Alfred Hitchcock is said to have claimed that inventor of the bagpipes was inspired by a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. “Unfortunately,” he said, “The man-made sound never equaled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig.”

His comments notwithstanding, you won’t find many bagpipe detractors among Macalester alumni, for whom the instrument evokes their alma mater like nothing else. The pipers can be heard at Commencement, Reunion, concerts, and perhaps most plaintively, when a sole, unseen piper rises early to practice outdoors on a foggy morning.

The bagpipes first came to Macalester around 1950, according to director of piping and pipe major Mike Breidenbach ’96. This was shortly after the college’s Scottish connection—through its early benefactor Charles Macalester—was recognized by the Clan of MacAlister, thus increasing student interest in the college’s heritage. Today, Macalester pipers are led by Breidenbach, and its drummers are led by drum instructor Katie Bishop.

Although the Pipe Band started with just students, by the 1980s it included faculty, staff, and community members as well, says Breidenbach. “Most students start as beginning pipers, so an all-student band would be starting over every year. By including members of the community, the band represents the college well. Plus it helps the students to play with more experienced pipers.”

In 1999, when Breidenbach began leading the band, there were just seven pipers in the program and just four students taking bagpipe lessons. Now the band has 40 pipers and 15 drummers, and there are 25 students studying bagpipes.

The Macalester Pipe Band plays the great highland bagpipe, which consists of a bag, a chanter, a blowpipe, two tenor drones, and one bass drone. The chanter, which has finger holes and resembles a recorder, produces the melody. The bag is a reservoir of air, filled through the blowpipe, and the drones are cylindrical wooden tubes with reeds that produce the instrument’s unmistakable sound. For pipers a popular graduation gift is an instrument of their own, starting at about $1500.

Piper Band receives a yearly budget from the college, which covers uniforms, lessons, and instruments for students, supplies, and some travel. The band raises additional money playing for events and parades, thus enabling them to participate in competitions, where they typically do their clan and college proud.

May 14 2014

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