One group of University of Pennsylvania students is full of hot air.
Anyone within earshot of Fisher-Bennett Hall on Monday evenings will hear the unmistakable sounds of Penn Pipes, the University’s first and only band of merry bagpipe enthusiasts.
Through the official formation of Penn Pipes last fall, Scranton, Pa., native Jake Cohen, 22, created a long-lasting tribute to the powerful instrument that only has nine notes but evokes the happiest and saddest of emotions in listeners.
It’s taken him about six years to finally build up the lung capacity needed to play the bagpipes. More important, it’s taken that long for him to master the proper tuning methods required for the bagpipes’ distinct sounds.
“Pipers spend about 50 percent of the time tuning their instruments,” Cohen explains. “When the pipes sound the way they should, no sound in the world comes near its crisp beauty. Bagpipes transport you to a completely different place.”
Following in the steps of Scottish and Irish traditions, the members of Penn Pipes say there’s always room for one more. The group members are particularly interested in reaching out to those in the piping community, but everyone in the Penn community is invited to join the band, musician or not.
With five students currently in the group, the band is always in need new members –- musicians, promoters and supporters.
Cohen, a double-major in physics and biophysics, who graduated in May, remains actively involved and says welcoming all participants, regardless of their bagpiping skills, is a key element to the band’s growth and sustainability.
“To find new people that love the pipes, it’s imperative to get the band out there on campus for everyone in the Penn community to enjoy,” Cohen explains. “There’s nothing like the response you get when you play the pipes in front of a crowd. It's quite a thrill.”
In its very brief history, Penn Pipes has played at Wharton’s 2013 Commencement and for Penn’s Time to Shine event. They have also made appearances at a Hillel Charity Auction, the Penn Museum and even a hockey game at the Class of 1923 Ice Rink.
Assembling the Penn Pipes was no easy task and it took nearly three years to gain its status as an official organization, but its five core members gravitated naturally toward each other.
It was Cohen’s freshman year when he met fellow piper Zach Burchill at Hill College House. Burchill, now 22, played the pipes back home in West Lafayette, Ind.
One night, McLean Baran was practicing his routine as a member of the Glee Club. He ran into Cohen, who chatted with him about forming a bagpipe band on campus.
Baran, a 2013 Wharton graduate, inherited a set of bagpipes from his grandfather and played with his high school bagpipe band in Tampa. He says Penn Pipes contributes a missing element to the melting pot of cultures and lifestyles represented at Penn.
“Whenever someone is playing the bagpipes, there’s a story instantly. Isn’t that what college is all about: cool stories, interesting experiences, being enlightened and cultural diffusion?” Baran asks.
Baran hopes that the band can continue to make a positive impact in the Penn community. He agrees with Cohen that, “having a supportive network will help to ensure the club’s presence on campus and strengthen our future as a student organization.”
Nathan Weinbren, a fellow player in Baran’s high school bagpipe band, is the youngest member of Penn Pipes. The 20-year-old biochemistry junior says bagpipes are commonplace at important university events across the nation.
“Penn prides itself on being incredibly diverse,” Weinbren says. “Not only does the Pipes represent Scottish and Irish culture, but they also represent a minority instrument that many people have never seen or heard in real life.”
Ian Moulton, 29, a Wharton graduate student and military veteran from Cambridge, Mass., has played the bagpipes in many different bands over the years.
“The first thing I do in a new place is look for a bagpipe band. I was in the U.S. Navy for six years and looked to piping as a way to meet people outside of work,” Moulton says. “Bagpipes are a great ceremonial instrument. One day, I’d love to see Penn Pipes become a traditional part of Commencement.”
Moulton is a dual-degree graduate student. He plans to finish his M.B.A. in December then return to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he will walk down the aisle in May with a master’s in international affairs.
The newest member of the band is Pedro Huerta, 25, from Santiago, Chile. He will graduate in 2015 with an M.B.A. from Wharton. He joined the Penn Pipes in order to improve his piping skills, meet interesting people and become active in the Penn community.
“The sound of the pipes is strong, powerful, and full of emotion,” Huerta explains. “Playing at multiple events on campus gives the pipes greater solemnity and transcendence, allowing more people to appreciate them.”
While Cohen will be leaving for Belgium in a few weeks to pursue a graduate degree on a scholarship through the European Union, he’s planning on staying involved in the group and its leadership. He is passionate about the band’s future and its role as part of Penn’s musical ensembles.
“The music groups and bands based at Penn offer instruments and traditions from many cultures around the world, introducing students and the community to rich cultural heritages to which they may not have been exposed,” Cohen explains. “Failing to bring the bagpipes into that mix –-- an instrument that has so much global history and culture – that would be a real loss.”
The group performs at weddings, private parties and events around campus. Arrangements can be made via facebook.com/pennpipes.