Air pipes

Pipes are calling again on St. Patrick’s Day, and he’s got the answers

The eldest of three sons born to James H. and Jacquelyn Sullivan Chapman, J. Kevin Chapman did not follow in his mother’s musical footsteps.

“My mom was a concert pianist, and I was tired of carrying a piano on my back,” jokes Chapman, 69, who has been carrying a bagpipe for more than four decades and has a busy schedule this St. from Patrick.

The Mount Prospect grandfather will start the day playing for a private party in Wisconsin. An experienced speaker with Toastmaster International, Chapman will perform and lecture on bagpipes at Addolorata Villa, a senior community in Wheeling. Then he’ll get in the car to drive 70 miles to the town of Waterman, DeKalb County, for his last gig of the day.


After a few pandemic-ridden years without a big St. Patrick’s Day celebration, the holiday is getting more attention this year, which is perfect for Mount Prospect piper J. Kevin Chapman.
-Paul Valade | Personal photographer

He’s used to a busy St. Patrick’s Day schedule, including in the 1980s when he managed to squeeze in over 70 performances over a long weekend. But the pandemic interrupted the last two vacations and canceled his busy schedule. This year was in doubt until recently.

“A lot of people were waiting to see what was going to happen,” says Chapman, who notes that people have been calling much later than usual to hire him. “I had to refuse a lot of them and pass them on to friends.”


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

He played bagpipes at a block party parade and also a funeral in Naperville earlier this week, giving mourners the haunting “Oft in the Stilly Night,” the classic “Amazing Grace,” and the “Marine Hymn” in honor of the deceased’s service with the Marine Corps.



A difficult instrument to learn, the bagpipe requires a year of practice before a player even adds the bag.  J. Kevin Chapman of Mount Prospect says the key is "to keep the bag full and the air pressure constant."

A difficult instrument to learn, the bagpipe requires a year of practice before a player even adds the bag. J. Kevin Chapman of Mount Prospect says the key is “to keep the pack full and the air pressure steady.”
-Paul Valade | Personal photographer

People usually request bagpipe classics such as “Scotland the Brave” (which was adapted into the Old Spice jingle), “Highland Cathedral”, “Mairi’s Wedding” and “Wearing of the Green”, depending on the occasion. “At a funeral a woman asked me to play ‘Splish, Splash, I was taking a bath,'” says Chapman, who kindly explained that his Great Highland pipes weren’t equipped to play that rock song by 1958 made famous by Bobby Darin.

He performs “It’s a Small World” for his granddaughter, Lucy, and the Notre Dame fight song at certain events. “You play that at a wedding, especially if you’re taking people to the bar,” Chapman explains.

Growing up in Park Ridge and playing tennis at Loyola Academy in Wilmette and Loral College in Dubuque, Iowa, Chapman was a history scholar who had no interest in bagpipes until a trip abroad in 1976 after university to visit relatives in County Sligo in the North West. Ireland. “I saw some in Ireland and big pipes in Scotland,” Chapman recalled.



Mount Prospect piper J. Kevin Chapman gets very busy this time of year with St. Patrick's Day concerts.

Mount Prospect piper J. Kevin Chapman gets very busy this time of year with St. Patrick’s Day concerts.
-Paul Valade | Personal photographer

“In the old country, they start at 6 or 7,” says Chapman, who found an instructor on his way home. A double reed wind instrument, the bagpipe is not easy to learn. For the first year, Chapman only played practice cantor, blowing into the mouthpiece, learning the fingering needed to cover the holes to play the proper notes, and memorizing songs.

Eventually, the pipers add the bag and a blowpipe, but “goose” (seal) the three drones (pipes that add the chords) until they master the ability to control air.

“The trick is to keep the bag full and the air pressure stable,” says Chapman, who retired from a career selling newspapers and played with many bands, including the Shannon Rovers. He and his 45-year-old wife, Tish, have four grown children, and their son Kevin plays bagpipes with the Palatine-based Chicago Highlanders Pipes & Drums.

A student of bagpipes and their history, Chapman says a typical instrument has 114 parts, and there are over 140 similar instruments in countries around the world.

“You can have days if you haven’t followed up on the interview or the practice, it can be a very frustrating instrument,” Chapman says. “But when you’re on, you’re in heaven.”