Kevin Rowsome started playing the uilleann pipes at the age of six, taking his first lessons from his grandfather Leo and his father, Leon. During his teenage years Kevin played clarinet and tenor saxophone with the Artane Boys band.
Kevin gained public recognition when he won first prize in the uilleann pipe competition at the Oireachtas, and is widely regarded as one of the today's finest uilleann pipers.
Kevin has vast experience as a performer and instructor of the uilleann pipes, performing extensively and lecturing and instructing at a number of festivals throughout Europe and USA.
Kevin has a number of musical compositions to his name. In 2006 when he won the prestigious Cuisle Ceoil an Bhlascaoid (the musical pulse of the Blasket islands) competition.
Kevin Rowsome & Lorraine Hickey - 2001
Interview for the Seattle Pipers Club (February 2010) by Daniel Smith & Rod Margason
DANIEL: It is the 16th of February 2010, we are here at the University of Washington (Seattle) and we are going to have a chat with Kevin Rowsome for the Piper’s Review. Thanks Kevin for being willing to do talk with us. So if I may I am going to start out and just ask you some background information. When and how did you start playing uilleann pipes? KEVIN: I started when I was six years old. I started playing on a practice set with a chanter pitched in "G". It has a similar stretch as a 'D' tin whistle. Leo, and my father Leon actually started on that very same chanter. Leo set me up with this practice set and gave me my first lessons.
As a teenager I played clarinet and tenor saxophone with a local marching band, the Artane Boy’s Band. I used to attend band practice a few evenings a week. I played with the Artane band a few times at Gaelic football and hurling matches at Croke Park stadium in Dublin. I didn't play pipes much during those years. I was in my early 20's when I took the pipes up in earnest again.
DANIEL: Leo Rowsome is your grandfather, and you mention that he gave you lessons when you were a young boy. Do you remember what kind of teacher he was?
KEVIN: Personally I have very fond memories of Leo, always very encouraging and positive. He was a very intuitive music teacher. Leo was very conscious throughout his lifetime that there were very few uilleann pipers around, and of these, very few, if any were actively passing it on by teaching. One of Leo's life goals was to bring the uilleann pipes back from obscurity.
ROD: Did you get any pressure to play the pipes from your family?
KEVIN: My parents never put any pressure on me to play. During my teenage year my grandmother, Helena (Leo's wife), used to encourage me to take the pipes up again.
As I mentioned, I came back to traditional music in my 20's, and it took a good few years until I gained confidence as a player and became proficient. People would say to me “O, you’re a Rowsome! you’re Leo’s grandson! you don’t play the pipes?” so it was more external self imposed pressure.
In the mid 1980's I spent some time working in New York. At that time I was just getting back into the pipes and practicing a couple of hours a day. I remember meeting some really well known musicians that would have known Leo, people like Paddy Reynolds, Andy McGann etc. I remember Paddy invited me to call around for a few tunes, I was terrified because I felt that I should have been alot more accomplished at the time!
DANIEL: Did you ever compete when you were younger?
KEVIN: I did very little competing. I never entered into any comhaltas competitions.
In hindsight, if I had, it probably would have kept my focus on traditional music when I was a teenager. I did enter the Oireachtas competition a few times when I was in my late twenties. After I won I decided to pack in competing!
DANIEL: But you definitely feel that there is value in competing.
KEVIN: My own opinion is that competitions are important to get to a basic level of playing, ie no timing and fingering mistakes and the ability to do some ornamentation. Competitions keep kids interested in the music and also gives them a goal to work towards. After that, competitions are largely subjective and down to the particular musical taste of the judge on the day, and that, in itself can have the opposite effect in some cases.
In saying that, my own two girls play both traditional and classical music and we encourage them to enter competitions. I think that the competition scene also fosters a strong sense of awareness, camaraderie focus and discipline, especially in early life.
DANIEL: So you mentioned that you were a teenager and playing clarinet and you were learning music theory at that point. And later on you went to college in London for more than just music theory but actually went to learn how to make instruments. Can you tell us a little about your experiences in school?
KEVIN: Yes, as I mentioned earlier, I took a career break in the mid 1980's and initially I lived in New York. I also lived in Massachusetts. Subsequent I spent a few years living in England. When I was based in London, I applied to the London College of Furniturie to do a course in woodwind musical instrument making.
I really enjoyed my time there and I met a lot of interesting people and studied different techniques used in making different early woodwind instruments, baroque flutes etc. As you can imagine, the tutors at the College were very interested in my uilleann piping heritage.
I agreed to demonstrate some of the reedmaking techniques that my family used. One of the lecturers in particular was totally blown away by the tools and the method that we used. It was very different from to the approach that was commonly used nowadays. He was convinced that this was a missing link in the history of woodwind reed making. In essence this is the tone chamber concept that has subsequently been adopted by many uilleann pipe reedmakers.
DANIEL: And of course Rowsome pipes are some of the best in the world even today, and they are still very coveted.
KEVIN:Yes, they are still very sought after. If I had a dollar for every time that I was asked about Rowsome pipes, I could retire!
Leo’s father, William made mainly narrow bore, flat pitch pipes. He also did alot of research and development into wide bore concert pitch pipes. Leo was very fortunate to have spent a number of years working under the guidance of William.
To his credit, Leo acknowledged that he learned everything from his father, William. There are recordings of an interview with Leo where he refers to people coming up to him and complimenting him on his pipemaking and what he has done for the instrument. Leo would reply by crediting his father for the knowledge that he passed on to him and enabling him to continue the family tradition.
One of the more interesting sets of Willie Rowsome pipes that turned up in recent years, included a multi page handwritten booklet, titled Instructions on playing the Uilleann Pipes by William Rowsome of 18 Armstrong Street, Harolds Cross, Dublin ". It really brought it home to me how much time and effort that went into the whole process. After completing the set by hand on a treadle lathe, long before there was any electricity of course. William would have handwritten this lengthy instruction manual and include it with the package.
I was amazed with the amount of detail in the tutor. William goes into many different aspects of playing the pipes, fingering charts, how to get into the high octave etc. Clearly these instructions formed a very solid foundation for Leo's uilleann pipes tutor, published in 1936.
ROD: Do you still have Leo’s pipemaking tools?
KEVIN:Yes, I have the pipemaking tools. Over the generations a lot of the reamers, some hand forged and even some old bayonets, customised to work as reamers were accumulated.
ROD: If you were to describe Leo’s playing, if you were to describe the Rowsome style. How would you put it into words yourself?
KEVIN: The general sense of the Rowsome style probably would be thought of as Leo's piping style because he is the most documented. I think it would be accurate to categorise Leo’s style, especially in his later life, as a relatively open style. Leo did play for the popularity. He had to make a living at it and his playing was very popular throughout the country. Over the years, I have had hundreds of people recount to me how they would make their way to a house in the locality who were lucky enough to own a "wireless", and listen in to Leo's regular radio broadcasts.
Personally, I dont think there is any such thing as "The Rowsome Style" per se, because there were so many Rowsome pipers and they all had individual styles.
Capt Francis O'Neill referred to William Rowsome as having a stacatto style, while my father played in a more legato style, but with a different regulator style from Leo.
There are reference's to Tom Rowsome, Leo’s brother's playing as having a more imaginative regulator style than Leo.
About ten years ago I was lucky enough to interview Josephine Rowsome, the last surviving daughter of John Rowsome, who would have been Willie Rowsome’s brother, who immigrated to Canada. Josephine recounted her memories of the famous travelling piper of the time, Jemmy Byrne visiting the house regularly. Her mother would wash his clothes for him and feed him and put him up for a couple of days. And he would play pipes and swap tunes with the family. She said that they all had a lot of respect for his musical ability.
After they emigrated to Canada, she said that her father would play from time to time, but no professionally. She had memories of him playing O'Carolan type pieces. I am not aware of any particular references about his piping style, but O'Neill refers to him being held in high esteem for his ability to get a great tone from the pipes.
DANIEL: Well let’s switch gears and talk about your piping style.
KEVIN: I never consiously tried to copy anybody else's style. My philosophy is that if there is something that impresses me or if I like something I try to incorporate my interpretation of it into my playing.
DANIEL: So when you are developing your own style over time, is there a particular method that you like, or is it a hodge podge. For example do you listen to recordings or play with other people to develop style?
KEVIN: Em, its quite varied. I dont have a "formula" or anything like that.
When I got back into traditional music in my 20's I was more taken in by the more clever, technique focused playing.
But over time I came to value the spirit behind the music much more than note perfect playing without feeling. I am much more drawn to playing where I get a sense of the musician drawing the music along with their mind. i.e. the sense that the musical instrument is an extension of the musician. There are plenty of musicians that exibit that ability. Some of my favourites that come to mind are Bobby Casey, Denis Murphy, Paddy Canny, Mrs Crotty and Johnny Doran.
I would like to think that my own style is evolving all the time.
Piping tionol in Cornwall - Nov 2007.
CD Cover of recording of the concert in Augusta West Virgina USA in 1997
Kevin Rowsome & Benedict Koehler
Irish Folk Festival 2001
Kevin & Lorraine Hickey (1998).
Kevin & Leon Rowsome c.1983
Kevin, Leon Rowsome & Con Durham (Dingle, c1989).
Con took lessons from Leon when he lived in Dublin, he later moved to West Kerry.
Article promoting "The Ace and Deuce of Piping" Concert in the National Concert Hall Dublin 1994.