When the Scots go marching in: MC student plays the bagpipes that lead the charge
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For Knoxville native and bagpipe player Sam Newton, there was no impressing his friends when he was first learning the instrument.
That was almost nine years ago, and the instrument upon which he learned — a “starter” bagpipe known as the chanter — wasn’t fit for human ears, he told The Daily Times this week with a chuckle.
“It makes such an obnoxious sound you can’t play it around anybody,” he said.
In the wrong hands, so too does the bagpipe, of which those in attendance at this weekend’s Smoky Mountain Highland Games on the Maryville College campus will have plenty. Fortunately, the pipers competing and performing at the event, while perfectly capable of making a racket reminiscent of a claw-extended feline sliding down a chalkboard, are professionals.
They don’t abuse the instrument, nor do they coax disagreeable sounds from it. Newton knows this better than anyone — he’ll be one of them, and the allure of the bagpipes are the same for him as they are for anyone who feels a primal stirring when those mournful pipes are played.
“It is a very haunting instrument,” he said. “You feel a chill go up your spine if you’re in the presence of someone who can really play it. I like a challenge, so it’s fun. And I just love the sound of it.”
Newton, who just completed his sophomore year at Maryville College, started playing the instrument when he was 12, after his grandmother’s genealogy research stirred his interest in the family’s Scottish roots. His parents found a place in Knoxville that offered free lessons, and the Karns student signed up.
Although played by people throughout Europe, the bagpipe is most closely associated with Scotland, where the first mention of the instrument dates back to the 15th century, although primitive forms of it may have been around for hundreds of years earlier. The bagpipe music most fans associate with Scotland is that of the Great Highland Bagpipe, which according to Wikipedia “was spread by the Highland regiments of the British Army.”
It would be six months of learning the basics, however, before Newton acquired a full set — which aren’t cheap, he added. Lower-end models start at $600 or $800; authentic wooden bagpipes can go for $1,100 or more.
But he started on something smaller. He likened the chanter to a drummer learning to keep rhythm on a marching band snare drum, but he enjoyed his lessons, so he continued to practice, although it’s not an easy instrument to learn.
“The hole positions and the different notes and different fingerings for the notes that you have to learn are just very backwards to a lot of other instruments,” he said.
He excelled, however, and after graduating from Karns High in 2009, he enrolled at Maryville College. When administrators learned he could play the bagpipes, they offered him the first music scholarship for the instrument, and he soon found himself playing at various campus events, including football and soccer games.
“I feel very proud that I get to represent the school in that facet,” he said. “It helps bring the whole community together, and it’s a very prideful feeling that you get to play this very loud, obnoxious instrument and people everywhere love it.”