Getting the Short End of the Blowstick

Sandra Kowalski • Commentary • January 8, 2018

Music departments across the nation have faced slashed funding for years despite proven studies showing the positive impact sustained involvement in instrumental music has on the strong relationship across middle and high school math proficiency.

Then there are the immeasurable effects of how music programs affect student motivation; it creates a sense of accomplishment when they become proficient with a musical instrument and become involved with ensemble performances. It gives them a place of belonging and helps with learning the people skills necessary to collaborate in a group performance. And since the American Pie movies, there is a whole new appreciation for “band camp.”

So, as the regular music and band programs struggle to stay alive, the specialty ones are especially in danger. Pipe bands are an unusual and special band program still available in a handful of schools around the country but are at great risk. Last year, one (of two) in

Maryland lost county funding after being an institution in two local high schools (passed from one high school to the other after its closing in ‘84) for 56 years. The importance of protecting these tradition-keeping bands goes beyond academics to something much deeper and frankly, in my opinion, missing in this country. Because we are a ‘new’ country and a melting pot, cultural traditions, and with them a sense of identity, get lost. Yet always there is a great desire by people to connect with their roots and learn their heritage and cultural traditions, as well as those of others. This is why the ancestry business is booming and travel is the trendy thing to do for young people. It’s why grown people continue to dress up and reenact days of yore.

During the holidays, this becomes even more apparent. Family traditions are carried out in the home and specialty bands are hired to play in restaurants, bars and at company parties. Bagpipe players can often be found entertaining pub patrons on New Year’s Eve. In this country, where can one learn to play such instrument if not in school? One person I interviewed, a 2015 high school graduate, told me, “I had never played before joining the band, but I had wanted to play the pipes since I was three when my mom took me to see the RHSPB’s annual Scottish Festival.”

So why don’t more schools encourage these types of ensembles? Is there a stigma attached that it’s not cool? (Personally, after much travel through Europe I’d also like to see the accordion make a comeback. Like the bagpipe, when played well, it’s really an incredible instrument.) Does administration fear a low popularity/interest of the band from students and community? Inevitably the mere act of exposing people to the unknown generates an interest and appreciation for it by those who were previously ignorant to its existence.

As the saying goes: build it and they will come. I still remember one girl in my English class who, for her demonstration speech, showed how to put on the military kilt uniform. It was quite a timely and complicated process and generated a new interest and respect from me for my peers in the pipe band. In retrospect, it may even induce incredibly nostalgic memories as this person wrote: “I grew up on—— Road and remember hearing the Peary Pipe Band rehearse and playing on game day. I had no idea how special those days were and how fondly I’d remember them.”

I, like many others, thought it was cool because it was special to our school. It gave me, as a teenager, the courage to like things that weren’t mainstream. It’s probably why I went on to join the circus when I went to college. There is a certain prideful elitism that comes with being part of something unusual. It also creates a link, a bond, with others from the same group so no matter where you are in life, you can look back and feel a special connection, never feeling alone.

But it’s not just about being cool or trend setting. By supporting specialty bands, it ensures the continuity of the instrument. The way this particular instrument/band has impacted the lives of its alumni is, like the instrument, a little unusual. Many continue to dress up in kilts and play the pipes and drums on weekends for festivals, well into their grey (or balding) hair years.

Some are commissioned to play at weddings and funerals, others have been inspired to write music for bagpipes. Not to mention all those that, as a result, have become instructors, directors and founding members of other bands.

It isn’t necessary for one to have any hereditary links to be attracted to a pipe band. When I went to school, few in the band had any Scottish or Irish ancestry. As one, 100% Italian-American interviewee said, “We wore spats and doublets and military rank since it was a military uniform and for a high school kid, that was exciting. It empowered me. There was pride and admiration with them [the students] as well, knowing that there was this unique history associated with the school. I believe it was that uniqueness that made others watch in awe and accept us.”

Did you conduct a unique band? Play an uncommon instrument? Do you have students that already do? If so, how can you incorporate that into your band, orchestra or performances? Have you exposed your students to culturally traditional instruments such as the bagpipes, accordion, or didgeridoo? In a time when the entire world is becoming less individualized and more of the same, where old world skills are quickly disappearing, it’s more important than ever to keep these instruments alive and encourage people to embrace the ‘different.’

Sandra Kowalski is a freelance writer traveling around the world and writing about her adventures. For more information contact her at [email protected].

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