Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41. No. 2.
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It's one o'clock on a Friday night, and the next sound you hear will be the skirl of pipes.
The Nightpiper

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 at Pomona.)

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."
 

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