The world of music is full of many types of instruments, but perhaps none stand out quite as much as the bagpipes. A prominent symbol of Scottish heritage, it’s easy to picture them in your mind’s eye, perhaps being played by a man or woman wearing a kilt. Their sound is unforgettable — the average person may not be able to tell the difference between a clarinet and an oboe, but you immediately know when someone is playing bagpipes.
Andrew Duncan is the Alma College Pipe Band Director, a group of about 20 students, separate from other music groups on campus, who gather to play bagpipes at various events and gatherings. Andrew explained to us exactly what the bagpipes are, why the instrument is popular at Alma College — and even how you can get involved if you want to try them out!
How do bagpipes work?
Bagpipes are a woodwind instrument, Andrew said, in the same family of instruments as the clarinet and saxophone. “Pipers,” as those who play them are called, blow air through a blowpipe into a bag. (Weird, but true: these bags are traditionally made of sheepskin. Nowadays, they are made of synthetic materials.)
The bag feeds air into another pipe, called a chanter. Pipers use two hands to manipulate the chanter, which produces the melody of a song. Other pipes, called drones, make one continuous sound. Unlike other woodwinds, it’s difficult for bagpipes to stop producing sound after they have started, so pipers need to produce A LOT of air to keep the bag full.
Want to give them a try?
Andrew said the pipes seem challenging, but many people pick it up as their first instrument and get along fine. You can get started with a practice chanter — an instrument with no bag and no drones — which only costs about $100.
There aren’t many colleges and universities across the country with their own pipe band. Andrew believes Alma is the only one in Michigan that offers it. But it’s not something students do in far-off corners of the college — Alma embraces its Scottish background.
Pipes can be heard everywhere from Welcoming Convocation to the Traditions Dinner, from football games to the Homecoming parade. It’s the type of sound that grows on you. Students frequently comment that when they go home for breaks from school, they miss hearing the sound of a piper playing off in the distance as they go about their days.