While most students were enjoying the St. Patrick’s Day madness — sheltered from the rain in The Blarney Stone or a packed fraternity house — the five-man Penn Pipes bagpipe band was parading down Locust Walk and adding a little more cultural flavor to campus.
Officially formed this year by College senior Jake Cohen, the band consists of a handful of Penn graduate and undergraduate students united by the unique sound of their instruments.
“Almost every guy in the band has a really cool story about how he picked up the pipes,” Cohen said. In fact, many of the Penn Pipes members have a cultural background that contributed to their desire to play the bagpipes.
Wharton senior McLean Baran said his family had a large influence on his taking up the instrument. “My grandfather had a very strong Scottish heritage, and he was very proud of that,” Baran said. “I actually inherited my bagpipes from him.”
Along with their cultural ties to the instrument, Penn Pipes members were also drawn to the bagpipes’ loud and festive sound.
“When the bagpipes play it’s like the best sound in the world,” Cohen said. “It’s beautiful — it transports you to another place.”
First-year Wharton MBA student Ian Moulton agreed. “It’s loud and it has a lot of character. It’s hard to ignore,” he said.
Moulton — who is twenty-nine years old — has been playing the bagpipe since his undergraduate years at Duke University, and was pleasantly surprised to discover some fellow pipers at Penn.
“I’ve always thought that it was such a niche instrument that you wouldn’t find anybody, but there are always people around,” Moulton said.
Although some of the members met as early as 2010, this is the first year that the club is officially playing as a unit. “I established the band as a way to find more pipers,” Cohen explained. “We were all playing events separately before, but this is our first year where we have actually played together as a band.”
“We all just met really randomly around Penn,” Baran added. “We have a tendency to find each other.”
While the band is using flyers, activity fairs and social media to spur interest, its music ultimately remains the best method of recruitment.
“There are a lot of pipers,” Cohen said. “It’s just a matter of finding them. One of the ways to do this is to march down Locust Walk and play the pipes since you can hear them from blocks away!”
St. Patrick’s Day in particular was a great success for the band. “It was great marketing for us,” Baran said. “We made enough money by going around the bars and playing for random people to bring in a guy for a professional lesson, tune up all our pipes and stow some money for future uniforms.”
“People would see us on the street and ask us to play,” Moulton added. “They asked us to play ‘Amazing Grace,’ and so we stopped and played and everybody sang along. It was a lot of fun.”
Despite the money earned on St. Patrick’s Day, the club still faces monetary limitations, especially since the bagpipe is an old, fragile instrument that requires constant tuning and maintenance. As a new group, Penn Pipes has been hit particularly hard by the Student Activity Council’s moratorium, and thus has been unable to apply for funding.
Cohen noted that without funding, it has been very hard to expand the club.
“If we don’t have funding we can’t play high quality pipes or replace broken parts easily,” he said. “We can’t even all buy kilts.”
In addition, since two members are seniors, finding more pipers will be vital for ensuring the club’s longevity. “It’s definitely hard going forward and recruiting new members because we are pretty old,” Baran said. Nevertheless, the band has already reached out to two incoming students, and is currently looking for more members.
While he stressed that none of the current pipers are in the position to teach beginners, Moulton recommended that students with any bagpipe experience check out the ‘University of Pennsylvania Bagpipes’ Facebook page.
He added that now is a great time to consider joining. “Because we are so small and so new, it’s an organization which you will have plenty of say in how we will develop,” he said.
“It’s a lot of fun. You get to play at some really cool places and it’s a great way to meet interesting people at Penn,” Cohen said.
The band will next be playing at Penn Park on April 19 — as part of the celebration for the conclusion of the Making History campaign — and Cohen expects to create a presence. “It will definitely be hard not to hear us,” he said.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.