An awakening sound: bagpipes give life to a walking NWU tradition

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An awakening sound: bagpipes give life to a walking NWU tradition
An awakening sound: bagpipes give life to a walking NWU tradition
An awakening sound: bagpipes give life to a walking NWU tradition
An awakening sound: bagpipes give life to a walking NWU tradition

Commencement day at Nebraska Wesleyan University is defined by two walks.

There’s the forward-looking, future-focused walk every college graduate takes across
the commencement stage to accept their individual degrees. And at NWU, there’s another walk students anticipate just as eagerly—a last winding walk across campus that classmates take together to look back and celebrate their shared history.

Final Walk bridges the last quarter mile of their Nebraska Wesleyan experience. It winds
toward the west side of campus, where graduates step under the old stone arch facing 50th Street. This humble structure, a gift from the class of 1896, stands as the literal and figural archway to the rest of their lives.

Bagpipes are tradition at NWU

Graeme Dodworth (’01) of Falls Church, Va., remembered his own Final Walk 20 years ago. It was an experience made more memorable by the instrument he carried. On a tip from his mother, Professor Emerita of Music Jean Henderson (’64), university officials invited Dodworth to play the bagpipes on his class’s march through that arch.

“It went fine,” Dodworth said. “I enjoyed it and was glad to contribute to my class.” As coincidence would have it, the class of 2002 also included a bagpiper who happily played for her class’s Final Walk. Then came 2003. “They didn’t have one,” Dodworth said, “which caused everyone to ask, ‘Hey, where’s the bagpiper?’”

The pipers’ absence felt sharper still in 2004. So the university invited Dodworth and his bagpipes back to campus in 2005. And he’s made the trip from Virginia to Nebraska Wesleyan for commencement nearly every year since. He’s likewise played for several First Walks during fall matriculations. (During First Walks, incoming students move together in the opposite direction, stepping onto campus as a class under the same arch.)

“I look forward to these walks so much,” Dodworth said, “probably as much as the students do. It’s a meaningful point in their lives, a rite of passage. It keeps me connected to the university, which I enjoy. Every time I go back, I see my professors and it brings back memories for me, too.”

"I look forward to these walks so much, probably as much as the students do. It’s a meaningful point in their lives, a rite of passage."

Today, Dodworth’s bagpipes are as much a part of Final Walk as the finish line of the arch itself. Standing at the arch, his music becomes a soundtrack to each graduate’s achievements. Its sounds glide against the surrounding sycamores on their way to neighboring First United Methodist Church, Acklie Hall of Science and Old Main. The sound reverberates off old stones and swirls back as students step into their new skins as Nebraska Wesleyan alumni.

“The bagpipes create particularly nostalgic connections for people,” said Tom Trenney, NWU assistant professor of music and choir director. “There’s an organic, spiritual power they communicate. It’s not surprising they’ve been welcomed to this occasion in the life of the university.”

The son of a music professor, Dodworth treated NWU’s campus as his playground growing up. And once he arrived as a student, he majored, not in music, but in international business administration and German, with a minor in French. He works today as a federal linguist and geographer, not a lyricist or composer. 

How did bagpipes enter his story?

For that, he credits his father, the late Russell Dodworth. “My dad was musically talented; he played the organ and fiddle. He wasn’t formally trained as in a college major, but he had natural talent. Dad dabbled in the bagpipes, although he never played seriously,” he said.

“I remember him playing bagpipes one morning to wake us up.” There was no sleeping through such a sound as that. The elder Dodworth’s notes echoed through the house and moved to wake not just the children, but the cinderblocks of the foundation. “I was so drawn to that sound,” he said.

“The various instruments I tried as a kid were largely forced on me until I picked up the bagpipes. I was 15 and that was my own volition, my decision. I wanted to learn an instrument that was unique.” An instrument with the power to wake stones.

"The various instruments I tried as a kid were largely forced on me until I picked up the bagpipes. I was 15 and that was my own volition, my decision."

Technically a woodwind instrument, bagpipes differ from a clarinet or oboe in that the piper does not blow air directly over a reed to make it vibrate. Instead, the piper blows into the bag, which in turn channels a steady supply of squeezed air over multiple reeds within the various pipes, known as drones and the chanter. The down-pointing chanter is drilled with holes, which the piper manipulates to play notes. The upright drones are tuned to single notes, each an octave apart, lending bagpipes their distinctive hum. “When I first started, I got this chanter kit. It’s like a recorder,” he said. “Depending on your musical aptitude, that takes about six months before you move to the bagpipes. And once you get there, it’s like learning the tunes all over again.”

He said, “The first time I played, it felt like blowing into a large paper grocery sack and filling it with air. I almost fainted, and that’s common; it takes a while to build your diaphragm up. It takes about a year until you can play a standard tune well and you’re not annoying anyone.”

Though most commonly associated with the U.K., versions of the bagpipes can be found all over the world. Since his college days, Dodworth has played abroad and locally with pipers from across the globe. After nearly 30 years of playing, he said the versatility of the instrument still fascinates him from funeral gravitas to pub revelry. But nothing resonates with him as clearly as Final Walk.

“There are some general tunes that I think sound good for the pomp and circumstance of a graduation. They’re Scottish tunes; I throw in some Irish ones, too,” he said. “I even have a tune my mom wrote for vocals that I had transcribed for bagpipes. So, I do kind of slightly mix it up.”

He said, “I think the bagpipes add that mystical element; it’s an embellishment to the tradition of walking the campus one last time. Hopefully, it’s a memory the graduates think about years later—and a tradition that goes on long after I’m out of the picture.”