Jay Close: Tunes From Willie Connell's Ceol Mor
Willie Connell studied piobaireachd with Robert Reid for over fourteen years. As instructional tools Reid employed both published staff notation scores and handwritten manuscripts collected from his own mentor, John MacDougall Gillies. However, regardless of the text used, implicit in Reid’s teaching was rejection of the conventions of staff notation as appropriate for recording or learning ceol mor.
The Gillies manuscripts, for example, did away with bar lines and time signatures, using quavers and crotchets merely to record relative note duration. Gillies divided each melody line into small constituents. He wrote each as a closely spaced unit separated by a blank space on the staff from those that came before or after. These small, melodic, note groups bore no necessary relationship to the structural or organizational phrases of a tune. The structural phrase is usually depicted as a bar of music in the current conventions of ceol mor on staff, but Gillies’ melodic units existed independently of them.
While knowledge of the structural organization of a tune is an assist in its memorization, it is no guide to the music contain therein. Understanding the music comes only through long study and the appreciation of those small units that Gillies recognized and how those units relate to each other. This method Reid called playing in “passage and phrase form.”
As Willie matured as a player, he approached Reid proposing a book of selected piobaireachd written in the same style as the Gillies manuscripts. The melody line would be broken into its components, each component identified and written as it would be played without regard to the constraints of time signature. The groupings of these small components would range within and across the artificial boundaries of the “bar” as usually conceived.
Reid was enthusiastic and offered to endorse the final product when complete. Life, a career and a family intervened; it would be decades before Willie could address the project.
By the late 1970’s Willie had moved to Canada and was heavily involved in piping matters as a teacher and adjudicator. He was beginning to play seriously once more and venture onto the competition boards intent on showing a younger generation “how it’s done”. Willie produced a series of instructional cassette tapes featuring six short to medium length tunes of great immediate appeal. Along with the tapes came a booklet entitled Ceol - Mor: A Self Tuition Book Written in Authentic Cameron Style of Playing.
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