Article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.
Woven into the bootstraps of the haves, have-somes, and the outright have-nots is a silver lining that can sometimes curb tuition costs and lift aspiring collegians into the domain of higher education.
This hopefulness is not limited to the academically gifted and athletically talented, either. Duck callers, vegetarians, and those bold enough to fashion prom outfits out of duct tape can sometimes lift themselves up, too. And let’s not forget the scholarships awarded to those skilled in the game of marbles and to those who draft contingency plans for the impending zombie apocalypse.
But perhaps the most unconventional way to alleviate the financial strain of a college education is to don a knee-length skirt of tartan cloth and take up…ahem…the bagpipes.
Just ask Luke Ashton.
“When I first started bagpiping,” the 20-year-old explains through his strong, callused lungs, “I didn’t think I’d be able to get a scholarship for it. It kind of surprised me when I found out.”
Ashton says he earned his merit-based scholarship to Alma College, located in the palm of Michigan’s mitten, after trying out for the private school’s pipe band during his senior year of high school. Now a fellow Scots (the college’s befitting nickname), Ashton says he’s perfecting his part in the mellifluously shrill soundscape that regularly accompanies school ceremonies and football games.
“With a lot of different instruments,” he explains, “you have to commit to them. With bagpipes, you really have to commit.”
The second-year student says he doesn’t think fellow classmates mind his repeated efforts to master “Scotland the Brave” or “Amazing Grace,” even if the songs’ melodies are squeezed through a device historically described as an instrument of torture and war.
“With a college like this, it’s understood that coming in you’re going to be hearing a lot of bagpipes,” Ashton says with a hint of amusement in his voice. “People get used to them.”
Ashton says bagpiping was initially nothing more than a way to get in touch with his Scottish heritage. That is, until practicing on the job as a historical re-enactor at Fort Atkinson State Park brought him into contact with Omaha Pipes and Drums (OP&D), a local nonprofit that offers free music lessons for bagpipers and drummers.
“His folks keep trying to give me credit,” says OP&D instructor Kevin Arnold, “and it would be great to say I made him what he is today, but the truth is he did it himself. It will be a pleasure one of these days when we get together and he can play circles around me.”
With a double major in political science and anthropology, Ashton says he has his ears set on one day earning a doctorate and becoming a professor, not a musician.
“I would not make bagpiping my career,” he says. “I’ve kind of avoided that because I think, if I made it a career, it wouldn’t be as fun for me—it would be like a job.”