Bagpiping first-year traces family path, marches to his own tune

There’s a freshman making a lot of buzz on campus – literally.  Kevin Eagan ’15 plays the Scottish bagpipe, and he’s been practicing it all over campus. To his credit, Eagan did try to avoid the library.  “My entry made me do it,” he explained. 

Eagan was introduced to the bagpipes by his grandfather and uncle. “It’s kind of a family tradition,” he said. “We’d play together, and then we’d go to the bar. I’d drink Diet Coke and they’d drink Guiness.”

Unlike his grandfather and uncle, who play in street bands, Eagan is a solo piper – and a competitive one. He’s spent years going to Highland Games, events structured like the Scottish games of old, with athletic presentations meant to demonstrate warriors’ strength and traditional music and food. Accordingly, the bagpipers are expected to come fully dressed in traditional costume to play, which means wearing a kilt. And kilts, I was told, are risky.

“One time, I was playing in a competition. It was a windy day and then … Anyhow, I just kept playing,” Eagan said. “The judge didn’t say anything.” I asked if his omission implied that he kept with tradition under the kilt by scorning underwear. Eagan smiled suggestively. “That’s one of my secrets,” he said.

Kevin Eagan ’15 can be found piping in full Scottish attire. He has played in professional level competitions, in the Highland Games and in bars with his grandfather and uncle.

Kilt malfunctions don’t seem to be the only exciting thing going on during competitions, either. According to Eagan, pipers frequently pass out. “You have to get used to bag pressure to the head,” Eagan said, referring to the high air pressure required to produce a steady drone in the instrument. “The newer pipers will faint.”

Eagan has had other competition mishaps as well. There was the judge that smoked a cigar all through his performance, so Eagan had trouble breathing. “If your sound stops, you get disqualified, so I just had to keep going, but all I could inhale was his smoke,” he said.  Another time, a wasp landed on his face in the middle of a piece and crawled around. Again, he persevered. Oh, and he also took first place.

As bagpipers go, Eagan is at the top of the heap. There are four levels of competitive piping, four being novice, one being professional-quality. Eagan is at level two, which translates to being in the top 5 percent of competitors. He was quick to downplay his status, though. “That’s kind of a guess. Not every piper is counted,” he said.

Nonetheless, being that good doesn’t come easy. “There’s this stereotype of bagpipers as old, bearded men,” Eagan said. “But in reality, you have to be pretty strong to play, so most pipers are young.”

To keep up his strength, Eagan must practice a lot – an hour or more every day during competition season. “The bagpipe is really an outdoor instrument, so I play most during the summer,” Eagan said. “But you have to play regularly to keep the reeds from falling apart. They need a certain level of moisture or they’ll go out of tune.”

In the winter, however, Eagan is forced to practice in the basement or the garage because the instrument is incredibly loud. “It damages your hearing if you don’t wear earplugs,” Eagan said.

There are other reasons to keep practicing during the off-season as well: professional gigs, where the pay exceeds that of the other instrumentalists due to the bagpipe’s difficulty and relative scarcity. Of all the different events he’s asked to play for, Eagan considers funerals his “specialty,” but he also frequently performs at weddings and parties. “Basically, it means you gotta get on good terms with the local priests. They’re the main line for gigs,” Eagan said, but added, “If I have to confess, I go to another church.”

Eagan has met many famous people at gigs, including Patriots players, Governor Deval Patrick, Archbishop of Boston Sean O’Malley and Wallstreet bigwig Peter Lynch. “I played at Peter Lynch’s daughter’s wedding, which I’m sure rivaled the royal wedding. They had a whole symphony stuffed into the church, plus a boys’ choir,” Eagan said. “My job was to lead the processional.”

Eagan enjoys playing the bagpipe because it is unique. “It’s not just your typical high school instrument,” he said. At first, he felt nervous telling people he piped and awkward when in costume. “In middle school, I tried to keep it to myself,” he admitted. “My high school was pretty Irish, though, so they thought it was cool.” Also, being a piper seems to charm the ladies. “It’s a good conversation starter,” Eagan said, but admitted it could also be the kilt.

“[The bagpipe] is more than just an instrument. It’s a lifestyle,” Eagan said. And it’s a lifestyle he has chosen to maintain into the future. “Piping has become part of my identity,” Eagan said. “I can’t really go back now.”