On a typical Wednesday night, the blaring sound of bagpipes and the loud thud of drums echoes through the First Presbyterian Church in Ithaca. These unexpected instruments and tones are the sounds of the Finger Lakes Pipes and Drums band, a group that practices weekly at the church.
Pipe Major Mark Cushing founded the ensemble in 2008. Before creating Finger Lakes Pipes and Drums, Cushing was a musician in training and said that he was interested in bagpipes. He traveled to Scotland during the winter of 1972–73 to immerse himself in the music. While in Ireland, he learned about bagpipes and how to make them. After studying abroad, Cushing returned to the United States and went on to lead the Syracuse Scottish Pipe Band. The group dissolved in 2005. Cushing said he wanted to continue working with bagpipes, so he and some of his former students started Finger Lakes Pipes and Drums in Ithaca.
“In essence, our mission statement was to teach and promote Scottish pipe band music and culture,” Cushing said. “I think we have accomplished that and have continued to do it. In this country, it seems like a very esoteric thing, but in other parts of the world, it’s quite active.”
Christopher Sinton, associate professor and chair in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, is one of approximately eight pipers in the ensemble. Sinton began teaching at the college in 2011 and started playing in the Finger Lakes Pipes and Drums band in 2012. Sinton said he has not been playing bagpipes as long as other members of the band and performance is still new to him, but he still enjoys the experience the band gives him.
“For me, I can get in front of a class and not be nervous, but I’m still nervous when I go out in front of judges,” Sinton said. “I keep joking that the stakes are really high. I think part of it is because when you’re in a band, if you mess up then the whole band messes up. Whereas, if I’m teaching I’m out there on my own, and if I make a mistake then it’s mine.”
Sinton said there are no students from the college on the band’s current roster, but there are a few students learning to play. Sinton plans on helping the organization find more players from the college and the larger Ithaca community.
Sinton said that it is easy to get involved and that the organization welcomes new players with open arms no matter their experience levels. The group has a weekly two-hour practice directly followed by an hour set aside for people who are still learning how to play either bagpipes or Scottish drums. Sinton also said the lessons are free.
“We give free lessons for people who are just starting out because the bagpipes are a pretty complicated instrument, and it might take a while to make them sound decent,” Sinton said.
Every summer, the pipe band competes in competitions, like the Central NY Scottish Festival and the Capital District Games, two events that draw crowds from all over New England, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. There are five different grades of competitive pipe bands that are sorted by ability and interest level. Grade V is the lowest and least competitive while Grade I is the most competitive. Cushing said Finger Lakes Pipes and Drums graduated from Grade V a couple of years ago and is currently performing well in Grade IV.
“Playing music as a competitive exercise may sound a bit odd, but what it does is keep you honest in terms of maintaining some kind of standard of musical competency and staying within the tradition,” Cushing said. “It’s beautiful music, and it had an impact on my life in a positive way, and if I can expose people to it and other people catch the interest then I feel like it’s a worthwhile endeavor.”
While the season for the musical group has come to a close, the group is now looking for new recruits and will begin practicing its music for next year’s season.
This winter, Cushing’s pipe band is hoping to rustle up enough interest to travel to Gladstone, Scotland, next August and compete in the world championships. Cushing said this would certainly be an incentive to get more people to join and also for his current members to step up their games.
Debra Baldwin, an Ithaca local who has been playing with the group since the very beginning, said she is enthusiastic about this new opportunity and is confident in Cushing’s ability to lead their band to new places.
“It’s got to be perfect,” Baldwin said. “The tone has to be perfect, starts and stops have to be crisp and clean and the two parts of the band have to be together. Mark is an open player, which is the best achievement you can make in piping. He’s also a pipe maker and writes a lot of his own music for our band to play, so to have exposure to a person of that caliber has been exciting to me.”
Beyond these new opportunities, Sinton said he finds excitement in just participating in the band and practicing with the group. Although there are aspects of the art he is still unfamiliar with, Sinton said the music and the community that comes from it makes everything worthwhile.
“I’m not a big fan of dressing up in a kilt, especially on a really hot day where you’re wearing eight pounds of wool, but this is my musical outlet, and many people need to have music in their lives,” Sinton said. “I’m not a musician by training besides playing brass in high school, but this is a great way to immerse myself in music and have a group of people outside of campus that I can socialize with. I can’t have teaching be my whole life.”