Birdsong Excels with Bagpipes
LEXINGTON, Va., Feb. 2, 2024—In his poem, “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, The hills of the Highlands forever I love.”
Dakota Birdsong ’24, a cadet at Virginia Military Institute, shares Burns’ sentiments for the Highlands of Scotland. Though he is not directly from Scotland, he has ancestral roots there. “In the 1800s, my family immigrated from Scotland. They were part of Clan Donald, the largest Highlands clan. They settled in the Appalachian Mountains, which are very similar to the mountains of Scotland. The Highlands are in my blood,” Birdsong said with pride.
Birdsong’s affection for Scotland, his interest in military history, and his natural musical ability—he plays the organ, the mountain dulcimer, and sings—inspired him to learn the bagpipes and join the VMI Pipe Band. In the three years he has played the bagpipes, he has become so proficient, that he actively performs and competes solo. He played during the last two 9/11 memorials for the Lexington Police Department; he played on post during Spirit Night in December; he has performed on the streets of Roanoke and Troy, Ohio, where he is the piper for the American Legion; and has won medals from multiple competitions within the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association.
At the Ohio Scottish Games and Celtic Festival last summer, he vied against 12 other pipers and won second place in the individual entry-level competition. At the Richmond Highland Games in Henrico, Virginia, last November, he vied against 10 other pipers and won third place. He plans to compete at the Ohio Indoor Pipe and Drum Competition in March, and hopes other members of the VMI Pipe Band join him at that competition. “Competing helps improve your skills,” he stated.
Birdsong’s favorite tune is “Shenandoah,” the trademark tune of the VMI Pipe Band. “Everyone loves that tune. It reminds people of VMI and this part of the country,” he said.
The VMI Pipe Band serves as ambassadors for the Institute, and performs in events throughout the country including funerals, charity events, concerts, and parades, including Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and Tartan Day in New York City, the largest Scottish Heritage celebration in the country. “Our pipe band is excellent. VMI is not just a great college where students come to become leaders in the military and in the private sector, but a great school to attend to become a piper,” declared Birdsong.
Maj. Brian Donaldson, VMI Pipe Band director, who has taught Birdsong for over two years, said, “Dakota has been a stalwart in the pipes and drums program. He is always prepared to hone his leadership skills with vigor, and has a professional attitude in his approach to helping new pipers. He works very hard and has met all the challenges of playing his instrument. This young man has a very bright future in the art of playing the bagpipes, and I have no doubt he will be very successful as he continues on his musical journey.”
In addition to participating in the pipe band, Birdsong serves as a cadet EMT on post, and is involved with many organizations including the equestrian club, the Hispanic Language Honor Society, and the International Foreign Language Honor Society. He is an alumnus of West Clermont High School in Tipp City, Ohio, and is the son of Melanie Birdsong and Doug Schaffer. He will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in modern language and cultures, and a minor in Chinese. He plans to commission into the Army, and hopes to establish a pipe band wherever he settles.
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VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE