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

The oldest of three sons born to James H. and Jacquelyn Sullivan Chapman, J. Kevin Chapman didn't follow in his mom's musical footsteps.

“My mother was a concert pianist, and I got tired of carrying a piano on my back,” quips the 69-year-old Chapman, who has been carrying around a bagpipe for more than four decades and has a busy schedule this St. Patrick's Day.

The Mount Prospect grandfather will start the day performing for a private party in Wisconsin. An experienced public speaker with Toastmaster International, Chapman will play and give a talk about the bagpipe at Addolorata Villa, a senior living community in Wheeling. Then he'll hop in the car to drive 70 miles to the DeKalb County town of Waterman for his final gig of the day.

He's accustomed to a full schedule for St. Patrick's Day, including in the 1980s when he managed to squeeze in more than 70 performances in a long weekend. But the pandemic shut down the last two holidays 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 called much later than normal to hire him. “I had to turn down a lot of them and pass them on to friends.”

He played his bagpipes at a block party parade and also a Naperville funeral 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 steady." Paul Valade/

People generally 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 one funeral, a woman asked me to play, 'Splish, Splash, I was taking a bath,'” says Chapman, who gently explained that his Great Highland pipes weren't equipped to play that 1958 novelty rock song made famous by Bobby Darin.

He does play “It's a Small World” for his granddaughter, Lucy, and the Notre Dame fight song at some events. “You play that at a wedding, particularly if you're taking people to the bar,” Chapman says.

Growing up in Park Ridge and playing tennis at Loyola Academy in Wilmette and at Loral College in Dubuque, Iowa, Chapman was a history major who didn't become interested in bagpipes until a 1976 trip overseas after college to visit relatives in County Sligo in northwestern Ireland. “I saw some in Ireland, and heavy piping in Scotland,” Chapman remembers.

  Mount Prospect bagpiper J. Kevin Chapman is very busy this time of the year with St. Patrick's Day gigs. Paul Valade/

“In the old country, they start at 6 or 7 years old,” says Chapman, who found an instructor when he came home. A double-reed wind instrument, the bagpipe is not easy to learn. For the first year, Chapman played just the practice chanter, blowing into the mouthpiece, learning the fingering necessary to cover the holes to play the proper notes, and memorizing songs.

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

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

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

“You can have days if you haven't kept up with the maintenance or practice, it can be a very frustrating instrument,” Chapman says. “But when you are on, you're in heaven.”

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