Seton Hill University Pipe Band is a fusion of talent
Their numbers include students, an attorney, a high school percussion teacher, an airline employee, engineers and business people. Their ages range from 17 to 70.
Collectively, they labor in near anonymity as the Seton Hill University Pipe Band, an award-winning group of 23 pipers and drummers.
Their anonymity is such that when they appear at commencement ceremonies at Seton Hill, students and their families will ask: “Who are you?”
The Seton Hill University Pipe Band dates to a 1993 fusion of the Black Thistle Pipe Band, under the direction of Pipe Major A.G. Lee Jr., and the Grove City Highland Band, led by Pipe Major David Thompson.
In 2007, the new group, Allegheny & District Pipe Band, entered into a partnership with the university, adopting the Seton Hill tartan plaid for its uniform kilts.
“The university wanted to carry on Scottish tradition and determined a pipe band would meet their needs,” said Lee, who retired after 47 years as a technical service engineer for Sunoco Oil.
Lee became pipe major, Thompson the sergeant. At 70, Thompson is the elder statesman of the group.
Gaining acclaim among pipe bands along the East Coast, the Seton Hill University Pipe Band performed in St. Patrick's Day and other parades, events and competitions from Montreal to Atlanta.
They have achieved first-place awards for best drum corps and best local band at the prestigious Ligonier Highland Games.
In addition to the Westmoreland Fair, the band has performed at homecoming, graduation and other events at Seton Hill.
Ironically, no Seton Hill students are members of the group, Lee noted.
Referring to themselves as ambassadors of music for the university, Lee's was the name and face associated with the group until he handed the directorship in October 2011 to piper Josh Dobbin, who became the new pipe major.
Dobbin, 29, has been playing the pipes for more than 20 years and has spent almost four years with the group.
Dobbin recalls being 8 or 9 years old when he first heard bagpipes at a campground.
Excited about the sound, he spoke with the bagpiper and was directed to a bagpipe shop, where he ordered his first practice chanter. He followed with a music book and lessons and became involved in solo competitions.
So dedicated was Dobbin, formerly a police officer in Allegheny County but now a sheriff's deputy in Westmoreland County, that he commuted to Cleveland for four years, traveling 2 1⁄2 hours each way, to play with a Grade 2 band (Grade 1 is top shelf).
“Then I joined the group at Seton Hill,” Dobbin said. “This is an awesome hobby and the friendships and camaraderie are excellent. I love what I do.”
The Seton Hill University Pipe Band won each of its competitions in 2011, but did not compete in 2012 for a number of reasons, Dobbin said. He said he is looking forward to the group's development in 2013.
With the new bagpipe season set to begin in March, the group is preparing for its St. Patrick's Day performance in Greensburg.
“I plan on introducing new music and new ideas and I am looking into expanding our repertoire and challenging our members,” Dobbin said.
Lee, 67, inherited his family's traditional fondness for bagpipes.
His father was born in England, near the Scottish border, and was familiar with pipe bands from his homeland. He became involved when he immigrated to the United States. After taking lessons in Pittsburgh from Scottish instructors, Lee received additional instruction in Cleveland and Canada.
Lee has been playing bagpipes for 57 years, including a stint as the company piper with the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“Bagpipes are either a sound you like or you don't like. There is no in-between,” Lee said. “Bagpipes should demonstrate a sweet sound and the drones should be in harmony with the pipe chanter. Well-tuned pipes have that sweet sound.”
At 17, Dray Campbell of Youngwood, a senior at Hempfield Area High School, is the youngest piper.
Brought up around the Highland Games in Ligonier, Campbell always appreciated the sound of bagpipes.
“Ever since I was little I enjoyed them and wanted to play,” he said. “My grandfather bought me a practice chanter when I was 12. That's what you start with and within a year of lessons I was on the pipes.”
Campbell also plays the trumpet and guitar.
He began taking bagpipe lessons from Debbie Lee, A.G. Lee's wife, and has been with the Seton Hill pipe band for five years.
Campbell performs on the Great Highland bagpipe, “the most common, biggest, loudest bagpipe,” he said.
“There are many others, including the Lowland bagpipe, which makes a smaller sound. You move into the Lowland after the Highland,” he said. “I've been doing this for quite a while and I enjoy it. Seton Hill is a fun program and getting to know people who have a similar interest makes it better.
“We have a good, dedicated group of musicians,” Campbell said.
In competitions, Campbell, the only soloist in the group, usually places among the top three pipers, including earning “Piper of the Day” at one competition. Debbie Lee has won two gold medals at the North American championships in Maxville, Ontario.
Dobbin plans on capitalizing on the group's talent.
“When the Seton Hill community sees and hears us at commencements, homecoming, or other university programs, we want to make sure they know who we are,” Dobbin said.
Les Harvath is a freelance writer.