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CMU finds musical niche in bagpiping, now boasts 5 majors

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, 3:12 p.m.
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A Swiss university just joined Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University in the annals of unusual musical niches.

Although CMU can't match Lucerne Switzerland university's new college degree in yodeling , the Pittsburgh school, known for cutting-edge computer science and fine arts programs, has carved out its own niche in the fine art of bagpiping.

Program director Andrew Carlisle, a native of Northern Ireland and himself a world class piper, said the program is absolutely serious. As in all programs at CMU, where high school valedictorians and SAT scores in excess of 1500 abound, slackers need not apply.

“We're quite strict on entry. You have to be at a very high standard of playing,” Carlisle said.

CMU's school of music, which launched the world's first bachelor's degree in bagpipe performance in 1990, boasts five bagpipe majors this year.

Carlisle said that figure doesn't include the dozens of CMU students who opt to take lessons as an elective or participate in the pipe band — the Great Scots.

“We probably have 40 to 50 people in the pipe band and another 20 who aren't yet there,” Carlisle said.

And then there is CMU's bagpipe-playing robot, McBlare . A 2004 project of the CMU Robotics Institute, McBlare performed before the Scottish Parliament several years ago.

That CMU would relish the bagpipe as well as all things Scottish is a tradition that dates back to its founder, Scottish-American steel baron Andrew Carnegie. History has it that the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist, who lent his name to libraries and music halls across the country, employed a personal piper for special occasions.

Indeed, many still call on pipers for weddings and funerals.

Carlisle said he typically passes along such requests to his students.

“The last funeral I played at was Arnold Palmer's,” he said, recalling the golfer's memorial at St. Vincent Basilica in October 2016.

But there will be ample opportunities for fans to hear his students' music next month when they join the River City Brass for a series of five local concerts , including one March 2 at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg and another March 15 a Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996, derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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