Classical pianist returns to hometown to share love of music with local children
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When pianist and Presque Isle native Duncan Cumming’s daughter, Lucy, was 2 years old, she placed the children’s book, “The Boy and the Tigers,” on his piano stand as he practiced. But instead of asking her father to read the book to her, Lucy asked if he could “play” the story.
Lucy’s request sparked the beginning of a musical partnership within the Cumming family that has resulted in several unpublished children’s stories and classical music performances to elementary school students across the country and the world.
On Tuesday, Nov. 27, third- to fifth-graders at Zippel Elementary School in Presque Isle watched anxiously as Cumming and his youngest daughter Mairi, 13, and son Bear, 9, told two stories — “From Bangkok to Bangor” and “Haverhill Highlands” — through words, colorful pictures projected onto a screen and classical piano tunes. Bear read the stories while Mairi helped project the illustrations and played the violin. Cumming took his usual seat at the piano. Lucy, now 15, opted to return home to New York early to attend school.
Both stories have a personal meaning for Cumming. “From Bangkok to Bangor” follows his niece and nephew as they travel from Thailand to visit their grandmother in Bangor, Maine, while “Haverhill Highlands” is a fantasy inspired by a trip Lucy and Mairi took with their paternal grandfather to Scotland to learn about their family’s heritage.
“I think children aren’t as likely to sit through classical music if you just do a long performance,” Cumming said. “But children love stories and music and so they’re more likely to respond to both.”
Before his performance, Cumming explained to the children that the first story “From Bangkok to Bangor” would feature many animals that had their own special song. He then played two songs — one that mimicked the quick buzzing of a bumblebee and another that copied the slow walk of a bear — and asked the children to guess which song matched the animal. Children also guessed the difference between an elf and an elephant song and between a star and an ocean wave.
Cumming noted that when he first started holding children’s performances, he would simply introduce the story and immediately begin playing. But his wife — violinist and University at Albany music instructor Hilary Walter Cumming, who also created the illustrations for the children’s stories — suggested that he use the unique songs as a way to teach students about how to best listen to and interpret music.
“She convinced me that children would be more engaged in the listening process if I asked them what they think certain songs sound like,” Cumming said. “I’ve started doing the same type of thing in my college courses, only with different songs.”
The Cummings live in New York, where Cumming is an associate professor of music at the University at Albany. As a pianist, he has performed both solo and chamber music concerts across the United States as well as in England, France, Africa, the Czech Republic and Russia. Though he was born in Presque Isle, Cumming’s family lived briefly in Ashland when he was a small child before they relocated to Wiscasset.
Cumming had always taken piano lessons as a child but it was not until he attended a three-week summer music program at Bates College in Lewiston that he took a serious interest in studying piano composition at the college level. He later studied at Bates under concert pianist Frank Glazer and went on to earn his master’s degree in music from the New England Conservatory and his doctorate in music from Boston University.
As someone who was once a student and aspiring musician, Cumming considers community outreach to be a great part of his teaching career. While visiting his aunt and uncle and many cousins who still live in the Presque Isle area, Cumming performed at both Zippel and Pine Street Elementary Schools, Mapleton Elementary School and Easton Elementary School for special children’s performances. He also performed a community concert at the University of Maine at Presque Isle on Wednesday, Nov. 28.
“The students have seemed to respond really well to the music and stories,” Cumming said. “I would definitely want to bring the performances to them again.”
Zippel Elementary School students Emma Bard, 10, and Cruze Casavant, 9, both said that they admired the Cumming family’s performance, which may have inspired the youngsters to enjoy music even more.
“I play the flute but I might want to learn the piano,” Bard said. “The songs were really fun.”
“I like how the music and the stories went together,” Casavant said.
Cumming noted that although not all students will grow up to become concert pianists, he thinks they should all have the opportunity to play or hear music. Even simply learning an instrument for enjoyment, he said, can open up a whole new world of creativity and inspiration.
“Sometimes music can be the first subject that gets cut in schools, but I appreciate how receptive the schools up here have been to exposing their students to classical music,” Cumming said. “They seem to really care about encouraging children to learn music.”