Pittsburgh piping

With Carnegie Mellon offering a bagpipe performance major, students have many opportunities to hear bagpipes on campus. What many may not realize, however, is that Pittsburgh is full of other opportunities to attend piping performances. Last weekend, the 2007 Balmoral Classic, a weekend-long event featuring a variety of piping performances, was held in Pittsburgh.

On campus

Carnegie Mellon is a great place for young bagpipers, featuring a bagpipe performance major and a competitive pipe band open to majors and non-majors alike. World-renowned piper Alasdair Gillies leads the piping program at Carnegie Mellon. Gillies has taught at Carnegie Mellon since 1997, and holds studio courses in addition to directing the pipe band. The university now has two bagpipe majors, junior Nicholas Hudson and first-year Andrew Bova, both of whom have been playing for about seven years.

“Carnegie Mellon has a great program and a world-class instructor, so it was an easy choice for me,” Bova said.

“It’s not simply the degree, but the teacher,” wrote Hudson in an e-mail. “Alasdair Gillies is one of the best players alive today. If there was a less qualified teacher, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

In addition to the two majors in bagpipe performance, there are other non-majors who participate in the competitive pipe band. “I wanted to keep playing in college, [and Carnegie Mellon] provided that opportunity,” said James Dougherty, a junior history major in the pipe band. “Also, Alasdair is a legend in the piping community and the chance to work with him for four years [was] irresistible.”

Even with these motivations to pipe at Carnegie Mellon, some may wonder what attracts some students to the play the bagpipes in the first place.

“Bagpipes have a sound all their own, there’s no other instrument quite like them,” said Bova. “Also, the people involved are great and there is a rich culture and tradition involved as well.”

There are many reasons that people choose to play certain instruments, Hudson explained, but with bagpipes, the decision is usually made before they have even played the instrument.

“This is very different to what we see with many other instruments,” he said. “Think of a high school band, in which the French horn player is quite possibly playing French horn only because the director already had too many trumpets.”

Often students become more connected to the bagpipes as they continue to study the instrument. “I started because I had always loved the sound of the instrument,” Hudson wrote. “But years later, as a student, I’ve become enraptured with traditional Scottish music — which is played on bagpipes — not just the sound of the instrument.”

Carnegie Mellon’s pipe band rehearses Monday nights to prepare for performances and competitions. The band competes against other groups, most of which are not at the collegiate level and are able to rehearse together year-round.

“We have a great pipe band here at CMU. Competition is something that I live for,” Bova said. “We are a really fun and easygoing group of friends, but when it comes time to march into the competition circle and play, we are all quite serious about what we do.”

The pipe band had a successful run in the most recent season, which ended about a month ago. The band won one of its spring competitions, as well as a chance to compete in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championships this fall. Unfortunately, the band was unable to rehearse together over the summer, and the competition was held during move-in weekend, putting the band at a disadvantage. Despite this setback, the pipe band won another recent fall competition.

“I think it is a real testament to the quality of our band that we won a contest in the fall. The bands we play against are not college bands. They are bands that have their members in a fairly centralized location year-round,” Dougherty said. “[They had] a big advantage in the fall when we only had two practices together before our first competition after not playing together for three months.” Competitions benefit the band by encouraging practice and exposing the band to judges’ feedback, Dougherty added.

In addition to participating in competitions, the pipe band performs at several university events, as well as at occasional concerts and Steelers games. Individually, the bagpipers compete in solo competitions — both nationally and internationally — and participate in various other groups during the summer. In addition to his activities with the pipe band, Hudson gives private piping lessons and performs on his own throughout the school year.

“This is a great opportunity, but it is very time-consuming. It’s hard to find time to practice, study, teach, and have a social life,” he said. “But isn’t that the plight of every Carnegie Mellon student?”

Though the pipers have each participated in a number of interesting performances, they all seem to agree that events are not the most important part of playing for the band.

“I’ve had so many incredible experiences. But what I value most aren’t the many exhilarating or even downright weird performances,” wrote Hudson. “What I value most are the many great people who are involved in the rather small community of piping, who I am privileged to call my friends.”

Off campus

Even disregarding Carnegie Mellon’s presence in Pittsburgh, the city still has a deep-rooted Scottish and Irish heritage that embraces bagpipes. There are several pipe bands, some comprised of police officers and firefighters (Hudson teaches the Pittsburgh Firefighters Memorial Pipe Band), as well as a piping school.

According to the website for the Balmoral Classic, bagpipes have been present in western Pennsylvania since the French and Indian War, when Scotland’s Black Watch regiment and pipers from the 77th Montgomery Highlanders served in the war. In fact, the first bagpipe society in the United States was formed in Pittsburgh in 1901. This weekend’s Balmoral Classic aimed to emphasize the city’s rich history and current enthusiasm for piping.

Pittsburgh is also the home to the Balmoral School of Piping, a school that specializes in teaching young students. The school offers summer programs at various locations around the country and was the host of this weekend’s events. At the school, Carnegie Mellon’s Gillies is a member of the advisory board and an instructor for the summer programs.

The 2007 Balmoral Classic

This past weekend marked the 2007 Balmoral Classic, held in Pittsburgh — the first event of its kind to take place in the city. Organized by the Balmoral School, it consisted of a competition, concert, and parade, along with several receptions.

The opening reception Friday night ushered in the weekend’s bagpiping festivities. It gave fans, friends, and family members the chance to get together to celebrate the upcoming events. The reception was held in honor of the St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band, which performed Saturday night at Carnegie Music Hall.

As part of Saturday’s festivities, young 18-and-under bagpipers from across the country competed at the Mellon Institute in the U.S. Invitational Junior Solo Piping Championship. The winner, Lars Stromdahl, was awarded a set of engraved bagpipes for his excellence; Stromdahl has played with Hudson in the City of Washington Pipe Band in Washington, D.C.

The O’Toole Pipe Band, from Dublin, performed that evening, alongside John Smyth, an Irish storyteller, and Geeantraí (pronounced “gantry”) musicians who play traditional Irish music, as well as two groups of young Irish and Scottish dancers. “They are an amazing band, [and] the program for concert is phenomenal. Also, they are from Ireland, and bands don’t get to travel that far often,” said Dougherty.

The band, also the 2007 All-Ireland Champions, performed with enthusiasm and evident talent. The musical selections varied in type, and many of the songs were composed by the band members themselves. For the final song, the band changed into baseball caps and polo shirts, then joined in a comical song. After the song, the O’Toole pipers threw their caps into the crowd for audience members to keep as souvenirs.

Although the concert was ostensibly over, the band played “Happy Birthday” in celebration of three bandmember birthdays, in addition to the 232nd birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. The group then played the “Marine’s Hymn,” followed by several encore songs which were accompanied by the young dancers.

Sunday morning, at the final bagpiping event of the weekend, several pipe bands got together for a Remembrance Day parade in Pittsburgh. The parade started downtown at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and proceeded to the First Presbyterian Church. Five bands participated, each playing individually until the end, when they played “Going Home” together as a group.

Overall, the Balmoral Classic helped to promote Pittsburgh’s place in the piping world, while entertaining pipers and non-pipers alike. “I think the entire weekend was excellent, and hope to see it an annual event,” wrote Hudson.