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Pipers prosper at St. John's Northwestern

Bagpipes have rich tradition at academy

Dec. 19, 2012

When St. John's Military Academy merged with Northwestern Naval and Military Academy out of Lake Geneva in 1995, it not only got an addition to the school name, it inherited the school's famous bagpipes program.

"That's when we took off," said St. John's Northwestern Military Academy President Jack Albert Jr. on the program. "We blended our histories."

Northwestern's Pipe Band dated back to 1917 and when Northwestern and St. John's became one, they began making a name in the bagpiping world.

The Pipe Band has performed at Cinco de Mayo in Pueblo, Mexico, with The Chieftains (of Dublin, Ireland), at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee and at the Bradley Center during halftime of a Milwaukee Bucks game.

The Pipe Band also performs annually in the Milwaukee Veterans Day parade and the Chicago St. Patrick's Day parade.

And in 2011, the band, under the guidance of Ron Bowen, who left during the 2011-12 school year, won the Best Youth Band and Best in Parade at the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Alexandria, Va.

With Bowen now teaching at the Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock, Va., the team is now led by Pipe Maj. Brian Donaldson.

"We've had some instructors who have come and gone, but in the last five to six years we've really put a focus on pipes," said Albert, who has been at St. John's since 2004. "And now with the quality instructor we have in Brian, he's looking for opportunities to compete even internationally."

List of credentials

You could say Donaldson knows a thing or two about the international scene. He was born and raised in Scotland, and his resume can be put up against the best and brightest.

"I was born and bred in bagpiping," Donaldson said. "I've done it all my life."

He can thank his father for this: Pipe Maj. Andrew Donaldson was a famous piper and teacher.

Brian, who started playing at age 5, won many major championships and played with some of the more famous pipers in the world.

He then served his apprenticeship as a bagpipe maker and then in the late 1970s enlisted in the Scots Guards. He was eventually promoted through the ranks to pipe major in 1995.

The fact that Donaldson reached the rank of a pipe major was not lost on Albert when he hired him earlier this year.

"That's a tremendous honor," Albert said. "He's world-renowned and well-recognized around the world. We were extremely fortunate to get him."

In total, Donaldson served 22 years at the Army School of Bagpipe and Highland Drumming in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Now, he's in the classroom teaching teenagers the art of bag piping.

"I really enjoy it, and a lot of the kids are fascinated by it," Donaldson said.

Physical and mental

Playing the bagpipe is no small feat.

"It's mental as well as physical," said Donaldson, who teaches five classes at St. John's. "It's quite a challenge, and it's exhausting for them to play."

He said learning the finger technique, similar to the recorder, is Step 1.

After mastering that technique, individuals must learn the proper blowing and breathing techniques, which can be difficult for some, Donaldson said.

He said it could take years to truly master the art of bag piping.

Aside from learning and playing the instrument, Donaldson said the students enjoy the outfits that go along with playing the bagpipes.

"A lot of them take fancy to the kilt," Donaldson said. "But you have to be members of the Pipes and Drums to wear them."

Proud to have pipes

The public had a chance to see the Pipes and Drums at its annual Holiday Concert last Sunday.

Donaldson said a majority of the students had no knowledge of playing a bagpipe before starting their classes at St. John's.

"They relish the challenge, and I'm glad to be here," said Donaldson.

An institution that is becoming built on its bagpipes.

"This is really a tradition of the academy," Albert said. "It provides discipline and the boys work very hard. It's a delight to have this program, and we're very proud of it."

Photo: Cadets Tristan Derr, Emerson Connelly and Tristan Arvayo are part of the St. John's Northwestern Military Academy's bagpipe program.

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