Brendan Kavanagh – genius piano player with 2 priceless gifts

Brendan Kavanagh - piano genius with two priceless gifts

Brendan Kavanagh, better known as DrKBoogieWoogie, is an Irish born pianist living in Britain. He has become a YouTube celebrity thanks to his unique approach to playing public pianos in railway stations and airports.

Kavanagh’s boogiewoogie style is undoubtedly brilliant but it’s also his ability to engage with passers-by and get them to perform with him that makes him stand out. He will frequently walk up behind someone playing and join in, playing the tune along with them. Another favourite ploy is to approach someone already playing a piano and ask if he can have a go. He then acts as a complete beginner and asks for advice such as, ‘where is middle C’.

Kavanagh plays along with this for a while before then bursting into some dazzling piece, much to surprise of his newfound ‘teacher’ and to the delight of the crowds of commuters that stop to watch.

His engaging personality has also led to passers-by taking time out to sing a song while Kavanagh accompanies them on piano. Others dance while he knocks out a variety of styles from classical, to pop to Mary Poppins. He does all this with seemingly effortless ease but, of course, decades of practice and study have gone into his playing.

Brendan Kavanagh displays two rare talents

He has two particular talents that have caught the attention and envy of other musicians. Irish songwriter Nick Kehoe points to Kavanagh’s “incredible musical ear and faultless timing.”

Kehoe cites a video in which Kavanagh walks up behind an Irish musician playing the old folk tune, When You and I Were Young Maggie. He then joins in mid-way through the tune. Kehoe says: “It’s a simple enough tune but there are very few musicians, however talented or experienced, who could do that.

“It’s very difficult to simply walk up with no preparation, without even knowing the key, and just join in, hitting the right note, in the right key at the exact right moment. I don’t think many musicians would like to be videoed trying that because it can so easily go wrong. Brendan makes it look easy but it isn’t.

“The other thing that makes Brendan stand out for me is his easy going charm. He can get total strangers to trust him and take time out of their busy day to play along with him and take part in his videos. It’s quite something to behold. I think it’s down to the fact that he’s a genuinely nice guy and for someone with such immense talent, he seems modest and grounded. He’s also very generous in praise of others. The only other person I can think of with similar natural talent and ability to connect with an audience is Jools Holland…another brilliant boogiewoogie pianist.”

Brendan Kavanagh’s performances are not just restricted to railway stations and airports. His expertise in boogiewoogie and blues piano has led him to perform at venues and festivals around the world, including the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Cork Jazz Festival, and the Berlin Blues Explosion.

He has also performed with notable musicians such as Jools Holland, Jamie Cullum, and Van Morrison.

In addition to his live performances, Kavanagh has gained a large following on YouTube, where he shares videos of his performances, tutorials, and musical musings. He has over two million subscribers.

Why play piano in railway stations?

Kavanagh has been known to travel around the UK and Europe with his portable piano, seeking out railway stations and other public spaces where he can perform. These kind of performances have also become a way for him to connect with his Irish roots. In 2019, he embarked on a tour of Irish railway stations, playing at locations such as Dublin’s Connolly Station and Cork’s Kent Station.

He sees his performances as more than just entertainment. They are also an opportunity to inspire and connect with people from all walks of life. In an interview on BBC Radio London, he told presenter Jo Good how he liked the freedom of playing in public spaces.

“Public pianos are the last anarchic art form. Even the buskers on the underground have to apply for a licence. They they have to be compliant. Street piano is a punk art form. I don’t have permission to go down and perform. I’m sure they’ll start asking me to get permission soon. We’re probably on borrowed time.  We just go down and do our thing it’s totally unscripted. Everything is slightly anarchic. I think that’s why I think people love it. People are looking for authenticity. Sometimes things are too smooth. It’s all Disneyland.

“I think that’s why people go to YouTube. There are so many young people who don’t watch terrestrial TV anymore, 14 and 15 year-olds. They’ve turned off. They’re watching YouTube because it’s real.  The stuff we do is totally real and and that’s what draws people.”

“What you notice about the piano is that it’s completely unelectronic and unedited.  Things can be too smooth, like photoshopped, but the piano is real and authentic. If you play a bum note you can’t edit. People today are in search of authenticity. When they hear real music played by a real musician without permission, it kind of stirs something, particularly if it’s good.”

Dr K the ‘anarchic’ English teacher

Despite Kavanagh’s gift for music, it wasn’t his main chosen subject at school and it wasn’t his first profession. He’s actually quite the academic. Kavanagh has a PhD in English language and literature from University College Cork. This perhaps could be said to give some legitimacy to his self-proclaimed YouTube title, DrKBoogieWoogie.

With his academic training it’s perhaps not surprising that he became an English teacher. He enjoyed it and would have liked to inspire others in the way that he had been inspired by his teachers. It wasn’t to be. He left the profession after a few years when the British National Curriculum system was introduced. This formalised teaching and obliged teachers to produce detailed lesson plans to pre-ordained formulas.

He said: “I left when the National Curriculum came in and made it so we had to be too compliant. Since the introduction of the national curriculum, all the crazy teachers that inspired us left the profession. The crazy teachers, who we loved, who inspired us couldn’t produce a lesson plan to save their lives. That’s why I left.  They were brilliant but they can’t survive in today’s compliant system.”

Kavanagh felt so strongly about the new regimentation in schools that he wrote a book about it called, Toxic Teaching. He described it as an exposé of the rot at the Heart of 21st Century education”. He argued that the modern systemised approach “turned schools into mechanistic exam factories which produce conformist, stressed-out worker drones. Education was never meant to be like this”.

Little wonder then that he decided to swap the regimented classroom for the anarchic public performance areas in railway stations.

Kavanagh as DrK…the YouTube sensation

Teaching’s loss became music’s gain and Kavanagh began to concentrate on his piano playing, making the most of his undoubted talent.

In 2012, he set up his YouTube channel. He began by offering training videos teaching students how to play boogiewoogie style piano. That proved very successful but he had to go up another notch before his channel really took off. That step, of course, was performing in railway stations and other public places. This was the perfect platform for his talent. His easy going charm came to the fore, with a little help from his willingness to occasionally dress up.

One of his most popular videos is one in which he and his highly talented piano playing friend, Terry Miles, did a comical video dressed as London police officers. Kavanagh recalls how they nearly didn’t do it because there had been a bomb attack the day before.  “I had got two police uniforms but there were armed police  in St Pancras. I phoned Terry up and I said: ‘I’ve got two police uniforms but there are armed police here. Shall we do it. We were pondering all night  and then Terry said, yeah, let’s do it.

“So we went down there with two police uniforms the day after a bomb. We could have been shot. Now I kind of look like a policeman when I put on a uniform because I got that sort of official look but Terry kind of looks like a rock star. He looked quite comical with his hair like Ozzy Osbourne. It was a great video. It worked.  We did get chucked out at the end though.

“We weren’t arrested. I have a very good relationship with the police.  When Donald Trump was in London we had armed police by the street piano down in King’s Cross. I did a video with a guy with an automatic weapon nearby that got over one and a half million views. But we have a great relationship. I said, do you mind if we play some boogiewoogie and he was cool.”

Kavanagh has only one complaint about his railway station performances. “Some of the pianos are out of tune.  I’d pay for them to be tuned, we’d all pay for them to be tuned but who does it.  Yamaha, if you’re there going to Marylebone Station, tune the piano.”

So DrK…ragtime or boogiewoogie piano

While being interviewed on Radio London, Kavanagh was asked if he had considered playing ragtime music instead as it pre-dated boogiewoogie.

His reply was enlightening about the differences between the two musical forms.

“For me it was boogiewoogie that particularly touched a chord. I can play some ragtime like The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag, but  I think boogiewoogie was the precursor to rock’n’roll.

“I have respect for ragtime but I would prefer boogiewoogie simply because it’s more visceral. There’s something about boogiewoogie that grabs you by the nether regions and pulls you in.  Maple leaf rag is a little bit more polite. Does that make sense? There’s something about boogiewoogie that’s beneath the subconscious that drags you in. Ragtime is more intellectual.”

During the same interview, Good asked him if all that playing was tiring on the arms. “Do you tire? How many tracks can you do?”

Kavanagh replied that he doesn’t do any work-outs but he doesn’t tire when playing. “It’s not about muscularity. There’s a sort of centre of gravity with playing. It’s not about muscularity. There’s mental stuff involved. It’s about grounding yourself.”

‘Brendan Kavanagh wife’…’daughter Zoe’

For such an outgoing character, Brendan Kavanagh remains something of an enigma. He never speaks publicly about his private life and there is no personal information given on his social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

This has led to a lot of speculation about him from fans who frequently ask questions about him or search for information about ‘Brendan Kavanagh’s wife’ or his ‘daughter Zoe’. This is mostly speculation because the man himself is not saying. The reference to daughter Zoe may stem from a misunderstanding from one of his videos, which features a little girl called Zoe dancing while he plays Mary Poppins tunes in a railway station. However, Kavanagh makes it clear in the video that she is just a little girl passing by on a school outing.

Despite his success and international recognition, Kavanagh remains humble and grounded. He sees music as a way to connect with others and make the world a better place, and he is passionate about sharing his love of music with as many people as possible.

With more than two million subscribers and growing worldwide acclaim, Brendan Kavanagh seems to be fulfilling that role to perfection.

Kavanagh’s dazzling performance with fellow Irishman

Brendan Kavanagh and Terry Miles in boogiewoogie battle

Brendan Kavanagh and the ‘Ragtime Goddess’ Maria

Brendan Kavanagh – YouTube

Brendan Kavanagh Radio London Interview