Ireland native transforms CMU’s bagpipe program

By Carly McLeod, Point Park News Service:

Photo: Carnegie Mellon Pipes & Drums
Photo: Carnegie Mellon Pipes & Drums

By 2010, Carnegie Mellon University employed two world-class bagpipe players to lead the world’s first bagpipe performance program — but there was little student interest.

That was until a 24-year-old Irish lad named Andrew Carlisle crossed the Atlantic to spearhead the program.

Since his arrival, the program has grown to involve two bands and is one of the top piping corps in the Eastern United States.

“Carlisle really focuses on the band,” said Kurt Wichman, who is currently the program’s only declared bagpipe major. “He took it to a more serious level.”

One of Carlisle’s biggest supporters is the man who started the program in 1990, James McIntosh.

McIntosh is a world champion solo competitor and awardee of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. He was impressed with Carlisle from the moment he met him.

“I remember he was a young player and a good student. He was very well behaved, which was interesting because the boys from the U.K. usually come to the U.S. to party, but not Andrew,” said McIntosh. “You could tell from that young age that Andrew was a winner and a high achiever. He’s so bright and his enthusiasm and energy will ensure that the program flourishes.”

McIntosh’s wife, Joyce, first met Carlisle in 2009 when he traveled to Pittsburgh to work with McIntosh’s former pipe band, the Balmoral Highlanders, as they were gearing up for the fall competition season.

“[James McIntosh] said Andrew could set up a band more quickly than anyone he had ever seen,” Joyce McIntosh said. “And he could memorize like a whiz. He played one competition with us, went back to Northern Ireland for two weeks, and then returned to play with us again. During that time span, he memorized our entire medley.”

The men worked together during Carlisle’s first semester to ensure a smooth transition before James McIntosh retired to South Carolina. During that time, they forged a meaningful student/teacher relationship.

Nick Hudson, an award-winning player and CMU’s second graduate with a bagpipe performance degree, lauded the work Carlisle did to get the bands into top form for competition.

“The Carnegie Mellon Pipes and Drums are known as a very good sounding pipe band under Andy Carlisle,” Hudson said. “As an academic himself, [Carlisle] has been able to push the intellectual sides of piping further, helping spearhead a new master’s in bagpipe performance.”

After a group of potential candidates expressed interest in pursuing further schooling, Carlisle proposed the master’s degree to former head of music, Noel Zahler. Classes toward the degree began in the fall of 2011 and the first student graduated in May 2013.

Photo: Carnegie Mellon Pipes & Drums
Photo: Carnegie Mellon Pipes & Drums

Andrew Bova became the third graduate of CMU’s undergraduate bagpipe performance degree and is the first of the master’s program. He is now working toward a doctorate degree in Scotland.

After working with Carlisle for three years, Bova said he came to appreciate the direct approach that’s taken with his students. After Bova’s master’s recital, his professor came to him with a packet of notes to improve his performance.

“He said to me, ‘There’s a lot of good stuff that I could say but you don’t need to hear what you’re doing right. You need to hear what you’re doing wrong.’ And proceeded to pick apart my performance,” Bova said. “That might upset many students, but I actually quite like that.”

When he arrived in 2010, the band had one drummer, a handful of pipers with varying skill levels and hadn’t been competing for some time. Carlisle described the first time the new band performed in early April 2011 at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland.

“The band went from kind of nothing to giving their first public performance in the space of six or seven months,” he said. “It was quite an achievement just to get out there, and it definitely went well. It was the first time in many years that there was a band in any kind of shape or form that had performed as part of Carnegie Mellon, and it was certainly the first in at least 10 years where all the members were students.”

The program consists of almost 50 students that make up two bands. Carlisle said he worked to create an open environment for musicians with any level of experience.

Junior bagpiper Colleen Poe said she chose CMU because Carlisle worked there.

Photo: Carnegie Mellon Pipes & Drums
Photo: Carnegie Mellon Pipes & Drums

“I knew he was a good solo player and I had grown up always hearing his name in conversation,” she said. “I hope he continues to develop the two separate bands because there are a lot of people interested.”

The band’s competition season wrapped up at the end of September with a fifth-place finish out of seven bands at the Celtic Classic invitational competition in Bethlehem, Pa.

“But we’re hopefully trying to work and improve things for the drum corps,” Carlisle said. “And, obviously, try and improve the whole unit as a band.”