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South Korean Scholar Plays a Mean Bagpipe
Dong-Hwan Choe dreamed of meeting a real bagpiper when he was in his homeland. Now he is an up-and-coming piper.
Dong-Hwan Choe excels in entomology and bagpiping. Photo by Hyunchung Yoo
As the sunset bathes the Box Springs Mountains in hues of orange and red, the soulful sound of a solitary bagpiper wafts across an empty campus parking lot. It is a sound that postdoctoral fellow Dong-Hwan Choe finds especially soothing at the end of a long day in the lab.
“It is a spiritual experience,” he said about the musical instrument he began playing only six years ago.
As a young boy in Seoul, Choe fell in love with the sound of bagpipes, an instrument he heard only on South Korean television shows and in commercials. He hoped someday to meet “a real bagpiper.” That dream came true six years ago when he arrived at UCR as a graduate student in entomology.
“There were bagpipers waiting for me,” he said as he recalled his joy at discovering the award-winning UCR Pipe Band. “I just jumped in.”
Choe, 31, is one of only a few male South Korean bagpipers in the world, he and UCR Pipe Band officials believe.
“There are bagpipers in Korea, but not many,” Choe said. “There are no Scottish Highland games in Korea. People usually do not need a bagpiper for funerals or weddings in Korea. However, people in Korea know about the instrument.”
He has taken his bagpipes to Korea to play for his family, who have been very supportive of his musical interest.
“They were initially surprised by the loud but appealing tone of the instrument,” he recalled. “My parents always hoped to see me playing in the UCR band.”
Choe, who in 2008 was named one of the “40 Under 40” future leaders of the pest management industry by Pest Management Professional Magazine, earned his Ph.D. in June and is continuing his research in Argentine ant behavior as a postdoctoral scholar. He performs regularly with the UCR Pipe Band, which won the sweepstakes award from the Western United States Pipe Band Association in 2008 and is on track to repeat that honor this year.
His favorite bagpipe music is piobaireachd, the classical music genre that is native to the Scottish Highlands. It is characterized by its slow, meditative and emotional qualities. “Many pipers recognize the piobaireachd as the ultimate bagpipe music,” he said.
Choe began competing as a soloist in 2006, and so far this year has won two first places, a fourth and a sixth. He ranks in the top one-fourth of more than 100 competitors in Grade 4 competition in the western United States. Pipers and pipe bands compete in divisions ranging from Grade 1 (most skilled) to Grade 4 (beginners).
That Choe is winning solo competitions in just six years is remarkable, said Ian Whitelaw, the Pipe Band’s musical director.
Choe has gotten so good that when Whitelaw was asked to provide a piper to play the lament at the opening of the Monterey competition in August he selected Choe.
“He has made more improvement than just about anybody I’ve worked with,” Whitelaw said, citing Choe’s dedication and artistic talent. “This is the most difficult woodwind instrument there is to learn to play. Choe plays so soulfully and so well. In the piobaireachd there’s none better in his class. I’m sure that next year he will be in Grade 3.”
Choe learned basic bagpipe skills – fingering, blowing and squeezing the bag – from Mike Terry, the Pipe Band’s pipe major. Those weekly lessons six years ago made clear how difficult the instrument is to learn, Choe said. But he enjoyed it.
“Learning the bagpipes and other UCR Pipe Band activities were the most important recreational activities during my school years,” Choe said.
Whitelaw said Choe is a dedicated member of the band who is always prepared “and game for anything. He’s developed into the piper he is because of his relationship with UCR. He came here for the ants, and UCR afforded him the chance to grow also as a musician.”