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Nation’s only bagpipe major is a Tartan

Sophomore Nick Hudson is a typical Carnegie Mellon student. He exercises when he can, practices his instrument most of the day, and eats at half-price almost nightly. He is a typical student — except he is the only student with his major in North America.

Nick Hudson studies the bagpipes.

In addition to receiving a music scholarship and subsidized kilts, Hudson’s experience at Carnegie Mellon includes playing an instrument with close ties to the school’s founder.

Piping with a pro

On Thursday afternoons, Hudson and Alasdair Gillies, his instructor, prepare for an hour-long lesson in which Hudson will tune his bagpipes and review pieces from the previous week’s lesson. Gillies is the director of bagpiping in the College of Fine Arts. He has also been considered, by those in the field, to be one of the greatest bagpipers alive.

The weekly lessons are held in the basement of the University Center, in a room scarcely adorned. Just a few framed photographs line the walls. One that particularly stands out is of a bold-looking man dressed in a kilt, sporting a thick mustache and holding bagpipes.

“You see that? That’s a picture of one of Andrew Carnegie’s personal bagpipers,” Gillies said. “He brought him from Skibo Castle with him to the States.”

Gillies went on to describe the piper’s duty of waking up Carnegie with the same tune every morning.

Gillies, who was taught by his father from age five and later served as a military piper in the British army, describes the instrument as having an “X-factor.”

“This factor has to be discovered by the person playing it, and a lot of it is either you got it or you don’t,” Gillies said. He believes that Hudson has it — but just needs some push.

“I was brought up around the music. Nick wasn’t, so he has to go the extra mile to find that ability to express,” Gillies said. “It’s a gift and so far signs say that Nick has part of that gift.”

College and kilts

Although he was not raised in Scotland, where playing the bagpipes is as common as learning to play the piano in America, Hudson’s interest in the instrument came early.

“When my elementary school band sent a sheet around asking what instrument we wanted to play, I always went for ‘Other’ and wrote in ‘Bagpipes,’ ” Hudson said. “I just always liked the way it sounded.”

Because there were no bagpipe instructors in his area, Hudson did not get his start until he was 13. He found an eight-week group lesson through the community paper.

Once he was in high school, he found a consistent instructor and began competing in local competitions hosted by the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association. Slowly he worked his way up from grade 5, the lowest skill level, to grade 1, which is the highest skill level below the professional level.

“The competition aspect is really fun,” Hudson said. In these competitions, every participant must wear a kilt. Hudson said competitors— including men in their 40s who play just to get in touch with their Scottish ancestry—play at every level.

During high school, Hudson had also found interest in graphic design and was even considering pursuing a college degree in it.

However, when it came time to make his decision, he could not turn down the opportunity, he said, to learn from the great Alasdair Gillies at a school as prestigious as Carnegie Mellon.

“Even if another U.S. college had bagpipes as a major, if they didn’t have someone comparable to Alasdair, then I probably wouldn’t have considered it,” Hudson said. “He is the best there is.”

Now that Hudson is at Carnegie Mellon, Gillies is not afraid to return the praise. “It’s an experience and a half teaching Nick. He’s a very keen student, and he’s a very good student at learning music quickly and reproducing the music the way I want him to,” he said.

Hudson takes bagpipe-related electives, including bagpipe history and bagpipe maintenance, along with all the required courses for music performance majors. He plays in the Carnegie Mellon Pipe Band, for events ranging from weddings to funerals upon request, and continues to compete at the grade 1 level as a solo piper.

He has also found time to pursue his other interests. He is doing the five-year music education program, which will certify him to teach general music for grades K–12. Hudson is also considering a minor in music technology and taking classes in design.

“What this degree does is it makes you a good musician, not just a good bagpiper. It increases your knowledge of music as a whole,” Hudson said.

Gillies has confidence in the degree too.

“I see a bright future for Nick. With a degree from CMU, he is head and shoulders above anyone in qualifications in the piping world,” he said.

National recognition

Hudson still has two years before he finishes his degree in bagpiping, but he has already been approached by The Wall Street Journal and by Steve Hartman of the CBS Evening News’ Assignment America for interviews. The publicity, Hudson insisted, hasn’t affected him.

“Seriously, it doesn’t really mean anything to me. I think of it only as promotion for my career,” Hudson said.

“I’m only getting publicity because of the fact that I am at CMU and I’m the only one — not because of my mad piping skills.”

Gillies doesn’t mind the press either, although he joked that Hartman, who interviewed him for the CBS Evening News segment, wasn’t bright enough to understand what Gillies was saying through his thick Scottish accent.

“He thought I was speaking French. What a guy,” he said.

“It’s good to publicize the instrument and the fact that we offer it here. It shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Gillies said. “People dedicate their whole life to the instrument, and that’s why Nick and I are both here.”