A (Pipe) Dream Come True

Penn State Behrend biologist Pam Silver’s childhood desire to play the bagpipes became a lifelong passion.

Pam Silver

Pam Silver, a biology professor and associate dean for academic affairs at Penn State Behrend, started taking bagpipe lessons at the age of 7, inspired by her mother, who began playing the instrument in the 1940s. Back then, “there were strict rules about women and the bagpipes,” Silver says. “Women could not perform with a band.” That didn’t deter her mother, though: “She was rebellious,” Silver says. “Some of my earliest memories are of following her back and forth across the lawn while she practiced and wanting to play myself.”

Silver’s first teacher was her mother, who soon passed her off to her first formal instructor, a former piper in the British army during World War I. From him she inherited a set of bagpipes that had belonged to his father, and that Silver still plays. “They’ve been all over the world—they were in Hong Kong during the British occupation and even in the 1850 Crimean War,” she says. “I treat them well, and they still sound good.”

During Silver’s school years, she and her mom taught the bagpipes, and her mother formed a family band, the Harbourton Highlanders, named for the New Jersey town where the family lived. Mother and daughter played the bagpipes, Silver’s father and sister the snare drums, and her brother “played a little of everything.” The Harbourton Highlanders—the band had other players, including women—performed at weddings, funerals, and parades, and they even traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, for an international music festival.

Silver continued playing the bagpipes in a band when she was in college, and since 1998 she has been playing with a group in Jamestown, N.Y., which in 2001 became the 96th Highlanders Pipes and Drums. She is the 21-member band’s pipe major.

Silver met her husband, a drummer who played in a Marine Corps band, through the ensemble, and she continues to play with her mother—who is now 91 years old and, until a few years ago, was a frequent guest performer with the Highlanders.