Shauna Doolan: A Life Filled with Music

Author’s Note: Back in 2004, I was writing for The Cape Bretoner and one of my first interviews was with Shauna Doolan, who passed away a few days ago, leaving behind a tremendous contribution to the Cape Breton music scene. I am grateful to be able to have parts of Shauna’s story published this week in The Cape Breton Spectator.


Shauna Doolan vividly remembers sports and music being the mainstays of her growing up years on Cabot Street in Sydney in the 1940s and 50s. “If you don’t like music or hockey, you might as well not visit this house,” Shauna’s father used to say. When she started teaching music, he built her a studio which he added onto the family home. “You can’t teach music,” he said, “with the boys taking slapshots in the living room!”

Photo of woman playing piano

Photo of Shauna Doolan from Dolores Campbell’s 2004 profile. (Source: The Cape Bretoner)

Shauna (MacDonald) Doolan, who has made an indelible mark on the Cape Breton music scene, began piano lessons at the age of six. “I loved it!” she says with tremendous enthusiasm, even after more than 50 years playing and 37 years teaching. She had great support from her parents, Derrick and Margaret, and from other family members and extended family, who loved to hear her play. “My mother has always been my inspiration,” says Doolan, something to which anyone who knows her will attest, as her mother accompanied her to the hundreds of functions to which Doolan has lent her musical talents.


At age 12, Doolan often played for Mae Cameron, at the time Supervisor of Music for the Sydney schools, when Cameron came to her Park Junior High classroom. But even at that age, she had already been accompanying her late grandfather, fiddler Joe MacMullin, picking out the tune with the right hand while struggling to incorporate her left hand into the music. Doolan has always played by ear, even after years of music lessons. That talent had given her the freedom to improvise – except when she played classical music. “I always play that as it’s written!” Her favorite though, is swing.

Kevin Orrell, a local doctor and fellow musician, says one of Doolan’s greatest attributes is her versatility. “She can play anything,” he says with admiration, “from liturgical to Scottish, from easy listening to classical.” That versatility, Orrell says, is matched only by her generosity towards many groups and organizations in the community. “She continues to downplay her own abilities,” he says, “but those who know her are filled with admiration for her musical skills.”

Photo of church choir

Shauna Doolan was a sought-after accompanist for many choirs throughout her career. (Photo used by permission of family)

Rosemary McGhee, choir director, organist and teacher, agrees. “Shauna has an amazing ability to arrange a piece of music at the drop of a hat. That’s something that many musicians find difficult to do, but Shauna has the ear and the knowledge to do it and do it extremely well. She can play in any key, and she has the gift of musicality, playing with tremendous feeling, giving life to the music, making it so much more than mere notes on a page. And her sense of humour is absolutely wonderful. As her many associates and friends know, Shauna can laugh at most things, including herself.”

Doolan credits friend and mentor Sister Rita Clare for much of what she has learned as an accompanist over the years. From 1963 to 1985, she played for the Holy Angels Chorale, under the direction of Clare. During those years, Doolan says, she learned the intricacies of accompanying a choir, by providing the music but never overpowering the singers. In fact, according to McGhee, “accompanying singers or choirs is a musical skill that requires very special qualities in a piano player and listening is the key”. If any slips or misses are made by the singers, the accompanist has to be aware, and on that level, McGhee says, “Shauna is one of the best.”


At a night of appreciation hosted by the Gaelic Choir of Cape Breton at Centre 200 in 1998 to honor Doolan and to thank her for her dedication to them over the years, Clare referred to Doolan’s music as “not only her work, but her religion, her hobby and her recreation.” So many ensembles, including the Sacred Heart Parish Choir, the Knights of Columbus Choir, and the Cape Breton Regional Hospital Choir, as well as many other artists and groups in the area, benefited from what Clare described as Doolan’s “generous spirit and her willingness to accommodate them.”

Long before her associations with all of the above, Doolan played a year with the famous St. F.X. University Band The X-Men of Note, and had brought together a group of young singers from Sydney’s North End known as The Musical Friends. Among them were many who went on to musical careers, including Mary Isabel MacDonald, Gary Corsano, D.A. Landry, and Clifford LeJeune.

Photo of family celebration

A joint celebration of Shauna Doolan’s 50th birthday, and her mother Margaret’s 80th in 1996. Back (L-R) brothers Terrence, Anslem and Stan. Front (L-R) Shauna, sister Margaret, and mother Margaret. (Photo used by permission of family)

Doolan recalls playing at bowling banquets, Irish Benevolent Society concerts, and New Waterford Coal Bowls, as well as 40 years with Mass for Shut-Ins and 11 years of Rotary Sing-Alongs with Brian MacIsaac and Orrell. This, in addition to offering regular piano lessons to a roster of some 90 students at any given moment.

Mary Alice MacInnis, a member of the Sacred Heart Choir for 21 years, has only admiration for Doolan, both as a musician and as a person. “Shauna always wants things done well,” MacInnis says. “Her patience and her wonderful teaching abilities have resulted in choir members learning so much about music over the years. When church celebrations require extra practices and work, we do it for Shauna.”

photo of family singing around piano

Family sing-alongs were a staple, with Shauna on piano. (Photo used by permission of family)

And what of Doolan’s other interests? “I love movies,” she admits, and has a collection of 500 videos to prove it. She estimates she’s watched  The Sound of Music at least 80 times! Doolan and her mother both enjoy crossword puzzles and Scrabble. Widowed at a very young age when her husband Eddie passed away suddenly, Doolan says she owes him thanks for allowing her to do what she loved to do – make music. “I was on the road all the time,” Shauna recalls, “and Eddie never complained. Well, maybe when I announced that I was going to watch The Sound of Music again,” she recalls with a smile.


Her summers at the bungalow in Big Pond are Doolan’s time for R & R but that doesn’t stop her from playing the organ at St. Mary’s Church every Sunday. Being with family is most important to Doolan and she says “having them around the piano at so any family gatherings has always been a highlight.” In her studio, surrounded by two pianos and an organ, with shelves filled with sheet music and books, she talks lovingly of her young and not-so-young students. “I try to give them a love for music, and that means teaching them skills, but also letting them play the type of music that appeals to them.”

A large plaque on the wall indicates that in 2000, Doolan received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University College of Cape Breton. The honor took her completely by surprise, but Doolan says it means the world to her. And for the many Cape Bretoners who have benefited from her musical talent, the recognition is no less than she deserves.

woman playing organ

Shauna Doolan is being remembered by many Cape Bretoners who enjoyed her music, and were taught by her over the years. (Photo used by permission of family)

At the time of my interview with Shauna Doolan, she had absolutely no plans for slowing down and she didn’t until she had to. But my last words in that 2004 story apply even more now that she has passed away:

Shauna’s generosity, her love of music, her dedication and her sense of commitment have made her greatly loved and respected throughout Cape Breton.

Rest in Peace, Shauna.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.