DELAFIELD — Students are here from around the world to march, study and grow from boys to young men.
They play tennis and baseball, attend chapel, keep their dorm rooms in immaculate order and eat in a mess hall that has a slight resemblance to the Great Hall at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
A few at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy puff their cheeks with air until their lungs burn, their faces turn a slight tinge of red and their eyes roll upward. This can happen twice a day, four days a week.
Playing a bagpipe requires stamina, concentration and musical intuition. Having a stern Scottish-born instructor who was one of the most renowned bagpipers in the British Army doesn’t hurt, either.
“He’s pretty tough,” said Gerardo Pinelo, 15, a sophomore from Cancun, Mexico. “We always try to make him feel good about us. He knows everything about the bagpipe.”
Pinelo was referring to Brian Donaldson, who is in his third year as pipe major at the 220-student boarding school. Donaldson was initially taught by his father and later passed his pipe majors course at the Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. He served in the Falklands War and spent 22 years at the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming in Edinburgh.
Donaldson travels the U.S. in the summer to teach at bagpipe camps and, when he’s not teaching or restoring his 1974 Triumph TR5T motorcycle, he’s handcrafting bagpipes out of dense and expensive wood imported from Africa. The work is done in his shop located in the back of a maintenance building on the 110-acre campus, located along the Bark River just north of this city’s downtown.
“Brian is the real deal,” said Jack H. Albert Jr., the school’s president. “He’s a hard task master.”
The bagpipe and drum band, along with the school’s concert band and choir, will perform later this week when parents arrive for the annual Spring Families Weekend.
They also will take part in a Memorial Day weekend ceremony honoring Delafield native Alonzo Cushing, who last year posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his heroics during the Civil War.
St. John’s is Wisconsin’s oldest military academy.
It was founded in 1884 as St. John’s Military Academy by Sidney Smythe, who opened the school in an abandoned school house.
The main campus buildings were later constructed of locally quarried limestone to resemble old European castles. The oldest standing was built in 1896.
The bagpipe program arrived only 20 years ago. That’s when the school merged with Northwestern Military and Naval Academy, which traces its roots to 1888 in Highland Park, Illinois.
The school moved to the shores of Lake Geneva in 1915.
The 1995 merger brought Northwestern’s bagpipe program to St. John’s.
Students in this year’s classes — which range from seventh to 12th grade plus a one-year post-high school prep school — come from 11 countries and 12 U.S. states.
That includes Wisconsin, where 20 are students who live at home in exotic locales like Slinger, Cottage Grove and Ixonia and pay $14,000 a year to enroll.
For those who live at the school, the bill is $36,000 a year. It’s $38,500 for international students, many of whom come from Mexico and China.
The bagpipe program has 19 boys of varying nationalities. None had prior experience with a bagpipe.
When we arrived Thursday morning, three of them were practicing in the basement of Smythe Hall, a dormitory for seventh- and eighth-grade students constructed in 1911.
The trio consisted of Pinelo, who started playing in October 2013; Ricardo Zamora, 16, of Mexico City, in his second year and who serves as pipe sergeant; and Jonathon Guffy, 16, of the Milwaukee suburb of River Hills.
Guffy, a sophomore, is pipe major, has played trumpet, piano and saxophone, and has been a student of the bagpipe since September 2012.
“It’s totally different. A lot harder (but) a lot more fun,” Guffy said when asked about learning a bagpipe compared to other instruments. “It’s challenging. You have to keep doing it. You can’t stop and then just pick it up again.”
During the one-hour practice, Donaldson, 57, played along on his custom bagpipe and constantly pounded his right foot, which helped the trio somewhat keep tempo.
“It’s just a little bit slow, boys,” Donaldson said. “We’re getting squeaky and squawky. It means someone’s over-blowing.”
Later, in an afternoon session outside Smythe Hall and on the backside of Victory Memorial Chapel, which was built shortly after World War I, drums joined in to practice marching and playing.
They all wore standard-issue light blue shirts, gray pants with black stripes, black shoes and Glengarry bonnets, traditional Scottish caps. The exceptions were two athletes who had changed into their baseball uniforms for a game against Milwaukee Messmer High School later in the afternoon.
“Putting one foot in front of the other seems easy but with a bagpipe it’s not,” Donaldson instructed. “You have to remain in step with the rhythm of the music. It’s all about the music. Don’t be thinking about your feet.”
Donaldson not only plays the bagpipe but is one of only a few people in the world who uses traditional techniques to make the instrument.
He began his apprenticeship when he was 15 and now owns the lathes, drills presses, sanders and other tools that he apprenticed on.
One of the lathes was built in the 1800s but the foot pump that originally drove it has been replaced with an electric motor.
When he moved to the U.S., Donaldson had the 2 tons of equipment transported in a shipping container. He then had to convert the machines to accept 110-volt power since standard outlets in the United Kingdom are 230 volts.
Before he took his teaching job at St. John’s, Donaldson made 100 to 150 bagpipes a year, each costing between $2,000 and $10,000 apiece.
Now he makes fewer than 10 a year in his Inveran Bagpipe Makers shop, but still focuses on the quality.
He uses African black wood for the tenor and bass drones, the chanter and the blowpipe, each trimmed with sterling silver or nickel.
“You’re looking at history here,” Donaldson said of his analog shop. “This is a hands-on physical approach. It’s very easy to make something that looks like a bagpipe but to make an instrument is very difficult.”