By Breanda Pittsley
Maybe you didn’t know him personally, but if your Puget Sound college days overlapped with Jori Chisholm’s, you probably knew of him—Chisholm was famous as “the bagpiper guy.”
Even Susan Resneck Pierce, Puget Sound president at the time, acknowledged him in a matriculation address that celebrated the school’s cultural and ethnic diversity: “Why, we even have a bagpiper!” she declared.
Throughout his four years on campus, Chisholm regularly sent the notes of epic piobaireachd tunes chanting and droning across the quads and over the playing fields as he practiced the ancient reed instrument.
Piobaireachd, Chisholm’s specialty, is Gaelic pipe music handed down through generations. Its distinctive tonal systems are steeped in Scottish history, with 20-minute compositions recalling heroic battles or turning introspective in melancholic laments.
Chisholm started piping at age 11 in Lake Oswego, Ore., and never stopped. Today he ranks among the world’s elite players. He is in demand as a full-time professional piper and is a consistent winner on the national and international competition circuit each summer. A psychology graduate with Phi Beta Kappa honors, Chisholm also teaches the pipes to more than 50 students—some as far away as Sweden—who attend lessons via Internet video conferencing.
“Some people told me I couldn’t make it work,” Chisholm says of his decision to be a full-time bagpiper. “Most pipers pursue the instrument more as a hobby than a profession.”
Chisholm’s performance schedule takes him across the United States and Canada, and to New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, Ireland, Finland, and Japan. He has soloed at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall during the annual Masters of Scottish Arts performance, and last summer he piped with renowned Irish supergroup The Chieftains at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre.
As a piper-for-hire, he has played at weddings, funerals, birthday parties, anniversary parties, international trade shows, St. Patrick’s Day festivities, military banquets, school graduations, a name-that-tune-played-on-the-pipes game show on live radio, and a variety of corporate promotions.
Summers find him on the contest circuit, performing almost every weekend from April through September, culminating in trips to Scotland, where he competes against the best pipers in the world.
“I perform and compete all across the Pacific Northwest and the rest of North America,” he says, “but nothing compares to the thrill of playing in Scotland against the world’s greatest.”
The most prestigious award for solo pipers is the Gold Medal, awarded only twice each year in Scotland.
“Some pipers practice and compete their whole lives and never even get the chance to compete at that level,” says Chisholm of the contest that is restricted to 25 players who must reapply each year for eligibility. In 2003 Chisholm placed in the top four at the Gold Medal competition in Inverness, Scotland.
Chisholm is the only piper in his family, but all of his siblings, including Mairi Chisholm ’02, and his wife, Rachel Needham ‘99, were competitive Scottish Highland dancers.
“Competition keeps me focused, but it’s not all about winning,” he notes. Chisholm has appeared as a soloist, band performer, producer, or composer on eight CD recordings and one DVD, and has started work on his first-ever solo CD. He also plans to expand his pioneering distance-teaching program through his Web site, www.BagpipeLessons.com, where you can also hear some of his music.