Pittsburgh pipes along during annual parade

Photo courtesy of Amy Howard | Amy Howard has been bagpiping for nine years and graduated from Duquesne in 2020. She participates in the Carnegie Mellon Pipes and Drums band.

Isabella Abbott | Features Editor

The Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade wouldn’t be complete without the sound of bagpipes. And as it turns out, there is a whole bagpiping community that practices year-round, not just for this special Irish celebration.

Many Pittsburgh pipers and piping societies are in the area, including a bagpiping major and program at Carnegie Mellon University.

Nine-year bagpiper and Duquesne graduate Amy Howard started her piping journey at the age of 17, learning from a CMU student in the Carnegie Mellon Pipes and Drums band.

While she attended Duquesne for her master’s in accounting, she took a class in bagpiping at CMU. Her participation at the school allowed her to be a part of the Pipes and Drums band that she’s still active in today. The band is made up of current university students and alumni.

The band performed at the parade on Saturday, among warmer weather and larger crowds than prior years.

“In previous years, it’s been extremely cold, and our fingers would go numb because we can’t wear gloves,” Howard said.

Though she has been in several parades, some nerves still came through before she started playing.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking, but if you’re confident with the music, it’s an enjoyable experience because so many people love the sound of bagpipes and it’s fun to hear the cheering,” Howard said.

Another participant in the parade, University of Pittsburgh graduate Sean McCarthy, is a part of the Macdonald Pipe Band of Pittsburgh. According to their website, they’re one of the oldest active bands in the region. Their purpose is to further the Scottish arts by promoting the study and performance of their music.

McCarthy has been playing for 18 years and was the youngest member of the Macdonald Pipe Band when he started playing for the group. He said during a parade performance, “you get that adrenaline where you forget you’re cold.”

“Before the parade started we’re sitting there. It’s kind of chilly but as soon as you get into that crowd, because there’s so much people and everything going on, it instantly warms up,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy described being a part of the pipe band as “a second family.” He’s able to practice with them, do a parade and get drinks after their performance.

Alex Knox, another piper in the CMU program, has been playing for seven years and was taught by her father. She said that during the parade, the pipers play for about 75% of the time, but there’s always a drumbeat to march to.

“It takes about a half an hour to get through the parade route and we generally have two or three minutes on and a minute off throughout the whole thing,” Knox said.

Howard said it can get tiring, carrying and playing the heavy instruments during the entire parade.

“If you’ve ever seen someone play the bagpipes, a lot is going on,” Howard said. “You’re blowing into a bag but you’re also squeezing this bag in order to produce enough pressure to create a sound out of the chanter which is where the fingering and everything happens.”

An aspect different from many instruments is that pieces have to be memorized. Howard said it is very rare to see someone with music in front of them.

Participants in this year’s parade included marching bands, bagpiping organizations, Irish step dancers, community organizations and even Punxsutawney Phil.

A bagpiper who used to be a part of the Balmoral Pipes and Drums band in Pittsburgh, Glenna Van Dyke wanted to start learning the instrument to be able to perform at a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

She begged her mother to let her get bagpipes and ended up playing at the College of Wooster in Ohio, where she received a scholarship for the instrument. She enjoys practicing and learning with others.

“I think a lot of people come from very different directions but we’re just this network of people that are all kind of connected through this unconventional hobby,” Van Dyke said. “I think it’s definitely more diverse than people give it credit for.”

While many people may think of a typical bagpiper being a male wearing the kilt and carrying their large instrument, Van Dyke said it’s actually “a wide variety of people.”

“I have met plenty of female bagpipers, and I think we have an even deeper sense of camaraderie because it’s definitely an instrument that for a while was played by men,” Van Dyke said. “But there are more women now playing which is really cool to see.”

Pittsburghers don’t have to wait until next year to see a bagpiper, they can follow along with the the Pittsburgh Bagpipers, the Macdonald Pipe Band of Pittsburgh, the Balmoral Pipes and Drums Band of Pittsburgh and more for bagpiping performances year-round.