Carnegie Mellon University
June 03, 2019

Pipes and Drums Play On After Winning National Championship

By Michael Henninger

Julie Mattera
  • Marketing and Communications

Colin Tait felt a huge rush of adrenaline marching to the starting line at the 2019 American Pipe Band Championships, similar to when he played in the world championships in Glasgow, Scotland.

This time, he stood triumphantly with his fellow kilted members of the Carnegie Mellon Pipes and Drums band, which took first place. For his part, Tait relied upon countless hours of practice in his 13 years of playing the bagpipes.

"You know how some parents push their kids to play piano or guitar? My parents made me play the bagpipes," Tait said. "My grandfather played, so right there I had free lessons."

Tait applied to colleges that offered bagpiping scholarships. He chose Carnegie Mellon University's BXA Intercollege Degree Programs, in which he specialized in bagpipe performance, and ethics, history and public policy with minors in international relations and Arabic studies. He came back to CMU to get a master's degree in international relations and politics from the Institute for Politics and Strategy.

"I really love how we break the culture of bagpipe bands at CMU," Tait said. "Half the team have prior experience, and the other half are a mix of people, like computer scientists who just fall in love with the music. Half the band are women. It's a diverse group of the hardest workers I've ever seen."

Class of 2019 graduates Elim Zhang and Min Hwang discuss learning to play the bagpipes.

During his time at CMU, Tait has seen Andrew Carlisle, CMU's director of piping and a professor in the School of Music, transform the band into national champions.

"Andrew is one of the best bagpipers in the world right now," Tait said. "He's winning solo competitions all over North America and Scotland. He's a part of the premier bagpipe band in the world. I don't think the university realizes how much of a catch they have."

Carlisle first heard a pipe band when he was three, living in the small Irish village of Ballygowan. For years, he asked his parents to let him learn to play the bagpipes, and at 7, they let him start learning fingerings on a practice chanter.

At 18, Carlisle won his first world championship with the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band. Since then, he has won eight more.

With the American championship secured, Carlisle has met another of his goals for the Pipes and Drums band. The week before that, they took first place in the Toronto Indoor Games, their first competition outside the U.S. But he always has a next step in mind.

"We had a really good semester, a really good season for the band," Carlisle said. "It's been a steady progression building the band to this level. It's now one of the best in the country. We've started talks of trying to get the band to the World Championships in Glasgow in 2021. We'd like to try to take the band a few places further afield."

Bagpiping has been a part of Carnegie Mellon traditions for more than 75 years. In 1990, CMU's School of Music launched the world's first bachelor's degree in bagpipe performance.

Steven MacDonald is one of Carlisle's students who just finished his bachelor's degree in bagpipe performance with a minor in conducting. He's originally from Scotland, and was accepted to CMU after his bagpipe audition. He became the pipe sergeant for the band his sophomore year.

"For the past four years, I've been slowly developing my own leadership skills through the band, and I'm happy to see it pay off in my very last competition as a student," MacDonald said.

The Carnegie Mellon Pipes and Drums Band performs at the 2019 American Pipe Band Championships.