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ISSUE 120 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/6/2006

Bagpipes heard on the hill

By Anne Torkelson
Arts Editor

Friday, October 6, 2006

While the sounds of a Hardanger fiddle might not be surprising at a college founded by Norwegians, students new on campus this year probably weren’t expecting the melodious drones of a bagpipe to come floating in through their windows.

Emmy Kegler `07 remembers feeling slightly baffled the first time she heard the music on campus her freshman year. However, she soon began to appreciate the sunset renditions of “Amazing Grace,” which were coming from fellow classmate Sean Cunningham `07, practicing his Highland bagpipe.

"I found [Cunningham’s playing] to be really relaxing," Kegler said.

Cunningham, a Medieval Studies and Latin double major with a linguistics concentration, started playing the bagpipes in the fall of his senior year of high school. Though he has a background in violin and piano and plays some guitar, he hadn’t thought of learning the bagpipes until his mom found a newspaper ad for the Milwaukee Scottish Pipe Band. The ad offered free piping lessons for joining the ensemble, and even though his mom had shown it to him jokingly, he decided to check it out.

As all bagpipe beginners, Cunningham began by learning the fingerings on a practice chanter, which is the pipe part of the instrument. He estimated that people with musical experience take about four to six months to learn on the practice chanter before starting to play the actual bagpipes.

Comparing the bagpipes to other instruments, he said, "It’s interesting because, actually, playing the melody is generally easier [on the bagpipes] because there are only nine notes you can play – you can’t change keys or anything. Learning to hold the instrument was definitely kind of weird, especially at first, because the drones in the back rest on your shoulder but are kind of at an angle, and you have to learn how to hold the bag." He also said it is difficult to keep the bag’s pressure steady.

In high school, Cunningham didn’t have much opportunity to participate in contests or talent shows because of his late start on the instrument. He still plays with the Milwaukee Scottish Pipe Band, which competes in the Midwest and Canada. The band usually participates in four or five competitions each summer, and placed third last summer at the Chicago Highland Games, one of the larger competitions in the Midwest.

Cunningham isn’t in a band at St. Olaf, but plays occasionally with the Ceilidh Society. "The problem is that the bagpipes are really loud and you can’t control the volume, so it’s hard to play with other instruments," he said. With Ceilidh, he usually plays solo songs.

During his freshman year, Cunningham practiced by the baseball fields or on the hill behind Old Main. The following years, his practice spots changed depending on the location of his residence hall. This year he lives in Ytterboe Hall, and he said the convenience of practice rooms in the residence hall might keep him playing inside more often. However, the bagpipes are "definitely meant to be an outdoor instrument," and before the year is through, students might once again hear the sounds of Scotland carried on the spring breeze.

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