Too Long in This Condition” immediately appreciated it as such, but my sense is that they felt passionate about it.  So, the people who generated at lot of these versions were in communities where their efforts got pretty quick feedback.

And now I think about people who live in remote parts of the world and the ways in which pibroch music and the study of pibroch music can get support and reinforcement (in the sense of encouragement).  We have a lot of things in place for this: one of them is Winter Storm.  Another one is the efforts in North America of the late MacLean-MacLeod and the US Piping Foundation.

JDH – One of the things that occurred to me while you were talking about being in this environment of slower speed, fewer distractions, more grounded living, fewer people, is that was certainly the case for the early pipers and their clansmen when these songs were flourishing.  It wasn’t just the appreciation for the entertainment that pipers provided, but also knowledgeable feedback about that entertainment. Because, really: that’s what people grew up knowing.  Just as you and I may share ideas about movies, television shows, etc., because they are part of our world, the ancient audiences would share their ideas about pipers and piping (and lyricists, singers and harpists).  And these ideas would be knowledgeable and would facilitate piping’s expression, creativity, invention.  That feedback would cause it to flourish.

DL – Yes, absolutely.  Something I’m wrestling with right now: I had the good fortune to be very close to some wonderful traditional pibroch players (by traditional, I mean people who have been exposed to pibroch playing most of their life and who are excited about the study and performance of pibroch).  One of the most influential for me was the late Robert Brown and his close friend Robert Nicol. Being with them, there was more transmitted than just notes. There was a love for the music. 

This affected Jack Taylor. It affected Jimmy MacIntosh.  It affected Andrew Wright (who studied a lot with Bob Nicol).  John MacDougall…there were so many who were affected by this, and who very often made it a life’s ambition to pass along what they were doing and that sense of love.

Regularly Brown and Nicol would not accept money for teaching.  Their lessons were provided for them by the Royal Family, so that was their attitude. I don’t thing I ever remember anything that smacked at all of self-promotion from them.  But when they started playing the music, you would have to be emotionally dead to not get what they were trying to do.

A hallmark of Bob Brown was that I never heard him play it rote, in autopilot.  I think I mention this to you in the summer, that I would ask him, “Bob, what were you trying to do?” And he would say, “I was trying to make the tune live.” 

JDH – Jack mentioned in another interview that his teacher (Jimmy MacMillan) would bring an absolute exuberance at the appearance of a reel-to-reel tape sent to him in the mail from his contacts in Scotland.  HIs enthusiasm was contagious, and Jack would get just as excited in anticipation of hearing this new recording.  And it occurred to me during the course of the interview: that is exactly what Jack brings to his playing, his study, his teaching.  There is an excitement, a joy over performances that surprise and delight him. He’s always excited at something new that he encounters.  And it is that joy, that love, that gets passed from teacher to disciple.

That love is so fundamental to playing music.

DL – Yes. I think what you’ve just done is isolated, out of this whole, huge spectrum of recording performance, access, the essence of the this whole thing is about for me: how to nurture that.  How do we promote that? How do we nurture that?  That is what I ended up taking away from Bob Brown and Bob Nicol.

For a long time I couldn’t listen to classical music.  I felt that it felt too much like it was being done by the numbers.  I just got sick of hearing it.  Recently, Jeff Shank who’s involved with the Schenectady Pipe Band, sent me a link, saying, “Here’s some inspiration for the dry winter months.”  It was a documentary on Vladimir Horowitz.  All I knew about him was that he lived in a very nice apartment in New York, he had a Steinway in his apartment, had been a great concert artist, and had married Toscanini’s daughter.  That’s about all I knew.  It turns out, the documentary was done in the 80s and at that time I would venture to guess he was pushing 90 or so.  And he performed a bunch of pieces, and it was out of this world!  At one point, maybe in another interview, and one of the themes of the interview was him saying, “Well, yes, when I sit down to this Chopin Nocturne, I’m trying to make this music live.”   Same thing Bob Brown said.  Horowitz’s whole approach to the whole thing reminded much of Bob Brown.

And as I observe master classes (that are now online) with Segovia and Pablo Cassals and Jacko Pastores – the vehicle is what they have in front of them, what they’ve been shown: guitar, cello, electric bass. (For Bob Brown, pipes and pibroch).  But you’d have to be pretty disconnected not to be moved by those performances.

JDH – Yes.

DL – Another thing: I was also thinking about the fact that frequently, when Bob Brown would pass on a tune, he would say things like, “Well, I don’t play it as you see it in the Piobaireachd Society in this area. I was shown (different grace noting here; we actually don’t play that bar; or we don’t play 5 beats in that bar, we play 4).”  It wasn’t a narrow thing, where he was saying, “You must not.”  He was just telling me what he was shown.  Nicol was the same, and Nicol would say things like, “Well, you won’t find it this way in any of the books, but that’s the way John MacDonald gave it to us.”

I had a somewhat recent chat with Alan Bevan. We were chatting about In Praise of Morag. He played that in the MacPherson style, which I also learned; a very smooth style in the first part.  And he was taken aside  by one of the judges on the West Coast for not playing it dot-cut.  He insisted, it must be played that way.  Well, that’s somebody who had a favoritism for a particular style, and the tag at the end of that particular critique was, “And that’s how the Camerons played it.”  And so, Alan looked at Donald Camerons manuscript and found that it was the same way he had been playing it!  It wasn’t dot-cut. 

We love what we were taught. Now that all this wonderful information is becoming available to us, anyone that wants to sit down and critique a pibroch has a big scope of things available to find out about it that they didn’t have before.

JDH – Prior to right now, loving what you were taught was the sole means of maintaining a tradition. You were the caretaker of the tradition. If you had no students, if you did not pass on what was passed on to you, when you died, a whole universe of music died with you.

DL – Yeah. And believe me, I have a lot of that in me! But when I am judging, I have to put on a different hat.  But I am well aware that I am a caretaker of a particular tradition.

JDH – But now, it seems to me, there is an opportunity for us to relax a bit with respect to that.  Now we have access to manuscripts that we never had available to us, at least not easily.  Today, a couple of clicks and there they are.  I want to celebrate this accessibility, because we no longer have to worry about the loss of this tradition.  We now see the resurrection of traditions that had been lost, but through the accidents of history, have been recovered and can be viewed by everyone.  We have recordings of old masters from the mid-20th century, who themselves were born in the 19th century (at Tobar an Dualchais, for example).

What this means is, we no longer need to worry about caretaking, in the sense it used to mean for us.  History has been and is being preserved.

In turn, it seems to me, we can now turn from conservation to creation. We can become the pioneers, the explorers.

To my mind, what we can now teach to new students of pibroch is the love of this music, the excitement of this music, the idea of what we want to communicate with this music: that is what’s going to see us through to a new revival of the art.  We don’t have to play it in order to preserve it; we can also play it to enliven it.

DL – I think the two things can walk side by side. I think the application of wisdom from hundreds of years of piping can go hand in hand with taking on the task of tackling material we don’t have a lot to go on and making good music from it.  That’s the new dimension coming with the 21st century: liberating these manuscripts – so now what are you going to do with them?  That’s a musical challenge.

JDH – What do you look for from your students?

DL – I’m happy to work with anyone who is enthusiastic.   If they don’t have it in the beginning, I’m hoping after a few exchanges to see it.  I’m happy to say that I do see it. I don’t have anyone I am working with right now who isn’t excited about becoming a better musician.  That’s one element.

Another element is, no matter how simple a piece of music is (I find myself repeating these words over and over again), “We’re not here to just play notes.”  My whole mission with students, no matter how simple or complex the music is, my mission it to try to find out what is it behind all this that has to take place. 

There’s a lot to be found in pibroch. There’s laments, commemoration. But there’s playful stuff as well: occasional “poking fun” (taunts). There’s a whole gamut of emotion.

Sometimes when we’re involved in nameless tune, I make it a game for the student and myself to discover what might this thing possibly be about.  What kind of emotion can we feel while we’re playing hiharin droodro?  So there is that creative part of learning, no matter what the level of student.

JDH –  I came across a website set up by Jay Close, a student of Willie Connell (who was, in turn, a student of Robert Reid).  In it he lays out what he suggests to be the hallmarks of the Cameron style.  And the interesting thing is, the more time and detail he expends on laying out the style, the less distinctive it becomes. Because, actually, most of what he is describing is simply good musicianship: respect for the music, phrasing, expression are all spoken of in ways that every musician should already know.

DL – Bob Brown and Bob Nicol complemented one another: Bob Brown would inspire you, and Bob Nicol would set you straight. Brown related to the “convey the feeling”, and Nicol was more grounded in “you must do this and this to get that effect.”   I do think that they both took those traits from John MacDonald.  

John MacDonald had a great admiration for the Camerons, and particular Colin Cameron and had tuition from him. It was Colin Cameron’s setting of Gille Chriost (PS 170) that John MacDonald taught. I think he was more open to other versions than many people realize.  I think he was, in fact, an editor of sorts: he chose from the body of work those versions he liked.

I think the whole notion that the Camerons and MacPhersons would have nothing to do with each other was entirely concocted years after that stuff took place. I think it’s human nature that people would say, “Well, what I was given was entirely different from what other people were given. Therefore, the Cameron style was completely different from the MacPherson style.”  I don’t think they were so different.  I even have a note from Bob Nicol along those lines, that he said he got from John MacDonald.

JDH – The more I read it, the more he listed those qualities of “Cameron style piping”, the less distinctive it became.  I mean, I suppose you could lift up certain qualities, such as redundant-A taorluaths and crunluaths, or the particular style of crunluath-a-mach rhythm that Robert Reid played.  But in the end, while those are interesting, I’m not sure why they are particularly distinctive.  But when you discuss phrasing and expression: any good piper could ascribe to that stuff. So, what is, in fact, distinctive? I don’t know.  I think you’re right: historically, someone had to fight for the finer points and over time, historical trajectory blows this fine distinctions way out of proportion.

DL – Yes, I’m sure we could see the same thing in modern academia: People exaggerating certain qualities to make their relationship to a subject more unique.

John MacDonald has this reputation of being more didactic than I think he was.  I know he played three styles of Duncan MacRae of Kintail (PS 271), and I was taught all three styles. 

There was a lot of cross-pollination going on.

You mentioned something earlier when you were speaking of how we have available manuscripts that were not available to previous generations on a large scale: When I first took an interest in all this stuff, the piping world was just, in a sense, the availability on a large scale of the Piobaireachd Society versions of tunes, and Archibald Campbell’s book.  A significant detail at that time was that a lot good technical pipers were able to separate themselves from teachers and jump into the tunes, and so what was happening was: because many of these players did not have guidance, the renditions of these things were sometimes terrible, they were dreadful.  They had the books, but they were off on their own.  Not everybody was putting the pieces together.

One of the guys who was putting the pieces together was Donald MacPherson.  He, as I understand it, would not make a big thing of all the coaching (his dad must have been a good coach).  My suspicion is: he was a great musician, and as is often the case with great musicians, they can learn so much by just being observant.  And I suspect a lot of his brilliance came from listening to the good performances and think, “that’s a good way to go at the phrase.”  That sort of thing.

JDH – The thread that I keep thinking about is the analogy between what you are describing took place when the Piobaireachd Society publications became more widely available and would take off on their own, and today with what is making easily available (and Ceol Sean and Jim McGillvray’s site, and Willie Donaldson’s Set Tunes) to everyone.  Historically, it comes out the wrong way in discussions: how people can’t really play pibroch without tuition, or without lots of experience, or (my least favorite): “Nobody can capture pibroch in notation.”

That isn’t the issue.  That is not the issue.  The issue isn’t that you can’t capture music with notation, or that you have to have lots of experience.

The issue is: Are you being schooled by a good musician?

Are you, yourself, a good musician?

I think good musicians understand the nuances of music.  They know it takes insight and study.  They know how to make the notes on a page live.

Do their students?  Is it necessarily the case that those whom a great musician has taught are as great at musicianship?  Often you see students calcify teachings of the great master, precisely because they are not necessarily that great or creative themselves: they fall back upon the reputation of their tutors.

But it’s funny that great musicians rarely have an axe to grind.

I suspect something is going to happen with, and with the explosion of the availability of these manuscripts and old books.  I suspect many people are going to grab them, take them, try to play them.  Many will be really poor musicians and make a hash of things. But maybe a few are very good, and they will transform the art.

What I hope will happen is that the great musicians will work together with their students, pick up an old score, and make musical discoveries together.  The point isn’t to create a historically accurate reconstruction of the piece.  That’s not the point.  It’s musically informed performance: that’s the goal.

DL – Yes yes yes. Bob Brown was open to lots of different ways of looking at things.  And lots of times, when a tune was presented, he said, “Well, here’s another way it could be done.”  

One of the classics is the modern passion that has suddenly burst forth on Too Long in This Condition when, in a fragment of a recording of Bob Brown when he said, “And I remember how John MacDonald played this,” and he picked up his practice chanter and banged through the ground and maybe the doubling of the ground. And while it was based on Donald MacDonald’s printed book, there were some absolute differences.  And so Jimmy MacIntosh diligently wrote it out, printed it in The Voice. Mike Rogers learned it from Jimmy. He won his Silver Medal with Donald MacPherson sitting on the bench. (I was sitting in the room.) It was wonderful.  That is an example: was that Donald MacDonald’s setting? Not exactly. What is good music? Absolutely.

JDH – And that is really the heart of it, isn’t it?

DL – Yup.

End of Part One.


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