Bagpipe Instructor Blows Town Away

Lily Bohlke
bohlkeli@grinnell.edu

When walking past the practice rooms that are down in the basement of Bucksbaum, one just might hear the sound of bagpipes. A possibility thanks to Rob Clower, whose many occupations include teaching Grinnell College students how to play the Scottish instrument.

A natural bagpipe teacher, Clower has been teaching lessons at Grinnell College since 2011. Usually only a small handful take his four-credit bagpipe course every semester, and he currently has one student. “It’s always been small, which is fine,” Clower said.

The bagpipe is difficult to play because there are a lot of parts to navigate. In addition to the blowpipe, there is a bag, drone pipes, cords, a chanter and various other parts. New players begin using just a blowpipe.

“Most of my students decided they wanted to play the bagpipes,” Clower said. “They think it is cool and they cannot wait until they can play some tunes and actually play the bagpipes.”

Clower started playing the bagpipes when he was eight years old when a family friend taught it to him and his sister. Since then, he has played in various pipe bands around the country, including the Cameron Highlanders Pipe Band of San Diego County, which he still plays with periodically, and Des Moines’ Iowa Scottish Pipes and Drums.

In 2007, Clower decided he had higher ambitions for the group than the attitude of many players, and he felt the drive to Des Moines every week was too much. He left the Iowa Scottish Pipes and Drums and founded Turlach Ur Pipe Band.

Clower (second from the left) leading Turlach Ur in a concert in Grinnell’s Central Park this summer.

Clower (second from the left) with the Cameron Highlanders at a competition.

“Some bands have Scottish Gaelic names and I thought that would be neat,” he said. “Turlach Ur means ‘new fire’ because as new kids learn how to play, there’s always new fire coming into the band.”

Turlach Ur’s first attempt at competition was “a little bit of a train wreck” because many of the players were brand new at the instrument.
“When you go into that competition for the first time and the judges are listening to you play, it can be nerve-wracking,” Clower said.

However, the band has improved since then. During this past season, they won first place at three out of four competitions. They will be declared grade five Champion Supreme for the 2015 season.

Because many of Turlach Ur’s band members are beginners, the band is in grade five, which is the lowest division in the Midwest Pipe Band Association. After listening to their first impressive performance, the judges suggested they move into grade four. However, Clower thought that Turlach Ur’s was too inexperienced to move up. This was shown during the next competition, when one player had a technical mishap with his bagpipe.

“It was a perfect indication that I was correct to tell [the judges] no,” Clower said.

Next August, Clower will travelling to Scotland with the Cameron Highlanders for the World Pipe Band Championships.
“This is something that all pipe bands dream of someday,” Clower said. “Two hundred and fifty bands from all different grades are there, including the best bands in the world.”

However, with Clower’s absence, Turlach Ur must take a year off. The band will, however, continue to perform and play concerts in Grinnell this year. On Saturday, Nov. 7, Turlach Ur is putting on a “snazzy fall concert.”

Not only are bagpipes a competition and performance outlet for Clower, they are also a family activity. He taught his older son to play bagpipes, and his wife and younger son both play snare drums.

“Every few weekends, [my children] would see me wear a kilt and play bagpipes. It was just part of life,” he said. “Kids see their parents enjoying something and they want to do it too.”

Many of the other members of Turlach Ur are family units playing pipes and drums as well, according to Clower.

One of Clower’s other occupations includes attorney of law at Charnetski, Lacina & Clower LLP, a law office located in downtown Grinnell. Although Clower spends as much time on his bagpipes as he does on his legal work, he feels that it is a fine balance.

“I’m more passionate about my bagpipes than I am about my law career,” Clower said.