Tiffin residents may have seen Victor Welsch playing his instrument at The National Theatre, McGowan's Tavern or maybe at Hedges-Boyer Park. A 2011 graduate of Calvert High School, he is about to start his sophomore year at College of Wooster, where he plays a non-traditional instrument in the school's band - bagpipes.
"I saw them on TV, and I begged my mom for about a year to try to learn," Welsch said. "She said it would be too hard. That made me want to do it even more. ... She said she'd give me a few months to see if I would stick with it, and it ended up getting me into college. I wouldn't be going to College of Wooster if I didn't play bagpipes."
The college offers two "Scottish arts" scholarships each year to students skilled in dancing, piping or drumming. An audition is required with the application. Welsch said he received the highest amount of scholarship money ever awarded through that program.
Bagpipes typically are associated with the British Isles, but www.bag
pipes.co.uk states the instrument is mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman writings dating to about the time of Christ. Different cultures include various kinds of bagpipes. The Great Highland bagpipe of Scotland is the most popular and most familiar, followed by the Uilleann pipes.
Although the Welsch family has no ties to Scottish culture, Victor said he was drawn to the bagpipes as a child. Learning to play them started about seven years ago, but he already was playing other instruments.
"My mom started me on piano when I was 4, and I picked up a lot of other ones on my own. I play a lot of guitar and, in high school, I played all the instruments needed for band, so (the director) moved me around a lot," he said.
Once a week, Welsch went to Upper Sandusky for instruction from a man from Scotland. He started with a set of practice pipes and later his parents helped with the purchase of a set of full Great Highland bagpipes. Welsh said the instrument "cost more than my car."
His teacher helped Welsch to order a customized instrument with pipes of African blackwood. The bag can be a traditional animal skin or a hide of synthetic materials, which are easier to care for. Welsch said bagpipes require constant maintenance for a good sound.
"You have to make sure all the joints are perfect and all the reeds are set perfectly. Maintenance can take a long time," he said.
He also learned about the physical demands of playing bagpipes. Often marching as they play, the players must blow air through a mouthpiece to inflate the bag. From there, the air is forced through drone pipes, which make a continuous sound. The pipe that plays the melody line is called a chanter.
"You keep the bag under your arm and have to keep it inflated at all times. It takes a lot of pressure to get air through the reeds. ... It takes so much practice. If you take more than a week off from playing, you're going to have to get back in shape. It's like a sport. You have to stay up with it," Welsch said.
Bagpipes were intended to be heard on the battlefield, so they are loud.
At Wooster, the pipers have a soundproof building where they go to practice in cold weather. Welsch said temperature extremes are not good for the instrument. This summer, he spent numerous practice sessions outdoors at the family farm and at Hedges-Boyer Park. One day, he had an audience of day camp children.
"These little kids followed me around and cheered for me. I had a crowd of about 15 little YMCA campers, and they all asked for business cards from me," Welsch said.
In May, he played at The National Theatre. For St. Patrick's Day, Welsch performed at McGowan's Tavern. He recently played there two more times to earn tips for school expenses. Welsh said he was hired for few jobs during the summer, but his busiest time is March. He tries to stay within a 100-mile travel radius.
"I'm always open for bagpiping jobs." Welsch said.
By the time this article appears, Welsch will be back in Wooster practicing music to be performed during the school year. The school's bagpipe band has 10 bagpipers and six or seven drummers. The group attends several competitions, most recently taking second place at a contest in southern Maryland. Welsch said the bagpipers are the symbol of College of Wooster.
"Bagpipes is what interested me in College of Wooster, but once I got there, I really liked it," Welsh said.
He is majoring in music composition with a possible double major in bagpipe performance. Because he could not afford to attend a bagpipe clinic this summer, Welsch compensated by practicing on his own. One of Welsch's bandmates is an accomplished piper who teaches him new techniques and music during the school year. Welsch has lost count of the number of songs he has memorized. Over the summer, he was to learn six more for "band camp."
Whenever the bagpipe unit plays for a college event, members wear the traditional plaid kilts of the Macleod of Lewis clan, because it is the school's colors - yellow and black. The uniform includes a hat called a Glengarry, a vest worn over the tuxedo-style shirt, and a jacket.
"Our shoes are ghillies. They're really interesting shoes. The laces tie up your leg," Welsch said. "We wear leather sporrans, which is like a purse, that people always see. That's my favorite part of the uniform because it's the perfect size for sandwiches."
In warm weather, the pipers sometimes march without the jacket. Members can wear different attire when they play for performances outside of the school. Welsch said the group gets many requests to play for weddings and funerals of Wooster alumni.
Welsch said he is trying to arrange for the college band to come to Tiffin and perform at the park in exchange for donations. The band raises its own funds for travel and competitions with limited assistance from the college's music department. In October, the college is to host a Highland Games. Bagpipe bands from all over are being invited to perform.