Strike and Blow

By Nick Escobar

Illini Pipes and Drums

Camden Greenlee grew up listening to the bagpipes.

He often heard them coming from the Presbyterian Church next to his home and from a man who would traverse the town playing the instrument, which he would hear sporadically throughout his formative years.

Those influences led Greenlee, senior in FAA, to pick up the pipes in 2000. Last November he decided to bring his hobby to the University – he started Illini Pipes and Drums.

“My first and second year here I didn’t know anyone who played pipes,” he said.

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Greenlee assembled five steady pipers and a drummer, none of whom he had met before. They started out practicing in the basement of the University’s Music Building until they decided that they would have to do more to expand the group.

They applied to become a Registered Student Organization last semester, and their application is pending. The next step was getting people interested, and they had to get their name out there.

That’s where Unofficial St. Patrick’s day came in. The group played at different bars throughout the day.

“Two minutes after we started playing, the beer garden was packed,” Desmond Watt, senior in LAS, said. “People wanted to hear it.”

The group played at a local elementary school last spring. Their lone drummer, Adam Rusek, senior in FAA, is also a member of the Illini Drum Line. The school asked him to perform with some of the drummers and mentioned the pipe band, which is how they got the spot.

“The kids loved it; it was fun,” he said.

But the biggest challenge will be developing the camaraderie and friendship that a good band needs.

“The closer you are the better you’re going to be as a band,” Rusek said. “If you know each other, you learn what others are doing and it shows.”

Greenlee said the members have been trying to spend more time together outside of the regular Thursday night practices to develop that relationship.

“The first couple meetings it was like ‘What’s your name again?'” Rusek said.

As they’ve worked on their friendships, they’ve realized that they do not always see eye to eye.

Since the bagpipes are a traditional instrument, some members, like Greenlee, think the band should stick to playing traditional songs, and others, like Rusek, believe that playing modern songs is a good way to draw people in.

The group has also used the Internet to move forward. Bob Cooney, Illini Pipes and Drums member and graduate student, got an e-mail from Greenlee because he had bagpipes listed as an interest on his Facebook profile.

“From my point of view, our band is different because we are so young,” Cooney said.

While the group struggles to solidify this semester, and even if they do not, they will still carry with them the music they love.

“I like that I play an instrument that people clap to when I’m done playing,” Watt said. “I can sit on my balcony at 4 a.m. and play and have the four or five apartment complexes around me clap, and people yell, ‘Play another one.'”

The Students

The group is currently teaching three students how to play the bagpipes and three students the drums.

A major aspect of the club is to teach people how to play so that the club can live on, Greenlee said.

Beginning students learn on a piece of the instrument called the chanter, which attaches to the bottom of the bagpipe. The chanter consists of nine-note holes and a place to blow air into to produce the sound.

“Right now I want to make learning the pipes absolutely free,” he said.

The group requires a $40 deposit from each member, but the money is given back later or can go toward equipment.

Kim Scarabello, sophomore in FAA, is one of the students learning to play the bagpipes.

“When I came here, I wanted to get involved in everything I could .,” she said. “So I thought, oh, I’ll learn the bagpipes.”

Ben Hartigan, junior in FAA, said Greenlee sparked his interest in the bagpipes.

Friends from their architectural studio, Greenlee invited Hartigan to see The Black Watch, a Scottish military battalion that are renowned for their pipe band, perform at Krannert.

“It blew me away, it was so cool,” Hartigan said.

Greenlee said the students are improving and that he is trying to set them up with groups to play with during the summer.

Both students agreed that one of the main reasons they got involved was the free price tag.

“Everyone wants to learn an instrument for free, it’s definitely a cool opportunity,” Hartigan said.

Money is a major problem for the group. The group has posted on bagpipe blogs and Web sites, letting people know they were asking for donations.

A man from New York donated seven practice chanters at $40 apiece. The music department also donated a bass drum to the group.

“It’s not a highland bass drum, but it’ll do,” Greenlee said.

But buying a set of bagpipes ranges from $1,200 to $6,000, depending on the quality of the wood and silver. Greenlee added that a well-maintained set could last up to 20 years. The group is also considering the traditional attire and the cost of getting to gigs.

“Some of the prices are too much for a band with no money,” said Rusek. “We’ll take anything we can get.”

Both students are anxious to play a full set of bagpipes and said they would like to be in a competing pipe band someday, but are just having fun for now.

The Future

Though the group is still waiting to become a RSO, they hope to have a table at Quad Day.

“Guerrilla piping is definitely a possibility if we don’t get a table at Quad Day,” said Watt.

Though the “guerrilla piping” might happen, the group’s goal is to attract more people to the instruments.

“This is a key year for us,” Greenlee. “When I leave I want it to still go on.”

Both added that the success of the band depends heavily on the coming academic year. Most of the current members will graduate next May.

“We hope once we’re gone it will continue on,” Rusek said.

“I want a band that’s uniformed. A band that everyone knows about, whether theynts that well. He’s been talking about it to everyone.that makes me happy – what am I saying, that makes me very happy.”

How one member spent his summer

Over the summer, one of the club members decided to hone his practiced skills by competing in the Highland games for the first time. But more important for Desmond Watt was his relationship with his grandfather.

Watt, a 20-year-old student from Glen Ellyn, Ill., competed for the first time at the Highland games and Scottish Festival in Oak Brook, Ill.

Wearing traditional Scottish garments; Watt entered the novice bagpipe competition to see how far he had progressed on the pipes but more importantly for his grandfather.

“Part of doing the competition was so that he could see me play,” Watt said. “It’s as much for me as it is for him.”

At 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, Watt paced back and forth, practicing his tune, “Charles Edward Hope Vere,” and talking with his family about his grandfather’s arrival.

Frustrated that his grandfather still had not appeared and anxious about playing, Watt walked away from his family to clear his head.

When it was time for Watt to perform, at about 8:15 a.m., his grandfather still had not arrived. So Watt played his piece with his immediate family, his girlfriend and her siblings watching.

“My grandpa’s gonna be really bummed,” he said.

His grandfather, bound to a wheelchair, arrived fewer than five minutes later.

“I regret not seeing him play,” the elder Watt said. “I wanted to see him play in front of the judge, see if he kept his composure.”

Despondent and frustrated that his grandfather had not seen him perform, Watt played the piece for his grandfather anyway letting him see his hopes for his grandson come to fruition.

“His grandfather is close to passing, it’s not easy for him to do anything anymore,” Watt’s father Brian said. “My dad is overblown to see his namesake play.”

Given that Watt shared his grandfather’s name, it appeared predestined that he would be interested in bagpipes.

The elder Watt also competed at Highland games across the Midwest as both a solo performer and in pipe bands, and said he preferred the individual competitions to the groups.

Desmond’s grandfather said he is happy to see his grandson compete at a younger age, having not begun himself until he was 55. He was forced to stop playing after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, which inhibits muscle control.

Now 81 years old, the grandfather had some advice for the grandson.

“Any competitor gets nervous,” he said. “The trick is to keep control over your emotions.”

Bagpipes are a unique instrument, he said, as you have to identify with the history to pursue the music.

Watching his grandfather, who he affectionately refers to as “Papa,” march in the warm May sun during a Memorial Day parade years ago helped strengthen the impression the bagpipes made on the younger Desmond.

“When I picked up the bagpipes it completely changed our relationship,” he said.

I’ve been able to share a connection with him that no other grandchild or even his own kids have been able to share with him, he added.

Watt started playing during eighth grade, but lost interest after a year. It wasn’t until he went to college that his desire to play rekindled. Having played again since last summer with the Illini Pipes and Drums club at the University, Watt felt ready to play in public.

“I’m really proud to do something he’s done and something he holds so dearly,” Watt said. “It’s cool because not everyone gets to know their grandparents that well. He’s been talking about it to everyone.that makes me happy – what am I saying, that makes me very happy.”