In the News: Cadets can learn to be bagpipers
Pianos are for sissies. Real men play bagpipes - and wear kilts.
Along with leadership, soldiering and respect, a select group of Citadel cadets learns the ancient Scottish art of bagpiping, the nine-note instrument seemingly designed to make marching just a tad bit harder.
While scores of colleges boast traditional bands, The Citadel features the only all-student bagpipe band in the country. For anyone who's ever been to the Friday afternoon parade, the high-pitched drone is a staple.
The challenge, of course, is teaching students raised in the era of Matchbox Twenty to play an instrument whose only real pop culture debut was in the Mel Gibson epic "Braveheart."
The daunting job falls on the shoulders of Capt. Jim Dillahey, a 2001 Citadel graduate and the director of the college's pipe band. Raised in a Scot-Irish community in Florida where the bagpipes were common, Dillahey has had an impressive musical career, including competing in the World Pipe Band Championships in Scotland.
"We jam about four or five years of learning into six months," Dillahey said. "It's Monday, Wednesday, Friday lessons, plus parade."
The only prerequisite for students is an ability to read music, specifically the treble clef. To learn, freshmen play a practice chanter, which resembles a kazoo and lacks the instrument's bag and pipes.
Once students master the notes and several songs, the cadets upgrade to using the actual pipes. While the instrument offers a limited range of notes, the challenge, students say, is coordination involved in handling the instrument.
"It's a lot more complex," said 18-year-old Heath Plescia of Louisiana. "The saxophone looks difficult because of all the moving parts, but with a bagpipe you have to use your whole body."
While the bagpipes' origins date back to the Egyptians, Citadel students learn on the more common form of the instrument, the Great Highland Bagpipes. Like the instrument, The Citadel's pipe band - featuring about three dozen pipers and drummers - is steeped in history, beginning a half-century ago this year under then-President Gen. Mark W. Clark.
Over the years, the program has had some major successes. In 1991, the band was the first military college band chosen to play in the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a monthlong event in Scotland featuring military organizations from around the world. The program also has large alumni support. Many of them have donated the bagpipes, which cost about $1,500 each, and kilts the students wear.
Despite being uncommon for many Americans, the instrument is one that not all cadets need help learning. Cadet Ross Kastner, the band's pipe major, started learning to play the instrument at a high school in Charleston.Each Saturday, his parents drove him to North Charleston where he took private lessons. "It always gets a reaction wherever you play," said Kastner, 22. "It takes a lot of coordination."