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Better than ever

Barry McNamara
The Pipe Band performs at the 2010 Homecoming Parade.
With roots going back to the 1940s, the Monmouth College Pipe Band has officially been in existence for more than half a century. Today, the college can boast that the band has never been better, and that claim was supported by placing first in the highest division at this spring’s 32nd Arkansas Scottish Festival,

“We have a high level of talent throughout corps, thanks in part to successful recruitment from traditionally strong pipe band regions such as Toronto, the Pacific Northwest, Chicago and Minneapolis,” said MC faculty member Tim Tibbetts, director of the pipe band program. “We’ve also had some talented students transfer from one of our competitor schools, St. Andrew’s.”

While members are proud to be a part of the Monmouth College Pipe Band, they all have experience with and allegiances to other bands, including such successful groups as the City of Chicago, the Hamilton Police and 78th Fraser Highlanders.

“Experience in other bands is crucial to their making Monmouth’s band successful, and is also crucial in them being considered for a scholarship,” said Tibbetts, who noted that students who are awarded scholarships form the leadership nucleus of the Monmouth College Pipe Band. “They choose music, set goals, lead rehearsals and are important in recruiting future members of the band.”

Scholarships are awarded based on a process with a formal application requiring references and a live audition.

“We are specifically targeting candidates with significant experience playing in pipe band and solo competitions,” Tibbetts said.

The actual monetary values of the scholarships are determined by MC’s financial aid office based on recommendations made by Tibbetts and current band members. Scholarships are good for four years as long as the students remain in good academic standing and meet the requirements, including attendance at rehearsals and performances and improvement in skills.

Pipe Band members are active on campus throughout the year, but the fall and spring semesters have different itineraries. The fall is a busier time, with performances nearly every weekend at home football games, parades and other events. In the spring, the band typically attends a competition and performs in concert, in addition to duties at Scots Day and commencement.

“We play at roughly 35 events each academic year, including off-campus events like the Prime Beef Festival parade,” said Tibbetts. “As the band has attracted stronger and more numerous players through scholarships, the band has taken on formal performances and competitions that further advertise and promote the college and the Pipe Band locally and regionally.”

Tibbetts said that visibility helps with recruiting new members. Prospective students also learn about the band through word of mouth or by seeing listings on pipe band-related websites.

“There aren’t many competitions that fall during the academic school year, so that limits the possibilities,” said Tibbetts, when asked why the Pipe Band competed in Arkansas. “It was only a nine-hour drive to the competition, versus the 16 to North Carolina we have driven four times in the past. Additionally, it allowed us to check out one of our rivals in terms of pipe band recruiting. The competition was at Lyon College, which also has a pipe band, and it was great to beat them.”

In the late 1940s, music professor and band director Hal Loya decided that a school with a Scottish heritage should have bagpipers leading its marching band. With financial backing from language professor Dorothy Donald, he ordered two bagpipes and a practice “chanter” from Scotland and taught himself to play. He then convinced two musically-talented brothers, David Hershberger ’51 and the late Floyd Hershberger ’49, to also learn the challenging instrument, and they became Monmouth’s first official pipers.

It was not long before a Highland dance troupe was also formed, and in 1957, the Monmouth Highland Pipe Band was organized, eventually growing to 14 members in the mid-1960s.

How far has the band come? Bill Lee ’69, a fixture in the band long after his graduation from Monmouth, remembers a day in 1967 when the Highlanders were down to just two members, Lee and his classmate, Bruce Danielson. So they went to Student Activity Night – uninvited – and signed up 22 people.

“They kicked us out because we were taking away everybody’s business and signing them up with us,” Lee said. Of the 22 who signed up, 10 stayed and learned to play, and the band was saved.

But former members of the various pipe bands said that keeping the band operating was difficult, primarily because of the difficulty in learning to play the bagpipes and student turnover.

“It was a struggle,” said Danielson. “You teach someone to play the pipe and after four years they get pretty good at it, then they leave and you have to start over again with a new bunch of players.”

In 1994, President Sue Huseman decided that the band needed to have new life, and with the assistance of Lee and his wife, Peggy Will Lee ’71, reconstituted it as the Monmouth Pipes and Drums. Keeping it all in the family, the Lees’ son, Josh Lee ’99, served as pipe major.

Tibbetts, who took over as the faculty adviser to the pipe band in 2002, was named director of the pipe band program last year.

“In the early days, the pipe band reported to the vice president for development, which reflected the concept that the band was largely in place for college PR,” said Tibbetts. “The pipe band is the major visible campus group that reflects the college’s Scottish heritage.”

When asked his plans for the group for the next few years, Tibbetts had a simple answer.

“Keep on keepin’ on!” he said. “We want to maintain our current level of playing.”

And that current level is the highest it’s ever been.