Bruce Campbell Interviews Bill Robertson

The late Bruce Campbell from Piping World interviewed Bill for the August 09 publication of Piping World. The article is titled Pipe Major Bill Robertson: leading the way in piping tutorial technology.

Amongst other things Bruce used to publish a free monthly magazine called Piping World. 

The published article is subject to copyright © and may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Pipe Major Bill Robertson: leading the way in piping tutorial technology

BILL ROBERTSON has been at the top of the piping tree for a long time, half a century in fact. But that doesn't mean that he isn't up for a challenge, far from it.

That willingness to keep abreast of a piping scene which is changing rapidly due to the effect of technology has seen his Piping Light Music and Piobaireachd interactive DVD tuition web service at the top of the 'hit' charts. However, is more than just a portal to Bill's teaching, it is itself a treasure trove of information and an 'in' to a man with a passion for piping and a wealth of knowledge to back it up.

With such an immense background in piping at all levels, solo and pipe band, it isn't any great surprise that he has chosen to follow a such teaching path in his retirement – but it is the magnitude of what he is doing which is truly awesome.

One of Bill's earlier works was the major manual of piping and technique, The Great Highland Bagpipe: A Comprehensive Guide.

That book and CD combo now is in three sections, dealing with light music, maintenance, reed setting etc., and Piobaireachd technique etc.

He also has two other ground-breaking CD's – one for beginners and another with an amazing 115 Piobaireachd Tutorials including extra folders on technique, written music etc., and stories/histories supplied by Ron MacLeod. Add to that the sheer depth of material available via his web based system and you'd be allowed to ask the question of what drives him to keep up to date in this shifting technological world.

"I was naturally keen on helping others in piping starting in my National Service days in The Royal Scots, Pipes and Drums under Pipe Major Willie Denholm," he says. "A fellow compulsory soldier who became a good friend, George Small, (son of George Small senior, well known piping teacher in the Boys Brigade, Edinburgh) joined the P&D in Munster, West Germany, as a beginner, and was in the same barracks' room as myself and four others."

"I spent much of my spare time teaching George who through that and being in the environment, became a piper in about six months or so".

"Another piper in our room was another national serviceman, Jimmy Turnbull of Edinburgh, who some might know today with his piping at various events and functions in Edinburgh."

"Later when I was Pipe Corporal and with the influence of Pipe Major Hugh Fraser (ex Cameron Highlanders and that piping legacy) I took a great interest in assisting Hugh in teaching the pipers in our care to become better pipers whether or not they were national service or regular soldiers".

"It was to the benefit of the Art as much as that of the piper and the band that mattered".

"Sadly our attitude to piping did not apply to at least one regiment".

Pipe Major Hugh Fraser - Cyprus 1958Pipe Major Hugh Fraser - Cyprus 1958

"When I was Pipe Sergeant to Hugh and with two other regimental Pipes and Drums in a large tournament about the mid 1950's all of the bands were tuning up for rehearsal when some of our pipers could not help but listen to other pipers playing individually from one of those regiments".

"Later on these pipers of ours told me that the other pipers they listened to were playing all sorts things badly i.e. poor execution and lacking expression etc".

"Later I asked their pipe sergeant about it and he told me that the piper major was not interested in the national service pipers as long as they could play the tunes after a fashion, so to speak".

"Some years later, when settling here in New Zealand, I continued to be driven more to pass on what I had and improve band standards as before rather than solo".

Being at the top of the game in the world of the web must seem light years away from his early days as first a piper in The Royal Scots and then pipe major. Every army piper has a host of stories and reminiscences – Bill, who was known as 'Robbie' in his days with the First of Foot, is no exception.

"In earlier times, about 1950, P/M Willie Denholm (ex KOSB's) and one of his more senior NS pipers Bob Gibson, and NS drummer George Stewart played as guests with P/M Donald Ramsay's then-top Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band".

"Bob, as most would know, joined the E.C.P. Pipe Band after his National Service".

"As a result of this our Pipes and Drums were given and played many of the selection of tunes of Donald Ramsay's band especially the little Strathspeys and Reels some of which I still remember, and some, I discovered later, in Donald's settings such as 'Stumpie', 'Duke of Gordon','Left-handed Fiddler','Mason's Apron', and others with names I cannot recall".

"Of interest is Royal Scots Polka composed by Willie Denholm and the setting played by us with him in the early '50s was with conventional second times".

"Some little time later it was changed to that of today with the rundown second times that I think might have been influenced by Donald Ramsay's suggestion; being with him then".

"I remember Willie Denholm in those days to be a fine piper with good technique and lovely set of silver and ivory pipes with I think called "Runic" design that one seldom sees today – with some unique raised engraved 'bubbles'".

"When P/M Hugh Fraser took over our Pipes & Drums my piping awareness went up another level".

"He made us aware of what I termed the common sense of grace notes in piping in knowing the logic of where to put grace notes and more important, where not to, in the light music".

"He was also happy for me to attend to the care of pipers' reed setting, tuning, and proper individual maintenance, tuning the band, taking practice chanter sessions and individual training of pipers when he wasn't available".

"I still recall the enjoyment we used to have when Hugh would some times pick up his pipes and rattle off Jig after Jig, and some little Hornpipes".

"Most of us had never heard many of the Jigs before".

"Hugh told me that when he was back in the Cameron's (as Pipe Corporal or P/Sgt.) one of his young national service pipers was the famous John D.Burgess who used to pester Hugh to write out some of the Jigs that Hugh had played for him".

"I could then understand why. When pipers sometimes used to look down at the ground when playing Hugh used to tell them that is was no use looking down there for their lost grace notes – keep their heads up!"

"Hugh encouraged me in playing Piobaireachd, especially as I was soon to attend the so-called Pipe Majors' Course under the famous Pipe Major Willie Ross MBE at the Castle".

"Earlier when Hugh took over our band he advised me to change from my older fashioned way of playing High A if I wanted to attend a P/M Course because Willie Ross would not accept me playing that way".

"It did not take me long to change to the acceptable High A with the third finger on – not the second finger".

"P/M Willie Ross from time-to-time would have some quips he liked to relate to the three of us on the Course (others being Cpl. Davie Aitken HLI,and Cpl. Farquhar MacIntosh SG}".

"Only three of the six on the preliminary course were accepted for the full remaining six months course".

"Two of Willie's quips come to mind: One - The Highland sentry at the Castle gates late one dark evening challenged someone approaching from the esplanade with the words: "Who goes there?". "The person answered "MacNeill of Barra".The sentry then said "Advance MacNeill, but leave your barra' behind".

"The other was about the Castle guide conducting some tourists at the upper end of the Castle, when a tourist asked a question".

"The guide had to take everyone back to the beginning and start all over again".

"Willie Ross liked to refer us to General Thomason's book on Piobaireachd with its unique shorthand that is said to have influenced the system of music writing of Piobaireachd in the Piobaireachd Society books that I wish could all be re-written/revised in a more-as-played way, even more so in the much later and better few books".

"We did a lot on Piobaireachd, and writing music by hand – twelve of everything in full including Piobaireachd".

"At times Willie Ross would demonstrate on the practice chanter".

"My impression was that he had a fluid/flowing kind of style in the light music with good clear execution, but not much in the way of the expected expression".

"Of course that might not have been his way when younger and competing".

"His Piobaireachd style was in some ways much as we listen to it today, although certain notes in some Urlars were timed differently to what is generally played today".

"The echoes of the echo-beats were longer than today and also than those of other authorities I had in Hugh Fraser and P/M Donald MacLeod later".

One of Bill Robertons' greatest influences in the army was Pipe Major Hugh Fraser, so much so that he composed a Piobaireachd in his honor. Lament for Pipe Major Hugh Fraser was also highly commended in the BBC commissioned composing competition in 1965 when it won third prize. It has also been published by the Piobaireachd Society. Yet, sadly, unless the tune is set for competition by the Piobaireachd Society it is likely to just remain a curio, perhaps only really played by Bill Robertson and a few others.

They say that all the great tunes have been written, but 'they' have also been saying that about light music for many years. The truth is that the lack of encouragement given by a system which takes away the public platform of performance is as much to blame for the dearth of modern Piobaireachd as anything else.

"Perhaps you are correct about 'the public platform'," adds Bill Robertson.

"I think that Piobaireachd composing competitions, commissions, and rewards help to stimulate and promote new Ceol Mor".

"Perhaps I would not have had a stab at composing Ceol Mor if there had not been the challenge".

"I tend to like the shorter Piobaireachd these days akin to some of P/M Donald MacLeod's ones".

"My feeling about playing Piobaireachd is that it provides a worthwhile and interesting diversion and outlet from the light music".

"It also shows to its best the sound of the bagpipes as well as good harmonics of a well balanced set which is enjoyable".

"I feel that in playing Piobaireachd one has to think of some basic points such as knowing the structure of the piece to help with memorization, and subtle phrasing; having a song like approach; application of the nuances of the phrasing as well in the doublings of most variations with that touch on the last long theme note of each little phrase where possible, but barely noticed and maintaining the flow seemingly".

"All this requires good solid technique and a well balanced rich sound, not too high-pitched and thin." Naturally that are few areas of piping that don't grab his critical eye and ear. That includes pipe band competitions, where he has a particular interest.

"I wonder about bands, say in major competitions, that tend to sets trends in the overall playing and style in other bands," he adds. "I feel that having listened to bands and soloists, especially in major competitions through tapes from BBC FM radio over many years up until the internet, that some things need attention".

"In general the pitch of the pipes is getting too high and losing that certain richness of sound we used to get, in some top bands and soloists".

"Much the same took place a good number of years ago then reverted to a better slightly lower pitch, yet bright enough".

"Lack of expression especially in 2/4 Marches reminds me of some time ago when Simon Fraser University Pipe Band was not long on the World's scene and playing at the World Championships with the 2/4 March 'P/M MacAllister' with good expression, but not winning".

"A year or so later that changed to the more strict regular way that other top bands were playing – better results followed which is now history".

"Clarity in simple tachums and cuttings could be better too".

"Similarly competition Reels could have better clarity of execution where clarity of G,D,E's, tachums, and certain doublings of a more open character need it".

"Tunes in Medleys could be better balanced between the rounder, sometimes clever and quite effective tunes, and the more melodic tunes".

"I think it is now time to change the position of judges in band competitions to that where the judges are at a suitable distanced fixed position so that bands are judged as bands and not as today with judges creeping around and listening mostly close-up to individuals, not as a band".

"Bands could still march on playing and forming a kind of horseshoe formation facing the fixed piping judging panel and the main audience; the drumming judge if necessary could be somewhere to the rear side of the drummers".

Piping Students Kowloon - Hong KongBill Robertson on the waterfront at Kowloon with the lights of Hong Kong in the background. He writes: "I think the attached from which can select might be of interest. They are the group that took part in the workshop I ran in Hong Kong at their request for five and a half days at Easter from 9am to 9pm. All went very well. I saw the bright lights etc., and was well looked after, and all these keen, good students spoke English well. The leader is Tony Ma, a good piper, is immediately to my left with the spectacles".

"Today, Bill still keeps his hand in; he stills plays, and up until recently he taught at schools, and his own few private pupils but his main thrust is his web site. To my mind that isn't slowing down, it is speeding up because Bill Robertson is setting trends for the rest of us to follow in his wake. Army pipe major, judge, prize winning piper, teacher, writer and composer – it sounds like Robbie has done it all, but the chances are that there are more chapters still to come".