Master bagpiper strikes a chord with listeners

Perhaps more than any other musical instrument, bagpipes are linked to ceremony. Processions for parades, funerals, weddings and graduations are often led by a piper who elicits the ancient-sounding flutter of high and bass notes — and goose bumps from everyone within earshot.
At age eight, Timothy Cummings connected with that sound. His piano teacher assigned him the song “Piping Tim,” and he wondered aloud to his parents why one of his hands remained on one side of the piano, continuously repeating a low bass note. In response, they took out a vinyl record of The Black Watch, the official piping band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and he heard the low drone note of the bagpipe for the first time.
“My memory is that I was transfixed,” Cummings said. “So I kept pestering my parents to find a piping teacher, and they found someone very close by. My brother decided that he wanted to learn, too, so my parents had to put up with two beginning bagpipers in the same household.”
But unlike so many who abandon the instruments they learn to play as a child, Cummings sustained his passion. In high school, he attended marching-band-style bagpiping competitions. He later attended the College of Wooster, whose mascot is the Fighting Scot. The college has a large piping band and offers scholarships to pipers.
Cummings majored in music education, and completed his student teaching qualification in New Zealand — which has the highest number of pipe bands per capita in the world. After teaching at a public school for two years, he played pipes for the highly competitive Manawatu Scottish Pipe Band. Though Cummings learned to play in the Scottish tradition, his initial attraction to the instrument was based solely on its sound.
“If the instrument’s sounding good, people are strongly affected by it,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of thinking about why that might be. Some of it’s the drone note — the background humming. The drone is a very primitive musical tool, very ancient, and basically it provides this tone where the melody will clash against it and then harmonize with it. It’s this tension and release. It’s the most primitive form of that in music, I think.”
Now, Cummings is a professional piper and composer. In 2016, he released an album with accordion player Jeremiah McLane (the two unofficially call themselves “Weezer and Squeezer” because of the nature of their instruments). The album, called “The Wind Among the Reeds,” features classical and dance music from Brittany and the British Isles, and won the Montpelier Times-Argus’s award for “Best Album” the same year.
“Both musicians are masters on their respective instruments, and they blend well on this album of dance music,” wrote reviewer Art Edelstein, owner of Soul Station (an artist management company based in New York City). “It takes some guts and lots of talent to release an album that seemingly has such a small potential audience. By giving ‘The Wind Among the Reeds’ this award, we hope this album and these musicians reach a much wider audience with their music.”
Cummings records along with local bands when they’re in need of a piper (he plays both bagpipes and the penny whistle). He teaches aspiring pipers at Middlebury College, of which there are between one and seven per semester. He writes a music theory column in Piping Today magazine, based out of the National Piping Centre in Glasgow, Scotland. And, he leads Middlebury’s commencement procession — which, he says, is partly utilitarian.
“When the graduating class processes in, often the parents are crowding their path so much that it’s difficult for them to get through,” he said. “But if you put a very loud instrument in front of them, it’s a little bit like Moses parting the sea.”
This Sunday, March 11, all are welcome to come hear Cummings play, along with Jeremiah McLane (accordion, piano), Pete Sutherland (fiddle, banjo and singer), Dominique Dodge (harp and singer) and Mary Wesley (dance caller) at Middlebury College’s free annual St. Patrick’s Day Concert. The tradition, started by Middlebury’s longtime artist in residence François Clemmons, features Irish and folk dance tunes.
“Clemmons would sing a lot of the favorites, ‘Danny Boy,’ ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’… and it was often participatory,” Cummings said. “He would bring in a lot of other musicians, too — fiddlers, and more Irish music, and that’s when I started to get more involved. He did that for 10 years, and I did the last two or three with him. And then he retired, and passed the baton to me. I moved the event to Wilson Hall in the McCullough Student Center, which has space for dancing.”
For the first half of the concert, the audience sits and absorbs the music, occasionally joining in to sing. At intermission, the chairs are cleared, and the audience can get up and dance. Cummings notes that while the concert will start with the classic Highland bagpipe, he’ll mostly be playing the quieter bellows-blown varieties of pipes for the indoor venue.
“I’ve seen toddlers dancing with 80-year-olds, and everybody in between. That kind of dancing is accessible enough that anybody can do it,” Cummings said.
The concert will take place this Sunday, from 4-7 p.m. in Wilson Hall, and is free and open to the public. For more information call 802-443-5221 or visit middlebury.edu/arts.

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