Competitive bagpipe player JC Butz ’21 is making a lot of exhilarating noise on campus.

Competitive bagpipe player JC Butz ’21 is making  a lot of exhilarating noise on campus.

Like many young men before him, Fairfield University freshman John “JC” Butz ’21 received a calling while attending service one morning at his hometown church in Great Falls, Va. His call had a unique and distinguishable sound, one much more common to the hills of Scotland than the quiet suburbs outside of Washington, D.C.

During that service, then-eighth grade student JC Butz first heard the bagpipes performed live, and from that moment, a lifelong passion ignited. Although the young musician had been playing piano since kindergarten, he had become bored with the instrument. After hearing the bagpipe’s formidable bellow and seeing its complex mechanics in action, it seemed like his answer had been sent from above, and he set off on his journey to find a teacher.

“One of the hardest parts of learning to play the bagpipes is finding an instructor,” Butz said with a laugh. “It’s not like there’s a bagpipe store on every corner.”

“The pipes are completely different from the piano,” Butz explained. “There are only nine notes. No octaves, no scales, and it is much harder to tune.” Describing the process as a “daily struggle,” Butz explained the importance of moisture control in keeping his pipes on pitch. When he plays, he puffs air into a blowpipe that fills the instrument’s bag and is circulated to three connecting pipes called drones. While positioning his fingers on the melody pipe, or chanter, his lungs provide air pressure which causes the reeds to vibrate in the chanter and allows the drones to produce one melody and three harmonies all at the same time. Since the drones are made of wood and cane, they need constant moisture control to maintain their pitch, so if the piper doesn’t practice daily, they go out of tune rather easily and can take up to two full days to regulate again.
Yet, before he was even allowed to pick up his bagpipe, Butz spent the first year and a half of his training learning the proper finger positions on a practice chanter – a small woodwind instrument similar to a recorder. Then he joined the Maryland Youth Pipe Band. That’s also when he had the opportunity to don his very first kilt.

“I feel good when I’m dressed in full uniform,” Butz admitted, “As long as it’s not hot out. You are wearing eight yards of wool around your waist, and that can get very hot, very quickly.” In addition to all of that wool, Butz’s traditional uniform is comprised of a pair of ghillies, a soft leather shoe that wraps around the ankle and is worn over a pair of calf-high socks. From there, he wears a signature kilt, a classic white shirt and vest, and a glengarry bonnet, a traditional Scottish cap made of thick wool that is decorated with a toorie, or pom-pom, and a patch bearing the insignia of a designated Scottish clan.

Today, JC proudly wears that uniform as a grade four piper for the MacMillan United Pipe Band in Bethesda, Md., with whom he traveled to Scotland this past August to compete in the 2017 World Pipe Band Championship. They performed at several Scottish landmarks including the Glasgow World Concert Hall and George Square. A total of 34 bands from across the globe competed, and his band placed ninth. They were the only North American team to make it to the finals, an experience he said was “absolutely amazing.”

As a soloist, he has been asked to perform at multiple events. While he says he would enjoy being involved with other music groups on campus, he explained that it’s difficult to find songs that a bagpipe can complement when fused together with other instruments. He would, however, be more than happy to perform in a church-like setting one day, perhaps even in the University’s own Egan Chapel of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Overall, Butz says the Fairfield community has been largely supportive of his unique hobby, including his roommates, who admit they think it’s “pretty cool.” While he has shifted his focus from performing as a piper to studying as a first-year business student, Butz aims to progress to a grade two piper level by mastering 22 new songs within the next two years.

“You experience all types of emotions when playing the bagpipes, but what you put in is what you get out,” JC said. “It can be so frustrating when learning a new song, but that moment when everything comes together and your drone comes perfectly in tune – it’s amazing.”