The NYU Pipes and Drums Band is everywhere in May, when the skirl of its pipes and snap of its snares bring a raucous pomp to many circumstances. But the band has a life beyond commencement, and for 34 years, it has enlivened alumni gatherings and parades with its colorful display of university pride.
“It’s so cool to be part of the legacy of this unique part of NYU,” says Jack Siebert (Tisch ’21), who last month began taking the free bagpipe lessons offered by the group. “The bagpipes are a unifying force at NYU, whether you realize it or not. In our nontraditional school culture, it’s something we all have in common.”
As an example of its special place in the NYU community, the band will lead the procession of dignitaries for the Inauguration of Linda G. Mills as NYU’s 17th President on Oct. 17. Its participation represents a nod to the university’s history and its roots in the community.
To stay sharp for performances, the group of 20 faculty, staff, alumni, and community members meets weekly in the music rooms in the basement of the Global Center, where the drone of the pipes can be heard long before they come into view. In keeping with its academic setting, the band offers free lessons to newcomers, which on a recent Tuesday included Siebert, fellow alums Jinghe Song and John Colangelo, and Sumanth Dara, a second year PhD student in biomedical engineering.
The hour lesson is taught by Pipe Major Brian Meagher (pronounced MAR), a fourth generation piper and NYU alum (Wagner ’94). The beginners learn on a chanter, which resembles a recorder.
Sumanth decided to join after watching a viral video of a mashup of traditional Celtic and Indian music. His parents encouraged him to study piano and violin as a child. “Now I have the freedom to explore,” he says. The lessons are challenging, but the atmosphere is fun.
“It’s nice to see people learning for the sake of learning. Some are older, some younger. There’s a sense of camaraderie,” Sumanth said. “Everyone wants to learn something new.”
After working on fingering and scales, the students took out their phones and recorded Meagher playing Eddie’s Lamentation, one of the easier pieces in the band’s repertoire. Several students shot video of him so they could refer to his fingering as well as the sound. “I love modern times,” Meagher laughed. “I used a cassette tape.”
They worked on the song together, with Meagher offering critiques couched in encouragement. “Straighten out your D finger. Beautiful,” he said, responding to a student’s squeak. “Let’s try it one more time.”
When the hour was up, Meagher moved to a larger room just down the hall, where he led a 90-minute practice for eight of the band’s active members. There was laughter and banter throughout the session, especially between Meagher and longtime members John Henderson, who works in Graduate Enrollment Services for the Graduate School of Arts and Science, and alum John Maynard, one of the band’s original members from 1989. A singer who’d been in choirs, glee clubs, and even a friend’s rock band, Maynard saw a hand-written sign for the start-up and figured he’d check it out. He, Julie Brown, and James Felder, now a professor at Tisch, were in that first class of beginners and they still play with the band. (Julie's husband, Mark Celli, is one of the drummers.) Four months after they started their lessons, Meagher began teaching them.
“Jay Oliva, he’s our patron,” Meagher says, referring to the university’s 14th president, who was a longtime faculty member and had attended decades of commencements and other ceremonies. “The NYPD Pipes and Drums used to play at graduation, and he asked, ‘Why can’t we have our own band?’” Meagher recalls. The first commencement they performed was in 1991.
The small group worked through most of the repertoire, which includes traditional marches, such as The Green Hills of Tyrol and Mairi’s Wedding, as well as the American folk song, The Water is Wide and Eddie’s Lamentation from the earlier session. The band revamped its song list during the socially distanced days of the COVID pandemic, Meagher said, using weekly zoom sessions to learn about a dozen new pieces.
The volume is shockingly loud—and everyone in the room was wearing earplugs. The physicality of the instrument is also a surprise. From the blowing into the 5-10 pound instrument, to the constant squeezing of the bag (to maintain an even airflow) to the marching (in place, given the size of the room), it was a full-body workout.
Tommy Burke, one of the newest members, wasn’t playing the notes during the recent practice, but instead was focused solely on maintaining the airflow that creates the familiar droning sound. He had worked up a sweat.
“Don’t raise your arms,” teased Meagher, who had removed his blue suit jacket and yellow dress shirt after about 30 minutes of playing. A smiling Henderson added, “Always wear white.”
Membership ebbs and flows, perhaps more so than other pipe bands because university students cycle through every four years.
“When I showed up they were so happy to have me,” recalls drummer Sam Stein, a sophomore mathematics major who joined last year. He’s played drums since middle school—in orchestras and jazz groups, including Jazz at Lincoln Center—but is new to marching music. He has loved performing in venues all around the city.
“Last year we did the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and Tartan Day (in April), and we played all the graduation ceremonies—at Radio City Music Hall, Yankee Stadium, the Beacon, Madison Square Garden,” he said, listing a few. “It was a lot of fun playing at all those cool venues.”