When Palmer Shonk was 10 years old, he picked up the bagpipes.
“The main reason I wanted to play was due to the captivating sound,” says the Ligonier native. “A lot of pipers have a family member that plays, or they have distinct Scottish or Irish ancestry, but for me the unique sound was magnetic.”
Despite his enthusiasm for the woodwind instrument, Shonk didn’t make his boyhood hobby known — except to anyone near the young musician’s window.
These days he isn’t shy about sharing his sound. Or donning a kilt.
In addition to running the Pittsburgh Piping Society, Shonk is the director of piping at the College of Wooster in Ohio. He’s performed at the Festival Interceltique in Lorient, France (the largest Celtic music festival in the world), competed in the finals of the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, and recorded an acclaimed album.
Shonk performs regularly around town, gives private lessons (women make up half of his clientele) and is hired to play at weddings, funerals … and parties. Pipes do more than dirges. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, a Scottish band, perform modern songs using the ancient instruments.
The Pittsburgh Piping Society allows Shonk to connect with other enthusiasts, from professional musicians to fans who want to hear the distinct notes beyond the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The club, which started in 1898, is the first-known, organized, member-based piping association in the U.S. It predates the Scottish Piping Society of London (1932), the Scottish Pipers Association (1920) and the Piobaireachd Society (1904).
Over the years, the Pittsburgh club slowly disbanded but it was resurrected in 2014, attracting between 30 to 50 pipers and other musicians from around the region. Attendees represent a wide range of abilities and range in age from 20 to 90 years old. There aren’t official rules for membership; anyone who enjoys the music or is interested in learning how it’s done is welcome to attend.
After holding virtual sessions through the pandemic, the club is now headquartered at Trace Brewing. The event on Dec. 11 marks their first performance at the Main Street taproom.
So, what makes Pittsburgh a piping hotbed?
Shonk chalks it up to the venerable bagpiping program at Carnegie Mellon University, Pipes and Drums. Instructor Andrew Carlisle serves on the Pittsburgh Piping Society board and encourages his students to participate.
Each new player gets Shonk closer to realizing his dream of hosting a Scottish festival at Point State Park, where thousands of people can experience the magical music.
Maybe that’s why the Pittsburgh Piping Society’s logo is a unicorn, the national animal of Scotland.