Scholarship Package Is $7,000 a Year And Subsidized Kilts — Nation’s Only Bagpipes Major Is Big Noise on Campus; Jigs, Marches and AC/DC

By Paul Glader
1290 words
11 May 2006
The Wall Street Journal

(Copyright (c) 2006, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

PITTSBURGH — As the only student majoring in bagpipes at any American university or college, Nick Hudson walks a loud, lonely road.

A recent day found him practicing by himself in a basement room at Carnegie Mellon University’s student union. Pulling back his shoulder-length red hair, the 18-year-old freshman jammed rubber plugs into his ears before he adjusted the reeds and tuned the drones of his instrument. Then, tucking the bag under his arm, he began to step methodically around the room in time as he played Scottish jigs, classical pieces called piobaireachd and, to show the instrument’s versatility, a lightning-fast rendition of “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC.

The earplugs are crucial since the instrument churns out up to 122 decibels, making it louder than a chainsaw.

Bagpipes are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, amid a broad interest in folk music and ethnic music. Jeff Mann, chairman of the Alliance of North American Pipe Band Associations, says there are 9,000 bagpipers in North America registered with the 10 regional associations, up 50% since 1999. The count doesn’t include those who play as a hobby but don’t belong to the bagpiper organizations.

Jim Scott, owner of Scott’s Highland Services Ltd. in London, Ontario, a maker and distributor of bagpipes and parts, estimates annual world-wide sales of great highland bagpipes — the most common type, costing $1,000 to $7,000 each — at around 5,000.

But playing the instrument can make people feel like outcasts, even at Carnegie Mellon University, a campus infused with Scottish traditions reflecting the legacy of its early benefactor, Scottish-born steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Some of Mr. Hudson’s classmates call him “Bagpipe Boy.” He has been banished from the practice rooms at CMU’s prestigious music school by violinists, pianists and opera vocalists who complained that his playing drowned out their own rehearsals. Professors have been known to chase bagpipers away even when they’re playing outdoors on the college green.

That’s why Mr. Hudson’s practice room is behind two doors, with ceiling panels and carpets to absorb the sound and protect the neighboring robotics club. “We’re not too neighbor-friendly,” admits Alasdair Gillies, the Scotsman who heads CMU’s bagpipe program. He is also the only professor.

A few other U.S. schools offer a minor in bagpipes. Lyon College in Batesville, Ark., and St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C., are two. But CMU is the only one with a full major. Launched in 1990, it admits nearly every serious applicant and has a one-to-one student-faculty ratio.

The slogan at the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon, known more for engineering and computer science, is “the destination for the academically gifted musician.” Instrumental majors such as Mr. Hudson, in addition to regular studio lessons, must take classes in harmony, music theory, eurythmics and music history. Music students must take one elective a semester, including one writing and one history class. Mr. Hudson took a class in sound recording, wants to take electives in Web design at CMU and plans to take Gaelic language through a cross-listing program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Prof. Gillies, who learned the bagpipes from his father in Scotland, played for years in the British military and honed his skills as one of the top pipers. He is considered by many to be the Michael Jordan of bagpiping because of his many world-championship medals.

“He’s damn near genius,” says Joe McGonagal, president of the Eastern U.S. Pipe Band Association. He says CMU’s success in luring Mr. Gillies to the school in 1997 has been very good for the piping scene in North America.

CMU’s football team is called the Tartans and the school’s mascot is a small Scottie dog. Faculty at the CMU’S Robotics Institute in 2004 built a robot named McBlare, which plays the bagpipes. A campus coffee shop is called “Skibo,” after Andrew Carnegie’s Skibo Castle in Dornoch, in the north of Scotland.

Even so, CMU’s bagpipe program faces challenges, one of which is attracting students. “How many parents want to spend CMU tuition to send their son or daughter to CMU to play the bagpipes?” asks Ron Lupish, 61, a software consultant who graduated in 1966 with a degree in physics and still plays with the school’s pipe band. “No one’s going to get rich doing that.”

In the program’s 16-year history, only six students have pursued the major. Two graduated and make a living performing and teaching the instrument; three others didn’t finish the program. “They find the theory side a bit demanding,” said Prof. Gillies.

Mr. Hudson started playing the pipes in junior high school in Cleveland, because he liked its shrill, distinctive sound. As time went on, he says, he fell in love with the music. His passion for the instrument turned out to be the ticket to CMU. The school gave him a $7,000-a-year scholarship, equal to about 15% of his tuition and fees. There are other perks: subsidized kilts, bagpipes to play, and paid trips to represent the school in competitions.

Bagpiping has a long history in the U.S., largely because of its association with police and firehouse bands and as an obsession for those fascinated with their Scottish heritage.

Today, several groups are fusing folk music with rock and punk, including the Pogues, Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys, a Boston punk band that includes a bagpiper, James “Scruffy” Wallace, who has a section on the group’s Web site called “Piper’s Corner.” Mr. Hudson says these groups raise public awareness and are helping the instrument prosper. Mr. Hudson’s own repertoire includes “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath and “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne.

No one knows who invented bagpipes, which were played as early as 1000 B.C. After gaining widespread use in the Middle Ages in Persia, India, China and Europe, the instrument fell out of favor in most places by the 19th century, but retained its popularity in Scotland.

Some say the U.S. bagpiping renaissance started with movies such as “Braveheart” and “Rob Roy,” which focused on Scottish history. Pipe bands made up of police and firemen have also grown since the terror events of Sept. 11, 2001.

America’s only bagpipe major is aiming to become a professional player. He already tours with the City of Washington Pipe Band, recently flying to Los Angeles to participate in a performance at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. He makes side money, $200 or more per gig, playing at solemn occasions.

“There’re a lot of hacks out there playing weddings and funerals, and people don’t know the difference,” he says, adding that an elite bagpiper demonstrates a better tone, a well-tuned instrument and more dexterity.

After tuning fellow pipers’ instruments on a warm spring evening, Mr. Hudson led them in a practice around CMU’s campus green. Some students passing by danced a jig. “It sounds like a bunch of cats with their tails caught in the door,” said Michele Tyler, a Pittsburgher on campus for an art lecture. “But I love it.”

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