It's one o'clock on a Friday night, and
the next sound you hear will be the skirl of pipes.
Story and photo by Kevin McPhee '07
Ben Mitchell ’06
stands at the top of Bixby Plaza stairs, surveying his growing audience
as he pushes air through the Scottish Highland bagpipes. It’s 1 a.m. on
a Friday night (really Saturday morning). The uninhibited are dancing.
The rest just stand nearby and enjoy the spectacle, impressed that one
of their peers is playing a complicated, foreign instrument that looks
to be a pain just to hold upright. Mitchell, of course, has no trouble
cradling the instrument in his arms. He has been studying the bagpipes
for 12 years, and his dedication shows in his playing.
Why the bagpipes?
Well, in elementary school, we had an International Day every February,
and there were a number of different “cultural performers” who appeared
at different schools in the district. The rotation was set, so each
school would get the African drummers, mariachi band, bagpipe band, etc.
However, they messed up the rotation, so each winter from first through
third grade, my school was subjected to the bagpipe band. Was I
brainwashed? Who knows? I kept telling my parents that I wanted to learn
the pipes, and they smiled and nodded and suggested things like piano.
But finally, when I was 10, at a wedding of a family friend, there was a
piper, who my parents discovered gave lessons. They called me out on
years of asking and said I could actually do it, if I practiced and did
my chores and whatever else parents use as leverage at that age.
(Years later, Mitchell himself has a handful of bagpipe-curious students
What’s the biggest challenge in playing the bagpipes?
Ten years ago, when I was trying to figure out what the heck I was
doing, I would say the hardest part of the pipes was the maintenance.
Keeping wooden pipes, leather bag and cane reeds all working together,
especially in the dry Colorado climate (Mitchell lives in Longmont,
Colo.) was a real nightmare. But, now that they have come up with
synthetic reeds, bags and pipes, I guess the hardest part is walking,
blowing, squeezing and playing all at the same time. (The instrument
includes three drones, two tenor, one bass, blowpipe and chanter.) No
circular breathing, but still hard enough. That and actually making
coherent music on a Friday night in college … nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
What made you start the Friday night tradition?
Freshman year, when people—possibly drunk—discovered I was a piper, they
pressured me to play. It was Friday night at 1 a.m., but that didn’t
seem to bother us much. Brendan Neff ’06 gathered a crowd, and I played
for the first time behind Mudd-Blaisdell, until somebody on the golf
team complained and we disbanded.
Mitchell’s first performance was so well received that the group agreed
to meet at the same time the following week. The Friday night ritual was
born. Few Fridays have passed unobserved since. “The only Fridays I have
missed are when I have been out of town off campus, but I have played in
cold, hot, rain, flood, etc., but no snow yet,” said Mitchell, who
played in front of Little Bridges for about two years before moving to
his current spot at Bixby.
Some things have changed, however. During his freshman and sophomore
years, Mitchell’s Friday night audience averaged around a dozen people,
he estimates. This past year, following his relocation to Bixby, the
crowd grew to as many as 20 to 30 students, sometimes more.
The Friday-night-bagpipes tradition has also expanded across the
country: Mitchell’s sister, a freshman at Colby College who does
Highland dance, found a bagpiper to perform on Friday nights. In
Mitchell’s words: “We are going bi-coastal, baby."