For decades, bagpiping has given The College of Wooster marching band a signature flare, keeping students entertained with the skirl unique to the instrument. Originally conceived of by students in the 1940s, the pipe band played at events such as commencement and graduation without funding or an instructor until the 1960s, when it gained school funding, according to The Wooster Voice.
The pipers have remained strong and vibrant since the 1940s, with several exciting moments along the way. In 1996, the pipers were featured in a segment by NBC’s “Today Show,” which subsequently alerted Coca-Cola of their existence. This then lead to Wooster’s pipe band being featured in a 1997 “Always Coca-Cola” commercial, which aired worldwide.
It also displayed something done in previous years by the band called “random acts of piping,” which meant that the band would coordinate a time and place to suddenly play their instruments in public. The commercial shows them performing in a dining hall, and then at a swim meet in swimsuits and goggles, surprising all in attendance. This habit was eventually discontinued due to rising irritations at being suddenly bombarded with March, Strathspey and Reel.
Despite their change of uniform for their watery random act of piping, the pipers usually sport a very different look. Ana Fairbanks-Mahnke ’20 said, “The traditional bagpiping uniform involves a kilt, piper’s hose, which are long socks that go up to the knees, flashes that go on the outside of the socks, which help hold the socks up and add a flash of color, gillies (the black shoes we wear), a sporran, which is the purse at our waist, a belt to hold up all that heavy wool, a shirt and a black tie. In years past we have worn black vests and different colors of socks. It’s hard to find a color of socks that goes well with those loud yellow kilts! We have been working to get matching uniforms over the years so that we look our best.”
The pipe band welcomes players of all skill levels, with students who have been playing for years alongside those who decided to learn at college. Though many never interact with bagpipes while away from Wooster, some pipers have had a lifelong connection with the instrument. Fairbanks-Mahnke has played the pipes for over a decade, and was involved in Scottish culture before that. “I started highland dancing when I was nine, and moved onto bagpiping when my lungs got big enough!” she said.
Michael Kennedy ’21 has been playing for six years, and learned that he could continue with the bagpipes after high school when he googled “colleges with bagpipe bands” and Wooster placed the most emphasis on their pipers in promotional materials.
Elly Ciesinski ’22 started the pipes eight years ago, and was told that she could continue playing at Wooster by her mother. She said, “I learned from my mom first — she had two brothers that went here so she knew all about it. When I started playing it was one of the first things she told me about.”
Gemma Briggs ’20 has also been playing the pipes for ten years, starting in sixth grade through her middle school band, and went on to compete for years. “I learned [about piping at Wooster] because I met the former C.O.W. pipe instructor at a piping workshop in North Carolina and he mentioned the scholarships available for piping, which are actually some of the best in the country,” she said.
Though the rumor is that bagpipers receive a full scholarship from the college, it’s actually not true. “It is the same amount as any other music scholarship offered by the school,” said Fairbanks-Mahnke. The College of Wooster website says that the scholarships are between $2,000 and $8,000 a year.
Bagpiping remains an important way that the College celebrates its Scottish origins, but the pipe band’s importance doesn’t stop there. “I would say the coolest thing about our band is that we are probably one of the only pipe bands that is female-dominated, which is extremely rare in the piping community,” said Ciesinski. The pipers are a close-knit group united by their love for an instrument that is not regularly included in traditional orchestras. They tie-dye, take trips to Hartzler’s and hope to make unofficial merchandise reading: “I blew my way into this school.”