Tim Cummings – A North American Piping Original

Interview by Michael Simone-

Tim Cummings by Ryan MacDonald

Most American and Canadian alternative pipers know Tim Cummings, some of us personally and some of us through his collections, both original and arranged: An Ift of Efts, The Appalachian Collection, The Pipers Hymnal in addition to a half dozen individual adaptations of shapenote and sacred music. APNA viewers may have notice some contributions to this site by Tim in the form of original written music, and video performance. Tim often instructs at elbow piping workshops and always has a fascinating take on tunes and tune selections. We like Tim because he’s musically gifted, trained in music theory, and a humble fellow. And, he’s a tremendous piper. His latest project is the new CD, “The Piper in the Holler,”  offering an impressive and sweet collection of Appalachian and shapenote tunes. Tim plays the Banton smallpipes, the Garvie Border pipes, Copeland high-D whistle, Somerville low-D whistle and the Sinclair Highland pipes along with his band of co-conspirators on banjo, dulcimer, hambone, guitar, viola, bass and mandolin. If you pick up the CD, you might want to get his Appalachian Collection tunebook to accompany it, though the CD knocks off a few tunes not in the book. We could say a lot more about Tim; but we don’t have to. He’s said it himself in the following interview. We think you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

Tim, talk about how your musical life developed — what instruments did you play initially?
I tried a number of instruments before I was 20, starting with piano at 6, and the Highland pipes at 8. But I wasn’t hugely invested in these pursuits, nor did I practice regularly. High school changed that: I took a music theory class, and also played the bass clarinet in what was one of the best high school symphonic bands in the nation. That program had a really significant impact on my musical life, much more so even than the grade-2 pipe band I was also playing with.

How did your family or background influence your musical training?
My parents have always loved music, especially sacred and classical. My mother studied piano and flute as a youngster, and organ in college. When my brother and I were growing up, we were required to commit to at least one musical activity and one sport each year. Not only that, but with my father, and now also my mother, being ordained Presbyterian ministers, we were exposed to a lot of sacred music. Our folks often heavily supported our musical exploits — bagpipes included!

You obviously have some good training in music and theory. In fact, more than many accomplished pipers. Would you talk about that?
I’m one of those strange extraterrestrials that enjoys music theory—up to a point anyway. And as a music major who was originally focused solely on composition, I had to take every theory class that was offered by the college. If I didn’t know my theory really well by the time I graduated, my parents would have wasted a ridiculous amount of money on my education!

How has that musical training suited your development of Appalachian/Shape-note repertoire?
My training certainly helped enable a quicker acquisition of melodies and stylistic features of Appalachian music. But my more recent interest in that genre probably came out of a search for my own identity while living abroad for several years.

How long have you been playing the pipes? How did you become interested?
Nearly 30 years now… hard to believe. At a age 7 my piano teacher gave me a dippy piano piece entitled ‘Piping Tim’, based on the old Irish ballad. That particular arrangement featured the melody in the right hand and a really annoying ‘drone’ in the left. I had no idea what the arrangement was trying to achieve, or even what a ‘piper’ was. So, my dad pulled out his old vinyl record of the Black Watch Pipe Band that he purchased when the band toured the U.S. in the ‘60s. I recall being utterly transfixed by both the sound of the pipe band, and I remember studying the photograph of the pipers on the album cover. That’s when I began petitioning my parents to find a bagpipe teacher.

Which pipes do you play and have you played?
I started out on Highland pipes made by Sinclair & Sons (I still play them!), then picked up a set of Walsh shuttle pipes in college in the late-’90s. Next, I purchased a set of Garvie Border pipes in 2004 I finally convinced Nate Banton to make me a set of Scottish smallpipes in 2008. My Banton smallpipes made the shuttle pipes redundant so I don’t really play them anymore — they often end up on loan to students.

What is your favorite type of pipe? Key? Version?
I enjoy them all, and it completely depends on my mood and the occasion, or whether or not I’m playing solo. But I find myself picking up the smallpipes most frequently, probably because they’re the easiest to play, the gentlest on the ears, the most flexible in terms of drone tunings, and the most musically ‘social’. If I had to pick a favorite key for the smallpipes, I’d say it’s hard to beat a good C chanter—there’s something extra sweet about that key on the smallpipes, and the finger spacing is ideal for my hands. It’s also at a good range for pipe-singing.

What tempted you to start playing elbow pipes?

Though I initially loathed the Border pipes when I first heard them, I was later converted after hearing them played (well) with fiddles—a thrilling combination—and also deciding that the Border pipes had a wonderfully impish sneer to them that appealed to my rebellious son-of-a-preacher side. I also quickly realized that a good set of bellows-pipes was far superior in sound and effect to mouth-blown, plastic shuttle pipes. Plus, you can sing while playing if you’re using bellows.

Who has been your biggest influence?
Golly… there have been so many good ones, and even for the most influential I’d still have to credit several people: Al MacRae and Sandy Keith for demanding solid piping technique early on; Jack Crew, my high school band teacher; for helping me fall hopelessly in love with the broader world of music; Jack Gallagher, my composition professor in college, for theory skills and creative influences and techniques; Kenneth MacKenzie, my hallmate at the College of Piping in Canada, for introducing me to Cape Breton piping (and Cape Breton music in general). Fin Moore for influencing the way I approach bellows-piping and ‘dance’ styles and rhythms, and Pete Sutherland for influencing and encouraging my pursuits in Appalachian music, performing, and many aspects of my musicianhood.

Would you discuss your other portfolio, ‘An Ift of Efts’? How did that project come about?
Long before I became interested in Appalachian music, I was enjoying writing unconventional harmonies for the Manawatu (New Zealand) Pipe Band and composing my own, somewhat experimental pipe tunes. Eventually I had almost enough boundary-challenging material to form a collection of that theme. A few emails to fellow composers resulted in some great supplements to my own creations. I’m hoping that in another few years a sequel will begin to piece itself together.

What inspired you to make the leap to Appalachian repertoire?

As I hinted earlier, I think it was primarily rooted in my search for my own identity while living abroad for so many years.  After a spell of willingly dispensing with my American identity—an identity I was even a little ashamed of at times—a deep part of me began to long for ‘home’, and in my imagination that was defined by a rural, mountainous, forested landscape very much resembling Appalachia since my birth and early childhood were in Tennessee. I was experiencing a deep longing for familiar woods, familiar birdsong, the four seasons, basically all the nature I loved as a child. Coinciding with that came a longing for music that fit that landscape. I guess ultimately I became hungry for a simpler, more land- and nature-based life, home, and music. How convenient that I eventually landed in rural, rolling Monkton, Vermont, only a few doors away from Pete Sutherland, a master of old-time music.

You have some gifted musical neighbors? Was your residence in Vermont a function of having these neighbors or was it serendipity that you found them?
Yes, speaking of Pete (among several others)… my decision to live in Vermont was more about finding a landscape and culture that I felt the most at home in. Serendipity, perhaps, took care of the rest.

Can you talk about the business side of your work? You have several companies. What is the bread and butter of your business, and what do you enjoy doing the most?

Well, as with most folk musicians who aren’t world famous, I have quite a mixed bag of income sources: teaching private piping and whistle lessons; leading piping and whistle workshops; teaching at summer music camps; performing occasional concerts; a little studio recording from time to time; occasionally providing music for church services and sometimes even subbing for music teachers at a nearby high school; and yes, I do a fair bit of composing, arranging, typesetting, and self-publishing piping music under the guise of Birchen Music & Publishing (formerly Beithe Publishing). I love all of what I do, but also need a break from each discipline from time to time.

What are the most difficult challenges in your business?
Dedicating enough alone-time and space to allow creativity to do its thing.

What are you trying to achieve in the future unique to ‘Tim Cummings’? (Not in a ‘backpatting’ sort of way, but just what is different that you think you can bring to piping.)
I have several lifetime goals in regards to piping, only a few of which have become more conscious in recent years. First and foremost, I think I have always wanted to share my love for the pipes with a wider audience and garner more respect and admiration for the instrument from the extra-piping world. Second, I really enjoy breaking down barriers that I consider to be suffocating to the pipes and its music. So I am continually challenging the sometimes false and restrictive notion of ‘tradition’, continually searching for new, fresh, or at least atypical repertoire, new ways of thinking about the instrument, and hoping others will find merit in whatever fruits grow out of that endeavor.

Talk about the pipes and pipemakers you appreciate most. Sets you own, relationships with pipemakers and such.
There are a number of terrific pipe makers out there, and I’m grateful to know and own bits and pieces made by several of them. But I have had the most contact with Michael MacHarg, EJ Jones, Fin Moore, and especially Nate Banton. I like to think my relationship with them is a friendship first and foremost, but obviously there are times when I have to petition a pipe maker for reed tweaking, or a bellows shoulder strap, a new bag, what-have-you. And from time to time Nate and I will bounce ideas and music off each other—stuff more specifically to do with our respective piping projects.

Which musicians do you like hearing most? Who do you listen to when you’re not on the bellows?
Merciful heaven, there’s no end to the music I enjoy, and my tastes and preferences change with the time of day, the seasons, and even what I’m cooking. Having said that, you might be surprised at how little music I listen to on a daily basis, including pipe music. I can sometimes go a very long time without putting any music on, and that may be because I’m just wanting to create space in my own head for something completely original and unique to bubble up. That, and the CD player in my car hasn’t worked for years. But when I do put music on, it can be almost anything, from J.S.Bach to Coldplay, James Taylor to U.Srinivas, Bombino to Pete Seeger, and on and on. In terms of local players, I most enjoy Pete Sutherland and Jeremiah McLane, among several others; and in terms of Scottish-style pipers, my favorites would include the MacDonald brothers of Glenuig, Fin Moore, Angus MacKenzie, Iain MacInnes, and Hector MacQuarrie.

What advice do you have for some of us adult learners? And for some of us more accomplished folks just transitioning to bellows pipes?
For everybody, above all else, relax as much as possible, and not just your fingers.  Self-pressuring, anxiety, and tension hinder everything from musical flow and speed to stamina, and even tendons, muscles, joints, and mental focus—they are all related, I think, and ultimately hinder the enjoyment of music (not to mention life). I often wonder, too, if too many hours of hypertense playing can lead to focal dystonia that has crippled so many excellent players. Tension is something almost all of us have been taught to employ from square one as a method for crisp fingering, and it becomes amplified the longer we play and gain finger strength. And it is unfortunately a counterproductive habit, and a very difficult one to undo—I certainly still struggle with it quite a bit.

Tell us how your “Piper in the Holler” developed. How is it an advance over some of the tunes posted on the Piping Center website?
This project has always been one and the same with the Appalachian tune book I put out some years ago—it just took a lot longer to finally make the plunge and attempt a recording of my favorite Southern melodies. The personal goal of connecting with my own heritage and identity, and the larger goal of inviting pipers to play Appalachian repertoire, is the same for both products. Having said that, however, I suppose by the time ‘The Piper and the Holler’ was completed, I wanted to go one step further—openly encouraging American pipers to be open to the possibility of a distinctly American-piping genre or style. This is not something that can happen overnight, of course, and certainly not something to be forced or contrived; but perhaps it’s at least an idea that should be allowed to breathe for a time.

What future projects are in the queue?
I’m hoping to finish two new printed collections in the next four months or so. How Can I Keep From Singing? is a nearly-complete collection of about 30 or so familiar songs and hymns arranged for voice and harmonizing smallpipes (either for duets, or a single ‘pipe-singer’). This collection will include arrangements from Laura MacKenzie, Iain MacHarg & Dan Houghton, Chris Layer, Judy Barker, and myself. Second, I’ve been chipping away at a fairly hefty collection of traditional Advent and Christmas carols adapted for Scottish-style pipes. The Oxford Book of Carols, both old and new editions, have been tapped quite heavily for this project, and the final result should feature some really wonderful, timeless melodies, featuring lots of 2- and 3-part harmony.