The Secret Lives of Martinos Folk: Kevin Dowling, Bagpiper in the Big City

The Martinos Center’s Kevin Dowling (center) and St. Ann’s of Hampton Pipes and Drums brave a blizzard while marching in the 2015 New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Here is something of an unavoidable fact: If you play the Highland bagpipes you are going to draw a crowd, even if you aren’t actually looking for an audience.

Just ask Kevin Dowling, a clinical research coordinator in the Brain Genomics Laboratory at the MGH Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging. Dowling has been a piper since he was in high school in Delaware, but now that he is grown and living in a Boston-area apartment it is hard not to attract attention with his playing.

“Whenever I practice at home it is equally loud for my upstairs and downstairs neighbors, and only slightly less so for my entire street,” he says. For this reason he prefers to practice in a nearby park, but when he does people often gather around like he is putting on a show. It isn’t exactly unwanted attention. Still, it can be distracting when he is really only trying to keep up his chops.

Hence another indisputable truth: It isn’t always easy being a piper in the city.

A Tremendous Noise

In fact, Boston is where it all began for Dowling. One March when he was 5 or 6 years old his parents brought him to the city to visit relatives and attend the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He has vivid memories of hearing a far-off hum during the parade that gradually grew louder until a group of people dressed in vibrant tartan outfits passed by carrying what looked like bags with bunches of sticks protruding from them. They were so loud as they passed he had to cover his ears. And yet he was utterly intrigued. “Needless to say, as a young child I thought that anything that could make such a tremendous noise was incredibly exciting.”

The experience stuck with him and, when he discovered that his high school had a pipe band, he jumped at the opportunity to learn to play. He started with a plastic, recorder-like instrument called a practice chanter—sort of a starter instrument for aspiring bagpipers. After a year on the chanter he had made relatively little progress, he says. But then he joined an outside pipe band and graduated to a full set of bagpipes and a whole new world opened up to him.

The bagpipes became an ever-more important part of his life, so much so that, when it came time to choose a college, the pipes played a major role in his decision. “Whereas students who are interested in continuing their study of more conventional instruments, such as the cello, could attend nearly any university or liberal arts college, the same is not true of the bagpipes,” he says. “There are a small number of colleges and universities in the US that have piping programs.” His desire to continue playing ultimately led him to complete his undergraduate degree at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., where he joined what is widely regarded as the premiere pipe and drum organization in the upper Midwest.

Strutting Down Fifth Avenue

Dowling has performed in countless events, on both sides of the Atlantic, with St. Ann’s of Hampton Pipes and Drums, the New Jersey-based pipe band he joined while in high school. Among these, he says, are weddings, funerals, graduation ceremonies, and “many, many parades.” Every year, for example, the group marches in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, strutting down Fifth Avenue with hordes of revelers, sober and otherwise, cheering them on.

One especially memorable event was the 2010 edition of ‘Pipefest’—an afternoon during Edinburgh, Scotland’s International Fringe Festival when the city shuts down a stretch of its main street, the Royal Mile, and lets loose thousands of pipers. It’s quite the experience, Dowling says, marching from Edinburgh Castle to King Arthur’s Seat and joining what is called a “massed bands,” with several hundred pipers and drummers playing the same tunes simultaneously. “When done well it is a tremendous experience,” he continues, “though often the groups become so large that there is a considerable risk of confusion and very loud cacophony.”

And then there are the competitions. Dowling started performing in pipe and drum competitions in 2010, when he was 16 years old. The opportunity to compete was a great motivator in becoming a better player, he says, and the competitions themselves were a good way to see how many other people play the pipes. Indeed, also in 2010, he and the New Jersey-based group in which he performed in the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, where some 8,000 pipers and drummers representing more than a dozen countries gathered to compete—including many of the top bands from across the globe.

Dowling takes some downtime with his “Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging” text during the 2014 Bonnie Brae pipe band competition. He and St. Ann’s of Hampton Pipes and Drums placed first in the Grade 5 competition.

Similar to the Highland Bagpipes but Considerably Quieter

Dowling hasn’t yet found a pipe and drum band to play with in Boston. So for the time being, he says, he’s enjoying the opportunity to learn new music: both ceòl mor, which translates to the great music (and is essentially bagpipe classical music) and ceòl beag, or light/little music (dance tunes, marches, slow airs). “At the moment I have several tune books spanning several hundred pages that I am slowly working my way through,” he says. “Since bagpipe music is meant to be memorized rather than read, I expect learning even a fraction of these tunes will take quite some time.”

At the same time, he has found a solution to the way-too-loud-to-practice-indoors problem: he is teaching himself the Scottish smallpipes, which are similar to the Highland bagpipes but considerably quieter. The smallpipes have other benefits as well. Whereas the Highland bagpipes are tuned to the key of B-flat—an uncommon key for most other instruments—the smallpipes can be tuned to the keys of A or D, which allows him to play along with other instruments: guitar, violin, tin whistle, banjo, etc. This has been an especially nice perk, he says, as his roommates are musicians themselves and they can now all gather for intra-apartment jamborees.

With the smallpipes Dowling can practice indoors without alienating the entire block, but finding time to do so can still be a bit of a challenge. So on warm days he will bring his smallpipes to his office in the Martinos Center in the Charlestown Navy Yard and, either during lunch or after work, take them outside to play. And of course he will often draw a crowd when he does—even if he is only practicing.

Gary Boas