Bagpiper for the Wild Blue Yonder

By TIMOTHY JAMES LAWSON on 8/9/2022

By Kevin M. Hymel, ANC Contract Historian

On June 17, 2022, as Air Force Col. Charles McGee’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery came to an end, the sound of bagpipes filled the air. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Adam Tianello, dressed in a unique uniform which included an Air Force tartan kilt, played “Amazing Grace” for the mourners, providing a poignant conclusion to the ceremony.

By the time Tianello, The U.S. Air Force Band’s only bagpiper, blew into his bagpipes to end the McGee funeral, he had already performed at about 1,575 funerals. He only plays for funerals for Air Force colonels and above (per U.S. Air Force regulation). “I will play any tune the family will want to hear,” said Tianello. Yet he does not play for the departed. “I play for the people that are there, to help them with the grieving process.”

In addition to funerals, Tianello plays the bagpipes at change of command, retirement, and other official ceremonies and events. He also plays at civilian events, traveling to the White House every year to play on St. Patrick’s Day. His last St. Patrick’s Day performance at the White House resulted with a video of his performance on the president’s Twitter feed.

As for the kilt, it’s Air Force-issued. Tianello gets plenty of comments about it, most centered around how good it looks and how it must be cold in the winter. To him, it’s more important than just a sharp looking accessory. “It’s a strong visual representation of our heritage,” he explained.

Ever since Tianello was fourteen-years-old, growing up in Rochester, New York, he has wanted to bring bagpipes to his generation. “Bagpipes were never something someone told me to practice,” he said. “It was something I was always motivated by.” He played “Amazing Grace” at a funeral when he was fifteen and was shocked when the mourners began to cry. He paused but the funeral director told him to finish the tune. Looking back on it today, Tianello realizes it was simply “the power of music.”

Tianello continued to play the bagpipes into college and graduate school. He played in a band in Dunedin, Florida, which made him a better player. While there, he earned a Master’s degree in business from Argosy University before moving back to Rochester, New York.

September 11, 2001, changed Tianello’s life. After civilian airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania, he played his bagpipes at civilian and military funerals in New York. “I realized there was a need,” he said, aware of how people appreciated his music. “So, I asked all the branches of the military how I could contribute.”

Tianello decided on the U.S. Air Force. “The Air Force was the one I resonated the most with,” he said. “They had the best pipe band in the world in the ‘60s and ‘70s and were a staple at President Kennedy’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.” Many of Tianello’s bagpipe teachers had played in the Air Force pipe band. He auditioned for a new pipe band at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. “I played my fingers off,” he recalled. When he finished, the commander told him, “You’ve won yourself a place in basic training.”

Tianello had a decision to make. He could take a job in investment banking or go to school for business administration, both of which offered more financial security than an enlisted Airmen’s salary. Instead, he made, as he described it, a leap of faith. “Even if I only served four years,” he said, “I could only imagine the stories I could tell my grandkids.” He entered the Air Force in 2010 and soon helped put together a pipe band from various facets of the Air Force: the enlisted and officer corps, active, guard, and reserve. That year, the band performed at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day and at the U.S. Capitol for the Prime Minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny.

But in 2013 the Air Force disbanded its Reserve Command Band and its pipe band, PCSing (permanent change of station) most members and granting early retirement to others. Tianello was too young to retire, so he requested a PCS to The U.S. Air Force Band in Washington, D.C., where he joined the mission at Arlington National Cemetery. “I got my leadership to enroll in the idea,” he said, “and I got the orders in 2013.”

Tianello has been playing bagpipes at the cemetery ever since. He loves his work and talks excitedly about it and the opportunities it has provided him. He has been able to play with an orchestra in Puerto Rico where he mixed his bagpipes with percussion instruments. “I cherish that experience” he said. Playing at official events also gives him an inside look at his service. “It’s amazing to really see the Air Force and what is they’re doing,” he explained.

Yet, the funerals at Arlington National Cemetery impact him the most. When asked if certain funerals affect him differently, he humbly explains, “There is none that is more impactful than any other. They all weigh heavily on me.”