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Scottish bagpipe music alive and well in Pittsburgh

| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 7:57 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Nick Hudson, 26, of Highland Park practices the bagpipes on Wednesday evening, June 11, 2014 at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Bethel Park.

Nick Hudson of Highland Park is making a living as a freelance bagpipe player, teaching and playing solo and in bands here and in Toronto.

Bud Brizuela was drawn to the pipes when he found the reed instrument used as a practice tool in a shop in Squirrel Hill, was curious about it and began playing.

A.G. Lee of Greensburg thinks his connection to the bagpipes dates to his family coming to America after the infamous Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Bagpipes are almost as big a part of Pittsburgh culture as pierogies and potholes. And a great deal older.

One of the area's bigger pipe events, the Balmoral School of Piping & Drumming, opens July 6 at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel, providing an educational side to the music. The school, which since 1990 also has had sessions from North Carolina to California, is another manifestation of piping's power in Pittsburgh.

Western Pennsylvania is the home of pipe bands from high-school level to competitive ranking. It is the site of the world's first college-degree program in piping at Carnegie Mellon University. It also is a home to ethnic mixes that give a new flavor to an expected sound.

Andrew Carlisle, head of the Carnegie Mellon program, believes it and the Balmoral school are helping “the piping community in Pittsburgh ... grow from strength to strength.”

Brizuela of Churchill says the “random” nature of the pipe experience in Pittsburgh creates a varied kind of existence. The participants range from professional, award-winning pipers and drummers at the Balmoral school and CMU to those such as himself who simply are attracted to the sound.

He plays in the McDonald Pipe Band, which is headquartered in Bethel Park, and says the allegiance of pipers is ever-present. Bands compete against one another, but the members all respect each other because they share the same sense of goal, he says.

“It is like a big family,” he says.

Sometimes that family element is exactly the case. Lee, a member of the Seton Hill University Pipe Band, says his Scottish heritage has a great deal to do with his love of the pipes. But his wife also plays the pipes. Their son and daughter are drummers along with two grandchildren.

Carrying the tie further, Lee's wife, Debbie, taught the wife of Murrysville's Josh Dobbin, who hold the position of pipe major at Seton Hill.

In a classic Pittsburgh fashion, members of the bagpipe family cross paths all the time. When Brizuela started experimenting with his practice tool — called a chanter — he knew he needed lessons, and went to the North Side's George Balderose, founder of the Balmoral school and leader of the Balmoral Pipes & Drums.

Balderose stumbled on the pipes in the 1970s, as he was developing an interest in American folk and roots music. He says he came across a chanter and started taking lessons from Ron Lupish, a member of the CMU pipe-and-drum band.

Through his studies and performances, he came into contact with a many great pipers from Scotland, including James McIntosh, who holds the initials MBE after his name, indicating his membership in the Order of the British Empire.

McIntosh had studied in Scotland and with the pipers of King George VIII and Queen Elizabeth II. He and Balderose founded the Balmoral piping program here in 1979.

Since 1990, the pipe program has taken its learning and its top-notch crew instructors across the continent.

Balderose says the classes draw 25 to 30 students at each session, or about 160 to 170 a year.

Studying the bagpipes took another step here when McIntosh immigrated in 1984. The next year, he was appointed head of CMU's pipe band, and, by the late '80s, he had begun his efforts to have the university accept the pipes as an instrument in which a degree was possible.

“Besides all of the folk sounds of the bagpipe, there is a line of classical music, too, and Carnegie Mellon could identify with that,” Balderose says.

Pipe program director Carlisle says it made sense for CMU have the first degree program in piping because of its “rich Scottish tradition and its international reputation as a first-rate institute of higher education.”

He says there are currently three pipe majors at the university and about 30 players who are taking lessons or playing in bands.

The blend of tradition and academics at Carnegie Mellon fosters a home for creativity.

Take the case of Annika Socolofsky, for instance. She has an Anglicized Russian name, but was born in Scotland and grew up in Chicago. She came to CMU in 2008 to study music composition, but for three years also pursued chemistry as a double major.

Although she was not involved in the bagpipe program — she sings and is a fiddler — she was influenced by the school's Scottish heritage and experimented enough with the chanter to have a fair understanding of the pipes.

She also developed a taste for Jewish culture because Carnegie Mellon is so close to Squirrel Hill.

In 2013, after she had gone to the University of Michigan to work on her master's, she wrote a bagpipe concerto with a Hasidic flavor.

It was premiered in January 2014 in Ann Arbor, played by Andrew Bova, who got his bachelor's and master's in piping from CMU and is a doctoral candidate at the Royal Conservatoire in Scotland.

Highland Park's Hudson, making his living as a piper, believes the university's program is what lifts Pittsburgh beyond other cities as a home for the music. Like other cities across North America, he says, Pittsburgh has pipe bands and pipers who provide an outlet for Scottish heritage and players for weddings and funerals.

But the Carnegie Mellon program provides a home for players like McIntosh, who was the first head of the program; his successor, Alasdair Gilles; and, now, Carlisle.

“It creates a new level of studying bagpipes,” Hudson says.

Hudson himself is at a high level, being a teacher for the Pittsburgh police and firemen's bands and a member of the Toronto Police Band. That band, he explains, is a Grade 1 band, the top level of ensembles in bagpipe music. There is only one in the United States and it is inLos Angeles, he says.

Teaching and playing the pipes seems to be the usual way of spreading interest in the music. Brizuela says he moved from taking his chanter lessons, to buying a bagpipe, to getting involved in the McDonald band within a year.

Performance is an equal to learning in the Balmoral program, too. Balderose has a free concert each Thursday evening at all the camps. Here, he says, he always is hunting for members of the bands along with students for the program.

Carlisle, a native of Northern Ireland, seems to feel at home in the pipe life here.

“I would like to one day, hopefully in the near future, to see a top professional solo-piping competition get established in Pittsburgh,” he says. “I think once something like that were to happen, we could then, perhaps, refer to Pittsburgh as the center of piping in the U.S.”

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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